Séamus Lillis writes: Some time in early 1969 an advertisement for a horticultural advisory officer in the then Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland (DANI) in The Commercial Grower, a British weekly devoted to commercial horticultural production and made available to horticultural instructors throughout Ireland. I had graduated from UCD with a Bachelor in Agricultural Science degree, taken in horticulture, in 1968. Having always wished to have an outdoor job, I sought employment as an instructor in horticulture and beekeeping with a committee of agriculture in Ireland. I began working in the spring of 1969 as a temporary instructor in Co Westmeath (for three months) followed by a similar appointment in Co Waterford.
The immediate attraction for me of the Commercial Grower advertisement was an undertaking by DANI to pay generous expenses ‑ £10 sterling ‑ for attending for interview in Belfast, a sum that was significantly more than my daily net pay. I applied on the official form. Having sought appropriate counsel, I was advised that a key question for the unwary would be naming the school(s) attended. While recruitment of graduates in horticulture and beekeeping from UCD by DANI was not without precedent, I determined that I would need to facilitate an element of confusion if I were to procure the £10 sterling. I had attended the Christian Brothers’ School, Synge Street, Dublin. My overriding intent was to ensure that I would be called for interview, so I substituted “The John Millington Synge Academy” for the more familiar Synge Street CBS. Fortuitously – though familiarly known as ‘Séamus’ ‑ I had been registered at birth as “James”, a neutral moniker. “Lillis”, to the uninitiated, was neither obviously one side nor the other and I consciously did not add my other baptismal names. I duly attended for the interview at Dundonald House, Stormont, and in time secured the pledged £10 sterling.
Somewhat to my surprise, I subsequently received a letter from DANI offering me the job. I was then faced with a dilemma: would I stick with uncertainty in the Republic in the temporary sequential postings open to recent graduates or take up a permanent position in Northern Ireland, where the “Troubles” were beginning to emerge. Taoiseach Seán Lemass, had visited Belfast for the first time on January 14th, 1965 and the foundations of a rapprochement had been laid. I decided to accept the position and was duly appointed to the Co Down office in Newtownards as a horticultural advisory officer. This area covered the area around Comber, the leading locality for the production of vegetables for Belfast and beyond. Its equivalent area in the Republic is North County Dublin, principal suppliers to the Dublin fruit and vegetable market, where I subsequently served as a horticultural instructor from 1975 to 1994. I took up the position in Co Down on September 10th, 1969.
Like all new recruits to the Northern Ireland civil service, I was required to take an oath of allegiance. Unlike in Great Britain, where one has to merely sign the oath, I was asked to read it aloud. I knew that this requirement was inevitable, though I did not know when exactly it would happen. I was forewarned and was aware of Éamon de Valera’s rationale, viz that it was “an empty formality”, when he was obliged to take a similar oath on entering Dáil Éireann in 1927. Shortly after the inauguration of Northern Ireland, in the early 1920s, its public servants were required to take that oath; many nationalists could not in conscience do so and paid the penalty of losing their jobs. At that time they did not have the benefit of Mr de Valera’s rationale. The oath in the early 1920s was thus an effective means of terminating the employment of many Catholics in the public service of the nascent “state”. This to a great extent facilitated and amplified discrimination against Catholics in the Northern Ireland public service. This discrimination had been compounded over the years in housing, voting, gerrymandering of constituencies and employment.
DANI viewed me as a British citizen under the provisions of the British Nationality Act 1948 by virtue of the fact that I was born before 1948. This was before we entered the EEC; the UK’s deliberation that I was a British citizen was essential to my being appointed to DANI.
In 1969, I was not yet aware that DANI relied entirely on both Reading University and University College Dublin for the recruitment of graduates in horticulture for its advisory service; Queen’s University, Belfast only delivered agricultural alumni.
I had been in Newtownards for about a fortnight when I got a call from one of DANI’s senior inspectors to arrange an appointment with me to visit some commercial growers in my designated area, to be effected on the following Friday. We met as arranged on the Friday morning and made some visits. At lunchtime we went to a pub; I went to the gents and on coming back to the table, the senior inspector informed me that he had taken the liberty of ordering a steak for me. I immediately said something like “No thanks, I will have fish.” At the time, I did not attach much significance to what had just occurred. Friday abstinence was a widespread practice among Catholics in the 1960s. I did not grasp the implication of his suggestion and, being less than a month in the job, was oblivious to the trap that had been set for me. I, an ingénu, continued to be unaware until the following events occurred.
Within a fortnight, I got a letter reassigning me to Dundonald House, (the headquarters of DANI) in Stormont. The letter offered no explanation for my reassignment. A colleague in Newtownards said to me on the day of my departure, somewhat formally: “I want to assure you Mr Lillis, that neither I nor any of my colleagues will hold it against you that you are a Roman Catholic.” I can still recall this declaration verbatim. I was incredulous. This was the point at which enlightenment began to dawn. Why was this man preoccupied with religion? By whom had he been told that I was a Catholic? And here he was telling me in effect that this was a big deal for him. That was the time that it began to strike me that my reassignment could be linked to religious affiliation. It was one perception to be aware that Catholics in general were victims of discrimination in Northern Ireland; it was a totally unfamiliar experience for me to be, for the first time, the object of religious prejudice. I was to discover later that my being a Catholic was a matter of widespread disquiet, not only in the local office, but also throughout DANI.
On the appointed day, I duly reported to Dundonald House. I was given a desk, but almost nothing to do. I withdrew to the library and researched several horticultural topics. I wrote papers on the use of plastic in protected crops, on advances in weed, pest and disease control and other topics of interest to horticultural advisers in the field, which they kindly appreciated. I made many requests for work projects, but by and large, I had no manifest role; at best I was a supernumerary. Apart from attending an induction programme, weeks would go by without any assignments. Within DANI, I was advised that if I ever wished to convert to Protestantism I should join the Plymouth Brethren because the head professional in DANI was a leading member. His circulars to staff used biblical phrases extensively. (The Plymouth Brethren was originally founded in Dublin and is a splinter group of the Church of Ireland.)
Among the very few assignments I was given while in Stormont, I was selected to advise on the construction of a glasshouse in a Belfast prison. This call from the prison authorities in Crumlin Road jail came to DANI in the ordinary way and the Friday steak promoter assigned me to deal with the request. I went along to the jail to give detailed advice. I was met by a senior prison officer – in uniform ‑ who was very clear about what he wanted. He explained that the purpose of this glasshouse was to generate the greatest amount of work possible for the prisoners. This was an unprecedented request and was counterintuitive to all the essential labour-saving elements of the then modern glasshouse industry. An example was the request for maximum work to be generated in the irrigation of plants; in modern glasshouses, this is normally automatically delivered and does not create any employment. The water source was a tap, located far from the glasshouse and prisoners would be deployed in bringing a small cup of water per plant from the tap to the glasshouse. This went against my instincts.
Crumlin Road jail was primitive. Running diagonally across the central prison yard was a long line of conjoined cubicle toilets, each with a third of a door. This door resembled a traditional half-door except that the bottom foot was removed. All prisoners using these facilities, regardless of their needs, were required to enter the cubicle, sit down within the stall and face outwards; thus, they could be observed above and beneath the reduced door. I recall later talking to a man in Co Fermanagh, who had been interned in the 1950s, who told me that the most difficult aspect of internment for him was being unable at any point to go into a room, shut the door and be alone.
In the late September of 1969, the Troubles were intensifying. One reaction of the Stormont government was to declare a semi-official curfew. The result was that pubs, cinemas and libraries closed at or before 7pm. As a newcomer to Belfast, I had limited places to frequent. I made the mistake of remaining in the city for one weekend. On the Sunday everywhere was closed except Chinese restaurants and newsagents that opened for a brief period in the morning. The Sabbath at that time had to be experienced to be believed. Some of its advocates went so far as to lock up children’s swings in public parks for the day. The effects on me of the curfew and the Sabbath observance were particularly isolating as I, having just arrived, knew nobody and had nowhere to go to for about three months. However, when the curfew was eventually lifted I visited cinemas and the theatre. I recall seeing one slogan in a cinema’s toilets: ‘F*** Pope Pius XXIII’. For this perplexing curse to come to fulfilment one would have required eleven more popes, all selecting the name Pius. I was accosted by a pedestrian near Belfast City Hall who asked me for the time. Wishing to oblige, I looked at my watch and said: “It’s a quarter past six.” His response was to call me a “Fenian bastard”. On one occasion I gave a lift to a young hitchkiker. He was a Baptist and told me that his pastor had informed him that all Catholic churches maintained a pair of the then contemporary pope’s slippers for the purposes of adoration and kissing. My mind boggled at how anyone could believe in such practices.
I recall seeing a graffiti “IRA=I Ran Away”, a critical comment in 1969 on the absence of any military defence of the nationalist community in these early days of the Troubles. They were in fact absent despite allegations from unionist leaders that they were active at that time. In due course, the IRA did take part and their activities were particularly reprehensible along the border areas of counties Fermanagh and Armagh. Their atrocities were appalling and inhumane. Protestant farmers living along the border were particularly vulnerable because of their isolation, especially when contrasted with their coreligionists in the urbanised east. Many victims were confronted by their killers before being assassinated, commonly in the presence of their loved ones. The ordeal experienced by these farm families caused by terrorists breaking and entering these lonely homes, mostly at dead of night, with the intent of elimination of family members was beyond horrific. The mercilessness and hardheartedness of these actions were appalling.
In the meantime, at the DANI office in Stormont, I befriended another recruit, whom I met at the induction courses for new civil servants. He was a recent agricultural economics graduate from England. He told me about how difficult it was for his wife, Teresa by name, to get a job in Belfast and how neither of them had foreseen this impediment, nor had they anticipated how her name would be interpreted as exclusively nationalist. Surely this was ironic. This was a situation where an assumedly unionist population of Northern Ireland was succeeding in alienating the very people with whom they sought a permanent and inseparable union.
It was roughly in the spring of 1970 when I was first asked to provide horticultural advice occasionally in Co Fermanagh. The local horticultural advisory officer had quit unexpectedly, creating a vacancy. I attended in the local office (Crown Buildings, Queen Elizabeth Road, Enniskillen), roughly for one week in every four. This limited arrangement allowed me to respond to farmers’ pre-registered requests for advice. Conducting educational programmes, monitoring crop performance, promoting amenity and commercial horticulture were not possible. Early on, when first conducting these monthly visits, I recall being reprimanded because I applied for travelling expenses for crossing the border at the Donegal/Fermanagh interfaces and thereby entering what I was told was a “foreign country”.
One day I was walking in the grounds of Stormont with the senior inspector who had offered me the steak that I had declined. I asked him about recruits to the Northern Ireland civil service. “What roughly was the annual intake?” I inquired. “About a hundred,” he replied. “But if some prove unsuitable, what can be done?” I asked. “Oh, we use the trusted ICI practice,” he said. “What’s that?” I asked. “We give them a desk, nothing more than pencil and paper, and ensure they have nothing to do. They are usually gone within a fortnight.”
The next weekend I sought advice in Dublin and sent a letter to the senior inspector. I wrote that I had been recruited as a horticultural adviser, as publicly advertised. There was at least one vacancy at that time of writing, conspicuously one in Fermanagh, arising from a staff member’s unexpected departure. I had been the victim of the ICI practice that aspired to have me voluntarily remove myself from the staff and I was being discriminated against because I was a Catholic. His response was to angrily deny discrimination. I stood my ground. “Appoint me to Fermanagh, or I will bring this further,” I responded. I was appointed shortly afterwards. I acceded to his request that I withdraw my letter.
When I was finally appointed full-time to Co Fermanagh, I was told that I could stay in a hotel for up to six weeks while seeking suitable permanent accommodation in the county. I was entitled to a daily allowance towards the cost of the hotel. I elected to stay in the “foreign country”, at the Creighton Hotel in Clones, Co Monaghan. This was some time in August 1970.
I attended the annual Co Fermanagh Agricultural Show in Enniskillen and this was followed by a dance, which I also attended. It was well after 1am. when I set out for Clones. On a lonely part of the road, I encountered a group of soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) which was, at one point, the largest regiment in the British army. This regiment was originally intended to reflect the demographics of Northern Ireland. When it began, 18 per cent of its members were Catholics. Subsequently, at the end of 1972, after the introduction of internment, this dropped to around 3 per cent; Catholic members resigned or refused to attend for duty. Members of extremist groupings on both sides managed to join the UDR, despite the vetting process. Joining the regiment gave access to training and firearms. Several stolen weapons were used in sectarian assassinations, attempted murders and robberies.
The UDR detachment stopped me and started to search my Volkswagen Beetle. Prior to my arrival to Northern Ireland I had been an instructor in Co Waterford and responsible for providing promotional literature on tithe glainne or glasshouses in the Gaeltacht area of Ring. Some of that literature was found and it caused much comment. I also had a government-issued briefcase in which I had confidential applications for grants from local farmers, neighbours of these soldiers. I therefore protested and said that these files were confidential. Nevertheless, they persisted in reading them. The encounter occurred on a secluded part of the roadway, with few passers-by; it was potentially menacing.
On the following morning, I telephoned the HQ of the UDR and arranged to see the commander. On keeping the appointment, I was accompanied by four soldiers, two ahead of me and two more behind, all carrying rifles and thus escorted, we marched across the yard. I met the commander and protested about the invasion of privacy by the UDR. He made the reasonable point that I should carry some identification. (This was 1970, an era predating identity cards or papers.) He suggested I get some documentation from DANI that would vouch for my identity. So, I wrote to HQ and a further month elapsed before I got a letter stating that I:
was a duly appointed adviser in horticulture and beekeeping in County Fermanagh and that under the Beekeeping Act of 19??, I was entitled to give chase to swarms of bees for 24 hours after they left the hive.
What I was to do should the bees travel to “a foreign country” I can’t tell. Armed with this document, I was able to travel widely in all kinds of climates and at all times of the year. To an extent I relied on the defence forces’ ignorance of the seasonal habits of bees. Furthermore, the document facilitated me in being able to travel on “unapproved” cross-border roads even in the middle of winter, when prudent hibernating bees would elect to stay put in their hives. I regret that I have lost this letter, as well as my copy of the Special Powers Act of NI and a tourism-promoting poster, dating back to 1969, urging people to come to Northern Ireland “for a shooting holiday”.
The Co Fermanagh staff consisted of a chief agricultural officer (CAO), a deputy chief (D/CAO), four agricultural advisers, a poultry adviser and me, a horticultural advisory officer, together with supporting administration staff. Historically the Plantation of Ulster (from 1609 onwards) resulted in land formerly owned by the native Gaelic chiefs being seized by the English and Scots, who were required to be Protestant and English-speaking. They were given the better land. In Fermanagh there were forty-six staff, of whom two were Catholics. About a dozen of the total DANI advisory and support staff ‑ approximately 300 ‑ were Catholics. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Committees of Agriculture (as in the Republic) prevailed as employers in Northern Ireland. The wartime “Compulsory Tillage” scheme meant that all farmers could be required to grow specified crops in agreed acreages. The advisory staff in Northern Ireland were redeployed as compulsory tillage officers and assimilated into the Department of Agriculture, becoming civil servants. These entrants into DANI in the Second World War went some way to supporting the perception that the department was one of the most excluding and fundamentalist of all in Northern Ireland. I recall being told that as a horticultural adviser I was the highest-ranking Roman Catholic in the service west of the Rivers Bann (Upper and Lower), that is, approximately, in counties Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone. The Fermanagh staff were pleasant to work with and most sociable. They were curious about the work approach at county level in the Republic. (In fact some two years later, in 1973 while working for the Co Meath Committee of Agriculture, I was awarded a WK Kellogg Foundation scholarship tenable at University College Dublin towards a MAgr Sc degree in agriculture that involved research on aspects of extension services in agriculture. My original proposal was to research a comparison of both advisory services, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Given the induction programme to DANI that I had completed and my contacts with DANI staff, I felt uniquely suited to this research. My proposal was vehemently opposed by the college authorities. They were not even prepared to discuss it. I subsequently learned on the grapevine that the rejection was at the request of the Irish Department of Agriculture.)
One Monday morning I arrived at the Fermanagh office to find that it was no more; it had been demolished by a bomb planted by the IRA. Fortunately, we were accommodated in the local agricultural college nearby.
I called on my long-retired predecessor. He had been trained at Reading University and was English. Originally the advisory staff in all thirty-two counties were known as “itinerant instructors” and that meant that advisers literally moved around within their designated areas or counties. He remembered getting around by bicycle with the assistance of the GNR (Great Northern Railway) in his early days. There was at the time a rail connection between Dundalk and Bundoran, travelling through the length of Co Fermanagh via Lisnaskea. Later, he acquired a motor car. Soon after, in 1973, I met my predecessor, also an itinerant instructor in County Meath, who told me that he relied on a horse, a white stallion, to travel around, particularly during the war years.
Coming up to July 12th, 1971, the first intimation of the forthcoming event was the sound of the Lambeg drums that could be heard at great distances in the countryside. Widespread rehearsals could be heard and on the Twelfth itsel, masses of Lambeg drums produced a deafening sound. Street banners were plentiful, many commemorating 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne. Other traditional slogans such as “Not an Inch” and “Six into Twenty-six won’t Go” were also in evidence. My bank in Enniskillen shared a banner with the local cathedral – “What we Have, We Hold” ‑ appropriate perhaps for the bank but less so for the cathedral.
I got to know several people, who shared some interesting stories with me, stories reflecting the lack of trust and adversarial attitudes of both sides of the religious and political divides. I learned how Co Fermanagh had, for many years, a majority nationalist population, yet always managed to return to Stormont two unionist MPs and only one nationalist. This was done by drawing up three constituencies in the county; one framing the boundary of the entire county (nationalist), the other two devised by splitting the remainder in two (unionist). When it came to the control of local government representation, property holders, predominantly Protestant, were entitled to one additional vote per unit of property owned. The local parish priest in Enniskillen set about rectifying this. He announced one Sunday to the congregation that they would all be going into the property business. He had purchased a field from the local convent and he proposed to put it to good use as a graveyard. Every family would purchase a grave and then they would have property in Enniskillen and consequently a vote in local elections. Stormont stifled this innovative approach by enacting legislation excluding graves from the definition of qualifying properties.
Another story was about a fiery dispute between unionist and nationalist papers on the death of one of their editors. The deceased editor’s own paper published an obituary that extended over several pages. The opponents’ paper carried a brief paragraph stating that the deceased was survived by his wife, two children, one sister and two brothels. In any other place “brothels” might have been taken as a typing. But not in this instance. Court proceedings were initiated and both parties appeared in court, only to have the case thrown out. Stories are of course prone to exaggeration and embellishment and cannot all be reliably regarded as true.
There is an extensive literature on anti-Catholic discrimination in voting rights, housing and employment, as well as in the recruitment and deployment of the B Specials, the UDR and the RUC in the years of the Troubles. Less so on the Northern Ireland civil service, though discrimination was notorious in the departments of home affairs and agriculture. An article by David McKittrick in The Irish Times in May 1980 provided a compelling overview: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/civil-service-in-north-short-on-catholics-1.666272
Subsequent changes in the civil service are to be found in the Northern Ireland Civil Service Handbook: https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/articles/northern-ireland-civil-service-handbook. Great strides have been made in rectifying the injustices of the past. It is only in revisiting that past and reflecting on developments over a half-century that these gains can be fully appreciated.
Séamus Lillis PhD worked in Teagasc as a horticulture instructor in North County Dublin until 1994. Since then he has worked with rural communities throughout Ireland. He has published on community development here and in America.