Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Me and King Billy

Me and King Billy: My First Night in Northern Ireland, from Run Like Blazes.


The trip from Dublin took about four hours on the twisty back roads that were once rural Ireland’s expressways. We passed the ancient Boylan hog holdings of Co. Monaghan (a light bulb in a solitary farmhouse glimmered in the gloaming) and crossed the Border at Keady, Co. Armagh into the Most Loyal and Rebellious Province of Ulster. Her Majesty’s red phone booths and mailboxes succeeded the Republic’s cream-and-green ones, and the token Erse disappeared from the road signs. I was among the Boers of Europe. Forward progress was held back by Army patrols, rumors of bomb scares, and our driver’s terminal tuberculosis. Over a cup of milky tea in Dungannon I had a good look at the local visages and was impressed by their acne-scarred pastiness. Well, I thought, I’ll blend right in.
    It was eleven at night and raining when we arrived in Coleraine. Empty streets shone in the bluish light of the streetlamps. I got off at the King William Hotel. Coughing echoed from somewhere down the little wet alleyways. The driver coughed boisterously back, as in hopeful reply to a mating call.
    “I know a bloody job-lot of army boots when I see one, but,” he gasped. “Yer Special Branch, arencha?”
     “Yes,” I said, to humor the man. “Spot on. I’m Special Branch, all right. But don’t tell no one, OK?”
      The owner of the King William Hotel was a bulky, florid-faced Ulster Protestant, a species with which I was then unfamiliar. He gave me a crash course in the blockheadedness of much of the breed, taking a very dim view of a) me showing up at eleven p.m.; b) me demanding to be fed; c) me ordering several pints of Guinness after the bar was closed; and finally d) me tipsily singing the praises of Dublin and Connemara and Galway and other corners of the Popish “South.”
   “Dunno,” he growled. “Never been dyne Sythe. Never wanted to go. Ay’m Bruttish. And ye’re, eh…?” He glanced at my name on the register: A papist, for sure. 
     “More Guinness, eh?”
     “Sure.”
     Casting about for topics of conversation, I noticed behind him a portrait of a silly-looking bloke in a shoulder-length wig, sitting bolt upright on a horse. It was, of course, the defunct monarch after whom the hostelry was named, good King William, hero of the Protestant victory over Catholic King James in 1690 and the household god of Protestant Ulster, but I was green in more senses than one.
    “Who the fuck’s that?” I inquired. “Tiny Tim?[1]
    Mine host promptly extinguished the lights and withdrew to the hidden fastnesses of the hotel, muttering Orange imprecations fashioned from, or heavily derivative of, the word he pronounced “fock.” I was left in the smoke- and stout-scented dark, with only a winking neon “Hotel” light outside the rain-spattered window to guide my weaving footsteps bedward.
    So already, on my first night in the North, I’d put my foot in it.





[1] A balladeer of the 1960s and ‘70s, more ludicrous than most, with a signature tune—“Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”—and falsetto (EEEEEEE). His shoulder-length locks resembled the wigs of Stuart and Williamine England.

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