In recent years I’ve realised that I know some truly fascinating people, I’ve also realised that the opportunity to learn from them is not to be missed. After my trip to Northern Ireland, which brought back many memories, I got talking a lot more to a friend about his experiences growing up there, in a Catholic family. He kindly agreed to write some of his enthralling and terrifying experiences for this blog.
I have lots of early memories from growing up during the troubles, but I think the two early memories that stand out involve two of Northern Ireland’s most notorious pieces of equipment, the drum and the bomb. Firstly the drum, I can remember as a little boy hearing the distant Lambeg drums being beaten late in the evening and into the night. These were huge drums that the Loyalists would strap to their chest and beat with iron rods, sometimes until their hands bled. There was something of a Zulu drum beating thing about it as well, especially when it was far away. Many years later when I first took my partner back home she heard it, and likened it to what the distant sound of artillery fire must have sound like (see here for the sound of the Lambegs – soapbox).
I was used to the sounds of drums as a kid in a Loyalist town because there was a band parade what seemed like every Saturday night from about May through to September, but the Loyalist band parades were usually a tad more tuneful than the staccato of the Lambegs. It was an ominous statement of their dedication to the crown, especially the so called “kick the Pope” bands who had that little extra bit of extra viciousness thrown into their tunes by playing songs about being “up to their neck in Fenian blood”.
The Lambegs were sinister, especially when you could hear them walking slowly closer to where we lived, and where we, and they, knew they weren’t wanted, but that’s why they would come. I lived on the edge of the only Catholic part of a fiercely Loyalist town, they would stop and gather outside my house and stand beating these things until they either got bored or I fell asleep. They used to frighten the shit out of me. I can remember my dad telling me not to look out the window at them, but the curiosity of a child would win; I would steal a glimpse out through my curtain and see scores of Loyalists all standing round, some drinking cans of harp lager, some still in band uniform from the evenings earlier, more “civilised” parade in the town. They would all watch this one red-faced man, back arched to take the weight of the monster, beating the living shit out of stretched hide. I often imagined that he probably could put a bit more leverage into it when he knew he was standing outside a Nationalist family home.
Which takes me onto my other memory, it’s a strange one, but I can remember being sat on a tricycle, tractor, or some other kid’s three-wheeled implement, hearing a massive bomb going off in our town centre. At the time I obviously didn’t know what it was, but I remember hearing it. Over the years I would hear many more, from coffee jar bombs right through to one of the largest ever to be detonated during the troubles, outside the Police Forensic lab in South Belfast, which sucked the windows out of our student house during only fools and horses many years later.
One of the darkest memories of “The Troubles” for me began on a Valentines night in the late 1980s. I was sitting in a car with my friend eating fish and chips, when the news came on the radio that a Sinn Fein councillor had been shot dead in South Derry. When they named him I froze, he was a relative of mine.
“John” had been a Sinn Fein member for many years and not long before his murder, he had escaped another attempt on his life, when his car was ambushed as he drove into the back yard of his isolated farmhouse late one evening. I had stood in that yard only days after this as John showed me the bullet holes in the whitewashed wall and recalled how he had leapt out of his car and fled as the staccato of machine gun fire came from the darkened hedgerow. He had been lucky he said.
On St Valentine’s night John’s luck ran out. He was hit several times and died instantly. When the soldiers and police arrived they wouldn’t let his wife and children go to his car, and he was left lying there for several hours, where they could see him but not get to him. It must have seemed like the final insult to a family who had suffered much brutality and many injustices at the hands of the British state.
Several days later I attended John’s Wake in his little farmhouse. We had been stopped three times at army checkpoints in the 20 or so miles it was from my house to John’s that evening. They knew where we were going, so made our painful journey that little bit more uncomfortable but, for some reason that evening it didn’t seem to bother me. I can remember Roy Orbison playing on the car radio as we were ordered out of the car to be searched.
When we got to Johns house it was completely surrounded by the security forces, RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officers manning yet another VCP (Vehicle Checkpoint), British army personnel fanned out across the fields and cowering in the hedgerows with their SLRs (Self-Loading Rifles) locked and loaded. It was a typical Irish wake in that there were lots of men in ill-fitting suits, women saying the rosary, lots of tea being drunk and sandwiches being eaten. I went to the room where John lay in his coffin; he was flanked by two masked IRA men, a guard of honour. John had the Irish flag over his coffin. Usually you would be able to see the person’s hands clutching rosary beads, but John had lifted his hands in a natural defensive gesture when he was shot and his hand had been hit. I’m not religious, but I said a prayer for him that night as the sound of a British army Lynx helicopter hovered overhead. It was as if it was trying to drown out the mumbling sound of the rosary that was coming out of that little farmhouse.
Today and the future
As for my thoughts on the peace process and the current situation in the north of Ireland; we have come a long way from the days of constant bombings, daily shootings and the palpable fear that used to hang over both communities just as the CS gas once did. When I read the news from home now I see Martin McGuiness, one time commander of the IRA in Derry, running for Irish president, I see him sharing platforms with Presbyterian ministers and sharing jokes with Big Ian Paisley. So much so in fact that the press have christened them “The chuckle brothers”. Two men that were once sworn enemies, sitting down together to discuss the everyday day issues that any normal society should, something that would have been not difficult but unimaginable 15 years ago.
There is still a lot of hatred, anger and bitterness at home. This won’t ever disappear but maybe over several generations it will fade into the background so much so that it will only be seen as the complete fanatics who want to continue living in the past. Who knows? But in the summer evenings those Lambeg drums will still beat out their tribal hatred and somewhere a little boy will no doubt still be scared….