A Slight Inconvenience
There was always an element of uncertainty it seemed at the time, about the ferries. Would they be on time, might they be broken down or would the seamen be on strike? We once waited sixteen hours due to a breakdown but that was exceptional, our longest delay. On one particular trip everything went fine on the outbound voyage, but news via the grapevine informed us there was to be a strike on the return voyage. Sealink were at a standstill and on ringing B & I we were informed they were fully booked for forty-eight hours. At first I was delighted, imagining just a few more days in Ireland, but we all had responsibilities to attend to such as work, family, pub quiz night etc so we set about finding a solution.
Our final course of action was to take our chance with the Townsend-Thoreson ferry, which sailed from Larne to Cairnryan. They sailed every few hours but there was no guarantee we would get one in the next twenty-four hours. We both set off from Milltown in our Triumph Dolomites, both complete with matching green and brown cow muck “go faster” stripes. As we approached Armagh City centre, I lost the road signs, so I stopped and asked two women for directions to Belfast. Before answering me, these two women clearly looked up & down the roads as if they were making sure nobody was watching them talking to somebody in a car with English plates. I felt sorry for them that they had to be so wary but given the IRA’s record with informers, it was understandable.
I had already done a mini tour of Ulster earlier on in the week. I had packed so much stuff into my car; I had flattened the coil springs causing them to bottom out. Fearing I might push the shocker through, causing permanent damage to the bodywork, the best course of action was to try and get a new set of springs. I was assured there was nothing in the Cavan area, so on good advice I set out to find a large scrapyard in County Fermanagh at Enniskillen. I ended up asking a salesman in the main BL dealers just over the Erne. He was only bothered about trying to flog me a new car and said he didn’t know any scrapyards in Enniskillen. During my travels I was stopped by a British Army patrol at the exact time Status Quo’s “You’re in the Army Now” was on the radio.
Undeterred by this I set out to find it myself and I did. I knew roughly where it was from what I’d been told in Belturbet the previous night. It was up a very steep hill and at the top was an enormous Breton style stone arch and a courtyard. As I drove in I reached the top of the hill. On the other side of the hill was the scrapyard. The cars were dumped in a steep field, which stretched down to a beautiful Lough. I think the scrapyard spoilt the scenery ever so slightly, but I had come looking for a scrapyard and here it was.
A large Grizzly Adams character ambled up to me, took me inside his Aladdin’s cave of a barn, festooned with all manner of car parts dangling from hooks from the huge joists. Eventually he found a pair of Triumph Toledo coil springs with shockers intact. They cost me £3 each. Brilliant! I raced back to Belturbet to O’Reilly’s garage, where Jacko, a fellow I met in the bar, said he would get them fitted that day. This was promptly done and cost me £9. How could I complain? However, that little adventure over, back to the plot…we were still “ferryless”.
On the way to Larne we passed the Mill Town cemetery on the M1, not long since the scene of a gun and grenade attack by Loyalist paramilitary lunatic Michael Stone at the Republican funerals of Farrell, McCann and Savage, three IRA terrorists killed in Gibraltar during an ambush by the S.A.S.
Stone was caught and savagely beaten by Republican sympathisers on the central reservation of the M1 motorway until he was “rescued” from further punishment by the RUC. This incident sparked off retaliation sectarian killings all over the province and culminated in the murder of two British corporals, Howes and Wood, who had mistakenly got caught up in a Republican funeral cortege in the staunchly Republican area of Andersonstown. The depraved pack-animal savagery was seen and witnessed by millions on television. The republicans had mistaken the two army corporals for fanatical Loyalist gunmen intent on carrying on what Michael Stone had begun at the Milltown Cemetary.
The evil barbarity of these so called republicans, from their actions on that day, drove a deep steel wedge between Republicans and the rest of the world. Prior to these events it was perceived in many countries that the British Army were the bad guys. This altered the world’s perception of Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein who tried to defend their actions. The IRA knew it.
Even the Irish Americans began to realise it was not part of some romantic action film, it was not a game anymore! In the crowd at what was an all too familiar sombre funeral parade were murderers, intent on killing two human beings, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the eyes of the rest of the civilised world, it was the murderers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were on our television screens, they were on our planet and in our lifetime. They were described in the press at the time as savages. There is no reason to change the terminology.
The gigantic Harland & Wolf shipyard cranes dominate the Belfast skyline. You can see them from the M1 at Lisburn several miles away. Belfast looked to me like a strange mixture of council estates, derelict buildings, square industrial units alongside some modern architecture and all amid beautiful rolling hills. Unfortunately, Belfast just did not have the charismatic romance of Dublin. It didn’t reach out and say, “You are welcome, our city is yours”.
Belfast is a bit like Bradford or Sheffield in that respect, it does not look like a place you’d want to take your loved ones to, but as with Bradford with the Yorkshire Dales and then Sheffield with the Peak District, Belfast is only a short distance away from unbridled beauty; the Glens of Antrim, the natural wildlife of Strangford Lough and the beautiful coastline. I felt no fear nor trepidation nor excitement as I drove through Belfast. I felt very little in the way of emotion.
As we drove into Larne we were reminded yet again of the sectarian divide, on our right were union flags fluttering from lamp posts, union jack bunting linking them together and on the left a football pitch on a patch of mud, the goalposts painted green, white and orange and a single Irish tricolor limply hanging atop a pole whipped to one of the goalposts.
The last ferry that night was leaving at 10 p.m. and we just scraped onto it. Both my yellow Dolomite and Ado’s red Dolomite perched high on the back of the ferry on what looked like a heli-pad, out in the open. We were the last to reverse up the ramp so this meant we would be the first off. We had 289 miles to travel on reaching Cairnryan, so the sooner we were on our way the better.
It had been a long day.