When American journalist Patrick Michael Rucker learned of the Northern Ireland peace accord signed on Good Friday, 1998, he knew he had to return. Rucker had last seen this torn country in 1991, when “the troubles” raged at a fever pitch of daily bombings and murder. Could such a violently divided society truly live in peace? What had changed? In the fall of 1998, Rucker returned to Belfast to see for himself, and this stark, gritty, spellbinding book is his report.
A fearless and brilliant reporter, Rucker sought out victims and killers, leading IRA terrorists and the loyalist counterparts bent on assassinating them, British soldiers and innocent bystanders swept helplessly into an endless undeclared war. Rucker watched as Michelle Williamson chained herself outside a prison to protest the release of the IRA prisoner whose bomb killed her innocent parents. He visited the hospital room of Liam Cairns, a young man abducted by an IRA “punishment gang” and beaten beyond recognition. He tracked down the children of Jean McConville, a widow abducted and killed decades ago for aiding a British solider–a tragic mistake that the IRA finally was ready to admit. There are scores of encounters like these in the pages of This Troubled Land, shocking portraits of a society caught in a nightmare of rage and despair.
But as Rucker discovers, despair has now begun to give way to a different mood–not forgiveness and reconciliation, exactly, for the wounds are still too raw, but a weary longing for closure. Rucker sees glimmers of hope in a Protestant mother murmuring an apology to a Catholic widow, in talk of forgetting the past, in the jarring vision of a glass-roofed double-decker bus carrying tourists down Belfast’s Madrid Street, where just a few years ago bullets flew between the Catholics and the Protestants.
In vivid, electrifying prose, Rucker captures the soul of a country at a critical juncture, a country finally putting the darkest moments of its past behind and daring to look ahead.
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Patrick Michael Rucker was born in Portland, Oregon in 1974. He has lived in Belfast since 1998 and has reported on the aftermath of the Good Friday Peace Accord for The Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and Newsweek.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was a mild summer day when Anthony McIntyre and Steven Rogan bumped into each other outside the Linenhall Library in the center of Belfast. Rogan was shopping; McIntyre was rushing to work. McIntyre saw Rogan first and ventured a smile of recognition. Rogan smiled back. The two men had not seen one another in about ten years; enough time had passed for them to share a friendly conversation and an ironic laugh at their chance meeting.
When the Troubles erupted in the early seventies, Northern Ireland authorities were short of prison space, so they threw barbed wire around the perimeter of Long Kesh, a 130-acre disused air force base ten miles from Belfast, and held inmates there. The tin huts that had once served as military barracks were recommissioned as prison cells. It was a stopgap measure that worked for a while until, after a few years, the prison population topped three thousand and the authorities reluctantly conceded that, yes, the Troubles would last for a while and they had better make the appropriate arrangements. Eight H-shaped cell blocks were constructed next to the existing huts at Long Kesh and the compound was christened the Maze prison—the most modern and secure prison in Europe.
In 1978, Anthony McIntyre, having gunned down a Loyalist paramilitary leader outside a Belfast bar, was beginning a life sentence on one of the IRA wings of the H-blocks. He wore his own clothes, could associate with other prisoners, and did not have to work. Those were the allowances made for the prisoners classed as “special-category”—jargon for men convicted for political violence. But then the prison authorities decreed that political violence was really only violence and the special category status was being eliminated in favor of a more conventional prison regime.
Anthony McIntyre and the rest of his comrades saw themselves as soldiers fighting a war; they would wear their bedsheets before they would wear a gray prison uniform. And it came to that. Each inmate took one of the three blankets he had been issued, folded it in half, and tied it around his waist like a kilt. If it was cold, he took another blanket, cut a hole in the middle, and wore it like a poncho. The prisoners refused to shave or wash. They did not slop out, but instead smeared their excreta on the walls. Officials hit back, putting prisoners under twenty-four-hour lockdown and taking their books and papers.
McIntyre and his fellow IRA inmates passed the time alone in their fetid cells by singing songs or shouting Irish language lessons down the prison corridors. A game of chess could be organized with a bit of margarine spread on the cell door and torn shreds of the Mass reading stuck to it as pieces. Little luxuries like the contraband parcels of tobacco that were furtively passed during prison visits were savored. But there was no overlooking the foul conditions, not when McIntyre had to sleep in his own filth with maggots crawling across the floor, or the stupefying boredom that was his life in an eight-by-ten-foot cell. It was a grueling, often humiliating existence, but McIntyre tried to keep his spirits up. The protest was a battle of wills, and any time that Anthony McIntyre felt himself overcome with rage or frustration he took all that emotion, his anger against the brutal prison authorities and every hated screw that paced the corridors outside his cell, and turned it into defiance. At night, McIntyre went to bed and dreamed of splashing in a swimming pool or reading a book.
Steven Rogan arrived at the prison the same year that Anthony McIntyre started his protest. The two men were the same age, twenty-one, but instead of a coarse blanket, Steven Rogan wore the sharp blue uniform of a prison officer. It was the money that drew him to the job; Rogan was earning more than twice as much as his friends, but it was exhausting, soul-destroying work. Nine-hour shifts were the norm, but everyone was expected to pull some overtime. It was not uncommon for guards to work thirteen days over two weeks. Rogan saw the prisoners’ sallow faces, and he choked on the putrid odor from their cells. Even worse than that was the caustic smell of ammonia used to clean the wings, which could bring a man to his knees. Still, it was enlightening to see the consequence of the violence that was happening on the street. But for the grace of God, Steven Rogan would think, I am on this side of the door.
The officers were paid good money, but they earned it. The novelty of the job soon wore off for Steven Rogan and gave way to tedium at work and fear when he left. The IRA was targeting prison guards for assassination, officers like Agnes Wallace, who had just collected her pay when she was gunned down, and Pacelli Dillon, father of a blind and crippled five-year-old girl, who was shot dead outside his home. Many prison staff just could not cope with the anxiety; their families fell apart or they were ruined by drink. Twenty-nine prison officers were murdered during the Troubles and another fifty committed suicide.
The blanket protest eventually gave way to hunger strikes. When ten men starved themselves to death, prison officials relented and reinstated the privileges. It was around the time that the protests ended that Anthony McIntyre and Steven Rogan met. It might have been when Rogan delivered a meal to McIntyre’s cell; maybe it was when Rogan escorted him to the chapel or a prison visit, but the two men started talking. They talked about prison food, the weather, sports—the mundane things at first. Then they shared a few laughs and started talking about prison life and the conflict, what one side was doing to the other outside the prison walls. When the men began to trust one another, they talked about their upbringing, their families, and their plans for the future.
Steven Rogan and Anthony McIntyre knew the rules of the game. McIntyre could not be seen fraternizing with the enemy, and Rogan did not want his bosses to think that he was going soft. But as their friendship grew over the next five years, the two men developed a respect for each other. That mutual respect made it even more awkward when they arrived on that plane of common ground where the only thing left to ask one another was, “So what are we doing here?”
Standing outside the library, the two men reminisced a bit about those days inside the prison and discussed where some of the other prisoners or guards were now. Steven Rogan was working in a youth detention center, but he had earned a degree in psychology and would soon be quitting to start a new career. Who knows? He may even emigrate to Canada. McIntyre had earned a degree too, a Ph.D. in political science. His girlfriend was pregnant and they were living together in west Belfast. It was nice to catch up, but really, both men were in a hurry and should get going. As the two parted, they promised to stay in touch, but they have not seen each other since.
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