The Troubles

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 24 February 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:515
  1. Liam Farrell

    Why did those young men have to die so cruelly? Did they ever ask for martydom? Who decided that they should die for Ireland? As ever, the individual tragedy has become obscured by the terrible implications of the act.

    We had in a strange way grown used to the Troubles; we didn't know any better. But now we do, and we have had a short, bittersweet period of peace.

    We remember all too clearly what Ulster was like only 18 months ago. The Troubles were a really awful, dreadful time: young lives from all sides of the community being wasted, a culture of hopelessness and despair being created.

    I submitted the following story to the BMJ only three weeks ago; my whimsy now seems very innocent and ingenuous, pathetically hopeful and almost shocking in the face of such calamity.

    South Armagh is festooned with signs—“RUC out”; “Tiocfadh ar La (Our day will come)”; “Cherchez les femmes” (I made that one up)—and they are so well constructed as to seem semi-official. One fine summer's morning, just after daybreak, two years ago, I was on my way to an urgent call when I noticed a snipe perched on a road sign.

    I've always been interested in ornithology, so I was very interested by this unusual behaviour—snipe are only rarely seen at the roadside. They are secretive birds, and understandably so, as life has taught them some harsh lessons about being overly familiar with humanity. Instead they are usually glimpsed only when darting from cover to cover in a terrified sort of way.

    I had no time to stop then, but surprise, surprise, the call proved rather less urgent than had been implied over the phone, and the absolutely total left leg weakness of incredibly sudden onset had metamorphosed into a sore toe, which didn't take long to sort out. So I was delighted, on the way home, to find the snipe still on its perch.

    I watched it carefully. It remained so completely immobile that I became suspicious that it might be a dummy or a decoy. I got out of the car and slowly approached; it was no dummy, and looked at me with bright eyes in that circumspect manner used by all beasts that God Has Made Tasty. It swallowed nervously, like an avian Gollum, obviously expecting me to produce something unpleasant at any moment. “What has it got in its pocketsss?” I could see it wondering, but, like Bilbo Baggins, I found pity stayed my hand. “Pity I've no shotgun,” I thought, and gradually the wee thing relaxed as my palpably utter harmlessness became apparent; Obi-Wan Kenobi rather than Darth Vader, Christian rather than Apollyon.

    For a while the wild creature and myself regarded each other, sharing a long moment of companionship amid the freshness of an early world. Then a distant engine roared, the first helicopter of the day; the spell was broken, and my little companion pirouetted away.

    Reflecting on the mystery, I noticed for the first time the motif on the road sign on which it had been perched. “Sniper at work” it said.

    I'm now planning my own, more scholarly graffiti, as a contribution to the peace process: Fuit Ilium, literally “Troy has been”—that is, the reason for the dispute no longer exists.

    * * *

    There are new signs at the roadside: “IRA—normal service resumed.”

    The piper at the gates of dawn is now playing a lament.—LIAM FARRELL, general practitioner, Crossmaglen, County Armagh

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