It’s not like the ’80s

Aug 12th, 2010 | By | Category: Ireland

Standing at the church door, watching an army jeep come up the road and then turn left at the road closure, there is a flicker of remembrance.

Blackened-faced, combat dressed men standing at the Rectory gates asking questions in flat Estuary English voices; their questions pointless because any answer would satisfy them.  Pairs of dark green armoured Land Rovers flying down the road, boys dressed as soldiers staring from the open back door.  Windows shaking in their frames as a huge land mine four miles off blows local men into unidentifiable pieces.  The dull, stomach churning thud of helicopters rotors as foot patrols were disgorged into the paddock.  Being stopped at the end the drive by a zealous reservist, demanding where I was going.  Teenagers sitting on the tarmac at the back gate; guns leant against the stone piers; helmets set down in an attempt to find cool in the summer heat; their acceptance of cans of Coca-Cola in defiance of every regulation.  Once, opening the front door of the Victorian house in its acre of garden, there was a soldier perched on the doorstep, gun pointed at the crossroads to cover his comrades on checkpoint duty.

If there were sides in the futile and bloody conflict, these boys were on my side, though they made me feel no safer, and what if I had been of the other community?  What if I had not been called ‘Ian’ and spoken with an English accent?  What if I had been ‘Padraig’ and had been a nationalist?  How would I have liked soldiers in my garden?

Not that the soldiers wanted to be there.  They had no training in solving the insoluble.  Frightened and uncertain kids, anxious to reach the end of their tour of duty, it became difficult for even a Brit like myself to see them as having much of a beneficial role.

The Irish army jeep, diverted off its intended route into the Slieve Bloom mountains by bridge repairs would never have travelled a hostile road where triggering a roadside bomb would reduce it to no more than scrap metal.

A while later, driving a gentle road through Co Laois farmland, Lyric FM played two tunes in sequence, Brothers in Arms and Band of Brothers. As Mark Knopfler’s lyrics floated across the warm August afternoon, there was a sense that no matter how things might be, they were not as bad as they had once been.

These mist covered mountains
are a home now for me
but my home is the lowlands
and always will be.
Some day you’ll return to
your valleys and your farms
and you’ll no longer burn
to be brothers in arms.

Did the kids behind the eyes that peered at driving licenses, that watched every hedgerow and wall, that looked in through the car window with a mixture of tiredness and anxiety, that showed no hope and less joy, did they desire the camaraderie of a foot patrol, or would they have wished to be back in whatever place was like valleys and farms to them?

The commentators who talk about the recession bringing times like the 1980s obviously never experienced a checkpoint on a winter’s night.

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  1. I agree with you, Ian.

    You have to have been through these checkpoints to experience the conflicting emotions. I am one of your Padraigs, so I felt oppressed, but by whom. Teenagers in uniform who were much more scared than I was. They joined for a career, a trade, and found themselves on the front line. Pitiful. My only fear was their nervousness, and they armed.

    Having said that I was very incensed in the 1970s when I saw the recruitment posters in the Army Office in Durham. Sure, it mentioned a trade and qualifications, but it also played on a teenager’s attraction to excitement, which I thought was really obscene.

    I agree, though, that this is not the 70s, or 80s, and we are hopefully in a better place. But eternal vigilance is still the price of peace, and I don’t mean that as a NATO slogan, rather a paraphrase of Burke.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. In the long distant future, I wonder how the deployment of soldiers will be perceived? I don’t think the army had any desire for such a role.

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