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By Conroy, John
Boston, Beacon Press, 1989
ISBN: 0-8070-0204-6
218 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2015

This work was written in 1987. The author first just visited Belfast, Ireland in 1980, and was gripped and fascinated by what he found. He solicited support from news organizations in the U.S. and finally got funding. He returned to Belfast in 1980, lived there through 1981, actually residing in the ghetto much of the time, and published this work in 1987. He made a few other shorter visits between the time of his return to the U.S. in 1981 and when this book was published.

John Conroy sets the stage for his visit and journalist work:

“The possibility that this war could become a normal way of life was foreseen back in 1971. Reginald Maudling, the British Home Secretary and the Cabinet minister responsible for Northern Ireland’s affairs, told the press on December 15 of that year that he could see the day when the IRA would ‘not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.’ The term ‘acceptable level of violence’ became a standard refrain in the North after Maulding’s statement. Today, many think that level has been reached.”

The government response to the violence was such that

“. . . it has encouraged the feeling among those living outside the ghetto that the current level of violence is acceptable, and it has institutionalized the conflict.”

While I was reading this work to better understand the current (2015) situation in Northern Ireland, I was simply astonished at how relevant this was to me here in my own home in St. Louis, Missouri. Here in this year the Ferguson killing of Michael Johnson has set off a stream of violence and rebellion against alleged police brutality and excesses toward black people all over the U.S. nation. Yet, here I sit in St. Louis, not more than 8 miles from Ferguson and we see NOTHING of Ferguson other than what the nation and the world sees on TV. This might as well be in some city in Florida, California, Maine or Oregon. Here in our middle class neighborhood so short a distance away there is no violence related to Michael Johnson’s death. It’s as though what goes on in Ferguson is limited to that local and is “acceptable” and life just goes on for some many others of us who do not live in either Ferguson or other ghetto-like areas.

To me this tends to demonstrate how limited a range the dangers of violence have to be before people are seriously disturbed by violence or even really notice it. This phenomenon makes me even more fascinated by John Conroy’s reporting on the “troubles” in Belfast during the period of that recent “war.”

In 1981 he met Mrs. Barbour (nee O’Dwyer). He roomed at her home in the Clonard neighborhood of Irish Catholics. This was a very poor neighborhood and central to the struggle going on between Catholic and Protestant factions in the ghetto area.

“Even today, the stereotype of the ghetto Catholic in the North is that they do not want work (there’re interested only in collecting welfare), that they breed like rabbits; that they drink too much; that they are dirty.”

Before Conroy plunges into the situation in 1981, he backs off to remind the reader of some of the history of various periods of the history of Ireland and England and how things developed up to 1981: 1. In the 17th century plantation of Ulster there was an upheaval. In about 1610 Irish were seen by British as: A. People with a different language B. People with a different religion C. People who resisted English control

Thus the British establish a “plantation” system on confiscated lands.

In 1641 there was an Irish uprising in Ulster. Oliver Cromwell finally came in 1649 and settled the uprising and even more land was confiscated.

In 1690 the Irish lost the Battle of the Boyne, and the English conquest seemed total. 2. By 1795 the Protestant Orange Order was formed. It had about 100,000 members. Every year after that (until even now) on July 12th they hold a parade to celebrate the victory of the Battle of the Boyne. 3. In 1916 there was a major uprising in Ireland. From 1919-1921 there was a bloody war and a truce came in 1921. As a result the bulk of Ireland received: A. Home rule for the Irish, yet it remained part of Britain. B. However, 6 of Ulster’s 9 counties became Northern Ireland which is officially part of England. 4. In 1967 there was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, much like what was going on for black people in the U.S. However, there was a strong Protestant backlash and no civil rights were allowed.

By 1969 Britain sent in troops to try to solve the problem, but an all-out civil war began. Catholics decided they needed to arm and the IRA began to grow and attack, not necessarily to defend.

In Feb. 1971 there was war in earnest when a British soldier was killed. However, given that Northern Ireland is not terribly large (about 1.5 million people) and there had been many fewer deaths by the mid-1980s, England had been much less aggressive.

There were very many different military and police bodies, some on the Irish side, and some on the Northern Irish Protestant side or the British.

The British police included: RUC – Royal Ulster Constabulary
UDR -- Ulster Defense Regiment. This was part of the British Army but it used exclusively in Northern Ireland

The Irish side included:
-- The IRA
-- INLA (Irish National Liberation Army)
-- Stickies (an off shoot of INLA)

The author’s plan was:

“I intended to write stories on the non-combatants and on the consequences of the combat, not on the people doing the fighting.”

It was this particular strategy which has made this book so interesting for me. He is not concentrating on the combatants themselves, but on the ordinary citizens, mainly the Irish living in the slum of Clonard. There were lots of actions on the part of the Irish of Clonard to defend themselves in a very difficult situation in which they were overwhelmingly out armed and outnumbered. Yet:

“The IRA knows it cannot beat the British Army and the British Army knows it cannot beat the IRA.”

School attendance sank. Thus the youth were not trained and jobs became very difficult to find. Given the situation many kids turned to crime, as much for income as part of a “revolution” against English and Protestant control.

One interviewee to the author:

“The sense of morality in the flats has crumbled. For some people, ‘Catholic’ means its okay to kill somebody so long as you go to mass. For the kids, stealing has become a habit. Kids steal to finance their drinking and their clothes. I stopped running trips for a while because the kids were stealing the money to come.”


“. . . they don’t give a damn about tomorrow . . .”

And: “The object (of car theft) was not profit. Their goal was just to get out of the flats for the night, to break the monotony, to race with their pals, and to challenge the police.”

“There is still a taboo, however, about beating or shooting a woman who is not your wife.”

I found that to be a very grim quote!!!

When in the local school for “lost” kids the teacher asks: “Who was Hitler?” One girl answers “He was the leader of the Nazis.” Then a 12 year old asks: “Was he a Catholic or Orangie?” A generation of Irish slum kids were growing up with very little knowledge of anything outside their direct experience.

“The haziness is due in part to the fact that they have rarely been outside Belfast, and in part to the fact that their formal schooling was terminated.”

“. . . the state did not provide for the likes of Colette or Bridget, and neither did the Church. The children went back to their ghettoes and were easily forgotten.”

The neighborhood where the author lived and did most of his interviews was a “no man’s land:

  1. One side, Clonard, where he lived was“. . . densely packed, working class, and Catholic.”
  2. North was Skankill “. . . working class, not so dense, and Protestant.”

Between them:” “the peace line” (which was ill named.) “. . . a few hundred yards long and made up of bricked up row houses and sections of corrugated iron.” (20 ft. high fence topped with barbed wire).

However, the author calls attention that this is not a brand new phenomenon: There had been riots in 1886, 1898, 1920-22, 1935, 1964 and 1969.

The bulks of the latter part of the book concerns the prisoner resistance and Bobby Sands’ death and that of the other Irish Catholic protestors in jail. Sands was the first of the hunger strikers to die. He died after 65 days of fasting. The second, Francis was after 59 days. Before the strike ended 10 more men had died. Margaret Thatcher’s position was very hardline regarding the strikers as criminals and claiming that England did not negotiate with criminals. Much of the world condemned Thatcher’s position.

Oct. 3, 1981 Irish Catholic Provos ended the hunger strike. At first it was seen as a loss, afterwards the data has not been so clear.

By mid-1981 the author was more and more concerned with the safety of his own position and left Ireland. He did return some time later for some shorter visits.

Toward the very end Conroy is talking about the youth of the radical Irish Catholics. I found this rather astonishingly like what I think about the youth in the American slums (today lumped under the term of “Ferguson” no matter where such problems occur in the U.S.)

“While the world finds the problem of the North complex, a teenager in Clonard or Ballymurphy sees it as elementary. He knows he will have no work, or if he does have it, it will not reflect his intelligence or pay him enough to escape the ghetto. He finds himself regarded not as a citizen, but as a suspect, and at some point in his young life he will probably have a confrontation with the army or the police that will convince him that those forces are not his protectors.”

This is a very powerful work, again, as interesting to help one get some sense of what it is like to live ANYWHERE in a slum where there is little or no real hope for the future, but especially for understanding the situation in contemporary Norther Ireland, and certainly also, to have a better understanding of the sorts of deep root issues in places like the slums of the U.S.A. today.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett