Belfast Volunteers

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.   © Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.
© Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I woke each day 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. Moreover, beneath its scorched bricks was the hidey-hole for the house cash box. But through my window I could look out over neighboring rooftops to the heights of those vacant mountains north of the city and the outline of the Iron Age hill fort atop Napoleon’s Nose. 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. 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 neighbors 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. Never noticed a thing.

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 plaster, 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 beneath the steps held our old 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 (in all weather), 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. But there was also a lot of chat about the garden and darning socks. 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. It always felt like 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.

But the main focus for our volunteers was in working with children. Ryan walked me into Ardoyne for the first time. Turn right at the end of the street, crunch across broken glass through the huge concrete blocks they called “dragon’s teeth,” meant to stop vehicular traffic. Left on the first street, beneath the great corrugated steel walls that made the Protestant neighborhood on the other side seem distant. At the bottom of the hill on Alliance Avenue was the home of a local woman who looked after Americans and other feckless foreigners. Another woman who lived there had first arrived in Belfast from Nebraska as a volunteer years back. She stayed on, and she had the most bewildering accent of any I encountered. These two helped out at the local children’s club, and I was promptly installed as a volunteer there, too. Throughout the year we played games in the club, hiked, organized visits to museums and camps and did our best to help Catholic and Protestant youth not only meet, but build friendships together.

To balance out the Catholic experience, I sought out a Protestant youth club in the neighboring Shankill district. My contact there was a tall, muscular blind man with a thick black beard. He made little effort to hide his continuing association with the Protestant paramilitary organizations, so he was a little bit intimidating. His blindness was the result of his participation in a paramilitary attack. Even though my family raised me as a Presbyterian, I found that the Belfast Protestants considered all Americans supporters of the IRA, so I never felt as welcome in their club as I did in Catholic Ardoyne.

The challenge of that year in Belfast was to find balance. I was looking for something that many people had previously searched for, and failed. Ultimately, I am sure I had little success at it myself. But as I look back over the decades, I know I tried

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One response to “Belfast Volunteers

  1. Wonderful writing! Thank you. n morse

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