Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

GI Guide to Ulster

BROWSING in the Linenhall Library the other day, I came across A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland published by the United States War and Navy Departments, Washington DC, for American soldiers based in the Province.

The little booklet was intended to give GIs stationed here some idea of what the people here were like: ‘You are going away from home on an important mission - to meet Hitler and beat him on his home ground. For the time being you will be the guest of Northern Ireland. The purpose of this guide is to get you acquainted with the Irish, their country and their ways.’
The opening chapter informs the GI that ‘There are two Irelands'. It offers sage advice for Americans abroad, ‘particularly important in Ireland: (1) Don‘t argue religion. (2) Don't argue politics.'

Some parts of the booklet still come across well. ‘Northern Ireland - usually called Ulster - is a small country, only slightly larger than the State of Connecticut‘ The climate is is ‘damp, chilly, rainy‘; ‘the sun is only an occasional visitor in Ireland; there are about 200 rainy days a year.’ ‘It is the always-present dampness which makes the cool summers and mild winters seen colder than they are.' Optimistically, the guide says that ‘Dampness chills the bones of visitors, but it makes Ireland green and beautiful.’

The underlying politics of the ongoing war against Hitler's Germany are not forgotten. One chapter warns the GI that Eamon DeValera protested against the landing of US troops in Ulster and that Axis legations operate in Eire: 'Axis spies sift back and forth across the border constantly, be on your guard! The Nazis are trying to find out all about the AEF. Watch what you say in public. Enemy ears are listening.’

On social matters, the GI reader is told; ‘the male social center in Ulster is the tavern or public house. While there are temperance advocates and a few prohibitionists in Ireland, you won’t see much of them…. Up in the hills you may be offered an illicit concoction known as “potheen.” This is a moonshine whiskey made out of potato mash. Watch it. It’s dynamite…’ However, the poor American soldier on leave minght find some disappointment; 'There is virtually no night life. Pubs closed early and the floor show and juke joint are nonexistent.'

Ulster's religious divisions are not overlooked. GIs are warned that; 'Religion is a matter of public as well as private concern in Ulster and you’ll be wise not to talk about it. In America we ask where do you come from? In Ulster they ask What church do you belong to? If the question is put to you tell the truth and then change the subject.'

GIs are informed of two historical links with Co Antrim. Beneath a photograph of Carrickfergus castle and harbour a caption reads; 'For centuries, Carrickfergus, near Belfast, was the chief port and town of Northern IRELAND. Ancestors of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, kept a inn near the north gate of the city (sic). Offshore, in 1778, John Paul Jones fought a victorious naval action in his ship ‘Ranger’. Diplomatically, the booklet omits to mention that the founder of the US Navy captured a British vessel during one of the first naval engagements of the American war of independence.

In a section near the back, soldiers are advised on the use of Pounds, shillings and pence; 'Ulster uses British money' and weights and measures. The difference between tanners, bobs, half-crowns, farthings and guineas is patiently explained. Soldiers are advised not to show off their comparative wealth around poorer Ulsterfolk and allied servicemen and not to brag or put down local ways of life or to provoke resentment against them. These were the days when the US war department saw themselves as helping allies rather than reshaping the world in their own image, Then the US war department thought it necessary to give their soldiers some idea of what lay in wait for them before arriving in the strange surroundings of wartime Ulster. For twenty-first century readers it's an interesting snapshot of Ulster life as it was for our parents or grandparents.


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