Saturday, June 04, 2005


Been away a while now, but finally got something new for the blog with this story that started life as a poem (I kid you not!) in 1994 after another bloody series of deaths in Northern Ireland's sick little conflict. Resurrected it last year and turned into this wee ode to twisted Hammer Horror style fun in rural Ulster. Enjoy!


“Sure I’ve been walkin on the Twelfth for years. I’ve never missed it - until this year that is. I’m gettin too old for the shenanigans. And, I don’t understand it anymore. Sure of course, I’m still an Orangeman, and I still believe in most everything it stands for. But I’m not sure if some o’these others understand a thing about what it stands for.

“Before I start answering yer questions I suppose ya want me to introduce myself for that tape recorder thing of yours. Well my name is John McSeverick, but everyone ‘round these parts calls me Tam. I’m 68-years-young, and I can’t remember why people started calling me Tam, but it’s just about the only name I answer to. I’m a retired butcher, I belong to Knocknaughrim Presbyterian Church and LOL 65 Sons of William Temperance Lodge. I was born and brought up in a farmhouse, trained to be a butcher after working with me Da on the farm. He came back from the war, hurt by shrapnel in the arm, and tol’ me he didn’t want me ever to be stuck for a trade. Mind you, it might have been he wanted someone to slaughter the cattle proper!

“I never left this wee country until I was 45 when my sister persuaded me to go to Canada to see our cousin, and since then ya haven’t be able to keep me here. If I don’t get abroad each year… None of this is answering your question is it?

“Okay, here’s the answer. I hate everything that’s happening, and not just this rumpus at Drumcree. There’s talk about sitting down with those murderers in the IRA and there’s Orangemen walking with the LVF. The Unionists are all over the place, and Paisley’s lot want us all to go back to the fifties. I don't know what to do any more.

“My church has been so important to me. I’m an elder, and I spend a lot of time there. We’ve a new Minister there this past year or so. I like him. He’s but 33, but he listens. The oul’ minister was fine, but he could talk for Ulster. He’d blether on about anything, and he could blether forever. It meant Church was fine for social things but not much else... Until this new man came I had forgotten that Church was about God. Now, don’t be picking it up wrong. I never stopped believing or praying, I just stopped pulling the heart out of myself. This new man; he listened to me, and when he asked a few questions I found myself talking. It’s a bit like that machine of yours, except he seemed to, oh I don’t know how to say it, do more than listen. He might not agree with my views, but he understands why I have them. Yes, that’s it. I’ve also started reading the Scriptures again. I mean really reading them. And, that’s hard for me, because I was never that good at reading, it took me a bit of time at school to get the knack of it. And, that’s why I think I’ve been given a chance now, and why I agreed to do this interview with you. In the past year I’ve had something to think about and understand. And I have understood, understood what the Church is supposed to stand for. It's about recognising your sins, and then doing something about them. Mind you the minister might have a thing or two to say if he heard me say that!

“But, you want to hear what I think of Drumcree. Well, not a lot. I went down on the Tuesday after the first protest. It was just like it was at Twelfths in the fifties and seventies. Masses and masses of people, all clustering into fields. There was colour everywhere. And there was Lambegs. There’s so few of them played proper these days I was glad to see two or three men who knew how to control them.

“There was a mass of cars - there weren’t but two or three of them when I first joined the Orange Order - crowding every road towards Drumcree when we arrived at first. All the cars were stopped in queues at checkpoints when we got to Portadown. But they weren’t really checking the cars. The Constable looked just bored with the driving licences as we got closer, and he was just downright ignorant when we got there.

“Sure there was no need for that. When I started walking with the lodge most of the police had been in a lodge, and to put it like they put it on the news there was equal opportunity policing in them days. They stood no nonsense from anyone, Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. And woe betide anyone that stepped out of line.”

Joe stopped the tape. Tam was working out fine, probably one of the best interviews he’d laid down to date and it was only getting started.

“Take a wee sip Tam, stop your mouth from drying up.”

“Thank you. Do never get tired listening?”

“Ah, no. I just, well to tell you the truth Tam, I’m just about interested in everything. When this wee freelance job came up for the Beeb; well walking around with a tape recorder, talking to people you knew, asking them questions someone else wrote, and getting’ paid for it…C’mon Tam, was I goin’ to turn it down?”

The gruff, ruddy man before him laughed slightly, before settling into a coarse laugh rounded from many years of smoking.

Joe was a city boy, but he’d somehow fallen into reporting in rural Mid-Ulster after he left university. Working on local weekly papers was an apprenticeship recommended to him by one of the top editors in Northern Ireland who had said, “You don’t need those namby pamby courses. You need to get out and do the friggin job.” It took a year of covering Women's Institute meetings, school prize days and general crap before Joe had realised what he meant.

Mid-Ulster in the late nineties was in upheaval with sectarian violence. The price of working the community beat had paid off as he gradually got to know the community in Portadown, Lurgan and its fractious rural hinterland, its politicians, its peace workers and its paramilitaries. And its terrible toll of terrorist deaths.

He’d been an oddity for the traditional men staffing the three or four papers in the area. He’d been called a long-haired freak, a city boy, a poof, a hippy among a host of other things. Most were gentle teasing, some were more biting, as both sides didn’t know his religion, a fact compounded by his surname, Ramsbottom. One councillor who thought himself a wit frequently called him Goats Arse, but the joke wore thin after the first few quips, even if the idiot didn’t realise this.

Tam had settled after his coughing fit. Tam was the last of the interviews commissioned by the Beeb. Some bright spark producer wanted to collect the views and thoughts of ‘real’ people across Northern Ireland. A Hell’s Angel, a councillor, two paramilitaries, a single mum, one petty drug dealer and now Tam; it was an eclectic collection well outside the normal Beeb definition of vox populi, but they seemed to like it and it put the current upheaval in focus. Tam was his piéce de resistance, Joe thought mocking to himself the middle class sensibilities he feared he was developing. Tam had the breathy tones of a man with a story to tell, with the regional intonations of rural Ulster. He was also a born story teller. And, some of what he said was disturbing. Some of what he said spoke of darker secrets than the terrorist bully boys could ever hold.

“Okay son, want to switch that box back on again?”

“When you’re ready Tam, welt away!”

“Where was I? Yes, the police. Yeah, some were bigotted small minded men, but most were fair. Firm, mind you, but fair. Now I’ve read some of the history from that time. And although I’m not a great reader I can make out well enough what the rest of the country must have suffered with, but the constables round here were different. They had been part of the community, ach well I don’t know what, but there never seemed to be much of what there was going on elsewhere. Nobody bothered.”

“What do you mean Tam?”

“Well, Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodists, we all got on. We didn’t darken each others churches’ doors but apart from Sunday we sort of just got along. Even the ministers, priests, whatever, just got along. Sure, they fought like cat and dog over their scriptures, but it was more like, ach, I can’t find the words. It was like a gentleman’s argument.

“The people helped each other out. Then, well it all started to go, go downhill.”

“When was this Tam?”

“Och, it was about, let me see, it was when Rev. Wilkinson and Father Misskelly died. They died within three months of each other and it was in 1966. Their deaths were, I'm not sure how to put it right for a man of words like yourself Joe, but it was strange them dying so close to each other

“Then, well, the wee town started to fall apart. The new minister was hardline. Didn’t have no truck with what he called the Papist pretenders, and the new Priest was only interested in the GAA. The other ministers were too old to start building bridges and then the new people came close, but never moved into the village apart from one. People that just didn’t understand our ways, people that, well they were different. We had some old traditions; traditions that were linked to the blood in the soil.”

Joe’s mind was drifting. Tam’s voice was natural and soothing. He knew it would make a great interview when edited down, but he was tired. Tired because of a weekend of adventure, a weekend of partying and most importantly for Joe a weekend of solid, hard, pounding rock music.

What Tam was saying, he presumed, was a tale that could be told across rural Ulster around the end of the sixties, a tale that would resonate for the BBC, but held little interest to him. Then a phrase caught his ear.

“Ya see son, there’s the real story and the one we write in our own minds. This wee corner of Ulster was bought dear with the blood of sons and daughters of the land. The real story is about all our blood sacrifices.”

Joe thought there was a rant about spilling blood to feed Ulster, or the Great War of 1914-18, but he was wrong.

“Sacrifice is a holy thing. Sacrifice is what put the Lord on the cross, caused them Mexican Aztecs to leave behind hills of skulls, and caused much of what is good and much of what is bad in every land. Here, we believe in the real sacrifices to keep our corner of Ulster at peace. When we can’t make the sacrifices because someone is stirrin’ the pot, then, well, then things don’t sit too easy.”

“What do you mean Tam?”

“Well, if ya lived here a wee while you’d find out.”


Joe sat at home, playing with the DAT recorder the BBC had given him for the task. He marked the tape with Tam’s interview, and toyed briefly about just posting it on to the Beeb, when he decided to listen to it again, and see if there was anything that might be turned into a story for his paper. And he wanted to listen to that bit about sacrifice again. It bothered him.


“Well, how’d it go Tam?” said Father Hill

“Ach, exactly as ye said it would. Said almost everything that had to be said, everything you two said.”

Tam was sitting in a large, stuffed armchair in the Parish Priest’s front room. It was a room darkened by heavy curtains and cloistered by packed bookshelves. Aside from the comfortable chair there were a small two-seater sofa, its maroon upholstery faded and a tattered director’s chair, it’s pine arm jarring in the room. Perched on the chair was Rev Greene. His balding pate caught what light there was in the subdued room. The reverend was in his late thirties, but seemed like a man 10 years older. He was, like the armchair, over-stuffed. Every few minutes he fought through his clothes for a handkerchief to wipe a brow that was sodden with sweat even on the coldest days.

Greene reached across the room to Tam, holding the old man’s wrist tightly.

“Do you think he’ll pick up on it Tam. Will it be enough?”

Tam’s thoughts seemed to come slowly, as if somewhere they were being resisted. As if there was a part of his mind fighting to stop the answer coming; as if his own mind didn’t want to answer.

“I don’t know. I think it might start the wee fella wonderin’ but I don’t know. You’re right, he’s probably still the best we can hope for stop this. Man dear I couldn’t face another one. I mean it, I couldn’t.”

Father Hill stood up. Drawing the brief meeting to a close by opening the curtains a few more inches, the priest hesitated, as the ever dimming light struggled into the dank interior of his study.

“Well, what’s done is done. I pray that we’ve done enough, and I pray that we don’t suffer the consequences and I pray that we can stop this now. I seem to be praying a lot lately for a priest that’s mixing with demons.”

“You know that’s not what they are! If only it was that simple.”

“I know Tam, I know, I’m just feeling tired that’s all, tired of the killing to save our souls.”


Joe couldn't help but wondering. The following Tuesday night the paper was put to bed early but Tam's words still resonated with him. He'd turned the tape into the BBC with some careful edits, just bits cut off here and there and the bits about blood sacrifice expunged. He hadn't been able to stop wondering despite a weekend of drunkeness and fumbled debauchery to a backdrop of rock.

He sat in the car on his way back to civilisation after he and his colleagues fought to bring this week's edition to birth on tomorrow's newsstands, twisting the words through his mind until he resolved to call at Tam's house on a pretext. He was a journalist after all, he should be able to dig a little deeper to find the real story.

He drove through rural Mid-Ulster. Asides from the occassional planning blight it was still a green and fertile plain. Rolling hills cut in places by motorway and dual carriageway, there was hidden beauty in this land if you looked hard enough. In the twilight of dusk the shadows caught stands of trees amidst farmer's fields, silhouetted tractors heading home from the fields and as he drove down winding roads between one hole in the hedge and the next, but he still found Tam's words echoing in the back of his mind despite the tranquility. As he always did when trying to think of a storyline he began an internal discussion.

"Sure Tam was maybe laying it on a wee bit thick, all that stuff about blood and Aztecs. Maybe he wanted me to see something else about his village. Maybe he was just trying to use a metaphor about making big sacrifices to get along, like talking to the priest, that sort of stuff. But then, he's Tam, another big country man; metaphors aren't his style. Maybe the village has a deep dark secret he wants to tell. Well, there might be a story for The Sport about aliens cutting locals to bits if nothing else."

Joe's internal waffling came to an end as he drove into the village, trying to remember the old man's house.

After two brief circuits of the village he finally pulled up at the door. It was after 10 and he hoped the old man hadn't decided to head to bed. He cut the car's engine, silencing the Anthrax CD that had been providing company for the past half hour.

Tam wasn't in, but he heard what sounded like a party coming from the church. It was a short walk from Tam's house. Part of Joe never wanted to miss a party, but a party in a church he could usually skip.

But still, curiosity, cat, all that and finding out brought it back - he'd venture another five minutes to find out.

As he walked towards the church he couldn't help but notice that all the houses were dark. No lights and no flicker of television from behind the curtains. There were no noises apart from the raucous cacophony from the church. Joe, pushed open an old wrought iron gate into the church yard and he realised it wasn't so much a party as chanting. It reminded him of the rhythm of a football crowd or a rock concert just before the band came on stage.

The path to the church doors was framed by headstones of long dead members of the faithful, their granite slabs marking the mortality of life, mocking the fear Joe felt. As he closed on the door the light from the church flickered as if a thousand candles guttered in the slight wind.

Joe pushed his hand to the door of the church. Like many old churches in this area there was an L-shaped hall before you turned into the main body of the church. He paused, seeing shadows flicker and hearing the rhythm of the chant deepen into a slow shout. The word "Baal" echoed against the cold stone of the church. He braced himself and turned into the chamber. There beneath the cross a being stood. It was at least eight feet tall, covered with beastial hair; with the face of a hyena and the legs of a horse. In its taloned hands it held the limp body of a baby. As Joe watched it lifted the baby's body in the air and opened its maw to accept the dead infant's blood. As it drank the crowd of people sighed. They leaned forward. Church pews packed by villagers broke forward as they surged to the beast. A mute cross overlooked their eagerness as the demon spat the child's blood over them. The demon was looking down at its acolytes; jaw wide in what could have been a smile, when Joe saw one of the hellspawned congregation turn to him. It was Tam. Tam was wearing a white smock over what seemed to be ceremonial gowns. He mouthed two words to Joe above the noise of slaughter and hunger: "Help us!"


Joe arrived for an interview with a leading rock magazine two days later, having posted his resignation from weekly newspaper journalism the next day and left Ulster for what he hoped was for good.

After the interview he sat reading newspapers on the London Underground. The stories were still filled with the Ulster Church tragedy. Mystery surrounded the deaths of so many people in a church. Police had ruled out foul play in the fire that had wiped out an entire village of 350 souls.

The world weeped, the Prime Minister, the Queen, the President and all the usual suspects expressed sympathy to the nation. There were no families to call upon as all everyone from the village was dead - no close relatives to attend the funerals of 350 people, except the professional mourners who had been well practiced with the seedy little war in Northern Ireland. Even they struggled for clichés to explain the horror of so many people burning in what seemed like an accidental fire in an oil heating tank.


Joe couldn't get the smell of petrol off his hands no matter how many times he washed.