Monday, 22 November 2010

Walking across Albert Bridge

Photo courtesy of Ciachee

1981-1987 - In my late teens I began venturing out of my own area and started to explore Belfast city centre. My friends and I would go to concerts at the Ulster Hall anytime a half decent band would be brave enough to come to Belfast to perform. We also began exploring the city centre pubs. This wasn’t so easy for me as I didn’t look my age. When I was eighteen years old I looked fifteen. As my older looking friends were getting admitted into bars I would be refused entry. My mates would chuckle and raise a glass to me as I peered in through the window at them from the cold street. My youthful looks were a right royal pain in the arse for me. The only cinema I ever could bluff my way in to see an x rated film was the Strand Cinema on the Holywood Road. But then, they would let anyone in who had the money to pay.

Going into Belfast city centre at night was a scary experience. It resembled a ghost town. All that was missing from the empty streets was the occasional ball of tumbleweed rolling along them. A person went to wherever they were going and got out of the city centre again without any hanging about. For me I often had to walk across Albert Bridge to get home. This was easier said than done for some…

A walk across Albert Bridge in east Belfast at night could sometimes be an experience similar to those nightmares we dream when we are being followed by some dark shadowy figure. Walking across Albert Bridge was not merely a stroll across a Victorian built bridge over the River Lagan. It was a also a declaration of your religious and political background. To an outsider Albert Bridge was merely a piece of antiquity in the industrious shipping-port that was Belfast, but to those who lived near it, that bridge could decide your fate on a dark night. It was as simple as this;

If you were walking from Belfast city centre over Albert Bridge on the left-hand side, you were going to the 'Short Strand', a Catholic area - therefore you were a Catholic. If you walked on the right-hand side, you were going to the Ravenhill, Woodstock or Castlereagh areas. This meant you were a Protestant. It was really as simple as that. Ulster folk like things broken down to simplicity and explained directly.

It only took about three or four minutes to walk across this bridge. The breeze coming up the river Lagan would hit you square in the face, forcing you to tuck your chin deep into your chest to avoid the icy sting. Many nights as I walked along Albert Bridge after being out to a bar in the city centre, the awareness of what side of the bridge I was walking on would hit me. I was on the right-hand side in order to walk up the Ravenhill Road - I was a ‘Prod’. The terror would start to build and would really kick in when you saw in the distance. As they crossed over from ‘their’ side of the bridge to your side the internal questions would then begin; do I run? Do I keep walking? Do I cross over to avoid the oncoming shadowy figures? An intense heartbeat could now be felt and the shaking from an adrenaline rush would begin.

If you were lucky you would walk past the strangers without looking at them. You would instantly feel a huge sway of relief and quicken your walking pace to get the hell off the bridge to the sanctuary of your own area. This was where you would be a 'Prod' in a Prod area or be a Catholic in a Catholic area. In other words, you were home and safe...until the next time.

There were many who would be stopped by a gang to be asked, "where'ya goin'?" The answer to follow was critical and would instantly determine from which side of the religious or political fence you belonged. For those who gave the ‘wrong’ answer…

Whoever said things were simple in this life?

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Counting the bombs on Bloody Friday

Image Copyright Belfast Telegraph (used with permission)

I was eight years old and playing with my mates in the street. It was in the middle of the summer holidays. To me a boy who hated school, the summer holidays were heaven. The lazy summer days were spent with my mates acting out our imaginations, creating games to play out of nothing. From collecting ladybirds from the Ormeau Park to playing football to holding our own Wimbledon tennis tournament using a gable wall with a chalk line drawn across it as a net, the summer holidays were a soft haze of endless wonder. So many times I wanted to freeze time as I was lying in Ormeau Park breathing in as much as I could, the smell of the freshly cut grass.

It was afternoon when the first bomb went off. This was no big deal at all to Belfast folk and as I played in the street with my mates Smicker and Marty, we took very little notice of it and carried on with our games. By 1972 the people of Belfast had become desensitised to hearing bomb-blasts reverberating across the city. It was now simply part of life and Belfast folk simply got on with things living in hope that perhaps the eejits who were fighting would one day stop.

Within minutes of the first bomb another one was felt in the ground beneath us. That was two bombs in very quick succession? That was a bit odd to the point that it was worth a "Wow, there's another one!" comment from Me, Smicker and Marty. Regardless we carried on with our games. Then another bomb, and another one...and another. The bombs and their resulting Earth shudders kept on and on with only a few minutes in between them. By now people were coming out of their houses onto the street to discuss what was going on with their neighbours. My mother was by now tuned into the "Police Messages" on the radio and reporting anything to the neighbours out in the street. The Police radio frequency signal was right at the end of the dial on normal radios and everyone used to illegally 'tap' into police radio conversations as a source of entertainment when there was nothing good on television.

After many bomb blasts, which we were feeling in the ground beneath our feet, Smicker, Marty and I were beginning to count them while wondering what the hell was actually happening. That amount of explosions was very unusual - even for Belfast. When people were out in the street you knew something serious was going on. We began counting the explosions;

"Twelve, Thirteen..."
"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen..."

As the ground shook we kept counting. Smicker then remarked, "that's nineteen so far".
"Shite! It's only eighteen" I replied.
"Nineteen!" Smicker shouted.
"Eighteen!" I said desperately wanting to be right.

We argued bitterly, the two of us desperately wanting prove he was the best bomb-counter. We were now pushing each other around, the intensity and rage building and building. This was looking to be a fight or a "fair dig"...and as a series of twenty-two bombs (the actual number) sent Belfast into trauma on the 21st July 1972, historically known as "Bloody Friday" both Smicker and I were by now fighting and wrestling on the ground, punching seven bells out of each other.

"It's fuckin' Eighteen!"
"Nineteen, ya bastard!"

In a moment of tragic yet humorous irony, two eight year old boys were rolling on the ground, fighting over exactly how many IRA bombs were exploding throughout Belfast. Two small Belfast kids fighting against a backdrop of devastating death and carnage resulting in the senseless killing of nine human beings and injuring another one hundred and thirty - the vast majority of these people being innocent civilians - you know, those ordinary folk who wanted NOTHING to do with killing, injuring and maiming other people? You know those decent people who lived, worked and raised families?

As I argued that it was eighteen explosions and Smicker raged about the total being nineteen, we were unaware that it was in actual fact twenty-two bombs which both traumatised and ripped the soul out of the people of Belfast. Smicker and I were wrong with our counting...but then as proved with the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, two wrongs don't make a right.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Following the Glens

1967-1976 - From the age of three years old I was trailed around every Irish League football ground and their social club by my da', as he attempted to satisfy his insatiable lust for following Glentoran Football Club. Every Saturday of the football season I was wrapped up in my Glentoran hat, scarf, raincoat, and armed with a corncrake rattle which my older brother had delicately painted for me in the colours of red, green and black. My father took me to strange little places around the country to watch ‘the Glens’. Many times I stood on the muddy terraces on a rainy windswept and bloody freezing afternoon to watch a nil-nil draw. It was a real rite of passage into the ways of the Ulsterman.

In my father's world Glentoran Football Club was his real love. Family came second to following his beloved football team everywhere they went, yelling obscenities at referees and opposing teams - in particular at the foot-soldiers of the arch-nemesis; Linfield supporters. My father hated Linfield. His obsession with Glentoran was a handy excuse to satisfy his now ever-growing dependence on alcohol. Football matches were a perfect excuse to get drunk as he was either celebrating a victory or drowning his sorrows at a Glentoran defeat.

I liked going to the football matches. I would sit in various bars and social clubs surrounded by old men who constantly fed me with Coca-Cola and potato crisps. The more alcohol they consumed the more their generosity would come to the fore. Most of the old boys would give me some spare change from their pockets. I would come away from a day out at the football match with both my trouser pockets swinging back and forth from the weight of the coins I had been given. I wasn't complaining, although it was hard work having to sit quietly and listen to grown men singing off-key renditions of sentimental country-music ballads or boisterous Glentoran songs. These were the songs of the lost souls. When the singing began it was time for me to beg my da’ to take me home.

Following the Glens for many was for many, not about watching the game at all but sitting in brown rooms filled with a cloud of tobacco smoke and the stench of alcohol. There were many who went with the intention of seeing the match but after a few pints when the lust for alcohol took hold ("I've got the taste for it now..."), they would sit for the duration of the match in the social club. The men would go home and tell their wives what the score was and how it was a brilliant match, while living in hidden fear of her asking them how much money they had spent while at the game. Many rows followed the Saturday football excursion once the wife had gone through her husband’s pockets to discover he had spent most of his week’s wages.

I remember a well-known sports writer for a local newspaper getting drunk in the bar many times at the football match he was supposedly reporting on. He would often never leave the bar at all to watch the game preferring to sink drink after drink. As people would come into the bar to escape the vicious cold of a winter afternoon he would ask them what the latest score was, who scored what goals and who was booked or sent off. His match reports for Northern Ireland’s leading sports newspaper were more than often compiled from accounts taken from randomly selected strangers coming into the social club. People knew his form and with vicious Ulster wit they would quite often tell him the wrong score to wind him up. One person would tell him the Glens are winning 5-0. The next would tell him it was 4-1. The next would quote another different score. By the end of the game his match report was a mess of confusion. The reporter would wait until the match had finished and speak to someone who could give him an account of the game. This would often be a drunken biased report and far from the actual truth.

Following Glentoran meant hating Linfield. Glentoran versus Linfield games were violent affairs with rioting and spilled blood present at almost every game between these two factions from the East and South parts of Belfast. This was odd considering that both sets of supporters were from the Protestant community yet the hatred was and still is cut deep into the minds of these two groups. I heard quite a few Glens fans declare that "I'd rather be a Taig than a Blueman" - such was the level of hatred. In a religiously divided Ulster, Protestant unity was put to one side to be replaced with a tribal division of hatred which used football as its front.

Such was my father's intolerance of Linfield and the ‘other side of town’ that he once threw a friend of mine out of our house because I told him that he was a ‘blue man’ from the Shankill. My friend wasn't a Linfield supporter from the Shankill at all. He was from east Belfast and knew nothing at all about football – he was a hairdresser. We were simply winding my drunken father up. As my da’ physically pushed Andy up the hallway and out of the front door yelling "fuck off back to the Shankill" we both were in fits of uncontrollable laughter at the stupidity of the man.

There are many who had a similar baptism into the world of Irish League football and there are many who carry it on generation after generation through their children. I chose not to but that's my prerogative. Looking back at the past and the brown tobacco smoke filled drinking dens, there was a strange warmth and solidarity amongst those who supported the Glens. In the constant up-hill battle to be better than Linfield there was an odd form of love that required booze to bring it forth. In tiny bars and clubs men sat with arms around each other’s shoulders singing songs about Glentoran triumphs of the past. For a couple of hours each Saturday they all shared a sense of purpose – cheering on Glentoran, hating Linfield and getting drunk.

…and as long as the drinks kept coming, the love between them kept flowing.


Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Orangefield Secondary School

1976-1980 - After being expelled from Grosvenor Grammar School in 1976, I was sent to Orangefield Boys' Secondary School. The term ‘Secondary School' seemed to openly declare itself as a lower form of institution. Less than half a mile away loomed a building that was a towering, shadowy institution of supposed finer education, class and children – my old school Grosvenor Grammar, the arch-nemesis of Orangefield Boy's High. Was Grosvenor Grammar the thing Orangefield was stating it was secondary to?

In Orangefield there was very little educating carried out - the pupils were not up for that. They wanted to play football, have a laugh, smoke cigarettes and then go home. I think the teachers within the school were satisfied as long as the kids weren't killing each other or wrecking the place. The school playground consisted of various groups of kids. The quiet kids would be chatting together while several football matches would be happening simultaneously. Some would be gathered in corners playing games of pitch and toss, and the smokers would be behind the games hall in groups sharing one cigarette between six or seven kids. Their activities would be occasionally disturbed by a fight breaking out which everyone rushed to see.

Most of the teaching staff in Orangefield gave off an air of apathy as if there was no point in educating their little ingrates. Our music teacher tried unsuccessfully many times to give our class some culture through his love of music. Our maths teacher was a depressive type who would stand in front of us looking as if he had given up on life altogether and declare "Listen boys, you just DON'T understand! Mathematics is BEAUTIFUL!" Muffled replies of "Dickhead!" and "Wanker!" could be heard around the classroom. I liked my English teacher. Many times he told us the story of seeing Led Zeppelin play live and his classroom walls were adorned with posters of the punk-rock star, Siouxsie Sioux. That made him cool in our books. The PE teacher was a really shady looking character with a bulbous red nose who insisted that all boys must have a shower after PE. He would oversee the showering proceedings from a corner of the changing room. It always unnerved me how he watched a line of young boys standing in a communal shower.

What intrigued me most about the teachers of Orangefield Boy's is how they all had their own unique styles of punishment. The maths teacher used a wooden T-square to hit the unruly ones across the bottom. He would brace himself like a golfer about to tee off and then give a full swing to deliver an agonising whack to a pupil who had forgotten to do his homework. The metal-work teacher would lock boys in a steel cage in which he kept his spare lengths of metal. He would hurl chunks of metal at the cage while shouting "WHAT ARE YOU?" at the pupil. The reply had to be "I'm a waste of space Sir!" He wasn't called ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing. The geography teacher had a thin bamboo cane to which he had fitted a metal tip for further enhanced pain. He was a fanatic Manchester United supporter and named his cane ‘Stuart Pearson’ after the centre-forward of his beloved ‘United’. His ‘joke’ being that Stuart Pearson was a striker, just like his cane. What devastating wit.

The most creative and original punishment came from the Economics teacher known as ‘wee Bart’. He was an extreme socialist who hated Grosvenor Grammar. To him it was the symbol of affluence and middle-class aspirations. Wee Bart despised Grosvenor so much he wouldn't even say its name, simply referring to it as "the institution at the gates". If you misbehaved in wee Bart's class he would order you to "go to the window and watch for the great Soviet army coming over the hill!". Doesn't sound so bad compared to the other teachers' methods of inflicting pain, but in reality it meant having your face pressed tightly against the window for the remainder of the class. It was a form of mental torture. Every so often he would shout "Are they here yet, boy?" to which you replied "no Sir". "Keep looking!" would be his retort. If you actually did take your face off the glass window wee Bart would have inflicted great pain upon you with a cane.

The Headmaster of the school had a cupboard full of instruments of what looked like torture and death. If you were sent to him for misbehaving, he would order you to go to the cupboard and "choose a cane" to be hit with. It didn't really matter which one you chose for they were all designed to hurt. I was sent to him once and it was terrifying. I opened the cupboard and there before me were various pieces resembling a museum exhibit of torture instruments. I chose a long flat wooden metre-stick and he gave me two welts across the bottom and boy, it hurt.

It seemed that most of the Orangefield teaching staff spent their days taking out their frustrations on the pupils. My science teacher once kicked my back-side so hard I was off school for three weeks with an injured tail-bone, but that was okay in 1978. He made a simple apology and that was the matter done and dusted. I will admit that I was able to go back to school after two weeks off however I chose to milk the opportunity to stay off school for as long as possible.

Orangefield Boys Secondary School was the place where I saw the death of my academic career and in return saw the beginning of my new education in smoking, drinking and being very unruly. Orangefield was a rough school, a sort of place where survival from the ‘hard men’ was at the top of my agenda. To do this I had to form a cunning survival plan which was to simply get on with everybody, and so I did. My logic being that it is more difficult to beat up someone who is genuinely being a friendly person.

And so I became friends with the different factions; the quiet ones, the ‘hard men’, the mischievous ones and the sport-lovers, the music-lovers, all except the silent kids. They were the ones who had a disturbed, lifeless gaze in their eyes. Everyone including the bullies stayed away from those kids.

My tactic of being friendly with everyone usually kept me clear of enemies which meant I was able to keep my face intact. It was hard work drifting in and out of the many personalities like a schizophrenic but I managed to become skilled at it. I could shift seamlessly from the different conversations with the various social tribes within our school. As I walked along the corridors I would meet the ‘hard-men’ and enter into their talk - "Dinger's fighting' Andy after school. He’s gonna kick his shite in…” Further down the corridor I would run into the football-mad kids - "C’mon the Glens, get into that Linfield shite..." When I ran into the music-nerds I would switch into arty mode - "heard the new Genesis album? It’s brilliant.” I was kind enough to even speak to the pair of effeminate boys who were isolated and banished from the herd for being too girly. I would speak to them about some gentle topic such as comic books. I secretly liked talking to these quieter ones as there was never any hostility in their conversations, so no one was going to get hurt.

This multiple-personality approach to school life worked a treat. I was friends with lots of kids and therefore was under the bullies’ radar of people to beat up and make life hell for. This tactic saved my skin.

The teachers were driven to distraction by some of the kids who were full of devious mischief. One boy brought in a fake bomb to cause a bomb-scare. The school would have to be evacuated while an army bomb disposal crew was called out to check the ‘device’. The ‘bomb’ was a shoe box taped up with wires hanging out of it. Inside would be a clock ticking. In the 1970s Belfast there could be no chances taken as to whether it was real or fake, so we would all be sent home. Happy days!

Once, a team of glaziers were called in to fit new glass to windows that had been broken the night before. Seeing the playground covered in glass from smashed classroom windows was a regular occurrence. As the glaziers were repairing each window my mates and I were sneaking up behind them and picking out the putty-adhesive that held was supposed to hold the windows in place. The glass was eventually falling out and smashing to the ground. This of course could have caused severe injury to some innocent child or teacher walking past – but give me a break, I was twelve years old and wanting to impress my school mates.

Due to our mischief we had caused four windows to break. The word got around that ‘Westy’ the Headmaster was on the warpath looking for the boys who had caused the windows to break. “Westy’s goin’ round smelling everybody’s hands to find out if they smell of putty!”. I immediately smelt my hands and got a strong whiff of the putty. In a state of utter panic I washed my hands numerous amounts of times but the smell just wouldn’t go away. I rubbed my hands on the muddy grass banks at the side of the school and washed my hands yet again like an obsessed anti-germ freak, but still the odour remained. I was in such a panic and fear about being caught and caned by the headmaster that for a moment I even considered rubbing my hands in some dog poo but we all have lines which we do not cross even at critical moments.

I sat in class waiting for the moment a messenger would walk in and announce to our teacher that “Mr Weston wants the class to go out to the playground”. That moment did arrive and our class was herded outside and ordered to line up. As we stood in line like captured war criminals we were instructed by the headmaster to hold our hands outstretched in front of us with palms facing upwards. Mr. Weston walked along the line like a military general inspecting his troops, except he was sniffing everyone’s hands. Every few boys he would yell “You!! Five steps back!!!” He had obviously smelt the putty from the boy’s hands. I waited as one by one he sniffed a line of hands and moved slowly closer to me. It was then I knew my fate. Mr. Weston eventually stood in front of me and I closed my eyes and waited for that booming voice - and it came. “You boy!! Five steps back!!!” he screamed. We each got caned across the backside that day. Harsh, but well deserved – Ouch!

For the next three years I daydreamed my way through school paying no attention to school work and my truancy had now become very regular. In my family there were no expectations from school at all. My parents saw it in a sense, like a glorified baby-sitting service - somewhere I could go during daytime while they were at work. The previous hopes they had for me when I had gained entry into Grosvenor Grammar were by now gone afet I had been expelled. I was destined to enter into an apprenticeship as an electrician, plumber or a welder in the Harland &Wolff shipyard, like the majority of males in my family therefore a good education didn’t really matter.

My last day at Orangefield was a strange affair. I was eligible to leave school before I sat my GCE exams, so that's what I did. No-one batted an eyelid, including my parents who had the view that education wasn’t important. This was working class Belfast.

For some unknown reason my last day at school happened on a Tuesday. I walked into my last ever school class and the teacher asked me "Aren’t you leaving school today?" I told him "Yes, after this class that’s me finished sir". He replied with "On you go then, enjoy your life"... and that was that. I had left school forever, with not an exam to show for the entire experience.

As I made my last walk home from Orangefield Boys' I wrestled with the concept of never having to go back. I debated internally, "What, NEVER? I have actually LEFT school?
My fifteen year old head struggled to comprehend how the next stage for me was life as a working man, out in that big scary world….

Monday, 11 October 2010

Brian McDermott

1973 - Brian McDermott was in my class in Nettlefield Primary School. He disappeared from a playground in Ormeau Park, Belfast on September 2, 1973. A week later his mutilated torso and arm were recovered from the River Lagan.

This sent shock waves around not only the Ravenhill area but the entire country. Yes, we murdered people in the names of the "Keep Ulster British" or "Free Ireland" causes, but children were never harmed deliberately, or particularly in this way. The murder of my classmate Brian reignited the memories of Ian Brady’s and Myra Hyndley's brutal murders of five children in Greater Manchester during the 1960s.

Many people in our area spoke of "Devil-Worshippers" and "Witchcraft" being the cause of the grotesque murder of my school-pal. All children were kept under close scrutiny by parents. No child was seen in the Ormeau Park for weeks after this traumatic event. I remember a strange happening about one week before Brian went missing;

As I meandered home from a day at Nettlefield Primary School, kicking a stone the whole way back to our house. It was a thing I did practically every day. The challenge was to see if I could kick the object the whole way home without losing it under a car or down a manhole. As I was engrossed in my stone-kicking task a car stopped alongside me and the window was wound down. A man leaned across the seat and asked me; "D'ya know where Gotha Street is son?"
I replied, "it's just up there” I pointed along London Road.

"Could you get in and show me where it is?" he asked. This request scared me.
"C’mon, get in and show me" he said as he opened the passenger door.
I really didn't want to get into this stranger's car, but I feared saying the word "no" to adults. This came from my father, who would completely go off in a rage if I ever said "no" to him or my mother. Unwillingly I climbed into the stranger's car, ignoring the voice in my head screaming at me “DON’T GET IN THAT CAR!

The stranger drove up London Road and as we approached Gotha Street I said "It's just here on the right". The man ignored me and drove in silence past Gotha Street. By now I was petrified. Why was he driving on? Why was he saying nothing? I formed and executed a very quick plan. When he reached the end of London Road, I opened the car door and dived out tumbling onto the safety of the street. The stranger in the car sped away.

One week later Brian McDermott went missing from the same area. The two events may not have been connected, but I’m eternally relieved that I didn’t find out what this stranger wanted with me as he silently drove me away from my home.

Why oh why do adults hurt children?

Monday, 5 July 2010

Primary School Love Affairs

1969 - School life and I didn’t get on much. I could never really get used to the ordered days with the same routine. I was a daydreamer who spent his time in the farthest reaches of his imagination. Sitting in the same seat at the same desk, beside the same kids, in the same classroom, with the same teacher every day, was not for me. I couldn’t wait for the three o’clock school bell to ring to get out into the world and have fun.

There were three things that kept me going through the ordeal of school: My mates, playing football and gaining the attentions of the girls in my class. I was after the ladies, even at five years old, the age when I first fell in love.

Her name was Diane and I walked home from Nettlefield Primary School with her every day. We would walk hand in hand the way young lovers do and when we arrived at her house I would give her a puckered-lip kiss and say goodbye. Diane lived at number 32 and so did I. With such synchronicity as that it could be nothing else but love. That was until I met Julie the following year. Julie was a real woman - six years old with the body of a woman of seven.
The relationship with Julie was much more intense than with Diane to the point that one day at lunchtime in the Nettlefield playground, we decided to get married. We were two six year olds madly in love so marriage was the next obvious step. After all, those are the steps you are supposed to take - Girlfriend, Marriage and Family.

Julie and I set a date for the wedding – it was to be the following day after school. We went back into the classroom after lunch break and informed the whole class we were getting married tomorrow outside Ravenhill Presbyterian Church at the top of my street. Everyone in the class seemed very excited for us, two young lovers about to embark on the journey of married life.

The following day was the big day. Julie's friend Ellen got fully into the spirit of the occasion and came into school wearing an actual bridesmaid’s dress instead of her school uniform. The teacher asked what on earth she was doing and Ellen informed her that she was going to be bridesmaid at Ian and Julie's wedding. The teacher went into a fit of laughter and wished us all well for the big day. Ellen sat in class the whole day doing her school work in her bridesmaid dress.

After school the wedding party consisting of about ten kids from our school class walked to Ravenhill Presbyterian Church and climbed over the railings and into the church grounds. There were a few yelps and screams as many of us caught body parts on the railings, but we all made it eventually made it into the grounds without too much injury.

The wedding party walked up a set of steps to the front door of the church which was locked. This was to be however an open air service. One of the boys Noel was given the job of being the minister, a role he took very serious. He coughed and began the ceremony. Noel asked me in his most serious voice, "d'ya take this wumman to be yer wife?" I replied "Ah do". He asked Julie if she’d like to marry me and she replied in a posh voice “Ay do”. I gave Julie a ring as a symbol of my true love and devotion – it was a ring with a monster’s head on it and was a treasured possession of mine. She on the other hand went one better by giving me her grandfather's actual wedding ring which she had stolen from her mother's treasured possessions.

The ring had to be returned a couple of days later when Julie's mother discovered that her dead father's wedding ring had been given away to a six-year old boy...and so ended our marriage, but to us it was two fantastic days as husband and wife.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Bourneville, Lucozade and Arthur

1975 - I was very envious of my mate and his family. They just seemed so normal in comparison to my family of hillbilly freaks. The head of their household was Arthur, a conservative Ulsterman who had an array of quirks.

I remember often watching the ‘Benny Hill Show' in my mate's house along with Arthur. As semi-naked, busty, blonde women chased Benny Hill across the TV screen in classic 1970s sexist British comedy style, I would hear Arthur making lustful "phwoooaaarrrr", "mmmm...." noises at the titillating sight. The ladies in French maid costumes seemed to bring forth a rampant lion that lay underneath Arthur’s Ulster Protestant Christian exterior.

Arthur loved Bournville chocolate bars and Lucozade. Every night he would treat himself to six squares (it was always six squares) of Bourneville placed on a small plate and a glass of Lucozade. He would settle down to watch TV with his treat. This odd little nightly ritual seemed to comfort him.

Arthur was a fan of music. He sat alone for hours listening to reel-to-reel tapes of 'Big Band' artists. He loved the music of Syd Lawrence, Joe Loss, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. Arthur sat in a deep meditative state as he immersed himself in the Music. If someone came into the room and disturbed his state of Nirvana he would shout at them. My father loved music too, but not like wee Arthur – he was a connoisseur. While my father listened and sang along to sentimental Country-Music drivel Arthur would be swinging in his front room to big-band jive music.

It was from his front room that wee Arthur operated. When he wasn’t listening to his music, he would be spying on the neighbours through his venetian blinds. Arthur had derogatory names for almost everyone in his street. He would peer through the window and comment on everyone who passed by while giving a running commentary;

Here comes oul’ no-neck. Look at him! LOOK AT HIM! Bloody good-for-nothing!" he would declare at the man passing.
"Look at her! She hasn't had a bath in weeks! Dirty Cow!" he would say about another.

Arthur would let out chuckles at his own remarks. This activity was a huge source of entertainment for him.

Arthur was a man who took the quiet life and eventually a golden handshake when he retired. He was a family man who worked ‘all his days’. Like many other Ulstermen, he kept things internal, locking away a secret side to him. This was the Protestant way. Keep it all in and give very little away about the person you really are. In Belfast it was the women who did the talking and crying while the men hid behind a mask of silence.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Mr Connor's Three Thumbs

1973 - Mr Connor lived across the street from me. He had three thumbs. On one hand he had a second thumb growing out of the first. To me it looked both grotesque and fascinating. I used to tell my friends about Mr Connor and his three thumbs but they would never believe me no matter how much I tried to convince them.

To prove my point I would use some cunning. I kicked my football into Mr Connor's back garden and bring my mates with me to knock on his front door. I would ask for Mr Connor to retrieve my ball and apologise for disturbing him.

Mr Connor was a nice man who always obliged when I offered an apology. He would troop off to his back garden to look for the football. When he returned and held out the ball to me he revealed his three thumbs. I would yell in excitement "LOOK! Ah told ye! Th'ee Thumbs!!!" My mates would ogle at Mr Connor and his three thumbs like it was an atrocity exhibition from a freak-show.

"Eeeaauuuggghhh!!!" shouted one boy.
"No way, he HAS th'ee thumbs!!!" exclaimed another.

We would retreat with Mr Connor shaking his fist and shouting abuse at us. I was however, left with the satisfaction of saying to my disbelieving mates "I told ye’ so!"

In 1973 it didn't take much to make a nine year old feel on top of the world.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Andy's Ruck-Sack

1981 - During the early 1980s I was going on a day-trip to Dublin. I called at my friend Andy’s house to ask him if I could borrow his ruck-sack to take with me. The conversation went as follows;

Me: "Can I borrow your ruck-sack?"
Andy: "No problem. I'll go and get it for you"
Andy went away and in a few minutes returned. He handed me the ruck-sack.
Andy: "Where are you going?"
Me: "Dublin"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.
Andy: "Not with my ruck-sack you're not!"
Me: "Very funny."
I snatched the ruck-sack back from him.
Andy: "You're not takin' my ruck-sack to Dublin!"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.
Me: "Yeah, very funny"
I snatched the ruck-sack back from him.
Andy: "I'm serious! You're not takin' my ruck-sack to that Fenian hell hole!"
Andy snatched his ruck-sack back from me.

It was then I realised he wasn't joking.

Me: "You're actually being serious aren't you?"
Andy: "Yes!"

I exploded into fits of laughter at him.

Me: "What's the ruck-sack going to come back from Dublin with? Fenian disease?
Andy: "Look, I don't want my ruck-sack anywhere near Dublin!"

I looked at Andy fuming about the thought of me taking some part of his belongings to the capital city of the Republic of Ireland.

"You're nuts my friend" I told him. I walked away to leave Andy alone with his madness.

THAT is how bad some people had been inflicted with the disease of the troubles.

A Moment of Clarity

(1976) - I was eleven years old in class in Euston Street Primary School. On an average afternoon I sat at my desk, with my head resting on my hands, drifting off into the canyons of my imagination. That was me - a daydreamer. Many of my school reports carried the same comment; "a capable pupil, but has the tendency to daydream". There was always a part of me that never felt part of the world. I was a stranger in a strange land. My favourite place to be in the whole world was being lost in my wandering thoughts. This would take me to a secret place and one that felt like home. This is the place where I could be me and not just another protestant kid from Belfast who grew into a world of hatred of Catholics.

As I stared out of the classroom window at the red-brick houses facing us, the chirping of the teacher's voice gradually faded into the horizon of yet another daydream. Then it suddenly hit me. Like a cold hard slap around the face. The slaps my ma’ would give me when I did something wrong. I was whacked around the face with a sudden moment of clarity about how the troubles in Northern Ireland were a con.

I knew kids who hated Catholics but they didn’t know why. The fenians were the baddies and we were the goodies. I watched those armed with a paint pot and a 5 inch brush dobbing slogans on walls, too young to understand what those slogans actually meant. My mates and I stood on street corners singing songs about being ‘in the Woodstock Tartan’. All along I hadn’t a clue who or what the Woodstock Tartan was. To us the ‘Tartan’ were Prods and had something to do with protecting our area from the bad Catholics. That’s all that mattered. In the schoolyard we would sing songs about 'shoving a poker up the Pope's hole'. In our area, politics seemed to be all about hating the taigs and nothing more.

As the afternoon sun blazed in through the classroom window my daydream took me to see how the unrest in my country was also a cover to mask the inner turmoil of those who fought in our little war, like bitterly arguing siblings. Growing up amidst the continuous war between my ma and da I knew all about conflict and how much people can hate each other, hate themselves and hate the world around them.

The two opposing sides in Northern Ireland had a reason for fighting but I realised how many of those who argued bitterly for their side had often not thought things through for themselves. They simply followed tradition according to which area they grew up in.

In Ulster it was a simple rule of "I'm a Protestant therefore I want to be British and like football, therefore I MUST support Glasgow Rangers. I also don’t trust Catholics."


"I'm a Catholic therefore I want to see a united Ireland, and I like football, therefore I MUST support Glasgow Celtic. I also don’t trust Protestants."

Why? - Because that's what you’re supposed to do. It’s what everyone else does. Don’t argue, just do it.

For a brief moment I was nudged out of my philosophical wanderings by the sound of Noel’s voice. He was reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ aloud to the class. Tom was balancing on a garden fence to impress the girl of his dreams, Becky Thatcher. Soon the gentleness of Noel’s eleven year old voice faded and I returned to solving Ulster’s problems in my head…

I came to the conclusion of my wanderings and ramblings.

When all is said and done whichever flag billows in the wind above Belfast City Hall, be it red, white and blue or green, white and gold it ultimately doesn’t matter. People will still function as they have always done. They will work, eat, sleep and play as they did no matter what the colours of that flag. Life will go on.

It was at that moment I decided to not be a part of this Prod versus Taig conflict which seemed to be mostly about hating anyone who disagreed with you.

My school reports were right for noticing I was a daydreamer. I needed a refuge from my life as the ragged Huckleberry Finn kid with the yellow teeth and holes in his socks. The world of dreams was the place where I sorted things out, once and for all.


Thursday, 18 February 2010

Jimmy's Settee

Jimmy was an old boy who was a surrogate parent to my mate Mark. We all knew him as Mark’s grandfather but were never sure if he real was not. Mark lived mostly with old Jimmy in his small red-brick terraced house and I used to love going round to visit. The old boy would allow us to congregate in his house, smoke cigarettes and listen to his crude humorous tales of his wild drunken nights out. When Jimmy was not looking I would steal an apple from his fruit bowl which sat on a mahogany table in the middle of his tiny living room. On a few occasions I would eat all of the apples. He gave me the name ‘Applehead’ as a result.

"Who ate all of my fuckin' apples?" he would shout. I would look sheepishly at Jimmy.

"Applehead! I might have known!” he would shout at me followed by a hearty laugh.

In this house life was great. We could smoke, curse and feel free. It was almost Heaven.

One Sunday morning Mark and I were passing time in Jimmy’s sitting room. He asked us to help him rearrange the furniture around in his front room. Jimmy told us that he felt like a change of scenery and moving chairs and a settee would help see the world from a different side of the room. Keeping Jimmy sweet was our objective. By doing so he would reward us by letting us use his house to gather in.

With our ulterior motive in mind of having a warm and dry smoking room we got stuck into helping the old boy move the settee, chairs and china cabinet. We moved the furniture around the room a few times until he was finally happy with the arrangement. After the job was done Jimmy went to the pub while Mark and I sat in his house listening to music, eating his food and smoking. This was much better than the alternative of standing at a street corner in the biting cold.

It was early evening when Jimmy returned home completely drunk. He stumbled into the room and greeted us with an announcement;

"I'm steamin’! FULL!”

No surprises there I thought. Mark and I watched as Jimmy went to sit on his settee, in the position it had been before we moved it earlier. In a moment that seemed to happen in slow-motion, Jimmy sat down on nothing. He fell backwards and cracked his head off the china cabinet. Jimmy let out a yell as he lay on the floor with us trying to pull his large round frame upright while trying not to laugh.

"Who moved my fuckin' settee?" yelled Jimmy clenching his head.

"You did!" we replied.

"I did?"

"Yes! You're a stupid oul' bollox!" we both replied in unison.

"For fucks sake, why didn't you tell me?!" shouted Jimmy.

He looked totally bewildered as he massaged the rapidly growing bump on the top of his head.

Jimmy Ringland was a legend. If you never met him you lost out.