Volunteers

I woke in the blue room on the north end of the house, on what the Irish referred to as the first floor. As an American, this translated to the second story, since I climbed one flight of stairs to get there. In the back corner was a cold coal hearth. I don’t think I lighted the hearth all year long. It was dirty and drafty, contributing to a constant chill in the room. But through my window I could look out over neighboring rooftops to the heights of those vacant mountains north of the city. It was a reminder that however bad things got in Ardoyne, the world beyond considered other things equally important.

I had inherited this room from the former house master. Now I held the secret of the cash box hidden beneath the grate of the fireplace. Apart from me, the only other one who knew where we kept the Glencree money was Len, the American volunteer who had beaten me to Belfast.

He had taken a small room at the top of all the stairs, one that lacked a door, but was so high up it seemed inaccessible from below. Beside my room was the bathroom, equipped with the longest clawfoot tub I’d ever seen. It was cold as an iceberg in that room, too, and with the tales that the locals told, about the old woman who had died in that tub, taking a bath became a heroic exercise. I knew that if the bathroom was haunted, the old woman’s ghost would have no difficulty in passing through the wall into my bedroom.

Everything about this house was damp and cold and dark. The walls were plastered and painted deep green or blue. Little mounds of crystals grew out of cracks in the wall, constructed of minerals leached out of the plaster by the damp. The kitchen, at the back of the house, was bright with windows and yellow paint. Stove and heater provided warmth. But beyond that, there was only a small room on the ground floor where we kept a heater lit. In the depths of winter that was the center of our universe. Everyone gathered there, lying around the floor on large pillows, toasting our feet in front of the glowing panels, watching BBC on a tiny television.

If you were to enter this house by the front door, a dark green heavy paneled affair with a brass letter slot mounted in the middle, you would find yourself in a small entryway. On the right, stairs soared upwards towards the next level, lined with a heavy bannister. A small closet set beneath the steps kept our vacuum cleaner. This was the room Harry Potter would have occupied. Straight in front of you as you entered, the main hall led past the television room and ended at the kitchen door. Another door to your left led into the front room. This was a room that was perpetually vacant. There were ratty carpets rolled up, a vacant fireplace, no furniture, and a floor of unfinished wooden planks. A bay window looked out on Wheatfield Gardens. I was to learn that the front room was often neglected in houses in these Belfast neighborhoods. If you spent time in a front room, you attracted the attention of roving assassins and terrorists. Bullets might be fired at you simply because you were in a ground floor room that looked out on the street.

Our house was meant to provide lodging for volunteers who would be working in various peace and reconciliation activities. Before he left, my predecessor, Ryan, made sure to introduce me to influential leaders around the town. I met Mairead Corrigan, who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with a Protestant woman, Betty Williams in 1976. Mairead was the aunt of three children who were killed when soldiers shot the driver of a getaway car. Although she was Catholic, Corrigan joined with Protestant Betty Williams to organize a series of protest marches against the ongoing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Ryan introduced me to an incredible man named Peter Emerson who lived in a small traditional cottage that sat directly in the path of a motorway that wound its way across North Belfast. Peter was stocky, heavily bearded, English, with bright blue eyes and a suit of fairly ragged clothes. But Peter was fount of wisdom to me: he was the most rational person I met in Belfast, expounding forcefully on the way to solve the problems that underlay the Troubles. Peter kept a cottage garden, rode a bike to wherever he needed to go, and preached the truth at every opportunity, in words that struck home. He told me that he’d been serving on a nuclear destroyer in the Royal Navy when he had a sudden flash of recognition. He became an activist in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and contributed to the creation of Northern Ireland’s Green Party.

It was on a visit to Peter’s cottage that I met the author Dervla Murphy. When the two of them faced each other and discussed politics and peace, they seemed a matched set:  both were wizened by constant exposure to the elements as they bicycled wherever they went. They were both browned, muscular and charismatic. Dervla had biked around the world by then, publishing a number of books about her experiences. They were clearly kindred spirits, and I felt honored to witness their meeting. The words they exchanged were inspiring: discussions about an end to the violence that gripped Northern Ireland at the time, political observations, practical observations, and visions about people getting along with people anywhere there was conflict. People like Peter and Dervla inspired hope in me as I considered what I was witnessing in the city around us in 1981.

A constant feature of life in the Glencree House was the presence of volunteers. We hosted a number of foreigners who served as workers in a variety of organizations devoted to peace and reconciliation. The one who I remember best was a German woman named Ingeborg who took me under her wing and provided me with one of my volunteer positions. A volunteer from a German Christian peace organization called Eirene, she had grown up in the ruins of Nazi Germany and she knew from personal experience the effects of war. She possessed an ebullient spirit that drove her to participate in a wide range of peace and reconciliation activities. Ingeborg helped me unravel the bewildering number of organizations for peace and war in Belfast. She also introduced me to Rob Fairmichael, who gladly put me to work as a graphic artist in the production of Dawn, a periodical devoted to nonviolence and peace activism in Britain. I joined Ingeborg, Rob and Eoin Dinan on several production periods for Dawn and the first Dawn Train magazine in the spring of 1982. I always had a feeling that we were doing some sort of subversive act as we put the book together, but we were just trying to counterbalance the currents of hate that prevailed in Belfast. You can find Dawn Train online if you do a search for the title of the magazine and add Belfast.

During the course of that year we hosted several other volunteers. There was another German, a young man who introduced himself as “Jürgen, with two pricks,” by which he meant the umlaut over the u. That had us guffawing for weeks. Another German youth produced loaves of bread the consistency of a brick. A young Chicago girl spent several weeks with us. She was a knitting enthusiast who used Irish wool to create some surprising products. When she gave me a knitted condom I knew I would need to take special precautions around her. During the summer of 1981 we had several young Dutch volunteers who helped out in the Ardoyne during the Summer Scheme. One was a butterfly enthusiast, prone to suddenly leaping to his feet to flit across a field in pursuit of a new specimen. The most mysterious resident was a British volunteer who showed up for a couple of weeks, then disappeared again after a local man warned us that he was suspected of being a member of the Special Branch.

I don’t know if he really belonged to the special forces or not. He happened upon us at a time when we were working on a humanitarian scheme to end the senseless hunger strike of a young Oxford-educated Englishman who called himself Alan Human. A schizophrenic, he had decided to change his name from Alan Lewis in order to provide a common name for the children he had with different women. Alan had settled himself into a shelter made of a plastic tarp on the sidewalk in front of Belfast City Hall, and proclaimed that he was going to stop eating until the world came to its senses. He expected the IRA to end its Long Kesh hunger strikes and the Protestant paramilitaries to abandon their campaign of violence and begin talking peacefully about how to end The Troubles. Above all, he wanted the nations of the earth to abandon nuclear weapons. On one of my visits to the hunger striker a burly English man who looked like he might have been a special forces operative revealed that the phone in our house was being tapped. Alan Human eventually gave up his hunger strike and we took him to Wheatfield Gardens to recover. We fed him water laced with glucose until his system could stomach more substantial food and then he returned to his family in England. My last word about Alan was that he had been institutionalized. Alan has published a personal statement online.

I didn’t worry about a phone tap. I never had anything to hide.

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One response to “Volunteers

  1. Alan Human passed away on 18th August 2012 in Oxford, England. Many thanks to the Glencree Centre for their help in 1981.

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