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.