Tuesday, July 03, 2007


There is a line in the Jewish Passover Seder which goes something like this: "Even as we remember tonight what it was like when we were slaves in the land of Egypt; even as we think of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are still enslaved in various lands and places, so do we tonight remember people (whether they are Jews or not) who still suffer from slavery, hunger, and/or repression." It might be a great way to celebrate the American Fourth of July - to remember that none of us are truly free as long as any are not...


Sometime quite late in the summer of 1969 the Irish Army began to appear just beyond the border. That was a real border back then. Today you would only know the line because the speed signs switch from "100" - meaning kilometers - to "60" - meaning miles and because the always spying UK "speed cameras" appear. But in those days there were checkpoints and customs stations and police, and, at least for a bit on each side of the road, fences, though crossing by foot was never an issue.

We'd cross to see them. A real Irish Army. Not Brits, not Protestants, and no masks. Real Catholic Irishmen carrying real guns out in the open. They were instantly our biggest heroes.

The year had already seen the whole world become unglued. You'd think a "revolution" would begin with violence from the "revolting" side, but this did not happen. Protestant Unionists and their Royal Constabulary co-conspirators had already attacked peaceful democracy marches, planted a half dozen bombs, killed a few people. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland's government had resigned to stop any hope of implementing a "one man - one vote" law that would have let Catholics be citizens as Protestants were. The leader of the Unionists had hope for the future though, "... if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants, ... They will refuse to have 18 children." This thinking had led the Protestant "Londonderry Corporation," rulers of a 90% Catholic city, to tear down much of the Bogside to build highrise flats and such in a desperate attempt to encourage birth control.

The Irish soldiers gave us candy and sang songs with us. They shared their food. They told us about Dublin and Cork, Galway and Kilkenny. And then they'd shoo us back towards that line. "Better be gettin' home lads, don'na want your mas to be gettin' worried."

And then the Battle of the Bogside broke out. The Apprentice Boys, those Prod thugs, attacked our neighborhood, backed by the RUC. Three days of war followed. On Wednesday the B-Specials, the worst enforcers of the government, started shooting people. And that night Jack Lynch, the Irish Taoiseach , went on the telly and said they'd be setting up field hospitals close to Derry and Newry to save lives and that, "...the present situation is the inevitable outcome of the policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont governments. It is clear also that the Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse."

And the armies came. The British Army flew in from Scotland, tanks and armoured personnel carriers and helicopters and very big guns. The Irish Army camped just over the hill, medical tents and food and lorries and, yes, guns as well.

We crossed the border and asked "our" soldiers, "Are ye coming? Will you come over the hill, at least to the river?" But they'd just say, "Don' know lad, don' know." Our parents talked of troops massed in Counties Donegal and Louth, ready to free us and Newry too. The places that should never have been beyond the partition. The oldest talked of those ancient Brit lies of "boundary decisions in 1924," but England wouldn'a give up their Naval Base at Catholic Derry nor Belfast's water supply at Catholic Newry. "The Brits will never do a thing unless you kill enough of them," Johnnie said. It was a scary thing. The room went silent. There were men there who remembered the real wars. 1916 was just a half-century in the past, you might be just sixty and still clearly recall 1920 and Michael Collins and the Black and Tans.

It was the summer that the lights went out. It was the summer when your ma became afraid if you went out the door. It was the summer that great terror mixed with great hope. It was a summer when we stood on an edge, and could not be sure which nation we'd go to school in when school began again, our nation or their's. It was a summer when people began dying all across the six captive counties.

And it was the summer that we all, no matter what age we might be, grew old.

The Irish Army didn'a come over the hill - they said they feared a bloodbath in Belfast if they liberated Derry. The British Army did not leave - they said that freedom and joining the Republic could only come if the Prods agreed. The Prods did not give Catholics the vote - they said we were uneducated "Popist Communists." The Americans did not come to help - though we had great faith in America - which looked down on us like gods from their perch on the moon. The next year the people of Britain elected a right-wing government that turned their Army in Northern Ireland from peacekeepers to murderers.

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose" was first sung in 1969. Two years later, before even the slaughter of Bloody Sunday, Janis had sung it, and we listened on Radio Free Ireland coming from Inishowen, along with Don Maclean's song, which got to the end, "I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news. She just smiled and turned away..."

And so, we were left completely on our own.

copyright 2007 by Ira Socol - images (top and bottom) are of The Battle of the Bogside - 12, 13, 14 August 1969. The center is the Rossville Flats under construction, 1965 (?).