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I figured things would be nicer in the country. And they were. For about a week.
County Down, where my father's parents were born, is a heavily Protestant county, so the tinderbox mentality of border towns like Londonderry or the rougher sections of Belfast was noticeably absent. Until the Marching Season began. Imagine the Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo and an NBA championship soiree in Chicago combined into one holiday, and you've got the 12th of July in Northern Ireland. The holiday commemorates the victory of the Protestant King William III (William of Orange) over the Catholic former king, James II, in 1690. But, in reality, it's an excuse for Ulster Protestants to band together and give a collective middle finger to Catholics.
The holiday began as an Independence Day of sorts, with midnight bonfires and drums. But it soon turned ugly. Bands of juiced-up youths roamed the streets, smashing the windows of Catholic homes. Over the next couple of weeks, they would occasionally harass Catholic schoolmates they didn't like. The celebration lasted three days and is the closest I've ever felt to the epicenter of the type of unrestrained human passion that explodes to the surface in riots and massive protests. County Down is a far cry from Baghdad and Belgrade, but I can't help but feel there's a connection somewhere.
The human separation of Ireland's people was hit home by Jimmie Rice. Jimmie was the bricklayer on the small construction crew that I worked with to fund my return trip to California. He was the kind of colorful, salty-earthed character that Eugene O'Neill could have created. Unquestionably, he is the most foul-mouthed person I have ever known. He was also fascinating to listen to. I used to make up excuses so I could work within hearing of this fountain of obscenity. He was an inveterate storyteller and singer, croaky voice and all. His perception of America was just as fascinating, having been filtered through a rather limited media lens. Every hour or so, his nonstop patter or singing would be punctuated by a similar phrase, directed at me: What about that Bruce Springsteen? What about that Madonna? What about that Charlie Manson? I gave my 2 cents, and he'd continue slapping mortar on bricks and cursing under his breath about whatever emotion, joyful or otherwise, was coursing through him at the moment.
Jimmie joked with the other guys in the crew, swapped tales with them. But something strange happened in the two or three breaks we received during our six-hour shift. Everyone would pile inside the air-conditioned trailer where we'd eat our sack lunches and generally bullshit the break away. Not Jimmie. He'd sit outside. I figured it was because a cigarette was never too far from his profane lips. Over time, I realized the truth: he was Catholic. It was never said or implied, but there it was. And the most sobering thought I had was that I think he wanted to be outside as much as the guys inside wanted him to be outside.
It's that ability to live in complete segregation amid an apparently integrated society that struck me the most about my family and the other Irish people I met. Linked to that is a startling ability to minimize the costs. When my Irish relations learned I was a reporter back home, they made a point of saying, "Well, you go back there and tell them it's not as bad as they say it is." And the next day, I'd be driving to the Giant's Causeway and see a marker on the side of the road commemorating the spot where a Protestant paramilitary group had shot someone. Or a cousin would point to a distant hill and say that's where the detonator was that had triggered an explosion that had killed five members of a military convoy. Within 10 miles of the town of Killyleagh, there were five places commemorating such brutality.
No, it's not that bad. It's worse.
No one among my Irish relations would ever admit to disliking a Catholic, but in moments of candor-usually when they were tight-they'd unleash deep-rooted animosity. In a moment of unvarnished hate, my otherwise warm-hearted 60-year-old cousin warned me and my girlfriend not to travel to the Republic of Ireland-"a filthy cesspool of criminality," he called it.
It has been eight years since my trip, and Northern Ireland continues to make daily headlines. The latest buzz is the IRA is refusing to surrender its weapons as part of the unification vote approved by a majority of voters in Northern Ireland last year that will finally give the region some form of limited self-rule. The vote is about the most hopeful news in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. But I still have a very hard time believing it will ever be fully enacted. In a country where violence and animosity are as much a part of the land as its soil and trees, it's difficult to truly believe something as temporal as a vote can really change much. From Northern Ireland to Kosovo, the chain of history is one tightly coiled motherfucker.
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