Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Andy's Ruck-Sack

1981 - During the early 1980s I was going on a day-trip to Dublin. I called at my friend Andy’s house to ask him if I could borrow his ruck-sack to take with me. The conversation went as follows;

Me: "Can I borrow your ruck-sack?"
Andy: "No problem. I'll go and get it for you"
Andy went away and in a few minutes returned. He handed me the ruck-sack.
Andy: "Where are you going?"
Me: "Dublin"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.
Andy: "Not with my ruck-sack you're not!"
Me: "Very funny."
I snatched the ruck-sack back from him.
Andy: "You're not takin' my ruck-sack to Dublin!"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.
Me: "Yeah, very funny"
I snatched the ruck-sack back from him.
Andy: "I'm serious! You're not takin' my ruck-sack to that Fenian hell hole!"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.

It was then I realised he wasn't joking.

Me: "You're actually being serious aren't you?"
Andy: "Yes!"

I exploded into fits of laughter at him.

Me: "What's the ruck-sack going to come back from Dublin with? Fenian disease?
Andy: "Look, I don't want my ruck-sack anywhere near Dublin!"

I looked at Andy fuming about the thought of me taking some part of his belongings to the capital city of the Republic of Ireland.

"You're nuts my friend" I told him. I walked away to leave Andy alone with his madness.

THAT is how bad some people had been inflicted with the disease of the troubles.

A Moment of Clarity

(1976) - I was eleven years old in class in Euston Street Primary School. On an average afternoon I sat at my desk, with my head resting on my hands, drifting off into the canyons of my imagination. That was me - a daydreamer. Many of my school reports carried the same comment; "a capable pupil, but has the tendency to daydream". There was always a part of me that never felt part of the world. I was a stranger in a strange land. My favourite place to be in the whole world was being lost in my wandering thoughts. This would take me to a secret place and one that felt like home. This is the place where I could be me and not just another protestant kid from Belfast who grew into a world of hatred of Catholics.

As I stared out of the classroom window at the red-brick houses facing us, the chirping of the teacher's voice gradually faded into the horizon of yet another daydream. Then it suddenly hit me. Like a cold hard slap around the face. The slaps my ma’ would give me when I did something wrong. I was whacked around the face with a sudden moment of clarity about how the troubles in Northern Ireland were a con.

I knew kids who hated Catholics but they didn’t know why. The fenians were the baddies and we were the goodies. I watched those armed with a paint pot and a 5 inch brush dobbing slogans on walls, too young to understand what those slogans actually meant. My mates and I stood on street corners singing songs about being ‘in the Woodstock Tartan’. All along I hadn’t a clue who or what the Woodstock Tartan was. To us the ‘Tartan’ were Prods and had something to do with protecting our area from the bad Catholics. That’s all that mattered. In the schoolyard we would sing songs about 'shoving a poker up the Pope's hole'. In our area, politics seemed to be all about hating the taigs and nothing more.

As the afternoon sun blazed in through the classroom window my daydream took me to see how the unrest in my country was also a cover to mask the inner turmoil of those who fought in our little war, like bitterly arguing siblings. Growing up amidst the continuous war between my ma and da I knew all about conflict and how much people can hate each other, hate themselves and hate the world around them.

The two opposing sides in Northern Ireland had a reason for fighting but I realised how many of those who argued bitterly for their side had often not thought things through for themselves. They simply followed tradition according to which area they grew up in.

In Ulster it was a simple rule of "I'm a Protestant therefore I want to be British and like football, therefore I MUST support Glasgow Rangers. I also don’t trust Catholics."


"I'm a Catholic therefore I want to see a united Ireland, and I like football, therefore I MUST support Glasgow Celtic. I also don’t trust Protestants."

Why? - Because that's what you’re supposed to do. It’s what everyone else does. Don’t argue, just do it.

For a brief moment I was nudged out of my philosophical wanderings by the sound of Noel’s voice. He was reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ aloud to the class. Tom was balancing on a garden fence to impress the girl of his dreams, Becky Thatcher. Soon the gentleness of Noel’s eleven year old voice faded and I returned to solving Ulster’s problems in my head…

I came to the conclusion of my wanderings and ramblings.

When all is said and done whichever flag billows in the wind above Belfast City Hall, be it red, white and blue or green, white and gold it ultimately doesn’t matter. People will still function as they have always done. They will work, eat, sleep and play as they did no matter what the colours of that flag. Life will go on.

It was at that moment I decided to not be a part of this Prod versus Taig conflict which seemed to be mostly about hating anyone who disagreed with you.

My school reports were right for noticing I was a daydreamer. I needed a refuge from my life as the ragged Huckleberry Finn kid with the yellow teeth and holes in his socks. The world of dreams was the place where I sorted things out, once and for all.