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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

December 1980

Ulster's Children: Waiting for the Prince of Peace

The children of "dirty Prods" and "filthy Fenians" carry messages, set fires, use guns and knives. But sometimes they speak with the startlingly premature wisdom of those who have seen people fight and die for what they believe.

by Robert Coles

Belfast is one of the world's great port cities, all its children are quick to say, be they Catholic or Protestant. Belfast is situated at the mouth of the Lagan River, those same children know to remark, and often they add a legendary comparison: the city resembles a lobster, with claws holding on tight to a lough--and beyond, the sea. But only Catholic children (and by no means a majority of them) are likely to remind a visitor that the city bears a Gaelic name: "the approach to the sandbank." Long before the seventeenth century, when English settlers began to build in earnest near a particular tidal ford at the mouth of a strong river, Irish people had given a name to the place--a mark of recognition: land and water especially well joined. A Protestant teacher who dipped into that bit of pre-Norman factuality in 1976 found herself heckled roundly by a classroom of twelve-year-old children, all Protestants themselves. She has never chosen since to go quite so far back into her native city's maritime cultural history.

It has all been set down in dozens of books and hundreds of articles--the continuing religious strife, the ancient royal confrontations, the various battles lost and won, the ethnic suspicions and antagonisms, the economic and social history, the ups and downs of a struggle waged by some for independence, by others for loyalty, above all loyalty: "The UK, hey hey, let's stay." Those words were assembled by some Protestant children from the Shankill area, a Belfast working-class neighborhood where Catholics are feared and hated by many people indeed. It was not a very good slogan, the boys who coined it decided; they abandoned it, Why not get to the heart of the matter with a few familiar swears--"dirty Taigs," or "filthy Fenians"? As for the objects of these slurs, Catholic children were not without their own epithets: "Orangies" or "Huns" or "lousy Prods." Any reader who wants to understand what both Catholics and Protestants of Ulster call "the Troubles" must know the etymology of such swears. The articles and books remind us of William III of Orange and his victory (in the Battle of the Boyne) over the Catholic King James II (1690). The same articles and books tell about the Irish Republican Brotherhood, otherwise called Fenians, and their long, painful struggle against the crown. The expression "Taig" is less likely to be a subject for written explication, but there are knowing "Prod" children who can detail a given derivation: Tadgh is the Gaelic form of Teddy, a common name among the Catholics of Ireland, North and South.

The North--Ulster--was born in late 1920, when England's rulers decided to yield to the Protestant (Unionist) demand for a continuing citizenship in Great Britain. The Parliament building for that most recent principality of the United Kingdom soon took on the name of its location--Stormont--and no Belfast child seems without an opinion of the place. For some, it is the lovely spot where an executive and legislative body rightfully dominated not only a view but a six-county area, which was thereby "saved" from a foreign country (often called "Dublin"), not to mention from something abstractly called "popery"--a condemnatory mix of political avarice, religious superstition, and social inferiority. For others, the word "Stormont" tells of British scheming, of divide and conquer, of a relentless bigotry that has not only a religious but an economic dimension: power and money and jobs for Protestants, a life of poverty and subservience for Catholics.

Since 1968 Stormont has existed only in political memory. Britain returned to Ulster because Ulster split in two. Sometimes, to hear the city's children talk, the only neutral ground left is to be found on the higher slopes of Cave Hill, the public grounds to which both Catholic and Protestant children are often brought for frolic, for games of luck or strength or canniness.

No one is telling us of the good cheer and harmonious play, if not outright friendship, to be found among Ulster's children, across religious lines. War, violence, hatred, generate their own voluminous, sad, arousing (and polemical) literature. A moment of relaxed time, never mind a whole day of it, for young people of both religious backgrounds is impossible to conceive--a dream of hopeful philosophers, naive social planners, or romantic poets. One summer, I boarded a bus each day with two adults, one a Belfast Catholic, the other a Belfast Protestant, counselors in a summer program aimed at bringing together children from both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. As the bus gradually filled with first Protestant and then Catholic children, the historical and sociological explanations of those Ulster hallmarks, religious rancor and loathing, would come repeatedly to mind. Every morning, all the way to Cave Hill, insults filled the air. On the way back, however, there was invariably a considerable spell of silence; only as the bus gained proximity to the Shankill, and to the Ardoyne, a Catholic neighborhood where unemployment is endemic, did the scolding and revilement and invective assault the ears again: the high-pitched, singsong, preadolescent noise--a brutal legacy claimed without embarrassment or shame by minors now glad to reaffirm a long-standing enmity.

But why the silence--so long in duration, it would always seem, until abruptly terminated by the first catcall or slogan? In fact, the silence had entered the bus with the children, was earned by a day of activity. When the boys and girls got off the bus in the morning they soon enough found things to do, or responded to our initiatives: games and walks and races and hunts and picnics and explorations. If there were cliques that became sticky or unyielding, they were usually based on sex rather than creed. Even those responded to one or another suggestion. At lunch, when one might expect a lifetime's sentiments and experiences to assert themselves in fresh antagonism, the children remained at ease, grouped according to one or another "activity." This was our banal, self-important word, but suddenly it possessed a mysterious magic: the power to dissolve the nastiest of misgivings, connected to one of the most lasting of historical fights.

Since we went, at first, only to Cave Hill, I began to invest the place itself with a mysterious, healing authority--grounded (I'd remind myself with the pride of a reader's knowledge, an observer's remembered conversations) in the city's past. Below the public playgrounds, the lower seaward slopes of this hill have been inhabited for generations. Well-to-do merchants long ago staked out a "park" here or there, and now the "parks" are collections of red brick houses, the suburban residences of middle-income or comfortable working-class people, mostly Protestant. To them and their children, Cave Hill represents the enterprise and prosperity of Protestant Englishmen. But Cave Hill has meaning for Catholic children as well. They conjure up a time of fishermen and fowlers, imagine Gaelic nomads putting burial cairns atop the remains of their dead, or shouting in triumph at the discovery of good cutting stones. Those same children know that the caves of Cave Hill sheltered the native Irish from the insistent intrusions of the Vikings, the Anglo-Normans. They know the hill as a source of peat, and as a place of outside prayer on Christian holy days.

Its double past seemed to grant Cave Hill a certain moot neutrality--hence (I reasoned) the children's ability to shed years of animosities there and play together. But we tried other places, and those trips (over to Bangor, down to Newcastle, up to Ballyclare, and thence to Larne) were no less amicable. The bad language stopped, we discovered, not only upon our disembarking at Cave Hill, but in the countryside beyond Belfast, or along the shore, once the great port city was no longer in sight. No place, though, however attractive and pleasure-giving for the day, could prevent that final burst of bad blood upon our near return to the two neighborhoods. When I asked a Catholic child or a Protestant child for an explanation; when I pointed out what I'd seen and heard, and then asked why in such a way as to be a plaintive advocate of reconciliation; when I showed irritation, and a touch of incredulity, part quite genuine and part, I suppose, put on (because I realized after a while that the answers would usually be more or less the same), I was always treated to this: "Well, now, we're going home, aren't we!"

In order to understand why a child will, under certain circumstances, suspend his or her truculence and antipathy, one has to hear the child out again and again, learn the specifics of what seems to be an enduring prejudice, and thereby the possible grounds (if any) of hope that somehow, in some moment of time, a change of behavior, if not a change of mind and heart, might happen.

Tony, for example, is a ten-year-old boy who lives in the Ardoyne. His father has been jobless for three years and is on the dole--yet another poor Catholic who finds himself to be an ironic beneficiary of the British welfare system. As a young man, he worked in construction, but there is precious little of that in Belfast these days. His son is well versed in economic aspects of the Troubles; over the months I talked with him the youngster gave me a full account of what it is like for a Catholic man--what it will one day be like for Tony and others like him unless a great many political and economic reforms take place. "There's no future for us, unless we get our rights. The way it is now, Belfast is run by the Brits, and it's the Prods who own everything. The owners of the stores or the factories don't like us, because we're Catholic. The union people, they're against us for the same reason. My father tried to find work for a year, then he gave up. He got sick; his stomach went sour. It's in his head, my mother says. When he was a boy, he wanted to work in a cigarette factory, but they told him he could sign on their waiting list, to clean the floors. No Catholic makes the cigarettes! They never called him. He says he hates the dole, but what can you do? If it was fair here, he'd stand a chance of finding a job. Our priest says we shouldn't lower our heads; we should be proud, and remember that they owe it to us, the money--England and the Prods here--for all they've done to us.

"The soldiers drive by and they call us 'dirty Fenians,' and they say we're pigs, and we should go south. We wave our Irish flag at them! We have to use our heads; they're waiting for us to make mistakes. They'd like an excuse to be rid of us. They'd as soon kill us. They'd as soon drive us across the border to the Irish Free State. They want no part of us, nor we of them; that's how it is, and it's been like that since so long that you might as well say forever. This is one island, and it should be one country. But England made sure we'd be split, and there's been trouble here in Belfast ever since, and no one has an answer."

Not one speech, that; I have pulled together remarks made over weeks of time. Tony is a bright lad, but the teachers despair for him, and others like him. He lacks "motivation," for reasons he himself mentions--a shrewd appraisal of what his likely prospects are. When asked about hopes, wishes, the future, Tony remains silent. When asked again, he replies tersely: "The IRA; I'll not be a stooge or a slave." A feisty boy, not yet adolescent, indifferent to education though possessed of a sharp intelligence, a ready moral indignation. At the age of seven he began carrying messages from one house to another in the service of resistance to both civilian and military authority. Ulster for him means a hostile Protestant majority, determined to stay within an empire that only sixty years ago granted part of Ireland independence. He can't forget the low esteem those Protestants have for his people--a fearful arrogance and condescension he's heard described by parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, priests and nuns, neighborhood adults and a host of friends his age, older, and younger. Every day, moreover, he sees his father idle, watching the telly or standing outside and talking with others like him: men without work; men angry and confused and resentful about the way their time on this earth is being spent.

One day Tony took crayons in hand and made a picture of the Ardoyne. We had been talking about what he'd like to see happen--a notion of a better life. He wanted to let me know what had to come first, the essentials of a transformation. He drew for me a vicious battle scene. He posed the Irish against the British, and declared his Catholic Church (however imposingly drawn) essentially off limits, hence irrelevant to the street encounter that meant so much to his future and that of his people, so he firmly believed. A grim, dark, terribly bloody scene; and one in which he himself figured--a tall, red-headed soldier, wounded, yet still shooting away. For flag (Irish) and for Church, one gladly risks death. As for the Orangies, they are no less inclined to do the same, he stresses. It is a fight to the finish, the boy declares afterward; and he feels no sympathy for England, the Protestant minister Ian Paisley, or "them over in the Shankill." But he has an afterthought: "If only some kids of my age, Orangies, could be told the truth!" Meanwhile, death utterly dominates a child's drawing.

Still, in this bleakness there are qualifications. The Church does require at least a nod to charity. And of some, maybe passing, influence is a child's capacity to dream, to imagine persuasion at work (even as he has been, himself, won over, day after day, to a cause by the talk of others). When Tony met his Protestant counterparts from the Shankill, he was stunned: there they were, on the same bus, and ahead stretched a whole day's activities, all to be shared. He was able to give a charming and instructive account of what crossed his mind: "The Devil come down to earth! I'd seen them from a distance. I'd walked the Shankill Road! We try to stay clear of them. We have all we can do to fight the Brits. On the bus they swore first; but if they hadn't, I'm sure we would have started! We may be outnumbered in Belfast, but we aren't going to lie down and wait for people to step on us. When we got up the mountain, we left the bus and the counselors had us playing, and everyone forgot the Troubles, and we wanted to win the game, and they split us, so we weren't Catholics against Protestants, you know. So we had to forget everything for a while. Then, you're back on the bus, and you remember. My mother asked me if I ever talked with any of them, about the Troubles. No.

They don't like us any more than we like them. But if we had it fair here in Belfast, we could live with them, like we played with them this summer."

A Protestant boy from the Shankill, George by name, eleven, has his own way of describing and picturing with crayons what is happening in Belfast, and what took place that summer up Cave Hill and elsewhere. "We have a big problem here in Ulster: the Catholics. They're all Fenians; they want to drag us down. If we didn't keep them in their streets, and watch them, they'd try to take over the city, and these six counties would be owned by Dublin and the Pope of Rome. We'd be living like pig farmers. We built up Belfast; it's our doing. We built the ships and the factories. They don't have the mind, my dad says; they drink and they have ten kids to a family, and even more. Then they shout 'poor,' and 'unfair.' If we left it to them, there'd be us, doing all the work, trying to keep our streets clean, and inside, our houses clean--and then there'd be all of them, more and more and more of them. We'd have to leave, or settle for the Mystery Shop running things."

He pauses for a minute; he is asked to explain that last reference. He is quite willing to do so. The Catholic Church, he insists, is full of "mumbo jumbo." His grandfather tells him every day that Catholics are "superstitious," and that inside a Catholic church one finds "a zoo." The boy doesn't want to explain, he wants to declare He hasn't actually been inside one of those churches; he never will find himself in a sufficiently curious mood to take the necessary steps--but his grandfather did, once, and the boy tells about what was seen and heard: "They were falling down and they had candles, and there was a funny smell, and they didn't speak in English, and they were making signs and noises, and the people there didn't know what was going on, and they swallowed stuff, and went and talked with the priests, and they were told what to do and what not to do, and there were the nuns, wearing those robes. They're not like us, not in the church, and not in the way they live, and they will breed and breed, and one day, Ulster will have a bigger problem than now. We think the Fenians should go south. They should be with their own, and we should be with our own."

There is no more to say on that score. But he is willing to draw a statement that conveys his ideas, his worries, his notion of what ought to obtain in Belfast. It is an us-against-them scenario, grimly presented, if not made into an apocalyptic warning. Like Tony, George can use the foul language of bias with no apparent scruples. Like Tony, George can present himself as a necessarily ruthless warrior, a tall and gunwielding defender of queen and country. In George's picture the Shankill is a place besieged by the dregs of society. Catholics are messy, scattered, ratlike. Protestants are stoic, clean, neatly arranged. Armageddon would appear to be the razed, rubble-strewn no-man's-land between any Protestant part of Belfast and its nearest Catholic center of population.

Yet Cave Hill worked a bit of magic on George, too. He explains why, and so doing, reveals a side of his thinking hitherto not put into words, or drawn with crayons: "On the mountain we had some good times. I wish we could live there. I told my mother, and she said we can't leave here; my father doesn't make enough money. He's lucky to have a job. He works in a store, and when he comes home, he's tired of being nice to customers. The owner lives in Waterloo Park, up toward Cave Hill. When my father has a drink he says we're never going to see an end to the Troubles, and a lot will die, and you can be sure it's going to be the poor Protestants and the poor Fenians who'll do the dying. There are some rich Fenians, and they drink a bottle to every glass our people take, and they don't lose a man in a fight. We do, and the poor Fenians do. We have our rich; they live up on hills, and they have big homes. In Lisburn there are fine homes; my father has seen them. He had to deliver to a relative of the owner. We were as glad as the Fenian kids to be up there on the hill, and see the city below. 'God save the queen,' my friend said; 'God save Belfast,' a Fenian said, and I told him he was right, and I hope God does!"

Ulster populism, or at least a thread of it: a boy's struggle to make sense of social and economic inequities as well as the learned assumptions of religious intolerance. George has not forgotten what apparently it takes a little liquor to make his father remember and say--that the issue is not only the Pope and England's royal family and pride in Scottish ancestry and pride in Irish ancestry, but the matter of money, with all the consequences that go with its abundance or scarcity. Protestants who live in the Shankill are having a rough time of it. Many are jobless, no luckier, when it comes to facing bill collectors, than the Catholics of the Ardoyne. Indeed, one often hears a sense of failure deviously acknowledged among some in the Shankill and other relatively impoverished neighborhoods. Outbursts of pride in the past, exclamations of a glorious tradition, can cover an abiding doubt about a given social predicament--so George's father, and George, too, seem to know quite well on their own, at least sometimes.

Perhaps desperation prompts me to mention the Cave Hill experience at the outset--the effect those daily expeditions had, at least temporarily, on a busful of children. There is no question at all that many of Ulster's children, responding to the grownups around them, are full of wrath. After talks with child after child in home after home, the all-around soreness, the endless name-calling, begins to wear on the listener. Belfast offers continual support to Freud's emphasis on "aggression" as an inevitable psychological element in childhood, never mind the "adult personality." These are children who have been encouraged to say nasty things about others. Moreover, these are children who go beyond words. All the time one witnesses boys and girls caught up in street violence. They imitate their elders, curse enemies, pretend to shoot them, crow merrily over imagined victories. They light fires, consign to them detested flags. They spot a person who is a stranger, who looks a bit different, who may be known as one of "them," and in a flash bedlam takes over: ranting, heckling, physical assaults. They assemble and march, like their elders--combatants anxious to display their devotion to a cause. They watch the telly, gloat at successes, get glum over defeats, savor some deaths and mourn those of others with an intensity that reveals how intimately the Troubles have worked their way into the emotional fabric of young lives.

True, children everywhere pretend at cowboys and Indians or war or cops and robbers. But occasional games, connected to imaginary events, or distant historical ones, or those seen enacted on television or in movies, are not to be confused with games that are meant to copy an immediate life. Nor is that distinction, alas, the only one. In dozens of instances, almost daily during certain periods of unrest, Belfast children actively assist Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups, the IRA on the Catholic side, and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) on the Protestant. I have seen children throw rocks not in play but in dead earnest--at British soldiers, at shop windows or those belonging to a particular home, at individuals. I have seen children carry messages, run interference, try to be objects of distraction, set fires, stand as lookouts, reconnoiter and spy and send danger or safety signals of various kinds. I have even seen children wield guns, use knives.

Not a list of activities likely to be recommended by specialists in what is called "mental hygiene." And without question, a child psychiatrist eager to document psychological disturbances in children will find evidence abundant in the Ardoyne and the Shankill, and elsewhere in Belfast. The children may be upset, but they may also be hardworking, conscientious, well behaved, thoughtful. That last adjective is one that has come to my mind, been urged upon it, constantly in Belfast. A Belfast pediatrician who has worked in England and America on research stints tells me this: "It is true, we see plenty of trouble here--especially symptoms of anxiety: fast breathing, squinting eyes, hives, indigestion, a lot of crying and scratching of skin and temper outbursts. We see phobias--if you can call them that: youngsters who worry they won't survive the week, or have to touch every other lamppost, lest some bombs go off! But I'm not sure most of the children here don't manage, on the whole. And what strikes me is not only their seriousness (I suppose you psychiatrist chaps may find that worrisome!) but their consideration for others. These are thoughtful children: they have seen people struggling and dying for something they very much believe in.

"The other day, I saw a girl who lost her brother to the IRA. He was shot dead as an act of so-called revenge, in full view of his entire family. The child was upset, tearful; she'd been repeatedly vomiting, had her parents in a bad state on her account. They thought she had appendicitis; a few years earlier they'd almost lost the son they did lose to the guns of the IRA--peritonitis secondary to an appendicitis that had been ignored too long. I examined the girl and I told her she was all right. She quieted down and she was a dear child. She thanked me. She said she wished her brother was alive, but she knew he died 'a good person.' I was struck by the phrase. I asked her what she meant. She said that the lad believed in Jesus Christ, and was a loyal subject of the queen, and tried to be helpful to their parents, and every day visited both sets of their grandparents, who lived nearby in the Shankill. And then she added, as if I might have some doubts: 'Billy even felt sorry for the Fenians. He said they belong to Jesus too.' I couldn't help it; I had to question her further: I asked her what she thought her brother meant by that statement. She didn't pause for two seconds: 'Billy meant that the Lord creates all of us, and we may fight, but we should pray for those we fight with, and if we don't, we're going to be in a lot of trouble when we meet Him.'

"I call that remarkable--a girl of only nine, and with a lot of. cause to be full of vengeance. She loved her brother, and she mourned him. She loved Jesus, though, and remembered His teachings. These can be pensive lads and lasses, even the wee ones of five or six. They ask me tough questions for which I'm not sure Socrates would have easy replies.

"A Catholic boy, only eight, asked me one day why the Prince of. Peace didn't come and make peace, just like that--and the child snapped his fingers. I told him I didn't know, but I wished He would. The boy promptly said that maybe God can't do all He'd like to do! I believe theologians are still sweating over that one! I turned to him, and wondered where he'd heard that--at Sunday school, maybe? Or in the regular church school he attends? No, the lad said he and his brother, a year older, saw a cousin of theirs, older and about to go off and become a nun, get killed by a stray bullet. The two boys decided, right then and there, that God had seen the tragedy (because He sees everything), and must be crying but was helpless. They told a priest what they'd concluded, and he told them to stop being so 'thoughtful.' That's the word he used; the boy told me. On the way out, as I was dispensing some cough syrup and an antihistamine, the boy stunned me: 'Do you think, maybe, there are two Gods, one for the Catholics, and one for the Protestants?'

"I told him I didn't think so. (I didn't dare tell him that I am not altogether sure there is even one!) I told him he was 'thoughtful,' and his brother, too. Well, such a modest child, such a gentleman: he thanked me, and said he wasn't the only one who had such ideas; he'd heard others come up with similar speculations. You'd best be careful when you feel sorry for that boy and his brother, and their friends; or for the others over the line of faith, in the Shankill. Don't go back to the States and have everyone crying for these wee ones! I saw plenty of children there in America who never saw a soldier shoot a gun, a tank rumble down a street, a bomb go off, a loved one injured or killed--and who didn't strike me as the finest souls this earth has seen."

A banality, maybe--that neither hardship nor its opposite necessarily makes for the development of virtue. Even happiness, Freud kept emphasizing in Civilization and Its Discontents, is an entirely subjective matter, hence not something an observer can correlate with scores on a socioeconomic scale. The residents of the Ardoyne and the Shankill are not people to complain of their impoverished situation; and in fact, many of the families of both neighborhoods seem ablaze with both fanaticism and, as indicated, an abiding sense of purpose. It is possible, I suppose, to regard such individuals as strangely in luck--able to distract themselves from the objective misery of their situation through the diversions of a religious and military struggle. Apathy and self-pity yield to the excited flush of taking on enemies, fighting them to the death. A strong sense of history, a fervent religious commitment, an attachment to neighborhood and to nation (be it Britain or the Irish Free State), all combine to make individuality less prominent. Among children, pictures of the self are done with great reluctance; among adults, egoistic display is rare. These are people who feel solidarity with certain others, and have an enemy to help define who is a friend.

All of the above is no small psychological asset, as a Catholic mother surely knew when she offered these comments about her children: "They don't have the best life. If we'd emigrated, like my cousin, to the States, to New Jersey, I know we'd have more--a car, a washing machine, better food. But she has a lad of sixteen, and he got arrested for speeding, and they found drugs in the car, and he doesn't want to do anything but own a motorcycle; that's his goal in life. I told my son, and he's the same age, and he said he's glad we're here, and we have the Orangies to stand up to! I asked my children once if they thought we should leave here. All the pain, the Brits and their guns, the Prods and their terrible hate of us, the fighting, every day the fighting--should we kiss it all goodbye? No! said all of them in a chorus. No, said they over and over--not for American porridge, and not even for a motorcycle. We're not a spoiled people; and our children aren't spoiled. They may swear a lot at the Orangies, and they may be tough, even with each other; but they're not brats, they're not out for themselves, each for himself. They're for each other, for the Ardoyne, and for a united Ireland!"

The politics of the nursery, the sociology of the playground, the psychology of the family--we believe these are not at all beyond the ken of a six- or ten-year-old, even a four-year-old. But we are rather more grudging and skeptical about other kinds of judgments. A child's moral life is stereotyped, dominated by reflexes, derivative, imitative, various social scientists insist--as if the ego can be endlessly manipulative (the suave, knowing negotiator), and the id cleverly insistent, unashamedly sure of what it wants, and what it will, at all costs, manage to get, whereas the superego is doomed to be a mere dangling object, its motions and purposes blindly responsive to particular parental voices. I do not believe psychiatric theorists have done even conceptual justice to the operations of our consciences; and I believe a place such as Ulster offers the empirical evidence that ought to help us understand better how our children learn what is "right" and what is "wrong," what is believable and what is absurd, even dangerous, and not least, what they will stand by, even fight and die for, and what they will never be willing to embrace, no matter the constraints imposed upon them.

During the four years of my visits to Ulster, for instance, I was constantly told by both Catholic and Protestant children--sometimes as young as four or five years old--that they knew, always, their "enemy" among their own generation. How can that be? I wondered and asked. Gradually I began to get answers. I was being educated by young boys and girls--lessons in sociology and anthropology and history, lessons as well in moral values, in one or another philosophical point of view. Now I know that Catholics play hurling, with a hurley stick, and Gaelic football, whereas Protestants play hockey and soccer; that "bat" is an English word, not used in an Irish sport; that in Belfast the Irish News is a Catholic newspaper, the News Letter a Protestant one, and the Telegraph acceptable, mostly, to both sides; that clothes tell the man, so to speak--plaids or tartans of green and brown for Catholics, red, white, and blue for Protestants; that names bespeak creeds--Seamus as against James, Sean as against John, Cathal, pronounced "Cahal," as against Charles; that pins on a lapel are a giveaway--Gaelic clubs, religious medals, as against (for the Protestants, of course) the crown in miniature, or the red hand of Ulster, harking back to a historic migration from Scotland.

It was a nine-year-old girl in Derry who first let me know, defiantly, that citizens of Northern Ireland can hold either Irish or British passports; that Catholics choose, most of the time, Irish passports; and that no one in Ulster need serve in the British Army, in accordance with an agreement made in 1920 at the time of Partition. It was a seven-year-old boy in Belfast, Protestant, who let me know early on that Catholics are excluded from entire factories; that the two religious groups have quite separate and distinct musical traditions, different folk songs as well as different military ones; that the schools are thoroughly segregated, and that he could tell in an instant whether a home is Catholic or Protestant. On what street is the building located, and inside, is there a "bleeding heart" or are there "crucifixes and statues," or is there a picture of the queen?

In Derry (as Catholics call it; Protestants prefer the full name Londonderry), I was given a tough, vivid lecture by a seven-year-old Catholic girl, Nora: "Never say Londonderry here in the Bogside. You'll be killed! Everyone will think you're an Orangie. Maybe if you're lucky they'll hear you say a few words, and they'll know you're an American; but if they don't spot your accent, you'll be wiped out!" A pause. Her naive, proudly open-minded and evenhanded listener wants to know why the vehemence, if not murderous venom. She lets loose a blast of historical references: "You see that wall over there? It was built in 1618. The English came here, businessmen from London. They named the city after their capital. They used to stand on that wall and call us 'crappies,' and throw pennies at us. They called us pigs. They said we belonged in huts, and we should do their dirty work, and be honored we had the chance. The bog--they said that's where we belong! Well, let them chase us out of the bog now. This is Free Ireland!"

A child mixes history, specific nationalist confrontations, geographic significations, into a passionately espoused moral statement. Are we to dismiss such remarks as mere rhetoric, memorized at the knees of parents, or learned by rote in an elementary school classroom? Are we to insist that these are the declarations of a child cowering in fear at the hands of adult authority, and so ready to say anything and everything, so long as what is spoken meets with the approval of various emotionally significant grownups? Maybe all that is true; but true for us, even when we become eighty or ninety. The unconscious is timeless, including that part of it we call our "conscience." Voices of approval and disapproval are lifelong companions.

Many of us psychoanalytically trained psychiatrists emphasize in our discussions of children the relentlessly punitive, demanding side of the superego, and certain cognitive psychologists hand out questionnaires or make experiments in offices or laboratories, and then talk of a "preconventional" or "conventional" stage in children, wherein they do what serves their ("hedonistic") purposes, or what will obviate punishment, or gain the sanctioning nod of a mother, a father. Those same theorists, however, deny to children the more subtle, compassionate, ethically reflective "stages" of moral development--indeed, deny such personal, ethical, psychological, and intellectual progress to many adults as well. Only a handful, we have been told, an ethical elite (Herbert Marcuse's "advancing edge of history," for instance) can free itself of the individual (emotional) and the socially or culturally enforced constraints that blind a truly "mature" ethical awareness. In view of the vicious persecutory "morality" that has come out of various sectors of the twentieth century's "advancing edge," one wonders what children in, say, Belfast or Derry really have to look forward to possessing, morally, when they become older and, if lucky, more privileged socially and educationally. In any event, as we wait for that millennium to arrive, boys and girls the world over may not be fashioning psychological concepts, but they are, it seems, struggling hard and long to construct a moral life for themselves.

Here is a Derry mother, a Bogside mother, describing her nine-year-old daughter's confusing behavior:

"Cathy teases the Brits. They come on their patrols, and she asks them what they're afraid of. She says: 'We have no guns, and you have so many!' They glare at her. She smiles back! She tries to talk with them; she starts talking about her father, and how he was fired by a Protestant, because he wanted no Catholics in his place, even to do the dirty work. She shouts that 'Catholics are poor and Protestants rich,' and she asks them is that fair. She got one soldier to argue with her, and he told her, after a while, that she belonged in the House of Commons! No, she said, she'll go to Dublin if she has to leave, but she wants to stay with us!

"I don't know where children get the ideas they do! Sometimes I look at Cathy, and I remind myself she's only a little bigger than a wee baby. But she stands there and tells the Brits that they can point guns at us, and pull the triggers, even, but that won't win for them, because we're right and they're wrong--the Prods, and the Brits. The other day she got another Brit to talk with her. He was a Paki [Pakistani]. Cathy asked him why he was over here, fighting for the old lady queen, and for Paisley and his gang. Then she reminded him that if he got killed, what about his family, they'd miss him. I told her to hush up. She kept going, though--and he came over and told her she had a sassy mouth. He pulled out some candy, and told her to take it, and maybe it would sweeten her. She did; she chewed on the caramel, and she said thank you, and she gave him a big smile, like she does her father when she wants to cuddle up to him.

"Next thing I know, she was telling him she wasn't against him, no matter that his skin was dark, and she wished he lived through his tour here, and got back home safe. He thanked her, and the following day they had a longer talk, and they became friends. He told me I had a nice girl, and I said I know I do! When Cathy said her prayers, she asked God to spare her Paki friend. Then she decided, one day, that it isn't the individual Brits here who are the enemy--it's the rich Prods, and it's England and the way the English government treated our people. She's always having these long talks with God! And with the priest! Father would say Cathy is truly a Christian. He says in his sermons that our children are close to Jesus, just like He said they were when He came down to us."

One afternoon Cathy came home with a less religious or philosophical line of thinking. Her British soldier friend had drawn upon his personal life in an intriguing way. Cathy gave her mother the gist of the observation, and the latter, in turn, offered it to me the next day: "The Paki told Cathy he had the answer to our problems in Derry. He said that if a few hundred of his people were brought here, then all the Catholics and Protestants would unite--and hate the Paki people! Cathy said no. I did, too. But at night, cleaning up and talking with my husband, I changed my mind. I think we'd have a lot of unhappy people in Derry, if there was a district filled with colored families. I admitted as much to Cathy, and she asked, 'Mummy, do you mean that the only way we can be nice to each other is to have people around we can point at and not be nice to?' I told Father, and he said Jesus was crucified because no matter who the person was, no matter how unpopular, our Lord stood up for him.

"I asked Father about the Prods. Would Jesus stand up for them today? They've been bad to us, and they still are; we're 'pigs' to them, and they say so, and we are poor, and they own everything. Father said, 'True,' the way he always does, but he said, 'Hate feeds on hate,' and someone has to break the circle, and Christ did that, and if we could only be Christians, we would, too. Of course, I do believe Father wants us to keep fighting for our rights; I know he doesn't want us to surrender. He wants us to stand up for ourselves as Christians, and not stoop to the level of those who've been so bad to us. But that is hard to do, very hard! We're only human; we're not gods!"

No great wisdom there. The everyday speech of common people, uneducated and thoroughly impoverished. Trite remarks, perhaps meant to serve the purposes of self-justification. As for the Pakistani man, a British subject serving Her Royal Highness, he has had no college education either. His family took advantage of their Commonwealth status, migrated to London after the second world war--another partition the English engineered as they extricated themselves, yet again, from a stretch of the Empire's swollen territorial domain. Did Freud, however, say any more than that soldier with these words in Civilization and Its Discontents? "It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness." As for "moral maturity," one wonders how many of us who are full grown, college-educated, and versed, even, in the intricacies of ethics, philosophy, political or economic history, would do much better than "wee Cathy" in the real life situation she found to be hers, day after day.

I remember another girl of the same age, American and black, struggling against mobs in New Orleans during the integration struggle that dominated that city's life in the early 1960s. This child, only six, of humble and illiterate background, prayed at night for her white tormentors. I was sure she had "Ether feelings"--located (where else?) "underneath." My wife asked me one afternoon whether all that many of those who knew the workings of history's dialectic, or were versed rigorously in one or another philosophical "system," would ever have lasted the mob harassment, let alone implored the Lord on behalf of the bewildered and the pitiable (white) men and women who assembled every day to threaten with death those who defied their sense of what ought to be. "Maybe," she pointed out, "some more sophisticated people, psychologically and philosophically, might have found 'good reasons' to pull out, save their necks." Poor Ruby, all she knew was to stand firm during the day, and pray to God at night! "And," my wife asked, "why keep pointing out the obvious, that Ruby is 'really' scared? Don't you think she knows that you want her to 'talk about it'? Maybe her only chance is to keep quiet--hold on to herself. Why should people say what is on their minds all the time?"

Condescension is a constant danger to outsiders bent on finding things out, wrapping the world up in wordy formulations, explanations. The Irish are often charged with "naivete" or "sentimentality," even as American blacks are called, over and over, "culturally deprived," but there are many versions of those qualities of mind and spirit--and a clever mind, factually stuffed and all too buttressed by theoretical underpinnings, can miss a trick or two, not to mention the essence of a people's situation, their sense, quite well known by children, of what must at all costs be done. For Cathy, a child of Derry's Bogside, distrust and animosity were qualified by a capacity to stop and reflect--even cast doubt on her own passions. All of that, in the face of a not especially promising or enabling life, and under the duress of ongoing social protest.

One cannot, unfortunately, attribute Cathy's perceptiveness to her schooling. She herself chafes at the narrowness of the nuns she knows: "They'll not let us say what we think!" As for Ulster's Protestant children, they read references in textbooks (for example, Britain 1714-1891, by Denis Richards and Anthony Quick) to "unambitious Irishmen." True, the young people also learn that the rents such people paid "went in all too many cases to England to keep absentee landlords in luxury." But there are certain moral judgments being made in these texts, if one follows their associational thrust: "Those who could not pay their rent were evicted, and Ireland was notorious for thousands of wandering beggars who had given up hope of regular work and spent many of their nights in the open. This was the general countryside scene over much of Ireland. In Ulster, however, there was some prosperity. Here the population was Protestant, with many of Scottish descent." As we explore the dimensions of "moral development," not to mention "political socialization," one hopes not only poor black children or Catholic and Protestant children who live in the urban ghettos of the Ardoyne and the Shankill in Belfast, or the Bogside of Derry, will be the subjects of inquiry and conclusive analysis. Maybe the social and economic assumptions of those grownups who teach and those who write books ought to be studied.

What in God's name will be the end of it all? The phrasing is Irish, and whether Catholic or Protestant, the Ulster men and women, their children as well, ask the question. A million people who consider their (Protestant) religion and their connection to Great Britain an extremely important part of themselves do not want the island to be one country, with Dublin its capital. Half a million people, loyal to another religion (Catholic) and with quite a different attitude toward Great Britain, want precisely that--the "last" six counties returned to the Irish Free State. The library shelves of Ulster, of Ireland, of Great Britain, and of the United States contain millions of published words--the sum of which tells us of ancient animosities that persist with undiminished intensity. If ever Freud's phrase "narcissism of small differences" applies, it is in Ulster, where people have learned to look hard in order to find a distinguishing blemish in their neighbor--his or her name or way of speaking or, of course, manner of worshipping Jesus Christ, supposedly the Lord of both Ian Paisley and his paramilitary supporters and of the members of the IRA.

The issue in Ulster is not only religion; the issue is class--the poor fighting the poor, and neither getting much for all the lives lost and the anguish endured. In the more comfortable parts of Belfast, near Queens University, or in the suburban towns, such as Lisburn, one finds Catholics and Protestants able to live quietly--maybe not with great affection, but without the kind of brutish everyday violence one sees in the poorer sections. In some of the rural parts of Ulster, even now, for all the religious polarization of the past decade, farm families or small-town families of both creeds manage to get on together. The recent explosions of religious hate have been fueled by a deteriorating economy and a sharpened sense of inequality, not only between the two main religious groups, but within them as well.

"It is a consolation, the meanness our children learn," a Catholic great-grandmother of eighty bitterly, proudly, told my stunned children. She has lost one son and two grandsons to the thrill of dynamite and bullets. She knows their futility--and yet; one has to add that qualifying phrase. In his memorable documentary film on Ulster's Troubles (A Sense of Loss), done almost ten years ago, Marcel Ophuls gives us Conor Cruise O'Brien's explanation, hardly prompted by affection, of the strange hold the IRA has on people in Ulster, in the Republic of Ireland, in America. When everything seems hopelessly muddled, endlessly complicated, thoroughly bogged in the futility of a political stalemate, the smell of gunpowder offers a sizable lure, even to those who customarily shun the call of rebellion by force.

Nor is it fair to denounce the IRA single-mindedly. The violence of a given social and economic order is often not dramatically visible, but is no less insistent in its day-to-day presence--as all who challenge, in desperation, a given political authority come to realize: our own colonial forebears in the eighteenth century; the labor organizers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the civil rights activists of more recent times. And the violence of demagogues has to be mentioned. They are everywhere, waiting their chance, like bacilli: the mischievous, porcine, hysterically foul-mouthed brawler Paisley and his ilk on the one hand; on the other, more than enough thugs in the ranks of the IRA--individuals who blackmail and terrorize their own people, never mind others, and who mouth twisted ideological fantasies as unreal and self-serving and mean-spirited as any dished out years earlier in the name of Stormont, the Royal Throne, and Free Presbyterianism.

Sometimes, in an off moment, one hears even from street fighters ready to die for a cause a few words that connect a seemingly exceptional set of circumstances to those we all enjoy (and contend with) as human beings. The elderly lady mentioned immediately above was once heard to ask this of her son, a member of the IRA: "What would we all do without you people?" Then she explained her line of reasoning: "It would be an even sadder life. We'd sit and stare out the window, and wait for the excitement of a bad storm!" One remembers that comment as one watches Mr. Paisley scream at, hector, implore, and admonish his Sunday flock--offer them the bewitching, enormously satisfying illusion that they are combatants in an apocalyptic confrontation worthy of the last book of the New Testament, the Revelation of St. John the Divine. "I go to hear him [Paisley] and I come back and feel I can go on another week. He makes us feel there's something to live for--that there's an important fight going on, and it's ours, and we'd better take care to be the winners!" The words of a carpenter, proud of his old brick Victorian home, spotless and a touch austere--all he wants, all he ever wanted, and threatened, he is sure, by a swirling, grasping, uncontained, and vengeful horde: the eternal "them," the disowned "I" each of us tries to be rid of, though some have lives that equip them to do so more gracefully and privately.

Something to live for, one doesn't forget those words in Ulster--where that old phrase "the meaning of life" is no discarded philosophical topic, supplanted by the perverse, skeptical emptiness of logical positivism, or the punchy certainties of computers. As often happens where there is a worrying social climate, gifted individuals respond to it--reflect in their poems and stories, show on their canvases, the same sense of irony and ambiguity, the same quizzical apprehension an old Catholic lady, a Protestant artisan, keep on transmitting. Ulster, in this century, has given us C. S. Lewis and Louis MacNeice, and Forrest Reid and Joyce Cary and Brian Moore and Benedict Kiely and Michael McLaverty and that great bard of our time, Seamus Heaney. Ulster has given us a notable artistic tradition: William Connor's shawled mill girls, the street pageantry, the slightly rebellious children; James Craig's evocation of a pastoral life, sweeter than the one portrayed by the great nineteenth-century Irish novelist William Carleton, but not without a reminder or two that calm country surfaces can all of a sudden become menacingly troubled; and Frank McKelvey, and Colin Middleton, and in recent years the artists who have used aerosol as well as ink or paint--the graffiti, the handbills, the cartoons that make up a war's propaganda, as well as the satire or melancholy response of watercolorists (George Campbell), painters (Joe McWilliams, Brendan Ellis), and sculptors (F. E. McWilliams).

In the poem "Belfast," published half a century ago (September 1931), Louis MacNeice sang of "The hard cold fire of the northerner/Frozen into his blood from the fire in his basalt." In his mind's eye the poet seemed to be glimpsing the Lagan River from the vantage point of Cave Hill: "Down there at the end of the melancholy lough/Against the lurid sky over the stained water." He knew that he had to make reference to Catholic life, the moments of superstitious desperation: "In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin"; and to Protestant life, its moments of extravagant, bullying pride: "The sun goes down with a banging of Orange drums." But there is in Belfast, among the anonymous people of those flats, inside the rows and rows of red brick homes, separated by thin, cluttered cement alleys, a far less eloquent but not unknowing vision, worthy of the one MacNeice tried to offer in "Day of Returning": "They call me crafty, I robbed my brother,/Hoaxed my father, I am most practical,/Yet in my time have had my visions,/Have seen a ladder that reached the sky." A Belfast girl, not yet ten, stunned her Protestant teacher, and parents, by drawing a boat (an ark, of course), putting "everyone" on it, then announcing that "all Catholics and all Protestants are sinners"; she added that "we'd better well board this boat and pray that we are taken to Him, because God's love is our only hope."

In this century's Western world, "God's love," a mere child's "only hope," is not "a viable alternative," as it is put in the crude, opportunistic language of social science-oriented "policy-makers." As for a fussy critic of such secular, managerial talk, the question is sure to be put to him, and well it should be: Exactly what would you do? (Not that Belfast's children, say, aren't able to throw that inquiry, that demand, at an outsider in no time.) And to be sure, we who "document" the world's miseries in one way or another have our own sanctuaries, as rock-bottom there to us as a Catholic chapel, or a hall that belongs to a Protestant marching order: observation as a sacred calling--so, one ducks, one self-importantly insists on a "neutral posture," one asks the people in question, or their present or would-be or should-be leaders, to come up with THEIR plans and programs. Maybe just as well--since recent years have witnessed no great practical wisdom to be the eventual yield of loudly heralded academic research into our various social problems. Still, in Belfast the often cheerful, often grimy, often nasty-talking, often sweet-tongued boys and girls press the impatient visitor: "What's your answer to our mess?" Hungry for sights, for statements, for subjective factuality, I suppose it can be called, the visitor demurs--grabs for the clever remark (learned in courses called "Interviewing Techniques") that will turn the burden back on "them."

All right: a start might be made with the schools--not in the hope that a classroom of Protestant and Catholic children, sitting side by side, will give Ulster, at long last, its time of messianic fulfillment. But the children of Ulster are being systematically kept apart, even when they live near each other--kept apart in schools, and kept apart on playgrounds, and often enough taught a different history, a different series of social and political lessons. Protestant children go to their schools, run by their authorities, the civil structure that is congenial to Unionists in the makeup of its personnel. Catholic children go to parochial schools.

What "youth workers" have seen on the slopes of Cave Hill certainly might be repeated, time and again, for teachers in an integrated school system: the beginning of some knowledge of each other on the part of a generation of Ulster's schoolchildren. Serious attention, too, must be given to curricular reform--after a close analysis of who is learning what, and how, from whom. It is not only the paramilitary leaders who are indoctrinating Northern Ireland's children.

One wonders, also, whether some of the religious leaders of both Ireland and Great Britain might not try coming together publicly in cities such as Belfast and Derry, or in the countryside nearby. The die-hard, political-minded religious leaders will shy away, or make their vulgar or coy threats, calling on Jesus Christ, no less; but a small number of ministers and priests might be persuaded, in time, to meet and to talk.

The class issue among Protestants, by the way, has distinctly religious implications: well-to-do, urbane Anglicans as against far less affluent Presbyterians, Methodists. And though Paisley shouts Unionism, and loyalty to the Crown, he berates the royal family viciously for its willingness to consort personally and in its governing capacity with Catholics. Indeed, as things get tighter economically in England, Scotland, and Wales, never mind the north of Ireland, an increasingly noisy series of religious and nationalist confrontations have arisen. The announcement of a papal visit to the United Kingdom, in 1982, set off an instructively ugly response not only from the likes of Paisley and Company, but from a host of Scotland's and England's clergymen, some of whom have threatened vociferous street demonstrations. All the more reason, therefore, for others on both sides to come together. As for Ulster's Catholic clergy, it is not without narrow, arrogant, small-minded men and women, so there is plenty of work to be done in that limb of Christ's body.

And finally, one searches for ideas to bring ordinary people together--a worldwide need. The United States, through the political and financial activity of thousands of its citizens, is already involved in Ulster's affairs--our Irish Catholics on behalf of one side; many Protestants, especially in the South, on behalf of the other side. (Paisley went to Bob Jones University in South Carolina.) Our nation's attitudes and policies are carefully watched in Ulster, in Eire, and in Britain. And a Western Europe that has found itself able to embrace the Common Market and NATO, thereby transcending all sorts of old rivalries, tensions, antagonisms, surely can offer some suggestive hints, if not guidance, to beleaguered Ulster. There are ways to undo, gradually but relentlessly, the separateness of people. For a long time England loved drawing lines of partition in various parts of the world--in Palestine and India as well as Ireland. England might now aim to help people think in terms of larger wholes--the encompassing circle rather than the dividing line. Articles of federation might be drawn up, a means by which Great Britain and Ulster and Eire would come closer together culturally, commercially, and later, politically--thereby connecting both Protestants and Catholics to a broader community: the various islands (two big ones, a number of small ones) that lie so prominently, so near together, off Europe's coast. As with the clergy, the prime ministers of Eire and England and their supporting colleagues might meet, one day, in Ulster--not to warm up the military juices of their respective constituents, but to say, We're set, at long last, to put our backs to this stupid, heathen game of carnage--in order to welcome, yes, the spirit of Christ, so murderously fought over, back to what might be called, occasionally, by priests and ministers and their parishioners, not Ireland, not Ulster, not Great Britain, but some acreage of His Kingdom.


Copyright © 1980 by Robert Coles. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December, 1980; "Ulster's Children"; Volume 246, No. 6; pages 33-44.

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