In the 40’s, you would have thought Ireland was nearer Australia than Britain for all the majority of the residents of Britain knew about the place and, I’m afraid, when I was dispatched there by the Navy in ’42, I fell squarely into that category too. In fact I knew more about France, which is about the same distance off-shore, than I did of Ireland. When I was sent, I had some vague idea I was going to the green and pleasant land I had seen depicted in the cinema. One person who had helped to confirm the British concept of Ireland was Barry Fitzgerald with his portrayal of the Irish as either dotty eccentrics, or slightly oily, very obsequious, forelock tugging, guileful little folk, who, in a minute, would bite the hand that fed them while smiling into the other’s eyes. The myths, too, perpetuated in song and on canvas, of thatched cottages and donkeys with their panniers in the peat cuttings, of this nirvana across the pond with its four million population, have been fostered in the minds of its 50 million ex-pats in the USA. In actual fact one has to search the wilder extremes of the country to find this idyll, which ironically is shrinking with every pound or punt poured in by the same ex-pats.
The media reports during the seventies, eighties and nineties, of the internecine war, so euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’, have changed all that, but only marginally. The real Ireland is none of these, it is so much better and it is worse, it is beautiful beyond belief and in places it is an anachronism, held solid in the aspic of its own myths and prejudices; but above all it is a contradiction. To make the point, take the phrase itself, ‘The Troubles’, a euphemism if there ever was one, and so at odds with what the ‘Troubles’ really represent. It is certainly an interesting reflection on an absurd sense of propriety when one considers that working class women used to refer to their gynaecological ills in the same terms, perhaps they still do – the comedian, the late Les Dawson, used to make great play of womens’ ‘troubles’ in his Northern sketches.
When one lives in Northern Ireland, in spite of every attempt to be liberal and non-biased, one soaks up the political atmosphere unknowingly because it enters the pores, like the sun on a Costa beach, until the whole of one’s perceptions become coloured. It may not affect one’s outlook, nor one’s attitudes to individuals, but it is there, like a third eye peering over the shoulder, looking for the bias in others and mentally countering every statement with the question, ‘is that really so?’ This conditioning starts the day one arrives and continues from then on. It was there in the ’70’s daily, and to give a taste of the stress it could produce I write about the theft of the drawings.
The Theft Of The Drawings At the time I was tendering for a large contract, worth enough to bring contractors over from the Mainland to consider pricing. The drawings for the job ran into two rolls of between thirty and forty drawings a roll, and these I permanently kept in the boot of the car so I could meet the contractors straight from the plane and take them to the sites.
My younger daughter borrowed the car to go to the Queen’s Film Society and while she was at the screening the car was stolen. We suspected it was the paramilitaries and this had me very worried because these drawings indicated where so much sensitive material was to be found, vital to the life blood of the area – the high pressure gas mains, feeding every thing including the chicken incubators of County Down, the high octane aeroplane fuel lines, telephone links and so on were all marked and described so the contractors would be able to price for the necessary precautions. The thought of their theft had never been envisaged. What to do? I thought long and hard for most of the night when I heard the news, and came to the conclusion that there was really nothing anyone could do but worry. It would have taken almost the whole of the British Army to have guarded everything depicted there and even then terror might have struck. I decided to stay stum, let the bosses enjoy their sleep, and await developments.
Within ten days the car was returned. There was no spare wheel, my golf clubs and other personal effects were gone, the engine had been tuned like a racer and the old valve was in the pocket to prove it. It had done a thousand miles in those ten days which said much for what it had carried and the drawings were lying flat in the boot, untouched, which in turn said something about the people who had stolen the car and the drawings! The relief was unimaginable – unless one has experienced it!