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Flegs and Friendship

January 17, 2013


Forty years after the event, it seems a good time to recall how I met two of my longest lasting friends. Both hark back to university days, and, for ease of reference, I’ll name them Mick and Billy.

I came across both of them because we shared the same hall of residence in Edinburgh University’s Pollock Halls. Mick, being ages with me, was there from my first year.

Of Catholic/Irish provenance, he had something in common with me, but, at first, I struggled to recognize the fact. He was from the Lochee area of Dundee, a place where my uncle had worked as a Franciscan priest in the fifties, but otherwise a mystery to me. Most important in 1970, however, was his appearance.

Put bluntly, Mick was a skinhead. Along with his school pal, Tom, he appeared in university corridors in the full regalia: suede headed, Ben Sherman shirts, clumpy boots and washed out short jeans. You need to have a handle on the times to capture how truly terrifying was this vision in Fraser House, Pollock Halls in 1970.

Remember that my age group had grown up during the hippy years. The average male student when I started university would have flowing hair, a droopy moustache and maybe a great coat or even an afghan. We were, er, cool, man. There were, of course, all manner of styles and backgrounds, including a classmate who dressed in a hacking jacket and brogues, but one thing was sure: skinheads need not apply.

Knowing Mick as I do now, I realise his appearance was a bold statement: “This is who I am and where I come from: deal with it!” – but, at the time, I spent a fair amount of the first term diving out of the way when I spotted him at the other end of the corridor.

In those days, student accommodation was pretty basic: shared toilets and showers, one electric socket in the room (new fangled electric kettles had to be plugged into corridor sockets which were of correct voltage!) So, in each Hall, there was a TV room for communal viewing. Though some had the personality to demand the set be switched to the channel they wished to watch, most of us resigned ourselves to a tour of each television room, hoping to strike lucky and find the programme we were seeking. The exception was the wonderfully named Baird House, which, as it sounds, was entirely female. That was far too terrifying a prospect; I’d take my chance with the skinheads first.

And that was how our friendship started.

It was a good time for television if you were a student; imagine a Thursday night consisting of Top of the Pops, Mastermind, Colditz and Monty Python! Sometimes Fraser House tv room would be sparsely peopled, our colleagues having more exciting lives than us, I presume. I noticed, even in the darkened atmosphere that Mick was quite often one of the small crowd of others watching the same programmes as me.

Being students, a certain amount of immature banter, faux witty comments, and insulting invective regularly issued out of the darkness in the direction of the tv screen. Strangely, it began to emerge that Mick and I not only liked the same shows, but also had the same sense of humour and the ridiculous.

In the early 70s the troubles in the Six Counties were very much to the fore, and we were a generation who had grown up watching the US Riots, Civil Rights marches, the Paris Revolution on the nightly news. Given our backgrounds, it was inevitable that Mick and I would have a similar take on the Troubles. We started to discuss issues after watching the tv news, attended the same political meetings and demonstrations, discovered we liked the same music and literature.

In short, the skinhhead persona vanished when I was with Mick – to the extent that I remember he (two) toned it down gradually, but I couldn’t tell you when. He had clearly found the confidence to be himself and discovered, as I did, that who you were at university was ultimately much more important than your appearance or origins. That which united us was far greater than that which made us different.

We kept up intermittent contact in the years after university, but truly connected again three or four years ago thanks to good old Facebook. Like all deep friendships, the intervening years mattered not a jot. Though we had led different lifetimes, we still shared the same views, liked the same music, appreciated the same films, and meeting up again, we fell into conversation as if we’d been apart for a weekend rather than four decades.

I met Billy, who was younger than us, when he arrived in my fourth year, again in Fraser House, and in similar circumstances to my collision with Mick.

I’ve mentioned the predominance of the Troubles in the early years of the 70s. At the time, my pride and joy was a large Irish tricolour. It had been given to me by Joe Clarke, a Republican veteran who had fought at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge during the Dublin Easter Rising in 1916. Without any thought of the message it might send, I had it on the wall in my student room. There were fanlights above each door, so it was visible from the corridor for anyone who cared to look.

When Billy arrived, from Portadown, with an impeccable Loyalist pedigree, I had been vaguely aware of Ulster accents passing my room as his family helped him get settled. I had a fair number of northern Irish friends and always got on well with them, so I supposed I wondered if we would become friendly.

His room was between mine and the communal toilets and showers. The next night I passed by and glanced at his name plate to see his name. As I did so I was aware of something stuck in the middle of his fanlight. I looked up – it was a small but unmistakable sticker – of King Billy. It was a reaction to the tricolour.

Occasionally that term, we would both be at the wash hand basins together, doors were held open, nods were exchanged. I was relieved that he wasn’t about to attack me for my political leanings!

At some point in November, Fraser House decided to hold a folk evening. Naturally, Mick and I were up there, giving it Irish laldy. Billy was there too; I thought I saw him joining in with a couple of our songs. When it came his turn to perform, a couple of his songs were from what was politely termed the ‘other tradition’, but they were good tunes and he was a fine guitarist with a good voice: we find ourselves joining in with a few orange choruses.

As tends to happen on these occasions, we fell to discussing tunes we knew, songs we liked, where we came from, what we were studying. In no time at all, we hit it off and were meeting to swop songs and tales.

Billy and I would often bump into each other last thing at night as we went to brush our teeth. Invariably, these meetings would end up as hour or two hour long discussions about politics or culture or life in general. God knows why we never returned to our more comfortable rooms; maybe we always thought it would just be a five minute chat, but it seldom was.

Of course, certainly in those days, the whole point of University was to meet and discuss and reflect. It was invigorating, and many’s the time I struggled into a nine o’clock lecture after far less sleep than I had needed, and with our discussion of the previous night still echoing in my thoughts.

Though Billy’s Portadown upbringing had been in a Loyalist atmosphere, his parents, and I suspect , his intellect, had clearly led him to reflect on the situation. Even by the time I met him first, it was clear that his love of music had led him into unexpected areas of Irish culture, and, this, in turn, had opened his ideas and perspective. I suppose we saw him, as I’m sure he saw himself, as a nine county Ulster nationalist. We would occasionally fall out politically, though never personally, but each of us retained a respect for the other person’s point of view; we were able to accept that an alternative viewpoint could be legitimate.

Eventually, Billy and I formed a folk duo, which, in an accurate reflection of our banter, we called ‘Bord na Mona’. This is the name of the Irish Government peat or turf board, and Billy claimed it was the only Irish phrase he knew, garnered from radio adverts for peat briquettes.

I always think of Billy as a superb role model for his tradition. He has never turned his back on where he’s from, has always been his own man, and has been expansive enough to recognize you can walk the same road with friends without necessarily agreeing with all they believe or stand for.

As was the case with myself and Mick, what united us was so strong, that the symbols of who we were became insignificant. In musical terms, if the tune was good enough, we would sing it, irrespective of its origin.

So, when I read of the Belfast ‘fleg’ riots, though I may despair of their provenance, I can understand what lies behind them.

Unlike some who opine on the situation, I have been to Belfast often, and, indeed, first visited in 1969. I suppose I went as a ‘war tourist’ that first time, but through knowledge and friendships with Belfast folk, quickly found an affection for a place which I quickly realized was, as a city, about far more than riots and civil unrest.

My most recent visit was a couple of years ago, and, in common with most folk, I found a city much changed and in some parts very attractive. I made sure to visit places on the Shankill and the Falls which I had first seen in 1969.

For students of community architecture, the maze of streets which should, but don’t, link these two great main roads, must be fascinating. After the fires and destruction of the late sixties and early seventies, many areas were rebuilt, not with thoughts of the close knit communities they had once been, but with a view to controlling unrest. Streets zigzag strangely – to hinder escape and facilitate surveillance; they give off a strangely artificial ambience – almost like film sets. Most visitors are amazed at the size and scale of the ‘peace line’ – a Berlin Wall of a construction at what is called ‘the community interface’.

It was described, in a matter of fact manner, by a local, as we looked at a familiar build up of ‘on street’ parking at the edge of the city parking limits: “See these cars here? If the owners don’t move them before the gates are locked tonight, they would have a journey of miles to go all the way to the bottom of the road and back up the other side to retrieve them – and ye wouldn’t do that, cos everyone would know ye were from the other side”.

It’s normality, but not as we know it!

I think most folk realized that the ‘Peace Process’ emanated from a far from perfect agreement. It was forged, to be truthful, not out of a mutual understanding or coming together of the traditions, but out of a generation of tiredness. People on both sides were just too tired by all the Troubles to carry on going. Like a parent trying to keep the family peace between the older and younger child at bedtime, George Mitchell’s task was to work out how much would justify one side stopping whilst not aggravating the other side so much that they wanted to continue. It was always going to be a compromise, it had to be.

To be fair, at the time, Mitchell remarked that it was up to the people of the six counties to build on what had been started, and, in many ways they have. The fact remains, however, that the task of bringing together two opposing traditions was always going to be the work of years and generations rather than months and politicians. Indeed, such is the way of the world, that, as soon as local activists became politicians, they risked moving away from the most disadvantaged in their communities.

If all you have truly had to depend on for your identity are symbols, then they become unfeasibly important to who you are, and, while I can’t understand what is achieved by the rioting over flegs, and suspect for many of those who participate it’s merely an excuse for some aggro, I do have some insight, albeit from a rather more positive point of view, of the feelings that lie behind them.

On my last Belfast visit, we found ourselves outside the City Hall. To be honest, despite its grandeur, or maybe because of it, it was not a building of which I had ever taken much notice. In the parlance of the old days: it belonged to ‘them’ – union flags, war memorials, trappings of Empire.

However, on this occasion, we noticed a sign indicating a coffee shop in the Hall, and, having some time to pass, decided to go in for a coffee. That in itself was a major initiative for me; it had never occurred to me really that it was a public building and that passers by might have access.

Architecturally and historically, it is a stunning building. When you leave political considerations aside, Belfast achieved so much in Victorian times in terms of its industries and world influence – and this building certainly emphasizes the power of mercantile trade.

It was something on a far smaller scale than its magnificent cornicing, polished wood or stained glass that gave me a wee thrill as I wandered the corridors though.

The first sign was literally that – the signage. Signs for ‘Push’ ‘Shove’ and ‘Welcome’ – common to any local government facility, were dual language – in Irish and English.

Despite the Victorian gloom of the high ceilinged corridors, there were splashes of colour all round the place – and they were mostly pieces of art celebrating the city’s history, emphasizing both traditions, and, in particular, the contributions made to the city’s great successes by the working classes rather than the professional echelons of society:

I found this hugely uplifting and a positive sign that the two traditions could focus on what united them, rather than what separated them. One particular mural made the point succinctly:

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

Here was recognition that the City Hall belonged to all the people of Belfast; the statements weren’t triumphalist, though they did give the Nationalist tradition a place in this edifice. They focused on the positive and the potential of people together.

I found that hopeful.

Others, of course, would find that insulting. For them, it is right that the City Hall belongs to one tradition, and any dilution of that fact is threatening. You can claim that is a wrong headed point of view, but you can deny neither its existence, nor its effect on the society in which it exists.

Mick, Billy and I benefited from being brought together, and from having the opportunity to look beyond the symbols. At first, I was dodging Mick in the corridors and fearful of Billy’s reactions. Once they became people rather than objects carrying symbols, the game changed. That is the long journey the people of the six counties face – that coming together to have the opportunities to see past the symbols. And, I have to say, if a sign on a door saying “Push” in Irish can be so important to me, there is some sense, at least in the current situation, in the Loyalist attachment to the union fleg.

It will take generations I suspect. There is a coming together – but it’s easy to be magnanimous when your life is good. Mick, Billy and I were university students, we had already won in life’s lottery, we could afford to use our abilities to gain perspective. There is, of course, a huge difference between the coming together of individuals and the acceptance of whole communities and traditions – but the longest journey starts with a single step. If your life is empty and you are being told you are losing the little you have, you may well react in an ill considered fashion. When life is improved for the most disadvantaged in the six counties, then the traditions will sit more easily beside each other – and that must be the goal for the politicians: good old fashioned, local politics – listening to people and working to improve the lot of the poorest communities.

In a Radio Scotland news report from Belfast a couple of weeks ago, a woman I would judge to be in her sixties was asked what she made of the fleg riots. Her reaction was not easy to take:

“Well, I don’t agree with rioting, it’s not right. But ye have to draw a line somewhere. After all, it’s not their country, it’s ours”

It was easy to recognize her history and mindset, but she was wrong. People don’t own countries, countries own the people, and are made of the people coming together. It’s not the fleg being waved that’s important, it’s the person who’s waving the fleg.

There will be people in the north of Ireland who will take a long time to realize that, and, sadly, there will people manipulating them who, for purely selfish reasons, don’t want them to come to that realization, but it will happen eventually, and it needs to happen in both parts of the island of Ireland.

For the common good, Wolfe Tone famously sought to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in Belfast. It’s one of my happiest experiences that the three of us managed to unite Republican, Skinhead and Loyalist.

Next week we’ll be going together to see Strabane’s Paul Brady at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

Maybe he’ll sing “The Island”!

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