GREEN WITH ENVY by Anthony Quinn

TV footage from America showed me how to celebrate St Patrick’s Day properly.

On March 17, every US city seemed to want to subject the saint’s day to a proper patriotic blowout, an annual invitation to a feast of green, white and gold, that, as a child growing up during the Troubles, I yearned to accept. However, in the 1970s and 80s, Northern Ireland was a world away from Boston, Chicago or New York. In the border towns of my youth, wearing green made you a target for loyalist death squads, while waving a tricolour was an act of rebellion that could lead to internment without trial.    

For the children of my generation, March 17 was a religious festival blighted by bad weather, a solemn event from which all sense of pleasure or celebration was firmly excluded. In my hometown of Dungannon, a small troupe of Irish dancers, faces stung by the cold and drizzle, pointed their toes and flounced their way to morning Mass, followed by an Ancient Order of Hibernians pipe band that always looked on the point of surrender. When night fell, a few renegade souls fled to the pub, not to celebrate, but to get drunk, paralytic drunk. The unwritten rule was that if you wanted to celebrate St Patrick’s Day safely, you had to disappear from the streets, retreat to your armchair or sofa, and settle down in front of the TV.

The joyful side of St Patrick’s Day seemed confined to the other side of the Atlantic. We watched and listened with envy to the colourful spectacles, the scenes of music and laughter. Faraway cameras beamed a dream fantasy of being Irish that was more like a Walt Disney-inspired madness; merry Irish Americans surrounded by colourful costumes and over-sized carnival floats riding on a sea of green that seemed to know no boundaries. We watched them fill the sidewalks of countless cities, singing and laughing themselves hoarse, bingeing on being Irish, stuffing their faces with being Irish.

The TV images revealed the stark poverty of our own street celebrations, which if they took place at all in the major towns were usually hemmed in by bitter sectarianism and intimidation. Something about the cultural deprivation of Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 80s, where there was never any abundant sense of being Irish, made the colourful parades seem even more enviable.

Of course, everything has changed considerably since the Troubles ended. St Patrick’s Day, 1995, was the first time my generation really celebrated being Irish. Seven months previously, the Irish Republican Army had set down its arms, claiming it preferred peace talks instead of warfare. It wasn’t the first ceasefire, the previous ones had dissolved in waves of killing and bombing, but politicians labelled this one an historic moment for the people of Northern Ireland, and greeted it with cautious optimism.

The year before, I had graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with an honours degree in English. Wanting to pursue a career in social work and counselling, I’d taken up a post as a welfare rights advice worker in West Belfast. I was motivated by a sense of giving something back to society, of helping those in need, but in reality, I was taken into the care of that troubled corner of Belfast. The community organisation which employed me was not run by Sinn Fein, but everyone working there was a Republican. They welcomed me with warmth and generosity, and a take-no-crap black sense of humour that provided me with a better preparation for life than any university degree. I soon found out that a sizeable proportion of my colleagues were either former IRA prisoners, or the wives and children of IRA prisoners. I didn’t agree with the hue of their politics, never would, but that didn’t stop them holding out hope for me. They believed I would come round to their viewpoint eventually, become a fully signed up Republican, fit in, find my place in their grand vision of a United Ireland, or whatever it was they were fighting for.

1995 was a pivotal year for West Belfast. Peace was in the air, but it was a fiercely disputed peace. The future of Northern Ireland still hung in the balance. No one in West Belfast seemed sure of where the country was going, back to the bombs and shootings, to sectarian murder and revenge, or into a bright new future of prosperity and forgiveness. Many of my colleagues had still to be persuaded of the merits of the ceasefire. A mural appeared on a wall close to where we worked. ‘Adams: Remember Michael Collins’ was the ominous warning.

On St Patrick’s Day, convoys of cars raced up and down the Falls Road waving tricolours. For the first time in decades, people were celebrating being Irish on the streets of Belfast without fear of reprisal. My colleagues trooping into work that morning responded to the scenes of celebration with a note of caution and not a little bitterness. Some of them had sacrificed their youth to the cause of a United Ireland. There were mutterings of a sell-out, and misgivings voiced about where the leadership of Sinn Fein was taking Republicanism.

To mark the patron saint’s day, the community organisation decided to close its offices at midday. As a tee-off for a pub-crawl, we gathered in a circle and shared a carry-out of beer and Guinness, chatting in small groups. At one point, the manager ushered a small, dapper man into the circle, introducing him as Denis Donaldson from the Short Strand. He didn’t look like an IRA leader and even less a British spy, both of which he was, although it was another ten years before his double-life would be painfully exposed in the full glare of the media. He sat down and began chatting to a few of the female workers. There was an air of education and travel about him, and, in spite of his very short stature, an abundance of charm and warmth that had an obvious effect on the women in the room.

There was a lull in the conversations, and Donaldson’s chair scraped the floor. He shifted in his seat, and, quite casually, began addressing the room. His voice was low, but forceful. He talked about what was on everyone’s mind - the ceasefire. He looked around the circle of Republican community workers, and in a handful of austere sentences made a very personal appeal for peace. “What have we done to our communities, our families?” he asked. He went on speaking, pausing every now and again, as if to analyse what he was saying and our reaction to it. “Our children hate us”, he announced softly. “Our grandchildren hate us. They’re embarrassed to tell their friends at school what we do.” He seemed to speak with the certainty of a pain that had wounded him many times. “We should be building a society that our children are proud of”, he insisted, “free from fear and hatred.” He kept talking and we listened, his circle of slightly drunk confidants.

I was moved by his words. A transformation had taken place before my eyes, a hardened IRA terrorist turning into a passionate peace campaigner. I don’t remember him leaving the room; the rest of the day’s events and what we said in Donaldson’s wake dissolved into an alcoholic mist. Perhaps he left in a hurry to another meeting, to make another impassioned plea, one of the many made that day by the Sinn Fein leadership to their supporters. Outside we made our way to Kelly’s Bar in the city centre. The Falls Road smelled of spring, the aroma of life and hope overcoming death and decay, but most of my companions were too drunk to notice it.

I kept going back to that conversation in the years afterwards, reassuring friends, both Catholic and Protestant, that the IRA was genuine in its pursuit of peace. After all, I had heard a former hunger-striker, an IRA commander, speak from the heart in a room where there were no journalists, no politicians, no reason to spout propaganda or dissemble.

And then, in 2005, just as the power-sharing initiative between Unionists and Nationalists seemed about to crumble, the unexpected happened. In a press statement released in December, Denis Donaldson confirmed that he had been a long-serving spy for the British. It soon became clear that he had been 'outed' and abandoned by his former handlers. In Northern Ireland, the lives of spies and informers have a violent logic, even with a ceasefire in place. A few months later, Donaldson was found shot dead. His killers had managed to track him down to a rundown cottage in the wilds of County Donegal, the ultimate hidey-hole for a man who had lived in a dark corner of himself for most of his adulthood. Republican sources suggested that Donaldson's killers were probably security agents eliminating a man who knew too much, while security sources claimed that he was assassinated by dissident Republicans seeking revenge for his betrayal of comrades.

I remember watching the TV footage announcing his death with macabre interest. The photographs of the primitive cottage, the single-track lane covered in grass an omen of dwindling opportunities. A reputation destroyed and now a life.

It’s easy now to look back and pick out the sense of disillusionment and guilt in Donaldson’s plea at the start of the ceasefire. The sense of something broken, the special sadness in his voice, but in spite of his wider betrayal, I don’t think he was misleading us that March afternoon in 1995. I believe he told us the truth. Not a partial truth, or a politically expedient truth, but the emotional truth of his heart. The tone of his voice, gentle but insistent, the way he reset his chair so that he sat within the circle rather than as part of it demonstrated something important. He was opening himself up to our scrutiny. He talked and subconsciously we assumed the role of his confidants. In hindsight, we were also his interrogators. The memory of his seated figure will always stay with me, closed within an unconvinced circle of listeners, in a rehearsal for the cross-examinations that would come later. His voice, lonely and determined, like that of a trapped fugitive, ready to tear out his bloody past and plead forgiveness. His words carried something complex and dark; the tender, shattering truth: “Our children hate us; our grandchildren hate us.”  Donaldson badly wanted to be part of the peaceful new Northern Ireland, but unfortunately, he carried too much history, too much baggage to be part of it.

I still yearn for the St Patrick’s Days of my childhood imagination, to be in the middle of a cheering crowd waving banners, gesturing and laughing, everyone wrapped in green, white and gold. I’d like to join in the myth of the whole world being Irish and happy for the day, but perhaps that experience is only open to those of Irish descent who feel safe from Ireland’s troubled past, who have been carried away from its history to distant places. My generation, the children of the Troubles, will always hobble after the main procession, wanting to dance to the captivating melody of being Irish, but always held back.

The Troubles seem to grow more sinister as time passes. One would think those days would become clearer with the light of awareness and new revelations. The opposite is true. They have become murkier and murkier, with a darkness that can never be scraped away. We now know that the Northern Ireland of my childhood was a land of many-layered secrets, betrayals and conspiracies, the playpen for a dangerous game between ruthless paramilitaries and equally ruthless intelligence services. Almost twenty years after the first ceasefire, there is still a sense of menacing secrets hovering at one’s back. We have peace and stability, but not the truth, not the entire, clarified, unexpurgated truth. We’re still building our new society, and it might not be helpful to know exactly what was going on between the paramilitaries and the British security forces. We only find out as much as we need to know, and if we knew everything, our fragile peace might seem forced and flawed. We might finally be admitted to that wonderful banquet of Irish celebration to find that everything tastes bitter, a hollow triumph. Better perhaps to keep watching St Patrick’s Day from the sidelines, or in our living rooms, faces bathed in the radiance of all those rivers of green, and pray that our children will emerge into a brighter society free from fear and hatred.

Anthony Quinn is an Irish author and journalist. Born in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone, Quinn majored in English at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has written short stories for years, winning critical acclaim and, twice, a place on the short list for the Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. Disappeared is his first novel.

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