Francis Meyrick

The Burning Soldier (2) “The Black Flags of South Armagh “

Posted on August 14, 2009

The streets of fear: Hatred in a bottle

The Burning Soldier (2)

Do you remember… the black flags of South Armagh?

I read a blog, on the Internet, and it posed the question:
“Do you remember… the black flags of South Armagh? “
And in a searing flash, memories resurfaced.
Painful memories.
Spring. And that long, hot, nerve wracked summer of 1981.
I thought back, and my mind, as I read, answered the question.

The IRA hunger strikers were dying.
One by one, they sank into a coma. One by one, they died.
Black flags, signifying support, and protest, hung everywhere in Republican areas.
Everywhere, even on deserted roads.
Riots, hatred, and burning would flare up, sectarian killings would escalate, and fear triumphed over all. Fathers of large families were shot in their own homes, in front of their wives and young children, for the crime of belonging to the other side.
The devil, if there is such a thing, or the Force of Evil, or the Dark Side, laughed his ass off.
In Holy Ireland, they were at it again. Killing and hating. Murdering each other.
Murdering themselves…

I was living and working in London at the time, having moved there from Dublin. But I traveled often for business, usually on a motorbike, all over Northern Ireland. I followed the goings on with a greater sense of involvement than most, because I personally knew some of those involved. On both sides… And we had often argued, debated, and despaired, often, all night long, until four o’clock in the morning. Oddly enough, both sides, in that bubbling cauldron, had put out feelers to me. Serious feelers. Had sounded me out.
I knew some important names to drop. It got me out of trouble – I have no idea how serious perhaps- on more than a few occasions. For I, a rebel by nature, reserved to myself the absolute right to drink in any bar, anywhere. Be it a Protestant or a Catholic bar. As far as I was concerned, they served the exact same beer. It tasted the same, it cost the same,and it seemed ludicrous to me that a man should go his entire life and drink only in a pub that belonged to the one tribe. It seemed to me a man should sample the same brew from both sides. And it’s not the beer I’m talking about… And drunk I would get, on more than a few occasions, in the company of total or relative strangers, but I was wary nonetheless. People were being dragged out of their homes (never mind a bar) and being assassinated, for no other reason that they belonged to the wrong tribe. The trick was to be careful to be neutral, and, if that failed, be ready to drop some names. The night would wear on, and I would be chatting away with folk, and then, as likely as not, somebody would ask seemingly casual questions. Who did I know? Where was I going? What was I doing?
And I wonder back sometimes, how many times somebody quietly slipped out of the bar, and made a phone call. And I wonder how many times, the Patsy’s and the Paddy’s on the one side, or the Henry’s and the Will’s on the other, when asked, replied:
“Oh, him? Don’t mind him. He’s harmless. He’s ‘out there’ a bit. In his own little world. Don’t mind him. Don’t mind him at all… ”
And on a few occasions, towards the end of a heavy night’s drinking, by way of a departing comment, somebody would say, casually:
“Oh, and Patsy McEvoy says ‘hi’… ” Or, “Oh, and Robert McCulla says ‘hello’… “
And I, a master of the game, playing drunk and stupid, would never -ever- inquire as to exactly how the named greeter had come to know of my presence in that bar. There was no need.
I already knew how…
The jungle drums in Northern Ireland could not guarantee my safety. That I knew. But they certainly could get me killed.
I moved as cautiously as I could. When faced with heated denunciations of the other side, and inquiries as to my sentiments, I played the confused semi-intellectual. Groping to understand. Siding neither with one or the other, I would go into History, or Philosophy. The name of the game was to get others to tell me how they felt. And to listen. As for my own persuasions, I dressed them up in a weary, frustrated head shaking, worried concern.
“I don’t know what to say, it’s just terrible, terrible, what’s happening “, was one of my favorite lines.
When the hatred was poured out beside me, I tried, not always successfully, as described in another story, to mask my true feelings. If they studied my reaction, they mostly got more questions from me. What happened then? I would want to know.
In this manner, I picked up information that was to shock me. There were times I wished I did not know what I came to know. I learned the fate of men. I learned of the hearts of men. And many times, I know I despaired.

Thus it was, that my heart went out to one brave man. Word reached me, that a friend of mine, a good business acquaintance, a Catholic, living in a small village in South Armagh, was refusing -on principle- to fly a black flag from his house. He was opposed to it all. He thought it was wrong for a man to take his own life in this manner.
It is hard, very hard, to even begin to convey the shock and horror that his actions wrought. It was -simply- unheard off.
His village lay in the heart of South Armagh. Bandit country. The British had a helicopter air base there, and had long since learned to their cost that re-supply could only take place by air. Travel by road was simply too dangerous.
It was strange, watching and listening to their helicopters flying over. Knowing that, to all extents and purposes, this was not their country. It was IRA country. Bought, and paid for, in blood.
For a man to refuse, as a matter of conscience, to fly a black flag from his house, here, in this place, at this time… was either the height of courage, or the depth of folly.
It could… be suicide.
His action, however, resonated within me. Somehow, I felt he was right. Just because the prevailing local culture demanded blind obedience, demanded unhesitating allegiance…. it was right that a free thinker should step back. And refuse to go along.
The more I thought about it, the more I applauded his action.
In a sense, it was inconsequential. Refusing to fly a little black flag from your house.
So what.
But in another sense, in that epoch, in that climate of polarized communities, it was…
A gesture of… humanity?
I knew, in my own naive, innocent way, that I wished to publicly support his stand. To call a halt to the hate. To reconcile.
To move forward through dialogue. But how?
I debated writing him a letter. But what should I say?
After a while, I decided that was too easy, too pat. I was in London. He was in South Armagh. To South Armagh I would go, on my motorcycle, and pay him a visit. Under the guise of a business call, never mentioning his stand, I could somehow show my support, especially since an unofficial travel ban was in force. Cars and buses had been hijacked, and set on fire. Some occupants had been shot. There were warnings in effect that travel in these areas was dangerous and discouraged. Discouraged by the Republicans as a mark of respect to the hunger strikers, and discouraged by the nominal authorities, as a roundabout admission that they could not guarantee the safety of travelers. My mere arrival, under the pretext of business, was in itself a gesture. I would pretend all was normal…
The logic of a young man at times is murky and convoluted. But I know, in my heart, I meant well.
It seemed… the right thing to do.

Thus it was, that I found myself crossing the border from the South into the North, having been warned several times, by different agencies, that the roads were not safe. Onwards I pressed, along roads I knew well, and I was at once struck by two things: how deserted the roads and villages were, and the presence -everywhere- of the black flags.
The black flags of South Armagh.
I remember stopping my motorcycle on a deserted road, for a break, and to take in the two, small, almost crude, black flags draped from a utility pole.
Just two, small, almost crude, black flags…

They represented… much.
A wordless comment. A theme song without a note.
Centuries… of Suffering. Suffering of the hunger strikers. Suffering of their families. And suffering of both communities. The suffering of humanity, and compassion. The alienation of Man from Man. A protest. A protest against the British Government and Maggie Thatcher. A protest against historic injustice. A protest against… fellow Man.
I remember just standing there, looking at the black flags.
Marveling at how quiet the roads were. How quiet the fields. Even the birds seemed to be hushed. There was an air of dread there.
A silent, fearful awe.
And I know I shook my head, and I know I wondered what in hell’s name I thought I was doing there. What possible good my presence could do. And yet, I still felt that I had to complete that mission. It had elements of a pilgrimage in it. I wanted to arrive, as if all was normal, knowing full well that he, my friend, was not receiving any visitors. Knowing full well that he was ostracized. That people talked of his actions in hushed whispers. Like the caller who had alerted me. Hushed. In case somebody was listening. I knew that people were fearful of the loner, the outcast, who dared follow his own path. And I wished to turn up, as a visitor, and cross that invisible picket line, and shake his hand. And act as if it was perfectly normal. Perfectly normal for him to do what he was doing. And perfectly normal for me to do… what I was about to do.

Onwards I rode, a lone figure, on a motorcycle, along empty roads. Past houses that seemed almost deserted, save for a fluttering curtain maybe, here and there. A twitching blind. Unseen eyes.
I remember it was a beautiful day, sunny, and I loved Northern Ireland when it was like that.
I arrived at his village, and drove past the black flag draped houses. Past cultural compliance, and obedience. Past tacit approval, of bullying, and intimidation. And arrived at that one house. That stood, un-flagged and free. Truly free.
I switched my engine off, and glanced up and down the deserted road. My arrival had not gone unnoticed, of that I was certain. But I saw nobody. I knocked on his door. His wife answered, pale, stressed, and looking as if she had not slept much. She guided me in, and I met my friend. We shook hands. He looked tired, gaunt, grim. But he carried himself erect. Like a man who is determined to pursue his stated policy.
We didn’t discuss politics. I never brought up the black flags. We talked about business, briefly. It was all matter of fact. Until I was about to leave. Then he offered me hospitality for the night. It was getting late, and the roads, he said, would be getting risky. I thanked him, but I did not wish to be a burden. I departed, with a wave, and feeling strangely, utterly, satisfied that I had accomplished a task. I rolled the throttle open, and the sound of my exhausts boomed in defiance off the silent, sullen, flag draped houses.
I was pleased…

A while later, moving rapidly along ancient roads, traveled on and off for centuries by vagabonds and soldiers, passing the odd vehicle, I thought I heard gun shots.
At the same time, off to my right, I saw smoke. Ominous, black, billowing smoke. I wondered what it was.
I lost sight of the area behind some trees. A few minutes later, I moved rapidly though a left hand bend. Leaning the bike over, I then started to take a right hand curve. There was a hair pin here, I knew. All of a sudden…

Shit! Ambush…! Oh, fuk!
It all happened in an instant. I slowed down for the sharp bend, I came around the curve, and…
The first thing I saw was all the bottles, on a low, stone wall. A dozen bottles. Then I saw the barricade across the road.
Then I saw the burning bus. The overturned minivan, and a car with the tires on fire. And the people in the distance, running madly across the fields. And suddenly, in a blur, I heard shots being fired, very close by, and there were heads bobbing up, from behind the wall, where the bottles were parked. It was too late, way too late, to turn, or back up.
They would have got me long before that…

I knew exactly what the dozen or so young boys, popping up from behind the low walls on both sides of the road, were now holding. I’d seen them before. In action. The small white tufts, in the bottle necks, gave the game away immediately.

Molotov cocktails…

(to be continued)

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on October 1, 2009, 4:06 pm

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2 responses to “The Burning Soldier (2) “The Black Flags of South Armagh “”

  1. Oh Moggy, this is the cliff hanger of all cliff hangers – even if you know that the writer (YOU) survives, you still don’t know what happend.  I hope you won’t be keeping us waiting too, too long to find out.  

    It must have been truly hard – like soul searing – to know folks on both sides and stay neutral in this. That’s such a testament to your own inate integrity and caring for people. Now, I know I made ya blush – sorry.

    More I read of this, more I think this is your real story to tell, Moggy.  How many books are there floating about that tell the story of what happened in Ireland from the eyes of a fellow who was there, who love the land and the folk, but who kept a level head and real impartiality while still having sympathy for the real, tragic, human stories that happened on both sides of the coin?  

    That’s a story that needs tell, IMHO, Moggy.  When people look back, they should know how it really happened – it’s the only way to keep it from happening again somewhere else.  And I cannot promise that the ones reading will learn – but at least the story will have been told properly, befitting the sacrifices and loss across the board.   That’s all anyone can do anyway, eh?

  2. I love your clear, concise writing style, Francis. You should think about getting these published in Ireland’s Own, or some similar magazine (if there are any across the pond). They publish my rubbish, so I’m sure they would lap up your genius.

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