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My Road to Damascus

By Patrick Van Roy On September 17th, 2020

Guest Post by Charles

   It was a soft Irish day that morning in Dublin. The day held promise as we made our way to Connolly Station where the Missus and I would board the train north to Belfast by way of Drogheda. I expected a meetup with new friends, a few pints, a bit o’craic, and a tour of the city.  I got all that, but also got an entirely new way of thinking about the situation in Northern Ireland. I entered Belfast an American Republican and left the next day an ”Irish” Republican. 

What does Irish Republicanism mean to me?  First and foremost, it means a United Ireland.  The form that this takes is up to the Irish people.  (However, after speaking to people all over Dublin, I have my doubts as to interest in the south over unification. Dubliners seem to be quite ignorant about the North.)  Secondly, my republicanism requires that ALL Irishmen are allowed to live in freedom, dignity, and equality.  Thirdly, my republicanism does not automatically enroll me in any proscribed organization, but recognizes the right of self defense. Let me be clear. I am non-sectarian. 

Let me stop here and ask my Irish Republican friends if I’m on the right track, or am I talking through my arse?

I think my road to Damascus was the Falls Road. Our own Seimi is quite the tour guide!  Sitting in the car looking at the Bobby Sands Mural, thinking that this man starved himself to death for his cause and country. Or listening to Seimi’s own family’s story, which I will leave between us two, which inspired me so deeply.  After two days in Belfast, my political transformation was complete. I am so proud that my great grand father Patrick Murray was a Catholic from Northern Ireland and that I was there to represent to the family.

Go raibh maith agat!

52 Responses to “My Road to Damascus”

  1. Fair play Charles. The three qualifications laid out by you above would broadly be aligned to my own.

    For me the most interesting part of above is when those people who are portrayed as fanatical, blood thirsty, sectarian extremists are met in person and their story is heard the humanity of the individual and the many injustices of the situation come to the surface. Thank you for looking at things objectively and thank you for having the courage to admit that perceptions were changed by reality.

    Maybe next time you could bring Pat in order for him to have an understanding of our discussions here about it too.

  2. Let me stop here and ask my Irish Republican friends if I’m on the right track, or am I talking through my arse?

    Good man Charles, but you’re talking through your arse. It’s like getting a history of America from BLM – passionate but myopic, biased, bigoted and leaving out more than it contains.

  3. Nice post Charles. Thank you.

    It makes me want to explore my Irish ancestry.
    My mums parents were Catholic and Protestant when that really was a problem.

  4. I remember years ago when I dragged some American friends on a day trip to Belfast by train. Our Dublin host was enraged that we were doing something so completely stupid. This was obviously in the bad old days.

    I’ve been there twice in the bad old days, another two I think in the better, more recent days.

    I’ve encountered only kindness, and would be hopeful that the future is bright.

  5. Phantom.

    My father worked in Ireland in the late 70’s early 80’s.
    They used to hire vans to avoid having UK number plates on show and were told not to drink in certain pubs. I’m so glad it’s not like that now.

  6. They used to hire vans to avoid having UK number plates on show and were told not to drink in certain pubs

    Unfortunate if understandable Dave. Belfast was a dangerous place in the 70s & 80s. There were many spooky, nefarious things happening and the risk of being mistaken for off duty or undercover soldiers would have been a very real one.

  7. I ( naively or not ) tramped all over Belfast.

    In the Shankill area, on a whim, I decided to enter a pub. But I could not, because the door was locked, and you had to hit a buzzer to enter, and I thought better of it.

    On the other trip, with the NY/NJ traveling companions, we wet our whistle in a West Belfast pub, and one spotted the armored car roll by, rifle pointed outward, and one said what the *** are we doing here, let’s leave right now.

    Everyone from there has inherited some tough history. I don’t know much, but I think that things are much improved. You can’t change the past, but you can make your mark on today and tomorrow, and that’s what a lot of ordinary people are doing.

  8. Belfast was incredibly open and safe for tourists, with a relatively low crime rate.

    Even in the thirteen years I’ve been away I can see incredible changes, most of them for the better. Anyone who experienced the conflict should never want to return to the dark times.

    The one negative thing I will say is that during the conflict heroin in Belfast simply didn’t exist. Now, like most medium and big sized cities, there seems to be an epidemic of young homelessness as a result of it.

    I suppose that’s the price of ‘normality’

  9. Nice piece, Charles. Maith thú!

    Good man Charles, but you’re talking through your arse. It’s like getting a history of America from BLM – passionate but myopic, biased, bigoted and leaving out more than it contains.

    LOL! Getting a history of Ireland from Pete would be like: well, it would be like getting a history of Ireland from an Englishman! (Or are you Irish this evening, Pete?)

    For your information and enlightenment, Pete, I don’t believe it was a very one-sided tour at all. We visited areas in both communities. Of course I would be more knowledgeable about my own area, but I have always tried to give at least some balance.

    Belfast certainly has changed, and mainly for the better. Before the lockdown, large cruise ships were a regular feature at the docks, with crowds of Japanese and American tourists being shown around the city centre.

    The tourist trade was booming (if you’ll pardon the pun!) here, with a particular emphasis on, naturally, the Troubles. In fact, two of the black taxi tours have recently received major awards, with Coiste’s tours now ranked in Trip Adisor’s top 10% worldwide.
    One thing I think I may have mentioned to Noel when he was here, is that some of the tours are now very aware of how intrusive they can be in the areas they visit, and ask the tourists not to take photos of the locals or their houses.

    O/T the hospitals in NI are being given a fly-by by a Spitfire tomorrow, as a way of thanking the NHS. A fair payrise would be more welcome, and I’m sure the Pete Moores around here will complain that such a glorious airplane is being used to thank the Commie death machine that is the NHS, but it’ll be an interesting spectacle. A friend of mine (ex-RAF) has multiple cameras at the ready! 🙂

  10. Seimi

    Don’t rise to Pete’s bait 😉

  11. One thing that I made mention of is the ignorance of N.I. by the people in Dublin that I talked to. The only question they had about my trip was, did I see the Titanic Quarter? One lady asked if I had to re-quarantine, as if I went to a foreign country. I explained that no, I didn’t, since N.I. was in the common travel area. Isn’t it sad that a Texan had to explain that to a Dubliner?

  12. Even in the thirteen years I’ve been away I can see incredible changes, most of them for the better.

    Yes Paul, and one of them is that you see far more GB numberplates on cars. In the bad old days if you bought a used car from England you would automatically re-register it so that it had a Belfast registration plate. Now as it happens me and her both have cars with English registrations and we don’t even think about it.

    When I’m out for a walk I use a mental exercise to (silently) recite the numberplates in the Nato alphabet (Alpha Beta Charlie) and I find it much more challenging than before because of the high number of cars with GB registrations. A typical Belfast registration will be KCZ2199 (Kilo Charlie Papa 2199) whereas a typical GB one will be UJ77FDC, (Unifom Juliette 77 Foxtrot Delta Charlie) much more challenging. I know, I should get out more.

  13. In the Shankill area, on a whim, I decided to enter a pub. But I could not, because the door was locked, and you had to hit a buzzer to enter, and I thought better of it.

    Even now, I’m not sure it would be advisable. Would be interested in Belfast folks’ opinions on this, but I’d have thought a lot of pubs around the Shankhill and Falls would be dodgy enough for an outsider to wander in. Or am I way off here?

  14. //First and foremost, it means a United Ireland. The form that this takes is up to the Irish people….
    Let me stop here and ask my Irish Republican friends if I’m on the right track//

    But the question is who, or what, are “the Irish people”. A very large number of “Irish people” in the North, probably a majority, don’t want a UI. It would be between difficult and impossible for the RoI to include such a recalcitrant and resisting population in a new republic. If there was even the threat of violence through unification, and their almost certainly would be, the number in favour in both communities in the North would be even less and the idea wouldn’t even have majority backing in the South. There would be a referendum and it would fail.

    The people have to be united before the country can be. So it’s a case of first, as the cliché goes, winning hearts and minds. To do that the RoI has to be generous and tolerant with northern Unionists. Their traditions and interests and opinions have to be taken seriously, stubbornness has to be met with patience, bigotry with understanding – difficult and tasteless as that usually is.

    The South is currently in that mode (in some cases through conviction, in other cases through indifference of the kind you encountered in Dublin) and another question is how far the South would be prepared to go in changing its culture and ways to accommodate Unionists (e.g. abandon the veneration of the heroes of the independence struggle, the national flag etc?). None of these things ever bothered the many Protestants in the South, but they were always of a different kind to their co-religionists in the North.

    Modern Irish Republican (and that’s another fuzzy term) theory was that a British withdrawal would leave the people of the North, and of the whole island, no choice but to work together. But that’s a very risky proposition, and while I don’t think a Balkan situation could ever emerge there, and there may be many big shifts in Unionism after Brexit, the whole thing could be very messy.
    I’m therefore of the old-school in Republicanism and follow Wolfe Tone’s proposal that republicans must first “unite the whole people of Ireland, abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and substitute the common name of Irishman” in order to break finally the political connection with Britain.

  15. //winning hearts and minds (in the North)//

    Noel, that reminds me of something that Seimi said. He opined that the Unionists must be convinced that they would have much more political influence in the Dail than they presently have in the British Parliament. That would go a long way in bringing the D.U.P. into the political process in the South.

    But you’re right. If the Loyalists return to form and activate paramilitaries, it would turn off the people of the South.

  16. //Unionists must be convinced that they would have much more political influence in the Dail than they presently have in the British Parliament. //

    True, but you must remember that in Ireland, especially in NI, politics is usually more emotional and symbolic than pragmatic. Very often even, the fact that one side favours something is enough to turn the other side against it, regardless of the merits of the issue itself.

    And just as, if I dare suggest, your pride in your great grandfather being “a Catholic from Northern Ireland” may have influenced your late conversion to the cause more than you realise, similarly ancestral voices often dictate how Unionists think and behave, and it would be extremely painful for them to abandon the cause of their fathers, many of whom died for Unionism in Ireland and infinitely more died on foreign battlefields in Britain’s wars.

    By the way, Charles, your great grandfather Patrick Murray was without doubt a great man and pious Catholic, but, let’s face it, you aren’t the youngest man here and that ancestor can hardly have been born in “Northern Ireland”, which itself wasn’t born – after a long and very painful labour – until 1921.

  17. In 1918 Ireland elected 105 MPs out of a total of 707. About 15%. Of those Irish Nationalists (either Sinn Féin or the Home Rule Party) got 80 seats (or just over 11%). Now in a United Ireland Unionists will have a larger share than that but likely speaking it won’t be much more than 20%. A big bloc but not substantially bigger than the Irish bloc in the British parliament pre War of Independence. It wasn’t enough to buy us over, it likely won’t be enough to buy them over.

    Nationalists have over 40% of the Assembly seats in Northern Ireland, and a guaranteed position in government. So overwhelmingly Nationalists will have a greater say in the governance of Northern Ireland than Unionists would in the governance of a United Ireland.

    It has to be about more than political power. It wasn’t just the absence of political power in the North that turned Nationalists off. It was the complete (and continuing) disrespect for Irish culture, Irish way of life and our desire to be more connected to the island as a whole. In order to facilitate Unionists in a United Ireland there would need to be steps taken to secure Ulster Unionist culture, sensibilities, as well as ensuring that politically and economically Unionists can remain connected to Britain if they so wish.

  18. //there would need to be steps taken to secure Ulster Unionist culture,//

    The problem there is that certain prominent aspects of “Ulster Unionist culture” are inimical to the principle of a republic. Are we to respect annual orgies of fear and hatred aimed at intimidating their neighbours, former Loyalist death-squad members as folk heroes?

    Different cultures can coexist in places like Switzerland, but part of the whole tradition of Unionism in Ireland is sectarian and celebrations of sectarianism.

    And how can Unionists remain politically connected to Britain in an Irish republic? As we’ve seen far too often, the main reason the sterile quarrel continued so long was precisely this presence of an interested third party.

  19. I’m not saying it is going to be easy, or even particularly palatable. But ultimately it probably means overtures around Orange marches, bands, discussions around the Commonwealth, more economic links with Britain (made harder by Brexit).

  20. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48894682

    There has been talk of orange marches in Dublin; as there were back in the day. Maybe we will see such marches again there.

    As the locals will all know, there is an annual Orange March in Donegal that goes well

  21. Noel, your 10:40 contains quite a bit of truth. It would be more correct to say that my great grandfather was born in Ulster. He was born in the area that now encompasses what now constitutes Northern Ireland. Pete Moore is right about one thing, and you have alluded to it.
    My recent conversion is due to emotion, especially pride in my Catholic family from this part of Ireland. It’s one thing to know that people are treated unjustly in NI, quite another to know that it’s your family being treated that way. Shame on me for being so tribal, but that’s what opened my eyes to the reality in the occupied six.

  22. I wouldn’t call it ” occupied ”

    More complex than that, and a lot of people won’t listen to you if you use such terms.

  23. Phantom, maybe the Guinness in Madden’s was too strong for me! 🙂

  24. I’m glad that you had the chance to make this trip, under such weird circumstance. Most might have called it off, you didn’t, and were one of a tiny number of visitors at the time.

    Travel for fun ( Disney, whatever ) is great, but yours was the type of trip that makes you see the world a bit differently, that you always remember.

  25. //that makes you see the world a bit differently, that you always remember.//

    Very true. You often have problems remembering what particular town you saw that great cathedral in etc, but you never forget the time and place where you talked and had fun with normal (or, in the case of Seimi, abnormal) people who live there.

  26. …and had fun with normal (or, in the case of Seimi, abnormal) people who live there.

    Oi! I resemble that remark!

  27. Nice post Charles. Of course you probably think Texas is occupied too…

  28. My experience in NI was that everyone was nice to me cause they recognized me as a Yank. My wife who was raised in the Republic didn’t always get the same courtesy due to her accent (but it is too random to make any real conclusions). I loved Derry, go there next trip if you have a chance.

  29. Charles –

    One thing that I made mention of is the ignorance of N.I. by the people in Dublin that I talked to … One lady asked if I had to re-quarantine, as if I went to a foreign country.

    You did. In fact you left a foreign country – and the EU – and entered the UK when you went to Belfast.

    God Save The Queen.

  30. Good post, Charles. Very heartfelt. I attended the reinterment of Kevin Barry with an Irish-American college buddy (and a US Republican). He was profoundly moved and, like you, declared we were both now Irish republicans.

  31. On the topic of ignorant Dubs…

    I’m a northerner who has lived in Dublin over 20 years. The level of knowledge on the north varies wildly. I would have thought the medium would be an average level of knowledge and interest. Where I live, there are a lot of settled country people who generally are much better informed about the north, especially if they are from the border counties. You also have Dubs with family in the north who are similarly knowledgeable. Also, big GAA and rugby fans (Terenure has both) are likely to have travelled north so have more interest and understanding of it.

    The most ignorant are generally younger Dubs with no such connections (although they seem equally ignorant of other parts of the country outside the north) and the usual loudmouth know-it-all know-nothings you find in all capital cities.

    Noticeably, class doesn’t seem to make a difference – I’ve met otherwise well-educated middle class types who dont have a scooby doo versus “howrya-heads” with in-depth knowledge.

  32. Thanks Reg!

  33. I’m just waiting for Charles to complete his second European trip next year to Aberdeen. He will return to Texas convinced the Jews rule the world,Coronavirus is a hoax and Bill Gates is the antichrist 🙂

  34. It’ll be an improvement on all the nonsense he heard on his last holiday.

    Hi Charles, come to Hampshire mate. We’ll sort you out.

  35. Poor old Gatesy.

    The mentally ill really hate him.

  36. I’m not gullible, but objective! in the 1960ies the Catholics in N.I. tried the tactics of King but were met with the rise of the U.V.F. Look it up!

  37. It’ll be an improvement on all the nonsense he heard on his last holiday.

    LOL, Pete just can’t help himself 🙂

    Charles, if you had come back and said that you were now a confirmed Loyalist, Pete would be slapping your virtual back. Any excuse to have a go at Republicans 🙂

    Come on, Pete – tell us all you know about the changing situation over here. What have you read, or better yet, witnessed?

    I’m not gullible, but objective! in the 1960ies the Catholics in N.I. tried the tactics of King but were met with the rise of the U.V.F. Look it up!

    Unless it was mentioned in the Daily Mail, it’s unlikely Pete will have heard about it, Charles 🙂

  38. Therein lies the problem with Northern Ireland Charles.
    Spend a few days with me (or David) and you will hear a totally different account of the situation.
    No offence intended to those you met but have been given a one sided view of the situation here.
    You need to listen to both sides.
    And as unfortunate as it is those sides will never compromise.

  39. Speak for yourself, JM. I don’t believe I gave Charles a completely one-sided view of the past here. Of course my narrative is coloured by my own experiences, which is why we visited the houses where I was raised for example. But I didn’t spend a day and a half telling Charles, “Republicans good, Uniniosts/Loyalists bad.”
    Aside from anything else, I tend to veer away somewhat from the political aspects of a visit here, and try to focus more on social history and culture, which is why much of any visit with me would tend to look at the language etc, an element of Belfast (and further afield) which is fast becoming a cross-community endeavour, which I’m sure all would agree is a good thing, yes?

  40. Seimi told me that if I took only one thing away from Belfast was that he was totally non-sectarian. We went to Loyalist areas, and I didn’t hear a negative word come out of Seimi’s mouth. I did however see the in your face flags flying from every lamp post.

    We did spend the day looking at the cultural center, and other cross cultural projects, Queen’s Uni, all over actually.

    Besides JM, neither you nor David invited me to Belfast. Seimi did. And I had a wonderful time.

  41. Speaking of Road to Damascus conversion. Was watching Trumps speech last night, mentally thinking 8 more years!… until he didnt mention Kodak and I dumped my shares for a healthy profit. Back to normal again (unless they drop to $9s again).

    Well done, Charles you know it makes sense!

  42. Charles is now an honorary fenian bastard 😉

  43. Interesting thread, even if I’m a bit late to the party.

    I think Reg has already explained well the feelings regarding the North in Ireland’s capital city so no need to go over it again.

    The people have to be united before the country can be

    That’s a very noble proposition Noel, and one I would fully support however it doesn’t address the elephant in the room: There’s a sizeable section of the unionist community that won’t accept reunification no matter what compromises are made in their direction and such benevolent overtures effectively hand these people a permanent veto over unity. Ireland was unjustly and anti democratically partitioned and were a border poll executed I suspect these people would simply refuse to vote as a means of frustrating it and then state any poll wasn’t representative or democratic.

    I really don’t know what the solution is but unionism can’t be allowed to block democracy in Ireland again.

    There would need to be steps taken to secure Ulster Unionist culture

    Another fuzzy term. I really don’t know what unionist culture consists of past the annual orgy of vandalism, alcohol & dug abuse, casual violence and naked sectarianism at 11th of July bonfires and marching. The unionist ‘marching season’ generally runs from April to August were some 3,000 marches are held in various parts of the state. I remember reading a report stating that less than 1% of these marches were contentious. Again, I don’t know the solution to these problamatic marches.

    If there was even the threat of violence through unification, and their almost certainly would be

    I think there would be but I think it would be pretty limited and largely confined to what loyalism does best – sectarian murder. Besides, I think that without the RUC feeding them intelligence and British Military Intelligence operatives organising huge arms importations from Apartheid South Africa violent loyalism would be neutered and an all island policing effort could close it down pretty quickly.

    I realise that the above paints a pretty bleak picture but in the event of reunification the nettle will have to be grasped and unionism must be shown that while any new Ireland must be a negotiated one with compromises being made on all sides they can’t expect Irish nationalists and Republicans to become unionists and shouldn’t expect to be overly mollycoddled.

  44. Charles is now an honorary fenian bastard 😉

    Go raibh maith agat, Colm! Flattery will get you everywhere! 🙂

  45. 🙂

  46. RE Dublin, it seemed like the Disney version of Ireland, a very cosmo Euro city. I found Drogheda much more interesting in terms of Irish history, ie. Newgrange, the Boyne, Cromwell, etc.

  47. I like Dublin and like Dubs but yes, it’s very much what you say.

    What was Your opinion on Newgrange? I thought it an incredible piece of architecture. Did you get to St Peter’s in Drogheda to see the head of blessed St Oliver Plaunkett? If you’d pushed a few miles further north you could have sampled the incrdible natural beauty of South Armagh.

    Next time Derry City, Sligo and the wonderful, outstanding, breathtakingly beautiful Donegal should be a priority.

  48. Paul, We found Newgrange to be an architectural wonder. How on earth could our neo-lithic ancestors have build it with their bare hands? It’s huge! But it didn’t give me that religious feeling that St. Kevin’s monastery did in Glendalough.

    The wild north and west will definitely make the list on out next trip.

  49. //I found Drogheda much more interesting in terms of Irish history, ie. Newgrange, the Boyne, Cromwell, etc.//

    Saying Drogheda is interesting because of Cromwell is like saying Warsaw’s interesting because of Hitler.

    It’s true that a lot of history in Dublin has been built over and wantonly destroyed by modern Irish Cromwells, but, come on, the place is still full of it – from Viking settlement, the original parliament of Ireland, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, the GPO and our “founding fathers”, St Michan’s Church and our mummies, Kilmainham and Mountjoy jails, Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals, Ardgillan and Malahide castles, and Collins Barracks and the Croppies Acre, and the birthplaces of countless revolutionaries and writers, and of course Guinness brewery.

  50. Noel, You make a good point, I guess I’m just expressing my frustration that so many venues in Dublin were closed due to Covid, esp. Trinity and Kilmainham. We really enjoyed Dublin but wished we had gotten out into the country more than we did. Next time.

  51. Charles

    I’m not really about this blog now as often as i used to be and was unaware that you were coming to Belfast.
    Had I known i would have been delighted to meet with you and Seimi even for something like a spot of lunch.
    Hopefully next time.

  52. JM

    I should have had the manners to extend an invitation to you for a meet up. My apologies! Next time for sure.