“In 2011, the Queen of England, for the first time of a century came for a visit to Dublin and at a banquet in Dublin castle she had to give a speech and she opened up with ‘A Uachtarán agus a chairde’. Uachtarán is the word for president. It derives from the word ‘uachtar’ which means cream. You milk a cow, the cream goes to the top. And the president is at the top. You don’t need a separate word for president when you can say ‘that one who has risen to the top’ by using the word ‘cream’.”

Colm Mac Aindreasa, child of the Shaw’s Road Project and native Irish speaker


16    Roots


Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022


You can tell a Swiss writer from a German writer both using the High German language by the flow, the precision of words, the construction of a sentence, by the overall tone and rhythm of the text. Even if the Swiss author doesn’t employ vernaculars, the language comes across rather descriptive than sharp and distinguished. As if a Swiss story needs more time and space than a German story.

Something similar could be said regarding the Irish English, the so called Hiberno-English or Anglo-Irish, where the English language is amalgamating with grammars and narration of the Irish language.
“We’re not long after finding that you weren’t in bed.” “Sure didn’t I take my own mother’s name and never any harm did it to me.” “Is he in? He’s not but he bes here every Friday.” “That was me sitting in the middle of my dinner.” “I went to the shops, so I did.” Even if you don’t have any Irish, that’s how the English here works. A flowery English, found in the works of Irish writers and praised for by the international literary world. It uses imagery, comparison and analogy demanding creativity to express yourself and a broad mind to understand and make sense of what is being said. The English language, in contrast, has a word for everything. Every possible situation, emotion and scenario finds a precise definition, requiring knowledge to let it blossom.  

Cultural values and mentalities are reflected in the use of language and you have to understand the underpinning context in order to do translations any justice:  

“When you translate the Irish word ‘Rí’ – a Rí in Irish was an administrator of the tribe. A Rí in Irish was elected by the Thuath [the people, the tribe]. The Rí was not a law-maker, he was a law-giver. When you translate the word ‘Rí’ into English it translates as ‘King’. A King, he’s royal descent. It’s a God-given right to rule. It’s the law-giver and the law-maker. Totally different societal and most particularly power relationships. The minute you describe a Rí a King, you change everything. The Rí is given the power that he never had as a Rí but he does have as a King.”  Jake Mac Siacais, Director of Forbairt Feirste

An Irish Rí has got nothing in common with an English King. The concept of a Rí embraces something very different from the concept of a King. Therefore, translating Rí to King ignores and devalues the culture embraced by the Rí.


Eithne, figure of Irish mythology, Teach Eithne, New Lodge, Belfast. Painting by Danny Devenny.   

© Sabine Troendle, 2020


Since the Norman invasion into Ireland sometime in the late twelfth century, Ireland’s been struggling in one form or the other against exploitation, subjugation and conquest, trying to prevent the overthrow of its social system, its values, and its identity. British imperialism – with its inherent assumption of cultural superiority – did not recognise the Irish as equals and it was the English colonial spree of the fifteenth century and onwards which saw English, Scottish and Welsh farmers being given the good land to strategically subjugate the unruly Irish. All over Ireland, but especially in Ulster, plantations started to emerge on the land that the Irish previously owned and the planters, the now inhabitants, began to introduce a new way of life, a different culture and an alien language.

Britain eventually gained control over the whole island of Ireland. It brought in the Penal Laws which outlawed everything Irish and Catholic, everything that didn’t conform to the established Church and the Queen’s English. It denied Catholics ownership of land and livestock, to vote and to be educated about their religion. Speaking Irish was made illegal, leading to generations of parents not speaking to their children in order to protect them from punishment in school. To succeed in life and progress in the official world, you had to speak English.


Penal Cross, Catholics’ secret mass stone, Co Monaghan

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



Falls, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021


The Great Hunger or the so called Famine –
“There was no famine, the Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes, all of the other food, meat, fish and vegetables were shipped out of the country under armed guard to England while the Irish people starved.”  Sinead O’Connor, Lyrics from ‘Famine’

The Great Hunger from 1845 to 1849 was being used to full capacity to coerce the Irish into renouncing their identity. Soup kitchens were denying food to Catholics unless they converted to Protestantism. Convert to Protestantism or starve. Renounce your identity or starve. Speak English or starve. It’s the thing a coloniser does. Make the native people feel bad about their own culture, persuade them through military, legal, economic, social and every other means to abandon their language and culture and adopt the ways of the oppressor.

“Military conquest is not enough. If you want the whole of the territory you must destroy not just its territory, you must also destroy its soul. And any indigenous culture will have its soul built around its language. The English knew that early on. They moved towards suppressing the language, as they did in Scotland, in Wales and elsewhere. ‘Destroy the local culture and then they will have nothing to do but become like us.’”  Colm Mac Aindreasa

For the colonial project to succeed it was essential to make the natives despise their own culture. To understand that being Irish was shameful. They were taught contempt for their own identity. It was backwards, associated with poverty, remoteness, farming, no education. The unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, in 1936 cynically stated that,

“What use is it here in this progressive busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish language? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value? We have not stopped such teaching; we have stopped the grants – simply because we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens.”  Lord Craigavon

Politicisation of Irish has deep roots in colonial history. After Partition in 1922, the new government in the north strategically frustrated efforts to keep the language alive by banning it from the curriculum in schools, burning Irish language books, removing funding, ignoring the wish of students to learn the language. Never sounding like the British and missing a real sense of their cultural inheritance, the Irish grew up with the sense of being less than the British, of being second-class citizens.

Throughout the decades, various Irish language activist groups have done their best to keep the language alive and to reintroduce it into society. There’s an expression in Irish that says –
ná habair é, déan é – don’t say it, do it! In 1969, just when the Troubles were about to kick off, that’s what a group of working class families were doing. With no funding, they built a mini-Gaeltacht in west Belfast – a row of houses and a primary school consisting of a portacabin – where the official language taught and spoken was Irish. The unionist government threatened them with prosecution should they ever try to set up an Irish school but as the six counties tumbled deeper into turmoil, “prosecuting a small group in west Belfast for setting up a school that didn’t speak English was pretty low on the list of priorities” and the state was trying to pretend that it wasn’t happening, as Colm states.


Colm Mac Aindreasa

© Sabine Troendle, 2022


The Shaw’s Road project was trying to establish a non-political Irish-speaking community. They were referred to as ‘The Irish Houses’ by the community around them who didn’t really understand what was going on there. They were those weirdos who spoke Irish to what point escaped them. But that was to change with the evolving trauma of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes where Margaret Thatcher’s government let ten people die just to then quietly give up their brutal stance on the treatment of political prisoners in Northern Ireland.

The collective trauma of the hunger strikes led to a massive shift in the nationalist community mindset. Anger and hatred towards everything that Thatcher represented led to even soft nationalists becoming more Irish or ‘not British’. Never has Britishness been more rejected than during that period. This new sense of identity manifested itself in a hype of everything Irish. Pubs and clubs started beginner classes for the Irish language and Irish dancing and traditional music replaced the Top of the Pops in these venues.


Commemoration for Thomas Ash who died on hunger strike in 1917 after having been force fed, Ballymurphy, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017



The Belfast Story, Maddens Bar, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



U16 County Hurling Championship Final, Ruairi Og v Rossa, Dunloy

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



Sinn Féin campaign poster, New Lodge, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


The anti-British sentiment of that time, this sudden mutual understanding of Irishness, harmonised with Sinn Féin’s political line and gave the party a major push. They quickly adopted the Irish language, creating bilingual election documentation despite the fact that most of the people had only basic Irish if any. Sinn Féin’s success in adopting the Irish cultural identity galvanised unionist objection of everything Irish – in particular the language – and alarmed the British government into ‘counter-investment’ by finally funding Irish medium education and creating the ULTACH trust for cross-community Irish language programmes, devaluating Sinn Féin’s political leverage as the lone arbiter of Irish cultural identity. Historically supporters, they jumped on the Irish language bandwagon driven by the blanket protestors when it became politically useful to them, whilst the Shaw’s Road families have been quietly planting a seed twenty years ahead.

Not everybody had the privilege to learn Irish after a good night’s sleep in a warm bed and a hearty breakfast. Many of today’s Irish speakers didn’t go to Irish dancing and language classes in their social club around the corner. They were teaching each other from prison cell to prison cell, first through the door and then – after the guards threw boiling water through the door scalding their bodies – out through their windows. The blanket and later no-wash protest which evolved into the hunger strikes was on and the protesting prisoners found themselves in a cell naked, with a mattress, three blankets, a chamber pot and a gallon of water. No pens, no paper, no radio, no exercise, no nothing and under these circumstances they set up their Irish language classes. They learned their Irish in the ‘Jailtacht’ as opposed to the ‘Gaeltacht’ and for that they deserve nothing but respect.   

en we arrived in the H-Blocks, which was a totally different kettle of fish [from the Cages, where the prisoners availed of political status and had access to Irish media and the Gaeltacht, exclusively Irish speaking cages], Bobby Sands functioned as an education officer. During the breaks when the screws went off to their meals and when they went away in the evening, we would jump up to the door and teach Irish. We had a basic class, an intermediate class and a high class. The transmission of news from cell to cell could only be done in Irish. Orders were only issued in Irish. There were five who didn’t want to learn Irish. So people with Irish had to translate to them. But after five years on the blanket they all ended up fluent Irish speakers despite themselves.”  Jake Mac Siacais

Educating themselves in the Irish language and culture not only put them at an advantage over the wardens in a practical sense, it also boosted their morale, realising how the human spirit can triumph over abhorrent surroundings.

“I think that what the H-Blocks did was they inculcated a massive love for Irish amongst prisoners. And they also taught us that the liberation of an individual and then the liberation of the community comes through the reversal of the colonisation process. And so to role back the conquest you needed first of all within yourself to de-colonise your mind. You then had to de-colonise your community.”  Jake Mac Siacais 


Jake Mac Siacais

© Sabine Troendle, 2022


The Irish language has a widespread symbolic significance in the nationalist community whereas unionism – especially on a political level – shows nothing but contempt for the language and culture. The Arlene Fosters (feeding the crocodiles) and Gregory Campbells (Curry my yoghurt) of this world appear to be uneducated and ignorant not knowing their own background. Was it not the Protestants, the Anglo-Irish of the 19th century, who did most to try to revive the Irish language. Was it not the Reverend Rutledge Kane, Grand Master of the Orange Order, taking up the post of secretary of the Gaelic League to promote the Irish culture in the face of its massive decline. Did not the Gusty Spences, David Ervines and Billy Hutchinsons of the loyalist prisoners learn the Irish from their republican counterparts, acknowledging an Irish element to their identity. Was it not in 2011 their own monarch, Queen Elizabeth, beginning her speech in Dublin Castle in Irish – A Uachtarán agus a chairde, President and friends. A number of Orangemen are fluent in Irish. The Irish language wasn’t politicised by Irish speakers, it was politicised by the unionist state of the late 1890s when they started to disassociate themselves from rural Ireland exchanging their ‘loyal Irishness’ – Irish people loyal to the monarchy – with ‘Britishness’ – people of cultural supremacy.


‘Maintain our [British] Culture’ election poster, Shankill, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2019




© Sabine Troendle, 2021


Sinn Féin’s growing popularity during the painful and violent period of the hunger strikes in the early 1980s, aggravated unionists’ proclamation that Irishness meant Sinn Féin, who of course to their mind was a terrorist organisation. To this day, unionism parallels Irishness and the Irish language with republicanism and republicanism with terrorism, though, finally, that narrative is being contested from within the unionist community as well.

“Irish was never the affront I took it to be. It was my culture that supplanted Irish, burying it in the peremptory administration of imperial bureaucracies and commerce. I cannot relate to the dislocation and alienation that native speakers must have experienced. Yet, I do recognise the loss. I do feel the narrowness of my inheritance. Irish is not my language, but it’s part of my story, too. In opposing the Irish language, we oppose a part of ourselves.”  Richard Irvine, Teacher  

Political unionism’s deep hatred for the Irish language, claiming it undermines their Britishness (any form of expressing Irish identity is a threat to British cultural hegemony), discriminates against them, turns them into second-class citizens – that age-old fear of the unknown and terrible lack of generosity denies their community to embrace an identity that belongs to everybody and enrichens a society altogether. Ignorance only feeds uncertainty and insecurity and today’s grassroots unionism knows.

Irish Language activist and unionist Linda Ervine, sister in law of the late loyalist paramilitary turning politician David Ervine, runs
TURAS, an Irish language project on the Newtownards Road, in the heart of Protestant east Belfast. TURAS upholds the ethos that the Irish language is not a threat to the unionist identity or antithetical to Britishness but rather a contribution to the linguistic diversity of these islands, part of a continuum of Celtic languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. It brings people together and Linda is adamant that this is the perfect medium for reconciliation. The message seems to catch on, it’s said that the fastest-growing cohort of Irish language learners is now amongst Protestants.


Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022



Irish Language Act protest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2022


It has taken an awful lot to move towards a situation whereas the Irish identity as a whole has a good chance to become legally recognised. It’s yet to be seen how it’s all going to play out, but on May 25, 2022, the IDENTITY AND LANGUAGE (NORTHERN IRELAND) BILL was introduced in Westminster. It will grant the Irish language as well as the Ulster Scots official status in the north of Ireland, as did the GAELIC LANGUAGE ACT 2005 in Scotland and the 1993 WELSH LANGUAGE ACT in Wales.

The repeal of the ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE (LANGUAGE) ACT (IRELAND) dating from 1737 will allow Irish to be used in the Stormont Assembly and to register births, deaths, marriages and wills in Irish and if it does succeed –  

“This could be an historic day when being Irish is no longer a crime, I will be allowed to speak Irish in court. It legitimises the language and therefore me and my identity which did not exist prior to now. People have been arrested and prosecuted for refusing to speak English with police and in court in the past. I’ve had full legal status as a speaker of English but as an Irish speaker that aspect of my identity has always been legally denied me until now. I hope we have finally taken that last step to re-legitimising Irishness in this country.”  Colm Mac Aindreasa  

An estimated 17,000 people took part in this May’s Irish language protest march. Over 7,000 children are enrolled in Irish medium schools and the boys and girls who live in today’s 22 houses on the Shaw’s Road don’t see themselves as special, living in the Gaeltacht, it’s just a home where they speak their language which happens to be Irish. In a
way, that’s what the Shaw’s Road project was all about from the start: normalising the language and accepting it as part of life. More and more people in these parts of the world understand that.

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An extra THANK YOU goes to Colm Mac Aindreasa and Jake Mac Siacais for their generous time and unique insight into aspects of their lives as a native Irish speaker growing up in Belfast’s own Gaeltacht and a former prisoner discovering the love for the Irish language in prison.

Choyaa, The Orange Order’s complex relationship with the Irish Language, Slugger O’Toole, 12 January 2020
Niall Comer, posted on FB by Cormack Buzz Ó Briain, 24 December 2019
Colm Mac Aindreasa, Interview on 25 May 2022
Jake Mac Siacais, Interview on 27 May 2022
Scéal Phobal Bhóthar Seoighe – The Irish Houses, BBC iPlayer, 16 March 2020
Andrew Walsh, From hope to hatred – Voices of the Falls Curfew, 2013
Jaira Wilsey, Surnames in Northern Ireland: A key to history and identity, 2013

CBC News, Guardian, Irish Central, Irish Examiner, Irish News, Irish Times, Rebelnews

“When a city is re-developed a pattern of life is laid down for at least a century. I find myself in disagreement at the proposals that the divisions in the community should be accepted as a feature of life which must inevitably persist for a hundred years or more. ... This seems a counsel of despair. The word ghetto has been lightly and loosely used in the past. These proposals would give the name substance, and would attract criticism from all over the world.”

Anthony Hewins, Office of the United Kingdom Representative in Northern Ireland, 1971

15    Divide


Peace Wall Cupar Way, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


It’s been estimated that between 1969, on the outbreak of the Troubles, and its heights in 1976, more than 60,000 people have fled their homes because of sectarian violence, intimidation and fear. The attacks on Catholics and the burning of Bombay Street in 1969 initiated the biggest inter-city migration process western Europe has ever seen since World War 2. Where before people lived side by side in some kind of peace, they now would seek the sanctuary of single-identity estates. Persistent disproportion and inequality in housing distribution facilitated Protestant refugees finding a new home with relative ease while Catholic areas were already over-crowded.

If the homes of leaving Protestant families haven’t been completely destroyed in order to prevent any Catholics from moving in, they were squatted by those Catholic families that couldn’t find refuge in clearly designated Catholic areas, contesting of course the existing boundaries between the two communities. Because these areas were still perceived as Protestant territory, the authorities couldn’t just allocate the freed houses to the displaced Catholics. The looming threat of Catholics spreading into Protestant areas had to be stopped or rather controlled to prevent confrontation and violence to erupt. The solution seemed to have been found not by building houses but by letting the highest ranks of army and security forces – quite outside of public view – get involved with assessing security issues and planning decisions, leading to permanent inter-community barriers and therefore fixing the boundaries of disputed borders for good. 


Short Strand, East Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017



Duncairn Gardens, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


The military’s divisive security-planning policy that transformed Northern Ireland into a war zone included heavily fortified police stations, army observation posts on roof-tops of residential tower-blocks and the now dismantled watchtowers which in 1986, to the dismay of neighbouring residents in South Armagh, interfered with their signal on TV during the World cup in Mexico.

Oblivious to history and make-up, Belfast’s tribal logic was lost on the soldiers stationed there to support the local security forces. This was a problem. The Victorian-era gridiron layout of the city, where roads were connected throughout the neighbourhoods, made travelling by car from, through and to different areas easy and most paramilitary attacks were carried out using cars. This was a problem. Thus, besides getting a grip on community boundaries, the militaristic redevelopment strategy of the 1970s and 1980s was all about control over pedestrian and vehicular movement as well as army access into housing estates.

Open-ended road networks were being closed off and divided into cul-de-sacs, rendering car-escapes almost impossible and frustrating normal everyday access into the areas to this day, as all intuitive understanding of the neighbourhood is gone. Dead-end alleyways and single entries would lead into courtyards – intimate residential clusters – where a non-resident stands out immediately. The scheme was sold as slowing down traffic and offering the residents safety, peace and some kind of ownership over their area. While this would have been welcomed in principle, the security aspect wasn’t lost on the residents and they complained about feeling under surveillance from security forces and neighbours.


Crumlin Road, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



Falls, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017



Springmartin, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



Ardoyne, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


Disruption of and obstacles on through-roads confront residents with long journeys and dependency on cars just to get to the shop around the corner. If you want to go from the WELCOME CENTRE to the Presbyterian Church situated within a hundred metres on the one and same road, you’ll be sent through the Catholic Falls over to the Protestant Shankill in order to get to your destination – unless you’re lucky and the newly transformed gate on Townsend Street is open. Then you can also just stroll over. It won’t take more than two minutes.

Security-focused redevelopment made use of everyday architecture creating buffer zones such as shopping centres, roads, industrial zones, hotels, recreational space or tight hedgerows to reinforce spatial division between nationalist and unionist communities and would keep undeveloped land or derelict areas unused instead of building houses for communities in housing distress. These hidden barriers remain largely unrecognised as such but play their role in dividing communities and hindering access to the city centre.  

Probably the most persistent barriers rest in people’s minds. Separated by walls and other dividing structures, Protestants and Catholics live in close proximity without necessarily interacting with each other at all. Knowledge of past violent events and injustices build on mutual generational distrust, impacting on movement and behavioural patterns and leading to so called activity segregation. People take detours to avoid certain areas, they refuse to go to the adjacent park perceiving it to be a Protestant park. Instead of using the bus around the corner, they walk a longer distance to the bus servicing areas within their comfort zone. There might not always be a physical barrier between communities, but history, events and memory provide for invisible demarcation lines. 


New Lodge/Tigers Bay, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



Ardoyne/Woodvale, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2018


These hidden barriers and invisible boundaries continue to encourage conflict-era behaviour and keep society’s mindset trapped in time. They’ve become part of the communal fabric, normalised, people just live with it, though they affect their lives and wellbeing – even the DUP’s Nelson McCausland in his former role of Minister for Social Development agreed –

“There are still areas blighted by dereliction and decay, with empty houses that are boarded up and land that lies derelict and undeveloped. These problems drag a community down, becoming magnets for anti-social behaviour and dumping. They blight the lives of residents.”

However, these less visible barriers are not evaluated conflict-related divisions and there’s no specific governmental body assigned to tackle the issue, quite unlike the clearly visible and in 2021 officially recognised 59 peace walls owned by the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DoJ) and the 20 peace walls owned by the HOUSING EXECUTIVE – out of the close to 100 identified by the BELFAST INTERFACE PROJECT in 2019. While the structures were put up for protection and safety, it’s well been documented how people living in the shadow of peace walls are more likely to battle physical and mental health problems. About one in five receive anti-depressant medication compared to one in eight for the rest of the population. Educational attainment lies low, economic achievement stays persistently below average, and violence and anti-social behaviour projects high above other residential layouts.

Launched in 2012, the
PEACE BARRIERS PROGRAMME funded by the INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR IRELAND pledged to have the barriers down by 2023. While various political breakdowns and instability around Brexit and the Protocol are vamping up division anew, tensions in interface areas have always been high. It’s not pure sectarianism, but mainly boredom, general frustration, the desire for some ‘craic’ that gets the kids going. Nevertheless, many interface residents favour the dismantlement of the barriers – although, alas, not in their lifetime and by 2022, 46 of the
barriers are still standing.

It’s a sensitive task, reaching the point where communities feel safe enough to discuss options of removals or alterations of barriers. It requires a deep understanding of complex issues, as well as a clearly outlined socio-economic after-care package. Most of the negotiations happen on grassroots level with dedicated members of the community working tirelessly building up mutual trust. The
BLACK MOUNTAIN SHARED SPACES PROJECT and the DUNCAIRN COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP’s successful engagement with interface communities has, for example, seen some easing of physical division on the Springfield Road in the west and in North Queen Street and Duncairn Gardens in the north of the city.    

Mesh fence replacing corrugated steel wall in Duncairn Gardens, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



Low garden fence replacing high peace fence, North Queen Street, North Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021


Prior to the change, residents of North Queen Street didn’t use there front door and garden. With the replaced fence, which is barely recognisable as a peace wall, came more room and just the other day a barbecue was simmering on a grill in one of the residents’ new gardens. Replacing the four metre high wall required the windows and doors being enforced with security glass but for the first time in thirty years the sun shines into these homes unhindered.

The dismantling of a huge corrugated steel wall replaced by a transparent mesh fence gives way to a panoramic view from loyalist Tigers Bay into the republican New Lodge. There’s no opening through the scaled-down barrier but floral landscaping along the fence and a wandering gaze into the unknown space beyond maybe help to alter feelings of fear and held prejudice against that unknown community on the other side –

“My mum always told me: never go through that entry. But little did we know it was a Catholic area, you know, we were just told we were never allowed to go through. But of course me and the sister and a wee friend stuck our head round the wall to see, you know, what is going on round here. But everything just looked normal to us.”  Woman from East Belfast

Erected in 1989 to protect residents, the partial removal of the three metre high security wall facing the police station on the Springfield road is a significant step forward for the Springhill community. The only fly in the ointment, a good part of Gael Force Art/Gerard ‘Mo Chara’ Kelly’s Palestinian mural is gone too. 


Mesh fence replacing concrete blocks, Springfield Avenue, West Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


Bimper Archer, Anti-social behaviour triples at so-called peace walls, Irish News, 13 Nov 2019
Bimper Archer, Barriers to peace still, Irish News, 16 Nov 2021
Belfast School of Architecture + the Built Environment, Hidden barriers, SuperStudio 3 + 4
David Coyles, Brandon Hamber, Adrian Grant, Hidden barriers and divisive architecture, June 2021
Nick Garbutt, Who plans Belfast?, ScopeNI, 12 Dec 2014
Nick Garbutt, Defensive planing – how the military shaped Belfast, ScopeNI, 5 Jan 2015
Rita Harkin, Anything goes – architectural destruction in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, 2014
Andrew Sanders and Ian S. Woods, Times of Troubles. Britain’s War in Northern Ireland, 2012
Andrew Walsh, Belfast ‘69: bombs, burning and bigotry, 2015

Belfast Interface Project, Belfast Telegraph, Irish News

“At the very start of Noah going missing I put my trust as a member of the public in the authorities. I knew no different. My eyes are wide open now. This investigation, my mind is blown by how little the police seem to have done. We as a family have done quite a bit of investigation ourselves and we dispute their line of inquiry.”

  Fiona Donohoe, mother of Noah

14    Qualm



© Sabine Troendle, 2021


In the summer of 2020 Noah Donohoe, a 14 year old boy from south Belfast went missing while on his way to Cavehill to meet his friends. After an extensive six-days search he was found in a storm drain in an area of Belfast unknown to him. The pathology report states that Noah had drowned. He was naked. His computer has been found – a drug addict tried to sell it. His bicycle has been found in an area Noah wouldn’t have gone to. Parts of his clothes were found. Witnesses had seen him running up the street naked. CCTV footage shows Noah distressed and exhausted. As a legacy of the Troubles, Belfast is heavily equipped with surveillance but there’s a whole stretch where CCTV footage of Noah is missing. Noah was a Catholic boy of mixed race, happy and popular in school, he loved sports, basketball and his cello. He never gave his mommy Fiona any bother. The police very early into the investigation said, no foul play was at stake. Noah might have fallen from the bike, hit his head, got confused, went into the storm drain and drowned. They never took rumours of Noah having been drowned in a bath tub and loyalist paramilitary involvement seriously. The water in the storm drain has never been compared with the water in Noah’s lungs.



© Sabine Troendle, 2021



It is a very sensitive and controversial inquest and many unanswered questions, investigative shortcomings and a looming PUBLIC INTEREST IMMUNITY (PII) certification request by the police in order to withhold evidence that – in their estimation – could be damaging to public interest feeds into presumptions of loyalist paramilitary machination. The most common reason for a PII request is paramilitary, intelligence or informer involvement.

Noah went missing in a staunchly loyalist area where sectarian and racist attacks do occur but where a community centre immediately organised a search operation and locals dropped off provisions for hundreds of people from all over the town searching for the mixed-race Catholic boy – testament to community activism, so typical for Belfast working-class communities. They gathered day after day until the police urged the public to leave the search to professionals.


HUBB Community Resource Centre, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020



Search party, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020



Entrance to Noah’s school, St Malachy’s College, north Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020


Noah’s mum is still hoping to get to the bottom of her son’s death. Whilst the police try to nurture the narrative of misadventure or even suicide, suspicions of a much darker story circulate amongst the people in Belfast – a story so many families have fallen victim to in one or the other way – the story of paramilitary power, information and infiltration. It happened during the Troubles and it’s still happening within the republican NEW IRA or the loyalist UVF and UDA. Protection for information. There is no proof of paramilitary involvement in Noah’s death. There’s only a lot of loose ends, coincidences and a police force that considers to refuse disclosure of certain evidence.

Paramilitary groups represent themselves as the harbingers of justice in communities with a policing vacuum by going after the hoods, the joyriders, the petty thieves, the drug addicts, the dealers and everyone that steps out of line. They impose discipline on the area. They say they’ve been put under pressure by the community to do something about crime because the police are ineffective. Weekly reports on punishment shootings and beatings are normal. It’s swift justice versus state bureaucracy. An acceptable way of punishing criminals.

“Masked men forced their way into a home and beat and shot a teenager.”  Irish News, 15 Feb 2022

“Two men dressed in black clothes took the man into an alleyway and shot him in the left leg. It was not clear last night if the shooting was by appointment.”  Irish News, 27 Oct 2020
“Deaghlan Collins (30) was shot twice in the legs on Springfield Road after being chased from outside a fast-food outlet. He was under threat from an armed group.”  Irish News, 20 July 2019
“The man, who was in his thirties, suffered life-changing injuries when he was shot three times in the legs.”  Irish News, 2 Oct 2019

This vigilante justice has brutalised society. It’s taken for granted that being shot in the knees and ankles is what happens. And if the paramilitaries command you  to a certain place at a certain time, instead of going to the police and ask for protection, you’ll take a few painkillers and fresh underwear for the hospital and show up. Shooting by appointment, they call it.  

“My mommy was ‘where are you going?’ I was like, ‘no, I’m just down a bar.’ So I went down, had a few wee pints, got a wee text and all, and I walked over at me own. I was like ‘mate, I hope you’re not trying to pull a dirty one, here, shoot me with a bigger gun and all?’ He was like ‘I’m not, kid, I’ll look after you, I’ll look after you.’  And he showed me the gun in his hands, it was a hand-sized gun. He didn’t lie to me, like. He didn’t. He told me to lie down and bite my arm. I heard the first one and I thought like, wow. He was like, ‘did it hit, did it hit?’ I said ‘of course it did, just do the other one!’ I did do bad shit and I accept that. I got shot four times.”  Anonymous victim


DRUG DEALERS WILL BE SHOT, AAD! (Action Against Drugs), New Lodge

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



HOUSE BREAKERS (will be shot), Larne

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



Cisco, Ballymurphy

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


The UVF and the UDA recruit young members by selling drugs and let them get into thousands of pounds of debt. Then they can choose between becoming foot soldiers for the organisation’s money laundering and extortion business or being beaten up, banished or shot. People say, ‘it’s not part of my life’. Societal shrug is the reaction. But it’s not just about the person who gets hurt and maimed for life. It’s about sending out a message to the whole community. It’s about saying, ‘we run this place, we are in charge’. This way they maintain their coercive control they need to be able to reside and exist in these areas. They are tightening their grip on communities who are in fear to speak out against them.

Andrew Peden lost both his legs in a loyalist paramilitary attack. He knows the perpetrators but will never seek justice. He’s afraid for his family. Hugh Brady is a former republican prisoner turned community worker. He would rather be dead than tout on armed republicans. The worst thing an Irish person could be accused of is being an informer. Be it on political grounds – as it is the case in some republican areas where the security forces are the enemy – or pure fear of retaliation, people in working-class communities with paramilitary presence almost never go to the police.


© Sabine Troendle, 2017

TOUT (Informer), New Lodge

2017-09-18 13.32.35.jpg


© Sabine Troendle, 2017




© Sabine Troendle, 2017


Toni Johnston-Ogle made an impressive exception of the rule when she stood up against the UVF, accusing them of months of intimidation culminating in the stabbing of her father Ian Ogle in 2019. She believes that her community in Cluan Place will never forgive them and is hopeful that people will rise up. Close to 2,000 mourners attended the vigil – a strong sign of support for a brave person who is ready to confront the power structures of east Belfast’s paramilitaries.

It took the police four days to admit that it was the UVF, who was behind the Ogle-murder when everybody around knew it right away. Why are they so slow in admitting to paramilitary involvement? Who or what are they trying to protect? MI5 infiltration in various groups is not just a memory, the latest exposure of agent Dennis McFadden within the New IRA is an ongoing case. Is it right to gloss over an investigation in order to keep the identity of an informer or agent hidden? Is it more important to keep an operation involving agents or informers going than giving a grieving family justice and closure? How far will they go to protect their sources? As it stands, using the paramilitary power structures constitutes an integral part of politically rubberstamped policing practice creating a murky justice wish-wash. This is not good enough and won’t make people feel safe to come forward with information. It’s exceptionally hard for Fiona Donohoe to bear the silence surrounding her son’s death knowing there’s people out there willing to help but too scared to speak out.

“There’s anonymous phone calls with people saying they have information but they have to keep their families save. They never call back. I just pray that someday somebody will do the right thing and come forward to give information. There’s more good people on both sides and it’s just a minority that poison a community.”  Fiona Donohoe

More than 280,000 people have signed a petition for the police to release the files on Noah Donohoe uncensored. NOAH’S ARMY, a formation of friends, sympathisers and human rights campaigners, is supporting Fiona in her battle to get justice for her son. Not allowing to be silenced, Toni and Fiona show courage and determination on their journey against societal apathy and political status quo.


NOAH’S ARMY campaigning for justice, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



 Justice For Noah campaign, New Lodge 

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



Ian Ogle remembered one year on, east Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020


Since the signing of the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT, a lot of money has gone into helping paramilitary organisations transition to peace. Those groups who moved on, and there’s a lot of people who’ve played a positive role and done a lot for the peace process, they moved on a long time ago. What is left is criminals.

“We need to move away from the language of paramilitary and Troubles romanticism. What we’re talking about is gangsterism, criminals terrorising and controlling their communities. For children and young people to escape from power and from that control, there’s an awful lot to be done. And also in order for these communities to feel strong and safe enough to come forward and to say, you have no place here. But that can only happen when there’s confidence particularly in the police and social services that they will actually keep them safe.”  Koulla Yiasouma, Children’s Commissioner

Transition cannot continue indefinitely, but 24 years on, money from Westminster still runs into the hands of the groups. It seems that violence pays.

Trevor Birney, Above the law, Documentary, RTÉ, 2015
William Crawley, Is eradicating paramilitarism how we build a shared society? Talkback, BBC Radio Ulster, 29 Sep 2017
Fiona Donohoe, Interview with James English, Youtube, 30 Jan 2022
Stacey Dooley Investigates, Shot by my neighbour, BBC, 2018
Stephen Nolan, Paramilitary Punishment, The Nolan Show, BBC Radio Ulster, 15 Oct 2021
Sinead O’Shea, A mother brings her son to be shot, Documentary, 2019

BBC News, Belfast Telegraph, The Guardian, Irish News, Sunday Life

“And at one point Pat was talking about his community and what they suffered and how he felt. How he cared about them. And I saw in him now a man with a story, who suffered, who struggled. He’s not just the man who planted that bomb. I didn’t meet him to change him, I didn’t meet him to get an apology. I met him just to see him as a human being. Because he was THE most demonised person in that time. And that wasn’t gonna help me. But it would help me to see him as a human being.”

  Joanna ‘Jo’ Berry

13    Reconciliation


© Sabine Troendle, 2022


Patrick Magee

In 1984 a bomb went off in the Brighton Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party was hosting their conference. Over thirty people were injured and five died: Muriel MacLean, Jeanne Shattock, Roberta Wakeham, Eric Taylor and Anthony Berry. The main target, Margaret Thatcher, walked out of the blast unscathed. The IRA claimed responsibility and Patrick Magee, the only ever convicted person for the bombing, ended up with multiple life sentences in prison. He served over fourteen years when paramilitary prisoners whose organisation had signed up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were granted an early release. Around 500 loyalist and republican volunteers walked through the prison turnstiles before completing their sentences. In 1999, Pat Magee was one of them.

Ex-prisoners play a crucial role in creating conditions for peace, a fact that is often overseen. Former prisoners helped to bring about the West Belfast festival as an alternative to the confrontational bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate internment. During the Holy Cross dispute in 2001, when loyalist residents tried to prevent Catholic girls to walk through their street in order to get to school, ending up with the army having to escort them, it was mainly down to former prisoners that the months-long gauntlet-running came to an end. Prisoners were not merely released, many involved themselves in some sort of community work, focusing on young people and interface violence, increasing cross-community interaction, trying to contrive situations to get people together. 


Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, Woodvale Road, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2017


Being involved in cross-community tension transformation doesn’t necessarily imply discarding key ideological views or decrease inter-community distrust. Polar ideological opposition between former enemies often remains, despite the willingness of line-crossing, engagement and openness to dialogue. They work with each other without trying to persuade one another of their respective believes. Or as a UVF-member states,

“I firmly believe that there are differences that I have with republicans and nationalists that are never going to be resolved. But my relationship with them has been transformed from one of demonisation and just wanting to destroy them, to trying to create a society in which we can live together and have those differences.”    

There will never be an agreement on history narratives and that’s not a solely Northern Irish experience. The peace process with the
GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT at its heart has somewhat ironically consolidated difference by institutionalising ‘Otherness’. Instead of tackling the fundamental issues of division it went for appeasement and accommodation which surely ameliorated the situation in a sense that it brought an end to open war and facilitated political participation for all, but – for the sake of peace – pushed basic grievances under the carpet and kept the unionist and nationalist communities segregated.


Catholic and Protestant side of Alexandra Park, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2020


There are sports clubs and the arts and there are welfare organisations and community centres promoting cross-community engagement and inter-community care. However, a hurt people can’t heal on the shoulder of civic society when the political agenda doesn’t support it. Right across the divide, families still seek for answers on why or how their loved ones were killed, injured, punished, targeted, disappeared, defamed, locked up, interned or otherwise banished. The past hasn’t been dealt with properly and it lies there, underneath, nagging and to resurface and to become the question and pain of the next generation.

“Dealing with the legacy of our past and building meaningful reconciliation is complicated and delicate. If we are to unite hearts and minds and nourish a genuine hope for lasting peace and reconciliation in Ireland, then we have to work together on healing the legacy of our shared past, because peace can only flourish in the light of knowledge, truth and justice.”  Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh

The British government is doing the very reverse. With a blind-eyes-deaf-ears-and-concealment-of-truth-strategy it is planning to implement a statute of limitations to end all prosecutions of military veterans and ex-paramilitaries for Troubles incidents predating the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT 1998. It’s been complaining about the ‘witch hunts’ and ‘vexatious prosecutions’ of soldiers now in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The reality is, the British government doesn’t lose anything by granting paramilitaries amnesty but risks its reputation if details around army and MI5 proceedings during the Troubles emerge. British state violence, collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and sectarian manipulation shines an uncomfortable light on the government. So the secretary of state Brandon Lewis and his boss Boris Johnson say that prosecutions don’t work, don’t do justice to the people, there is too little evidence after such a long time, and that amnesty is a great idea, it will allow the people to draw a line under the past and help them to move further along the road to reconciliation.


March for Truth, City Hall, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2019



© Sabine Troendle, 2021


Memorial for the victims of the Sean Graham bookies shooting in 1992, Belfast

Even though there are groups who support the soldiers in some ongoing inquests on legacy issues, the legislation is opposed by all the main political parties at Stormont, the Irish government, the Church and victims’ and survivors’ groups from all sides. All the covering-up, frustrating and undermining of successive attempts to get justice doesn’t make the families go away. They understand the challenges in decade old cases. They understand that the likelihood of getting actual prosecutions are slim. But justice is not simply getting a conviction, it’s a process and it’s truth-finding, as the recent Ballymurphy inquest illustrates. No soldier will go to jail for the killings of 11 people in 1971. But it was publicly and officially acknowledged by Justice Keegan that the victims were all innocent and not members of the IRA posing a threat and therefore gunned down lawfully, as was the army’s version. After 50 years the stain on the reputation of the deceased and their families has been lifted. And there are many more like the Ballymurphy families who have yet to get truth and justice for their loved ones.  

“Forgetting is not an acceptable, or even possible, response to a history of conflict. Forced amnesia leaves a deep societal instability. The assault of organising forgetting re-victimises and re-traumatises the victims and survivors of conflict. Wounds left untended, and unacknowledged, make it even more difficult to ease the tensions of a deeply divided society.”  James Waller, Author


Press conference of the Ballymurphy families after the ruling in court

© Sabine Troendle, 2021



Ruling of ‘innocence’ announcement at Ballymurphy inquest, Belfast

© Sabine Troendle, 2021


Conflict is damaging to all people, no matter the side they’re on. Public acknowledgment of the suffering is an important part for societal recovery. Moving away from a world, where retaliation and revenge are accepted forms of expressing anger and grieve towards a peaceful society means to remember the harms done and pains suffered. To remember what has been forgotten, covered up, denied and silenced. It helps to understand each others’ experiences and facilitates empathy for the Other as the quite remarkable story of Jo and Pat illustrates.

Patrick Magee was out of prison for about a year when he heard that a person who lost a relative in the Brighton bomb wanted to meet him. As somebody who had caused injury and suffering he felt compelled to meet this person. It would be a contribution to the peace process and a chance to maybe explain and put the republican armed struggle into context. A subject close to his heart, he also wrote a book on the misrepresentation and demonisation of republicans, called
GANGSTERS OR GUERRILLAS? – unfortunately out of print. But Jo Berry wanted more than just meeting the perpetrator, more than explanations, she wanted to put a face on the enemy and see his humanity and so she decided to listened carefully and to ask questions and at some point she started to talk about her dad, Anthony Berry.

Republicans felt demonised, censored, their perspective not understood, overall dehumanised by the Other. But Pat started to realise that he, as a republican, had been doing the same with their perceived enemies: they were oppressors, fascists, those culpable for the conflict because they had all the power. They were legitimate targets, not humans – a narrowing perspective in order to function in conflict, and in Pat’s words, ‘thought-terminating clichés’. Listening to Jo talking about her father, the values he lived by, the grandad to her two daughters he would never be, the close relationship she had with him – it was then that something shifted in Pat’s awareness and it dawned on him that he had killed not just a member of the enemy, but Jo’s father. A human being. And probably a fine human being, considering Jo being such a fine woman.

“Something has unveiled in that moment for me and I think that’s been at the heart of our – for sure my – journey ever since. Trying to get a wider perspective of those we were in conflict with and understand their pain, their side of it, their story. Now I had learned from the experience of meeting the Other, and in my former ignorance, delusion, arrogance, I hadn’t foreseen how valuable and how liberating that lesson would be in terms of my own humanity and perception of the world.”  Pat Magee

Pat’s motivation moved away from a solely political obligation to a personal need for understanding and to listen and hear what Jo had to say. And he became a good listener, someone who would notice and care – someone to trust.

“After three hours I said to Pat I’m gonna go now. And he said to me ‘I’m really sorry I killed your dad. And I said something to Patrick that I don’t think he understood at the time, I said ‘I’m so glad it was you’. His preparedness to engage, to feel the emotional impact, to actually know he killed a human being, and all that means is huge. And I acknowledge that. I felt like I had broken a taboo in society but I knew I wanted to go back.”  Jo Berry

Despite the fact that Pat had killed Jo’s father, despite all the differences, they continued to meet and further their dialogue. After 21 years and hundreds of conversations, it’s still not easy. Calling it friendship seems to be most inappropriate but there’s a depth of trust and a readiness to engage in direct and painful conversation with each other again and again. Jo remembers being on a plane with Pat, going to a peace conference to give a talk and Pat was teaching her to do cryptic crossword puzzles.

“We’re just like two friends looking at a crossword puzzle. And on one level, that is very normal, but it’s not normal. It doesn’t feel like I’m just seeing anyone. Because, he did plant that bomb to kill my father but he is also the man who’s engaging me for 21 years, who I’ve travelled with and we’re changing the story. And for changing that story, I feel like something is healing deeply inside myself.”  Jo Berry

That deep healing Jo is talking about doesn’t necessarily mean that she has forgiven Pat. There’s a lot of pressure around forgiveness. People have given up their religion because they were angry and couldn’t bring themselves around to forgive. Jo prefers the concept of empathy, which she feels is empowering and can actively heal rifts and divisions between the parties. Empathising means putting yourself in the Other’s place. Knowing more about Pat’s community, Jo started to wonder, had she lived his life, would she have made the same choice? Realising that, there was nothing to forgive, only understanding empathy. That’s how she felt with loyalist volunteers and British soldiers she was engaging with in conflict transition workshops as well. Pat himself would never ask for forgiveness:

“What I’ve done in the past was in full conscious. What I can say is that I’m conflicted because of that past. I can’t forgive myself, because I don’t know what that means. The best I can hope for is through this process of re-engaging with the past that I can somehow be less conflicted about this.”  Pat Magee

The political and societal inequality that lead to the armed struggle, Pat believes there was no other way. He continues the republican struggle by confronting the post-conflict narrative of those who wouldn’t give the republican perspective any legitimacy. He engages in difficult conversations and uncomfortable truths. It’s about empathy and understanding. In Northern Ireland the physical conflict has more or less ended but there’s tension under the surface and things are still raw. Pat’s notoriety that accompanies him to this day in certain places along with his republican stance might make it hard for some people to accept him as an ambassador for peace. Something he had to painfully realise when the charity CAUSEWAY ceased to exist within weeks after it was launched. The interest was there but the political situation of the time and the outworks of a divided society made it impossible for the Protestant and loyalist population to attend the venue with Pat Magee at its centre.

Jo went on to establish the charity
BUILDING BRIDGES FOR PEACE and Pat’s been working with her. Together they’re giving talks and workshops around the world, underlining the charity’s vision of peace in the world through a non-violent way and understanding the reason for violence. Jo and Pat’s journey is remarkable and it is possible and generally evokes hope that damaged relationships from conflict can be restored. There’s no way around dealing with the legacy of conflict. It’s essential on a personal, political and judicial level. Simply telling the people to draw a line under the past doesn’t work.


© Sabine Troendle, 2022


Jo Berry and Patrick Magee

If you want to learn more about a very personal process of reconciliation I suggest you read Patrick Magee’s latest book WHERE GRIEVING BEGINS.

Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrisey, Marie Smythe, Northern Ireland’s Troubles, 1999
Patrick Magee, Where Grieving Begins, 2021
Patrick Magee, Interview, 20 May 2021 / 8 Feb 2022
Pat Magee, Jo Berry, The Journey – 21 years after the first meeting, Youtube, 24 Nov 2021
Peter Shirlow, Jonathan Tonge, James McAuley, Catherine McGlynn, Abandoning Historical Conflict?, 2010
James Waller, Irish News, 16 Aug 2021

Irish News

“At nights we stand and look up at the stars, and beg the moon: ‘please tell us where they are; ‘cause you’re the only friend who saw them die and the only friend who now knows where they lie.’  So many questions keep runnin’ thro’ our heads and at times our hearts still won’t believe you’re dead. But, if and when we fin’lly bring you home,
oh you’ll never ever ever rest alone”

 Extract from the song YOU’LL NEVER DISAPPEAR, composed by Malachy Duffin

12    The Disappeared


© Sabine Troendle, 2019


Confirmed and assumed burial locations of four IRA victims

Ireland is well known for its vast bogland where people dig for peat to heat their homes turning them nice and cosy. Seamus Heaney composed his famous poem ‘Bogland’, tales have been told and myths of the otherworld handed down the family line. They preserve thousands of years old chunks of butter and mummified bodies – witnesses of the past. Miles from any town, remote wasteland or noman’s land, bogland also served as perfect burial ground for people killed during the conflict. Shot and secretly interred for stealing, informing, betraying. That’s what the republican paramilitaries said. The truth of it has been accepted, disputed, confuted or buried along with the sixteen (official) victims that became known as THE DISAPPEARED. It happened in the 1970s and 1980s but didn’t reach public conscience until 1999, when the IRA acknowledged the majority of the killings.

The disappearances took place in a vicious political conflict and the IRA made it perfectly clear to their volunteers and the wider republican and nationalist community what to expect if they step out of line. Informers were the lowest of the low, grassing on their own community, they were despicable. Punishment by court martial and execution or if they were lucky expulsion from the country were part of the
IRA’s constitutional means to defend the war of liberation. The atmosphere was tense, dark, frightening. A lot of the rules had gone.


In 2014, the remains of Brendan Megraw were found in Oristown Bog, Co Meath

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


“Resting momentarily on a wall of the bridge, I ponder on the confluence of channels as the River Cor flowing below marks the border. A short distance to the north where Armagh meets Monaghan, it will merge with another river and then, further along, between Tynan and Caledon, with yet another. Both those rivers are called the Blackwater, one rising on Sliabh Baegh on the southern side of the Clougher Valley and flowing through Monaghan’s Tydavnet, Monaghan and Donagh parishes, the other rising on Murley Mountain and flowing through the Clougher Valley and marking the boundary between Tyrone and Monaghan. Two rivers with the same name is surely a prime example of the duplication brought about from partition of the island.”

Darach MacDonald, 2018

11    The Border


River Blackwater, Caledon, Co. Tyrone

© Sabine Troendle, 2018


It was in May 1921 that Ireland became effectively two. One accommodating the Catholics, the other the Protestants. The south was finally free to go back speaking irish, playing the bodhran, do their native thing and the north got itself busy clearing the road to be as British as Finchley. Neither would have to talk to each other ever again and peace would finally be established on this war-ridden island. A clear cut – if only it wasn’t for the Catholics in the province of Ulster – too small a minority to ask for anything such as civil rights, yet big enough to be feared to do just that. So to assure the unionist people of the North and himself, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, later Lord Craigavon, established a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant People’.

Both states were busy tinkering away on their constitutional fantasies, both treated their religious minorities with contempt and they both mostly ignored each other. Through hostile laws empowering the Catholic Church, the 10 per cent Protestant minority in the south declined to a mere 5 per cent over the years and the north’s one third Catholic minority was dealt with solid unionist supremacist politics which denied them as good as everything except breathing. Partition was a divisive action and produced divided understanding.  

To consolidate unionist control, the north made do with only six counties of Ulster, out of the nine. Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal with their many Catholic inhabitants were pushed back to the south. No boundary commission was going to change anything and the initial temporary border based on 13th Century county boundaries making its way with remarkable disregard through fields, farms, homes and villages, still runs its arbitrary course today.

Brian McKinney made the mistake of stealing from paramilitaries – weapons, according to the IRA, money according to the family, that he spent on a pair of shoes for a mate and hamburgers and Chinese take away. They came after him and he paid it back, thinking that was it, when it wasn’t. A week later the IRA took him over the border to Colghagh Bog from where he was recovered in 1999, 21 years later. His mum Margaret said that it was like murdering a child,

“I never thought that there was anything seriously wrong with him, just that he was very childish, but when he was fifteen he was diagnosed with a genetic condition, he had the mind of a six year old. My Brian was just five foot tall. He had chronic asthma and a wee learning disability, God love him. He was naive and easily led. Brian was a threat to no one.”

Although 21, Peter Wilson had learning difficulties and the intellect of a 14 year old. He was talking about joining the army – a Catholic boy from west Belfast – there was an innocence about him. When he didn’t come home from playing football in the park, against all odds, the family started to think he might have gone away with the army anyway, because

“he had stayed with the army for five days. He wasn’t arrested but rather went voluntarily, he was interested. They kept him for most of the week in the guise of letting him see the base and telling him about army life but the real reason was that they wanted to get information out of him about the IRA. Back then the army and the police were recruiting informers all the time.”  Patricia, Peter's sister

The IRA accused Peter to be an informer, shot and buried him at a picturesque beach on the Antrim coast and kept quiet about it. That was in 1973. His remains were found in 2010. The family spent many days on that beach, unaware of Peter’s presence. It comes as a comfort to them that during all that time they were so close. They now have a grave to visit, Peter is reunited with his mum and dad, but that beach in Waterfoot is his real resting place, he’s been there for so long. It’s become a place of memory. A terrible beauty that preserves the truth of violence.


Peter Wilson was found in 2010 in Waterfoot, Co Antrim

© Sabine Troendle, 2018



In 2003 Jean McConville was found on Shillington Beach, Co Louth

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


The same organisation that took on the role of protecting the tight knit Catholic communities from attacks executed the people from within that community they thought were informers. The volunteers were part of that community, maybe a neighbour or former classmate. They would sit beside the victims’ families at mass, they would be their taxi driver or standing in front of them at the grocer’s. The stigma of having a relative that is accused of being an informer would be isolating, the whole community would be cautious, trying not to be associated with you. In violent conflict, asking questions, speaking out and challenging the dominant power can be dangerous. So instead of offering support and assistance, people mainly tried to stay away from these dark things and avoided the bereaved.

“We were warned against asking too many questions about what might have happened or who might have taken him. But what were we supposed to do? It was complete insanity, my son had just vanished off the face of the earth and we were expected to do nothing about it. The way that we were treated, especially having no one to turn to.”  Margaret McKinney, Brian’s mother

Silence was everywhere. In the neighbourhood, the church, at work, within families themselves. They were told in various ways not to ask questions and they were misled into believing that their loved ones were still alive. For decades the wives, parents and children lived in a sort of purgatory, surrounded by fear, uncertainty, shame, hope and desperation, unable to grieve or move on.

“I never went to the media or pointed the finger at those who might have taken him. I had to be careful for fear my other sons would get into trouble. This went on for years - years of silence, years of not knowing, no information, no sightings, no body and no grave to visit.”  Mary, Gerry Evans’ mother

It’s hard to tell what the thinking was behind the IRA’s strategy to disappear the victims. Why putting the families through that ordeal of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones? Was it not enough to take them away from them? Some of the disappeared hailed from distinct republican families themselves. Disappearing an alleged informer might have been in the families’ interest, saving them from the embarrassment of having a tout amongst them and being ostracised by the community. But in the end, however way you want to argue, it was cruel, inhumane and it took its toll on the families in terms of their mental and physical health and their family life in general.


Latest search for Columba McVeigh at Bragan Bog, Co Monaghan

© Sabine Troendle, 2019




Search crew for Columba McVeigh at Bragan Bog, Co Monaghan

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


While republican paramilitaries pulled the trigger, the state’s and security forces’ involvement can’t be dismissed. For the sake of getting information about the IRA they recruited people, mostly young and naive men from the republican community, using all kinds of methods, cajoling, bribing and compromising, not shying away from planting false evidence in order to coerce and threaten them into collaboration. A responsibility the state to this day doesn’t fully acknowledge but cost the lives of young men such as Columba McVeigh, who was murdered and disappeared for admitting to the IRA to be a British army agent with instructions to infiltrate the republican army. He was a 19 year old boy with learning difficulties and hardly any meaningful information for the British state.  

Columba is one of three disappeared still missing. The latest search at the remote Bragan Bog in Co Monaghan ended in 2019 without a result. As part of the peace process the
INDEPENDENT COMMISSION FOR THE LOCATION OF VICTIMS’ REMAINS (ICLVR) was established. All information given to the Commission is entirely confidential, it can’t be used in court and anonymity is guaranteed. People with information for the Commission cannot be prosecuted.

Information is mainly coming from the republican movement, with which the Commission has established an absolute trusting relationship in the more than two decades of their existence. The
ICLVR’s head of the investigating team Geoff Knupfer, and media adviser Dennis Godfrey, who is also a member of the board of the WAVE TRAUMA CENTRE, which was instrumental to get the ICLVR started are adamant that if Columba was buried where they are told, they would have found him. The problem is that memories might not be totally accurate after all that time, let alone the amount of stress involved during the operation in pitch dark night. Also the landscape might have changed. Trees grow, tracks disappear, buildings are gone.



Geoff Knupfer and Dennis Godfrey at the Stormont Hotel

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


Outside Jean McConville, the widowed mother of ten, Robert Nairac, the British army captain of the Grenadier Guards, is the highest profile case. But the one the Commission has the least information about. Not enough credible information to start digging at a certain location anyway. It’s said that he was abducted from a pub in the north of Ireland and killed right over the border on a field or in a forest. Common sense says he won’t be too far away from that area, as in those times, driving around the border with a body in the back wouldn’t be particularly clever. There have been a lot of allegations flying around all these years that he was involved in various atrocities. But Geoff Knupfer says that Nairac wasn’t in Ireland when some of these crimes occurred:

“Books have been published and articles have been written and of course people read the books and repeat them and forty years on, just everybody assumes it’s fact. It’s terribly difficult to try to counter and I guess it causes problems over the years, as people say to us, ‘why would I want to help, this man was a criminal, he was a villain.’ When actually there is no evidence to support that. I think there are difficulties because he is a British soldier.”  

Dennis Godfrey joins the conversation –

“Some of those stories whereby he was put through a meat grinder, that’s been discounted. We don’t take that seriously anymore. For a whole lot of reasons, not least for a practical one.”  Dennis Godfrey

“We have been absolutely assured by senior republicans that this didn’t happen. And I’m prepared to say that. Not by who, but that. The people who were involved at the time were trying to get the security forces off their backs.”  Geoff Knupfer

So there you go. The myth that keeps coming up leaving a wee niggle of doubt – gone and dusted.


The Three Steps Bar in Drumintee, South Armagh, from where in 1977 Robert Nairac was abducted

© Sabine Troendle, 2019




The region around Ravensdale Forest in Co Louth where Robert Nairac is believed to be buried

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


During the conflict, one of the most drastic accusations in the republican tradition was to be called an informer and outside the republican movement to be an IRA member. The consequences in both situations could be lethal. People joined paramilitary groups who under normal circumstances wouldn’t have gotten involved, but still, many of the disappeared do not fit with the typical image of a victim. They would still be at the bottom of the victim hierarchy as the issue of victimhood is connected to the concept of innocence. Legitimate victimhood is a contested category and a complex issue in post-conflict Northern Ireland:  

“One of the central areas of contention is the definition of who constitutes a legitimate victim, and specifically, the attempted differentiation between innocents and those who perpetrated violence. Those who were involved in criminal activity and those who were actively involved in the IRA do not fit easily with the notion of the innocent victim. Those who were involved in informing would have been seen as deserving of some form of punishment by most Republicans. The disappeared reflect the practical difficulty, especially in the messy reality of conflict, of the perpetrator/victim, innocent/guilty dichotomies, and shows how subjective ‘innocence’ can be as a concept.”  Lauren Dempster

With the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT in 1998 things began to change. The republican movement shifted away from violence towards the political arena and acknowledged the existence of THE DISAPPEARED. Their families established a campaign to get the remains of their loved ones back. They employed their collective identity – THE FAMILIES OF THE DISAPPEARED – to speak to wider society about family relationship and the importance of Christian burial. They appealed to common cultural values. By leaving out anything political and focusing on the humanitarian nature of their campaign, the sympathy for the victims and their families spiralled upwards and got a lot of support.


Shrine for Columba McVeigh at Bragan Bog

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


Before his recovery in 2017, the family of Seamus Ruddy lit candles, gathered wild flowers and left a crucifix at the site where he was assumed to be buried. They brought soil from their mother’s grave to mix it with the local soil and brought local soil back to reunite mother and son in a symbolic gesture. Unlike in many other western countries, rituals around death and burial remains a major event in Ireland. Susan McKay says that –

“the idea of not allowing the families to recover the bodies so that they can give them a proper Christian burial – there’s not allowed to be any closure because there isn’t any ceremony of death. It’s the inhumanity of it, and also the absolute disrespect in a culture – the Republican culture – which highly regards the rites of passage of death.”

Brendan Megraw’s mother, like many other mothers, put her son’s name on the family gravestone hoping to have him reunited with them if not in life, at least in death. She died before he was found. Each year on All Souls Day THE FAMILIES OF THE DISAPPEARED gather to remember their loved ones. Silenced through the IRA for so long, they speak out by walking in silence to the steps of Stormont where they lay down their wreath with three remaining lilies for the still missing Columba McVeigh, Joe Lynskey and Robert Nairac. Many mothers and fathers have gone to their graves with broken hearts, but the next generation takes over. There is no closure until all remains have been recovered and returned to their families.


For now, it’s unfinished business –


13th annual All Souls Silent Walk

© Sabine Troendle, 2019



13th annual All Souls Silent Walk

© Sabine Troendle, 2019


The ICLVR can be contacted:
Telephone 00800-55585500  / International +353 1 602 8655
E-mail information to Secretary@iclvr.ie / By post to
ICLVR PO Box 10827

Lauren Dempster, Transitional Justice and the ‘Disappeared’ of Northern Ireland, 2019
Dennis Godfrey, Geoff Knupfer, Interview on 22 January 2018
WAVE Trauma Centre, The Disappeared, 2012

Al Jazeera, Belfast Telegraph, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Telegraph

“Resting momentarily on a wall of the bridge, I ponder on the confluence of channels as the River Cor flowing below marks the border. A short distance to the north where Armagh meets Monaghan, it will merge with another river and then, further along, between Tynan and Caledon, with yet another. Both those rivers are called the Blackwater, one rising on Sliabh Baegh on the southern side of the Clougher Valley and flowing through Monaghan’s Tydavnet, Monaghan and Donagh parishes, the other rising on Murley Mountain and flowing through the Clougher Valley and marking the boundary between Tyrone and Monaghan. Two rivers with the same name is surely a prime example of the duplication brought about from partition of the island.”

Darach MacDonald, 2018

11    The Border


River Blackwater, Caledon, Co. Tyrone

© Sabine Troendle, 2018


It was in May 1921 that Ireland became effectively two. One accommodating the Catholics, the other the Protestants. The south was finally free to go back speaking irish, playing the bodhran, do their native thing and the north got itself busy clearing the road to be as British as Finchley. Neither would have to talk to each other ever again and peace would finally be established on this war-ridden island. A clear cut – if only it wasn’t for the Catholics in the province of Ulster – too small a minority to ask for anything such as civil rights, yet big enough to be feared to do just that. So to assure the unionist people of the North and himself, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, later Lord Craigavon, established a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant People’.

Both states were busy tinkering away on their constitutional fantasies, both treated their religious minorities with contempt and they both mostly ignored each other. Through hostile laws empowering the Catholic Church, the 10 per cent Protestant minority in the south declined to a mere 5 per cent over the years and the north’s one third Catholic minority was dealt with solid unionist supremacist politics which denied them as good as everything except breathing. Partition was a divisive action and produced divided understanding.  

To consolidate unionist control, the north made do with only six counties of Ulster, out of the nine. Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal with their many Catholic inhabitants were pushed back to the south. No boundary commission was going to change anything and the initial temporary border based on 13th Century county boundaries making its way with remarkable disregard through fields, farms, homes and villages, still runs its arbitrary course today.


Border crossing, Foyduff, Co. Armagh

© Sabine Troendle, 2018