Mauk Donnabhain was born in Lifford, County Donegal and currently lives in London. He draws on his experiences from many years living abroad, in places as far apart as Paris, Bratislava, Samarkand, Bangkok and Moscow. This is his first publication.
By Mauk Donnabhain
There’d been an incident in the past where Ruth should have got involved, but didn’t. It was back in the early seventies’, when she wasn’t yet sure of herself. It was a difficult time all round. The worst for Northern Ireland. All the extremities of Catholic and Protestant identity had risen to the surface and become accepted as the norm. When the incident at the school happened, Ruth didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. She’d been too scared of the repercussions for her and her family.
A new owner had taken over the old bookshop. A young woman. From the South of Ireland. Ruth couldn’t imagine what had possessed the poor woman to come to Derry and live in a Protestant area. By all accounts she’d fallen in love with a man from Eglinton. It was always the same thing with Southerners. They either blew things out of all proportions, or they failed to recognise any trouble in the North at all.
‘One extreme or the other.’
When she first moved in, no one had said much about it. People seemed to have accepted her as nothing out of the ordinary. Ruth had even exchanged pleasantries with her once or twice and found her to be an amicable woman. Of course, it was mostly the children who went to the shop. Ruth’s daughter Jenny was always in and out of it and seemed to be full of admiration for the Southern woman,
‘But it’s not always easy,’
she told Ruth,
‘to understand what she’s saying.’
Maybe that was the start of the problem. Her accent. One or two people began to grumble, but even that wasn’t anything new. Everyone who lived in their community had got on the wrong side of one family or other over the years. After a while though, as the political situation deteriorated and Ruth worried herself sick watching Belfast being reduced to rubble, people began to harden their hearts to anyone who was an outsider, especially people from the Republic.
‘After all, why should we have anything to do with them, when it’s Catholics that’s murdering our brethren in cold blood?’
People began to talk about traitorous Kings and the historical lessons that should be learnt in dealing with Catholics. It was shortly after this, that the nastier comments started doing the rounds.
‘It’s a disgrace to have this woman living in our midst.’
‘People have no shame in them standing by and watching, while a Papist is brainwashing our kids with the values of an Irish Republican society.’
‘Do you know she’s selling books that are all about Irish history!’
‘Aye, and didn’t Mrs Wright’s wee girl come back from school the other day and ask her mother why the Queen lives in England and not in Ireland? And sure she’s never out of that shop.’
Ruth didn’t know whether or not the stories were true. Especially as the people repeating them tended to be from hard-line loyalist families. She thought it was highly unlikely that this woman would even think of mentioning the Queen, given the current political situation.
But the rumours continued to spread and grow, until it suddenly seemed that the heads of five-year old children were being filled with IRA propaganda. In retrospect it seemed a bit bizarre that people could even think like that. But it was a bizarre time, all in all.
No one did anything more than complain at first. Even Ruth began to wish that the woman would come to her senses and leave, before something serious happened. But the young woman from the South seemed to be completely oblivious to everything that was going on. It was because she had no roots in the place. No connections other than her man friend. Otherwise she would have heard the stories.
It was the teenagers who started the whole calamity. The thirteen-year olds who went during school hours and pelted her car with eggs. Her car was a southern registration as well, which made things a hundred times worse. It was an affront to their tight little community. A deliberate insult. After the incident with the eggs, the woman found that her car tyres had been slashed. It was only then that she turned to the community leaders to ask them what she should do. She was met with shrugged shoulders and enigmatic words that frightened her, as she began to wonder for the first time if she shouldn’t just pack up and go.
Eventually a meeting was held to decide what was to be done about her. It was only when Ruth heard about the meeting that she began to realise just exactly how serious things had got. She went to the meeting and found herself reeling with some of the stuff people were saying. It seemed like the whole community was baying for blood. A kind of hysteria had taken over. People were demanding that she be forced out of the Waterside. People were talking about the pride of the Protestant people. About the importance of defending the community. The importance of protecting themselves from the IRA.
Ruth couldn’t keep up with the mood swings in her adopted community. Of course, she was an outsider too, having moved to the Waterside from Belfast. As far as Ruth could tell, it was the same three or four people who were dominating the meeting, egging the youngsters on, pushing their community to the point where they’d begun to wonder how they’d ever let a Southerner live amongst them in the first place. Emotions were running high. When Ruth spoke she tried her utmost to sound reasonable, but she was met with bared teeth. It wasn’t a time to be reasonable. She shut up after that and withdrew from the discussion altogether, feeling more like a coward than ever before.
The day after the meeting, Ruth gathered with the other parents to collect her children from the local school. There had been an incident on the news the night before, Ruth couldn’t remember exactly what it was. A bombing. Or a shooting. The whole country was on edge. When the woman left the shop she looked visibly frightened. Ruth felt sorry for her then. From one woman to another.
‘Sure no one will harm her. They only want to see her out of the place.’
Then she looked at the faces of the other women and she began to understand. She’d never seen such anger before. She thought it must be the most frightening thing in the world, to be faced with a mob like that.
When the Southern woman reached her car, she fumbled around nervously with the keys. Ruth watched with bated breath. All around them stood a crowd of women. Poised. Waiting. No one was sure what was going to happen next. A surge of energy ran through the crowd. Suddenly one of the women let a roar out of her,
Before Ruth could process what was happening, some of the women had run forward, clawing at the young Southerner. They pushed her down on the ground and pulled soiled dishcloths out of their handbags, which they stuffed into her mouth and rubbed all over her face and hair.
They wanted to humiliate her. Ruth was completely numbed, hardly able to believe what was going on. Someone beside her began to laugh nervously. The other women stood in silence, unable to avert their eyes. In an instant, Ruth realised this was something more than she’d thought it would be. It wasn’t just because this woman was from the South that people hated her. It wasn’t just because she was a Catholic. The hatred these women had for her was something deeper than all that.
‘The dishcloths. Wanting to dirty her. Wanting to spoil her perfect hair and clothes.’
Their hatred was to do with the fact that she drove her own car. That she wore nice clothes and could afford to get her hair done all the time. The women got pleasure from humiliating her. Seeing her brought down from her pedestal. The fact that she was a Southerner suddenly seemed irrelevant. Ruth derived no pleasure at all from the scene. She hardly recognised the women who were leading the attack. They seemed crazy to her. Animalistic. The only thing Ruth felt was disgust.
The attack stopped when some of the children started to cry. Ruth wondered how it must have scared them to see the women acting like this. She felt an enormous sense of pity for the Southern woman. An overwhelming tenderness for her, as she lay on the ground, crying, with a bloodied nose, her glasses smashed, searching for her car keys in a panic. Ruth had wanted to go over to her then, but was too frightened. She was frightened at how angry the women were. She was frightened that somehow the same thing could happen to her. She hadn’t taken part in the scuffle, nor had she stopped it. In the end she could only run home, like the other women, with her tail between her legs.