Ireland 1969: Heading Into “Trouble”

Stories from my first trip to Ireland in 1969: Part 5 of 5 — After several days of revelry in the pubs and on the roads of southwestern Ireland, it was time to get serious.  My next destination was Scotland and the best way to get there was via ferry from Belfast. That was all I knew. Since I couldn’t find a schedule, I had no idea whether the ferry ran once a week, once a day or something in between. The only way to find out was to actually get to the ferry terminal in Belfast. John and Ralph were up for another adventure and offered to drive me there.

The news from Northern Ireland was not good. The “Troubles” – the period of deadly conflict that roiled Northern Ireland for the most of the next three decades – were just beginning. Stories of riots and civil disturbances appeared daily in the newspapers and on the radio in Ireland, but for the most part the problems had been confined to Londonderry. I was hoping to get to Belfast before the Troubles did.

We drove through the night, listening to the news on the radio. In the morning we entered Northern Ireland. Maybe it was just our imagination, but the mood noticeably darkened as we crossed the border. The border guards were deadly serious – none of that lilting Irish banter we had grown so accustomed to.

As we drove down Falls Road in Belfast to the ferry dock, I could see shopkeepers nailing sheets of plywood over their windows. I had been in Washington DC and Baltimore Maryland during the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, so I knew what that meant.

When we got to the dock, I found out that the next ferry would be leaving in a few hours. There wouldn’t be another one for a few days. John and Ralph decided to stay in Belfast for a few days while they considered their next move.

We found a pub near the docks and killed the next couple of hours drinking and promising to stay in touch with each other after we returned home.  Later, as I stood on the top deck of the ferry, I could see smoke from several fires scattered across the city curl up into the sky.

I spent the night on the ferry hanging out with a friendly group of soccer fans from Glasgow returning from a match between their local favorites and a team from Belfast. Given the tensions of the time and the legendarily bad behavior of “lager louts,” I was surprised to hear that the game and the stands had been relatively trouble free.

That was about all I heard, or at least all I could make out. Their Glaswegian accents made almost everything they said undecipherable. After asking them to repeat themselves numerous times, I decided to just smile, grunt and nod my head in agreement whenever they said anything. I was either very good at it or they were too drunk to figure out that I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about.

When I got off the ferry the next morning in Glasgow, I bought a local newspaper and read that at least one person had died in Belfast during the night. The Troubles had finally reached Belfast.

(NOTE – Despite our best intentions, John, Ralph and I did not manage to stay in touch. But I did run into Ralph a few years later in Los Angeles. He told me that the Belfast-Glasgow ferry service had been suspended for a few days after I left, so they were stuck in Belfast longer than they wanted.

After several days of being holed up in a hotel room, they decided to go for a drive. As they drove down the deserted main street of a small town outside of Belfast, a guy with a bloodied face came around the corner and waved them down. When they pulled up, he asked them whether they were Catholics or Protestants. Not knowing the best answer for the circumstances, they answered that they were Americans. He advised them to turn around and “get the hell out town.”

If you recognize John or Ralph from the photo in the prior post or remember hearing a story like this from someone, please ask them to get in touch with me via I believe that their full names were John Lilly [of the family behind the pharmaceutical company] and John [not Ralph] O’Leary.)