The 17th century may have finally ended in Northern Ireland. In the coming years there may be some isolated killings, motivated by personal vengeance. With any luck, such acts will be confined to relatives only, not mandated by shadowy organizations. There might be quarrels over old grievances that spill out of pubs or playing fields; in the human race, stupidity dies hard. But if luck holds, and common sense, day by day, asserts its dominion, there will be no more killings driven by history.
When I first went there in 1963, a son of Catholic parents who were born in Belfast, I was engulfed by the warmth of family, of laughter, of songs and pubs and the lore and legends of neighborhoods. I had known Irish people like these since I was a boy in Brooklyn. My father, Billy Hamill, was with me, home from America for the first time in 28 years, and I met his twin brother, Frank, who had stayed behind, and my cousins and their friends, and the surviving men with whom my father had played soccer.
But after a few days in Belfast, I began to sense the continued presence of another template. In mixed company, older Catholics were cautious and guarded, living with memories of bloody pogroms that had taken place in the 1920s and 1930s. The Protestants I met insisted that such sectarian craziness was part of the dreadful past. Forget all that, they said, it’s over. But that year, both groups had begun to worry about the emergence of a tall, beefy fundamentalist preacher named Ian Paisley, who was reviving the old hate-drenched anti-Catholic bombast. He wasn’t alone in invoking the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, or the siege of Derry, as if they had happened the previous week. But from the pulpit of his Free Presbyterian Church, Paisley also called on all the dark mythologies of the Reformation, filling the dank Belfast air with the language of fear. He described the ecumenicism of Pope John XXIII as some nefarious papist plot. He blathered on about an alliance between the Vatican and the Kremlin. He raged against the Whore of Babylon. The spookiest thing about this vile bigot was that he seemed to believe what he was saying. Most educated Belfast people shook their heads or made dismissive jokes. But Paisley was spreading the virus.
The virus found its breeding ground in the growing collapse of industry in the North. The linen industry was fading away. The great shipyards of Harland and Wolff, long citadels of blue-collar Protestant privilege, were beginning to rust. Unemployment among Catholics was already the highest in Western Europe; many younger Protestants were now facing the dole too. Someone had to be blamed.
The crucial year was 1966. That was the 50th anniversary of two momentous events: the Easter Rising in Dublin, which would lead to an Irish Republic, and the World War I battle of the Somme, in which more than 5,000 members of the Ulster Division, almost all Protestants, were killed in the first two days of fighting. Part of the Northern loyalist grievance against the Irish Republic is based on their view of the Easter Rising as a stab in the back while their sons were dying in France. Inspired by folk memory of these events and by Paisley’s rabid rhetoric, some young working-class Protestants founded in a Belfast pub the Ulster Volunteer Force, swearing eternal loyalty to the British crown and an all-out war on the Irish Republican Army. This news made most Catholics shake their heads. In 1966 there was virtually no IRA left in the North, and the old Dublin-based IRA had been reduced to a Marxist debating club. No matter. Paisley was enraged at phantoms; an armed secret society would find a way to identify phantoms real enough to kill.
And so they did. Paisley led his protests and marches and bellowed from the pulpit. The UVF — a handful of young men — went hunting suspected republicans. On May 7, they struck. A member of the UVF hurled a petrol bomb at a Catholic-owned pub near the Shankill Road, the main street of the Protestant area. This brave hero missed his target. The petrol bomb landed next door, in the home of an elderly woman named Martha Gould, and burned her to death. She was a Protestant. And so The Troubles had begun, and the first victim was a Protestant killed by a Protestant.
But the UVF was not contrite or chastened. They claimed to be fighting the IRA menace; in truth, any Catholic would do. On June 26, four Catholic barmen were shot as they walked home after work; one of them, Peter Ward, died of his wounds. None were IRA men. Three UVF men were soon arrested and convicted of murder. One of them later said, “I am sorry I ever heard tell of that man Paisley.”
Nobody knew it at the time, but it was already too late to be sorry. A civil rights movement was being born in the North, its leadership made up of doctors, lawyers, and university students. The utopian vision of a united Ireland was notably absent from its rhetoric. The leaders argued basic democratic issues in Ulster itself: one man, one vote; the end of discrimination in jobs and housing; the end of gerrymandering. The old Orange establishment refused to give up the certainties of the 17th century and responded with indifference or with ancient slogans. No Surrender. Not an Inch. Remember 1690. The activists Catholics and Protestants and nonbelievers — kept up the pressure. They rallied. They marched. And in the fall of 1968, and in January 1969, they were beaten bloody by Paisleyite mobs and by loyalist members of the Ulster police forces.
On August 14, 1969, loyalist mobs, including policemen, moved into some Catholic areas and started burning houses. Belfast exploded. And suddenly, the IRA ceased being a loyalist fantasy and became a reality. In the burned-out ruins of West Belfast, the Provisional IRA was born, dedicated to armed force, not abstract debate.
The British Army arrived, was at first welcomed by Catholics, and then swiftly lost its moral advantage by viewing Catholics as the basic enemy. Through stupidity or long habit, the Brits became a recruiting agent for the Provos. The long war had begun. More than 3,000 would die, Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and republicans, idealists and ideologues and those devoid of politics. Old people died. British soldiers died. Infants died. A middle-aged schoolteacher went to mail a letter and was blown to bits. A woman stopped at the butcher’s to buy a lamb chop and was shredded by explosives. Many thousands — too many of them mere bystanders — were physically maimed by bombs and bullets. Thousands of men and women went off to prisons. The talented young chose exile in Dublin or Paris or New York. Families were destroyed. Children lost their childhoods. Others lost their minds and could be seen babbling in the piss-stained nooks of Donegal Square. Along the way, the British judicial system corrupted itself. Honor was permanently surrendered for the king’s shilling as otherwise decent men chose to become informers. The killing went on and on and on, year after year, decade after decade. Killing, after all, is not a job, but it is an occupation.
And now at last, all those years after a clergyman began his ranting and some addled fool hurled a petrol bomb that killed an old woman, the war seems over. More than a year ago, on my last trip to Belfast, I took along my wife, who had never been to that hard, oddly human city, and tried to explain the tyranny of its history. My father hadn’t lived to read about the peace. My mother, at 87, was too crippled by Parkinson’s to understand what was being wrought by John Hume and Gerry Adams, Bill Clinton and George Mitchell, and the contrary Unionist, David Trimble. On that trip I wandered with my wife to the places where my parents once were young. The old houses were now gone, bulldozed out of history. But I wished I could have told Billy Hamill and his wife, Anne Devlin Hamill, what was happening on those lost, grieving streets, and how at long last there was a chance for good people to stop dying for Ireland, or killing for Ireland, and to begin at last to live for Ireland. I know, of course, how each of them would have responded. They’d have wept.