WITH another Remembrance Day just past, I’ve been perusing a fascinating little booklet sent to me by Ballymoney reader Michael Gilmore.
Earlier this year another poignant anniversary was commemorated in Northern Ireland - the arrival of the U.S. Forces in Belfast 70 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of the GIs were given a ‘Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland’ when they arrived, and Mr. Gilmore has kindly shared some of its contents, and his own observations, with me. “The vast majority of the American personnel would have had absolutely no idea what Northern Ireland was, where it was, or even what the people were like,” he explained. “They may have had in their mind’s eye a vision maybe from what little they might have seen on newsreels as to what this place was actually like,” Michael added. “They may have had a concept maybe from their parents or grandparents who had maybe arrived in the States a few years earlier. A great number of them certainly would have been totally ignorant about this place and for many, Northern Ireland may have been their first visit anywhere outside of the U.S.A!”
Michael suggested that this perhaps seems “similar to how little or how much tourists know of us today?!”
With Belfast now eighth in Europe’s top 10 Tripadvisor ‘must visit’ destinations, the GI’s wallet-sized 37-page document might be more useful to modern-day tourists than those ubiquitous marketing slogans stating the glaringly obvious - that Northern Ireland is “our time, our place”! As well as covering the more mundane issues of driving on the left-hand side of the road, and spending pounds instead of bucks, the GIs were offered many profound snippets of information, some thoroughly pertinent today.
The first chapter asked a question about the unfamiliar Island they’d just stepped onto - “Which Ireland? There are two Irelands. The shamrock, St Patrick’s Day, the wearing of the green - these belong to Southern Ireland ... Northern Ireland treasures its governmental union with England above all things.” This was followed by “two excellent and particularly important rules. Don’t argue religion, and don’t argue politics.” With reference to religion, the booklet got straight to the point - “you’ll be wise not to talk about it!” The booklet summarised the issue brilliantly. If asked whether you’re Protestant or Catholic “tell the truth, and then change the subject.” Regarding our weather, the GIs were left in little doubt. “It is damp, chilly, and rainy. Many people in Ireland wear thick, woollen clothing all year round!”
Under the heading ‘Government’ the booklet once again wasted no time with niceties. “Irish history is endlessly complicated.” Regarding social etiquette the GIs were advised by the booklet “not to boast about skyscrapers, modern plumbing, express highways and the size of automobiles back home” and it was suggested that “the heavy infiltration of Scotch blood in Northern Ireland may have something to do with the fact that the inhabitants are exceedingly thrifty. The Ulster man likes to drive a hard bargain in business affairs and he thinks a spendthrift is a dope.”
The Pocket Guide observed “the male social centre in Ulster is the tavern or public house. While there are temperance advocates and a few prohibitionists in Ireland, you won’t see much of them. Up in the hills you may be offered an illicit concoction known as ‘potheen’. This is moonshine whiskey made out of potato mash. Watch it. It’s dynamite.” Some of the other passing references to our varied Ulster lifestyles seem at first sight to have been a little insulting, but the conclusions offered are quite endearing. “The Irish call each other names, accuse each other of the most bizarre irregularities, and indulge in wild exaggeration and virulent personal abuse. Listening, you may expect a rousing fist fight at any moment. Actually this is all part of the fun and the show. In America we don’t hold it against a man because he tells a tall story with a couple of beers under his belt. In Ulster it is quite within the rules of the game to accuse your adversary not only of pig-stealing but of actual treason. A word of warning - your place in these arguments is on the side lines.” Ulster’s rural beauty and winding country roads were beautifully observed in the booklet.
“Wherever you go in Northern Ireland you are apt to meet a herd of sheep or cows. Remember that the animals have the right-of-way.” At the end of the Pocket Guide there’s a golden rule about Ulster folk.
“Don’t tell them - let them tell you!”