British troops were garrisoned on the hill just beyond the greensward Mall in Armagh as early as the 1740s. Around 1820, soldiers of this permanent encampment decided to build their own Anglican church, since the cathedral on the opposite hill was too crowded – and perhaps a little too high-church and snooty for these rough soldiers. St. Mark’s, they called it. And the soldiers planted two long rows of lime trees along the straight drive leading up the slope from the Mall.
Yesterday, moving under those orderly lime trees felt like walking into a great natural cathedral – the high vaulted peak enfolding a cool shade for our stroll to the church. There was a funeral underway. Graveyards full of the dead lie on both sides of the church, and extend far behind it. The plot thickens.
The British soldiers who tried to keep order here in Northern Ireland during the recent Troubles, some of them anyway, were not from across the sea in England. They were the sons and grandsons of families well settled here, many of them of modest means, grounded piety, a small plot in a churchyard.
Take Norman Simpson, for instance. He served as a private in the Ulster Defense Regiment here during the Troubles for 23 years. His father was from Armagh, and his father’s father. Although Norman was originally from County Tyrone, about nine miles up the road, he’s lived in Armagh for more than two decades.
“Pal” Simpson they call him at the Hole in the Wall or here in the pub at the Charlemont Arms Hotel. He’s a 72-year-old pensioner, collecting half his 1,088 pounds a month for his time in the Army. That was one of the reasons he went into the Army, for the security. He agreed to let us record an interview with him at the bar in the Charlemont Arms, where he was sipping on a pint of Harp.
“Well you see at the moment, I don’t like to talk much about politics,” he says when I ask him about the vote on independence in Scotland in September. “But I mix along with everybody no matter what religion they are, I don’t ask people whether they’re Catholic or Pro. .”
He has a slight stutter, which along with a lovely Irish accent makes it hard for me to transpose this well.
“.. . or what, I meet people, I have a drink with them. It doesn’t matter to me. You know. I know religion is religion but I don’t really inquire . . .you know what I mean, I’m not into that.”
But other people seem to know and care about which side you’re on. How do they know whether you’re Catholic or Protestant?
“Well, you know,” he says. “There’s just different areas that. . a wee pub up there right there, that’s mostly Catholic . . .I go into a Catholic pub . . .you know it doesn’t matter where I go, as long as you mind your manners.”
Although he says he doesn’t want to talk politics, he offers the opinion that a unified Ireland is going to come gradually, inevitably. “It won’t happen in my lifetime but there will be a united Ireland. . . I don’t know when.”
He has nothing against the Ireland of the south, he says. “I would travel down south there for holidays and stuff, it’s a lovely, lovely country down there.”
After about 20 minutes, he offers to buy us all a wee pint. We decline. He picks up his Telegraph, a Belfast daily tabloid.
“Tell me this young man, how long are you to be, for I have horses to back? I’m going to back a few horses.”
— Doug Cumming