Patrick Rooney was a good kid. It was 1969 and he had just moved into Divis Flats on the Falls Road in Belfast with the rest of his family. I say kid because he was only nine years old when his life came to an abrupt end forty-eight years ago today. On that fateful night, Patrick became the first child victim in the long struggle that came to be known as Ireland’s Troubles.
My body is rebelling against being thrown back into the States and I caught a vicious cold on the flight back from Ireland. This cold, on top of the jet lag, culture shock, and come down after such a mind-blowing holiday has left me quite speechless. I have a lot of catching up to do for sure and a lot of processing to do as well.
Today Bobby Sands would have turned 62 had he lived beyond his hunger strike. Since he did not and I happen to be in Belfast, I decided to visit him (and others) in Milltown Cemetery, bringing flowers that were long overdue.
Operation Banner is the official name for the nearly forty years that the British Army was officially deployed in the North of Ireland. It was launched on this day in 1969, in part because of the Battle of the Bogside and the riots and protests that it set off in the rest of the north.
It was clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary could not handle (and did not tolerate) the rising voices of the Civil Rights movement, nor could it control the protests and riots that unfolded during that time. The civil unrest was made worse by the obvious bias that the RUC had against Catholics, Nationalists, and Republicans. Originally those communities welcomed the Army, thinking the soldiers would be more impartial and supportive. It soon became apparent that was not the case and as the British Army paired up with the RUC, a gradual souring took place within the community. This led to an uptick in those willing to fight against them and the enrollment in the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups boomed.
Everyone likes a parade. I get it. They’re all pomp and circumstance – people showing off their heritage, their music, their flags. There are parades worldwide for what seems like every single little excuse that anyone can find. Some are big, some are small, some are downright silly, and some threaten a fragile balance.
The marching season in the North of Ireland falls into the last category. July 12th is a day that roughly half of the population celebrates the victory of William of Orange (a Dutch King, by the way) over the English King James II. It’s a huge holiday which is steeped in irony, when you think about it. This is a bunch of people who violently insist on being considered British that take to the streets to celebrate a Dutch victory over their own historical ruler. Label that one for storage in the “Things that make you go hmmmm” file.
The truth is, they are really celebrating the defeat of Catholicism. James II was a Catholic and when the Dutch king defeated him, Protestants were granted great wealth and positions of power. It opened the door for instant change – one that Protestants in the area have enjoyed for centuries.