There is so much to Northern Ireland that is so enjoyable, so worthy, so beautiful, I must share it, but this inevitably means I have at some point, to mention those two incredible, euphemistic words, ‘The Troubles’, not in the context of politics, and rarely touching on the frustration and horror, more, about ordinary people living in spite of them. When I say that I was total ignorant of what Ireland was like, and didn’t even know it was divided nationally, you will realise the overall lack of interest in that country by the Brits right up until the ‘Troubles’ .For this reason Northern Ireland did not change radically until recently, we were held, as it were, in an aspic of ignorance, and later, fear of involvement in the backlash of war.
I met James in 1943 along with his daughter. He was a quiet man, never given to raising his voice or exhibiting temper. He was strong, tough and had been a sportsman in his early manhood, playing football for Crusaders, a local team, and running in cross country races. Reticent, generous and always smiling he had started work apprenticed to a Printer, losing the tip of his little finger in the process, but he was earning so little compared with his friends, he joined them in Harland and Wolf’s shipyard where he became a Leading Plater – the toughest of trades.
He would describe how, when he was apprenticed, they formed the shaped steel plates for the keel, bow, and stern as well as others plates. Later there were hydraulic presses, rollers and punches, working on cold metal. When he started the plate was heated to red heat, the men, stripped to the waist, holding sledge hammers, stood in a queue, ran in, in turn, and hit the plate a single blow, accurately, and then ran clear because of the heat.
James, And The Early Troubles The first time I ever heard any deep discussion on the Northern Ireland political theories, was one night when there had been some trouble or other in Belfast, long since forgotten. That night Jimmy told me of the twenties and thirties. He was apolitical, and, held no brief for discrimination. He told me of how, in the early thirties, the men at the shipyard were worried for their jobs as so many had been laid off, even to the extent that through lack of traffic passing along the Queen’s Road supplying the shipyard, grass was growing between the granite sets. He said that there had been marches to Stormont and the City Hall and the interesting part of those marches was that both factions had buried the hatchet, and Catholic and Protestant were marching in unison. He alleged, that when this situation was realised, a false wedge was driven between the two factions so that they went back to addressing their separate grievances and left the unemployment problem alone. James was never given to hyperbole nor political extremism, therefore I believed him and with hindsight I am convinced he was right.
James got himself into difficulties on one occasion through his broadminded attitude to religious bigotry. The situation was similar to those experienced over the last decades but lasted only a short time. People were shot on the doorsteps or put out of their rented houses simply because they were of the wrong religion, and people who had the lack of foresight to marry someone from the other religion, even if they never went to church, were also shot. At the time he owned a small shop as insurance against redundancy and Catholic customers living in a mainly Protestant York Road area, came to him to be helped across sectarian lines of demarcation to get to their own kind in safety. James, well thought of by both communities was able to ferry them, on foot, by his own routes to the Catholic districts. On one occasion though, things were not so simple. James had been standing in the door of the shop one evening when he heard a shot coming from the shop on an adjacent corner It was an off-licence owned by a Catholic, Without thinking James entered the shop to find Paddy lying dead on the floor of his shop and at that moment the door opened and a policeman entered, gun in hand, to find James leaning over the body. “Think yourself lucky it was me who came in.” said the constable, “If it had been anyone else who didn’t know you they would have shot first and asked questions after.’