I bumped into an old school classmate from a time stretching back to before  the last Ice-Age….such were the changes we had been through since those far away times. We were standing , chatting in the doorway of a bank that had once been  a great hotel and a fondly -remembered pub in our youth.Swapping yarns and memories of old acquaintances  and mentally comparing the ravages of age in our persons  and the desecrate unfairness of  passing time   . He told me he’d just come back from  a holiday in Vietnam and was greatly impressed at how a country  which  we’d watched at war on our television screens, nightly, back in the 1960’s while we ate our teatime meal, had recovered in such a vibrant way. We had  watched as a country and its people endured unspeakable calumnies and violence but , was now a thriving tourist destination for those same Americans who had napalmed it to near- oblivion .He talked of the beautiful people and the famous  Hanoi  Hilton Hotel, bursting with enthusiasm  at the quality of the people and their hospitality. Vietnam featured in the daily news the way Norneverland appeared for some thirty years. We’d all followed the sorry story on a daily basis. Then , of course, in the same breath comparisons were made immediately to our own country’s current , sorry wranglings. We mentioned old class-mates,  some twenty or  thirty years dead in violent circumstances, and agreed that to understand how people turned out this way or that, you really had to have  lived through those demented times. Anyone reading about it in books ,or listening as modern commentators  talked about it ,would really never have any idea.We knew something of the personalities of the people who had died because we’d been schooled with them.

I would never want to romanticise  anyone involved in “armed struggle” or war. They are  mostly ,just people who were radicalised during a certain period of their lives  and thought that they were part of a lineage stretching back through the ages .Chivalrous knights around some imaginary noble round table , in their own minds.Their personal family situations may have steered them in that direction from birth or they may have suffered in some way at the hands of  a civic authority that they did not respect.Someone or some thing has knocked their noses out of joint and set them on a particular path.They, very obviously,  have some unfeasibly  “romantic” notions of adventure , glamour and glory tied into their beliefs that many of us did  not share at all.The “belief” is one thing ..all that other “romantic ” stuff has to be set aside.Struggle is usually a very grubby affair, after all.

“Strugglers” are usually people , just the same as ourselves , who get up in the morning and put their clothes on the same as the rest of us and eat their breakfast , just like us…one trouser-leg at a time…one spoonful at at time.It doesn’t matter if they are Irish Republicans , extreme Ulster Loyalists or Muslim adherents to ISIS.The thing is , there is usually a reason why they and not the rest of us take that extra step into an extreme protest. Some are simply into it for adventure , of course..or gangsterism .

There are many “republicans” and possibly “loyalists”, out there who I would call “tribal republicans” or “tribal loyalists”. What I mean by that is that they haven’t really considered what having  a republic actually entails , other than some kind of victory of achievement over that other lot …the unionists. The “loyalists” ,on the other hand , have never actually allowed themselves to think beyond their own narrow , constructed historical fantasy either; all that old guff about an imaginary King Billy on a white steed and glorious battles. They have all  been victims of social manipulation in many respects..

Instead of seeing their unionist neighbours as potential ,future ,”real” republicans , these “tribal republicans”  have n’t yet  made that mental leap to convince these future “citizens”, in this projected  republican Utopia ,what life will actually be like for  them in an entirely new designation.This projected future should be a better place for both themselves and their now , unionist neighbours. Ireland and the UK are not the same places they were some forty years ago, but many cling to a romantic past that no longer exists either…if it ever did.The working classes always got the short end of the stick whether they lived in a “unionist  monarchy” or not. They would always be manipulated by more educated politicians who could use them in elections and as cannon-fodder in economic wars.Whole generations were killed uneccessarily in World War One ,for example.The first real” industrial” war fought by factories and factory owners using the youthful menfolk of towns and small villages .

William Crawley, on  his “Imagining Ulster” television series,     also explored the very idea of what this mental construct that is “Ulster”  actually  was and  supposedly ,is ,to unionism and unionists. What it is to Unionists is not what  it appears to be  to Irish nationalists.

At this time , and for some one hundred years , both these projected  mental constructs …a beatific Republic of Ireland’s Everyman Socialist Republicans….or an Ulster of Stout Dour  Ulstermen All At Peace With Their Lot With The Swings Locked Up On The Sabbath and God In His Very Heaven With Best Suit and Picture  Hats Worn…. are actually fantasies, much like an Irish -American’s vision of a John Ford’s  Dear Old Oireland….wild eyed,beautiful  dark colleens like Maureen O’Hara , thatched cottages and rolling hills…. The actual grubby, shabby   reality on the streets of Belfast , Dublin or Cork ,  or the towns and villages and the rough countryside, for example , was always  a far cry from the romanticised dancing at the crossroads reality..

If you listen to the fervent arguments over symbolism and play-parks, you ‘d soon get the picture that there is no open-mindedness yet . If Gerry Adams still can slip in  a “Trojan horse”  reference about” equality by subterfuge” …even in murmured  jest,  in public, among friends, he’s letting himself down and he’s letting down his all -encompassing vision of a” united” republic for all…; for a politician even to snigger at  those slow -learners ,closet bigots or true -blue unionists , is to snigger at the future potential of a possible brother -republican.We may all know what he means by that need for some kind of subterfuge, because those with an open-minded vision  instinctively know that they  are arguing against a closed mindset, that already encompasses some very odd illogical belief systems in its DNA ,but  make no mistake , a future republic will still have it’s  percentage share of bigots, racists, Creationists ,  Flat- Earthers, ultra- religious  madmen, homo-sexual haters and possibly even whole tranches of madly right-wing Isis Muslims…Ireland -wide …from Portrush to Kerry.

There will still be those who’ll want to fight for this and that .There’ll be some who’ll want all the statues pulled down and ground to powder. There’ll be those who’ll want a Ground Zero scenario where the streets are numbered rather than named  and there’ll be those in tiny redoubts along the edge of the Antrim coast still raving about witchcraft , religion, superstition  and insurrection.Echoing “the South will rise again” in the southern states of America; they’ll be raving that “the north will rise again”…Look at our modern -day republics like America and France and see  that the mad racism still lives on.Look at the crazed football supporters and their tribal hatreds.  It is still rife in France and America and being “republics “never changed those hillbilly mindsets one jot.This new republic will not suddenly deliver a whole new species of human beings.

In other words , we’ll still be dealing with the same kind of bloody-minded people who have lived here in Norneverland and the whole of Ireland  for a thousand years.It’s only the times that are changing .The people still smuggling along the border are the same cattle -smuggling brigands from the times of Conn O’Neill or the Red Branch Knights.These have always been a footloose people with little respect for imported laws. The madly religious cake- banning anti -homosexuals will still read all that stone-age foolishness in their Bibles and adhere to every mad , fantastical , poetical word without question.  Those things will always  take a lot of changing anyway.Now we even have bishops in America drawing parallels between the IRA and Isis . Well , it could be argued that a majority of the IRA were initially educated as Roman Catholics but it could also be argued that a true republican would very soon lose faith in a conservative religious belief -system like  modern -day Christianity has become, whereas adherents to Isis have become the very opposite , believing, as they do, in some quite  mad ideas of an afterlife and their sacrifice to it.

In the “New Irish Republic” , there will still be gombeen men, hustlers and common criminals as there always have been.

Life is certainly strange. Republicans come in all sorts of shapes and sizes .I wouldn’t ever call myself an Irish  Republican…basically because it appears to refer to a sort of narrow Irish Nationalism at the moment.I’m wary of nationalisms…English …Welsh …Ulster…Scottish…whatever…although I can take pride in my homeland at times.. I’ve never joined any organisation of any kind, either, for example , hoving to Marx’s {that’s Groucho Marx!} dictum that I wouldn’t join any club that would have me….so I’m not your average example. My ideas are not set in stone.. I would aspire to some manner of  the republican ideal for Britain and Ireland , but certainly not some “Oirish Catholic or English Protestant  version of same. Republicans  are certainly not cut out of that same cookie -cutter mould.I’d imagine that they come in many shapes and sizes.There may be many who are staunch Christians, Jews and Muslims,  and many who are atheistic .

I knew some ” Irish republicans” very well, some  fifty years ago , simply because we were all educated in the same schools and those similar circumstances produced a mixture of characters  some of whom became  republicans  .We sat at the same desks in classrooms, but we were all from different family situations and backgrounds. We certainly didn’t all come out of school ,all the same, with the selfsame beliefs.We were a diverse lot  .One fellow -pupil in particular ,who achieved a certain national notoriety, is long-since dead and buried.He was eventually killed in disputed circumstances.His family background started  him on the road he took , but he was really”radicalised” by getting a thumping at Burntollet  during a Civil Rights march by stick-wielding , Paisleyite hillbillies , ably assisted by their kin in the local police force. That sort of thing  just might change your perspective. You might say , he might never have existed at all as a malcontented armed   republican  without that kind of  external input from a corrupted state .He may never have appeared on the national radar  at all , had this never happened. The police forces and the politicians had no idea what a crackerbox of social unrest was about to be ignited back then,  at that moment in time.

He’d be just dust  about now …dust and maybe a few bones….lying six feet below the earth’s  damp surface where he can no longer hurt or be  hurt…only a family memory….a memory of a teenage schoolboy who decided to take to an armed struggle.He went in that direction while others didn’t. He and his brother died similarly violent deaths ,riddled with bullets  in controversial and disputed  circumstances,  as though participants in some bleak war film. The virus of it lay in the background of their family blood and the twisted nature of the state they were born into  but they were uniquely affected  by that..

My claim to infamy is that he and I , as two seventeen-year old teenage schoolboys , back before all of the Troubles  blew up  properly  and years  before he was portrayed as some mythic public enemy , shared a first fumbling,  clumsy joint in the backroom of that same  pub mentioned earlier, in a world that no longer even  exists…in a time that no longer exists . That world and that pub was blown to smithereens with all of that 18th century stained timber , tobacco -ruined  ceilings and  hidden memory , a couple of years an act not unlike the recent  desecration  of ancient artifacts in the Middle East  .

Forty seven years ago… We hadn’t a clue  what we were doing with our first , fumbled “doobie”, so neither of us transcended to a higher consciousness on that initial attempt . We just shucked off our disappointment into  the ashtray  and ordered another pint. You could smoke in pubs back then,….. “before the revolution”. It may have been better for him had he persevered a few more times with that old herbal pick- me- up , until he got the hang of it. If he had , he may have lived a longer and   less-violent life  thereafter. He went on to become a dead republican. I went  on somewhere else entirely.That’s how life panned  out for each of us.He’s long dead and the pub is now a bank.

Like I say ,  what is a “republican” ?  Who is cut out to be one …..and what kind of future  republicans are we talking about? It’s a bit like that question of “Ulster”, isn’t it? It still hasn’t been fully thought out.

8 Responses to THE STRUGGLE …ARMED OR OTHERWISE by Harry McAvinchey

  1. Mary Jo August 31, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

    In the end it is not the politics but the human tragedy that matters. Thank you for this moving account of our own troubled times.

  2. Emmet September 1, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    Very good piece. I would say that the sacrifices made by so many got us to the position we have today. It was the republicans who gave their lives that allowed Sinn Fein to grow in popularity. It was the armed struggle that allowed the politics of today emerge. Unfortunately for Ireland the British have only ever allowed any progress to be made with the threat of violence. I have never met a republican who was active try to ‘glorify’ the war, most would say times were so disgustingly bad that fighting was the only thing to do. I do see people who talk about how despite the suffering an strong sense of community emerged. Friends on the run living off the generosity of strangers, the unlikely encounter with a sympathetic British soldier, the adrenaline rush when an foot patrol passed volunteers on the way home from a disco, the last minute escape with the help of the neighbour etc. I think this ‘romanticised’ side of the conflict was very real. At the end of the day humans will survive in the most abhorrent environments.

  3. moser September 1, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    I found that very moving Harry. Just thinking about politics here has become like a quagmire for the brain. Unfortunately like a lot of nationalists I have lost faith in the Sinn fein slow train to a united Ireland. Honestly, politics here is a joke: and that can only lead me to conclude that are politicians are jokers. We deserve better.

    • Harry McAvinchey September 1, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      That’s it moser.There is a tendency to break the situation down to simple politics, logistics, fantasy , history…. There’s a tendancy to score points as to whose death is more important than someone else’s . Who is more of a victim of circumstance than someone else.What it is really about is a lot of our our small lives being lived in a certain period of time. Much of it played out against a background that we have no control of. Ultimatey we lose sight of what a life, lived, is all about. It’s all , one -off, precious stuff to all of us.We only get one shot at it .We all end up in a hole in the ground and give or take a few generations are soon forgotten as individuals. That’s all we get .
      Why does one lad sitting at a desk get to live out sixty years and some change…. and the lad beside him is blown away before living half that time? Why do each make such different choices? Politics here really are a quagmire because there is no realonus on anyone to really make them work.That safety-net is always hanging below uswhen party representatives throw their toys out of the pram and refuse to get down to work.They always , in some form or another , want mummy to come in and sort everything out for them. There is no alternative .either we allow someone else do the political work for us and sit back like good little children or we do it ourselves. The only other option is to wait the violence to start up again but this time there’ll be nobody around to stop it.We should know by now that this is the Last Chance Saloon.

  4. paul September 1, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Great read. One can also ask what kind of future unionists will arise? Will they be cut from the same cloth as trhe current FM, who in the space of two weeks calls for SF to be expelled from the executive while at the same time giving character references to Samuel Tweed, of the Baker/McCreery gang fame. This coming on the back of one
    man nailed to a board and of masked men holding signs calling for all ‘taigs’ to be crucified. There has to be a realization that the halcyon days of old, when good unionist politicians ‘wouldn’t have a catholic about the place ” are gone forever. I have heard peoplke say there is no such thing as moderate unionism. Here is hoping they are wrong. Like his politics or not McGuinness has extended his hand in an effort to move forward and it has not been received. That is the attitude that must change

  5. paddykool September 1, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    Better fix that double comment Jude!…I forgot to log out .

    • Jude Collins September 1, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

      Done, PK. I’m good at binning…

  6. moser September 1, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

    Harry, my children were born and grew up in Australia. And it’s a sad indictment of this place that I am glad that is where they grew up. For me the fly in the ointment will always be England’s involvement here. The political focus has to be on them to leave. Like yourself Harry, I don’t want to see anyone else killed to achieve that. Thank you for your response.