Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.1 -- March 1998

Buying Ireland
by Miceal O Murcu


"How long will you be in Ireland?" asked the ex-patriot American.
"About six months."
"Great!" she said.  "That means you'll be around long enough to get a straight answer or two!"


        On our last visit to Ireland -- a sabbatical of six months -- we took a radical step, deciding to make a down payment on a building site or small house for our future retirement near my wife's relatives n South Armagh.  County Armagh is in Northern Ireland near the east coast of the island, and on the border of the Republic.

        Some critics, including the British government, have described this region as "bandit country" because of the combination of illicit cross-border trade that has gone on for generations and the clashes that have occurred between paramilitaries and the British military during the Troubles over the past 30 years.  Like portions of Belfast and Derry, South Armagh is thought by many to be a hotbed of nationalist activity and therefore a place to be avoided.

We were living about five miles from Bessbrook, a farming community just south of the city of Newry, and distinguished for the past several years as the home of the busiest heliport in Europe, as the British military fly what seem to many residents to be around-the-clock missions.

        We had no strong objection to purchasing something in South Armagh despite the current political uncertainty and its history of lawlessness.  This is, after all, the area form which both of my wife's parents emigrated separately in 1930, before meeting for the first time in Boston, where they settled.  So it has powerful symbolic value, and the sentimental and emotional pull is strong.

Our most ominous experience with a military helicopter occurred not long after we arrived last August.  Driving home late one evening, we were "buzzed" as we slowed at a crossroads.  Using infrared equipment to avoid becoming targets of the local paramilitary, the 'copters are able to fly without lights; this one swooped down low over our car for a few seconds and then flew off.  Relatives claim it is done for two reasons -- to intimidate local residents and to check vehicle license plates for cars that might be wanted as a result of previous illicit activity or because they were stolen.

        My own connections to Ireland so far are rather attenuated (three second-cousins-once-removed in County Mayo); otherwise, everyone else is covered in mist, with no one yet emerging from it.  Like my wife, though, I was captivated by the rough beauty of South Armagh (dominated by Slieve Gullion Mountain) and the generosity and hospitality of family and friends.  Little did we know that six months was a very short time understand the complicated relationship between the Irish and the land.  Our search for a homesite turned into a study in Irish sensibilities.

        As a first step in the process of property acquisition in Northern Ireland we had to familiarize ourselves with such things as outline planning permission (OPP), mains water, estate agents, auctioneers, building societies, reserve prices, private treaties, effluent discharge certificates, rising damp/dry lining, hot press rooms, subsidence and landslips, immersion and solid fuel heating, government grants to restore family homeplaces, seemingly permanent "pending offers" and "sale agreed."

In addition to moving supplies and munitions around to keep mountain-top observation/listening posts equipped (none of it is done by surface transport), the helicopters are often used to move squads of soldiers rapidly to a field adjacent to a road, where they can set up a checkpoint within minutes.

        Next, we began our search by asking relatives and friends of relatives if they were familiar with modest homes or homesites that might be available in the area.  No one was.  Nor did we receive even one response to our request for a "homesite or small home" in a classified advertisement in a local paper.

        There is a housing shortage despite the fact that there is no shortage of picturesque cottage-like ruins everywhere.  Before the ruins were abandoned permanently, many were used ot shelter livestock or for storing feed.  Typically the roofs caved in over time from rot and disrepair.  They are nor recoverable unless they have been lived in until quite recently.  And now farmers prefer the more easily constructed and maintained steel fabricated buildings for their needs -- overlooking the small, inefficient ruins.

On Tuesday afternoon, February 11, I was stopped by an 8-man military patrol on a remote country road near Cullyhanna, another South Armagh border town.  While six soldiers crouched down in the ditch next to the hedgerow on both sides of the road with their machine guns at the ready, a seventh asked my name, for printed identification, my destination, and my home.

An eight soldier stood in the middle of the road in front of the car and -- using a walkie-talkie -- called my car's plate number into some central source.  In a matter of a few minutes, once my car was proved clean, I was waved on.  Even these spontaneous checkpoints became rather routine.  In the course of our six months in Northern Ireland I have been stopped more than 50 times, occasionally two or three times in one day.

      We turned next to estate agents and their classifieds from several local towns from Cullyhanna to Newry to Dunkalk/Castleblaney (both in the Republic, but nearby and considered border towns) to Banbridge.  More property seemed available "to let" than "for sale," but occasionally something would appear.  Our first adventure was a blind advertisement describing a building site with outline planning permission in a nearby town.  Interested parties were asked to respond to a box number at the newspaper.  I did so, and several nights later the phone rang.

      The caller asked for me, the letter writer.  My wife said I was not available but asked if she could help.  He said he was calling about our response to his advert.  She said she was familiar with the request, and asked about the size and price of the homesite.  He said those were things he would discuss only with "himself" and would I call him back?  I did and he gave me a sense of where the land was located.  His wife would meet us there at an agreed upon time the following day and show me the plat map, as he was not sure about the dimensions.

      We met her the following afternoon in a downpour and then proceeded to their house to see the map.  The land was in a hollow, looking up toward a quarry road adjacent to a cattle crush.  I said I would get back to "himself" when we could see the site under more favorable conditions.  We did view it again in a day or so and I spoke with the owner.  He asked if I was interested in the site.  I asked if he would tell me how much he was asking.  He said he would but only if I affirmed I was interested in buying it; the two things remained wholly separate in his mind.  We have not communicated since.

There is a folklore about how local residents show their reluctant cooperation at the checkpoints, when it becomes a kind of game -- resentment without pushing things to the point where a rousting occurs, or one's vehicle is "tossed," or the driver is detained under the government's special powers.  One man's favorite personal retorts were:

"Your name, Sir?"
"John Mulcahy."


"Your name?"
"John Mulcahy."
"April 15."
"What year?"
"Every f------ year!"


"Your name?"
"John Mulcahy."
"Your address, as it appears on your license?"
"15 Ballybey Park."
"Right.  You're free."
"Not yet I'm not, but I will be!"

        Our next experience was with a local land and cattle baron of sorts, born in America and raised in Ireland.  Each time we expressed interest in a possible homesite which he owned, its dimensions shrank and the price went up from what he had said earlier.  We have stopped showing interest in virtually anything at all in his presence but do seem to get along well socially.

        Our third adventure was the result of a classified advert as well.  The building site with OPP was in a nearby town.  With complex directions from the owner, we set off and eventually found the general location -- either a field at the top of a hill with a hand-painted sign that read "land poisoned", or the one next to it which was adjacent to a railroad track and bridge.  I called back to ask about the precise location and learned it was indeed the one hard-upon the railroad.

        Later that day, we learned from relatives that the location was infamous as the Kilnassaggart Bridge, the most bombed structure in Europe over the past 25-30 years.  They joked that if we did not like the layout of our new home there, we might simply wait for the next explosion and rebuild out of damage compensation from the government!

On February 12, at a military checkpoint in Bessbrook, near St. Paul's Secondary School, a soldier was killed by a sniper's bullet by what is thought to have been a distance of some 400 yards.  He was checking a driver's license when he was shot in the back.  The bullet traveled through the soldier's body, ricocheted and grazed the driver's head.  She was treated and released.  A small child on the scene was treated for shock.

This incident sparked concern throughout Ireland that it is further evidence -- as if it were necessary -- that the IRA is indeed at war again, and that retaliation by other paramilitary groups was almost inevitable.  As we left the island the following day there was a growing sense of despair that a genuine peace opportunity had been lost because of an absence of political courage, of the terrible randomness of guerrilla war where calm is interrupted by intense moments of great barbarity, and mostly a feeling of deja vu.

Not far from Beesbrook and nailed high up on a post is something called "Sniper's Promise."  It appeared in December, 1996, and shows a hooded figure in combat fatigues.  The figure is aiming a high-powered rifle which has a scope and a tripod; the text of the "promise" is:

        I've been waiting for
        Two years or more
        Waiting for Major to settle this
        war.  You have done nothing to
        prove you want peace.
        That's why your army will R-I-P

        At this point in our adventure both my wife and I were coming to think that with our obvious American accents, we were being perceived by local landowners and estate agents as "stupid money" -- naive foreigners with money to burn; while the former might be true, the latter certainly was not!  So we enlisted cousins who lived in the area all their lives to make preliminary calls for us.  The results were not very different.

        The fourth experience was perhaps the most mysterious.  We had seen a small home advertised in an estate agent's office and had driven by the property.  I called the agent the following day and inquired about its particulars.  He wanted to know more about our antecedents, and I described my wife's ties to the area.  This exercise was not unusual, in our experience.
        "You've seen the property, have you?" he asked.  I said we had.
        "Have you spoken with your wife's relatives about this property?"
        "No, not yet.  We've just seen it and would speak with them is we were genuinely interested in it."
        "Well, there's a problem with this property.  You'd do well to speak with your relatives about it.  You're not interested in this property."
        Puzzled, I thanked him and rang off.

        No one in the family knew the nature of the "problem" immediately, but inquiries were made, and the story did emerge.  The couple living there had split up, headed for divorce.  The wife was pursuing the liquidation of jointly held assets.  The husband was -- shall we say -- "prominent" in the community, and though the wife was exercising her legal options, the community was exercising its own authority.  Thus, no sale would be executed in the foreseeable future.

In mid-January shortly after midnight, I was stopped by a squad of six soldiers.  They wore camouflage uniforms so that even those holding flashlights were quite hard to see in the rain and mist.  Once the car is stopped, the routine is to turn off the headlights in order not to expose the soldiers unnecessarily.  I provided the information requested.  Then, rather than wave me on, the soldier who checked my license knelt down in the road to be eye-level with me and began to talk about his experiences.

He said he could not understand the Troubles, that there seemed to be much more confidence in a permanent cease-fire before the incidents at Drumcree during the marching season the previous summer.  He went on to say that most people he met at these checkpoints seemed genuinely interesting -- the kind of people he would like to be able to accompany to a pub for beer.  He said he would like to put on a T-shirt and jeans and get to know local people better but that was impossible.

Then he seemed to correct himself and said that while most local residents he met in these circumstances seemed friendly, he could never be sure what they might be like when his back was turned.  He said he was frustrated by a situation where he felt he was trying to protect the general population, but instead was perceived as the enemy.  Finally, we wished each other well and I drove off.

         Missing so far from this list was a delightful adventure we had in the Republic of Ireland.  A cousin there had seen a small house for sale by auction and we drove by the place.  It looked to have possibilities, and we went to the village to get more information from the estate agent/auctioneer.  As we drove down the main street, our cousin directed me where to stop.  He had located the agent.  I said all I saw was a draper/men's clothing store.  We went in nonetheless.  He asked for the agent by name and were were led through a curtained archway, up three flights of stairs, to a loft office with a computer, fax machine, piano, refrigerator, three chairs (one for the proprietor) and an enviable book collection on Irish history.

        This was indeed the auctioneer, but he was also the owner of the retail store, a local historian and a professional genealogist.  He explained how the auction worked.  When we asked if the property was tenanted until recently, he said it had been vacant the previous four years and then told the following story:

        The property included a small house and about 3/4 acre in the back, up a small rise.  It was home to five adult children at one time, none of whom married.  When one died unexpectedly, the two still living in the homeplace and two living in Glasgow made a settlement after difficult negotiations.  Then the remaining brother at home died and other, strenuous negotiations were carried on among the three surviving sisters.  Over time the sisters in Glasgow died separately, and the surviving member of the family -- old and increasingly infirm -- took a turn for the worse and entered hospital.
        Rallying, she was released from the hospital but would clearly never be the same.  The estate agent, a family friend, suggested that, given the seriousness of her illness, her advanced age, and the difficulties related to the property she had experienced virtually throughout her adult life, she might do well to get her affairs in order.  The six remaining distant family members who stood to inherit the homeplace would be comfortable knowing she had made plans, he argued.
        "It's trouble I got, and trouble I'll leave behind me!" she exclaimed.
        Not long after that exchange, she died, intestate, and it took four years to sort out the various claims and interests.  Some  might interpret her lack of foresight as madness.  According to another of my wife's cousins, however, the dead landowner was brilliant.  By not leaving a will, he reasoned, she guaranteed she would be talked about long after she was gone!  His not-so-subtle interpretation was that a brief future of notoriety was more important than being overlooked for having done the predictable.
Even now I have no idea why this soldier chose to speak to me for five or ten minutes about the war in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps it was boredom, or because I was a foreigner, or -- as some skeptics have suggested -- it was simply part of some new British pacification scheme.

Most exchanges in republican areas of the North are proscribed by local custom and the military's special emergency powers.  Even to share cigarettes with a soldier might be perceived as an act of collusion by those with strong republican sympathies, and in turn to speak with a known republican -- a member of an outlawed group -- without informing on that person to the authorities is itself prosecutable.

        Finally, we located a building site about five miles from my wife's mother's homeplace.  A sloping field of an acre or so, it had a fine view of the valley below, a patchwork of fields.  The price was right, but as a last check we decided to follow through on a suggestion another cousin had made about getting to know the people in this area -- not just the owner or the estate agent.  After making modest inquiries we learned that the owner's son and his wife were planning to build a house on land above the site we had in mind.  That, however, was not the difficulty.

        When we inquired further about why the son and his family had not built yet, we learned that they were waiting to sell off "our" site so that "we" would pay the 15,000 pounds that would be required to get electricity up to that location.  Then they would simply wait to link up and pay only the charges related to move the service up another acre, about 2,000 pounds at most.

        When the site disappeared as a possibility, a cousin-in-law said he had cousin who indicated some years earlier that he might sell a field near the family home.  It was not our first choice, but quite acceptable.

        Our cousin-in-law said he had fallen out of the habit of visiting his cousin and would do so again.  It would take two visits -- one to reestablish the relationship and another to pose the question.  He reported back that his cousin had indeed planned to sell the field some years ago, but in the intervening time the family was blessed with another child (a boy this time) late in life and decided to keep the field in the family.  In desperation, I offered to adopt the child if we could buy the site; my wife persuaded me, however, that such an offer was inconsistent with the notion of a retirement home.

        With a month remaining in our stay, we reconsidered what we had heard about the 15,000 pounds required to take electricity to the earlier location, and contacted the electricity board directly for further details.  We learned that the field was not owned by the family to whom we were referred originally, and that the electricity board was recommending that the three or four families currently planning houses in that area split the total cost of about 6,000 pounds for the service.  Now this seemed actionable.

        We were about to take advantage of the new information we had just received when we learned that the mortgage we had applied and been assured of (to cover the cost of building a small house) was refused because "according to its charter a building society cannot lend money to a non-resident."  The senior manager (described as the "rubber stamp" in London) was aghast that his regional manager in Northern Ireland was not already aware of this limitation, and though apologies were liberally dispensed no new mortgage possibility emerged.  Three weeks remained in our six-month stay and we were landless, with no prospects.

Local speculation in the area is that the killing in Bessbrook was indeed the work of the soldier whose "promise" appears above.  I know for certain that the dead soldier was not the one to whom I had spoken because the casualty, Stephen Restorick, was 23-years old; my conversation was with a much older man.  But there was no consolation at all in that fact, though, because such violence once again turns individuals into one-dimensional stereotypes, and crushes hope that reconciliation based on shared values is possible.  The IRA has since claimed responsibility for the killing.

        In an offhand comment at dinner one night, another cousin suggested we speak with a local banker with whom he had his business accounts.  We had already spoken with the manager at another bank where we opened a personal account when we first arrived; they turned us down.  Nonetheless, we saw the new bank's manager that afternoon; by the end of the week we had a mortgage commitment.  The only glitch was that in order to process the mortgage for a new home, the mortgagee needed to have a building site.  And so far none was available or affordable where he wanted to live.  Two weeks remained in our stay.

        That weekend, still another cousin whom we had not seen much during our extended stay asked my wife how we were doing in our search for a homesite.  "Terrible!" she said, as she described our most recent predicament.  He went on to apologize that it had not occurred to him earlier because of preoccupations with business and family issues, but he had a field which his father had purchased in 1937 after returning home from working some years in Canada.  He had planned to build a shed there, but instead placed it closer to other, already existing, outbuildings.  We were of course under no obligation, he said, but he and the family did not want to see us leave Ireland disappointed.  Would we consider that field as a potential homesite?

Stephen Restorick's parents have spoken publicly about his death.  He was engaged to be married and thought his duty in Northern Ireland would make a difference.  They have appealed to all interests to find a way out of the spiral of violence that characterizes this terrible conflict, and into peace talks.  They sent a photo of their son to Gerry Adams, and asked all parties not to use his death as the occasion for violence.  They plan to visit Northern Ireland later this year to unveil a plaque in his memory.
         The field in question lies halfway between my late father-in-law's homeplace and his mother's.  The family says that on a clear day from there one can see the famous mountains of Mourne to the north and nearly to the Irish Sea on the east.  The field is also rumored to be the place where a famous highwayman of the 18th century, a local Robin Hood of sorts, was waked after he was hanged by authorities in the country's capital city and carried home through each town on the shoulders of local (Irish) tenants.

        We purchased the field.  At some point in our future our modest, one-story bungalow will look out on the mountains and the sea -- and history.  Our suspicion is that in finally finding a place to which we will be coming home, our efforts to "buy Ireland" may also become a small part of local folklore; in truth, they may already have.

(March 1997)

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