As darkness envelops Belfast, the Irish city that I love with a passion, I am reminded why I am here. Belfast should be governed by the Irish. But it is not. It is governed by England. My country has fought for its independence from England for hundreds of years. And although we, the Irish Republicans, have fought and bled for our country, a portion still remains under British rule.
It was the Easter Rising in 1916 that was a major turning point for our cause. Even though the uprising failed and fifteen of our leaders were executed for their crimes against the crown, it changed the mood of the country. We finally began to see the sympathy of the general population switch in our favor.
After the rising, we launched a three-year guerrilla war led by Michael Collins and his twelve so-called apostles. Assassins are a better term for them. With more bloodshed and countless lives lost, the war ended in July 1921 with a treaty negotiated by Collins that gave two-thirds of Ireland (26 out of 32 counties) their independence from the United Kingdom. It was a major victory for us, but we still lost a third of our country to Britain. So even though there was a treaty, the conflict between Ireland and England continued.
Sitting here in the shadows of the rooftop that aligns the deserted street that I have been assigned to patrol, I become lost in my thoughts. Nobody’s out on the streets, and I start to feel that this mission is a waste of time. Forgetting the potential danger that surrounds me, I light a cigarette. Just as I am about to bring it to my mouth, a bullet hits the roof about a foot from where I’m hiding.
“Bloody hell,” I mumble to myself. “I’m so fuckin’ stupid! I let the quiet of the night get the best of me. I fucking know better.” My cover has been blown, but at least I was wrong about this mission being a waste. I realize that I need to move and move fast. Scanning my surroundings, I spot a chimneystack that stands not more than five feet from me. If I can get there unharmed, it will provide me the cover I need to shoot back. And when I shoot, I know I won’t miss. I’m an expert marksman, which is why I have been assigned this post. As another bullet whizzes past me, I realize that if I don’t move now, I’m gonna end up dead.
As I rapidly make my way across the roof, another bullet comes flying toward me and grazes my shoulder before I make it to the chimney for cover. Fuck! It’s time to take back control. I place my hat on my rifle barrel and wave it in the air. Three bullets hit my hat while I watch and determine the source of the gunfire. I inspect the holes, a bit disappointed. That was my favorite hat.
Maintaining my cover, I cock my rifle and aim at a window in a building across the street. This is for my father. My enemy falls forward onto the ground. Before the other two gunmen can react, I aim my second shot at a shadow in the darkness on the rooftop of that same building. This is for my grandfather. The enemy falls to his death on the ground below. I quickly aim the last shot at an armed figure walking up and down Belfast Street—another enemy. This is for all that we have lost at the hands of the British. Within seconds all three bodies lay motionless on the ground.
I suspect that there were only three snipers; I wave my hat in the air just to make sure. Nothing, just what I thought. Relieved that I have accomplished my mission, I take my flask from my pocket. Looking down at my hand, I realize that I am shaking. Perhaps my fear is more prevalent this time than in the past. Unsettled by my uneasiness, I greedily take a gulp of the whiskey and hope that it will calm me. I can’t afford mistakes in this line of work, and this one almost cost me my life. I was careless. I can’t afford to let myself get that close to death again.
Sometimes I think that if we as a country were happy about the treaty that gave us two-thirds of our country, things might be different. But unfortunately, that isn’t the case. My family has fought this war for as long as I can remember. My father and my grandfather and their fathers gave their lives for Ireland. Years of lives lost for what? A cause? It’s a cause that I am convinced will get us nowhere.
I think about what I have done with my life. I think about what I put my wife through every time I leave the house for a mission. I see the worry on her face grow deeper and deeper each time. My children are still young, but is this the life I want for them when they are adults? Do I want my son creeping along rooftops in the dead of night? Do I want my daughter nursing wounded rebels who fight for the cause?
The answers flood my mind. These are things I never really thought about before. I was programmed to follow the family and I did what my father did. But now, it is so clear. I will not give my life, or my children’s lives, anymore.
My work is done here. I climb down from the roof and begin my walk home.
In the days that followed my abandonment of the cause, Belfast was racked with the most intense and violent riots the city had ever known. The British Army was deployed to restore order to Northern Ireland. Peace lines were built to separate the two sides. These events marked the beginning of the thirty-year conflict in Ireland known as the Troubles.
The next morning, I and my wife Fiona arrive at the port of Belfast with our two children, Ace and Aillise. Once we enter the terminal, I can’t help but notice the headlines on the papers displayed at the newsstand.
British Troops Sent Into Northern Ireland
Death on Night of Bloody Violence
Although I am tempted to purchase a paper, I force myself to walk by. Ireland’s problems are no longer mine or my family’s.