Ulster’s Children (1980)

The following extract comes from an article titled “Ulster’s Children: Waiting for the Prince of Peace” by Robert Coles. It appeared in Atlantic Monthly in December 1980:

“Belfast is one of the world’s great port cities, all its children are quick to say, be they Catholic or Protestant… It has all been set down in dozens of books and hundreds of articles – the continuing religious strife, the ancient royal confrontations, the various battles lost and won, the ethnic suspicions and antagonisms, the economic and social history, the ups and downs of a struggle waged by some for independence, by others for loyalty, above all loyalty…

“The UK, hey hey, let’s stay.” Those words were assembled by some Protestant children from the Shankill area, a Belfast working-class neighbourhood where Catholics are feared and hated by many people indeed. It was not a very good slogan, the boys who coined it decided; they abandoned it. Why not get to the heart of the matter with a few familiar swears… “dirty Taigs” or “filthy Fenians”? As for the objects of these slurs, Catholic children were not without their own epithets: “Orangies” or “Huns” or “lousy Prods”.

Any reader who wants to understand what both Catholics and Protestants of Ulster call “the Troubles” must know the etymology of such swears. The articles and books remind us of William III of Orange and his victory (in the Battle of the Boyne) over the Catholic King James II (1690). The same articles and books tell about the Irish Republican Brotherhood, otherwise called Fenians, and their long painful struggle against the Crown. The expression “Taig” is less likely to be a subject for written explication, but there are knowing “Prod” children who can detail a given derivation: Tadgh is the Gaelic form of Teddy, a common name among the Catholics of Ireland, North and South.

The North – Ulster – was born in late 1920, when England’s rulers decided to yield to the Protestant (Unionist) demand for a continuing citizenship in Great Britain. The Parliament building for that most recent principality of the United Kingdom soon took on the name of its location – Stormont – and no Belfast child seems without an opinion of the place. For some, it is the lovely spot where an executive and legislative body rightfully dominated not just a view but a six-county area, which was thereby “saved” from a foreign country (often called “Dublin”) – not to mention from something abstractly called “Popery”, a condemnatory mix of political avarice, religious superstition and social inferiority. For others, the word “Stormont” tells of British scheming, of divide and conquer, of a relentless bigotry that has not only a religious but an economic dimension: power and money and jobs for Protestants, a life of poverty and subservience for Catholics.

Since 1968 Stormont has existed only in political memory. Britain returned to Ulster because Ulster split in two. Sometimes, to hear the city’s children talk, the only neutral ground left is to be found on the higher slopes of Cave Hill, the public grounds to which both Catholic and Protestant children are often brought for frolic, for games of luck or strength or canniness.

No one is telling us of the good cheer and harmonious play, if not outright friendship, to be found among Ulster’s children, across religious lines. War, violence, hatred, generate their own voluminous, sad, arousing literature. A moment of relaxed time, never mind a whole day of it, for young people of both religious backgrounds is impossible to conceive – a dream of hopeful philosophers, naive social planners or romantic poets.

One summer I boarded a bus each day with two adults, one a Belfast Catholic, the other a Belfast Protestant, counsellors in a summer program aimed at bringing together children from both Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. As the bus gradually filled with first Protestant and then Catholic children, the historical and sociological explanations of those Ulster hallmarks, religious rancour and loathing, would come repeatedly to mind. Every morning, all the way to Cave Hill, insults filled the air. On the way back, however, there was invariably a considerable spell of silence… Only as the bus gained proximity to the Shankill and to the Ardoyne, a Catholic neighborhood where unemployment is endemic, did the scolding and revilement and invective assault the ears again: the high-pitched, singsong, preadolescent noise – a brutal legacy claimed without embarrassment or shame, by minors now glad to reaffirm a long standing enmity.”