at four am we piled into the car-myself, my wife and the youngest child-and drove away from our house in Fermanagh. The hedges were dusted with snow-like blossom, and the fields were filled with pillows of mist. The world seemed newly minted that morning.
In Belfast, at the SeaCat terminal, we got into line. A Stena stewardess was checking boarding cards. Men in shiny green football jerseys swaggered past. I paid no attention.
The line rolled forward. We were one from the front, behind a Ford XRi. The driver produced his boarding card and the stewardess bent down to look through the back passenger window. Suddenly, the driver put his head out of the front window and deposited his breakfast on the tarmac; ham and potatoes in lager.
The stewardess tapped the roof; the XRi accelerated away. I drove forward, shouting a warning. Too late. The stewardess stepped back into the puke, spearing a spud with a high heel.
“Oh God!” she said, trying to wipe her soles on the tarmac.
Stepping into the passenger lounge, ten minutes later, I saw why I should have paid attention to the swaggerers in green. Our companions, to a man, were Celtic supporters; the entire West Belfast supporters’ club was making the journey with us. My wife found two corner seats and together we formed a sulky middle-class huddle while the fans roistered around us.
At half-four in the afternoon, I found myself in a genteel Edinburgh hotel. We had done the wedding (this was why we had come to Scotland) and were now at the reception. Beside me sat a woman with cornflower blue eyes and a cut-glass English accent. We were eating roast beef.
“Where’re you from?” she asked.
“Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.”
“I know where it is,” she said, tartly.
Maybe she’s Ascendancy, I thought. “Are you from Ireland?” I asked.
“Goodness, no,” she said, “but Fergus, my late husband was.”
Five minutes later, I had the story. Fergus’s family were Catholics. His father, a career soldier in the British Army, returned at the age of 50 to Ballymena, and a sinecure in the RUC. This was in the 1950s. Fergus wanted to study engineering but was obliged, as a Catholic, to settle for Celtic Studies.
“It made Fergus bitter,” said his wife, “and as soon as he graduated he left. We met in the middle east. He took me back to Ballymena after we got engaged. I couldn’t believe it. My father was South African, my mother was Dutch, I grew up in Java. I’d never come across anything like this place. It was so…” She waved her hand in the air. “The bigotry. It beggared belief.”
“A few years ago,” she continued, “Fergus, my husband, was dead by this stage, and a relative of his died in Ballymena. I’d never taken his daughters there, and I thought, I’ll take them to see where Daddy came from and go to the funeral.
“We went over. The three days there were the longest of my life. On the last morning, walking in a lovely park, the four of us stared at our watches continuously. We couldn’t wait to get out of that vile place.”
I wondered what to reply to this woman whose basic message was-you live in a shit-hole. I thought I might say something about South Africa and Dutch Java-those well-known models of tolerance-but in the end I decided to say nothing. I had another piece of beef.
It was night when we arrived back at Troon to catch the catamaran home. Knots of green shirts were dotted around. We joined the line of waiting cars. A figure loomed out of the darkness. I wound down the window. It was the stewardess from that morning. She looked awful.
The previous sailing from Troon, she explained, was delayed because it had to wait for Celtic supporters coming from their match in the afternoon. As a result, everything was running late.
“Why did the afternoon sailing wait for them?” I wondered. “The fans could have caught this sailing, couldn’t they?”
“Ah no,” she said dryly, “this sailing’s for bandsmen and Rangers supporters who’ve also been in Scotland today.”
Ah, marvellous. Green shirts in the morning; blue shirts in the evening with a few green shirts thrown in for good measure. Oh, I love Ulster.
The boat, when we got aboard, was packed, the atmosphere tense. We found the last two seats. The catamaran cast off. Men began to pace around. There were fights on the boil wherever I looked. The Rangers crowd and the bandsmen were so desperate to fight that they were happy to take on their own. Or a middle-class idiot who happened to be on his way home from a wedding. I was not a happy bunny.
Suddenly, there was a scuffle behind us. Security staff pounced. A youth was led away, shouting incoherently. It was the pattern of the next two hours: would-be combatants cruised the aisles looking for a ruck; each time something was about to start, staff stopped play.
While my wife slept with our child in her arms, I fumed. I remembered the woman at the wedding reception, and found myself agreeing that we in Northern Ireland are indeed an ugly lot.
Arriving in Belfast, just before dawn, acute Hibernophobia still dogged me. We drove out of the city and back into the rural world of snow-dusted hedgerows and mist-filled fields, in the middle of which I live. It was only here, soothed by the landscape, that I was able at last to believe that we’re not quite as bad as we sometimes seem. n