This story is by John McKenny and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s funny how songs can take you back to times and places long forgotten. I heard Van Morrison sing I wish I was in Carrickfergus on Radio 2 this morning.
I wish I was in Carrickfergus,
Only for nights in Ballygrant
I would swim over the deepest ocean,
For my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot cross over
And neither have I the wings to fly
I wish I could meet a handsome boatsman
To ferry me over, to my love and die
The words and melody whisked me back to my last evening in Northern Ireland. It was the eve of the Twelfth of July, 1974. My parents had decided to leave Carrickfergus for a safer place. We were Catholics in a 95% Loyalist town. There was continual menace. We could be attacked, burnt out or worse.
The Ulster Workers’ Council strike was the final straw: my father had to brave several road blocks every day on his way to work. These checkpoints were manned by faceless men. They wore assorted military apparel, dark glasses, balaclavas hoods and masks and wielded nightsticks or baseball bats. That summer, there were dark half-voiced threats of UDI, civil war and even genocide.
Several Catholics had been shot dead in Carrickfergus and there had been serious attacks with Molotov cocktails hurled through the front windows of catholic family homes. Such families were lucky to get out alive only losing their belongings in the flames.
My brothers and I and a handful of other teenagers from the Sunnylands housing estate had to be escorted by police to the Catholic youth club to protect us from attack by tartan (Protestant skinhead) gangs. One evening there was rioting in a different part of town and the police couldn’t accompany us. They gave a police dog to my brother for us to use as our escort.
At home everything was packed in tea chests and ready for loading into the removal van next morning.
I was 13 years of age. Out to the bin wenta rickety doll’s house and, hardest of all, a giant teddy bear my big sister, Siobhan, had brought from England many years before. I was so proud when she gave it to me. It had been patched and stitched so many times. I had to admit it was falling apart. Teddy had been my closest companion for eight years now. I had told him all my secrets. Now, he had to go. Losing him was the hardest thing I had had to face up till then in my life.
That evening of the 11th of July, I headed down to the ‘wee field’ to say goodbye to Mandy and Carol, the nearest thing to friends I had among the Protestant community.
-Hello there, Pauline. What do you want to go over there for? asked Mandy playing with her strawberry blonde pigtails.
-Aye, it’s true; we leave tomorrow on the ferryboat. I felt scolded for desertion.
-I’ll start my new school in August, I said, not mentioning that it was run by nuns. I had always been doubly foreign to these two, first for being a Roman Catholic and second for attending a grammar school where people actually wanted to learn. I spent my years in Carrickfergus being invisible to everyone except these two. Sometimes they asked me to walk away when other Protestants were coming, especially around the 12th.
-Will you come back to Carrick sometime? Carol asked, looking intently at me through the fringe in her jet-black hair. Did she look genuinely sad at my going or was she just sorry that I had to leave the blue skies of Ulster? I admired Mandy and Carol’s attempts to show me human recognition in the face of so much pressure from their Protestant peers. Now, I had to give up these two pals and my Teddy.
-I can always get the Larne-Stranraer or Liverpool boat over to visit you some school holiday. Won’t youse be coming over to England sometime? You are loyalists after all and want to stay part of Britain.
-I’m British but I don’t like the English. I prefer the Scots and the Welsh, Carol declared with a very serious face which made me think she was repeating words she had heard from her father.
-I’ve heard that Leeds and other places in England are full of black people and Indians, warned Mandy. The cinemas, pubs and playing parks are open on Sunday. Can you imagine?
I knew this was not 100% disapproval of England. I had seen their envy when I was out playing ball in the streets with my brothers on Sundays while they looked out through lace curtains, under house arrest for the Lord’s Day, dressed in their Sunday best. Deep down they would have liked to have done the same. Their own mothers spent so much on beautiful homes, carpets, Venetian blinds, ornaments, that they usually ended up eating jam pieces: sliced bread, Echo margarine and jam.
I looked around the wee field where Mandy, Carol and I often played. It was a small scrap of grassy wasteland leftover between two adjoining housing estates. Today, the eve of the Twelfth, it was a hive of activity as boys and girls of all ages carefully arranged old sofas, car tyres, wooden crates, tree branches, old kitchen tables and chairs into a giant structure nearly 30 feet high. Inside, this bonfire was wadded with old clothes, upholstery, anything inflammable. It would be torched that evening in celebration of the 1690 victory of William of Orange against the deposed King James, the victory of Protestant over Catholic. An effigy of the Pope would be burned on top of the fire.
I could sense Mandy and Carol’s increasing unease about my being there at all.
It was only a matter of time before they gave me the signal that things were going to turn ugly. A kind of tribal frenzy would take place.
Here was my last night in Ireland, in Carrickfergus of the Norman Castle and Church and the textile factories with their malodorous liquid and gas effluents. Funny how the years brought inurement to their cloying stench. I couldn’t really see myself coming back: I never belonged.
Earlier that month I had said goodbye to classmates at St Dominic’s High School in Belfast. There, my feelings were not much different from those I now felt towards Mandy and Carol. My classmates saw me from 9.00 to 3.30 Monday to Friday mostly during classes and we talked only in the breaks.
As the time for igniting the bonfire approached, the beating of the Lambeg drum became faster and louder. The Lambeg is a five-foot high goatskin drum which is beaten incessantly day and night prior to the Twelfth. The sound of that drum always frightened me and seemed to say ‘We’re coming to get you’.
Mandy and Carol came up to me with kind, patient smiles on their faces:
-You go on home now, Pauline. Get some rest for the big journey, said Mandy.
-Don’t forget us now, will ye? Carol squeezed my arm.
I felt quite warmly towards them as I set off out of the wee field. Already the bonfire was crackling with smoke and sparks were gathered up by the wind. I felt a strange regret at not being eligible to see the fire in all its flaming glory.
As I left the wee field for the last time I looked up and saw the effigy of the Pope on the top of the flames. The figure at the pinnacle, dressed in white with mitre and crosier, was my Teddy. They had rescued him from the rubbish and recycled him, elevating him to the papacy. My horror and outrage at this treatment of poor Teddy gave way to a sense of irony. The butt of their fears was not Teddy nor the Pope but the Catholics elsewhere in the North, who refused to be invisible. The balaclava, the Lambeg and the bonfire was to cow the natives and give themselves courage.
-No Pope here.
-Not an inch.
-6 into 26 won’t go
Almost all of the Protestant catchphrases contain a no. The word Protestant itself needs something to say no to. I could imagine my friends, Mandy and Carol, worry as I walked away. They would have no antithesis when I was gone. But I would not forget them and their small effort to resist the pressure put upon them to completely despise me.
I thought a last time of Teddy being incinerated as a personification of the Papacy. In the wee field he had become a scapegoat representing Irish Catholicism. I had left my old friend behind and now he was burning. He was taking the blame while tomorrow we would go free.
-As for I wish I was in Carrickfergus, each time I hear the song, I thank God I’m not.