Ireland, home of legendary poets and storytellers, has been wracked by bloody sectarian violence over the last quarter century. Bombs and guns were, and once again are, the primary negotiation tools used by Catholic and Protestant extremists in the conflict surrounding the sovereignty of Northern Ireland-the six counties known as Ulster.
Only Wounded centers on the hopes and despairs of everyday life during these new Troubles. New York Times bestselling author Patrick Taylor traces an intricate narrative path through Ulster, detailing sensitive, unbiased portraits of the ordinary-and not so ordinary-people caught in the partisan brutality of Northern Ireland.
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Stories of the Irish Troubles
By Patrick Taylor
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1997 Ballybucklebo Stories Corp.
All rights reserved.
Much of Belfast owes its being to the Victorian linen mill masters, who, with true Christian charity and a shrewd eye for productivity, built row upon row of workers' houses marching with the symmetry of the Brigade of Guards, terrace following terrace in anonymous uniformity. In the very heart of the city, narrow streets run between the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road.
Many Shankill Protestants are staunchly Loyalist. They salute the Union Jack, believe God to be an Orangeman, and Ian Paisley his anointed. In the Falls district, committed Republicans fly the tricolour of Eire in defiance of the laws of Northern Ireland and belong to such outlawed organizations as the IRA and Sinn Fein. The factions are barely separated yet for years they managed to co-exist despite their deep differences — until the Troubles.
Gerry Connolly was born before the Troubles, on the seventeenth of January, 1950. He came into the world in a corridor of the Royal Maternity Hospital. Too many patients were labouring and being confined for his mother to be afforded a room to herself. His birth occasioned no great stir. He was neatly fielded, eyes swabbed, cord clamped, bottom slapped, wrapped in a towel, shown briefly to his semicomprehending mother, and taken off to an aseptic nursery, where he spent the next six days in the company of fourteen identical infants. At least he had a cot to himself.
Mrs. Connolly took him home to Cupar Street to a small house where a crucifix hung in the bedroom and a plaster image of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes stood on an old dresser in the front parlour. For the first five months of his life he slept alone in a drawer at the foot of his parents' bed, but when his early morning noises became too much for old man Connolly, he was transferred to the room next door, where three elder brothers shared a double bed, and Brendan, only thirteen months his senior, had, until Gerry's arrival, the monopoly of a crib. Brendan did not take kindly to having to double up. From the moment of his birth Gerry was rarely to be entirely alone.
His mother died, quietly, unobtrusively, and with a sigh of relief, bearing the eighth Connolly baby, leaving Gerry a sturdy child of six, already able to hold his own with the other boys in the street. His father, a welder in the shipyard, was too preoccupied with feeding eight mouths to take a very active part in his children's upbringing, but there was a rough affection, a sense of family.
Gerry lived in a crowd. He played on the streets, and on the bomb sites, reminders of the nights the Luftwaffe had visited Belfast, the arse of his trousers torn, his upper lip shiny with a snot track, periodically rubbed away with a grubby sleeve. People, noise, congestion were all part of the normal pattern.
Saint Gall's, where Gerry went to school, was run by priests. The building, of ageing red brick, softened by drizzle and pitted by corrosives from the factory chimneys, squatted in a tarmac yard facing Cupar Way. The fathers, well-meaning men, struggled with their primitive surroundings, the gloomy passages, the high-ceilinged barns that did service as classrooms, and the feeling, prevalent among the children, that book learning was a waste of time. Gerry's lessons were confined to the three Rs and Irish history, taught by a bitter, stunted Nationalist whose idea of the torments of purgatory was to live forever in an Ireland "crushed beneath the Saxon's heel." Gerry did not grasp the imagery of the little priest's diatribes but was made to see clearly the fate of any Catholic foolish enough to become involved with the Protestants.
His early indoctrination was tempered by Father James. The tubby cleric taught by example and illustration, leading rather than driving, rarely having to resort to the cane. Father James, as well as teaching maths, had a special responsibility for religious instruction. He discharged this duty with an eccentric disregard for dogma and preferred to instill a code of behaviour based on the work of Kipling rather than the Holy Writ. Above his lectern a framed copy of "If" took the place of the more customary biblical scene and was religiously recited at the beginning of each lesson. Gerry soon learned the poem by heart and sometimes wondered if Mr. Kipling had written any others.
Gerry was a poor student, but he liked Father James and paid attention in his classes, trying to please. He felt shame beyond endurance when, aged twelve, he was caught copying his homework, and in an effort to save his own skin, told. The priest made Gerry wait behind after class and gave the boy the thrashing of his life, punctuating each stroke with the same words. "Don't you ever tell tales again." Gerry, sobbing, had sworn not to and was dimissed with a curt reminder that a promise was a promise.
Father James had one other talent. For such a rotund man he was remarkably nimble and as a boy he had been a keen boxer. He taught Gerry how to box.
Gerry left school at sixteen. He was a stocky youth, black haired, dark eyed, with a bent nose he'd picked up in the ring. He could read and write and number well enough to know if he had been short-changed on a packet of cigarettes. He was a Catholic, more by conditioning than from any deep conviction. Unemployment was high in Belfast, and the shipyard where Gerry was to have joined his father as an apprentice plater was not taking on. He joined the queues at the Labour Exchange, "the burroo," instead and drew his unemployment benefit from a myopic blonde clerk who, secure in her job, dispensed the money with the condescension of royalty on Maundy Thursday. From time to time he sought work on building sites, travelling on corporation buses packed with men in Dexter coats and smelling of damp undervests. He met with prejudice and was usually turned away disappointed. No one ever asked his religion. The simple question "What school did you go to?" was sufficient to identify him. An inborn acceptance of his inferior status, rather than any generosity of spirit, kept bitterness from marking him.
His days were long. There wasn't much to do but stand on street corners with other men, smoking, talking, wasting his time. Wasting his life. Sometimes to amuse his friends he would recite "If." They would always have a good laugh at the bit about filling the "unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run." All their days were full of unforgiving minutes and nowhere to run to.
Often the conversation would turn to what might happen if the six counties could be reunited with The Republic. Gerry found the visions of Celtic Twilight romantic but unrealistic. He could see that if it happened, his chances of getting a job would be no better and the British dole was higher than the handouts from the Irish government.
And he needed the cash. He had to chip most of it in at home for board and lodge. Da didn't let Gerry keep more than a few bob for pocket money. Enough for fags and beer and the occasional trip to the Palace Ballroom. When he met Bridget there, his life brightened for a while. She was pretty decent about paying her whack, she could afford to, Gallagher's cigarette factory gave its women workers a fair wage, but she drew the line at buying his pints or cinema tickets. Good thing she got lots of free samples of smokes.
Sometimes Gerry would spend a few bob on science fiction magazines that he bought in a second-hand bookstore in Smithfield Market. There he came across an old copy of Rudyard Kipling. Selected Verse. He thumbed through the pages looking for "If." He felt as though he had found an old friend, gave a moment's thought to Father James, and bought the book.
It took him several months to read it all. He did not understand a lot of the poems, but some of the ones about soldiers, the ones that told stories, were as exciting as any of the Buck Rogers stuff. Kipling's far-away places were closer than Altair or Beetlegeuse, though Gerry realized that he was as likely to go to Afghanistan or India as to the Spiral Nebula. "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" was his favourite poem. He found something heroic about the soldiers of the broken British square, even though he knew he should be pleased about anything that gave the Brits a poke in the eye.
He'd tried to read some Kipling to Bridget but she'd thought it was silly. She didn't like poetry much. In fact, she didn't really like Gerry much anymore. Any man good enough for her had to have a steady job.
For several months he missed their heated fumblings in the back rows of cinemas or the dark alleys of the Falls. She'd never let him go all the way, but then he hadn't expected to. Girls brought up at convent schools were like that. He hadn't bothered much with girls since. He'd put away the Kipling, too.
He settled for loitering with his mates and his rarely successful attempts to find short-term labouring jobs. Sunday was the bright spot of most of his weeks. Da and Gerry and the rest of the boys would go to Casement Park and watch Gaelic football or hurling matches. They'd done that for as long as Gerry could remember. Da was funny about Sundays. He insisted that after the game the whole family would sit down for the supper Gerry's sisters had prepared. Da said it kept the family together.
Fridays, dole day, Gerry spent the afternoons in betting shops and the evenings in the pub. Over a pint of stout, he was as happy as the next man to blame all his troubles on "Them" at Stormont but in reality understood little of events in the political world, events over which he had no control.
* * *
Robert Atkinson, Her Majesty's Minister of Industry and Commerce, sat in an oak-panelled office in London. He had a hangover, which put him in remarkably bad humour. The occasion responsible for his pounding head had not been pleasant. Last night he had been taken to dinner by some very strong-willed men from Ulster who had come to persuade him to give more money to the already shaky shipyards. They kept him in conversation for much longer than he had anticipated, the while plying him with a very excellent brandy.
His temples throbbed and his mouth felt gritty. No doubt the shipbuilders had made convincing arguments, but so had the people who wanted his ministry to fund a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland. The Highlands were as economically depressed as Northern Ireland. He was supposed to have dinner with the Scots delegation again tonight, and, perish the thought, they were probably hoping to sway him with single malt whisky.
He saw little to choose between the two proposals. In the end it all boiled down to politics. The Scots if disappointed would not vote Labour in the next general election, and the Scottish seat was marginal at best. Ulstermen? They had no choice. No matter what he did they'd vote Conservative and Unionist if they wanted to keep their gloomy six counties part of Great Britain. The Tories had played that card since the days of Lord Edward Carson and Winston Churchill. Besides, he would have to visit the recipients of his industrial grant and the salmon fishing was a damn sight better up north.
The insistent ringing of his telephone intruded, and he was less than pleased to hear the nasal voice of the head of the Ulster delegation.
"Well, minister, have you decided yet?"
He sighed. "Terribly sorry, old man. There's simply not enough to go round. I only wish there —"
"Bugger you." The line went dead.
Robert Atkinson sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and hoped that the repercussions of his decision would not be too catastrophic.
* * *
On the day that this conversation was taking place, Gerry was trying — and failing — to find work. It had been several months since his last job, and the boredom of enforced idleness made the hours hard to fill. He placed a few hopeful bets at the bookie's, killing time between races in a pub across the street. He took his pint with spiritless men, long unemployed, who sat on rough benches, drank from straight pint glasses of watery porter, reminisced, swore, spat in the sawdust, resignedly tore up losing tickets, and selected more runners from dog-eared copies of the local paper.
Gerry rose from his seat. He'd had enough of the cramped room. The cigarette fug made his eyes water. He might as well go home. None of his horses had come in.
He stepped out onto the street and pulled a few coins from his pocket. Shit. Not even enough for bus fare. Ach well, he was in no rush. The walk would fill a bit of time. Those other fellows in the pub were enough to make anyone miserable. He felt cleaner just being in the open air, such as it was in the city. He walked on. An unimaginative display in the window of an army recruiting office briefly caught his eye. He smiled. He didn't need to break his stride to know that it promised "A Man's Life." Had they used posters like that when Mr. Kipling was writing?
Gerry felt the unspoken, subdued feeling of apprehension the moment he arrived home. His father, naturally inarticulate, was even less communicative.
"What's up, Da?"
"Yard's going to lay off more men."
No wonder the old man was tight-lipped. Liam, one of his younger brothers, had been given his cards last week.
"What about them bosses that went to London?"
"There's a rumour out they done no good."
"Have you not seniority, Da?"
A derisive snort. "Served my time before you were born. Fat lot of good it'll do me if they close the graving dock."
"Maybe the rumours is wrong?"
"Aye. Maybe." Da's eyes held little hope.
The blow fell three days later.
"Twenty-seven fucking years at the Big Yard." Da stood looking out the kitchen window, his back to Gerry. "D'you know that song, 'Belfast Mill'? '... I'm too old to work but I'm too young to die.' That's me, Gerry." Da turned. "I'm not saying it's because I'm a Catholic but a brave few of the Protestants got kept on. I just don't know how we're going to get by."
Gerry soon saw how strapped the family was. He tried desperately to find work.
He and Da went down together on Friday to collect their dole. Da counted the few notes.
"Ach, to hell with it, Gerry. Come on. I'll buy you a jar. Just the one."
On the way to the pub they passed the army office. The recruiting poster still hung in the window. Gerry stopped and stared. "Come here a minute, Da."
His father turned back. "What?"
"I could join up."
"Not at all. England's always fought her wars on the backs of the Irish. Come on." Da strode off.
Ach, well. It had only been a notion anyway.
They stood together at the bar. The pub was packed.
Da took a deep swallow of his pint. "Were you serious?"
Just like Da. Say "no" then think a thing over.
"Well, it would be one less mouth to feed at our house, and the pay's not bad. I could maybe send a few quid home." I could get out of Belfast, too. Even see Mr. Kipling's India, he thought. That idea was suddenly appealing.
"We'd miss you, son."
"Aye, but I'd get home on leaves. I might even get sent to Palace Barracks at Holywood."
Da finished his drink. "Get that down you. We'll go and have a word with the sergeant. You're under age at seventeen. I'd need to sign some papers."
Gerry wished the sergeant wasn't in such a hurry, rattling through the routine. The little ceremony was important to Gerry. The papers were quickly completed, Da signed, and Gerry found himself holding a Bible and taking the oath of allegiance. The phrases were solemn, and their sounds pleasing. The soldier sitting at the desk opposite might not care, but as Gerry returned the book he suddenly remembered Father James and heard his words, "A promise is a promise."
"Right, then," said the sergeant. "Come back here next Monday. Bring your suitcase. I'll have your orders and a travel warrant."
"Yes, sergeant." The man didn't look a bit like Gerry's image of the colour-sergeant in Kipling's "Danny Deever."
Da grunted. "That's that then." He took Gerry's arm. "Come on. We'll have one more wee wet. Going away present."
And Gerry saw that Da's eyes were misted.
* * *
It would be two years before Gerry returned to Belfast. A very different Belfast. Much was to happen to him in those two years. At Catterick Camp in Yorkshire he was surprised by the impersonality of induction, but was no stranger to the indignities of communal living. The jostling, like cattle, in a mass of bodies through the showers, hair cuts, inoculations, free-from-infection-inspections, and kit issues did not bother him. Nor did the idea of sleeping twenty to a barracks, messing in echoing halls with crowds of other bewildered recruits.
He soon settled into the life of a peace-time soldier. "Boots — boots — boots — boots, movin' up and down again." He didn't mind. The discipline was tolerable, and Sergeant Edwards, in charge of Gerry's hut, may have been a living caricature, but he was no worse than many of the priests at Gerry's old school. The course of Gerry's basic training, where he learnt the intricacies of the about-turn on the march, the workings of the FN rifle, and the traditions of his regiment, passed uneventfully.
Excerpted from Only Wounded by Patrick Taylor. Copyright © 1997 Ballybucklebo Stories Corp.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of Northern Ireland,
Map of Ireland,
Strangford Lough 1964,
She Moved Through the Fair,
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?,
Birdsong in the Morning,
Burrard Inlet 1994,
About the Author,
By Patrick Taylor,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another must read from a fine writer. Patrick Taylor’s Only Wounded is a gift for the short story enthusiast. From the get-go Taylor’s tales of ordinary people caught up in the 1969-1994 Troubles in Ulster demonstrate his mastery of character, plot, and atmosphere, Never taking sides, always trying to understand he takes us to a gritty Ireland far from the plastic land of the “little people.”