A Country without Borders
I wanted to find the Irish bar, the one I had seen the day before. It was somewhere very close to the Parque Central of Antigua, of that I was sure. I recalled that it was named Reillys en la Esquina on the outside and Reilly’s on the Corner on the inside, but whatever corner it was in or on, it sure wasn’t this corner. Fortunately, I had downloaded the Google map of Antigua, and so my phone, without much of a connection, was able to find it in an instant. Three blocks away. No problem.
Reilly’s Esquina, screen capture from Google Maps
The barman, a young guy with very pale skin and very red hair, was leaning on the bar, alone, waiting for a customer. I took a quick look around.
“Wow,” I said. “This is a real Irish bar.”
And I explained to the barman that I had visited other Irish bars in Latin America, and although they looked like Irish bars and sold Irish beers or quasi-Irish beers, they certainly didn’t give me the feel of a real Irish bar. In Candelaria, in Bogotá, for example, there was a bar, owned by a local brewery, that had the Guinness Toucan painted on its outside wall, even though it didn’t serve a drop of Guinness ‒ a perfect example of cultural re-appropriation, maybe, considering that toucans really live in Colombia, but not in Ireland. Inside, the establishment featured a wooden bar, long and dark in the Irish style, but when I sat down on a bar stool and greeted the barman, he looked at me funny, as if I didn’t understand that those stools were ornaments, not seats. In any case, he called a waitress over to take my order.
The Pub Bogota. Photo by Dave O’Meara
I explained all this to the barman at Reillys en la Esquina ‒ the short version, only one or two sentences ‒ and he told me, in an Irish accent, that he had the same problem, that many people here in Guatemala didn’t want to sit at the bar. He told me, by the way, that owners of the bar were from the United States, Holland, and Israel, and that they had just brought him over to pull in the Irish-American tourists. He was from Derry, he said (when I asked him), and I nodded my head, because I had heard the inimitable vowels of Northern Ireland.
“Well then,” I said, remembering the chalkboard I had seen the day before, a schedule of World Cup qualifying matches and Major League Baseball playoff games, “What this really is, it’s an international sports bar.”
At that he stood up, and found a remote control.
“I have to put on the next baseball game,” he said.
And while he was changing the channel, he said: “Have you heard? We’re in a playoff to go to Russia. The World Cup. First time since 2002.”
“You mean Ireland?” I said. “The Republic? Not Northern Ireland?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Ireland.”
“Of course,” I said. “You’re from Derry.”
And I remembered the night, more than twenty years ago, when I began to decipher‒ and it was only a beginning ‒ the complex web of loyalties of football in Northern Ireland.
It was November 11, 1994. (No, I haven’t remembered the exact date for all these years ‒ I looked it up on the internet.) I had just arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to attend an arts festival with a letter of introduction from a small Irish-American newspaper. The newspaper couldn’t pay me for my articles, but the letter would bestow upon me a press pass, and free admission to any event in the festival that wasn’t sold out. I was also trying pass myself off as an American producer who was developing a multi-media theatrical adaptation of Ciaran Carson’s poems about The Troubles. I say, “trying to pass myself off” because I ended up abandoning the project, and so now my memories of that trip are tinged with failure and a vague sense of falsehood. But that November night, the project was still alive, and maybe even possible: we would begin with a low-budget outdoor production at an Irish festival in Milwaukee. And it would grow from there. I fully believed that. On that night, the eagerness with which introduced myself to people was genuine, even if my ignorance was far greater than I knew.
That night’s event, in any case, had nothing to do with poetry, theatre, or any of the arts: it was a sporting event, and a big one: the match between the national soccer teams of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I did manage to find a connection with my project: I was staying in a B&B on Malone Road, and my plan was to watch the match at a place in the neighborhood, the Eglantine Inn, which I had recognized, as soon as I saw it, as the setting of one of Ciaran Carson’s most important poems, “The Irish for No.” In the poem, “Bacchus and his pards and me” are drinking in the Eglantine Inn, thinking of matters linguistic and national, and although the line from Keats,
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
is never actually quoted, many of its famous neighbors are, in a swirling meditation on “whether eglantine was alien to Ireland” ‒ which is to say, on whether Keats and the English language were alien to Ireland, and even the words “yes” and “no” ‒ famously absent from the Irish language. So the Eglantine Inn was a place I just had to visit, and that night, one of my first in town, was a great opportunity.
As far as the match itself, well, I didn’t know what to expect. The morning newspaper had been full of it, of course, but that was all sports writing ‒ who would win, and how, and why ‒ not reflections on the relation between sport and society, which is what I was really interested in. And about which, to be honest, I had no idea, not in that place, not in that fractured society. One sports columnist had written about how he would always support a team from the North, even the bitter rival of his favorite, when playing for the national championship against a team from the South. But he wasn’t talking about international soccer, but rather Irish Football, a sport (this was one thing I did know) that was played only by Irish nationalists. Was he suggesting that the same thing might apply to international soccer? That regional loyalties might take precedence over other loyalties ‒ even sectarian loyalties ‒ on the big stage?
I would find out that night.
The Inn was a nice place, but there was something vaguely disquieting in its decor: it seemed to have been designed with the conscious intention of avoiding the question, What country are we in? It was as if a suburban mall in the US had built a nice bar in a style that could have been either English or Irish or Scottish, but at the same time made scrupulously sure to remove any detail that might suggest England, Ireland or Scotland. But still, despite this semiotic sterility, the Eglantine was a very nice place: there were large TVs showing the match, and the bar was full of intense fans. I had come to the right place. I ordered a Guinness, found a seat, and sat down to watch the match ‒ and also the people. The first once-over told me little. No one was wearing a label that said “Catholic” or “Protestant,” not even “Nationalist” or “Unionist.”
At the beginning of the match, there was hardly any conversation. Then Ireland scored a goal, and a few people cheered. Everyone else looked in their direction, studying them. A little while later, Ireland scored another goal, and about half the people cheered. The other half were smiling. When Ireland scored its third goal, everyone cheered: it was now clear that everyone in the place was for Ireland, not Northern Ireland.
Now, with a comfortable lead, conversation began to flow. Near me was a group of young teachers, who told me that they worked in an integrated school, the mission of which was to bring students of both communities together in the same classroom. One of them was a young woman from England, who taught physical education. She was from a Protestant family, but she was married to one of the other teachers, a Catholic. Like me, she was an outsider ‒ although one with an inside view ‒ and she quickly became my guide to what was going on. I told her that I hadn’t known what to expect, hadn’t known how the sectarian loyalties might correspond to sporting loyalties. And I added how remarkable I found it that she, an English person, would be such an ardent fan of Ireland.
“Well,” she said. “I could never shout for Northern Ireland. Not after what happened last year.”
And she explained it to me. Almost exactly one year before, the two national sides had played a match here in Belfast, in the same stadium, not far from the Eglantine Inn, where they were playing at that very moment. And two weeks before that, in a Catholic and Nationalist village on the outskirts of Derry, an act of violence had occurred. Derry was ‒ and continues to do be ‒ the second largest city in Northern Ireland, after Belfast, the capital. The British government called it “Londonderry” but the city’s Catholic and Nationalist inhabitants, a large majority, called it simply, and defiantly ‒ “Derry.” It was, in other words, a place about which it was impossible to speak without taking sides.
What had happened was a massacre. Loyalist gunmen hand gone into a crowded bar during a Halloween party, and started shooting. They killed eight people and left thirteen wounded. It was vengeance for a republican bombing in Belfast the week before that, an act with roughly similar civilian casualties. But it wasn’t the cycle of sectarian violence that had set this young physical education teacher so bitterly against the Northern Ireland soccer team. It was the behavior of its fans. Only two weeks after what had become known as the “Halloween Massacre,” the Northern Ireland fans at the stadium ‒ an overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist group ‒ had chanted “Trick or Treat” after their side had scored a goal, as if the massacre had been nothing more than a kids game, a ready source of taunts.
She knew her sports, this young English woman, this teacher of physical training. As the match ended (Ireland ended up winning 4-0, or so the Internet tells me ‒ I don’t remember more than three goals) she was explaining to me the how the players for both sides, almost all of whom played professionally for clubs in the UK and many of whom had been born there, had made a commitment in their youth to play for one or the other of the national teams. It was complicated, but I think I was getting the gist of the process.
Suddenly she stopped.
“Be careful,” she said. “Don’t talk about the match.” She tilted her head toward a group of men in black leather jackets who had just come in.
“They’re loyalists,” she said. “They were at the stadium tonight.”
And so we spoke of other things for a while.
In those days, the pubs in Ireland closed at 11, but the clubs ‒ places with music, dancing, cover charges and expensive drinks ‒ opened at about the same time. It turned out that the Eglantine Inn had a club upstairs. I didn’t need anything more to drink, but the young teachers knew the man at the door, and we didn’t have to pay to get in....
The last thing I remember is the DJ playing a song by REM:
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion...
Everyone in the club was singing along. They knew all the words. Especially the chorus.
Almost 23 years later, in Antigua, Guatemala, I told this to the young barman at Reillys en la Esquina ‒ well, not all of it, just the important points: the night, the match, the echoes of the massacre the year before. I told it spontaneously and from memory, rapidly, without details, without internet searches to check the facts, without mention of the physical education teacher or REM or my hangover the next day. We probably only talked for maybe a total of 6 or 7 minutes ‒ for the short period, in other words, in which I was the only customer in the bar. The barman recognized immediately what I was talking about: the Halloween massacre on the outskirts of his city, Derry, and the chant of “Trick or Treat” at the match between the national sides. These things were part of his history, part of the collective memory of his people.
“Luckily,” he said, “things aren’t that way any more. That tension.”
He must have been about 25 years old. If he was alive in 1994, he would have been a baby.
We talked a little about Brexit, about the frightening possibility that frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland might have to close once again, following Britain’s departure from the European Union. For most of this young man’s life, the border had been open, and he couldn’t imagine armed guards and checkpoints. But neither of us had a solution. It was easier to talk about sports.
The red-haired barman shrugged his shoulders.
“You know something?” he said, “If Northern Ireland makes it to the World Cup, I’ll be supporting them. I’d have no trouble with that.”
He lived in a country without borders, a country to which peace had come. At least in sport.
David Brendan O’Meara is a writer, director, actor and web developer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His current works-in-progress include My Way to Canossa, a blog of an impossible journey, The Death of the Homunculus, a remix of his experimental podcast, Five by Five, and Daily Borges. His website and blog:www.daveomeara.com.