The Troubles

Or, as some of the fresh-off-the-boat Irish lads I used to run around with back in my NYC days always pronounced it, The Thrubbles.

The descent of a once-peaceful republic into blood and chaos happened quickly. It took place over a year or two, after police stepped aside while mobs set up barricades, torched homes, and eventually started shooting their political enemies.

Other lessons from the Troubles:

  • Snipers were most effective early on. The British forces adapted by switching to sniper-proof guard towers, armored vehicles, and helicopters. Soldiers were issued body armor and helmets. The British forces also employed counter-snipers.
  • Snipers were responsible for about 220 deaths and about 1,100 non-fatal casualties. But those represented only 11 percent of all British police and military casualties claimed by the IRA. The rest came from improvised explosive devices, car bombs, drive-by shootings, and close-in assassinations.
  • The IRA pioneered conducting a sniper attack from inside a vehicle. One team used a Barrett .50 caliber rifle inside a Mazda 626 hatchback. The shooter would lie prone and fire through a one-foot shooting port in the rear of the vehicle. After the shot, a metal shield would be moved into place as armor.
  • The British Military Reconnaissance Force, attached to 39th Infantry Brigade, ran a laundry business. The Four-Square Laundry was a front organization that existed to conduct reconnaissance and run forensic tests on clothing belonging to suspected IRA members. The IRA learned about it and wiped it out in a daylight attack by three gunmen with a Thompson sub-machine gun, an M1 carbine, and a .45 semi-automatic handgun.
  • The IRA used honeytraps. In one example two young women, who appeared to be between 18 and 22 years old, frequented the lounge bar of the Woodlands Hotel. They lured British soldiers to a nearby apartment, and excused themselves briefly. Two IRA gunmen burst in and assassinated the soldiers.
  • Protestant newspapers served as anti-Catholic propaganda outlets. In 1971, one published a letter referring to Catholics as “animals crawling into Ulster.” It said: “You’ve got to fight fire with fire, and personally I don’t think they’ve enough fire to make the animals sweat.” Loyalist News said Catholics wanted to “enslave the people” and recommended Protestants “organize themselves immediately.”


Unlike our peaceful republic, Northern Ireland was plagued by a left-wing paramilitary organization that targeted peaceful Irish families. Politicians dialed up the rhetoric by blaming Catholic deplorables for anti-government sentiments, and media organizations worked to dehumanize their opponents. Normal Americans must be shaking their heads at how Northern Ireland’s justice system allowed barricades to go up in cities.

We are more fortunate. That could never happen here.

Yeah, lucky us.

Speaking of my old NYC Irish chums, and apropos of nothing whatsoever, I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I mention a guy I knew fairly well back then. He was the owner of a once-famous, long-gone-and-much-lamented concert hall on 19th Street, both bearing names I’ll refrain from mentioning. We played the place ourselves regularly back in the day, along with a whole slew of other touring acts of every genre. I couldn’t even begin to recount how many unforgettable shows I saw in that joint.

As it happens, said to-remain-nameless owner—being well-connected with some IRA sorts who would pop in to visit on the occasional fundraising and/or gun-procuring jaunt Stateside—troubled himself to introduce me to a couple of these gents at barside, God only knows why. There was also a fair Colleen working for him as a waitress that I was enjoying something of a dalliance with concurrently. Anyhoo.

Understand me well: I have spent a goodly portion of my life happily cheek-by-jowl with some truly scary people. Hells Angels in NYC; Outlaws in Chicago; miscellaneous and sundry reprobates from squarely within the Mad, Bad, and Dangerous To Know demographic. All of them I have bent an elbow with, played music for, and just generally enjoyed the company of, without the slightest anxiety or concern. Well, for the most part.

And I gotta tell ya: scary they may have been, but NONE of those guys froze the marrow like those IRA guys did. Merely being in the same room with them inspired one to start checking six on a frequent basis.

I was there once with a close friend of mine, now deceased, who was nothing short of a badass his own self. We were at 19th St to see a show. As we passed by on the way to our table one of those IRA dudes made an off-color crack regarding my friend’s girlfriend. We sat the female down, whereupon Chris requested my accompaniment as backup for his intended confrontation of the offending blaggard. We walked back towards the guy prefatory to Chris speaking his piece; the guy was perched on a barstool, Guiness in hand, just as cool as some cucumbers as we approached all stiff-legged, jaws clenched and shoulders squared.

The IRA guy said NOTHING. Not a single syllable did he utter. But his eyes—which never for a moment wavered from their absolute lock on the two large and obviously angry guys approaching—his eyes had Death in them. Chris, who I had never, ever seen back down or knuckle under to a living soul, not once…backed the fuck on down.

Me? I was damned glad he did.

That IRA guy would have made mincemeat of the both of us and never broke a sweat or missed a moment’s sleep over it afterwards. Doubtless he would have sat down and enjoyed himself a nice rare steak after cutting our throats in the most casual fashion. I ain’t kidding in the least, y’all. That’s how just plain scary this guy was. It just rolled off of him in waves, intimidating one of the biggest, toughest, most fearless guys I ever knew into turning himself around and slinking off with nothing more than a steely-eyed glare. I never saw the beat of it, before or since, and I hope I never do again.

Being of Irish descent myself, I always longed to pay a visit to the Emerald Isle someday. After that near-miss brush with heartless Fate, though, the ambition lost a lot of its urgency, I do admit it.

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