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One Night in Belfast & One Night in the Bogside...

35 years ago, I spent a moment of time in Robinsons Pub.  I came quite innocently enough.  The lady at my B&B recommended it - said it was the oldest pub in Ireland (not true but it is what she said).  I sat there in the front bar (I didn’t know there were other parts of the bar to be had).  And I drank my pint with the old men who were present.  No one really talked to me.  As I recall, the whole scene was pretty depressing.

So I moved towards the back of the bar to watch the TV.  I had become enamored with a show called Neighbors.  And it was on.

As I sat there, I noticed a couple of people my age coming in one door in the back, then going immediately out another door.  Finally a couple of girls came over to the bar.  They asked me “what the feck are ya doin here with these old farts?”  As I recall.

I told them I was from America and I didn’t know any better.

“Come with us luv,”   So I did.

We met up with a larger group of mates and resumed drinking, heavily.

I can’t tell you what happened next except that we got shitty.  They were working class Catholics.  And they were pissed about the British.  Had terrible things to say about them, and I was naive.  I had no idea what the conflict was or how bad it was in 1989.  I was completely clueless.  

I bought them some ridiculous American drink like Sex on the Beach, but had to pay for each shot individually so it cost me like $100 because the pound was worth about $2 at the time.  It was dumb but it is the exact kind of thing someone who is drunk and attempting to fit in would do.

I was told by the well intentioned lady at the B&B to not go anywhere else.  I was warned about IRA strongholds.  I was told that it was dangerous.  All things I forgot as soon as I found a peer group.  I don’t remember any of their names.  In fact, other than the initial introduction, I am sure I didn’t know any.

Talk turned from rebellion to music and back again.  Looking back, there was a lot of information being given to me, that should have made me concerned or nervous or something.  But I was getting drunk with kids my own age after being on my own for a long time...and so I really didn’t care who they were or what they were saying.  I was just happy to be included. I joined the "Fuck the British!" anthem, I mean, why the fuck not. I was always up for a good rebellion.

Talk turned back to music again and they all decided they were going to show...did I want to come? 

Um, fuck yes I wanted to come!


And without a thought or care in the world, into the cab I got.

We wound through the streets of Belfast as night descended.  I didn’t pay attention to where we were because it was pointless.  I was superbly lost and I loved it.  They passed a joint around the cab and I can’t remember if I did or didn’t.  Given how fucked up I was once we got out of the cab, I am going to say yes I did.  But my memory is fuzzy here.

We were in some industrial district in front of a large warehouse.  There were other young people milling about.  And there was a serious vibe to it all.  When I stood up out of the cab, I realized that I had way overdrank myself.  And as I stood, I faltered.  While I was getting regularly fucked up back then, I prided myself always on never being knee walking drunk.  I liked to get fucked up but then appear like I had it all together.  I also liked to be the last person standing.  It was a pride point for me.  It also demonstrated how very much I needed both control and escape.  I see that now.

Anyway, we all piled out of the cab and into the warehouse.  I had to pee something fierce and so I broke off from the crowd to find the bathroom.  

When I returned I could see a band setting up on the stage in the distance.  There were rows of tables all covered with tarps.  Two men were talking in hushed tones not far from me.  I was leaning on a dark wall for support and realized I might throw up.  Having mixed beer, whiskey, and a whole bunch of other shit.  Not to mention the pot and cigarettes.  I was not feeling all that great. 

As I leaned on the wall for support, I saw the one man lift up the cover of one of the tarps - machine guns.  Lots of them, parts of them.  Rows and rows of them.   I looked around because I could not believe my eyes.  Where the fuck was I?  What was going on?  Why were there all these guns?  And why was no one else looking at the tarp covered tables?

Everyone I barely knew had disappeared - vanished.  I saw no one I recognized.  And I became aware that while I had arrived with a gaggle of girls, now I saw mostly only men.  Older men of 30, and when you are 19, 30 seems way older than it does now.  Oh to be 30 again!

I quickly realized that I was in trouble in a variety of ways.  I waited until the men had done their business - whatever the fuck that was - and made their way to towards the stage.  I knew then I was likely going to puke so I headed for the door.  

Stumbled outside to the parking lot that was dimly lighted.  Once the cooler air hit me I felt better.  I decided I had had enough for one night and wanted to go home, fuck the band and the people who were stockpiling weaponry.  I wanted to get the fuck outta there.

I saw a phone booth in the far corner of the parking lot.  I made my way for it and then spent time wrestling the phonebook to try to find the number for a cab.  I finally found one and called it.  But I had no idea where I was.  I knew it was industrial.  I knew I saw nothing and no one around.  I knew that I was fucked.  The man on the telephone smartly replied “well, luv, it is going to be awfully hard to pick ya up!” When I replied that I had no idea where the fuck I was.

With that defeat, I exited the phone booth and sat down on the curb.  My head between my legs, trying to clear the fog and fear from my brain.

Where the fuck was I?

What the fuck was I doing?

Who the fuck was the IRA?

Were they dangerous?

Why didn’t I listen to the fucking landlady?

Where the fuck was my B&B?

I am not sure how long I sat there in the dark contemplating how I got to where I was...but I soon noticed there were a few men gathered outside the bar, talking excitedly and with a great many expletives.  I heard, or at least I thought I heard, “Where the fuck is the American?”

Just then a cab appeared where no cab should be.  A man leaned over, rolled down his window and yelled at me “GET THE FUCK IN THE CAR!”  So I did.

As we sped away, the men came chasing after the cab.  The cab won and we drove hopelessly around Belfast because I didn’t know where the fuck I was staying.  Finally, I looked in my bag and realized the lady from the B&B had given me a card as I arrogantly stepped into the night.  The cabbie took me “home” while lecturing me as to what my fate could have been.  He was mad at me, this man that didn’t even know me.  He yelled at me as only a fearful father could, telling me how lucky I was that he was there.

Why was he there?  I mean I was in an industrial part of Belfast, there was no nightlife.  There were no bars, no restaurants, no people.  I am sure during daylight hours, there were people.  But in the dead of night, the only place with any life left in it was this warehouse.

I will never know why the cab came or what would have happened to me if he hadn’t.  I only know that I arrived back at the B&B at about 2 am.  Crawled up the stairs to my room and passed the fuck out.  I came to the next morning, with a train to catch and a very pissed off landlady who muttered under her breath as she served me breakfast...

Why are girls so stupid?

Fecking Americans!

I told you to be careful!

You are lucky to be alive!

Why you almost joined the IRA and you don’t even know what the feck they stand for.

What an idiot!

These were the things she muttered but absolutely so I could hear.  

I was hungover hard.  My head splitting and my stomach allowing only for tea and toast.  The rest of the breakfast made me wretch.

As I drove through Belfast yesterday, I was pulled to return to Robinsons Pub.  To go back and relive a moment of my past.  I am not sure what I thought I would find there.  Since Robinsons was only the beginning of the evening and not the end.  I was revile for cities pushed me away but my call from the past would not relent.  I spent many tortured hours on my drive in that direction:  would I or wouldn’t I?

I didn’t flip the coin but that was only because I couldn’t manage that and all the fucking roundabouts.  I knew what it would say anyway.  

There was nothing for me at Robinsons bar.  There never was.  I was just a dumb kid looking for companionship and release.  Same thing those other kids were looking for.  Now, we were fully grown and moved on and likely never in places like Robinsons or that warehouse.  There is a tentative peace between the Fenians and the Prods.  And unlike in 1989, no one was blowing shit up around Belfast town.

I know a great deal now about the Irish rebellion.  And I can say, without reservation, that I side with the Catholics.  I have read the historical accounts and have no love for the Orange or British.  The Irish subjugation complete and violative of everything I believe in.  The British committed genocide against the Catholics.  Motivated by greed and lust for power, they won at every turn.  Because it is so much easier to maintain power when you already have it.  If it wasn’t so revolting there would be some remarkability to the deftness with which the British masterminded the domination of the Catholics by treating the Protestants just a wee bit better, and then allowing the Prods to do their dirty work for them.  And to then capitalize on the starvation of the Catholics, the abject poverty of life and spirit to get them to turn against each other. What a few quid will do when you and everyone you know hasn't eaten in weeks.

The fact there was ever an uprising is kind of amazing.  Men and women so committed to seeing Ireland free from British rule that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their own advancement to the cause.  To think they chose, repeatedly, to give up any chance at personal freedom to remain loyal to the idea that human beings deserved better, the Irish deserved better and that the British would never stop doing what they had always done without extreme measures.

The IRA was just the modern day version of the early riders of rebellion who fought and lost the charge repeatedly.  Allowing for the “Irish question” to predominate politics in Britain, well, forever.

And to be honest, I don’t know what I would have done.  I can tell you that back then I didn’t know what I know today.  And so, when pressed I have no idea if I would have understood, as I do now, my own tendencies and loyalties.  I guess it all happened as it was supposed to, my near brush with the Irish rebellion.  While I do not condone any killing, I do understand that sometimes in this life, there is no other way to get your point heard, and understood.

I do.  I get it.  I see why, the hundreds of years of subjugation resulted in all the violence. Sometimes It Is the only way to get anyone's attention.  And to this day, I don’t know if I knew back then what I know today if my life might have taken a very hard turn.

I opted not to go back to Robinsons.  My need for peace and the quiet countryside was required more than my need to go back and relive the past.  My stupid ignorant history that could have gotten me killed.  Today, the Irish rebellion lives on in my heart and instead of reliving my own past, I went to Derry and walked the walled city.  I spent time and had dinner in the Bogside.  And I prayed a prayer for all those Catholics who perished right there where I sat.  To all the ones who starved, or were burned up in ill maintained factories, to the ones who died from disease that could have been cured given the money to do so.  

So instead of revisiting my misspent youth, I went to the place where I understood the rebellion best - sitting just outside the walls of Derry, in the Bogside. A place where so much of humanity died on the vine, never really having a moment of joy or peace in all their days.

It looks normal now.  But it wasn’t for me. I was reliving a past that I never knew.  People whose lives were tortured and relief really only came in death and dying.  And I saw them everywhere in the Bogside.  And the answer to that age old question was answered...I would have joined.  Had I known, I would have joined and committed my life to the fight.  It is the only thing I could have done had that night in Belfast gone differently.

So I almost joined the IRA.  And one more time my life reminds me that it is seconds and inches, always. And I honestly can't tell you whether I have more regret that I didn't than if I did. Which would be a vainglory thread woven deftly into the fabric of myself. Again. Still.

This is the back bar where it all started...I sat at these tables right here that night.

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