This month, we’re marking the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. Man walked on the moon; the whole world saw it. It is celebrated now with reams of nostalgic memories about a great feat of technology and the marvel of a remote horizon reached.
Also this month, for anyone who cares to remember, we mark the 50th anniversary of the first deaths in the Northern Ireland Troubles. This latter fact is why I have no personal nostalgia for the lunar landing. I’m sure it was on TV. I’m certain of it, actually, but I have no memory of it. The event was barely noticed that week, that day, because we were engrossed in events on this planet, in our part of the world.
At every major anniversary of the lunar landing, I’m obliged to recall how irrelevant it seemed, and that recollection is an acute reminder that the challenges we face on the ground where we live have abated little. We worship technology even more now, but there is still rampant divisiveness, racial and religious hatred, inequality and masses of people on the move, trying to escape violence and poverty.
The day after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, there were riots in Belfast, not for the first time that year. What I saw on TV in stark black-and-white was footage of Catholic families fleeing their burning homes in the night, driven out by sectarian violence. I remember footage of a woman clutching a picture of the Sacred Heart as she ran, her face rigid with fear. The sounds on the TV were wailing sirens, weeping children and hatred being screamed.
When the Apollo 11 mission was launched, I was 11 years old and we were living in Carrick-on-Shannon, a small town in County Leitrim, and a short distance from the border with Northern Ireland. We had three TV channels. There was RTE (the Irish state TV), the BBC and Ulster Television. For an 11 year-old, I was watching a lot of news on TV. We all were. The mission to the moon was mentioned, of course, but it wasn’t a preoccupation or a marvel.
From the start, 1969 was a brutal year. On the first of January, a group of civil rights protesters, People’s Democracy, set out on a march from Belfast to Derry. Among the issues they were highlighting was “one man, one vote.” At that time in Northern Ireland, only ratepayers – property owners – and their spouses had a vote in local elections. The poorest, who were mostly Catholic, who did not own the property they were living in, did not have the right to vote. Worse, their landlords, if they owned multiple properties, had multiple votes.
On Jan. 4, on the outskirts of Derry, several hundred people, Protestant Unionists who saw their privilege being undermined by an uprising and, perhaps, the Union with Britain under threat, attacked the marchers. Police did little to intervene. The report on TV included a cameraman with blood pouring from a wound in his head. The march had been modelled on the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama in 1966, which had been seen on TV in Ireland and everywhere.
Week after week, the tensions mounted and violence filled the TV screen. In April, there was rampant rioting in Derry after the police reacted to a protest by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association with baton charges and the searching of homes. Police beat a man who had taken no part in the protest severely in his home. He died of his injuries in July, a week before Armstrong walked on the moon.
Soon after, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland resigned and the man who replaced him mobilized the police reservists, known as the B-Specials, to maintain order. The B-Specials were mainly hardline Protestant Unionists. Mayhem ensued. Catholics living in Protestant areas were forced from their homes, their houses firebombed as they fled. All the three TV stations showed on their news were chaos, violence and hate.
Three weeks after the lunar landing, the Irish Prime Minister went on TV to address the situation. He declared, “The Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.” It sounded like the threat of an invasion of Northern Ireland. Instead, the army of the Republic of Ireland set up field hospitals along the border to take care of people fleeing the violence. On moonlit nights, we didn’t look at the moon to gaze in wonder that American astronauts had landed here. We looked out for battalions of the Irish army heading for the border.
By the end of August, 1969, British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland to restore law and order. In December, 1969, the Provisional IRA was formed to launch a violent campaign against British security forces.
Fifty years later, there are uncanny echoes of that year. The hard Brexit that Boris Johnson is inclined to introduce, if he feels it necessary, would restore that border that preoccupied us in 1969, and would undermine the peace agreement that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There are demagogues everywhere now, as full of hate against others as those demagogues who enflamed Northern Ireland. People flee violence in country after country. Putting a man in the moon was a mere distraction, a fool’s errand, and it doesn’t bother me that I have no memory of it. What use was it?
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