John O'Connell

Hartford's John O'Connell relates his travels with a contingent of Irish Northern Aid members who recently visited the north of Ireland to mark the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

South Armagh, The Occupied Six Counties, February 1, 2002--
Our bus crosses into the Occupied Six Counties, we pickup "Terry" a local Sinn Fein Councilor and farmer, who serves as our tour guide, we travel through the South Armagh countryside, the sun is actually shining. Even in winter the gently rolling hills sport a brown-green velour that bespeaks of fertility, the rock and scarp of most of rural Ireland is absent. We pass through picturesque villages and hamlets, it's a pastoral scene, that with the exception of not having trees is vaguely reminiscent of those primitive paintings of idealized Early America. Then you notice. Every other one of those gentle hills is surmounted by a British Army military installation, there are bunkers, blockhouses, and watchtowers, you realize this isn't Ireland of "The Quiet Man" it's the DMZ, you're being watched, you're the enemy, you're in occupied territory!!

Crossmaglen, The Occupied Six Counties, February 1--
We stop mid-afternoon in this small town for lunch at a local pub, a visit to the Sinn Fein office, and a chance to change our dollars and Irish euros for British pounds. A parking lot and memorial to the Irish struggle for freedom occupy the Town square. The inscription is in Gaelic so I can't tell the precise event it commemorates, but its meaning is clear. We all pose for pictures before it. Surrounding the Square is a typical Irish town, neat row houses and row shops that would be tourist boutiques in America, and then the obscenity! Adjacent to the square on a street intersecting the square's mid point, immediately behind a row house, sits the Army barracks. It's a massive windowless square, "faceless" I think, fronted by the watchtower, several stories tall , bristling with antenna, video, and god knows what kind of electronic surveillance equipment, watching, listening. Its incongruity to the rest of the town is jarring. "Terry" our Sinn Fein guide suggests that we walk up to the tower, take pictures, and circle the building. It will tick off the Brits who are taking an extremely low profile, including cessation of helicopter over flights in a failed attempt to disguise their occupation in the presence of American tourists. We march around and  take pictures in the gathering dusk. I ask "Terry" if he will suffer reprisals, like the repeat visits he gets from British Army patrols to his farm. "Yes" he says "but today is a small victory", which he clearly enjoys. I think of the line from "Four Green Fields"- "My sons have sons as brave as were their fathers', my fourth green field will bloom once again said she". This is what the songs are all about!! 

Derry, The Occupied Six Counties, February 3 --
Sunday the 3rd, March Day, the 30th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" this is the reason we've traveled to Ireland. We arrived in Derry last night and were assigned our "billets" the military term the Sinn Feiners use for the homes where we each are staying. Our "billet" where my son and I are staying, is with "Mary" in Brandywells the neighborhood next to the famous Bogside in Derry. We partied pretty hard Saturday night with "Mary" her sister "Francie", and "Francie's" husband "John" at a pub called Henry J's in central Derry. This was a meeting place designated by Sinn Fein and our whole gang was there. It's a Republican stronghold. This morning "Mary" is under the weather and we're met for breakfast by "Sean" her brother. "Sean" is a small, balding, man perhaps in his early forties, with a gap-toothed smile and twinkle in his eye, who could easily replace Barry Fitzgerald as the model for Leprechauns. "Sean" the bartender at the local Brandywells' pub, Malley's Blue Bonnet listens to a soccer game on radio as he prepares our late morning breakfast, explaining that he can't eat breakfast, "too hung over" but he can cook it. He explains that the game is with Glasgow Celtic a team synonymous with Sinn Fein and the IRA. He tells us anyone wearing Celtic paraphernalia is signaling his or her Republican leanings. We chat with the easy camaraderie of people who know they're fighting for the same cause. We ask "Sean" about the logistics of the March, and he tells us the March will end seven or eight blocks straight up the road from here at Free Derry Corner. Given my tired old legs, I plan to watch and not march. When the time comes, I walk the several blocks, and come to the corner of the Bogside Inn, a well known Republican pub, as I pass, I photograph the rear, evidencing the most recent Loyalist firebomb. The street is lined with people, I stand next to a man who notices I'm a "Yank" and we strike up a conversation. He was at the original "Bloody Sunday" March and he describes his shock and horror of the event. The crowd quiets, the March approaches, led by members of the deceased victims' families, each carry a simple white cross, sticks really, fastened together. There isn't absolute silence but there is dignity and solemnity. Our Hartford NORAID gang passes and we wave in recognition and I snap a photo. A barracks and watchtower peer down upon us from the walled City above. I tell the gang I'll meet them at the March terminus, the "Bloody Sunday" memorial, as the March swings through a several block loop to encompass all of the Bogside. With thousands of others, I walk the block to the memorial, a short gray obelisk, engraved with the names and event, and surrounded by a low wrought iron fence with a single entrance opening. The memorial is festooned with flowers from a memorial service held earlier in the morning. After several minutes the head of the March reappears from the opposite direction, after completing its diversionary loop. Singly each family member places his or her cross at the memorial, until all fourteen are there, thirteen for the original victims, and one for a man who died later of his wounds. With placement of the last cross, the sanctuary within the fence is vacant, just flowers and crosses. I am awestruck by the scene, my emotions, and realization of the tragedy that took place here. I'm in "Tir Na Nog," if my Gaelic is correct, "The Place of the Blessed".  I want a picture but I can't breach the sanctity. A TV camera crew comes by and moves right in to film the memorial. The moment is gone, I take my picture.

Brandywells, The Occupied Six Counties, February 4--
The wee hours Monday morning. After the March we had a pub stew, hit a few joints, and ended up watching the Superbowl at Henry J's with our gang until 2:30 a.m. We returned to our "billet" with "Mary" to find "Francie", "Sean" and "John" partying in the kitchen. "John" is a skin-headed muscle man who looks as tough as nails, his handshake isn't firm, it's crushing. I suspect he's an IRA foot soldier. A small boombox plays rebel songs as"John" asks me a question, "Whose this on the CD cover?" "Not a clue" say I, wrong answer, "John" glowers. "Francie" swats "John" upside the head "Be nice to our guests". "Sean" also vouches for us, and "John" smiles, "It's the Coach of Celtic, he made a CD of Rebel Songs".  "Mary" joins us and the liquor flows. They detail their Republican credentials, even volunteering to show us their hidden ammunition cache. They're not big fans of the cease-fire. We diplomatically decline. Eventually we are reduced to drinking a dusty bottle of cheap champagne, we find. We toast each other, Ireland, and the cause and learn that "Sean" is the real hero, a wounded "Provo". The Leprechaun is a Tiger! God I love these people.

Milltown Cemetery, The Occupied Six Counties, February 4 --
We arrive at the Cemetery in Belfast in late afternoon. We start a walking tour lead by a Sinn Fein guide to show us the graves of patriots and volunteers who gave their lives for the cause. Bobby Sands' grave is here. After a while my legs tire and nature calls, I leave the group and retreat to the Cemetery gate, to cross the street and use the facilities at a pub. The street a Y shaped intersection is dominated by the Cemetery gate and another gray barracks complex and watchtower. This one is larger and uglier than the others I've seen, perhaps reflecting British smugness in their occupation capitol, Belfast. I stand before the Cemetery gate and barracks complex and think of Pearse's words " Life springs from death; from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations ..The fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead". The Brits still don't get it. The Cemetery is power, the graves, the tombs, the very souls of the dead, move men's minds and spur their hearts. The Cemetery is an engine of unlimited power, fueled by the pain and pride of memory. It will drive the struggle forever, until its ultimate success. In face of the Cemetery, their fortress monolith is a joke.

Ardoyne, The Occupied Six Counties, February 4--
We're staying in Ardoyne this evening. A poor neighborhood of brownstone row houses that is a center of Republicanism and a hot target of Loyalist attack. Three of us are "billeted" with "Lilly", my son and I and "Raff" another of our group. "Lilly" picks us up and we return to her home. "Lilly" is thirty something, a divorced mother of girls, she has jet black hair, a casual air, and is taller than I expect Irish women to be. As she prepares our dinner of stew from scratch, we chat about the "troubles". "Raff" asks if the Brits still use plastic bullets and "Lilly" produces a black rounded cylinder of a bullet for "Raff" as a souvenir. "I got it at the last riot" she says as if talking about a ball game. She disappears for a minute and returns with a black plastic baton used by the RUC (Ulster's paramilitary police). "This is a real trophy" she says and describes how she suffered a head wound that required forty-two staples to close when she got the baton. "I waited to get medical help until a TV crew could film the blood streaming down my face, so they could see how vicious the attack was " she tells us. "Take the baton " No, we say, but she insists, "I'll get another". We take it as our grail, and promise to ferret it through security to show America the grit, determination, and courage of our Celtic warrior hostess. 

Ardoyne, The Occupied Six Counties, February 4--
We're supposed to meet at the commemoration of a new monument to the struggle, but "Lilly's" dinner takes longer than expected so we meet the group at a pub called Fitzgerald's as planned. At the pub our Sinn Fein guides introduce us to the locals and we chat and visit for some time. I speak for quite a while with "Raymond" who tells me he is a theologian, and appears to be an educator of some kind. It is understandable that here in the Ardoyne backgrounds may be a bit sketchy. In any case the deference and respect shown "Raymond" by the locals, clearly indicates he is a community leader, if not IRA commandant. Later we move to the Shamrock a club not really a pub, closer to the heart of Ardoyne. This looks like a spot from where the "boys" might leave to conduct a mission. We continue our partying until closing, around 2;00 a.m. At that point "Michael" suggests that we go to his house to continue. He's newly wed and he and his wife are eager to show their home. After hasty negotiation with the Shamrock's proprietor to purchase some beer we move to "Michael's". His house is on a street nicknamed "Murder Row" reflecting the frequency and vehemence of Loyalist attacks in the area. We are on the front line, with front line troops. The twenty or so of us continue to talk and sing, each of us required to contribute a song. The beer runs out and a jug of "poteen" (Irish moonshine) is produced. I'm not a hard liquor drinker but I take a small sip, it's less coarse than I expect. The jug passes round. Finally someone reminds us that we must return to our "billets" through the dark, and dangerous streets of Ardoyne. The party will end with "The Soldier's Song" by local tradition a sole voice will render the anthem. At a command we stand erect, and silent at attention, as the solitary voice echoes through the rooms, it is one of life's sublime moments, I've never been prouder of my heritage, I say a quiet prayer to thank God, by whose grace I was born Irish.

Holy Cross School, The Occupied Six Counties, February 5---
We visit Holy Cross School in mid-afternoon. The School is the unlikely hotbed of the latest struggles. An RUC armored car sits across the street, a handful of Loyalist protesters stands on the corner, oddly they are mostly women. We stare at each other briefly and our Sinn Fein handlers wisely hustle us into the School. The girls are in assembly preparing for confirmation.  They are children really aged 8 to 12, dressed in uniforms topped by bright scarlet red sweaters, a strange color I think, given their ultra "green" spirit. The girls all sweetness and light, fidget and giggle until the principle chides them to behave for their guests, a chill I haven't felt for forty odd years wrinkles my back, as I recall the barked orders of my own parochial school days. These girls who have been subjected to a barrage of urine filled balloons, canine feces, and assorted brick-a-bats, sing us the hymn "Be Not Afraid". I am the proud father of a son but for the men in our group with daughters, albeit grown, it is too much. Throats lump, tears well, we are all crying in the end. Something shakes me, its alimentary, from the pit of my stomach a fire begins to well, this whole affair is alien to my American being, my unfettered American freedom has not prepared me for a place where schoolgirls are faced with such vile hatred with governmental approbation. The girls are dismissed and we file out, most of us ready to rip up cobblestones and attack the handful on the corner. The Sinn Feiners guide us to the bus, we leave proceeded by and followed by RUC armored cars, the Brits I think are eager for us to leave. I think of Yeats " Changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born". For me its not beauty, I don't know if its anger, frustration or determination but I've changed. I'll never think of Ireland or being Irish as I did before. I'm prouder but sadder in my understanding of what it means to be Irish. I am driven to tell the tale or write the story.  It was the trip of a lifetime.

More on the history of Bloody Sunday

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