It took me a full day to figure out how to make my way across Ireland by bus and train to Dublin, and the following day I crossed the border into Northern Ireland. By this point, I had been rescued by kind strangers on quite a few occasions. I remember climbing aboard a bus in Belfast only to realize that the money I had exchanged when I landed in Ireland was no longer the currency in Northern Ireland. As I stared at the change in my hand trying to make sense of this, an older gentleman in the front seat leaned forward and, without saying a word, deposited the money needed to allow me to take my seat. He smiled and gestured me to a seat, then gave me a quick lesson on the different coins and their value.
Finally I made it to Giro’s Cafe and my group. There were about eight of us who came to the work camp, from Germany, Italy, France, and maybe Australia. We worked with the young people from the collective. For two weeks we tackled projects in Belfast and in the countryside outside the city. One of our first projects was to organize a “jumble sale”. Once I realized this meant rummage sale in my vernacular, it became a bit less confusing. Still, trying to make change when the crowds descended and I didn’t know my pounds from my pence or my shillings made for a very taxing day!
Another project our group tackled was preparing for a punk rock festival at a farm in the countryside. We headed out several days before the festival and stayed in an abandoned wing of the farmhouse. The setting was lovely and primitive. Since I came to Ireland from a rental in an old farmhouse in Vermont without electricity, the lack of creature comforts did not bother me, and I found it quite romantic to be sleeping in the straw and rationing water from the rain barrels. We mowed the field and set up parking, dug a hole for a bathtub to be be used to collect spring water for the festival goers, and finally the night of the festival arrived.
I was a recorder player and a folk music fan; I don’t think I had ever heard punk rock before. It was a long, loud night, and I kept wondering why this music all sounded so angry. Part of the answer to that came not long afterwards when the group went on an outing to see some of the sights of the Northern Ireland countryside. We spent the day touring the Giant’s Causeway and walking across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (not yet a major tourist destination in the 1980s). On our way back to Belfast in the evening, our van was stopped by a British Army patrol on a small back road. The back of the van was filled with a motley crew of German, French, Italian, and American young people, but the soldiers took just a cursory look at all of our passports. Then they asked Petesy and Andi to get out of the van. The van had no windows in the back where we were sitting. We could not see or hear what was happening, and we never found out. All we knew was that our friends were gone for a very, very long time, and when they came back their mood was black.
We rode in silence back to the city. By this time in the trip, I had walked past soldiers on the street with machines guns trained on passersby; I had visited the grave of Bobby Sands who died on a hunger strike in prison; I had viewed the political murals painted across the city; and I had commemorated internment night with a several story high bonfire watching police and IRA members clash until one boy was killed with a rubber bullet. However, the anger and resentment of whatever had transpired during our routine traffic stop on our way back from a day of sightseeing taught me more about what life was like for the Northern Irish than any other lesson.
For the young men and women of Giro’s Cafe, their refusal to identify as Catholic or Protestant but simply as Northern Irish made no difference to those who controlled too much of their lives. They were still targeted by patrols, they were still on the dole because there was little work to be had, and they were angry and resentful. Despite their difficult situation, they were willing to take in a group of us and allow us a glimpse into their lives that summer of 1989, and for that I am grateful to them.