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.
Tradition is a word that is thrown about a lot. It’s used as justification for both good and bad deeds of the past and it’s a word that is often trotted out by hate groups throughout the world in an attempt to excuse their continuing and horrifying behavior. The KKK uses it as a recruiting tool. The Orange Order uses it as a weapon for blackmail and destruction. Other groups use it as well. Politicians use it to garner votes. Parents use it to pressure their children. But tradition is an outdated ideal that doesn’t exist anymore on many, many levels and it’s time to let some of it go.
It’s a fill in the blank title, predominantly because almost any adjective in the world could be used to describe the 12th of July in Ireland, depending on where you come from. That said, my own fill in the blank words would include Ridiculous, Divisive, Uncontrolled, and Tragic, just to start with. There are plenty more but I think those are my choices to sum up a whole lot of inflamed feelings, a huge cultural problem, and the profound lack of leadership witnessed all over the North of Ireland and beyond for the last few days.
The beginning of September is a nightmare for parents. They say that getting their kids ready for learning and getting back into the swing of the school year is always the hardest during the first week. There’s a lot of pressure already on everyone. So what happens when an actual battle is being waged every day on top of that and your little girls are being attacked? Well, everything and everyone explodes – just ask the people in the area of Ardoyne, near the interface.
45 years ago the Nationalist people in the Bogside area of Derry began a legendary fight with the British authorities that is widely regarded as one of the first events of the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The violence, rioting and battle began on August 12th, 1969 and was ignited by an ill-conceived decision to allow the Apprentice Boys to parade near the Nationalist and Catholic areas of Derry.
The authorities saw no reason to stop the oppressive parade that had been happening annually for years. What made this year different than others though was the political climate, which they were not in the habit of paying attention to. The Civil Rights movement was gaining traction all over the North and had led to many skirmishes in Derry already that year. The level of dissatisfaction in the Catholic and Nationalist areas including the Bogside, was already palpable and growing stronger every day. In 1969, Catholics made up more of the population than any others but the Protestant Minority still held all the key positions in government and power so they had no recourse for injustices they faced. Many flooded into the civil rights movement in order to have a voice – and those voices were getting stronger and stronger, despite being ignored by the leadership of the city.
It was under this kind of tension that the parade was not only allowed to happen, but it was going to happen right in their faces. It was the spark that sent the Bogside over the edge. In the days leading up to the parade, many attempts were made within the area to keep residents calm and a request was sent to the Apprentice Boys and the government to either cancel or to reroute the march. The plea was refused and the attempts for calm became plans for defensive maneuvers.
Ireland is famous for many things. Rolling green hills and natural beauty, monolithic tombs, castles, faeries and lore, wool, turf, and whiskey are just the first that come to mind. But it has many more dubious claims to fame as well – and one of those is the notorious rubber bullet.
This little guy was designed by the British government specifically for use in Northern Ireland as a crowd control tool against rioters. Those pesky people who wanted civil rights were causing problems and just wouldn’t stop. Because the British soldiers had fired on them numerous times and caused a significant number of deaths in the region, the government decided to give them a different option. They unveiled these totally better, non-lethal rounds (eye roll) so that they could hurt people but not kill them. The rounds were created to cause scars and pain, but in theory, they would not cause death. They were used for the first time on August 2nd, 1970.
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.