>Yesterday, I went for a bit of a skite up to Northern Ireland. I hadn’t been there in twenty-one years…

…last time I was there was in the aftermath of a wedding in Monaghan in 1988. The sister of a friend’s wife was getting married there and we were farmed out, accommodation-wise, to one of my friend’s relatives over the border in Tyrone.

Although my nationality and my religion of birth should have indicated that I was perfectly safe “up there”, I was never more scared of anything in my life. Everybody (almost everybody) looked normal – at the wedding, in the pub, in the homes – and yet things couldn’t possibly have been normal under the circumstances. Everybody seemed to be committed to a particular cause, but I got the distinct impression that had one had the inclination to discuss beliefs with people, there would have been some people with whom you just wouldn’t have dared have a frank discussion. They had a look in their eyes that indicated that they had either just come back from doing something significant or were planning something equally significant for the next day. Dark and brooding just wasn’t in it…

Back in those days, a lot of alcohol would have been consumed, but some instinctive sense of self-preservation meant that I kept a very tight control over what I said and to whom. One particular evening in a pub, one of the more approachable of my friend’s relatives asked me what did I “think of the session up here then”. I knew exactly what he meant – politics. Luckily for me, there was some guy in the corner belting out rebel songs with a guitar. I commented that “your man had a pretty good singing voice”. We both knew that I was evading the real point of the question and the matter was discreetly dropped.

Later on that evening, while taking a comfort break, one took great care not to accidentally bump into anyone on the way in or out of the jacks, for fear that that person might be inclined to take issue with my presence in his local in a manner similar to how he might have taken issue with the presence of foreign troops in his particular “green field”. A total exaggeration, I know, but I was rather under the influence and incredibly self-conscious of where I was and what the consequences of talking or acting out of turn might have been.

We spent the night in another relative’s house – the wife was nice – the husband had been away all evening at a “significant” funeral. My old car was parked around the back of the house just by the bedroom window. All night I heard strange and troubling noises. It might just have been the dog snuffling around the back yard. Or someone of the other persuasion planting a booby-trap bomb under my Southern-registered car.

I was never so glad to get back to the Republic, bad and all as things were down here at the time. I never told my old man about going up North – years before, he warned me that if I ever went up there, he’d disown me. So if you thought I was nervous about being up there, what must have been going through his mind?

Yesterday, twenty-one years later, I’m standing in a queue, waiting to be served at a car breaker’s store. I am surrounded by locals who look just as “normal” as do the folks down my way (which probably means that there’s just the same mixture of decent people and gougers as you’d find anywhere). The one thing that’s freaking me out is the fact that a dozen people are talking at the same time in the same Northern accent. It reminded me of one time when I was in the departure lounge in Shannon Airport when a planeload of US troops disembarked from a transport flight from Iraq. Two or three hundred troops, males and females, of various ethnic groupings and with some variations in general physical appearance, but all shaven-headed and dressed in desert fatigues. Some are wandering around the duty-free shop, some are in the bar, some are going to the toilet, some are making phone calls. Everywhere you look, shaven-headed, fatigue-clad troops standing, sitting, walking. Like the restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich. Back in the queue in the car breaker’s store, the dozen simultaneous voices sounded like the audio equivalent of that restaurant scene.

So what did I make of my brief spell in Norn Iron? Everything seemed fine apart from the brief moment driving through the outskirts of Newry when I passed the boundary of a Loyalist estate with its particular forms of street decoration. I’d only ever seen stuff like that on the telly. It sends a shiver up the spine to someone of my vintage. But things have to be different from the way they were in the last century. When you see people sharing power who were sworn enemies ten years ago, then things must have improved.

Here’s hoping, eh?