Entry 106: I Wonder How They Got So Far At All?– The years 1971 and 1972 loomed large: I got married, travelled overseas on my first independent holiday (our honeymoon in Croatia and Venice) moved into our first home, fathered my first child, got my first degree (I never bothered completing another) and moved to Australia to start my first job. A lot of firsts.
In these years, too, I first started to write songs about what was going on around me rather than anodyne love ditties or apocalyptical takes on the latest round of the troubles such as the one heard at the end of the previous entry. Some of these early songs have been lost forever in the chaos of living. Others, such as this one, survived long enough to be transferred to cassette tape and, later, to zeros and ones in the digital domain.
The transience and randomness of life and death swirled around us: I missed, by moments, being blown up in a pub near the city centre, an acquaintance was shot and killed by gunmen unknown. After the honeymoon we found part of a house for rent in West Belfast off the Whiterock Road in Beechview Park which looked across a cinder pitch to the walls of the city cemetery on which was sprayed, in white paint, the graffito, Is there a life before death?
We lived there from late July 1971 until late August 1972. On the 9th of August, 1971, gunfire erupted in the area as British Army Saracens whined through the streets lifting republican suspects for internment. I watched later from our bedroom window as two men placed barrels of petrol on the Whiterock Road, detonating them as a patrol passed shortly afterwards.
My pregnant wife, clambering over barricades to get to work and back was in the grocery store on the Falls Road at the corner of the lane leading to our street when she was unceremoniously pushed to the floor by a woman next to her: before she could remonstrate a couple of rubber bullets came through the door and ricocheted around the shop, smashing displays and causing panic and anger. Over 55,000 of these were fired before they were phased out with the introduction of plastic bullets in 1975.
One of the rubber bullets from the shop was given to my wife as a souvenir and was displayed for a time on our mantelpieces, but disappeared, too, in the chaos of living. I, protective husband that I was-remonstrated with the local women that night, that I would not let her go out on bin-lid duty- this was the early warning technology of the savvy citizens to warn the local IRA brigade of British Army patrols, and she, returning to the corner shop the next day, met with a wall of silence as she was motioned silently to the counter to buy her bread and milk and sugar.
The conflict deepened as bombings and shootings took their toll- in lives and quality of life. The dirty war kicked into gear in earnest as Brigadier Frank Kitson’s counter-insurgency tactics honed against the Mau Mau in Kenya was introduced to streets of the United Kingdom (although not on the island of Britain, itself). Fifteen civilians, including four women, were killed in McGurk’s Pub in North Queen Street by loyalist bombers whose path before and after was facilitated by members of the shadowy Military Reaction Force of the British Army.
Eight weeks later, British Paratroopers shot dead 13 civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday prompting a rush on IRA recruiters. Republicans hit back by burning the British embassy in Dublin three days later, bombing Aldershot Barracks in Britain which killed seven and exploding a bomb in Lower Donegall Street killing seven, also. As violence spiralled out of control, Edward Heath, British Prime Minister, pulled the pin, prorogued Stormont parliament and introduced direct rule, ending all hopes of democracy in Northern Ireland for over a generation.
There were false dawns with truces and secret talks but the killing went on and, on Friday, July 21, while I was returning records to the Belfast Central Library 22 bombs went off in the space of an hour and a quarter killing nine outright and seriously injuring 130 more. That summer the UDA in ranked and hooded thousands marched along Royal Avenue through the centre of Belfast as I watched in trepidation. I rang my father in Cushendall and arranged to spend a few days in Cushendall and he came and collected my wife, my three-month old daughter and me from Beechview Park on Saturday, August 26, as gunfire rang out in the distance.
I can see the headlines now, I thought sardonically, young family tragically killed a week before they were to start their new life in Australia. Don’t even joke about it! I immediately admonished myself. As Yeats so truly put it, Out of Ireland have we come./Great hatred, little room,/Maimed us at the start. I wonder how they got so far at all…