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Saturday, April 26, 2003

Bloody Sunday
I finally saw Bloody Sunday last night, albeit on video (the movie had an inexplicably short run in Seattle). JFC, what a powerful film! One of the reasons I don’t much like watching films on video or DVD is that I get distracted and flip through magazines or play with the cat while the thing is playing, whereas in a movie theater I’m all business—a bomb could go off in the next block and I probably wouldn’t notice. That was not true with Bloody Sunday, though. For all I know, the cat was flipping through magazines last night—I was too enraptured to notice.

James Nesbitt was incredible—in fact all the acting was excellent, even though a lot of the players were “amateurs” (I was surprised to read that the most despicable officer—Col. Wilford who ordered in the First Paras, without higher authority—was “the genuine article,” an Eton and Scots Guards man who served in Northern Ireland; no wonder he was so convincing)—but the story was the real star. It always shocks me how ignorant many Britons are about Ireland—I know I shouldn’t project too much from my own experience, but when I was growing up the folks around me were more likely to have visited just about anywhere in the world than they were to have been to Ireland. (Sure, not that many people from my home town went abroad in those days, and this was before Dublin was a hip destination, but even at university when some folks spent at least parts of their vacations in foreign parts, I still didn’t know anyone—other than actual Irish people—who’d visited Ireland, North or South.)

Even as a right-on youth, I didn’t really “follow” what was going on in Northern Ireland, except to vaguely keep up the news of the Troubles. I marched against apartheid (“Reagan, Botha, You Can’t Hide; We Charge You With Genocide”) or for abortion rights (“Corrie Withdraw, Like Your Father Should Have Done”), but I never, ever did a thing about Northern Ireland. I suppose part of it was that I grew up as a Protestant—not in the sense that I took sides or had animus against Northern Ireland’s Catholics—just that the Troubles weren’t on my personal radar in the way they might’ve been if I’d gone to Catholic school or hung out with folks who were active on the issue. (Of course, you didn’t have to be Catholic to care—I remember being shocked that a friend who had grown up in Iran knew all about Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers and had been hugely inspired by them in her own formative political thinking!)

Also, there were bombs going off and people getting killed all over the place—by “all over the place” I of course mean mainland Britain; 3,500 people died in Northern Ireland, and that apparently didn’t make much of an impression on me—and it was hard to take a position that seemed to side with people who could perpetrate such violence, especially against working-class targets. And it did seem like you were either for the Brits (which meant being on the side of the army and the Tories—not a position I was comfortable with in my flaming youth) or for the IRA (who I associated with violence and Catholicism—and Catholicism meant anti-abortion and anti-gay, not Catholic charities and good works). So, I did what a lot of young people with an urge to take a stand for truth, justice, and all that good stuff do—I turned my attention to another struggle far away and left the injustice close at home to someone else.

So did Bloody Sunday turn me into a raging Fenian IRA symp? Hell, no! But it did remind me that a) what happened in Northern Ireland wasn’t a simple fight between Protestants, supported by the British Army and the RUC, versus Catholics, i.e., the IRA; and b) after Bloody Sunday, it’s no wonder things became so extreme so quickly. It’s easy to see why soldiers who’ve been abused and who’ve lost comrades in a war they can’t really understand would want to exact revenge (not justifiable but understandable); and it’s easy to see why people who’ve watched their friends and family be gunned down for no reason whatsoever would want to take up arms against the people responsible (or if not the actual people responsible, men wearing the same uniforms). If the Paras hadn’t gone in with live ammunition on Bloody Sunday, nonviolent civil rights activists like Ivan Cooper might well have had a chance.

The thing that struck me most was the class-war aspect. The citizens of Derry—even the supposedly middle-class Cooper (an MP and a factory manager) lived in crappy houses in trashed-out neighborhoods and were obviously struggling to get by. The officers who were responsible for the horrors of Bloody Sunday were upper-class English twits (did I type the right vowel there?) who were contemptuous of everyone not in their exclusive club. The Derry peeps really were a bit dirty (a nice touch of verisimilitude to have people walking around with lank, unwashed hair), while the Paras painted their faces black.