A few years ago I was called taig for the second time in my life. It was in the parking lot of my neighborhood Wawa. My bumper sticker had started it. I had “26 +6 = 1” on mine, and the man who called me taig had the red hand of Ulster on his. The man spat some more words at me in a lush brogue until someone told him to knock it off. I never thought the sentiment of the North would follow me to Philadelphia.
The slur Taig is used by Loyalists to define the Northern Irish Catholics. “If guns are made for shooting, then skulls are made to crack. You’ve never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his back” horrified me when I heard it. No one wants a Taig in their midst when they’re an active member of the UVF. We drove through Tigers Bay to see the bombed out warehouses and the worst interface communities where between blocks that Protestants live on and blocks that Catholics live on, high brick walls were topped by barbed wire so that no one could throw bombs or rocks over the top. Entire sections of row homes were destroyed and graffitied plywood covered windows and doors: “Ready for Peace, Prepared for War”, “Fuck Taigs” and “No Surrender”, “Democracy Denied” and “PSNI Scum”. Both sides have their slogans of hatred. There are murals depicting “murderers” and the victims of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. Many murals depicted men in military dress with guns.
I went to Northern Ireland in May of 2003. To find God. To find myself. To find history. It was a two week study tour that I wasn’t prepared for. I had my clothing, my towel, my toiletries, and my books. But the Iraq war was a permanent backdrop to life and “BUSH NOT WELCOME HERE” was spray-painted red in 2-foot letters on a building for sale in Belfast. The letters covered posters boasting Boy George’s appearance at Joy Niteclub. Signs in Ballycastle read, “Even Saddam holds elections.” On the back of the building at Free Derry corner, it also now reads, “1968-2003 NOTHING HAS CHANGED WE DEMAND OUR RIGHTS.” Politics and tension were thick in the air wherever we went.
Ireland is portrayed in movies and travel ads as the land of beer pints and redheaded schoolgirls doing Irish step dancing. But the reality of the North is a former IRA member – Jon McCourt – showing us the direction people ran through Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday, the RUC closed around them and herding people into the square where they opened fire, killing as many as they could. Concrete barriers and buildings still bore the pitted markings of gunfire and shrapnel explosions. The area was shrouded in desolation. Murals by Bogside artists have been erected on nearly every block, depicting victims, activists, and events of that day. A black marble monument reminiscent of the shape of our own country’s Washington Monument, but a tenth of the size, was erected in a small courtyard. It bore the names and ages of the victims. The three youngest – Jackie Duddy, Hugh Gilmore, and Michael Kelly – were all seventeen years old, and they were all unarmed.
Our arrival days later in Belfast brought curbstones painted red, white, and blue indicating we were now in a Protestant territory, and served as a warning to those who are Catholic that should the step inside an establishment lining one of those blocks, they could expect to be hassled.
At Shankill Treatment Centre I met Tommy. A former UVF, chain smoker, not much taller than I, and thin – probably too thin. We sat on the ground outside the backdoor of the center. The way Tommy laughed when he talked about something painful, trying to cover up the sadness to what he was saying, made me uncomfortable. Whether he did this for my benefit or his own was unclear to me.
Tommy asked me something, but his accent was so thick that it wasn’t until I asked him to repeat the question a third time that I understood.
“So, yer a Fenian, aren’t ya? A fuckin’ Taig?” he asked. “You have the red hair…”
I replied with a mumbled, “I guess so,” while I averted my eyes, appearing transfixed by the ground beneath my outstretched legs. He chuckled.
“Aw, don’t yer worry bout that. See here,” he said. He rolled up the sleeve on his t-shirt to reveal a Celtic cross tattoo on his scrawny freckled arm. It was a simple black one, faded with either time or poor workmanship.
“My daughter… .she married a Catholic so I got this,” he explained. “He’s a good guy. Ya know? Best for her. Don’t matter what he is, ya see.”
I nodded and smiled at Tommy. I thought of my own tattoo – Celtic cross, about four inches in diameter. As he spoke of his own tattoo, I couldn’t help remembering that a few weeks before leaving, we had joked that if the plane got lost, we could use my tattoo like a Batman lamp as a homing device for Ireland. I had gotten it as a sign of permanent faith and a feeling of kinship. I didn’t know my red hair would be enough to brand me, let alone the ink on my back that I kept readjusting my shirt for to make sure it didn’t show.
In the middle of one Protestant housing community, wooden pallets, old doors and windows, along with broken sofas and armchairs were gathered as fuel for the July bonfires. There are young boys of eight or ten with guns and stone cold expressions protecting these piles. They are preparing for the Orange parades. The piles of fodder for the fire are gathered near a mural for Bucky McCullough like offerings on a shrine to the loyalists. I wonder if they even know what they are protecting and fighting for.
At the end of two weeks, we went back to the house we had started our journey in. It was called Knocklayd. To me, it was a place of safety and reflection nestled out of the way of the Troubles. It was here that we had one last mass and one last night of laughs and instant coffee before boarding the small Midland plane to Heathrow, and then back to Philadelphia. Knocklayd was high in the hills of County Antrim, a few minutes from the beach where the sun didn’t set until 9 and the sheep caused traffic jams on the narrow one lane road. On our last drive there I stared out the window at the passing fields, horses and sheep dotting the landscape on either side of the road we traveled. Some three thousand miles from what I called home, watching cattle graze a hundred feet away, I found what beauty truly is. The lowing of cows in the distance. The softness of the earth. Being alone, there, in that place with hate at a safe distance, insulated by ocean and hills, I felt as if I had met God. Or, at the least, as if I had finally come home.
Now it has been nearly a decade since that two weeks. I can close my eyes and see myself standing on the rocks at Giants Causway, or walking through the streets of Derry with John. I can hear Tommy’s hoarse laugh and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore of Ballycastle. Every Saint Patrick’s day I don my claddagh that I bought in Derry and the triskele earrings that I bought in Belfast. I have a pint of Guiness and remember how much better it tasted over there. And I remember the feeling of being a girl in the North with red hair being called a Taig.
Tiocfaidh ár lá.