The TroublesT. SHER SINGH
Saturday, July 14, 2012
In Ireland, they call it the Troubles.
And they’re at it again. The media reports that Protestant Orangemen clashed with Catholic Nationalists yesterday, and that it was not a pretty sight.
Once the seed of ignorance and hatred is sown, the roots take hold and then become impossible to extricate.
It’s been going on for centuries now in the emerald isle, fanned by the very same age-old British greed that has plagued much of the world for centuries.
In the 1990s, being told of a lull in the ’troubles’, I ventured into Northern Ireland. We were at the tail end of a road trip, my partner and I, encircling Ireland.
The two weeks up till then had been breathtaking. Each new area vied with the others as it enchanted and entranced.
We began in Donegal in the north of the Republic of Ireland, and quickly wondered if the rest of the holiday would be an anti-climax.
Connemara quickly dispelled that concern. Inishmore in the Aran Islands added a new dimension. The moonscape of The Burren was a world of its own. Dingle temporarily swept away all previous memories. Kerry re-defined the landscape. Cashel was majestic. Dublin was a charmer. And so on and so forth …
I remember saying to myself one morning: “I’m sick and tired of seeing beautiful places. I need a break.”
But we were told by friends in the know that the North - the northern tip of Northern Ireland - was the ultimate. We didn’t believe them anymore, but we headed north anyway. Of course, nobody had warned us that one had to go through Purgatorio to get to Paradiso.
Entry into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Eire was uneventful. There was no immigration-point; no customs. The European Common Market had helped remove them. When we enquired in a village just past Dundalk, we were informed that we were already in Northern Ireland.
But before long, we arrive at a military complex. Signs told us to slow down, proceed at 5 miles an hour around a circuitous road surrounded by barbed wire. Huge lookout points stood on the horizon. Foot-long metallic claws placed horizontally on the roadway itself, lurking almost out of sight, waited to spring into action to block your way the instant the invisible sentries wanted to stop you.
Not a soul in sight. Obviously, cameras and remote control did everything. George Orwell would have been proud of these chaps.
Having survived scrutiny, we rolled on until we arrived in Newry. A sleepy little town. Thin traffic. A few pedestrians. We turned around a corner, still on the main street. Suddenly, a soldier, in full combat gear, cold gun in hand, young -- too young -- face covered by helmet and glass. On the side-walk. Stalking. Coiling and uncoiling, inching away at a snail‘s pace.
The traffic just rolled by. A little further, a few more soldiers - clones of the previous fellow- scattered but gradually moving in the same direction, carefully, meaninglessly, each facing a different direction. The pedestrians humoured them by simply ignoring them. We asked somebody later: only a routine patrol, they said! A common sight, 24/7.
We arrived in Belfast and took a room in the University area. It could have been just any other town, but once you pierced the veil, you suddenly found yourself in Orwell’s - Indira Gandhi’s? - 1984. We would have missed the nuances or not even dared into some of the more interesting areas, but for the company of friends who were locals and knew the city well.
First, they pointed out two helicopters hovering high above the two ends of the town. Once you noticed them, you immediately connected them with the constant, nagging whine and whirr you heard all the time, but weren’t sure until then what it was. They lurked there all the time, night and day -- with spot-lights ablaze, flooding large swaths of neighbourhoods at night -- keeping an eye on everything.
The last thing we heard as we fell asleep that night was the helicopter in the distance, barely a dot against the sky. The first thing we heard when we woke up the next morning: the helicopter!
We left town early for the northern tip of the island. We stopped at the cliffs around the Giant’s Causeway and spent a glorious day inching our way down the coastal road back towards Belfast. The roller-coaster roadway took us through an eagle-like flight over the coast. The day, the sights, smells, the colours -- they changed every five minutes - defy description.
It was indeed heaven. Especially since most tourists did not dare venture this way. But mere mortals that we were, we were doomed to return to reality and Belfast.
We were given a quick tour of the city by our friends.
A beautiful little town, but for the ugliness: the Falls Road, inhabited and garrisoned by one sect of Christianity; Shankill Road by another. Yet, two worlds, separate and apart, coming together from time to time to incinerate the other. To kill and maim.
All of it meticulously overseen by a foreign occupation army which had long forgotten why it had originally come there. Monitoring a Berlin-Wall-like structure, euphemistically called the Peace Line, a metal blockade which bisects the streets, the Protestant quarter from the Catholic.
Fires burning on the roads everywhere. Literally and metaphorically. Europa Hotel - all names in this country have an ironic ring to them -- bombed over and over again, the shell now patiently waiting to be rebuilt. Why? To be blown up again?
Ireland. Unsurpassed beauty. Song. Music. Poetry. Passion. Warmth.
All bogged down by oh so human a failing. Infinite stupidity.
In Ireland, they call it the Troubles.
Since then, though, they have done well in putting a lid on it. A few conflagrations from time to time, like the one yesterday, but generally things have calmed down.
But if you’re looking for such adventure and excitement today, despair no more. Go to India. It has pockets of it all over. Not far from the lavish Ambani mansions of Mumbai and the fancy offices of foreign embassies and corporations in Delhi or Bangalore, once you leave the cities and venture further afield, you’ll find little Irelands festering everywhere.
Did they buy the template from Ireland, the know-how?