Author: Courtney McDermott
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Lesotho, Courtney is now back in her home state of Iowa. She spent five months in Ireland, a trip that inspired her to write this short piece. She is currently teaching humanities and yoga at Scattergood Friends School, though she still considers herself a struggling writer first and foremost.
A Catholic, a Protestant and an atheist walked into a pub. No joke. More like we walked into a pub and then out of a pub and into a taxi. Black taxi with suicide doors. Cab driver with an 80s-inspired mullet. Business in the front, party in the back. Heavyset, red-faced, gold-toothed. Call me Paddy, he said.
It was a special tour. £9 a person got you a sight of Belfast—the good and the bad—uncovering the nonburied Troubles. We got a special rate—£7 a head. Three heads. A Catholic, a Protestant and an atheist.
You can tell all the Catholics and Protestants apart by their names, Paddy said. The Protestants will call their sons Philip, William, Charles. The Catholics will call theirs Sean, James, Patrick. He grinned. So you’re Catholic? Yup, he said, Catholic to the core. From Belfast? Yeah, he said, born and raised here all me life.
He gunned the taxi, chatting continually. Down Belfast city centre. Down Queen Victoria’s road—shopping centre, Dunnes Stores, city hall, a Spar. Bustling Friday afternoon. Sunny February day.
The taxi turned off the main road. Now entering. Shankill Road. Shank. Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King. Stephen Spielberg. Redeem us—them—out of military grip, free—tear down the barbed fences, chip at the prison walls. Kill means church in Irish, Paddy said, kind of ironic, you know what I mean like.
Protestant side first. Red, white and blue. The Union Jack. Familiarity run amok on the curbs and on storefronts and flags. The U.S. broke from Britain, but took her colours. The Irish had the right idea—had their own. Green, white, orange. Green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants, white for the peace to unite them. Catholics equal unionists. Protestants loyal to Union Jack. Where’s the unity? Union. You and I on
never-ending road to peace.
Clean-cut, sided, cracker box houses splotched with murals—bright, blinding paint—never forget. Paintings of guns and heroes and martyrs. Memorial to the dead, and to the murderers.
Faces of the Unionist Army painted everywhere—a man dressed half in a suit, half in black mask, one side holding a briefcase, the other a gun. Business in the front, party in the back. Two-faced. KKK and blacks, Paddy said, like that. Never get along.
Barbed wire around the preschool, each side of town gated off. Gates close at 18:00. Never open on weekends. Shop hours.
Do you see that building over there? Paddy asked, the tallest one, by itself? Tall, grey, ugly. We nodded. A Catholic building, he said, except for the top floors—the Loyalist police there. So if the IRA wants to bomb them, they have to bomb their own people too. Paddy tapped his finger knowingly to his temple. Clever they are. They see everything from up there. They’re always watching. A gunman painted on the side of the house watched us. Watch him, Paddy said, his gunpoint will follow you. It did. All the way around the neighbourhood.
Show you something special, said Paddy, Living history it is. A wall. Large, concrete, barbed wire on top. The peace wall. Protects the Catholic homes from rioting Protestants. Not so bad anymore, Paddy said. Stopped. Got out to look at the wall. Sign your name, Paddy said, handing us a black felt marker. Lots of names. A female Australian pop star’s, John from Wisconsin, the boys from Munich, USA Chicks. Signed Peace, Love, and Freedom. Wrote ours over one big, faded notice: Tear Down This Wall!
We asked if Paddy mingled with a lot of Protestants. He grinned. Married to a Protestant, he said. Son called Robert, to be fair to her. Next kid comes along, call it Kennedy, to be fair to me, laughed Paddy. We love John Kennedy here.
Back to the city centre. Buses, SUVs, stoplights, and roundabouts. Kids out of school, dressed in uniforms of navy skirts, emblazoned blazers and knee socks. Back to Magennis’s Pub. Maybe stop for another pint. Need another after that. Three new people stepped out of the taxi. No longer the Catholic, the Protestant and the atheist, but three people with minds and bodies—functioning, thinking, breathing. Blood pumping through veins
Fellow human beings.