The Belfast brothers, one 11 and one 12, put their heads together at my request to tell me where not to go. I had asked them to decide what part of their embattled city I should avoid at all costs.
Eating sweet rolls in front of a Falls Road bakery that day in 1982, talking in hushed whispers on my behalf, the boys finally pointed to what they called the peace line and the Shankill Road that lay beyond that great divide.
There, they agreed.
Stay away from there.
It’s dangerous over there.
The boys understood danger well beyond their years. A year or so earlier a British soldier fired a rock solid high velocity plastic bullet the size of a toilet paper roll that fractured the youngest child’s skull. Their sister watched her 12-year-old friend take her last breath when a plastic bullet smashed into her head.
The children lived in the same housing estate where Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer and martyr Bobby Sands, the first of 10 men to die on hunger strike in 1981, grew up.
Yes, they knew danger.
And, yes, the enemy lived across that ridiculously named peace line.
The brothers and I supported the IRA and the armed struggle for independence, national unity and freedom. The other side supported loyalty to the Crown and thought they were Brits. We were raised Catholic. They were raised Protestant. But this war wasn’t about religion. Nobody on the battlefield talked to me about God. Everybody talked to me about Irish freedom.
When my cautious escorts left, I crossed an opening in the heavy wire fence built to keep Loyalists from Nationalists and headed up a narrow side street loaded with homes and small shops.
Within seconds the messages of windswept flags and colorful murals painted on buildings no longer hailed the Irish. Instead of the orange, white and green Republic of Ireland tricolor, the red, white and blue Union Jack dominated. Instead of Sands showing off his fierce freedom fighter’s smile, bloody King Billy appeared on his rearing white horse.
In Loyalist minds I walked hallowed British soil. The minds of my Irish Republican friends, I remained on sacred ground occupied by an imperialist foreign army.
Within my mind I had entered enemy territory. Aware and alive, I wanted to better understand the war. Willing to take risks, I wanted to see the enemy up close.
From the road the Brown Bear Pub I chose at random for a drink looked no different than the other nondescript pubs that lined the street. None of the few men at the bar seemed to react when I walked in carrying the brown leather bag slung over my shoulder that I carried with me everywhere in those days.
I removed my mirror sunglasses.
I lit a cigarette.
An afternoon soccer game played on the television.
I ordered a pint of beer.
Raising my glass on my first sip I spotted a single plaque displayed on the wall. The Red Hand of Ulster, an ancient symbol hijacked by a savage Loyalist militia, and the letters UVF etched on the polished metal and wood gleamed in dull, smoky light.
In retrospect, my question to the quiet stranger standing beside me was foolhardy. But I was a young, reckless nobody Irish-American rabble rouser sticking my nose where I decided it belonged.
So I asked.
“What’s the UVF?”
The man beside me calmly and quietly explained the Ulster Volunteer Force as a local organization.
But the UFV was much more.
An armed paramilitary force of fierce pro-British killers, the UVF vowed to wipe out the IRA and anybody they determined to be Catholic, Nationalist or a supporter of Irish freedom.
To UVF soldiers I was the enemy.
With a shock of crimson hair and a pockmarked, ruddy face, the man beside me calmly smoked his cigarette. He sipped his pint. I smoked my cigarette. I sipped my pint. We made small talk.
What I didn’t tell him was I was staying in the home of IRA supporters in West Belfast and had once appeared on television at home in America calling the 1979 IRA execution of Lord Mountbatten a suicide. I had established an Irish Northern Aid Committee unit to aid families of Irish political prisoners. I once picked up a now dead legendary IRA leader at a train station who told me he personally collected money in America when the IRA needed guns, ammunition and other weapons of war.
My surname clearly identified me as having Irish Catholic roots, so when the man beside me at the bar asked my last name I made one up. I told the guy my wife had aunts, uncles and cousins in England, which she did, but I said I was staying at the Europa Hotel, which I wasn’t.
In those days I did whatever I could to publicly aid the just cause men in the Brown Bear Pub hated. That’s why I went by myself to Belfast in the first place.
A silent alarm sounded in my brain. Not wanting to push my luck I finished my beer in two big swallows. As I turned to leave, the man beside me reached out and gently took me by the arm.
“It’s nice to be nice,” he said.
Our eyes locked.
I slowly pulled away.
When I got outside I ran, jogging tight streets, looking to find my way back through the hole in the fence through which I had come to face a harsh reality that lived on the other side. When I squeezed through the opening I watched two mongrel dogs, one on each side of the border, growling and snarling at each other.
As I told my story later that night, people born and raised in Belfast who knew better seemed shocked by my carelessness. The significance of my ill-advised adventure hadn’t hit me.
Sometime later I learned the Brown Bear Pub served as a UVF platoon headquarters and meeting place for a group of executioners called the Shankill Butchers, a vicious gang of psychopaths responsible for the torture, mutilation and murder of at least 23 victims in sectarian attacks.
Maybe I got out because I took the early afternoon drinkers by surprise, coming out of nowhere like an IRA active service unit ambush on a South Armagh back road. Quite possibly, I scared them, making them wonder if I were carrying a locked and loaded machine pistol in my shoulder bag and was ready to open fire. Maybe they thought I was more trouble than they were.
I returned to Belfast the following year to continue what little I could to learn and spread the news in America that visions of a nation once again were as strong as ever.
Looking back, I still wonder about that man on the other side in the Brown Bear who taught me a tense, cryptic lesson about survival and progress as we stood staring into each other’s eyes agreeing how it’s nice to be nice.
Did we see a glimpse of a brighter future?
I believe we did.
The ceasefire resulting from the Good Friday Agreement has been in place since 1998 when the IRA decommissioned weapons. Loyalist terrorists and other dissidents mostly backed off. British officials released prisoners on both sides and withdrew occupying troops.
Sinn Fein, Ireland’s oldest political party and the former political wing of the IRA, is gaining ground north and south, showing increasing electoral power through ballots not bullets, enlisting more women leaders and other good people throughout the nation who believe Irish sovereignty, Irish independence and Irish unity is the only option.
I often think of people still immersed in the peaceful struggle who continue to help me learn through their commitment to Irish freedom – Rita O’Hare, Bik McFarlane and Peadar Whelan to name a few. Their courageous life-and-death offerings have always mattered immensely. We owe their sacrifices our renewed pledge to continue to remind the world what genuine Irish patriotism truly means.
I also often think of my two young guides, one of whom died as a young adult run down by a “joy rider” in a stolen car, the other gone from home as a young man to live abroad.
I still have the color photograph I took of them eating pastries that day so long ago, two brave young boys who grew up among holy rebels in a war zone that changed their lives utterly and forever.
Forty years later raising awareness in America to Irish nationhood remains as important as ever.
As always, the fight for liberty continues.
Ireland’s day will come.
As well it must.