Marching season is right around the corner, and PSNI is already warning that it’s going to be “challenging”, due to budget cuts. Hmm. Budget cuts to PSNI or no, it was bound to be challenging anyway, because Orange Order marches are by their very nature challenges. Taunts at best, terrorism at worst. Due to recent political events and the state of the economy in general, this July is bound to be a hot one.
This piece is just a little story, but it’s also a sort of introduction to my views on the Orangemen, their history and importance in Irish history, and the natural fact that most within PSNI (or RUC, as I habitually refer to them) sympathise with the Order and their aims. More on that later, in depth. But for now, a bit about two very frightened young people.
Years ago, I was taking my girlfriend at the the time on her first visit to Ireland. I’d made a promise to her father not to take her anywhere in the northern six counties. He was concerned with the IRA; I explained to him that the IRA was active across the island, and that we had more of a chance of being killed in a car accident than sectarian violence of any kind; and anyway, knowing where to go and where not to go, I was more concerned about being killed by loyalists, the RUC, or the British military than anything else. Despite being an extremely intelligent man, he was not quite fully educated on the complexities of the situation, and insisted, and so I promised not to take his only daughter up north. And a promise is a promise.
So, almost on the spur of the moment, my friend and I took the Stena from Holyhead Wales to Dun Laoghaire. I was only intending to spend one night there, as I was heading north-west, but I had no place to stay and figured we’d just spend the night at a B&B or hotel, or failing that, a hostel.
No room at the inn. Anywhere. There was a sporting event going on which I was unaware of, and everyplace was full. So it was off to Dublin proper.
Even worse. There were no accommodations available, whatsoever. I tried to ring a few friends, none of whom I could reach. Try to understand; I was attempting to make a good impression on this young lady friend of mine, not only for my own purposes, but on behalf of Ireland herself. My girlfriend had started out her day exhilarated, but by now was becoming tired and anxious. And it was getting late; and as you know, it’s always later than you think.
So I said, “I know. Let’s go to Drogheda. We can spend the night there, and in the morning we can go and visit Newgrange.”
I’d already shown her photos of Newgrange and explained it’s history, and as she was very keen on ancient architecture, she liked the idea. So we hopped a train, and off to Drogheda we went.
Whoops. No place to stay there either, and I don’t know anyone in Drogheda. I saw where this was going, and where we were going, and now I was the anxious one, because I did not want to go to Belfast. I had childhood memories of Catholics fleeing nationalist areas of the city in the summer; boarding up their windows and locking their doors, usually to no avail; sending their children to Dublin or Gweedore or anywhere they could find.
And there was that promise that I’d made to her father.
So I rang everyone I could get ahold of, with no positive results. It was night by this time, the train station was about to close, and my girlfriend was on the verge of a nervous breakdown (as was I.)
“We’ve got two choices,” I told her. “We can either sleep in the bushes or we can buy a ticket to Belfast.”
She literally started to shake and cry. I bought the tickets for the last train out to Belfast. The station closed as we awaited the train.
Then I got a phone call. One room available. In Drogheda.
I took it.
I’d already paid for our tickets to Belfast, and as I said, the station was officially closed for the night. But there was one employee still there, an older gentleman about to end his shift. Truth be told, his shift had probably ended some time before, but he could see that we were both distressed, and he knew why without asking. The station being closed, there was no way I could get a refund on my tickets. But he came up to me, took out his wallet, and gave me my money back, despite my protests.
“I’ll get it back from the office in the morning”, he said. Then he put his hands on my shoulders and said “Don’t worry.”
I very nearly wept.
And so my girlfriend and I spent the night in a lovely B&B, visited Newgrange, and then got the hell out of Dodge, so to speak.
I’ve nothing against Belfast; it’s a lovely place in so many ways, and I would never want to discourage anyone from visiting. Like all places, it’s wise to carefully choose your time to visit. Current events being what they are, and what I fear they will come to be (yet again), I offer only this one piece of advice; if she’s never been there before, don’t take your girlfriend on your first date.
Because in the summertime, living ain’t always easy.