When Marilyn McKinnon (nee Simpson) first heard the results of the Brexit vote in June, some of her thoughts were about the Troubles, and whether or not there was a possibility of them starting up again.
The Troubles were an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Internationally it was known as the Northern Ireland conflict, and is sometimes described as a guerrilla war or civil war.
Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, McKinnon lived through the Troubles of the 1960s and some of the 1970s, though for her, the Troubles were always there.
“Segregation was alive and well,” she said. “I was born in 1946, I started school in 1950 and all through my schooling I was kept away from Catholics. It was like apartheid, only with religion.”
Some of the issues that led to the violence at the start of the Troubles involved the differences between Protestants and Catholics. There was evidence Catholics and Irish nationalists were less likely to be given certain jobs, especially government ones; unionist-controlled local councils allocated housing to Protestant families ahead of Catholic families; and only householders could vote in local elections, while in the rest of the United Kingdom all adults could vote.
The street McKinnon lived on was a very long one, connecting one of the major arteries in Belfast, which was Protestant, to another major artery, which was Catholic. There was a bridge in the middle, and she was never allowed to cross over onto the Catholic side.
“That’s what I grew up with, being taught that Catholics were bad,” she said. “My paternal grandfather was a fairly liberal man, but my grandmother was a bit of a bigot. ‘The only good Catholic is a dead one,’ ‘You can tell a Catholic by looking at them,’ ‘Catholics are dirty, they smell,’ that kind of thing.”
She said it was like a civil war. Police were armed, then the British army came in, there were tanks everywhere. That caused a lot of uproar because the tanks were British army and many saw the British as the reason for the Troubles.
Things got worse as the ‘60s went on. Along with the army and the police, a person coulnd’t go into the stores without having a security check or their purse searched. People lived with this and got used to it. Eventually it just became a way of life.
McKinnon remembers being trained to be a nurse. When she left school to start her training, she had a little Vespa scooter. She had to get rid of it because her father wouldn’t let her drive it, as the hospital was in the middle of the bad area of Belfast.
When she worked in casualty, known here as the emergency room, she used to get girls in because they had dared to go out with British soldiers, considered to be the enemy,
“These would have been Catholic girls who went out with British soldiers, so they were considered traitors,” she said. “They actually cut their hair off, tied them to lamp posts and tarred and feathered them. To this day I have a problem with eucalyptus oil because that’s the only thing that would take the tar off. Some of these girls died because of the burns.”
If a Protestant man went out with a Catholic woman, he would be shot in the kneecaps.
McKinnon was not immune to the violence. She and other nurses were once shot at on the way to work. After that happened the army came every morning to pick up the nurses in covered trucks. No one was hurt, McKinnon says he was a poor shot.
“I sound flippant talking about this, but when you grow up in something like that, you take it as is,” she said. “That’s the way it was. We’d sit in our house at night and we’d hear guns and we’d hear bombs and we’d say ‘I wonder where that one is?’ because there was usually a bomb every night somewhere.”
McKinnon and her family were given the opportunity to immigrate to America in early 1972. They were able to leave before the events of Bloody Sunday. This was an incident on Jan. 30, 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland. British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment.
“It wasn’t so much the bombs and the bullets, it was the hatred,” said McKinnon. “It was just stupid, like who cares what you are? I didn’t, but then I used to get in trouble for that because I had a big mouth and would say that out loud.”
She lived in Kentucky with her family for two years before moving to Canada in 1974 and arrived in Nakusp in 2004.
While she doesn’t think the Troubles will begin again, she does worry about checkpoints, or a border being put up between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“That could bring up a lot of memories and a lot of history,” she said. “Would it start things all over again? I don’t know. I don’t think so, because things have gone too far now that I don’t think you’d see all out Troubles again. I think that’s in the past. I hope it is, but there are still a lot of old people who never forget. At some stage you have to move on, and I’m hoping they’ve moved on.”