As published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Friday 30th April 2010
Though the Troubles are at their height outside, it’s business as usual in a Border bar as an old man with a limp savours a new word.
I KNOW THAT the IRA were butchers, and the British Army were surgeons, but one was as bad as the other. I lived on the Border when Fermanagh was bleeding to death: farmers being blown to bits at the creamery, policemen shot dead going to Mass, and shopkeepers bleeding to death behind their own counters.
It was as if the fields were swamps of blood, and the wind carried the screech of the dead up the mountain.
But up on the slopes of Cuilce Mountain, there was a parallel world, of love songs, stories, and fun: a hidden lineage of tender narratives, which ordinary folk clung to, as the rushes cling to the ditch, and the knuckles of the hawthorn cling to the wind. I suppose ordinary folk just want to be human.
And singing songs and telling yarns, and dancing half-sets, was a way of doing that. Mountain folk were more concerned with the price of sheep than any political ideology. While out in the dark, professional killers slithered around the mountain paths, and the Garda and Army patrolled the roads from Swanlinbar to Balinamore
The war was endless, and went from bad to worse, and after every new atrocity some icon of nobility would appear on television to express concern about another “escalation of violence”.
In remote farmhouses people played musical instruments, and avoided the television news.
One night I was sitting in the kitchen of the local pub when Michael, an old man with a limp, entered from the shed with a bucket of coal and eyed me as a fisherman eyes the pike in clear water. He opened the top of the range, shovelled the coal into the red flames and then settled himself in a corner.
“Now, Master,” he said, “I have a question for you; what’s a draft card?”
The fire wheezed. It was after midnight. A scatter of late drinkers sat around the kitchen, as was the custom, hoping for sandwiches.
Everyone was waiting for me, the schoolteacher, to answer the conundrum; it was a nightly game. Others chimed in with theories as they sunk their jaws into warm bacon and soft bread.
“Could be to do with draught horses,” someone said.
“Or draught Guinness,” another suggested.
A returned Yank finally explained that the draft was the law that forced poor Americans to fight in Vietnam.
Michael said that an American priest wearing a necklace, on The Late Late Show , had used the term earlier that evening.
The draft card didn’t start a political discussion; the old man was just savouring new words, like a child sucking sweets, and the kitchen was a living thesaurus until 3am, when “the Guards” arrived.
The guards were regular visitors; they never said why they came and no one asked. Maybe it was for the bacon sandwiches, though they rarely got any.
Instead the sergeant sat by the range and nibbled fig rolls with his tea, while the young guard waited outside, and the kitchen became as silent as a wake-house.
“What’s he doing in the car?” Michael asked.
“He’s minding it,” the sergeant said, with dry Dublin wit, as if the hills might be crawling with subversives ready to attack.
It fact, the only subversive activity going on outside was between the guard and his girlfriend, who had arranged a rendezvous while the sergeant was at his biscuits. At that time there was a feud going on in the parish between two neighbours, which had recently gone to court in Dowra, because one man’s son hit the other man with a snowball one morning outside the church gate. The victim of the assault alleged there was a stone in the snow.
“I hope we don’t have more snow,” Michael said to the sergeant. “We wouldn’t want to see an escalation of violence in this area.”
The sergeant nibbled his biscuits for a long time, and the landlady was too polite to hunt him, and he was too polite to question what five men were doing in the kitchen at 3am, drinking tea. Eventually Michael went for more coal and when he returned he said: “You better leave, sergeant, before the situation in the squad car escalates out of control.”
When the guards drove off more sandwiches appeared, and tea laced with enough alcohol to kick-start a 747, and someone sang The Rocks of Bawn , and a discussion arose, about the meaning of the word “surveillance”.
Michael Harding (firstname.lastname@example.org) – As published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Friday 30th April 2010