In 1980, when I was a sophomore in college, I spent the summer in Amsterdam working at The Shelter, a Christian sponsored youth hostel in the red-light district. An Irishman named Kevin McGrady with crinkly eyes and a taunting sense of humor became my flirtatious friend. We spent the summer working together and one night we went out for what felt like a date. It was casual but we were away from the Hostel and alone which made it an event. All I remember is that we teased each other, walked the canals and he told me he had a decision to make but wouldn’t tell me what. Years later I learned that in 1982, Kevin returned to Ireland, turned himself in, was convicted for crimes committed including several murders while he had been a member of the IRA’s 4th Battalion of the Belfast Brigade. In 1983, he was the star witness in the third Supergrass trial, resulting in the arrest and conviction of several IRA members.
On this trip to Belfast, Felicia and Daria had arranged for us to take a Black Cab Tour which focused on the political murals and the “Peace line” between the Nationalists (Catholics) and Loyalists (Protestants.)
This 90 minute tour turned into 3 hours as our wonderful guide first took us along the peace line on the Catholic side and then crossed over into Protestant territory. Our guide clearly was a supporter of the Nationalist cause and the presentation was biased but he went out of his way to show us protest murals on both sides, give us the history of the area, drive us by the Crumlin Prison where my friend Kevin had been imprisoned, and introduce us to friends.
Leah Samuelson, a friend who joined us in Dublin, is a muralist and teaches Community Art among other courses at Wheaton College. Our guide not only showed her (and us) the murals but introduced us to the man, Danny, who paints most of the murals on the Nationalist side. We met him the next day and spoke with him as he was getting to work.
I can’t believe we saw Sinn Fein’s office/headquarters.
The Protestant side of the line had their own protest murals and patriotic displays.
They also were building a huge bonfire for July 12th, the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne and a huge annual holiday for the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant organization.
Our guide eventually drove us to our B&B which was in a working class neighborhood on the Nationalist side. He went above and beyond for us. Through this tour, I glimpsed my friend Kevin’s ‘decision’ that he eventually made. I don’t know what has happened to him and his family. He was no friend to either side and the IRA was not kind to informants. If he is still alive, he may have left the country. I asked our guide at the start of the trip if he knew the name and he stated he didn’t. The more time we spent with him, the more I came to believe that he knew much more about the IRA’s workings than he was acknowledging. It was a difficult afternoon–so many people died, so many fallen young people painted on the walls at the ends of each of their blocks. While peace is in the wind, there is still violence–a bomb went off there last week.
What an opportunity to learn about Belfast.