Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Garvaghy Road, 1997 - Part I | Kevin Swanwick

At 3:07AM the bedroom door burst open, breaking our uneasy sleep.

“They’re goin’ down!  I told yuz!  Get up. They’re goin’ down right now!”

We’d gone to bed late after some vodka, bitters and good craic and the long, covert ride from Belfast, easing through Army check-points, being held up in Portadown and finally making it to the short “Queen’s Highway,” known in this town land of Drumcree as the Garvaghy Road.  I had been drinking club soda, and received some curious glances, but now I was grateful for my alertness. 

The ride down had been interesting.  The driver of our small white sedan, Martin, was a former IRA man who seemed to navigate easily on our ride from the Europa Hotel in central Belfast, taking rights and lefts effortlessly and in all of the right places.  He’d spent eleven years in Long Kesh prison and when I inquired as to the nature of his incarceration, he flatly replied “Aye, bombin’ the Old Bailey.”  He was referring to the historic building in central London, which houses the Central Criminal Court.  And while he freely admitted his offense in the context of his "Freedom Fighter" vocation, he went on to tell us how members of his family, who were unrelated to the IRA or any of its activities, were arrested on trumped-up charges and jailed.  Such was the beginning of our adventure in Drumcree.

Kathy was up quickly and must have been wondering why I thought it was a good idea to go on “vacation” in Northern Ireland; how acting as “official observers” at a contentious Orange Order march would be a relaxing way to spend two weeks of hard-earned time off.

Our host Ann Marie, frenzied at first, paced back and forth to make sure that the newly arrived American couple was getting out of bed before she ran down the stairs.  I could hear her voice from upstairs, cursing and shouting about lies and treachery and history repeating itself.  Her husband Lawrence, a Protestant who married this Catholic girl and converted, had not awakened with her and four-year-old Nathan was still sleeping soundly in his room.  We arose and went to the window.  It faced the Drumcree road.  When Ann Marie had shown us the room earlier that evening, I looked out the window and could see the Church of the Ascension across the road, upon its rise, overlooking the Orangemen spread across a large field next to the church.  The Drumcree road itself was blockaded a few yards past the house by a tall, prefabricated metal barrier-wall erected by the Army to keep protesters on either side from getting at each other and to communicate clearly that no march would happen until the British government said so. 

Now looking out the window and into the dark, I felt my heart pounding as I was filled with a fear I’d not expected.  The small front yard and hedgerow were completely obstructed by the shiny black helmets atop flat black “spacesuits” of RUC men, carrying shields, truncheons and automatic weaponry.

“Oh fuck.”   I realized we were in a dangerous place; this was not a game.

The small road was occupied on the near side by RUC Saracens, parked bumper-to-bumper, while the middle of the road was a fast-moving lane for more Saracens and other armored vehicles moving in at sustained, high speed.  This all had the character of a science fiction movie set.  If only it wasn’t real.

When we arrived in Drumcree, we’d been dropped off at the community center where we met a smiling Ann Marie.  Lawrence was quiet, but gentlemanly and was holding Nathan by the hand.  They had thanked us for coming to their wee town to bear witness to their struggles, for to most of the world, Drumcree was an unknown and forsaken place.  We met with the representative of the local resident’s association, Brendan Mac Cionnaith, who it was reported, lived under the cloud of an active death threat from Loyalist paramilitaries in Portadown .  We discussed the challenges of the community and then took a walking tour of the Ballyoran estate.  Ballyoran at one end faced the Drumcree road and on the other, the Garvaghy road.  It was one of a handful of Catholic housing estates clustered together along a small section of Garvaghy road and an even smaller section of the Drumcree road.  These estates housed 22,000 Catholics in the middle of the larger Portadown population of 88,000 Protestants. 

As we walked about we met families and neighbors. Just next door to our hosts, the Spence’s, was the Hamill family.  As we met, the parents and grandparents of 25-year-old Robert Hamill were still grieving from his recent murder.  "Robbie," the father of two, had been beaten and repeatedly kicked, as reported by eye witnesses, in the full view of RUC officers while they sat in their armored vehicle.  He died 11 days later on May 8th.  Six arrests had been made and all of those arrested had asked to be placed in the Ulster Volunteer Force wing of the Maze prison.  The UVF were a sectarian, loyalist paramilitary group.

We walked out to the Garvaghy Road and looked up the hill and to the corner where it intersected with the Drumcree road.  A small "women's peace camp" was set up on the hill, staffed by what appeared to be the grandmothers of the community.  Signs were posted, urging the community's youth to abstain from alcohol during the run up to the march's go or no-go determination so that the youth could keep their heads about them if the march was forced through.  The ladies had set up small tents and were offering non-alcoholic drinks and sandwiches to all who would listen.  The Drumcree and Garvaghy roads, due to the absurd proximities that exist in Northern Ireland, offer a route from the Drumcree Church of the Ascension to the old Portadown Loyal Orange Lodge number 1, the first Orange Lodge in Ireland.  This is not any Orange Lodge, but rather the heart of the heart of Orangeism in Northern Ireland.  The Orangemen of this district have insisted for many years, that it is their inherent human right to march down the Garvaghy Road after attending church services at Drumcree, every year, on the Sunday before "The Twelfth" of July.  The Twelfth commemorates the victory of the Protestant king William of Orange over the The Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  The Orangemen of Portadown made their first March down Garvaghy Road on March 1, 1807 before it was populated by Catholics. 

While the Garvaghy Road Residents Association had offered to have talks with the Orangeman to discuss parade planning in a cross-community forum, this invitation would not be accepted anytime soon as aspersions were cast about regarding each side’s representatives and motives.  While the residents were seeking to have the Orangemen use the adjoining Corcrain Road to walk from their church to the Orange Lodge, thereby avoiding the densely populated Catholic area, the Order would have none of it.  The provocative march would go on, the Lambeg drums would pound and accompany triumphalist songs while the British Army and its young – some very young – men, would secure the “Queen’s Highway” for another year.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the heavily armed and 98% Protestant police force, would deal with protesters.

After our visit to the camp, Laurence treated us to a delicious Chicken Fillet sandwich down the road a bit.  He had asked me if I wanted a "checkin fullit" and I had to ask three times what he meant before I got it. "Aye," I finally said.  Later in the evening we had gone to Mass at St. John's Catholic Church, at Ballyoran Heights, just a short walk away.  Little did we know that this would be the last freely held Mass of the weekend before the church was sealed off by the Army as it was purportedly determined to be a dangerous gathering area.

Now, throwing on my pants, I made my way down the stairs and turned toward the kitchen at the back of the house.  The row houses opened in the rear to a common area of grass and small trees and offered a setting for children to play and neighbors to congregate all within the security of the their estate.  It also made it easy for one to move from Ballyoran to Woodside and other adjacent estates.  Ann Marie was not in the kitchen and I saw that the back door was open.  I walked to the door and looked out into the tiny, walled enclosure where the waste bins were stored on one side and some chairs set on the other.  The outer, wooden door that opened into the common area was closed and latched.  I could hear Ann Marie's voice outside and she was yelling.  I quickly moved to the door, heart racing, and opened it.  As I stepped forward I was stunned by the enormity of force before me.  Having just seen nothing but black-outfitted and armed RUC men at the front of the house, I was welcomed by a sea of green.  Even in the twilight, the color of the British Army soldier fatigues was clear.  They were spread about evenly, too many to count, and their faces were painted with black pitch.  Ann Marie, at five feet tall was no match for the these armed men.  Despite this fact she began to curse them loudly.

"Are yez proud a’ yourselves? Are ye?  If I didn't have a wean, I'd join the IRA and make a bomb an' blow yez up!"

And with that she charged through the middle of a group of four soldiers, pushing them out of her way. 

“Get the feck out of my way; this is our estate and you're in my way!"

I was stunned.  I had never seen someone with such odds stacked against them act with this kind of unchecked ferocity.  The eyes of every soldier I could see were now trained on me.  To my front, a few feet away, was one young soldier.  He was facing me while he held the muzzle of his automatic rifle, aimed at the lower half of my body.  A non-smoker, I had just picked up the practice on the way down from Belfast, bumming cigarettes off of our group's guide Gavan Kennedy.  At the time, it seemed liked the right anti-anxiety medicine.  I quickly lit my cigarette, took a puff and offered a pleasant "Good morning" in my native, General American dialectThe change in expression on the young soldier's face was immediate.

I don't think Ann Marie was happy with my demeanor and I expected her to reprimand me for being nice, but she didn’t. The soldier tipped his chin down to his shoulder-mounted two-way radio and quietly announced, in perfect cockney, "American."  He lowered the rifle.  In and instant, this message made its way all around the estate and I could see some of the soldiers direct their attention elsewhere as other residents were beginning to roust.  I smiled.  I could see that this soldier was no more than 18 years old and looked even younger.  It was clear to me that he wished he were somewhere else.  Suffering was general all over the north of Ireland.

End of Part 1

Notes:  Ballyoran Park, Woodside Hill, Churchill Park, Woodside Green, Ballyoran Heights, Garvaghy Park, Rose Cottages, The Beeches.
The Dungannon and Corcrain Roads.
The Carleton Street Lodge.
The River Bann.  Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic church.