In Belfast, where the sun never shines, where a sliver of a river runs sadly to sea, we are talking about St. Patrick, the man who charmed the snakes.
It was the Irish that Jack McKinney hated most. The American Irish, the “once-a-year Irish who get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day and sing Irish songs written by Jews in Tin Pan Alley.”
I would spend a St. Patrick’s eve with the Philly writer and radio host in Belfast, the city the color of cold oatmeal. Eats your bones, makes you sick. No heat, just coal. The lesson of two evils.
It is no coincidence that Aer Lingus only flies from Dublin to Belfast twice a week. You fly in to Dublin from America over the south, a gently smooth 707 ride over this fantastically beautiful green patchwork quilt. An emerald set in the ring of the sea. Then you change planes to fly north. The clouds greet you at the border. They get darker and dirtier as you approach Belfast. There is no color in Belfast. There isn’t even any black or white. Everything is gray.
The natives go out between 2:10 and 2:15 in the afternoon. That is when it doesn’t rain. The Belfast skyline is three stories high. You look around and there probably hasn’t been a new building put up in the past 50 years, maybe 100. If the 19th century ever comes back, this town is going to thrive.
Like America, there is hate here. It is on the surface, and it is way beneath. On my first night, McKinney takes me to a pub where the high muck-a-mucks from the Irish Republican Army brew, the young arguing with the old about the proper way to fight a civil war. In between Guinness stouts.
“What’ll ya be havin’, lad?” the barkeep asks.
I’m in Ireland, so I order whiskey. “I’ll have a Bushmills.”
McKinney grabs me by the scruff of the neck. “No Bushmills,” he yells. “That’s Protestant whiskey. You order Jamesons.”
It was the first sign of hate I saw. Whiskey. The next morning, we would drive down Falls Road, the great religious dividing line in Belfast. Protestants to the left of me, Catholics to the right. The Catholic side looked like Saigon after the fall. Bombed buildings, burned faces and “NO POPE HERE!” signs everywhere. These people really hated each other.
“I don’t get it,” I told McKinney. “In America, hate is color-coded. There are white people and brown people and black people. It’s hard to miss the difference. Here, they’re all white people. They’re all Irish. How can you tell who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant?”
He looked at me like I was mad. “The Catholics are working people,” he said. “They have ruddier complexions. Didn’t you notice that?”
We would continue our travels through the north, taking every back road that had ever been laid. We would be shot at by the B-Specials, the pro-Protestant British forces that occupied the north. They would miss.
It is almost dark by the time we get to Derry, the walled city. The Catholics are forced to live inside the wall. Protestants are free to roam outside. We drive to the home of Eamonn Melaugh. Melaugh is one of the more militant leaders in Derry. He’s got enough to be mad about. He’s got a wife and nine kids and no job. That’s one of the things that touches you about the whole movement — people like Melaugh with nine kids. Schooled as an engineer. But for the way he worships God, the best he could ever hope for is occasional work as a janitor.
As darkness falls and day turns to fright, you can hear the guns blazing outside his tiny house. It will be a night of violence, just like the nights before.
In Ireland, war is bad. Hate is hell.