Irish debacle - Bulletin three

Encounter with Planet Ulster

Dear all,

Carrickfergus looked interesting from the sea, with a very picturesque castle, and a splendid marina. We checked in, and were greeted with great warmth in the marina office - time to go and explore, have a drink or two and some food.

At this moment that it began to sink in that all was not as it should be in old Carrickfergus. The doors of the marina bar and restaurant were firmly closed at 7 pm. Robust thumping on the door eventually produced a rather anxious-looking and pale waitress. "We're closed", she said. "What, why, how?" we expostulated. "Well, you know...." she said.

It was only at this point that the penny began to drop. This was Ulster.

"Tell me", said Don to the pale-faced lass, "I am a visitor from another planet, and would like an explanation of what is going on here." "Oh, I couldn't tell you", she said, "It's too complicated, but I can tell you that you won't get a drink or a meal in this town tonight, except in places it is unwise for strangers to enter."

Thwarted, we sloped back to the boat. Wait! Could one hear the faint sound of penny whistles?

Luckily there are ample stocks of food and wine, so Charlotte knocks up a wonderful stew from hot Chorizo sausages, smoked bacon, two kinds of beans, chick peas, and assorted vegetables. This, washed down by some excellent Wolf Blass Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, more than compensates for our earlier disappointment, and enables BT to explain to the English crew what is really happening in this bizarre corner of the world.

One explanation might go something like this:

THE SCENE - A Psychiatrist's surgery.

(The psychiatrist is dressed in a white coat, buttoned up to the neck. He is wearing round glasses, with stainless steel rims, as is normal for people of his ilk. The patient is strapped to the couch. He is large, with a big square head and slightly stooped shoulders. He mutters and drools, and occasionally appears to suffer from seizures, turning purple in the face, and shouting loudly, but incoherently).

PSYCHIATRIST: "So, to review zis session, vot you are compelled to do is to dress up in ze pin-striped suit, vear ze archaic titfer vot used to be vorn by ze ol' English farts, carry a rolled umbrella vot is not for ze rain, und zen put ze embroidered sash over ze shoulder.

"Zen, as though zis ist not enough, you have ze irrisistable need to strut around ze streets—not any old street, but a particular street; led by ozzers who are dressed even more outlandishly zan you, who are drunk, and play ze drums und penny vissle".

"Mutter of Gott, vy do you do it, ve haf here more dysfunctional syndromes zan has ever been recorded".

"But," he continued, "Zis ist only ze half of it! Ven sensible people try to keep all zis nonsense avay from ze neighbours, and ask you to do your Zing in a quiet place, you go berserk! You haf ze riots, you burn ze cars, you block ze streets, smash ze vindows, assault ze police and destroy everything you can"!

"Truly zis ist remarkable behaviour, seldom recorded in ze history of ze social anthropology of primitive peoples, or of mass psychological disease!"

PATIENT: (Finally breaking free from his restraints, leaping from the couch and strangling the psychiatrist with his own stethoscope)


So, it would appear that the "Loyalist" populace are warming up for the Real Thing, which happens on July 12 each year, when good Orangemen (Protestants) get out on the streets to celebrate the victory of one "king Billy", whoever he was. It seems that the government have proposed stopping them prancing around the territory of the other tribe in Northern Ireland, the "Nationalists" (Catholics), and the "Prods" or Loyalists don't like it and are protesting in time honoured fashion.

Having found out that Carrickfergus is only blockaded in the afternoons and evenings (even hugely committed patriots and Loyalists have to recover from their hangovers and get a little rest), we ring Don's cousin, who is a doctor and lives with his family nearby. The cousin immediately invites us to his house for the weekend, and arrives shortly with his car. The cousin and his wife manifest the same attitudes, which we find to be very common amongst the populace in Ulster. It is a mixture of embarrassment and shame about the behaviour of many of the more extreme elements in their own community, together with a trace of feeling that the "other lot" are being favoured a mite too much by the authorities. But the overriding impression is of a desperate desire to live normal lives in a normal community, without the posturing, hate and violence.

And our superficial impression is that outside rather clearly defined ghetto areas, life is led in a normal way by "normal, hardworking people", as they say.

The ghettos are clearly marked out by a lavish display of tribal symbols. As Carrickfergus is obviously Loyalist tribal territory, the display was as follows:

The crew of "Deneys Reitz" are dissuaded from asking too many questions about precisely what this lot are "The Best" at! Don is further dissuaded from offering to write a Statement of the Purpose, Vision, Mission and Values for the organisation in question!

If we seem a trifle facetious about a very serious matter, then we are sorry, but the behaviour of some elements of Ulster society is frankly ludicrous in the world we inhabit to-day. There is a very strong sense that the only reason that such people manage to sustain their views and behaviour is that they have deliberately cut themselves off from the wider world, which they believe is plotting against them. Maybe there is a role for ridicule in all of this, for the behaviour of many of the actors on both sides is clearly ridiculous.

A little later on, Charlotte and Hamilton were treated to a furious attack by the marina security guard on the theme of "How the Brits intended to sell Protestant Ulster down the river". Really, the only response to this is to explain that that the average Brit is so fed up with the posturings and nonsense of all extreme people in Northern Ireland (i.e. the ones you hear about), that they would rather the place was towed into the Atlantic and cast adrift.

Don's cousin, John Andrews arrives to take us to his house for the kind of entertainment beloved of the crew after a hard grind at sea. (Booze, booze, booze, boy's jokes, more booze – Totty).

As we enter the village where Don's cousin lives, he points out a house with an elaborate and colourful tableau painted on its gable end.

"It's just a couple of families who had it done and nobody takes them down because they don't want trouble. They painted the house because it was empty but nobody will buy it because you couldn't get rid of the painting."

Saturday night with the cousin is convivial and friendly, as it is the birthday of one of their children, and lavish is the hospitality, food and drink.

Next morning, the assembled company are a trifle subdued, so we invite the cousin, wife and family on to the boat for a short trip, meal and overnight stay. We drive down through the area where some of the rioting had taken place the previous evening. All is quiet and apparently normal. We skirt round a burned out car in the middle of the main road, which is being treated with as little attention as if it were a dead bird.

We have a pleasant trip around the Copeland Islands in Belfast Loch, which enables Don and the cousin to reminisce about family holidays when both were young and carefree.

On our return to the marina, the cousin's wife has a look around at the other boats. She draws our attention to a motor cruiser of about 30 feet in length and of American design. "Take a look in the cabin porthole", she says quietly.

A little peek reveals unmade bunks in the kind of state of disarray usually associated with males, and a wide array of Loyalist paraphenalia, including a gaudy plaque declaring "UVF - For God and for Ulster." "Ho, Hum", we say, and get on with our evening

After a pleasant, but somewhat less alcoholically challenging evening than the previous one, we all retire to our various bunks. Charlotte and Don are in the fore-cabin, just across the pontoon from the motor cruiser, Hamilton snores on the wheelhouse floor.

At 2am, peaceful slumber is interrupted by a loud and disorderly gathering just by our old boat. Don slips from his bunk, and fixes his eye to the small gap between the cabin hatch and the foredeck. In a cartoon, you would see a gleaming eye peeking from a dark space.

On the pontoon were three characters. They are swaying about and having a just coherent conversation about who "was op fer it", and who was not. At least one of the characters was Scottish, and another was shaven headed and rather sinister-looking. Don decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and retired to his bunk, as shortly after did the trio on the pontoon.

Next morning being a working day, we saw the cousin and family off, and went shopping while the shops were open, in the morning.

We returned to the boat, just before mid-day, to find the trio of the previous evening taking the air beside the shady motor cruiser. They are a very interesting assortment. One has a shaven head, a T-shirt with sleeves cut up to the top of the arms, which are extensively tattooed. The image is completed by a pair of small, round shades. He is walking around, conversing in a Northern Irish accent on a mobile 'phone.

The second character is much older, and is clad in a shabby sports jacket and twill trousers. He has spectacles, and might just be taken for the brains or strategist of the trio. The third chap is obviously subordinate to the other two, and later turns out to be the man who drives the boat.

Don observes this unsavoury trio, and decides that a friendly, open approach is best. At least if they feel he is a harmless idiot, they might not burn the boat! Conversation does not flow, but the boat driver volunteers that they are visiting from Largs, in Scotland, and the shaven-headed fellow asserts that the boat will do "Fofty miles an hour." Thus are a few minutes whiled away in stilted conversation, while Charlotte and Don wonder silently about the large fixed searchlight on the bow of the boat. The chaps retire on to the boat, still conversing volubly on mobile phones. At about 2pm, the trio emerge, mount little motorised scooters and buzz off down the pontoon.

Interestingly, at about 3.30, the "Trouble" starts- (roads blockaded by burning cars, the whole town closed down, marching bands etc, etc),

This performance is repeated the next day. By now, we have an affable, but distant relationship with them - we greet them when they pass; they nod curtly.

The visit to Belfast by bus is particularly interesting. It is quite clear that the city is already undergoing a marked revival since the various ceasefires, and that most people we meet feel disgust and a kind of hopeless anger at the antics of the ghetto loyalists.

The bus trip back to Carrickfergus is on the last bus to run before the nonsense starts again - already on the trip to Belfast the bus took a detour into various housing estates where little knots of people were preparing barricades.

On the way back, the driver avoided all detours, and drove at high speed directly to Carrickfergus. It was a little like being on a Wells Fargo stage charging through Indian territory!

The next morning, we order a taxi to Belfast City airport, lock up the boat, pat it fondly, say we will be back, and head home for what seems like civilisation.