Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

War Stories from Belfast

Book: Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast Published 2009, by Kevin Myers.

Destination: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Watching the Door, a memoir of a journalist drawn to the unrelenting tragedy of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, is as much about a young man’s coming of age as it is about the battles (more commonly murders) he was covering in Belfast.

I’m warning you right now that despite the skillful writing and terrific wit of Kevin Myers, you may find this book hard to take with its unrelenting drumbeat of death after death after death.

On the other hand, if you want to understand the struggle between the Irish and the British and the inextricable parallel struggle between Protestants and Catholics, I doubt you could find a better guide.

Myers describes the young man that he was with an unflinching eye.  The same devotion to being totally honest applies to his portraits of the many Irish that he ran into as a young reporter. At the end of the book, he clarifies which ones have their actual names, and which have fictitious names–even though they are real people. Because of his supposed neutrality as a reporter, he gained access to people in all the various factions, and paints their portraits with ironic clarity.  Although the young Kevin was a liberal and sympathetic to rebels and nonconformists, he has grown out of his youthful fascination and verbally skewers all sides with the kind of deadly aim they once took on each other with guns.

Once you’ve read this book, it will be hard to forget some of those characters like  the young waitress who blandly described how she aided IRA murders by holding up a mail slot flap so the sniper could shoot through the hole undetected, but didn’t understand at all how she was culpable; or the young assassin who could not tolerate swear words. And then there was his good friend who did not believe in war or killing, but did believe in getting even–a fine distinction.

Myers clearly demonstrates how muddled the question of right and wrong and cause and effect become in such a struggle.  This is particularly clear when he talks about how the British, being kindly, provided health care for people who were damaged in any way by the unrest. Therefore people piled into an ambulance that showed up and began claiming trauma–although their fellow Irishmen may have lain bleeding from actual wounds from a bombing.  And people whose homes were destroyed could apply to the government for a new home, thus providing a massive building industry and jobs for thousands of men from Northern Ireland who were compelled to contribute part of their wages to the local military. In this way the British were funding the insurrection against the British.

The numbing recital of murders turns into suspense when the reporter himself becomes the prey for some imagined wrong against some group or other. More than once he is warned by a friendly person that this or that leader has assigned assassins to hunt him down.  Thus he, like most people who live in Belfast, lies awake waiting for the door to open and gunfire to spray the room, or an explosion that will destroy the building he is in.  He survives several of these threats–presumably because the thugs have found easier or more deserving targets.

The parade of death is also interrupted by his recital of sexual affairs and even a love affair or two.  Not to mention LOTS of alcohol.  The setting for the book is as much bars as the street.

Like so many war correspondents, he frequently reaches the point where he thinks he should leave (he has Irish heritage but was raised in Britain) but he always thinks that it is all going to end soon, and there is a terrible fascination in living in such danger.

The truth was that the only people who really knew what they wanted were the leaders of the insurgency; one of the singular characteristics of almost any terrorist war.

Not that I was engaged in any such useful speculation.  Unsuspectingly, I had passed a moral and psychological Rubicon.  War had become a natural condition of my life now, as the city closed in on itself, tribal village by tribal village, each withdrawing to its clearly defined boundaries; and when they were not clearly defined, they were redefined by ruthless expulsion and intimidation.

Because Myers was not tied to any particular group, he has no “side of the story” and thus gives a clear-eyed view of what insurrection is like, that reminds me of the Kenya I saw  in my review of The Boy is Gone.

Life in Belfast was now defined by murder, indignation, accusation and counter-accusation.  Historical forces were at work here, and like flotsam in a raging sea, people found themselves being hurled against the implacable rocks of fatal injustice.

His Belfast in the 60s is a terrible, soul-less place. Terrifying at worst, gloomy at best.  I am assured that this bears no resemblance to the present Belfast, and the book should only inform travelers of the past, not persuade them to stay away in the present.  Kerry Dexter, writing at Perceptive Travels, suggests some things to see, cautions, and music for your trip.

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Dark Family Tale in Northern Ireland

Destination: Ireland

Book: Black Lake by Johanna Lane

When you travel, do you like to visit old homes–you know, the Downton Abbey kind of manor, where the titled family has had to let visitors traipse through in order to make enough money to pay the taxes?

If you have visited, or stayed overnight in one of those places, you may have wondered what it would be like to turn your home into a place of amusement for the masses.  What does it do to the soul of the place? To the souls of the family members?

In Black Lake Johanna Lane explores those questions along with deeper, more existential questions that plague the family.  She presents the point of view of each family member–mother (Marianne), father (John), son and daughter (Philip and Kate)–one at a time.  The novel moves through a year when each person tries to cope with tragic changes in their lives.

Glenveagh Castle, Ireland. Photo by Stephen Collins. Used with Creative Commons license.

Dulough, John’s family’s grand family estate stands looking out to water from a cliff overlooking Black Lake in Donegal County, Ireland, with woods behind the house. Stately gardens surround the house. The atmosphere is cold and mostly gloomy, a suitable setting for such a serious story.

Marianne, a city girl from Dublin, has adjusted to her marriage with John and the family heritage through her work with the garden.  John has hidden from her the financial problems that came with the estate.

Irish castle
Glenveagh National Park, Ireland. Photo by Raphael Schön. Used with Creative Commons License.

9-year-old Philip tries to understand the world of the grownups and is most fascinated by his father’s lessons about the ice age. Glaciers carved out this land. The effect of ice on land and the effect of the restrained coolness of emotions on family members underlies the story. Kate, at twelve, is never quite sure what she really thinks and feels. Both children are shaken when they must move out of their accustomed home and routines into a humble cottage while tourists traipse through what was once their private domain.

Lane skillfully wraps you in the landscape and magically captures just the right tone for each character.

The  book’s circular structure means thoughts of one person are echoed, generally in a slightly different key, as we move from one point of view to another.

Johanna Lane has written an intriguing book that gives you much to ponder.  Not the least, for traveler’s is the conundrum of how we peek into other people’s lives as we visit new places and how the observer affects the observed.

In the interview linked to her name in the first paragraph (above), Lane is asked a question pertinent for Travelers Who Read:

Which Irish authors do you think do a great job of capturing the countryside?

John McGahern — he wrote 10 novels set in the Irish countryside. His vision is a lot bleaker. He grew up in quite an abusive household. For him, the country is beautiful, but also a trap … I think he’s one of my favorite Irish authors. And Anne Enright, of course.

So there you go–read Black Lake, then explore the writer’s writers.

Or pop over to Ireland and visit the Glenveagh National Park, which Lane used as a model for the estate in this book.

Note:  The publisher provided me with a copy of the book for review.  My opinions are totally my own.  There is a link to Amazon here. If you’re shopping for books or anything else at Amazon, it costs you no more to use these links, and you’ll be supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks. The two photos of Glenveagh are from Flickr. Click on a picture to learn more.