an excerpt from "Nothing Will Kill You" in Restless Tribes,
travel stories by Stephen Ausherman
(Central Ave Press 2004)
Betsy and I met in 1985 at Elon College, home of the "Fightin' Christians." Our mascot was an Amish man with his fists raised, (a design ripped off from Notre Dame's Fighting Irish mascot,) and our athletic teams regularly battled the Quakers of our nearby rival, Guilford College. Back then, Christians fighting Christians seemed little more than an unfortunate joke. But that was North Carolina and this is Ireland. It's not so funny now.
We're heading North as they're nearing the height of the marching season, that time of year when British Loyalists, in what must now be considered the longest victory dance in history, celebrate William of Orange's 1690 trouncing over King James at the Battle of the Boyne. These marches began about 200 years ago as a tribal demonstration of Protestant dominance and have since grown in excess of 3500 parades per season. Most are considered innocuous celebrations, but up to 300 are regarded as flashpoints that invite retaliation in the form of a lot of shouting and throwing stuff like rocks and petrol bombs.
The most contentious of these marches takes place in Portadown. On the first Sunday in July, members of the Protestant Order of Orange march from their Orange Lodge to Drumcree Church. After a brief service, they continue their march back to their lodge, as tradition dictates, following a shorter route that takes them across Drumcree Bridge and down Garvaghy Road.
Historical accounts and descriptions of the original parade route vary, but the general consensus seems to agree that the march on Drumcree went uncontested from 1807 until the late 1960s. But then, in one of the worst known acts of civic engineering, someone decided to build housing estates for Catholics along Garvaghy Road. Throughout the early 1970s, the area developed into a strong nationalist community, the members of which resented the annual parade of Orangemen, what with all their noisy drums and accordions and "triumphalist taunting."
Catholic protests and Protestant intimidation escalated over the years, but the real violence didn't kick in until 1995, when Royal Ulster Police stopped the Orangemen at Drumcree Bridge. That year and almost every year following it saw the annual parade disintegrate into rioting and mayhem.
The police, usually with the aid of British security forces, tried to halt the parade for seven years straight, but succeeded in about half of their attempts. What happens this year is now a matter of speculation.
Betsy and I, a Catholic and Protestant respectively, had considered launching a mission of peace and goodwill here. We joked that we'd skip about, hand in hand, in contempt of the Troubles and the marches and the hatred in general. But by the time we reached Portadown, our skip slowed to a nervous shuffle. And to anyone who asked, we were Mormons.
Orangemen prepare to march.
* * *
Eve of the Orangemen
A tower of black smoke leans over Portadown. It's visible from the bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town. "The bonfire isn't until Sunday night," Maureen tells us as she serves up tea and biscuits in her living room. Knickknacks and gewgaws abound, but everything is dust-free and orderly as though recently unwrapped and meticulously set into place. She allows smoking in her house, is a smoker herself, but every room still smells of country morning wildflowers and grandma's potpourri.
Maureen has straight hair, too blonde for her age, but she's pretty in a latter-day Katherine Hepburn kind of way. "It must be a practice bonfire," she says. "They must be burning the wee bits that fell off the pile."
The wee bits, I reckon from the size and density of the plume, must include a wee car, or at least a few tires.
Portadown doesn't offer much in the way of accommodation, and we're lucky to get a place just a fifteen-minute walk from Drumcree Church. Maureen agrees, saying, "It's best you stay on this side. Maybe for once a reporter will tell our side of the story."
She tells me that in recent years, journalists paid upward of three hundred pounds a night to sleep on a floor in a home in a Catholic neighborhood. "Homes so dirty," she explains in a fiery eloquence also reminiscent of Hepburn, "I wouldn't sleep in one if you wrapped me in plastic." She catches herself, considering for a moment what our religious background might be. "Well, I don't know what you two are. I don't care, really. The point is all those reporters want to know is how much those poor Catholics are suffering. Well, no one ever asked me if I'm stressed. I've got paratroopers crawling around in the fields behind my house. Wouldn't you think that might be stressful?"
I turn my gaze through the bay windows. Tall grass wavers as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by a hidden road whereupon a solitary tractor putts.
Stress does show as cracks in Maureen's British composure. So for a more pleasant change of subject, I ask her which nation Portadown hosted for the Special Olympics.
"We didn't," she replies. Then, in a moment of recollection, she adds: "I saw some African boys downtown. Black as your boot, they were. But they didn't stay."
For the record, I've never worn black boots. Still, I get what she's saying.
I tell her that we're going out to scout the town, and ask her if she can help us find a certain place on the map. "A young man in Derry told us about it," I explain. "He said we should be there."
"What was he?"
"He described himself as 'hardcore IRA.'" I show her a page in my notebook where I tried to spell out the multisyllabic destination.
"Look at this," she huffs as she snaps my notebook. "This is nonsense. Those people can't even write. I mean, did he hold the pen in his toes?"
I suppose now I should've told her that it was my own penmanship after a few pints in a dark pub, but I didn't want to undermine my credibility as a journalist.
Police secure the parade route.
* * *
The air is still and quiet as Betsy and I stroll down to Drumcree Church. The road narrows as it slopes down between the cemetery walls and a weedy berm at the edge of a pasture. At the lowest point is Drumcree Bridge, scarcely wider than a country lane, with stout stone walls on each side to prevent motorist from driving off into the creek below. I hardly noticed it, wouldn't have recognized a bridge at all were it not for the enormous yellow-and-black striped barrier constructed upon it.
A couple of elderly gentlemen stand in the middle of the road, hands clasped behind their backs. "Smaller barrier this year," one notes with a tone of disappointment.
"Yes, but it's more robust," his friend remarks.
Soldiers sandbag the stream and pump more water into it, presumably to make it deeper and more difficult to cross, though anyone who managed that much would still face a zigzag fence of barbed wire, loops of razor wire, concrete blocks, and armed troops in full riot gear.
More soldiers on the Drumcree side clear away rocks and other debris that might be used as projectiles. I approach a soldier on a cigarette break and ask him, "Where's the safest place to observe tomorrow's events?"
"Belfast," he tells me.
Debris for the bonfire graces a Protestant mural.
* * *
We scout out the rest of town with Brian, a New York Times correspondent who's covered the march on Portadown for more years than he cares to recall. He drives us along the first leg of the parade route. Perspex barriers have been erected at St. John Church at the top of Garvaghy Road to allow onlookers a view of the parade while preventing any physical interaction with the marchers. More barriers and armed troops stand at the entrance to all side streets leading into the Garvaghy area. On the other side of the road, a Protestant mural depicts a Red Hand Commando unitmen in ski masks brandishing assault rifles. And while this painting is on the same scale as those in the Bogside, its artist employed a primitive technique, an unintentionally childlike rendering of this terrorist squad that makes it far more intimidating.
To the left flies the Union Jack. I have to look twice to be sure, because at first glance, in a cognizant glitch, it registered in my mind as stars and bars, the flag of old Dixie.
In front of the mural are the remains of the practice bonfire, a charred heap the size of a pitcher's mound. Near that is a pile of wooden palates, tires, particle board, tree limbs, tires, folding tables, sofas, and easy chairs. This is the pyre for Sunday night's bonfire, and it's big enough to cover a baseball diamond. Imagine this junkyard burning in the night and St. Patrick's mission for reptilian genocide suddenly seems like a ecological misdemeanor.
A convoy of army trucks rumbles past, while an armored vehicle stations itself discreetly under an overpass. At every checkpoint, Brian hands over his press pass. The soldiers wave him through, but they're stopping other cars to take names.
He warns of soldiers hiding in the grass at roadsides, in the fields, anywhere trouble might unexpectedly stray. "You don't see them until you're right on top of one, and it can scare the hell out of you," he explains. "Look, there's one now." He points out a soldier not ten feet away, perfectly camouflaged to match a dappling of sunlight and foliage shadows on stone wall. Without Brian's keen eye, surely we would've missed this armed chameleon.
Choice of colors plays strange tricks in Portadown. The Orangemen love their orange, and display it proudly in the form of an orange sash. The Catholic communities, however, show no restraint when displaying their favorite color, which also happens to be orange. It's the color of their favorite football team, Armagh, who soon will battle their archrival in Dublin.
This is perhaps the only time of year when nationalist communities will lower their tricolors, the flag of the Republic, in favor of an orange one, and Catholic children play in the streets, all wearing bright orange jerseys. All this, ironically, on the eve of the dreaded March of the Orangemen.
The barrier, as seen from the Drumcree cemetery.
* * *
Swallows, or maybe starlings, wheel through the air as we wait for the Orangemen to arrive. Loudspeakers posted outside the church rattle out a dirge about making your mother proud as she watches you from heaven above, or some such nostalgic drivel that sounds too much like country music.
I'm growing impatient, and worse, I've had too much tea at breakfast. I excuse myself to find a hedged orchard and a well-concealed spot at the edge of a thick stand of trees and thickets.
Moments later, as I'm zipping up, I hear something heavy shift in the scrub, and a metallic click that sounds not more than five feet away. I squint into the dense tangle of vines and briars, and see nothing but dappling sunlight and deep, dark shadows. I could just as well be staring into a Vietnamese jungle.
Upon my return to Brian and Betsy, I tell them, "I think I just peed on a paratrooper."
Clouds converge above as the crowd grows. TV crews set up cameras on the cemetery walls. The birds fly in frantic circles until one with faulty ailerons suddenly plummets into the road.
"That's a bad omen," I say.
"Yeah, and the music's just now stopped," Brian points out. The only sound that remains is a steady percussion from an army helicopter hovering over the church. Its narrow spike of a spire now looks like an anti-aircraft missile ready to launch.
* * *
Soon the parade arrives, a quarter-mile stretch of drums, accordions, orange sashes, swords, umbrellas, and bowler hats. It doesn't seem so much like a Klan rally, as a young man in Derry described it, but rather a herd of Masons, or maybe just Shriners with an edge. They begin migrating into the church, but hundreds more choose to mill around the road to pass time until the confrontation at the barrier. Many gather in the cow field, kind of like at Woodstock, only without the music and goodwill for all. Others wait in their cars, bracing their nerves and fueling their rage with nicotine and alcohol in heavy doses.
Reverend Pickering's voice crackles through the loudspeakers, telling us that there's still plenty of seating available inside. No one takes him up on his invitation. Four young boys caper about in the field and on the cemetery walls. All sport crew cuts, one with Carolina blue highlights, another with a maroon Nike swoosh stripe painted on the back of his head. This pack of little ruffians apparently has a young alpha male. Betsy names him Jack, after the tribal usurper in Lord of the Flies.
They gather around her and ask where she's from.
"South America?" Jack asks impatiently. "Do you go around in massive white hats?"
Betsy keeps an eye on them as they confront other strangers in the crowd. She soon figures out their mischievous game: They're seeking foreigners who can teach them how to say naughty words in other languages.
A member of Portadown's Star of David Accordion Band greets a senior Orangeman.
* * *
After Pickering's forty-minute service, the same tolerable length of the Catholic service we attended a week earlier, the parade resumes for a hundred yards or so toward the bridge, then stops at a new barrier.
Parade marshals, Orangemen in bowler hats, have erected their own barrier, a strip of orange tape, to keep the rest of their tribe at least twenty feet away from the main barrier. It stretches out into the pasture to keep them away from the stream as well. And as an added precaution, they've positioned themselves behind the tape, about ten men in all, urging the crowd at all times not to break through.
Then the speeches begin, quick diatribes calling for the preservation of the British way and condemning those who seek to corrupt it. They voice their protest over the barrier at the soldiers they identify as traitors, demanding that they "remove this hideous wall." Their words are kinder than those used by the more vocal members in the crowd, who have a propensity for shouting "Scumbags!" and "Wankers!" at any given moment.
The end of the speeches marks the point, according to the new tradition, when the crowd is supposed to attack the barrier. But the speakers have left, the marshals remain, and no one is quite sure what to do. Only the children seem clear on the objective. They scramble about in the field digging up rocks.
"I've got a brick!" cries Jack. A brick, in the local vernacular, is just a rock that's suitable for throwing at an enemy. To be sure, he holds up a rock the size of his shoe. But the other boys are already in the process of throwing their rocks at the soldiers behind the wall. Problem is, they're standing too far away, behind the orange tape, and their wee little arms just can't launch a brick that far. Instead, they splash down into the stream, or worse, lose their trajectory on the near side of the barrier and graze the pants of oblivious Orange marshals.
One finally succeeds in striking a corrugated steel side barrier. The resulting crash alerts crowds on both sides in a familiar way that might be likened to, say, the crack of a bat on the first pitch of the season. It gets everyone's attention, but when they see the chief rioter is less than twelve, their hopes for a skirmish slump.
A marshal approaches the lads to tell them they are very naughty indeed. "Don't throw anymore bricks," he advises, wagging his white-gloved finger, "until we're gone."
Hearing that, a skinhead nearing his fifties demands to know who gave the parade marshals the authority to police the children and protect the barrier. "You're a traitor," he snarls at the marshal. "A bloody Lundy is what you are." (Lundy being the cowardly governor of Londonderry who fled the city during the siege in 1688.)
His sentiment is shared by diehard Loyalists throughout Northern Ireland. They resent this Local Orange Order's attempt to seek peaceful resolution. A compromise with the Catholics, they say, infringes on their right to walk the Queen's highway. And they are none too pleased with that.
This puts the Portadown Orangemen in a pickle. If they fail to march that seven-minute segment down Garvaghy Road, then they have been defeated in a sense. However, their rallying cry is: "Here We Stand. We Can Do No Other." It sounds ineffectual, but it's their motto and they're sticking to it.
If they bargain with the Parade Commission for permission to finish the march, then the diehards, in particular the faction known as the 'Not an Inch' brigade, will brand them as traitors for compromising Protestant rights. For this hardcore mob, the only possible solution is to repeat the skirmishes of previous years, which inevitably results in rioting for days on end, a lot of wrecking and breaking, multiple injuries and hundreds of arrests, and occasionally a few deaths.
This is what draws the media here, the enticement of that thug element. They stagger around in the pasture, working up a fury as they approach the front line. One thug plods into a cow pie like he doesn't know it from Shinola. By his side is a middle-aged woman with some good teeth in her head, and a purple T-shirt that reads in sparkly letters: FCUK ME. She says, "If President Bush were here, he'd get us through that barrier."
As the thugs move closer, the boys jubilantly tear down the orange tape. But that's as far as the confrontation goes. Rain sprays in like frothy spit from a chorus of ranting madmen, and the bulk of the crowd migrates over to a concessions van for deep-fried snacks. The tough ones stick it out at the barriera handful of desperate reporters and a seething, though pitifully small element that really has no business here but to turn a local dispute into a national circus.
And I start to wonder what I'm doing here. I've come to Ireland in part to meditate on its poetic inspiration, to glean that wisdom, gracious and otherwise, and apply it to an insightful chapter on how far I've come since my Carolina days. But now I find myself standing in a field full of redneck hatred and an overwhelming stench of cow shit, and that does not sit well with me.
I need to stop looking for trouble. I need to move beyond human misery and hateful cruelty as something to observe, that kind of travel that slips so easily from exploration to exploitation. I never expected that frolicking about with my Catholic wife would imbue the North with warm fuzzies, but I didn't anticipate getting sucked into all their ugliness either.
The crowd dissipates further, until all that remains in the cow pasture is a lone TV correspondent, his soundman and his cameraman. They're busy taping a news segment with the background intensity of a farm report. Closer to the church, a German correspondent gestures to Brian a pantomime of drinking and typing and more drinking as a way to illustrate the tedium of churning out copy for such an unnewsworthy event.
Back at the b&b, Maureen is both relieved and unimpressed with the peaceful conclusion. She believes the conflict is passing. Like most folks here, she hopes that one day all of Portadown may grow to realize there's a whole world beyond their hideous little wall, and that Drumcree will no longer stand for Protestant-Catholic antagonism, but come to symbolize the Christian spirit of reconciliation.
Or as she puts it: "They're building a mosque in town, so perhaps we'll find a new enemy."
* * *
* * *
Born in China and raised in North Carolina, Stephen Ausherman now lives in New Mexico. He is the author of the award-winning novel, Typical Pigs, and a collection of travel stories, Restless Tribes, published by Central Ave Press.