The journey begins
By David Bradford
"I'll tell you the truth," says Anton, taking a breath to steady himself. "We are actually together." It's done, he's outed us to an Orangeman, and no grasping for caveats can save us now. "I know it's dreadful, but in the end . . ."
"How very interesting," the young man interrupts huskily. "We might be in Northern Ireland, but I knew the moment you spoke that you were together."
We breathe again. He doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, he’s delighted by the accuracy of his gaydar. We’re momentarily wrongfooted.
“Really?” asks Anton. “Too much body language?”
“Let’s just say...” His tone still hushed, he hesitates.
We urge him to speak freely; if he has moral objections, that’s fine, we’ve heard them all before – we have relatives who dislike that we’re gay.
“Well, put it this way, they would have the same problem with me, if that makes sense.”
Is he saying what we think he’s saying?
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Anton grapples for a reassuring sentence, “like, whatever, because, in the end...”
“I’m in the closet,” the man cuts in, “so I will be the same as yourselves, but I could never leave that closet as long as I live.”
We were cycling the Border, and I hadn't taken seriously enough what that meant, or rather what it meant to Anton. Anton and I had met three years ago.
He was 23 at the time and like no one else I'd ever spoken to: an addictive mix of shyness and flair: charismatic but quirky, earnest yet hilarious. He seemed to want to tell me everything: that his parents were Northern Irish and had moved to London in the 1970s after marrying "across the divide"; how he'd spent much of his childhood with his Presbyterian granny in north Antrim before being sent to an elite English boarding school; and how defying his parents to return to Belfast for university had left him feeling liminal, a foot on each island, a heart torn in half.
How could I relate? My middle-England family was so firmly rooted in rural Sussex that national identity barely occurred to me – and nor, until now, had Northern Ireland.
Our first cycle tour in Ulster, the previous summer, had ended in farce. Having battled a bone-chilling headwind all the way from Ballycastle, we arrived in Derry dishevelled, exhausted and oblivious to the fact it was the eve of the Apprentice Boys parade.
Flames licked perilously close to homes as Tricolours went up in smoke and all around us people chanted 'F**k the pope and the IRA'
We stumbled out of the pub that night directly into the path of a flute-led procession and, tipsily going with the flow, ended up amid a huddle of spectators at a towering bonfire on the Fountain Estate. Flames licked perilously close to homes as Tricolours went up in smoke and all around us people chanted “F**k the pope and the IRA”.
I was bewildered, scared, and not a little appalled. The next day we negotiated our way out across an endless stream of severe-looking drummers and pedalled north.
Riding across the Border into Donegal felt to me like bursting free into a land with a lighter atmosphere. Anton didn’t agree.
Now here we were bound for Derry again, this time starting out from Omeath, in Co Louth, and tracing the 500km-long, higgledy-piggledy line of the North-South Border all the way to its other end.
It was early July, and it was finally dawning on Westminster politicians that, if or when Brexit happens, this line will overnight become the frontier between the UK and the EU – with untold implications.
A few weeks earlier, in an interview with the BBC, Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg had dismissed visiting the Border because doing so wouldn’t offer any insight beyond “what one can get by studying it”, adding: “My going and wandering across a few roads isn’t going to tell me anything about that further.”
We were more hopeful.
From the kitchen window of her home in the Republic, our B&B host gazed out across Carlingford Lough on to the shores of Northern Ireland. A retired teacher, she had worked in Warrenpoint for many years but moved back across the Border to Omeath mainly because houses were cheaper here.
Our breakfast chatter inevitably turned to the sectarian divisions “over there”, and Elizabeth breezily offered us her solution: “Sweep up all the Protestants and dump them on the Isle of Man.”
It was meant in jest, of course, but noticing Anton flinch with irritation I felt uneasy for having laughed along.
We set off into the hills west of Omeath on to a network of traffic-free backroads affording majestic views out over the lough, and immediately we were lost. Only by resorting to GPS did we get back on track, and within a few kilometres had (confusingly) crossed the zigzagging Border three times – the only giveaway a subtle change in road surface.
Another 10km and two more Border crossings on, we had made it to our lunch stop, the republican stronghold of Crossmaglen, in the heart of south Armagh.
We peered into the doorway of Shorts bar, a place with a reputation for fervent republicanism. It looked tiny and cramped.
“Cyclists! Come in, come in!” boomed a besuited man, clearing passage to the bar, introducing himself as Oliver Short and professing kinship with us as fellow bikers — all in one deft skit of dazzling hospitality. We thanked him and explained we were cycling the Border.
“Eh? What border?” he shouted, and it took me a moment to catch his rhetorical gist: people around here don’t recognise the Border.
England were playing Sweden in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the match being shown here – albeit on a small TV at the end of the bar, with the big screen reserved for the GAA.
Behind the bar, Oliver's brother Aidan dropped the "what border?" shtick and launched into advice on our itinerary. We should steer clear of Newtownhamilton and head for somewhere livelier such as Castleblayney or Monaghan town. "Park up there, get a load of drink inside you, then you're fit for the next day!"
It sounded like a winning plan to me, but I sensed Anton had other ideas. “Tell us about Crossmaglen,” he ventured, but Aidan was distracted by England going 2-0 up:
“Jesus! They’re going to win this World Cup,” he groaned in mock disdain.
Drinks finished and back outside in the hard light of day, we realised it was almost 5pm and we'd neither had a serious conversation with anyone nor chosen a destination for the night. Whatever it was we were trying to achieve on this trip, we were failing.
Wordlessly we made to retrieve our bikes, and as I stepped in closer to Anton to put an arm around his shoulder, he jerked away, suddenly frosty: “Don’t touch me.”
Looking for Protestants
By Anton Thompson-McCormick
I left David to unlock the bikes and walked over to the square, at a loss to explain my outburst. In the centre was a Republican statue entitled Glory: a gaunt young man thrust himself skyward as a phoenix flapped at his ankles. He was caught between two times, I guessed, straining to rise up out of ancestral anguish into something else. Gravity versus grace.
This was no good, we needed to get moving. I turned back towards David but he was checking my brakes. I had to apologise and be direct with him: we needed to find and speak to Protestants – a minority along the Border – to hear stories from the people I uneasily regarded as my own.
I had spent half my childhood with my Protestant granny on her mountainside farmstead in north Antrim. Her roots were deep, her love unerring, and I clung to the stability. When I ended up at boarding school in England, “home” still meant Ballycastle and “church” Presbyterian – my parents had carried Ulster with them on their backs.
For English A-level I jumped at the chance to study Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, his tough Ulsterwomen and harsh landscapes transporting me back to that beloved place. My enthusiasm delighted the teacher, who encouraged me to share photos and memories with the class.
“But you’re not Irish, Thompson,” a boy from good military stock informed me. “You’re a Scots Presbyterian, and your lot should clear off home.”
What on Earth did he mean, and what was I being blamed for? I was floored.
After Theresa May’s post-election deal with the DUP last year forced Protestants back into the national consciousness, it felt as if I was back in that classroom. Suddenly we were, once again, guilty by implication.
Never mind the long history of weak Westminster governments “playing the Orange card” to shore up their interests, the English response was blanket incredulity. Newspaper columnists raged about cash-grabbing bigots, and friends followed suit on social media.
But what about the rest of us? It was an appeal no one wanted to hear, not even David, but I knew I had to try.
When we arrived in Markethill, Co Armagh, the town was on lockdown. Orange banners swung up against the grey sky, policemen redirected traffic, and my heart sank. On the speaker's platform outside the Village Inn, the chaplain intoned balefully to the distracted. His topic was hope and despair, his solutions simple: more confidence, more strength.
“There is plenteous redemption,” he assured the crowd. “The Lord giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater.” Hope in eternity, hope for the end-time, promises in the conditional tense, revelations endlessly deferred. Familiar Protestant imponderables given lacklustre delivery.
Announcements finished and after a blusterous burst of the national anthem, we were free to relieve our tensions and work it all out, or just get slaughtered at the bar. "One more thing," Br David cried as we shuffled towards the pub. "There will be a live BBC broadcast in Loughgall from 11 o'clock. I would ask you all to be on your best behaviour. Don't let the eyes of the media damn us any more, for they're always trying to put us down."
God was listening, and so was the BBC.
“This your boyfriend?” After two hours of failed attempts to strike up conversation, a man had come over looking for a light. I told him we were friends but he knew better.
“I’ve got nothing against gay marriage, like,” one side of his face twitched, “as long it’s not my daughter or my son.” Eyes had been following us all night; this, by comparison, was acceptance.
Roger was a plant mechanic, fiercely proud of his work. “Diggers, dozers, lorries. D8 Cats,” he motioned heavy lifting. “Fifty tonnes.”
A Brit and a Ballymoney man. I don't think that's too bad. Worse than two black men? Aye, right
A posse of preened young lads edged closer, and I sensed Roger’s discomfort. Skulking, jostling, hyena hysterics. “I don’t trust thon boy there,” the ringleader shot me a sly glance, tugging at his skimpy top flashing hard abs. “Say nothing, Roger, they’ll only frig you, like. Foreigner. The worst.”
Roger stood firm: "A Brit and a Ballymoney man. I don't think that's too bad. Worse than two black men? Aye, right."
He turned back to us: “At least yous are Prods, you f**kers.”
As a last resort, I ushered him to a table, unfolded our map and traced a finger along our route through south Armagh. Omeath, Forkhill, Crossmaglen, Cullaville, the Ring of Gullion. It had been beautiful.
He made the sound of a gunshot. “Good Protestant territory there – not. Fenian as f**k.” He called over an ally: “They’re lookin’ history. Show him your tattoos.” The man rolled a sleeve up over his thick bicep, revealing inked poppies and military helmet. “First World War.”
I waited. He rotated his arm, bearing the outline of Ulster and a calligraphed name, Nicky. His wife? “Naw. Arm-wrestled him. Twice. Twice in a f**kin’ row.”
He pulled his arm away. “Never bate.”
Waiting for our taxi in the heave and pull at the bar, I noticed sitting beside us a middle-aged woman playing with her bracelets. "A lot has happened in Armagh." Ruby had anticipated my question.
“This town was blew up so many times. This whole street –,” she looked out at the night. “There’s a monument out there, my brother’s at the bottom. Only 34. But you’ve got to move on.”
She said Co Armagh was “lovely”, but when I mentioned the places we had ridden through, she steered me back to “this territory”, Markethill, Hamiltonsbawn and Newtownhamilton: the few Protestant enclaves that had managed to hold the line.
In two decades, from 1971-1991, the Protestant population along the Border had plummeted from 19 per cent to 1 per cent. Earlier we had been handed loyalist pamphlets that referred to IRA “ethnic cleansing”. The warring may have ended, but the price was eternal vigilance.
And never mind republicans. For Ruby, other dark forces were encroaching now. “Why are all these men coming here? Where are the women and children? If they want their countries back, why aren’t these men fighting for them?”
Where did this fear stem from? Markethill was 99.5 per cent white, 77.9 per cent Protestant. “Enoch Powell said we will be overrun. And he’s right.”
Ruby had spent time in England as an “army wife”. What was that like? “Too feared to speak at first,” she admitted; most “Geordies” had mistaken her accent as Scottish or assumed she was a “Paddy”.
Finally, we were on common ground. I had also, like the Ulster Unionist of Tom Paulin’s poem, “walked the streets/like a half-foreigner/among the London Irish.” Who here tonight, I wondered, had never stammered the question, “What does it feel like?.../what does it feel like/to be a child of that nation?”
Ruby looked at David. “But I am British,” she put down her drink, “and we’re not bad people.”
David was struck dumb, but I had one last question: could she, like me, feel Northern Irish too? “No. British. True British.”
And what did being British mean? “Everything. Every-thing.”
The gay Orangeman
By David Bradford
Meanwhile in London, the government seemed to be imploding. By the time we reached Fermanagh on July 11th, two senior members of the UK cabinet had resigned.
The final straw for David Davis was the Chequers agreement's omission of "strict conditions" in its backstop proposal for Northern Ireland . Boris Johnson's resignation statement was more tub-thumping about the UK being "headed for the status of a colony" with "white flags fluttering".
Even my home constituency MP Maria Caulfield had quit her post as a Tory vice-chair over the backstop, citing – somewhat less in tune with her DUP partners – personal “strong links to the Republic of Ireland”.
Not for the first time, I felt embarrassed to be English.
Stopping for a pint in Belcoo, I guessed wrongly on euros. Apparently, where two minutes ago we had exited Blacklion and rolled over the bridge, was the Border; the barman wanted sterling.
A thick-set, 50-something man sitting alone two stools along from us was happy to hold forth on the Brexit latest.
“Now she knows who her friends are, and who the foe.” May ought to be “delighted”, he reckoned, about Johnson’s departure. Was he worried about Brexit?
“Not one f**king bit. Listen to me, there was a border here, there was people shooting... We’re not worried about a line across from England. It’s all scaremongering.”
Mervyn, a car dealer, had voted Leave confident that Remain would win; the ensuing uncertainty was “a f**king mess” which amused rather than worried him.
Anton cut to the chase: did English people understand the Protestant perspective? “People in England don’t understand the Scots or Welsh or the Isle of Man; the only people they understand are themselves.”
That seemed about right to me, if not a little generous.
“Are you talking about Brexit?” a gruff, disembodied voice shouted over from the opposite end of the bar. (Mervyn had already explained to us this was a Catholic bar: “I’m never known to be in here, not like those boys over there.”)
“Good Protestant men here,” he shouted back.
“Tell them to come up here.”
As we gathered together our kit and glasses, the banter intensified, neither side shifting into view of the other.
“Hard border, hard border!” the Catholic end heckled.
“Aye, that’s right, sir,” Mervyn sallied back, “build it up with a fence.”
I will not put up with authority telling me when I go over that bridge with my collie in the back of the Jeep that the dog has to go into quarantine for six weeks
The Catholic man who’d commanded us over was Joe, a farmer who owned land on both sides of the Border. Unlike Mervyn, he was deadly serious about Brexit.
“It would write me off... I will not put up with authority telling me when I go over that bridge with my collie in the back of the Jeep that the dog has to go into quarantine for six weeks.”
His livelihood wasn’t the only thing under threat. Joe told us he had grown up not knowing any of his Protestant neighbours; how his best friend Kevin had been shot dead aged 19 in a bungled RUC operation.
Though things were so much better now – he had Protestant friends; his children went to a mixed creche – the reinstatement of a hard border “could restart the Troubles”.
It was hard to know whether the banter with Mervyn had betrayed underlying fondness or mere tolerance. Anton brought up Arlene Foster’s recent remark that if the North ever united with the South, she would feel compelled to move away. Wasn’t it sad that Protestants felt only contingently attached to the land?
“I’m saying this as someone who stands up for them,” said Joe, “but they shouldn’t be here, if you really want to go into it like that. They are planters. They were planted in here, and what happened over the years was scandalous.”
James (not his real name) had latched on to us at an illicit 11th-night bonfire on the outskirts of town and insisted on dropping us back to our hotel. On the way he told us he would be "marching with the Orange" tomorrow; he admired the DUP leadership and hoped for a hard Brexit ("build the border 10ft high").
We knew what to say. Anton dropped in that his grandfather had been in the Royal Black Preceptory, and I mentioned that my hometown, Lewes, hosts a raucous bonfire night where pope effigies are torched to commemorate the burning of Protestant martyrs in the 1550s.
“Oh good, good. And isn’t there a Free Presbyterian Church in Lewes?” James enthused.
In my liberal English hometown? Surely not – was he certain?
“Yes, Paisley has a church in Lewes.”
Google confirmed it, and my bearings were cast adrift once more.
His first confession came almost as soon as we sat down: he was gay and living a double life – occasional girlfriend just for show, boyfriend in London for 'wild weekends'
By the time we pulled into the hotel, James’s voice had changed: more expressive now, with longer vowels and a slight lisp. Yes, he would be delighted to join us for a drink. The lounge was deserted but James shepherded us to a quiet corner, out of earshot of staff.
Beneath the downlighters he looked younger than he’d seemed: late-20s, stoutly built, with coiffed hair and darting eyes. His first confession came almost as soon as we sat down: he was gay and living a double life – occasional girlfriend just for show, boyfriend in London for “wild weekends”.
Wasn’t coming out to his family at least worth contemplating?
“No. I’m the only son. I will inherit. I’ve already inherited. I’m taking on the business of my father when he retires, so there’s no way that can happen.”
Dating apps made it relatively easy to pursue sex discreetly, I supposed.
“Not particularly. There are spies on the internet.”
He had been “caught” before and had issued a legal threat to try to suppress the rumour. When that didn’t work, he called in a friend to give the gossiper “a very big scare”. What kind of scare?
“Basically, this person was inches from death and they survived and they basically run up a road and took a deep breath,” he blurted, “and out from behind a cave wall I walked, and I says, ‘Does this end here, or over there?’ – over the cliff edge.”
It was as though a dam had burst within him; confessions flowed, each more ghastly than the last: he had physically assaulted a love rival (“he ended up with a cracked skull”); to satisfy his father he intended to marry and have two children (“an heir and a spare – same as Prince Charles”), then divorce as soon as practically possible; he voted to expel from his Orange lodge a man who had been caught having extramarital sex with another man, even though he too had slept with the accused; he cheated on a girlfriend with her brother and with her “baby sister”; meanwhile, it disgusted him that a woman he knew claimed welfare while he worked “like a n***er”.
Midway through he propositioned us – a threesome was his preference, but we were separately “shaggable”, he said. Politely we declined.
My head was spinning. Never before had I witnessed such an abject display of cognitive dissonance. James could be two extremes at once: pious, hard-working paragon of Protestant virtue and lawless, savage, self-styled libertine.
When all that mattered was dominance, moral contradiction didn’t apply; if he was getting away with it while others were defeated, he was self-evidently on the side of the superior.
I felt sick, I’d heard too much. Only one more question: didn’t all this keep him awake at night?
“No, I’ve never had sleepless nights because I put all my fear in God and I believe that if you’re one of God’s People,” he ranted as if by rote, “no matter what you are or what you’ve done, if you’re in His hands, He will guide you through all the storms of life – my mother’s old favourite hymn: ‘Will your anchor hold the storms of life when the bellows blow the winds of strife?’”
I wanted to leave Northern Ireland, to go home, to cry.
“I know that with God as my guide, I will always overcome.”
By Anton Thompson-McCormick
"NIGHT OF CHAOS" blared the newspaper headline the next morning. As James had been reeling off his tales of depravity, loyalist gangs had wreaked havoc in response to the removal of gigantic bonfires by police. In Belfast, a bus filled with passengers had been hijacked by masked men; more than a dozen cars had been torched.
Derry, our journey’s end, had seen its fifth consecutive night of unrest: in the Bogside, 16 petrol bombs had been thrown.
It felt good to be back on the bike, mind engaged in the simple act of pedalling. Last night, the atmosphere had been tight with certainties. David had withdrawn in horror while James, undeterred, buried his inner conflicts beneath received opinions and dogma.
“Yous are the way I’d like to be,” he admitted. “I’d love to be with my partner [openly], but no.” He wrenched himself back in his chair. “That’s the inner me: shoulders back, sit up straight, think of who you are.”
He shot me a knowing look. “I respect the views of my parents and the Unionist public.”
As a child I watched my mum, aunt and granny – Protestant women – and wanted to be just like them. Principled, spirited, sometimes contrary – the embodiment of “thran”, an Ulster-Scots word they often used. They seemed to know exactly who they were; “getting on with it” was all that mattered.
We had met no one like them along the Border, and in hindsight I shouldn’t have expected to. Here, far from the Protestant heartland, people seemed to be too busy subsisting on grievance and fatalism.
Once the appointed defenders of imperial liberty encouraged to believe they were “the people”, Border Protestants now found themselves cut adrift in a changed world, no longer assured of their status. The longing to restore lost recognition had become a search for transcendent signs, a solace in omens.
To my eyes, Ulster Protestants have internalised the loathing of their detractors and spun vulnerability as defiance
It was evening by the time we arrived in Derry. As night fell, we walked the city walls and looked out over the Bogside. All was calm and a fragile silence hung in the warm air. Our bikes had gone, the trip was over, and it was time to take stock.
Over the past 10 days we had attended prayer meetings, Orange parades, a Pentecostal church service, met victim-support groups, taken detours to out-of-the-way Protestant villages, and even had coffee (instant, unstirred) with Lord Brookeborough. My hope to upend the stereotypes had been thwarted at every turn, but the trip itself had been undeniably “thran”.
Now I had to resist the temptation simply to return, to try again – too many of us here were stuck in endless cycles.
To my eyes, Ulster Protestants have internalised the loathing of their detractors and spun vulnerability as defiance. “Nobody likes us and we don’t give a f**k,” declares the loyalist T-shirt. Moderate Unionists put it more meekly: “Nobody understands us,” as playwright Stewart Parker recalled his aunt crying.
Even my mother, usually so sure of herself, had uttered something similar when English tabloids denounced “DUP crackpots”. Like Parker, I had neither the “callousness or courage” to point out to her the deeper truth, that we didn’t understand ourselves.
It isn't easy to ask questions in a place where any hint of dissent is regarded as betrayal. I thought back to our last time in Derry, the effigy of Col Robert Lundy burning alongside Irish Tricolours.
Lundy was a Protestant expelled from the city in 1689 when he suggested compromise to break the siege. But there are other strands of Protestant history far less often recalled.
The Presbyterians leaders of the United Irishmen, a century later, brought to bear a distinctly Protestant ethos – freedom of conscience, civil and religious liberty – and set their hybrid allegiances to revolutionary work, imagining an Ireland that could thrive on multiplicity.
We had failed to find the “thran” inheritors of this crossgrained dissent, but I knew they existed, and we had one last chance.
"I was a troublemaker. That's what I've been all my life. But it's not been bad." Baroness May Blood was reflecting on her long career as millworker turned community activist. One week after our trip, she agreed to meet us in the Lords, on her last day – she was retiring aged 80, having served since receiving a life peerage in 1999. "So it is possible. You're not tied just because you're a working-class Protestant."
When Blood was a young woman, her family were burned out of their west Belfast home by Protestant neighbours after her father defended Catholics who were being hounded out of the estate. “That sent a very clear message to Protestants: don’t open your mouth.”
Her family were transferred to a “Protestant ghetto” on the Greater Shankill, where Blood still lives – and is well known for her tireless work supporting underprivileged families.
Here was a Protestant who in spite of having suffered repeated violence and intimidation refused to be beaten down or embittered; she just kept working for a brighter, fairer future for all. In her view, neither the UUP or DUP was interested in improving the lives of ordinary Protestants. She is fighting both sides of the sectarian divide to advance the case for integrated schools – currently attended by only 7 per cent of children.
My Bible teaches me, 'Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not' – I don't know what kind of a Bible you read
“If you go into an integrated school, it’s totally different: the kids are well educated, they grow up confident, and many of them don’t even know what a Protestant or a Catholic is.”
I thought back to James, the young gay Orangeman, and how different his life might have been.
Just a month earlier, after a summer of historic liberalisation in the South, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland – officially still my church – had ruled that people in same-sex couples were not eligible to be full members or have their children baptised. What did Blood – a Presbyterian and outspoken supporter of equal rights – make of the message this sent?
“As I said to a leading minister the other day, it’s getting harder and harder to be a Presbyterian, with what the things the church is doing.” For her, this trend towards entrenchment among Protestant institutions was sealing their own demise. The demographics were going only one way: Catholics would soon outnumber Protestants in the North.
“My Bible teaches me, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not’ – I don’t know what kind of a Bible you read’,” she recounted upbraiding the minister. “He started on at me about [John] Calvin, and I said, ‘Look, I’m not interested in Calvin, I’m interested in the kid down the street.’”
This is the real strength of Protestantism, the ability to produce its own dissent, and it’s what I’d been clamouring for all along.
Now more than ever, Protestants need to face down old fears, reclaim their troublemakers, and throw open the gates.