LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland — Five years ago, Treasa McShane moved here from America to marry a former militant who proposed in a letter written from his jail cell. They dreamed of a quiet family life in his hometown; maybe a couple of kids.
"It was supposed to be a love story. He called it our 'happy ever after' story," she says.
Now, she threads past new-scorched hulks of a post office and the pub where her husband had his last drink. She turns on to Little James Street, where young trees are planted along the sidewalk and where Dermot McShane was crushed to death by a British army armored personnel carrier during a riot in July.
Driving by, the woman who neighbors now call "the Widow McShane" is pleased to see a purple remembrance ribbon fluttering from one tree. "And look, someone besides me has left fresh flowers."
Across tragic decades, the death of young men claimed by sectarian strife has been an oft-told tale. This is the story of how Northern Ireland's violent and magnetic past ambushed one American.
"History didn't just catch up with us. It overwhelmed us without warning," she says.
Treasa McShane, nee De Chabert, moved to Londonderry for love. Now she grieves here in anger, a new activist, determined to balance the scales: The world must know that the British army killed her husband, she says. Treasa McShane is American witness, and victim, of historic hatreds that still convulse everyday lives despite painful strides toward peace in Northern Ireland.
The port city of 72,000 that is her home has prospered and modernized in the years since "the Troubles" ignited here in 1969 when Roman Catholics rioted against a Protestant march. Thus began decades of religious apartheid and sapping violence between Catholic nationalists who consider themselves second-class citizens and demand union with the Irish Republic, and majority Protestants who are loyal to Britain.
Here, the majority is Catholic. A blue-collar city known among Catholics as Derry has welcomed thousands of new jobs in recent years, many of them through American investment. There are American textile, plastics and computer plants, an automobile parts factory where Dermot McShane worked; even a new mall.
"One night we went for a walk and he said, 'As a boy I could never have imagined that Derry could look so good and thriving,' " Treasa McShane recalled one recent afternoon.
Despite the progress, the Troubles, eased by a now-tattered 1994 cease-fire, linger. Divided on such issues as the surrender of terrorist weapons, the two sides have been unable to negotiate a peace settlement despite fierce pressure from Britain, Ireland and the United States. This summer, the sectarian violence flared anew as Catholics rebelled against Protestant marches through their neighborhoods in the cities and towns of the divided province. On July 13, the 35-year-old McShane became the first fatality in street protests since Protestant and Catholic terrorists independently declared their cease-fires.
"Dermot was born to the Troubles, he lived through the Troubles and, ultimately, he was killed by the Troubles. When I heard he was dead, I just got the feeling that it was supposed to happen this way," his wife said.
Treasa McShane, 47, who was raised in northern New Jersey, became a player in the Northern Irish drama because of a spur-of-the-moment visit to London in 1988, where she met a tall, engaging young man from Northern Ireland in a pub. McShane told her he was working as a furniture deliverer. What he didn't say was that he had been living as a fugitive for a decade in England.
"The next spring I got a letter from jail; he explained that he had left England and returned home when he learned his mother was dying. The police arrested him as soon as the boat docked and he never got to see her," she said at her home here. "There was something about his letters. . . . I wrote to a man I barely knew and we got to know each other. That was our courtship."
Dermot McShane, she discovered, had been recruited by a radical left-wing splinter of the Irish Republican Army when he was around 15. In December 1977 when he was 17, McShane and two other teenage militants conspired to hijack a car at gunpoint for use in a robbery. The driver of the car turned out to be an undercover British army corporal. He shot and killed Colm McNutt, 18, after McNutt threatened him with a pistol, according to court records.
McShane and Patrick Heslin Phelan were arrested. Phelan went to jail for four years and emigrated to America. McShane jumped bail and fled. He had a tattoo of hearts and flowers engraved on his left forearm. "In Memory of Volunteer Colm McNutt," the inscription read.
"For some reason, Dermot was not there the night his friend Colm died; he couldn't make it. He was so distraught in the aftermath that he tried to commit suicide. That's something I've only just learned," Treasa McShane said.