17 The view from the Border

by Malcolm Redfellow

Malcolm went back to his shelves and realised what was missing from Pérez-Reverte’s The Painter of Battles.

In a word —


An interesting word.

According to Gordon Sharman Haight’s editing of her letters, George Eliot used the word the once:

‘Die Angst’ she says often brings on a pain at her heart.

That’s from 1854. That, hardly coincidentally, was also the year that she completed her translation of Feuerbach and she and George Lewes cemented their relationship with a trip to Weimar and Berlin.

Then we have to wait for translations into English of Freud. Even then we have to sit around for the War years for it to infiltrate the intelligentsia. Aldous Huxley chucks it into Themes and Variations, Fortunately , “two cultures” C.P.Snow is sufficiently au fait with the term for Homecomings in 1956, and without any italicising:

 Discussing other people whose lives were riven by angst—it domesticated her wretchedness a little to have that label to pin on.

That’s got it about right. Pérez-Reverte misses out — perhaps because his translators can’t do it — on Forster’s Only Connect. So, to “connect”? How?

OK: here’s Malcolm’s suggestion. Try Colm Toibín’s Bad Blood, A Walk Along The Irish Border. The original publication was a long way past: back in 1987, and Toibín’s walk had taken place in 1986, following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 15 November 1985.

Perhaps Malcolm should  preface this by noting that Toibín’s grand-father and great-uncle were active IRA-men in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence: one, Uncle Michael, was interned at Frongoch.

Now try this:

‘I saw you before; I said to the priest. 

‘When was that?’ 

‘I was at the funeral; I said. He nodded. I didn’t have to explain what funeral, even though it had taken place over a year ago. 

‘I heard what you said in your sermon; I said. ‘You said it 

was execution.’ 

‘Yes, that’s right.’ 

I was in Strabane. It was the following afternoon. I had called at the priest’s house. When he came into the small waiting room, it was like suddenly seeing some familiar face in a new context. It took me a while to remember the context. I realized that over a year ago on a grey day I had watched his face as he stood outside the Catholic church waiting for the third coffin to get through the police blockade. 

Three local youths, Michael and David Devine and Charles Breslin, had been shot by the SAS in the early morning as they crossed a field. They were armed, and it was dear that they were either moving armaments or coming from an ambush which had failed. They were shot without warning from high ground. Local people said that they heard them calling out for help, that the SAS had trapped them, trained machine guns on them and opened fire. One hundred and seventy bullets were fired; half of the total hit their targets. No fire was returned. The local priests issued a statement saying that they believed that the youths could have been intercepted and arrested, saying that they considered the killings to be murder. 

The parents of the Devine brothers did not want a military-style IRA funeral for their sons, so there was no difficulty in bringing the two coffins to the church. Charles Breslin, however, was to be given a paramilitary funeral; his coffin was to be draped in the tricolour, his cap and gloves on top, and carried through the streets. The RUC, the police in Northern Ireland, refused to allow this: there was an impasse. The people in the church waited for the third coffin to come. 

I remember the greyness of Strabane that day, the low clouds, the light drizzle. I remember that the church bell rang at intervals. I remember the crowd in the housing estate standing around the coffin. I remember the tension, the feeling that the crowd might surge forward against the police. 

There were well-known faces among the crowd: Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein; Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, from Derry; Danny Morrison, Head of Publicity for Sinn Fein. An RUC officer stood apart from the crowd, his face implacable and decisive. His baton was almost three feet long, and made of some thick dark wood. He looked as though he was ready to wait for a long time. 

Those who gathered on the street seemed like a group of the dispossessed, their faces were pinched, forlorn, weary. There was a sense of crushing hopelessness about the scene. 

After a long time they reached a compromise: the flag could be used but not the cap and gloves. The crowd moved slowly towards the church with the single bell tolling again and again. All along the way they said the Rosary. 

The Devine brothers’ funeral took place in private in the graveyard on a hill above the town. When it was over army snipers wearing camouflage moved into position in the fIelds around the graveyard. The paramilitary funeral would have an oration by Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein. There was a clear view of the town below, the curling river and the land beyond. The RUC were already waiting for Charles Breslin’s funeral to start. They had placed themselves close to the walls that· surrounded the cemetery. As soon as the coffin came inside the gates the bearers stopped and the paramilitary cap and gloves were once again put on the coffin. 

The coffin was followed by a small pipe band which played Republican tunes. The ceremony was brief as the coffin was lowered, interrupted only by the efforts of the RUC to stop some local youths from sitting on the wall. 

The clergy made a hasty exit as Gerry Adams started to speak. He began clearly and factually as. though he were reading a news report. ‘Last Saturday morning three IRA volunteers were carrying Armalites, bombs and ammunition to a depot when a number of strangers, people who are not from here, do not belong here and have no rights here, murdered them in cold blood, giving them no chance to surrender.’ 


‘They’re called the Martyrs now,’ I said to the priest more than a year later.

‘I know; he said. 

I had done a tour of the pubs of Strabane that morning. I had talked to people. Did I know what happened on Saturday? they asked. Did I not know? The Martyrs’ Memorial Band tried to go from Strabane to Lifford for a festival and they were stopped by the RUC because they were carrying a tricolour, the Irish flag. The RUC came in with fifty jeeps to stop them. 

The band had been set up to commemorate the two Devines and Breslin. They had been trying to go to the same festival as the band I met in St Johnston. Most of them were in their early teens, I was told. 

The setting up of a band wasn’t the only result of the shooting of the three. Someone had informed, the IRA believed, some-one had given information to the security forces, and so they shot a boy called Damien McCrory in Strabane, blaming him for informing. 

All the pubs were Catholic pubs; most of the people were Catholic in Strabane. There had been one Protestant pub, which served the security forces, but that had been bombed. The town also had the highest unemployment rate in Western Europe: over fifty per cent of the male adults were officially unemployed. In the 1970s the IRA had blown the town to bits; most shops had suffered. I sat in one pub where there were old photographs on the wall of what Strabane looked like before the IRA campaign: sedate, almost pretty, Victorian. 

Some of the gaps had been filled in, but there was nothing Victorian about the place now. There was an overwhelming sense of despair. In the months after the shooting of the Devines and Charles Breslin, the priest assured me, there had been an enormous upsurge in young people joining the IRA. I would have thought that the shooting might have discouraged them, but he said it was the opposite — the anger at what happened drove them in. 

Everybody talked about what the RUC and the army were. doing. At the end of the summer the Catholic Bishop of Derry would issue a detailed statement about what was going on in Strabane. He would detail accounts of local youths being ordered by the security forces to take their shoes and socks off in the street day after day for no apparent reason. He would detail accounts of petty harassment. Everywhere I went people talked about it. 

I was sent to see James Bradley, the former Town Clerk·of Strabane, who knew the history of the place, and I found him in a big bright bungalow across the bridge in Strabane. He arranged for me to stay with a family in a nearby estate in a smaller bungalow. I went back to Bradley’s several times for tea, to get away from the blight of the town, to try and find out what was going on in Strabane. 

On one occasion when I visited him his wife started talking about a relation of hers, the writer and political activist, Peadar O’Donnell and the themes he had dealt with, such as poverty and emigration. Just in passing, she mentioned that her own father had been hired at the Hiring Fair in Strabane. They started to talk about the Hiring Fair, the two of them, as we sat in the kitchen of their house. Her father, Mrs Bradley said, had left home at midnight when he was in his early teens and walked until the morning when he had caught a train to Strabane where he was hired by a Protestant farmer. He had to wait in the town that day until the farmer had conducted his business and then walk behind the farmer’s horse as far as Castlederg. He worked there for six months and then he got his wages and was hired again by another farmer. 

How quickly we had moved in one generation, from poverty and quasi-feudalism, to this kitchen, the dining area on a different level from the cooking area, a dishwasher, electric washing machine, electric cooker, fridge. But I was still unsure about the Hiring Fair. Inthe South of Ireland, I had never heard anyone talk of a Hiring Fair, where labourers were hired for six months. I asked them about it again. 

James Bradley said he remembered the Hiring Fair in Strabane. I looked at his face, I thought he might be sixty, maybe sixty-five, but no more. How could he remember the Hiring Fair? He insisted. He said that he used to watch them on his way to school, the big farmers, the Protestant farmers from the Lagan valley, the farms on both sides of the Foyle River, where I had walked, and the farmers from around Strabane. He used to watch them feel the boys for muscles, feel their arms to see if they were strong enough. He said they used to think it was funny on their way to school. 

They used to gather at the Town Hall, which is now blown up. When did it stop, then, the Hiring Fair? He thought for a while and asked his wife and they puzzled over it. 1938, he said, 1938. It ended just before the war, the war changed everything, there was more work and more money. I told him I had never heard about it before. Everyone in Strabane would remember it, he said, everyone over a certain age. 

I went back to my lodging house with something new in my head, beyond the misery of Strabane and the legacy of the Devine brothers and Breslin, beyond the unemployment figures and the complaints about the police, beyond the fact that the IRA had threatened to kill anyone -including council workers -who removed the rubbish from the RUC barracks. Here, down the road here, twice a year, children as young as twelve had come in from the countryside and were rented for six months by people they didn’t know, brought to a place they didn’t know, and made to work. Those hired were Catholics, and those who hired them were, for the most part, Protestants.

That’s the start of Toibín’s Chapter 2: The Hiring Fair. Know that, and you have the beginnings of a grasp on the mess that is Northern Ireland. Dismiss that, and you vote DUP.