The Heavy Hand of the Harpist

Peppa’s dangerous quest to prevent further use of the lethal Compound T leads her to Ireland, where she joins an IRA splinter-group, harp-1861189_1920“The Heavy Hand of the Harpist.” The genesis of the name is the alleged British historic practice of persecuting harp players in the seventeenth century.

“The Heavy Hand of the Harpist” never existed, but many other paramilitary groups did. Irish rebellion wasn’t just about the carnage of the IRA. There were antecedents.

And of course there were Protestant paramilitary groups, as well as Catholic ones.Red Hand of

Paramilitary groups went by a variety of names at different times in Irish history. In Ulster, the north of Ireland, the Peep O’Day Boys were an early precursor to the B Specials, the dreaded Protestants that volunteered to guard Northern Ireland in the 20th century. In the nineteenth century, Catholic agitators were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood; later that group turned into the political party Sinn Féin, and the associated military group, the IRA.  (For a more comprehensive list visit here.)

The Irish Nationalists, mostly Catholic, agitated for Home Rule from 1870 onwards. Various legislative efforts were proposed, but failed, the last one due to the onset of World War I. Ireland finally won its independence from British rule in the war of 1919 to 1921, which began with the Easter Rebellion. Though Ireland now had independence, the six counties of Northern Ireland were still part of the United Kingdom, and the IRA continued to fight to unite the island. However, once the Irish government was established in Dublin, it began cracking down on IRA activities. The Offences Against the State Act, Section 30, forbade the carrying of arms in Ireland, something that rankled Brian, the psychopathic former IRA member in The Falcon Strikes.

There really was a Border Campaign in the year of Peppa’s visit, in 1958. Until the beginning of the Troubles in 1968, 1957 was the most active year of the IRA’s campaign after the establishment of the Republic, with 341 incidents of terrorist activity recorded, according to the book Soldiers of Folly. As mentioned in my novel, The Border Campaign, also known as Campaign Orchard, really did spare Belfast from terrorist attacks. It’s theorised that either the IRA was aware of infiltrators, known in the vernacular as touts, or they feared being unable to protect local Catholics from retaliation. There were also groups that splintered off from the IRA during that time, the best known of which was Saor Uladh, founded by Liam Kelley.

In the troubled late sixties, splinter groups proliferated on both war-2282455__340sides. Though British Army troops stationed in Northern Ireland were battling the various IRA groups who wanted them gone, they had a dim view of the extreme Protestant factions as well. Occasionally, those were imprisoned along with their Republicans enemies, though naturally they were kept in different areas.

For paramilitary groups, the fighting was not just about idealism, justice and revenge.


The struggle for identity through unity often draws men to such groups. Neglected, poor, uneducated, maybe one of many children, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. The illegality, secrecy, and danger form a bond between those who join.  Even Peppa, my rational fictional heroine, develops a soft spot for Donal, the young man who inducts her into the “Heavy Hand of the Harpist.”

I also find the Irish conflict deeply affecting. The You Tube music video by the Irish group Pox Men brings tears to my eyes, though the music is rough, the dialect incomprehensible, and the scenes jumbled. Something about it…maybe it’s the old man with the mustache who sleeps through the secret meeting, and then, shaken awake, grabs a gun like a lynx pouncing on a rabbit.

But despite the rousing theme, the music video ends with a funeral. Just like The Falcon Strikes.

The Conflict in Belfast

The true tragedy is that the bitter Ulstermen, those murderous Protestants that used the “Loyalist” moniker, seemed no better off than their Catholic counterparts.

If they had been better off, they’d have had something to lose; as it was, the grinding wretchedness of their lives made them susceptible to manipulation, same as any poor people who see their jobs vanishing.

Before I visited Belfast, as a roaming Swiss-American, I had the Northern Irish neatly divided into the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed. A man I met told me the streets used to vibrate with the tread of the dockworkers going to their jobs at the dawn’s light; they were Protestant. Even without education or connection, you could get a job at the docks.

I visited Belfast in 2015, and after my B&B cancelled at the last minute, my husband and I ended up staying at the beleagured Europa Hotel, which has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, courtesy of the IRA. Jerry and I booked Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab tour, which took us around west Belfast.

With our driver we toured Falls Church, the quintessential Catholic neighborhood, and Shankill, a Protestant stronghold that was the home of Ulster Defense Association extremist Stevie McKeag. Neighborhoods were separated by the 18-foot-high “peace wall”, to discourage warring factions from crossing over into each other’s territories. Both neighborhoods had two-story narrow townhouses with small, barren courtyards. Both neighborhoods had murals of their respective heroes. Both neighborhoods gave the impression of poverty, meagerness, and limited options.

McKeag (1)

The Catholic Falls Church residents decorated their desiccated meagre properties with artificial flowers. There were many images and statues of the Virgin Mary. The Catholic’s hero, Bobby Sands, is depicted with long hair, and the amiable air of a hippy bard. Despite his welcoming grin, he starved himself to death in the Maze Prison. One felt the grief of the older women, mothers of their lost sons.

Bobby Sands (1)

The Protestant neighborhoods, represented by Shankill, venerated a high-kill count, in the person of Stevie McKeag, aka “Top Gun”. They also seemed to like pit bull dogs. I would say there was a more macho presentation. Sandymount had a huge mural of William of Orange looking superciliously down at pedestrians.

Sandymount Belfast

There was nothing suggesting luxury or privilege though. It seemed to me we had the impoverished shorn-headed descendants of Roundheads and Scots fighting with the monetarily and politically deprived, yet alluringly poetic, descendants of the Irish. I was told that in prison, the IRA made an effort to educate themselves, while the extremist Loyalists were known for being more interested in bulking up in the weight room.

It seemed neither side had many options.

While in Belfast, I found a book called Rooms of Time, Memories of Ulster People, composed of collected oral histories. Bakers bread was a luxury, and meat for meals was rare, often reserved for the head of the family, to keep up his strength. Women washed by hand, and it took an entire day Starch for ironing was prepared by peeling and grating potatoes, and then boiling them. Heat for the entire house came from one large fire, and spread to the upstairs via a central chimney. Since siblings slept packed together in a bed, at least they stayed warm. Kids played football with a blown-up pig’s bladder; for further entertainment, they would swing off the cross bars of the lamp posts.

Many elderly people had warm recollections of their childhood, with milkmen coming several times a day, and meals made from scratch. There wasn’t much of a safety net though, other than the church, and family. Maybe this…

Orange Widow (1)

Against a background of poverty and a lack of education, prejudice thrives and scapegoats will always be found.