One such, John Wilsey – a distinguished soldier who served many tours of Northern Ireland during “The Troubles”, becoming Commanding Officer in 1990 – has written “The Ulster Tales” which answers the question history will want to know more satisfactorily than anything else I have read: what was it really like to be in Northern Ireland during the years peace proved so elusive?
General Wilsey borrows from Chaucer the concept of individual “Tales”, and the effect is to bring events to life more effectively than through the pen of a dispassionate historian. The book gets off to a cracking start with “The Reporter’s Tale” – focussing on the young Simon Hoggart – which recalls the bigotry and stupidity that resurrected violence: almost inevitably, the hatreds slotted into place that would lead to decades of mayhem.
The results of that violence permeate the remaining “Tales”. They branch out far beyond the role of the Army, although “The Soldier’s Tale” – which covers the traumatic introduction of internment and its aftermath – reminds the reader of the skills and dedication of young soldiers carrying out necessary, often distasteful, and always dangerous tasks in an overwhelmingly hostile environment. Mistakes were made – Bloody Sunday being an obvious example but – over many years – I do not believe any other Army in the world could have carried out their task so efficiently.
Ulster bred tragedy, and that is illustrated vividly in “The Widow’s Tale” which recalls the brutal murder of Colonel David Blair at Warrenpoint in 1979, on the same blood-soaked day that Lord Mountbatten was blown up in his boat. Alas, there were too many such days. For years, the grim report “another soldier was killed today in Northern Ireland” littered the daily news but, for me, Warrenpoint still stands out as one of the worst moments of horror. Anne Blair’s grief, and the irreparable loss to her family, lingered long after the headlines had moved on. I defy anyone to read her story, and that of her children, without moist eyes and justified anger.
The real bonus of these beautifully written tales is their variety: civil servants, policemen, the armed forces, spooks, politicians, fill out the colourful canvas. All of them, and many others, were among the unsung heroes who worked, planned – and often gave the ultimate sacrifice – to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
Their success in doing so opened new horizons and saved many lives: but no-one saved as many as the British Army, who held the ring against unreason so honourably and for so long. It is fitting that an Army man should have brought together “Tales of Ulster” to tell the tale of men and women to whom we owe a debt that cannot be repaid. These multi-faceted stories remind us of the horrors that so many individuals faced and overcame: they are truly inspiring and deserve to be read.