There are those who say that Ulster is a place of hate and pain.
but many who have left it would still go back again.
The strangers do not see behind the bombs and flames and smoke
and fail to see the character of the kindly Ulster folk.
But we have memories of the days when we were young and gay.
Those carefree romps through Ormeau Park or over Cave Hill’s Bray.
The Saturdays at Windsor, the Sundays by the sea,
the bathing belles at Pickie, the sands at Donaghadee.
Our best suit pressed and ready and we were Plaza-bound
but first a stop at Mooney’s and pints bought all around.
The Sunday morning papers, the bacon and dip bread,
then a dander to the castle where all the scores are read.
Back to work on Monday, the weekend’s tales are told
while the oldsters smile and chuckle as our youthful tales unfold.
A new girl in the office, she’s a quare wee bit o’ stuff.
Is she going strong, you wonder, as you act so big and tough.
Those were the days, there is no doubt, as my memory wanders back.
That is what we all recall, not the rifle’s crack.
Will it ever be the same, you ask, will today’s kids ever know
the simple life we all enjoyed a long, long time ago.
~ John Sidney Rickerby
My father was an outspoken critic of terrorism. I remember an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times opinion section titled Who Killed Little Michelle? about a little girl killed by an IRA bomb. She was incinerated on a bus. I remember finding an underground newspaper hidden in one of his drawers as a child when I was looking for a pen or some other item. It had a photo of the girl’s charred body on a metal gurney. The caption read, “This is what the IRA did to a seven-year old girl.” I remember staring at that photo until I felt the impulse to vomit. I put it back and went on with my day, but the image never really left me, and like most, I began to associate Belfast with horrors like that.
He received a few death threats after that L.A. Times article for opposing IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorism. He was also interviewed on television and radio. He believed that terrorism – murdering civilians, especially children – is a greater evil than anything a terrorist group is upset about. This simple truth – that killing a child over a grievance with a government is wrong – was lost on many in those days, and still is today in many parts of the world.
I’m glad to report that the situation in Belfast has improved immensely. Some of the old prejudices remain intact, of course, but during my trips back, most of the young people I spoke with, north or south, told me they were fed up with conflict and just want the troubles to end once and for all.
I helped my father write his memoir, The Other Belfast, and released it in 2010, four years before he died from Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia. He was always the singer, story and joke teller, and biggest personality in any room so the effects of those diabolical diseases were even more hard to witness. I miss him every day and all the stories he told and retold me. When he was healthy and asked if I had heard one story or another, I would usually say, “Yeah, da. I heard it.” That was especially true while we were working on his book. I would say, “Da, that story is in your book! Of course I’ve heard it, ya eejit.” He would laugh and tell me the story again anyway. But when he was sick and starting to forget everything, I always said, “No, da. You never told me that one. I’d love to hear it.” He got such joy from storytelling.
In his younger, crusading days, it broke his heart to see his hometown so divided. As the title suggests, his book is about the nature of Belfast and the Belfast people before the troubles began – kind of a Northern Irish version of Angela’s Ashes.
Despite his criticisms of terrorism, he didn’t use the book as a forum to take sides. In fact, his stories depict the divisions on both sides that led to the full-scale conflict later. For instance, he was walking to a soccer game with his dad one morning and they saw dirty milk bottles on a front step. His father said, “Look at that. You just know a fenian (Catholic) lives in that house. Only a Catholic wouldn’t wash the milk bottles out before leaving them on the step.” When they arrived home after the game, they saw milk bottles on their own porch, with milk at the bottom of them. My father joked, “Oh, no! Look, dad! Catholics must have taken over our house!” His father said “shut up” and didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.
I added a lot of content to his book – mostly emotional nuances that he was too proud or strong to mention, such as how he felt when one of his childhood friends and the star of his soccer team died of Polio. It was like filling in missing pieces to me, and I knew him so well, I didn’t feel like I was exaggerating. Like most men of his generation, he was tough on the outside but soft on the inside. I used to joke that he was “hard candy with a gooey center.” So he told the stories in the book and I took care of the gooey stuff. Anytime it gets Michael Landon-ey, that’s me.
One of the greatest things he ever said to me was near the end of his life, when the effects of Parkinson’s and Dementia were just starting. He said, “I talked about writing that memoir for forty years but never finished it because I always thought, who am I to think my story is so special? I didn’t go to the moon, or survive a POW camp, or cure a disease, or do anything remarkable in the grand scheme of things. But after reading the book, I realized my life was extraordinary in its own way. You made that possible for me, son. Thank you.”
My wife and mother were in the room and talking to each other about something else but they could tell I was moved by something my dad said so they asked what happened. I told them, “Dad just said something wonderful to me, and no offense, but I want to keep that one to myself for a little while.” I savored that comment now after all the work we put into his book, and I savor it even more now that he’s gone.
If you’d like to order a copy of The Other Belfast, it’s available online at dozens of websites, or you can order it by Paypal for $17.95 at address email@example.com (includes S&H). Add $20 to shipping outside the U.S., please. (Yeah, I know. That’s what it costs now.) If you do order, thank you in advance for helping me promote my father’s legacy of peace.
Across a Field of Lilacs Spread
Across a field of lilacs spread
Like downy blanket soft and fine
Beneath the heat of summer’s day
Your freckled face smiled out at mine.
Your pig-tails flying in the breeze
Brought out the first-grade love in me
As futures lie before us spread
Like pathways to eternity.
Through school we went, inseparable
My class ring on your finger small
Our names in hearts with blackboard chalk
Proclaiming puppy love to all.
Then I was called to go away
As duty to my country came
And lilac tears were shared as we
Vowed one day things would be the same.
What happens to a soldier’s mind
When faced with war’s insanity
Humanity turned inhumane
With young men dying needlessly?
Somewhere the ‘little boy’ got lost
As innocence was blown away
And, by the time that I was through
I found that I had lost my way.
I wandered through the years alone
A soldier in civilian clothes
Who couldn’t wash the blood away
Or lose the shame a soldier knows.
On nights when pain was less intense
My dreams would bring your face in view
With pig-tails flying in the breeze
And lilac fields that we once knew.
Now life has entered winter’s chill
As summer’s fire has all been burned.
My path has finally brought me home
So, here at last, I have returned.
They tell me that you never married
Lived a nice life quietly
Became a teacher in the school
And always spoke the best of me.
They say the whole town wept for you
And even Jesus shed a tear
And opened arms to welcome you
When sickness took your life last year.
So here I stand…I place a lilac
Lovingly upon your stone.
I bid farewell to childhood romance
And to life I might have known.
Across a field of lilacs spread
I see the sadness in your eye.
You say you love me one last time
And then you turn and wave goodbye.