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Growing up in Northern Ireland – An Odyssey …

Sixty odd years have passed and there is still life (I think) in this old dog. It was great to sing “When I’m Sixty-Four”, now I’m looking forward to “I Never Thought I’d Turn 100” from good old prog rockers The Moody Blues. In this article, however, I’ll look back.

When did I first notice “themmuns”? Sometimes I think between 7 and 10. I remember thinking, “Catholics are kind of different and kind of looked down, why?” You see, I grew up on a newly built mixed estate, 70:30 Protestant I would guess. All but one of my friends were Protestant. There was never anti-Catholic sentiment among my group of friends, but we all knew who the Catholic families in the area were. My Protestant friend next door explained to me the meaning of the last Saturday in August and my Catholic friend told me all about the confession when I accompanied him one day. A good boy, straight in and out, no offenses or unclean thoughts to relieve! Of course there was a lot boiling under the surface back then. Years later, when I was old enough to understand, my father, who was an active trade unionist, told me that a rumor had been purposely set up that I and my siblings were being taught at the local Catholic elementary school. Even more mysterious was the policeman who moved in next door for about a year and who was known to ask many questions about us. Well, the forces that were finally on my there when he was paid and blacklisted by the shipyard, a situation that he dealt with and overcame. He thrived in life through hard work.

Being in high school in the sixties was a happy time. I remember a school friend who once told me about an incident years ago when a member of the public was pulled off a bus and shot. I remember being very shocked and thinking, “Could you imagine something like this happening today?” I or anyone didn’t know what was in store for us. In the late 1960s, I came across news of a minister marching through places like Cromac Street causing trouble. I, a well educated boy, had no idea what this was about. My ignorance of local politics betrayed me again in August 1969. I had just finished a summer job in Kent and was leaving on Saturday. The landlady I was staying at told me that there had been serious problems in NI the night before. I told her I don’t really understand why when I thought that all of her civil rights association requests had been met. Boy, I had a lot to learn Another uncomfortable history lesson came from an Ardoyne student colleague in my freshman year. A little history discussion got heated and he let me have it with both kegs! He countered my arguments with things I completely ignored, leaving me speechless and embarrassed. As the gentleman I am, I licked my wounds, realized that more had to be learned, and forgave him (kind of). Whose fault was it that I was so kidnapped by what he had to say? Well, I had never been exposed to any of these opinions before. It wasn’t out there if you were a prod, you just didn’t hear about it, read about it, or see it on TV.

In the years since I’ve learned on the job, you could say. I’ve lived and breathed the problems and tried to make sense of them. I believe that most of the people who went through the problems suffered trauma. I was lucky, the problems were largely a working class conflict. The working class suffered disproportionately, but very few of us were in any way unaffected. I remember one Friday afternoon when I was looking out the window towards the center of Belfast at work and wondering what clouds of smoke were regularly rising in the distance. It was a bloody Friday. I had to take a bus home from central Belfast. The fear was palpable. I know what it means to say you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. I think living through problems takes its toll. So many bad things that they build on each other year after year. I still have dreams about being in Belfast in vaguely dangerous situations, but I know I was one of the lucky ones.

I am grateful that I grew up in a family that did not preach intolerance. Who knows what the future holds for us. I have my own thoughts. It is an imperfect place we live but preferable to where we come from.

By John Pike

“Belfast, Northern Ireland | 10. June 2017 ”by _ferloz is licensed under CC BY-SA

This is a guest slot to provide a platform for new writers, either as a standalone piece or as a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

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