17 March 2006

TAKE FIVE: Blind boys and would be soldiers

Daily Ireland

BY Laurence McKeown

We grow up with myths. Most of them are harmless, incredible or humorous but all reflect political, social, or cultural opinions. As an adolescent male I learned that masturbation makes you blind but the discovery of sexual pleasure overcame such dire forebodings and only now do I need glasses - apparently because of age only.
Another myth was that Catholics were, “disloyal to the crown but not the half-crown". For readers too young to know, the half-crown was a silver coin. Four of them made a pound. The implication was that Catholics had no problem taking the dole and social benefits from the state whilst simultaneously being disloyal to that state. Protestants, on the other hand, had a work ethic, were industrious, worked hard, and didn’t accept handouts.
Of course this myth, like others, looked at only part of the picture. Catholics were more likely to be unemployed and dependent on state benefits because of discrimination. Protestants were more likely to access employment.
Another myth was that only Protestants and unionists fought for Britain during the First World War. In reality thousands from nationalist areas, including the Falls Road, served with the British forces. The myth in this instance lived on in no small part due to the nationalist community’s denial of the role earlier generations had played.
Yet another myth concerning loyalty/disloyalty was that republicans brought the gun into Irish politics - ignoring the gunrunning activities of the Ulster Volunteers in 1914 when they openly defied the British government’s policy of Home Rule.
Last week one myth was finally laid to rest - that those who joined the UDR/RIR did so primarily out of a sense of duty and loyalty. When given the opportunity to serve Queen and country in Iraq, being a soldier with the RIR suddenly lost its appeal. In the good old days you could wear the khaki, carry a real gun, drive about in jeeps and harass and intimidate nationalist neighbours – sorry, enemies of Ulster. It didn’t matter that you were four foot six or that you wore glasses with lenses so thick they questioned just what those adolescent years looked like – you were a soldier. But a soldier who at the end of the night would return home rather than to a smelly barrack room - and there the myth would end. As all myths should.

Laurence McKeown was a republican prisoner for 16 years in Long Kesh and spent 70 days on the 1981 hunger strike. He is the author of a doctoral thesis, co-author of the feature film H3 and plays The Laughter of Our Children and A Cold House.

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