Northern Ireland—poetic sectarianism

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 10 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1414
  1. Kishor Choudhari, consultant neurosurgeon
  1. Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast

    During my decade of neurosurgical experience in Northern Ireland, I became fairly used to managing patients involved in sectarian skirmishes. Most patients were young lads with a Northern Irish accent, usually victims of violent incidents like stone throwing, assaults, or even punishment beatings. The commonest type of injuries were long bone fractures, “knee-cappings,” and depressed fractures of the skull. Generally, the patients were conscious when admitted on to the neurosurgical wards. Contrary to what one would have expected, they showed hardly any of the religious hatred that would be a natural reaction, in such circumstances, anywhere else in the world. They were, surprisingly, very friendly, cooperative with the staff, and had a good sense of humour. If asked what had happened and why they were assaulted, they would promptly reply, “I didn't do nothing, dactor. Mishtaken identity.”

    One thing always intrigued me. Many of these patients had on their arms or chest different tattoos. These normally signified a particular political or paramilitary subgroup they were loyal to. Over the years, simply by observation, I had learnt which tattoos represented which groups. Normally the patients and the local staff hardly ever discussed religion or similar topics with each other. However, they had no such inhibitions with me and were quite ready to discuss matters freely, many lucidly expressing their perception of the troubles and invariably justifying their own choice of solutions. Probably they were confident that a doctor of Indian origin could hardly have any prejudicial interest in the Protestant-Catholic conflict.

    One patient was slightly different. He had been assaulted with baseball bats and had sustained a small depressed fractured skull. As usual, he claimed to be a victim of mistaken identity and had tattoos all over the body. To my surprise, however, although all other features fitted well with a sectarian explanation for his injuries, the tattoos were quite different. They did not seem to represent any religious inclination.

    I could not help being inquisitive about the meaning of the tattoos. He explained each in detail but without any religious hint. Rather than asking him directly which paramilitary subgroup he belonged to, I continued to probe obliquely: “These tattoos aren't typical; they don't really mean anything, do they?” He probably read my mind and understood the purpose behind the question, because he suddenly raised his right arm into the air. Slightly startled by his action, I did not know how to react. However, he kept his arm raised and made sure that I noticed the lines tattooed on the medial part of his arm, which wouldn't have been seen normally. A smile appeared on his face as I started reading the tattooed message aloud

    “One Queen, One Crown No Pope in this Town”

    Both of us burst into laughter, and my knowledge of religious tattoos was enriched further.


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