When i was a little boy, I would lie awake for hours, holding out against surrender to sleep, listening to the helicopters drone above our neighborhood. After the government dismantled the border checkpoints, including one at the end of our street, the watchtower the last part to go, a curious series of visitations took place. They began as a deviation in the hum of a city night and steadily grew. Even though it was mechanical, it had purpose, intention behind it. As the source of the sound grew closer, a light would grow in the corner of my room, next to a pile of books, beneath the switch, enlarging, then turning wild and tesseract on the ceiling. It became clear the hum that I was hearing was the sound of pursuit. A hunt was on. Boy racers. Joyriders. Hoods stealing from their own. Paramilitaries on some mission. The cops and the army were hot on their trail, gunsights wavering. If the runners got to the border, the authorities could not follow. I often reached the window just in time to see the red taillights of a car vanishing into the mist of rain, leaving a breach in the night air like water in the wake of a ship. If they made it over that borderline, they were safe, protected by a partition invented by colonists earlier in the century. But the curve leading up to our housing estate and beyond to freedom was elongated and easy to misjudge, especially if you were driving at high speed in the perpetual rain of a continent’s edge. Some did not make it.
On several occasions, I found myself inside those cars, with acquaintances, friends of friends, hitchhiking. Only once had I the naiveté to ask, “Jesus, lads, how can you afford a motor like this?” to a howling hyena chorus, betraying my greenness in a town where being streetwise was not just currency but a matter of self-preservation. I learned to keep my mouth shut and ask no questions.
There was much to deal with. Handbrake turns in industrial estates that sent the entire planet spinning backward on its axis. The abrupt fairground terror of a chase from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, holding onto the dashboard for leverage. Then the g-force of the sudden halt at the unlikeliest moment and all four doors open, everyone scrambling in different directions, clearing as much space between here and there as possible, only slowing down when back in the maze of streets, and you were left with no company but your own pounding heartbeat and the blind stars above.
If we reached the border, there would be a long trek back, trying to avoid the police by minimizing time on the roads, even the barricaded ones, passing sleeping farmsteads and bemused cattle and clambering over stone walls and entanglements of barbed wire, following the telegraph poles back to what called itself civilization. The next morning, to suspicious glances from my mother, I’d insist the night was uneventful, too shamed to make eye contact.
For a long time, I thought the road itself was cursed. We lived in Derry, in British-controlled Northern Ireland, not far from the border of the independent Republic of Ireland. I dreaded every time I walked the road’s unlit miles at night, the blazing headlights unveiling a nocturama of watching eyes as they sped by. And yet what it led to, the border, and beyond it the “Free State” of the Irish Republic, was a relief from the Troubles, even if we always had to return, called back like revenants to our lives. County Donegal, on the other side of the border from Derry, was its own land. Castle ruins. Cults. Beaches, some too dangerous to swim in. Mass rocks in the middle of swamps where secret congregations had once met and priests with bounties on their heads would convert bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Life was by no means easy there, on the periphery of a periphery, but it was nonetheless a parallel world that showed us how deeply we might breathe without a boot on our collective throat. When Northern Ireland was invented, a century ago, its Irish Catholic citizens were left behind as part of the UK, marooned within a state that did not want them and demonstrated this existential hostility in every way up to and including murder. It was an escape then, however temporarily, to enter Donegal and the Republic. In truth, Donegal, like its wayward twin, Derry, is an edgeland of shifting identities, unreliable narrators, secrets, and revelations. We grew up in noir.
You move away by necessity, not will. You live longer elsewhere than you did at home. But you never really leave. The cost of growing up in a low-level police state is that you end up, no matter where you go, with the situational awareness of a paranoid low-level cop. No one notices that you are always clocking entrances and exits, who comes in and out, or the baseball bat underneath your bed. Few notice that a film of another life is always rolling in your subconscious.
My mother called in the early hours, speaking softly as if not to wake the neighbors, who were already down at the crash site. Lit up by the sudden arrival of floodlights, she had stood in the doorway as they cut an injured man from the wreck. They kept repeating the man’s name but at some stage they stopped. If you aim for the border, you have to make it. Until sanctuary, you’re damned.
WE CLIMBED UP THERE, to that concealed world of rooftops, because we had to. We were searching for a space in which to be left the fuck alone. Even then, the authorities would hound us, alerted by will-o’-the-wisp cigarette lights in derelict windows or just the malcontent energy that was, by that stage, seeping from our pores. For want of the utopia of a free house we hung around on corners, then in alleyways, then construction sites, abandoned buildings, tunnels, condemned warehouses, and under the docks, dodging rats on sleekit beams, shimmying across gantries, pushed onward and onward by warnings from the RUC, the army, security guards, nightwatchmen, the IRA, all manner of bastards. Continually moved on, into subsets of nowhere. The further we were edged out of sight, the more nefarious we appeared. You did not look for trouble, it looked for you. Avoiding street fights and riots was like avoiding the weather. If your existence is a transgression, you embrace transgression. There was little choice left to us. The excuses come easily. The desires are harder to explain. We claimed our space in the sky, music and curses and howls echoing off the dome of night. We had nothing in those years, but we owned every one of those sunsets and the stars that followed.
Your presence, even your existence, was an affront; the social fabric was not one in which you were allowed to find any rest.
They came for us, of course. But we were ready. We had secret escape routes and ambushes, hollows and unwound fences, long memorized, deliberately designed to taunt and demoralize out-of-shape pursuers. In truth, there was nowhere to go. We were only beginning to understand what it means to be left out of the plans, to be superfluous. Where your presence, even your existence, is a violation, an affront, a sin. We thought that it was a question of delinquency, that we’d eventually outgrow it. The true reason involved a whole byzantine system, perfected over eight hundred years, designed to make us strangers in our own land, language, culture, and so on—a system we could not possibly comprehend.
With nowhere to exist, everywhere is trespass. I did not know it yet, but we were running up against a dreadnought, as our parents had, and before them, for centuries, our people and other peoples. Every aspect of our lives was silently dominated by a word I had thus far not encountered: sanctuary, from the Latin sanctus, meaning “holy.” A place of peace, respite. Visiting homeless alcoholic uncles in wet houses and aunts in battered wives shelters as a boy. These places were treated as exceptions, even aberrations, but I would come to learn that they were in fact the rule, the most explicit forms of a condition that permeated everything. It felt as if the society we lived in was specifically designed to exclude you (Catholic, poor, under suspicion as treasonous, etc.) from security or safety. Wherever you chose to be or were forced to be, the authorities could come along and demand to know your whereabouts, identity, and intentions. Your presence, even your existence, was an affront; the social fabric was not one in which you were allowed to find any rest.
Of the dozen or so kids I spent my childhood with, only a few would find sanctuary in their lives. Having been informed they were discarded, some of them started to believe it. Two were exiled forcibly from the city. Two changed their names. There was jail and rehab and psychiatric wards. Some died in their twenties, others almost made it to forty. In my memories, they are vivid, extraordinary even. In my mind, they are still those teenagers wandering high above the busy streets, not yet spotted by those below or by fate. I do not entirely know why I did not follow them. Blind luck. Belligerence. Cowardice, perhaps. Maybe even books, which were for me more than a thread, a lifeline. I swam and I dived where my friends drowned, and my guilt is my shadow.
I still have stray wandering dreams of that time, decades later. They are always strangely terrifying, dreams of hauling myself bleeding over walls and into backyards to cower, hearing breaths and shrieks in the alleyway, occasionally bursting through someone’s home to shake off our pursuers. Often, I can hear the others being caught; I wake almost four hundred miles and twenty years away with the last shout still echoing in the room.
In an old issue of The Paris Review, Jean Rhys talks about how villagers thought she was a witch when she moved to Devon. Then she says, “A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is.” We were young enough to still imagine there were no wolves, not realizing they were everywhere, including among our own number, our own selves.
in durham, the sun has a lion’s face. Blazing hollow-eyed on the cathedral door, it looks more like a pagan Green Man than anything belonging to Christianity. If, in the northeast of England, hundreds of years ago, you were pursued and managed to reach this church and strike this door knocker, you would be permitted entry and the safety of sanctuary for thirty-seven days. Lookouts kept watch twenty-four hours a day, some on the night watch, ringing the Galilee Bell when a refugee was accepted. Once inside, no one was allowed to seize you or cut you down, regardless of what crime you may have committed. The refugees would don the protection of the robe of St. Cuthbert, upon which no blood could be spilt without incurring a lifelong stigma.
The medieval concept of sanctuary, in which the Christian church would provide temporary protection from both authorities and individuals seeking revenge, emerged from lives like that of St. Cuthbert, whose story helped shape the idea. Cuthbert was a strange one, as saints tend to be. The patron saint of Northumbria, he was an aristocrat who became a hermit cave mystic. After his death, his remains were carried in a coffin by monks who were traveling the land to escape marauding Vikings; the pursued could take shelter in the shadow of Cuthbert’s coffin—or so the legend goes. Having reached safety, they could decide to face trial or go into exile (“abjuring the realm”). If they chose the latter, they would leave the church sanctuary wearing white garments, carrying a cross aloft to ward off the vengeful, and make their way to the nearest port, where, after dousing themselves ritualistically in the sea, they would board a ship, never to return. Such protections from state and citizen lasted until 1624, at the beginning of the modern age of imperialism.
Down the ragged years, as an adult who had left Derry and Donegal behind, finding no home abroad, that subconscious film still played in my head. I noticed that I kept encountering the remains of former sanctuaries. Living in Edinburgh for a decade, I’d occasionally pass, on the cobbled streets of the Old Town, the brass sanctuary markers that marked out the boundaries of the Abbey Sanctuary, a disreputable five-mile area within which debtors could not be arrested; it lasted until 1880, when imprisonment for debt was abolished. Among those who sought refuge in Abbey Sanctuary was the essayist Thomas De Quincey, who died there in a state of penury. For years, I visited his grave to pay tribute, keep it clean, and leave mementos for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, apart from adoring his writing. The fear of forgetting, perhaps. Over the years in Scotland, I spotted other sanctuaries scattered across the landscape like spiritual bothies. Not far to the west of Edinburgh, for example, at the standing stones in the village of Torphichen, the pursued could claim the protection of the Knights of St. John. You would have to walk the hard shoulders of motorways to reach it now.
Sanctuary is not the same as refuge. Refuge is protection. Sanctuary is the power to confer protection. Entire cities have been refuges. Cambridge was set up by students who had fled bloody melees in Oxford, taking asylum in the fens. Venice was a wonder-city on stilts built by exiles from the mainland who were hiding out in the lagoon. The Nigerian city of Abeokuta was built by people seeking protection in the outcrops of Olumo Rock. Even after reading about the concept of sanctuary, it was a puzzle to me why the monks would admit, for example, murderers who were being chased by the families or communities of those whose lives they had taken. Paradoxically, these sacred places became filled not only with the persecuted, but also with people running away from their crimes. Gradually, they became seen as havens of sin.
But what, I kept wondering, was really behind these imaginary zones? What gave rise to the magic of passing a boundary and being instantly protected? Theories abound in academic circles: sanctuary was a way to break costly cycles of killings and to de-escalate tribal violence. Others argue that sanctuary emerged much further back, to protect women and girls running away from familial abuse and incest. It might even be a Darwinian or resource imperative. Certainly, sanctuaries have existed in all cultures; there are Celtic, Bedouin, Japanese, Hebrew, and Hawaiian equivalents, to name but a few.
You move away because you are compelled to. There is no want involved. It is a question of need. I was not exiled like some I know nor was I given a choice or ultimatum. I left because of the city across the sea, a beckoning star and a black hole. An economic migrant, joining a long lineage of uncles, some of whom who had lived with us in spare rooms and on spare mattresses, unexpected older brothers. They had gone to London and slept on park benches and found their footing in digs. (Other uncles went to Boston, New York, Philadelphia. They were classic tempest-tossed characters, whose stories resonated with me as much as those of Balzac, Verne, and Hugo, stories wild enough I started to believe that America might be a fictional place.) London had long been an attraction, if a Faustian one. In Ireland when I was a child, there was still a pervasive folk memory of the famine that killed a million people and sent another million or more to the ends of the earth, some having to convert to Protestantism to “take the soup” at the docks.
Yet progress brought little reprieve. Modernity had its own horrors. It was the seventies and eighties, the time of the neo-fascist National Front in England, and “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” and “Irish Need Not Apply” signs were everywhere. The strategies of the Irish who emigrated to England were varied. Some became street fighters. Others adapted, changing accents, becoming Spurs or Arsenal fans overnight. I didn’t fault either approach. They did what they needed to do. They would never be forgiven for reminding London of their otherness, of what the Empire did. The civilized feel civilized only when others are savage. The othering makes them feel human. But it is not sufficient. They cannot be completed.
Long before I ended up in London I felt myself bound for it. The most interesting developments tend to happen on the peripheries of lands and empires, but sooner or later the gravity of the capital pulls those on the extremities in. The city was no refuge, and cannier men than I had been lost in its vortex. It was easier to make lovers there than friends, easier to stay awake in nightclubs than sleep in basement flats. After a while, you look for a safe harbor or at least an anchor, just to remain still for a moment. I made my haunts in old Irish pubs tucked away on forgotten passages and mews. Scattered pieces of home. I listened to the stories of old men, sentimental, sullen, unreliable at times, never letting the truth get in the way of a good or bad tale. Drunk on nostalgia for a land they could not abide to live in. I could feel myself slowly shape-shifting against my will to become them. Yet they were different from me. They were men who had built colossal skyscrapers; before them were men who built the tube, that circulatory system. Yet there were no markers or memorials to them. Not a mention. There were no plaques honoring St. Giles Rookery, where Irish migrants had lived in the worst conditions London has ever seen, outside war or plague. Perhaps it was healthier not to be noticed. The Caribbeans who had arrived on the Windrush and had driven the trains for decades were rewarded with deportation letters.
What it would be like to occupy a safe space that was also a prison, a citadel of cupidity that was also besieged?
I finished up my shift hauling boxes under the streets of Soho and in the spine of a department store and traipsed to where the Rookery had once stood, south of Centre Point, near the sunburst of Seven Dials. There were ghost signs there but only commerce survived, “B. Flegg Estd 1847 Saddler and Harness Maker,” “F.W. Collins Elastic Glue Manufacturer (Sole Inventor 1857) Leather Grindery & General Ironmongery Warehouse.” The Mercer’s Maidens gazed not down onto the streets but with glazed eyes into eternity. Of the Irish who had once struggled to survive here, I could find no trace. St. Giles was never afforded the status of a sanctuary. And now those Irish immigrants who had sought refuge there were denied even the status of phantoms.
As I pushed on eastward, the rain soon became a colossal wall of water. I ducked down into the Tube, shaking off my coat, and sought out a Tube map. A horse’s nervous system on a wall. I traced a path to the most notorious sanctuary London had known, worse than Fulwood’s Rent or the Caribee Islands or Montague Close or the Clink or even Deadman’s Place: Alsatia, an area that was a sanctuary for debtors. It also held a motley crew of criminals, brigands, prison escapees, sex workers, the persecuted, and sin-eaters. It was still raining as I climbed the escalator and stood in the gateway of Blackfriars station. There was no choice but to brave it. The skyscrapers in the near distance were evaporating into the clouds. Here began a miscible place of the sacred and profane. Alsatia had stretched from Blackfriars to Temple and from the Thames to Fleet Street. In current times, the areas bounding what was Alsatia can still feel diabolical. It is hard to forget that in 1982, under Blackfriars Bridge, the Vatican’s banker was found hanging, his pockets full of stones; that in the City of London stand the banks where the world’s blood money was cleansed; that Fleet Street still bears the signage of home to the press and its demon imps, of whom I was one, working for years in the belly of these beasts. Next to them, Alsatia’s sins seem modest, amateurish. What is the robbing of a bank, as Brecht put it, compared to the founding of one?
I took my leave from the rain, dashing into a string of arcane pubs from St. Paul’s to the Strand. The Bells, the Punch Tavern, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. There were few journalists now in their former haunts, and the ghosts of earlier ages were unforthcoming, but there was something about these places that comforted—the quiet of a mahogany snug next to a bull’s-eye window, the low-ceilinged shiplike stairways down into the crypt light, where I gathered with others round the warmth of a glass of firewater. The whole surface world above melting away in the deluge.
Gone was the Devils Tavern. Gone too was the Mitre Tavern, with its secret door for a quick escape into Ram Alley and Alsatia. Gone too were the old coffeehouses, on the boundary of Alsatia, vaunted as meeting places of the Enlightenment but also where men haggled over slave trades. One would have faced all manner of degradation passing through that covert passage into Alsatia, but none were as truly godless as those selling souls as chattel, no ignominy comparable to that of the respectable men who operated the cargoes of flesh on the Middle Passage.
Before its fall from grace, Alsatia had been the site of a Carmelite monastery, Whitefriars, where swaddled friars tended to gardens and rang the hours. Until the day they were noticed by the Crown. The monks of nearby Charterhouse heard knocking at their gate and, upon opening it, found the severed arm of one of their congregation, John Houghton, nailed to the door. The wreckage caused by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place from 1536 to 1540, can still be seen in the ruins along Magpie Alley. Defying the authority of the Vatican, Henry VIII had disbanded the English monasteries and appropriated their wealth, with the aim of establishing the autonomy of his regime, which, intentionally or otherwise, laid the groundwork for the empire to come. Little was left of Whitefriars monastery, but the protection of God survived the destruction of his agents on earth. Already stricken with gout, ulcers, and boils, Henry VIII donated the land that became known as Alsatia to his doctor, Sir William Butts, who looked after it as well as he had the king’s decaying body. In 1553, Bridewell Palace become a prison and hospital dedicated to the “correction of the disorderly.” Like any borderland, including the one we’d grown up on, Alsatia became a place of shifting identities and secrets and metamorphosis. Its inhabitants spoke their own language of thieves’ cant and were united in being outcast, though some preyed on others. Any attempt to storm the sanctuary was resisted by all therein. There was solidarity in ruin. For a long time, as its seventeenth-century dramatist Thomas Shadwell noted, it was “unconqer’d.”
Leaving the pub, I ran from door to door to escape the downpour. Where Alsatia survives is in language, the winding streets and byways of etymology. Saints’ names and religious references abound in what still feels, for all the modern buildings, like a medieval warren, the shape somehow surviving the Great Fire and the Blitz. Pilgrim Street. St. Bride’s Passage. Hood Court. Hanging Sword Alley, formerly Blood Bowl Alley. The world’s first recorded glory hole nearby, they say. When Dickens, a local to the locals, wrote of the area, he populated it with body-snatching “resurrection men” and dying alcoholics. It remained a quarry of stories for writers and a bolthole for at least one, the dissenter Daniel Defoe, who dreamed of plagues and islands when he lived there. Its presence now comes in the form of absence. As I walked through it in the pissing rain, with a head full of whiskey, I attempted to neither condemn or romanticize, but to see what it might have looked like and to whom. What it would be like to occupy a safe space that was also a prison, a citadel of cupidity that was also besieged?
still stunned by grief and the long, brutal, meaningless nature of his dying, I took on the task of going through my father’s belongings. It was a painful process, but I was glad of the pain. In a curious way, I uncovered a portrait of the man in reliquary and detritus, for which a painting or book would be but a poor translation. Among many newspaper cuttings, mostly of musical performances, I found one from the local paper in the early 1970s, headlined, “Their Home Has Been Raided 50 Times.” It opened, “A family in the Rosemount area of Derry have reported to the police damage caused during an army raid on their home last Monday Night.” I recognized my uncle’s name and the address of my father’s childhood home; I had played as a boy in its overgrown back garden, nettles and all, in the shadow of a derelict factory. The article continued:
Mr. William Anderson, who lives at 41 Osbourne St, said his family home has been raided over fifty times by the army, including twenty times by the Staffordshire regiment, who were the regiment involved in last Monday’s raid. Mr. Anderson said: “At 6:45 they broke in the front door and searched every room in the house. A soldier hit me on the head with his rifle and a crowd gathered outside in the street. The soldiers threatened to bring up a water cannon and use it against the crowd. One soldier went up into the attic and started walking about. He was then handed up two torches and he kicked at the ceiling until his foot finally came through. This is nothing but harassment and I complained to the police about it. I also complained to the police about the fifty other raids, but nothing was done about them. The first time we were raided was two days before Operation Motorman.
Given how often the raids must have taken place, what would have been the chance of leading a functioning life? How could one sustain a family amid such a curse? My father’s stories always came to me obliquely. He never said a word directly. I never worked out if it was down to protection or distance. Yet I managed down the years to mosaic together shards I’d overheard from his conversations with others. How his older brother Willy had been interred in prison without trial, alongside hundreds of other young Catholic men. How on at least two occasions as a boy, my father narrowly escaped being murdered by the army. And how the family, my grandmother a widow with a multitude of children, had been brutalized. And how this treatment had begun in her a slow-motion, irrevocable downward spiral that, in my father’s opinion, eventually resulted in her death by misadventure/suicide.
There is an old Bill Hicks stand-up routine we used to pass around on fluttering VHS tapes, in which he recalls a Western where the bully throws a gun at a shepherd’s feet and goads him into picking it up as a pretence to shoot him. My father picked the gun up and spent the rest of his life paying for it. There is a cost to the soul from violence. It corrupts its targets as well as its enactors. Yet I’ve no doubt, if given a chance to do his life over, that he would pick it up again. He signed up with the Provisional IRA the way other kids join the Scouts. After various attempts to take eyes for eyes, he was sent to jail, arrested by other teenagers, the ones who had been sent as fodder from across the sea to terrorize the inhabitants of housing estates not unlike their own.
In prison, despite being a sixteen-year-old child, he was tortured. This was revealed in another document, from the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board, that came to light after his death. An eyewitness said my father was never the same afterward. I never knew the man before and barely knew the man after. Discovering that he had been tortured was the answer to many questions I now regret asking. He was no saint, for sure. Such a luxury did not exist, by that stage. I was old enough to bear witness but young enough to be protected from the worst of the Troubles. My father did everything in his capacity to make sure of that, to the extent of shunning me, lest I become like him. A task which he ultimately failed to do. I feel my likeness to him in many senses, some of which I treasure, but there is a fire in me, too, for vengeance and honor, reading those depraved and lousy accounts, a fire that might incinerate my life if I’m not careful. The desire for justice or retribution, and with it the burden of revenge, the stirrings of a blood feud that he had tried hard to keep from my knowledge. Oh, they made wolves of us.
I feel an affinity to those from other elsewheres, but something, many things, held me back from speaking across the fence.
After a youth damned to be eventful and then abruptly curtailed, my father became a gardener for the council. I did what he by his nature did: as Seamus Heaney put it in his poem “Digging,” I took up a pen, and I began to dig. Every time I delved, beneath the dusty soil of dogma and faith, I hit the same bedrock. It was housing every time. The most basic needs and rights for shelter for self and family. Historically, in my hometown, a curfew bell would ring and Catholics, banned from living within the city walls, had to leave Derry between the hours of nine at night and nine in the morning.* They would go back to their dwellings, the tumbledown hovels clinging to the outer wall, which ran down to the barely reclaimed marsh of the Bogside. When the slum finally gave, my father’s family went wandering with dozens of other families until they came upon a moldering abandoned American navy base.** The Northern Irish civil rights movement was born there, led by the mothers of the camp. Demands were modest—the right to shelter that did not ravage their health and that of their children; the right to vote; the right to fair treatment; the chance of a job, to rise out of enforced penury; and the right not to be murdered with impunity. Sit-in protests took place in Tyrone. In 1969, the skies of Belfast were lit up in what were essentially pogroms. The right to a private home remained an issue right until the end of the so-called Troubles. Catholics were hemmed into their neighborhoods to facilitate Orange marches pounding through. Home invasions occurred on both sides—parents shot in front of their children, children in front of parents. The home was no longer a sanctuary. It was haves and have-nots in the most elemental sense, and the situation became a blood feud. Meanwhile, those who had orchestrated it all washed their hands of it and chastised us for our backwardness, locked as we were in some dark-ages conflict. It is one thing to dominate and crush resistance. It is another thing entirely, far more callous and cunning, to poison the very soil of the narrative.
The secret was that Northern Ireland was not the distant past but rather the future. What they enacted upon us they would one day enact upon their own people and themselves. In exile, I have seen it all slowly begin to unfold again, watching houses fill with mold. Generations who will never own a home, broken by rent and austerity; homelessness enveloping cities; and politics becoming the old familiar issue of division and essentialism and witch hunts and whataboutery.
However, between 1969 and 1972 there was one brief reprieve in my hometown. An autonomous community space called Free Derry, encompassing the Bogside in the valley and Creggan on the heights. A sanctuary, the last on these islands, that one could flee to, but like all sanctuaries a temporary condition. It lasted three years but the state could not tolerate the treason of its existence. My father stood on the shore and watched, not knowing what was in store for the city, for his family. A military flotilla arrived like an invasion force. They sent in tanks and bulldozers to dismantle Free Derry, backed by 1,300 soldiers. A total of 21,000 soldiers took over Catholic working-class areas to re-establish “order.” There was no justice, either legal or economic, to be found or even attempted. The absence of justice does not result in chaos but in a vacuum that is quickly filled. Paramilitaries thrived. When the authorities who run schools and hospitals also shot their own citizens dead and ran death squads, justice must be sought elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, it has never been found.
SANCTUARY WAS NEVER REALLY ABOUT the characters who sought it out, as colorful as they might be. It was made for those who could confer the status of sanctuary, those who had the power to magic these protective boundaries into existence and then police them. In its earliest guise, it was the priestly who bestowed sanctuary; gatekeeping gave them power. Sanctuary gave the church authority, but the pursued had to forfeit their land and property to the Crown. It was a mutually beneficial deal, and justice was not its aim. Sanctuary ended when the empire of capital could no longer tolerate the empire of religion. The clergy, after the reeducation of persecution, learned their new subsidiary place. The king replaced the pope, the state replaced the king. What was once pure about sanctuary, its early numinous roots in sacred groves and islands, was lost. As industrialization and rapacious empire stripped the world of the last of its magic, Caspar David Friedrich painted the holdouts, churches and crosses in the mountainous wilds, disappearing in the mist.
The state is a jealous god. In its efforts to civilize the Northern Irish in the Plantation —the organized colonization of the region in the seventeenth century by people from Great Britain in an attempt to relieve us of our savageries—they first cut down the natural refuges of the forests. It would be untrue if it was said they created no sanctuaries. They built homes in garrison towns. In the Scottish borders, they built still-visible peel towers. In the army base with its watchtower at the end of my street, the strangers lived in a hostile landscape, a precursor of the Green Zone of Baghdad and so on. Fragments of home from which to usurp others from theirs. The state keeps sanctuary for its own devices, granting it in the form of diplomatic immunity, embassies, gated communities, offshore accounts, private security, property portfolios, laws for the independently wealthy, citizens of the world. For all the managed decline, for all the profitable turbulence, all the organized theft that is austerity, the calm is eerie, like that before a cataclysm.
Borders became the magic line. We read daily here in the UK of the small boats sinking in the English Channel on their way to our shores. More uncounted dead. The government plan to fly migrants to Rwanda. They construct prison hulks to house them. They build anything but housing for natives or arrivals alike. One is pitched against the other for votes or virtue, to sell papers or policy. All are pawns. I lived next door to a safe house for migrants. I never saw the same person twice. Different kids every day playing in the garden; different women smoking at the windows. None there the very next day. I feel an affinity to those from other elsewheres, but something, many things, held me back from speaking across the fence. There are different forms of exile, different gradients of descent and ascent that you find yourself on, different places of refuge, different wolves.
With the birth of my son, I slowly realized I no longer needed a sanctuary. Living in city after city, bedsit after bedsit, some barely better than a dosshouse, I’d watched friends and loved ones succumb, in slow motion, to drugs and drink and mental illness and suicide, and I was afraid, deeply afraid. I wanted to be protected, whether by walls or soft comforting lies that everything would be all right. I sought sanctuary the way explorers used to set off for cities of gold or the fountain of eternal youth. What I needed wasn’t the illusion of sanctuary, but to provide it for someone else.
If sanctuary can exist, as temporary or tiny as it might be, it must be built. The church, the Crown, the state, the market cannot be trusted with the task. No ideology can supply it. No one else can supply it for you. The task is by no means certain, but there is no other choice. I watch my little boy sleep. I nestle in beside my love. Just one room in tens of millions in this city on the plain but as significant as any other. When my father was dying, when my son was small, I kept watch until dawn, as if on castle battlements in the long night of some lost century. I feel it still, keeping guard against whatever the night contains. The moon through the sliver in the curtains, the sound of speeding traffic through the opened window, baseball bat nestled under the bed.
*Correction, January 18, 2024: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that the curfew in Derry ended in 1954. This previous version also mistakenly said that Catholics were banned from owning property.
**Correction, January 18, 2024: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to this structure as an abandoned army base.