The Bleeding Hills

The Bleeding Hills – Those Lads Who Laughed With Me – Part I

The Bleeding Hills - A Novel by Wilfried Voss
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A full moon cast an eerie glow on the paddocks in the back of the farm. It was one of those beautiful New England nights during the season known as Indian summer. The days were warm, and the nights were comfortably cold, making for a restful night’s sleep in a bed near an open window. Maple trees and oaks had changed their appearances to a multitude of vibrant colors. The wind would pick up an occasional leaf only to let it go dwindling, dancing and prancing, to the ground, adding another small patch to mother nature’s beautiful autumn quilt.

We had left only a few horses out for the night. Not all the horses we board are accustomed to life under an open sky. Most of them had spent their entire lives in a stable, only taken out for an occasional riding lesson or a competition. Usually we try to acclimatize them to life outside their stables, at least during the summer. Sometimes it worked out well, in other cases it simply did not.

“How many horses do you have?” Finn asked.

He stood close to the kitchen window from where he had a partial view of the roughly twenty-five acres we own.

“Oh, about fifteen to twenty that we own ourselves,” I said. “You should ask my wife. She’s the horse addict.”

I stood in front of the open refrigerator looking for the fabulous potato salad my wife had made earlier that day. She is an excellent cook, but one of her other talents is putting food into places in the fridge that are difficult to reach for someone six-foot-three-inches tall.

“Horses can be an expensive hobby,” I heard Finn say.

“Well, tell me about it,” I said while rummaging inside the fridge. “But getting the horses is not the problem. We usually receive donations, retired horses, too old for competition, that sort of stuff. The killer is the vet fee, the blacksmith, disposing of the manure, the barn hands, and all the other hidden costs. I do the books for my wife, and I can tell you a story about it. The only income we have is through boarding other people’s horses and giving riding lessons. We make just enough to get by.”

I had finally found the potato salad and continued to dish it onto plates.

“The worst thing is the disposal of the carcasses. After all, they are older when we get them.”

He nodded, and it seemed he understood. Finn himself had grown up on a farm, and I knew he must be familiar with all aspects of farm life.

I provided forks and napkins, and we sat down at the kitchen table.

“Listen, Finn,” I said. “Maybe I am getting a little ahead of things, but how did someone like you get into the crazy business of fighting the Brits in the Northern Provinces? I mean, I can’t believe there were posters hanging all over the country with a leprechaun on them with ‘I want you for the Irish Republican Army’ printed on them in large letters.”

He chuckled. “No, I don’t remember such an advertisement, but I am not saying that they did not exist in different forms. The IRA had their own way of promoting their operation.”

He took a deep breath. “As you know, I cannot and I will not comment on the hiring practices of the IRA, but, after all, that is not really what you are asking. I believe you are asking how I got into this mess, right?”

I nodded, chewing on a big chunk of potato, unable to speak with my mouth full.

“It is funny that you should ask,” he said, “because, no, you are not getting ahead of things. That part of my life began even before I met my brother and Shauna.”

Finn explained, he had two role models when he grew up, his foster father, Brendan Whelan, and the local priest, Father Connelly.

Both actively molded and prepared him for his future role in life by methodically educating him on the political issues of the Irish island. Their views became his because he believed in them. Finn was a quick learner, and he developed a photographic memory. However, all their efforts might have led him into a different direction had it not been for one mysterious encounter during the night of his grandfather’s wake.

“Do you remember?” he asked. “Earlier, you asked how I dealt with the revelation of my family history.”

I nodded, yes.

“As I said, I didn’t care much for the man who turned out to be my grandfather. Neither did Robert Byrne. Needless to say, he didn’t show for the wake or the funeral.”

He took another fork of potato salad.

“Compliments to your wife,” he said. “She is an excellent cook.”

“Oh, I’m sure she will be pleased to hear that you enjoyed the food.”

He quickly and silently finished the remaining pieces on his plate before he continued.

“As a family member you are expected to be present at a wake from morning into the evening, but I left in the late afternoon. After all, I was still not officially a family member.”

He grabbed his teacup, and, what was now a familiar habit to me, wrapped his hands around it, and resumed his pacing.

“I was fairly familiar with the neighborhood around my grandparents’ flat,” he started. “I headed toward a local pub called The Lady Jane. It was a hangout for young Catholic people who enjoyed the contemporary music of Irish artists like Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison, and bands like the Miami Showband. My hope was to find some company to help me, in some way or the other and to deal with all I had discovered earlier that day.”

However, instead of entering the pub once he arrived there, he passed by and continued walking. The frigid air felt refreshing after hours of breathing stale air and spending a great deal of time in the company of his grandfather’s dead body.

He had lost all sense of time, and, after a few miles of mindless walking, he decided to turn around and head back to the pub when a person on the other side of the street attracted his attention. Finn recognized the bowler-hatted man from photos he had seen in several newspapers. That man, he realized, was Major Ronald Bunting, at that time one of Ian Paisley’s lieutenants, who had played a crucial role in Paisley’s crusade against the Catholic civil rights movement.

There were several bodyguards surrounding Bunting as he stepped out of a car parked not far from the city’s guildhall. Finn took cover behind a parked truck on his side of the road. There was no imminent threat to him, but he was careful not to attract any suspicion by staring at the scene. He waited until the group of men had entered the guildhall and then quickly went on his way back to the pub.

The scene he had observed had taken only seconds, but he felt excited to have seen Bunting, and he couldn’t wait to share his discovery. Despite the early evening time, the pub was already adequately filled. Once he was inside it took him a few moments to adapt to the thick cigarette smoke hanging in the air.

Finn looked around, but he couldn’t make out anybody he knew from the neighborhood. He had been to the pub several times before, but only briefly. This was the first time he was there without company. He had a seat at one of the tables, ordered a beer, and waited for things to come.

“Remember,” Finn said. “I was not quite seventeen then, and I was still naïve. I should have known how explosive the information was that I carried with me, but that did not occur to me. I was also unaware that any violent action during the Irish conflict would trigger a violent counteraction. The Irish troubles were, after all, a constant chain of violence based on action and counteraction.”

A few days earlier, on New Year’s Day 1969, about forty supporters of the People’s Democracy, an organization supporting the civil rights campaign for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, had organized a seventy-three-mile march from Belfast to Derry.

Robert Bunting’s role, with the support of a group of loyalists, was to provoke the marchers during their entire journey in any way possible, and he did so in the presence of the RUC, who did not and would not interfere with Bunting’s operation.

Bunting’s troop was responsible for several blockades tolerated by the RUC during the first days of the march and the marchers either yielded or were removed from the scene in police cars. In one case, the RUC stopped the march under the pretense of preventing a violent incident because of reports that another loyalist group was gathering up the road, but marchers, who breached the RUC line, found no evidence of any such disturbance.

During the night of Finn’s grandfather’s wake, Bunting had stopped at the guildhall ahead of the marchers whose number had steadily increased. There he called for loyalists to assemble the next day at Burntollet to confront them.

Back at the pub, Finn, who was not used to drinking any alcohol, felt a little light-headed, but at the same time he had made some new friends. He found himself among a group of young men hardly much older than he was.

He had engaged in an exciting conversation with Liam, a redheaded young man, who, like Finn, had a great interest in politics. Finn had lived his life away from violence, while Liam grew up amid the conflict. Through his grandmother’s account, Finn had learned of violence against Catholics in Northern Ireland and the stories of a young man of his own generation fascinated him.

Then, finally, came his time.

“So, what is Robert Bunting’s business in town these days?” he casually threw the topic at his new friends.

He felt disturbed seeing that his remark had killed every conversation at the table. Jovial chats had turned into wild, questioning faces staring at him. All eyes focused on Finn as if he was the bearer of a deadly disease. The silence at the table made him uncomfortable.

“What are you talking about?” demanded a young man who had been introduced to him as Rory. Rory had thick, spiky black hair, impossible to tame, with several tattoos on both of his arms and his neck. Finn felt a bit intimidated by him.

“Well, I saw him entering the guildhall, maybe about an hour ago,” Finn explained, still puzzled.

“Are you sure it was Bunting?” Rory insisted.

“Yes, I am,” Finn answered defensively. “I know his face well and, after all, he was wearing his bowler hat as he always does.”

He explained in detail what he had seen, and a few of his new friends remembered hearing about a loyalist rally that was supposed to take place, but none of them was aware of the magnitude.

Finn, feeling relieved the anger was not directed at him, took the lead quickly and explained what he had read about the march from Belfast.

Everybody at the table listened eagerly and quietly to his account. A few minutes later the scene took a more aggressive turn. There was yelling and calls for more whiskey, beer, and schnapps. Words like “Let’s kill the bastards,” and “To hell with Paisley,” filled the room.

“Hey, maybe Paisley is in the guildhall as well,” a short guy with curly, black hair yelled. “Lord, what I would give to get my hands on that devil.”

“So, what are we waiting for?” a voice shouted from somewhere. “Let’s go get them!”

Finn, overwhelmed by the tumultuous outcome, but at the same time stimulated by the combination of enthusiasm and more alcohol than he had ever consumed in his young life, suddenly found himself in the middle of a stampede. While most of his new companions went for their coats, ready to make the walk to the guildhall and fight the enemy, a few others went for the phone near the bathrooms to call friends.

The cold outside air hit them when they turned onto the street with a roar, loud and vulgar, scaring innocent pedestrians on their way home. When they reached the guildhall, the effects of the alcohol were almost gone, but the outrage and passion had intensified beyond any reasonable level. The group of aggravated adolescents had steadily increased in number during their walk. A steady stream of friends and friends of friends had joined them in their patriotic fever.

Violence already dominated the scene at the guildhall when they arrived. Another group of Catholic youths had already attacked the hall by throwing stones through the windows while on the inside Major Ronald Bunting frantically attempted to organize a counterattack. They turned chairs and banisters into clubs, but they did not risk leaving the building.

Initially, Finn and his friends joined the others in their attack, but then Finn remembered a small, but nonetheless crucial detail of Bunting’s arrival.

“That is Bunting’s car over there”, he yelled to the others pointing to the car parked in close proximity to the building.

The mob turned and started kicking and clubbing the car in deep rage, when another young man pulled a matchbox out of his pockets and with a loud scream presented it with his arm stretched out into the sky. Everybody looked for paper, wood, anything that would burn and eventually they started a fire under the car.

The crowd watched from a safe distance as the fire, slowly and surely, threw flames higher and higher. They retreated even further when the flames kept crawling closer to the gasoline tank. The car exploded with a deafening thunder, followed by roaring laughter and cheering. They continued watching the flames with intense fascination for several minutes, before turning their attention back to the guildhall.

Finn was not able to say how long they were raging on when he noticed forces of the RUC approaching the area in their police vehicles.

“The maggots are coming! Let’s get out of here!” somebody yelled.

Finn went off, but someone grabbed him and held him back. It took him a few seconds to recognize Rory, the boy with the spiky hair.

“What?” he yelled at him.

Rory stayed surprisingly calm, and he took no offense.

“They have the whole area surrounded,” he assured him in an impassioned tone, forcing Finn to focus on him. “Wherever you go, you will run right into their arms. Trust me, I know how to get through.”

Rory led Finn to a nearby house where they entered and climbed the stairs all the way up to the roof. They managed to move across several blocks by jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Finn could see the RUC cars down on the road, and he realized that Rory was right. Police had surrounded the whole site, and they arrested a great number of juveniles in the road. He couldn’t make out faces, but it was obvious that many of his new friends were among the arrested.

“Don’t waste your time. You can’t help them now,” Rory urged him. “It’s only a good spit from here and then we can go back down to the street.”

A few minutes later, they were back on the ground, and they continued walking for a while. Finn had long since lost any orientation. He was not familiar with this neighborhood.

Finally, they entered another building and went on to the upper floors. Rory stopped at the door of flat number 209. He knocked at the door with what sounded like a code. The door opened only partially.

“What is your business?” a voice behind the door asked.

“My business is Irish independence, and we just beat up some Prods,” Rory answered.

The door opened just enough to let Rory pass.

“Wait here,” Rory told Finn, standing in the half-open door. “I will be back in a few minutes.”

The door closed only to open again a few minutes later just as Rory had promised. Finn entered the flat and suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of grim looking characters staring at him. One man, wearing a black eye patch, caught his attention. He was the one who broke the silence.

“I hear you are very knowledgeable, young man,” he addressed Finn. “You recognized Robert Bunting. Where did you learn so much about matters of the Irish troubles?”

“I like to read newspapers, and I have a good memory,” Finn answered truthfully.

“So, tell me,” the man continued his query, “Do you know who I am?”

Finn studied the tall and well-built man only a few seconds and when he felt sure, he answered, “Yes, Sir. Your name is John Stephenson. You were born in England, but you are Irish, and you chose the Irish version of your name, Sean MacStiofain. You are – allegedly – the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army.”

The man smiled, looking at his companions who were visibly impressed by the young man’s knowledge.

He turned back to Finn. “You say allegedly, and I say I am the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army. Yes, I am Sean MacStiofain.”

He pointed to Rory, who was sitting at a table on the other side of the room. “This young man is one of my scouts. They are all very good at what they do, but I could use somebody like you.”

“So, young man,” MacStiofain continued. “What do you say? Would you like to be one of my scouts? Think about it before you answer. It is an honor to be a scout for the IRA’s Director of Intelligence.”

“Sir, I recognize the honor of your offer, and I do appreciate it,” Finn answered slowly. “But I am not from around here. I just came to visit my grandmother. I do live in the Republic, and I am not ready yet to leave my parents.”

“There are also some unresolved family matters,” he lamented, “and, until I have taken care of those matters, I don’t believe I would be a great help to you.”

MacStiofain nodded. “I understand. Where do you live, young man?”

“On a farm near Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in the county of Kerry.”

“I know where that is. A good friend of mine lives in Kerry. In fact, I have many friends in Kerry, but he is special.”

“Now, wait a moment,” he said as he walked over to the kitchen, rummaging inside one of the cabinet drawers and then he came back with a pen and a piece of paper in his hands. He scribbled a few notes and then spoke to Finn again.

“Young man,” he said. “Your talents should not go to waste at times like these. We need to preserve any talent we have. Should you decide to join the movement, after you have resolved your family issues, of course, please consider contacting my friend. This is his name and his address.”

He handed Finn the paper.

“He and I tend not to have the same view on matters that involve the liberation of our country, but he does fight for our cause.”

He smiled at Finn. “You have shown your talents impressively tonight, but be aware that this friend of mine will tell you that your actions tonight were not honorable. What the English are doing to our country has nothing to do with honor, and I do agree with him on that, but it is important to him that we do not follow the English as a role model.”

MacStiofain turned to his companions. “Personally, I do not give a damn about honor. I kill any English when and how it pleases me.”

Everybody but Finn, who was still confused, laughed out loud.

“Young man,” MacStiofain continued, affectionately patting Finn’s shoulder. “Go your way and I hope you contact my friend. Now I have to ask you to leave. We have to attend to some serious business here. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure meeting you. Rory will take you back to wherever you came from.”

Hearing the words, Rory got up from his chair and they both left. As promised, Rory led him back to his grandmother’s house where they bid each other farewell.

“I never saw him again,” Finn said. “Not alive, that is. Last time I saw him was in a coffin. RUC forces shot Rory in the back during another riot. He was only eighteen years old. I couldn’t stay long for the wake, because the RUC raided the place hoping to arrest some IRA supporters. It was good we had our scouts out to warn us.”

He cleared his throat and squinted his eyes. “Rory was a good scout for MacStiofain, but he was also incredibly talented at getting himself into trouble.”

MacStiofain himself broke with the official IRA in 1970 and became the chief of staff for the Provisional IRA. In 1972, he spent time in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison charged with IRA membership. He began a hunger strike there only to end it after fifty-seven days without any noticeable results or outcomes, severely undermining his reputation for strength and perseverance. During the hunger strike, there was also an unsuccessful attempt by the IRA to free him.

“I believe Martin McGuinness said it adequately, however lacking the respect MacStiofain deserves,” Finn continued. “He said that Sean MacStiofain served a purpose up until 1972, but that he had no long-term future in the movement. If I may say so, diplomacy was never McGuiness’s strong suit, may it be to the living or the dead.”

MacStiofain suffered a stroke in 1993 and died in 2001 at the age of seventy-three after a prolonged illness.

Following the attack on the guildhall meeting came the event known as the attack at Burntollet Bridge. A crowd of loyalists led by Bunting and off-duty B-Specials members ambushed the civil rights march from Belfast to Derry, and they used sticks, iron bars, bottles and stones to attack the marchers.

A few weeks after the attack at the guildhall meeting, the courts convicted Ian Paisley and Ronald Bunting to serve three months in prison for similar attacks in November of 1968.

Ronald Bunting’s life took a melodramatic turn after his son, Ronnie Bunting, disgusted by his own father’s actions, became a militant Irish Republican. For the last two years of his life, he was the military leader of the Irish National Liberation Army, repeatedly attacking British soldiers and the RUC. Protestant forces, most likely members of the Ulster Defense Association, assassinated Ronnie in 1980, but there were also rumors that the British SAS was involved.

Ronald Bunting buried his son in the family plot and from that time on took no further active role in politics. He died of a heart attack four years later. He never recovered from the loss of his son.

At that point in his story, Finn had stopped the pacing.

“Well, we all know what became of Paisley,” he said. “For all of my life, I wished I would have had a chance to lay my hands on that bastard. It is a shame that they gave him the powers he had for that short period. As a matter of fact, he failed miserably as First Minister of Northern Ireland. His skills have always been in destruction, not in re-uniting a community, and, after all, there was the age factor.”

He turned and winked at me. “As far as I am involved, I have that man’s name tattooed on my behind, and everybody who wants to kiss up to him is welcome to do so.”

I didn’t dare ask whether or not that was a joke. If it was not I didn’t want to know more details. I watched him walking toward the kitchen window and looking to the outside. For a long time, there was silence, and this time I didn’t dare to interrupt his thoughts.

Then he finally turned away from the window. “Let’s take a break here. You now know about my brother and how I met Shauna. Later, we will continue with the darkest chapters of the conflict, Domhnach na Fola above all.”

I had to ask. “Excuse my ignorance, Finn, but what does it mean?”

Domhnach na Fola is the Gaelic term for Bloody Sunday.”