I’ve been procrastinating this post for a few reasons. Firstly, we have had a jam-packed schedule for the past few weeks. Secondly, I have been trying to draft this post in my head but no words seem to do it justice. Thirdly, whenever I think about trying to condense my past few days into a post, I’m overwhelmed. Everything seems vitally important. What I’ve come to realize is that I cannot begin to understand this deep seeded conflict with origins centuries old. Northern Ireland is still a puzzle to me and anything I write here now is merely a part of my thinking process. In my attempt to wrap my head around my experiences here, I will share the stories about a few of the people we met along the way.
Story #1: Republican Majority View in South Armagh
Our first stop was in South Armagh, also known as “Bandit Country” to all those outside of the community. South Armagh is an unofficial division of the county of Armagh, which borders the Republic of Ireland, but is part of Northern Ireland. Some people in Armagh felt as if they were caught on the wrong side of the partition and defended Irish nationalist ideas. Our guide was Thomas Marron, a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Thomas spent 16 years in prison as a political prisoner. He was released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of his job helping the community deal with the conflict, he takes groups on tours through South Armagh in an effort to give the Republican perspective and help to promote understanding of the conflict.
We met Thomas in his office: a room covered with artifacts of the Irish conflict: Maps of the location of the military bases in the area, unexploded petrol bombs, photos and lists upon lists of volunteers who had died. Thomas works directly with families who are still recovering from the Troubles and many contributed to this unofficial museum. Thomas is as cool as a cucumber and cares deeply for his surroundings and heritage as well as his political beliefs, but also recognizes the need for peace and healing.
Once we made our introductions, we piled in the van and set off on our tour. Thomas pointed out different landmarks, which were significant to the conflict. I felt as if every 100 feet there was another site. We saw O’Hanlon’s Pub which housed secret meetings of the IRA, Donnelly’s Bar which was the site of a bombing (with suspected British Army collusion), and granite monuments commemorating those who were killed or died for their cause. As we drove through the countryside, it was impossible to tell which side of the border we were on. There are no checkpoints, no barriers, or signs designating your position. Mailboxes were my only hint in orienting myself: green for the republic, red for Northern Ireland. South Armagh is mostly farmland. I found it hard to believe that it was once the most militarized area in Western Europe. During the Troubles, the British Army constructed military bases on every hilltop and used only helicopters to move from place to place as the region was so volatile.
|Memorial of So. Armagh IRA Volunteers who died|
as a result of the conflict
|Memorial to those who died on hunger strike to obtain|
political prisoner status
|The group at the hunger strikers memorial|
Thomas grew up in this militarized culture. He endured raids and harassment by the British Army on a daily basis. His family, friends, and neighbors were under constant supervision and faced a severe lack of privacy. The feeling of occupation was oppressive. This is what made him decide to join the IRA. During his service, he carried out many bombings and attacks on the British Army. One of the stops we made on the tour was to what the IRA called “The Street.” The Street is a former IRA hideout. On one side of the street is a memorial to IRA Volunteer Seamus Harvey who was shot by British soldiers in an ambush. Across the road is an old run-down farmhouse. Thomas told us that a local IRA sympathizer allowed them to use the building as a hideout. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to lie awake on the rickety floor of the farmhouse in the blackness of the Irish countryside; each snap of a twig or rustle of the grass evokes the fear of an ambush.
|Farmhouse used as IRA hideout|
|View from the farmhouse|