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

Buying Ireland II
by Miceal O Murcu


"If I were building a house in Ireland, knowing what I know about the Irish, I'd want to be there to watch every shovelful turn," said one American scholar.
"No, you wouldn't," said an Irish native, "it would make you even more nervous. They take tea an awful lot!"


     Five months after our return to America Seamus' nephew rang. It was nearly 3 a.m., Irish time. Though our connection seemed static-free and firm, Miceal was barely audible. His older sister rang us one Saturday night at about the same time from her apartment in Belfast; tipsy, she said she missed her "god-damned-yank cousins" and wondered when we would be back.

     Miceal was calling for a different reason. Earlier that evening Seamus played in a charity Gaelic football match at their home field in Silverbridge. It was intended to raise funds for a local hospice. After the game Seamus and a mate were changing back into their street clothes after showering in the field house.

     "We'll feel this game tomorrow for sure!"

     "Aye! I'm beginning to feel it already, all up and down my left side."

     They carried their gym bags to the car and got inside. Seamus rubbed his left thigh, sighed deeply and slumped over against the driver. Two nurses in the crowd that night were led to the car. They tended to Seamus until the ambulance arrived to take him to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, but in truth he was already dead - a massive heart attack.

     Two nights later Seamus' son rang us. The eldest of six children from 26 to 11 years, Shane wanted to talk about his father. He called Seamus a "gentle giant" and spoke about his father's love of life and the land, his enthusiasm, his pride in the children, and then described the funeral earlier that day. The church was filled, and more people stood outside listening to the ceremony from the speakers mounted under the rafters. His family was together and holding up reasonably well, all except for his youngest brother who became physically ill on learning of his father's death and, like their mother, had to be sedated.

The road between Dundalk (County Louth) and Castleblaney (County Monaghan) - both in the Republic of Ireland - meanders two or three times into Northern Ireland without apparent change, at least when the border is open. When the border is closed, it is common to be stopped frequently either by the British Military in the North or the gards, the civilian police in the Republic.

     Seamus and Maria, his wife, had sold us the undulating field in South Armagh on which our house was to be built. Seamus had also taken us up and over Slieve Gullion Mountain. There we saw the incredibly remote houses and ruins of houses whose residents he had sold bread and other foodstuffs to for ten years early in his married life. We could not imagine him taking the bread truck up and down those lanes and over the mountain, but even now he was still very skillful mastering what looked like switch-back cowpaths.

     South Armagh is at best an afterthought in most travel guides. Like Londonderry (what republicans call "Derry") and West Belfast, it has the reputation for violence; it is also infamous for cross-border smuggling. It is a rough, hilly land covered in gorse or bracken when it is not naked rock, bog or sheer mountain. In its way, it can also be quite beautiful. The best land is suitable for small farms, for sheep and small herds of beef cattle. It is the homeland of my mother-in-law and late father-in-law, who left separately in 1930 because there were no jobs.

The relative sameness of the landscape makes the border appear arbitrary geographically. It is the remnant of the division of the island in the early 1920s when all but six counties in the northeast achieved independence from the United Kingdom. That remnant - designed to guarantee a Protestant majority - became what we now know as the Province of Northern Ireland. Its creation was part of a settlement thought at the time to be transitional, and one which many feel led to the assassination of Michael Collins, chief negotiator for the nascent Irish government. His harshest critics contended that Collins settled for too little

     Seamus also took us to Faughart to see the birthplace of St. Brighid and the burial place of Robert the Bruce. Maria was from Killevy on the other side of Slieve Gullion Mountain, and the standing joke between them was who indeed was from in front of the mountain, as if it denoted special status. The last time we visited them at home, Seamus took me out to the ridge behind their farmhouse and showed me the Mountains of Mourne, Dundalk Bay and - on this clear day - the Irish Sea. He said it was the same view we would have when we built down the lane.

     As Shane and I spoke I wondered aloud whether we should go through with our plans. His father was so much a part of our reason for wanting to move there eventually and make Northern Ireland our primary residence. And now he was gone. Shane surprised me with his firmness. It was clear to the family, he said, that his father was very pleased to be able to provide us with the land on which we would build our house. He said it had come up in conversation as the family gathered earlier that day at home following the funeral.

     Even more, he said, the day before his death Seamus had been discussing with our builder how a hedgerow and gate needed moving to accommodate both our need for a driveway and a separate laneway for the family across the road to get its horses in and out of the field behind us, exercising an historic right-of-way. One reason he was ringing now, Shane explained, was to urge us not to reconsider our plan. Despite his father's death, the family was looking forward to seeing us in three months when our house was completed.

For countless generations before partition, Dundalk, with a population at present of about 26,000 people, was the market town for much of that portion of South Armagh where our family lives.  After partition, many residents of the area turned their attention to Newry, the nearest town in the North, as the outlet for their produce and trade.  Others continued to look to the border areas, some with the opportunities for illicit border trade in mind.

     We bought the land from one cousin and the husband of another would build our house, or so we thought.  But when it was clear that our building loan wa availible for only a limited period, the builder-cousin had to withdraw.  His small company was committed to projects for the next two years.  His wife did the next best thing, however.  She went down the lane to the 80-year-old patriarch of another family-owned company and explained the situation.  "We're busy as well," Jem said, "but leave it with me."  Six of his sons and his only daughter were involved in the business.  The only son who was not was the civil engineer who had designed our house.

     After learning we had a new builder, I though it was wise to be in touch with him.  I rang Jem twice but our transatlantic conversations never seemed to conclude with anything decisive.  I attributed it to the fact that we are both hard of hearing.  Finally, I wrote, reminding Jem of our timeline and budget.  In return, we heard nothing, except -- through our cousins -- that the foundation was complete, and building material was beginning to arrive at the site.  Then for many more weeks, nothing.

When the border routinely closed in years past, stories multiplied about the lengths people would go to best the system, to register their sentiments about being "agin'" the government, or simply to make a profit.  Smuggling became an art of sorts.  In ruling against the seizure of contraband, one sitting magistrate in Newry, after citing age-old cultural and familt ties that cross such boundries, described the border as "highly intentional."

One woman described cycling years ago in Dundalk and returning wearing all the clothes she had just purchased, including her new Christmas bonnet, in order not to have to pay duty on them.  Other borderlanders held dual residence and registered for the dole in one constituency while working full time in the other.  One farmer had a barn which straddled the border; he guided his herd in one direction or the other depending on the price of beef.

     On our return to Northern Ireland, I called the civil engineer to learn where Jem lived now that his youngest son had married.  He said his father had returned to the homeplace near the "Mass rock."  There are Mass rocks all over Ireland.  According to tradition, they were used by the peasants after the Cromwellian Wars when the practice of Catholicism was forbidden and priests were outlawed.  Peasants and their priests would gather clandestinely in the fields at the designated rock at an agreed upon time and Mass was held.

     The engineer said his father was home most nights and gave me Jem's new phone number.  He also advised me not to be troubled if his father did not answer the phone; often, he did not hear it.  Lastly, he said, Jem had written in response to my letter from America many weeks before, including a timeline and prices.

     "He did?" I said. "We never got it!"

     "Well," he explained, "he might not have sent it."

     After our second or third visit with Maria and the children, we asked her to show us how to get to Jem's house.  She was suprised that we did not know the way already, but also seemed relieved to have something to do other than think about Seamus' death.  She led us down the lane and directed us to make a sharp right turn in a hollow.  The lane looked like the drive to another house, but Maria advised us to drive on.  We continued along a narrow path with very high hedgerows on both sides.  Eventually, the lane opened out to a farmyard with outbuildings to the left and a small house to the right.  I would never have found it without Maria's help, especially at night.  Jem welcomed us warmly and confirmed what we knew already -- that the foundation was in.

     I explained that our presence in Northern Ireland at the moment was supposed to coincide with the completion of the house, to be present in signing the building loan into mortgage.  Well, it was not completed.  We saw that, but did he think it would be comlpeted in three months?  Ay, it would.  Did he have a copy of the letter he had sent?  No, he did not, but would if we came another night.  Which night?  Any night.  We agreed to return four nights later.

"From Carrickmacross to Crossmaglen,  

There are more rogues than honest men!"

-- an ancient tribute to the horse-trading skills of local farmers on both sides of the border.

     Back at Maria's house we speculated on what to do next.  Jem had no sense of urgency, and we had to see the bank manager the following day.  Did it make sense to get another builder?  "No!" exclaimed Maria.  "No!" exclaimed the wife of the builder-cousin.  It was not done.  For one builder t come upon a site prepared by another and complete the job was unheard of, a professional insult.

     More than that, the cousins had their own theory about why the foundation was in and nothing more.  Sure it was to beat the frost, but there was another reason as well.  Wasn't this site virtually across the lane from Jem's house?  Didn't the sons and daughter live within walking distance of it?  When winter came, even on the shortest of days the crew need only travel a few feet to get to the work site.  It was brilliant!  And we should be consoled by the reputation Jem's company had acquired over the years.  When the crew got going, they were like bees in service to the queen!

John Darby of the University of Ulster was the first, I think, to popularize the phrase "an acceptable level of violence."  Founder of the Center for the Study of Conflict, Darby was intrigued by the culture's capacity to adjust to the terror and carry on as before, relatively unchanged.  A corrolary to this analysis is the notion that as long as the majority remained unaffected directly by the violence, decisive national or international pressure to establish a lasting peace was absent.  Though 3,200 people have been killed in sectarian violence since 1968, the whole of Northern Ireland represents barely 2.5% of the population of the United Kingdom.
In recent years, Darby has moved on to affiliate with INCORE (Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity) a university/UN-sponsored effort to examine conflict cross-culturally.  How might an understanding of the dispute between the Israelis and Arabs, or the Christian and Muslim factions in Bosnia, help one develop insights into the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland?  Even beyond that, Darby is preoccupied with the transitions individuals and states go through on their way to legitimacy.  Under what conditions did Arafat become a statesman, or Milosevic?  When will Gerry Adams?

        The banker was more understanding than we thought.  He knew about th delay, and Jem had a strong enough reputation in the community that there was no question of his integrity, or the quality of his work.  Jem was known for bein laconic, and at the end of all this we might well get a one-line statement that read: "1 house = 40 thousand pounds."  In any event, the banker ad s sign the necessary documents and agreed to hold them in escrow until the house was completed.
        At the kitchen table in Maria's house over bottomless cups of tea and difficult conversation, we spoke of Seamus  -- as we seem to do in dealing with the magnitude of a loss like this.  She told us of the three older boys and ther love of animals, of how complicitous Seamus was in so many of their adventures.  Had we heard of the hens, Jesus, Mary and Joseph?  They were in the special care of Barry, now 23, when he was eight or nine.  Over time, Jesus and Mary died natural deaths, but Joseph lived on until one day, somehow, her beak was chopped off in a rat trap under the barn.  She could no longer peck, and had to be fed by hand by Barry or Seamus until she also died naturally some time later.
        Or had we heard of the pig, Lily, and her piglets.   Seamus and Barry washed them well in preparation for the trip to Markethill.  Only when he was in the ring with the pig family did Barry come to see the magnitude of his hisunderstanding.  They weren't there at all to show off Lily and the piglets, as he had thought.  They were there to sell them.  Only after the transgression was complete did Seamus understand his own transgression.  Barry was unconsolable.  Before they left Markethill, Seamus found the new owner.  He bought Lily and her family back.

In recent years the ruling British government has tried to tie the cost of military action and damage to budget decisions about other areas of the state economy in Northern Ireland.  An increase in military expenditure to intervene during rioting during the marching season, for example, would mean fewer funds for health care.  It is not clear whether this strategy has yet had the desired effect.

        On our next visit, Jem was non-communicative.  He had forgotten the copy of his letter to us, and would we come back another night?  Two nights later we arrived back at his house.  He still wore his work clothes and obviously had been asleep.  He invited us in for a bit of craic (conversation) but hadn't the vaguest idea why we were there.  By the fourth night I told my wife I was tired of the run-around.  I would soon be leaving for America and nothing had been resolved.  While my wife would remain behind to explore business opportunities, she was skeptical about her ability to keep him on task.  Pushy American or not, I wanted results and Pat would be held accountable.  Tonight!  I had a list and we were not leaving until everything on it was in order.   "If you do that," cautioned my wife, "you'll get nowhere."
        Jem met us at the door and showed us in.  Without a word he walked to the mantle above the fireplace and returned with an invoice that detailed the cost of the house and the various allowances.  It was complete (and dated the previous week!)
        "And the house will be completed by January first, correct?" I asked.
        "January first!" exclaimed Jem, "it's not possible!"
        "That's what I thought we'd agreed to.  When do you think it will be done?"
        "End of February."
        "How about February first?"
        "It can't be done."
        "Why not split the difference and say February 15th?"
        "February 15th it is."
        As if on cue, three of his sons showed up at the house, as did his daughter, his newest daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.  We had tea and soda bread together.  Neighbors.

The combination of living on a border and opposing -- as republicans do -- the military presence in the North ultimately has a stultifying effect on residents who succumb at times to theschitzophrenia it generates.  On occasion the effect is humourous, as when 400 households in and around the border community of Forkhill signed a petition against the frequent helicopter flyovers.  The petition argued that the flyovers severely impaired local residents' satellite television reception.  On reciept of the petition the local military commander in charge said he was certain there was something odd about those findings because according to offical records only three families in the district were legally signed up to receive such satellite transmissions!

Sometimes the border activity is more ominous.  In recent months, severeal stores of armament have been seized from ditches or abandoned buildings on both sides.  Similarly, if one is to believe recent accounts like Emmet Collin's Rage to Kill, a place like Dundalk is the cross-border haven for many republican activists on the run from either the police or military in the North.

        Some people in Ireland are fond of naming their homes.  One aunt and her late husband lived at "Levlamore," a mountainside farm house where they raised ten children.  Other friends call their home "Carrig Dunsey," after an ancient Celtic (then early-Christian) holy well nearby.  We were honest enough to know that whatever we called our place, our relatives and neighbors were sure to call it something else.  And very often, because of the frequency of certain surname in an area, different families were distinguished instead by virtue of physical features, talents or weaknesses.  It was even possible that our place might be named for the family -- now entirely forgotten -- that once owned that field, the McGinns.

        If my own surname were used in English, it would need further signifying.  Around us already were the descendants of Hughie Mor MacMurphy, the Dover Murphys, the Fiddler Murphys, and the -- God forbid! -- Slob Murphys!  Maybe the "goddamned-yank Murphys" was not so bad.

        At this writing, the house is six blocks high.  Now the crew will wait a bit for things to settle and dry to the point where damp is not built into the walls. My wife plans to install a hot tub, most likely the first one in priate use in South Armagh.  It will seat six to eight people and all the cousins are curious about it.  One young cousin is concerned, however, that the British soldiers will train their high powered telescopic and infrared equipment on us from their observation post on a nearby mountain.  He plans to wear the Irish tri-color into the tub to test his theory and the military's resolve.

The "hard" men and women of the republican movement in Northern Ireland despise cease-fires.  A cease-fire is quite simply an opportunity for the occupying British forces to consolidate their hold on what republicans derisively call the Northern Ireland "statelet."  A cease-fire is also a time when British intelligence units can refine their information without fear of unexpected terrorist activity which might draw attention and resources away from such a task.  Lastly, a cease-fire undermines discipline in the ranks of the invisible army of support for the IRA, especially among the young.  More than once I have heard that the incidence of drug taking, petty violence and vandalism increases at these times

In addition, without visible progress splinters are beginning to occur in the republican movement.  Some wonder whether the strategy employed by the current leadership to join the peace talks in Stormount and honor the cease-fire will lead to anything of substance.  Already there have been several stories of disaffection, and the creation of a new hard-line group in the border area that believes only the force of arms will win freedom in the end.

        -- new graffiti on the wall in the city of Armagh

        Maria had one last animal story concerning Liza, the donkey, which had been purchased many years before from a family or travellers.  When quite young, Shane and Miceal hitched Liza up to an old cart, made small bundles of sticks they had collected from the fields, and thought to sell them up and down the lane for kindling.  One farmer cursed the boys by name and sent his dog after them.  Seamus heard the story that night, went to the farmer's house and punched him in the mouth.   Nothing furtherwas ever said about it.

        Now Seamus is gone.  Shane drives a long-distance lorry across Europe and back.  Miceal  graduated from Queen's University and is a solicitor.  Liza is still around.  She is about 20 years old, but we were told donkeys often live 40-45 years.  When our house is finished and we are spending more time there than in America, Liza will be ours.  As I understand, she comes with McGinns' field.

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