In which many bread vans are hijacked
Newry, Northern Ireland is known for many things. It would be a cliché to say “not all of them good” but it would be true. One of the major sites of civil rights marches and disturbances in the late 60s, during the 70s and 80s it was the most bombed town in Europe. It has seen terrible atrocities, major loss of life and sectarian acts that still cause hatreds to run deep.
Let me see if I can drag something up to recommend it… nowadays it’s a major shopping town but in the so-called “land of a thousand shopping centres” that doesn’t exactly mark it out. No, sorry, that’s it.
Everyone complains about their home town, don’t they? Thing is though, Newry is not my home town and it’s the kind of place that you can live in for 20 years and still be an outsider. Everyone knows everyone else, their family, their genealogy and their dirty laundry. You can’t break in and so I only stayed as long as I had to and left when I was 18.
But what was it like there during the Troubles? We moved to Newry in 1978. It was already well-established as a Republican stronghold with 90% of the town Catholic and its close proximity to the border with the Republic of Ireland and the “bandit country” of south Armagh. A long way from the nice middle-class Holywood we had lived in.
And my family was almost immediately plunged into The Troubles for real. Where it had previously only been fires across the lough and blood on roses, now it was shooting at night, burnt-out shops and a heavy military presence.
What was that like for a child? Like all children, we adapted. At 11, I was still a child really so we made friends and played up the road, where we could cycle on the flat space left by a bombed petrol station. We used the searchlights of the helicopters to pretend we were on stage. We stepped over the soldier crouched in our doorway and got on with life.
All paramilitary groups rely on propaganda for recruitment and the myth of a united Ireland has a lot of glamour. As Catholics we were inherently sympathetic to the “cause” although we were not a political family. War spares no-one though – everyone has to take a side. My father and mother had experienced prejudice, there were family stories that reflected the treatment many Catholics had from the army and the police. We were on that side and that was it. And so, images of Republican murals, protest slogans and portraits of Irish heroes made their way onto my walls alongside the pop and film stars with no distinction between the two for me.
In 1980, a knock on the door plunged our family into the war in an irreversible way.
Saturday night… the snooker was on the TV and we were all watching (this being the 80s). When the knock came, I went to the door and when I didn’t recognise the man through the spyhole, I went to get my Daddy. Daddy went out, stayed there for a minute and came back into the sitting room with the man. And the man’s gun. The IRA had arrived and they wanted our home.
The man looked normal. You wouldn’t look at him in the street. He explained what he was and that they needed our house. He just asked that we all stay calm and that we would be safe. He looked around the room and noticed that my sister was not there – she was having a bath. He knew every member of our family. He knew.
The doorbell went and the rest of them came into the house. Maybe six or seven in total. They used scarves to cover their faces – why they did that when the first one didn’t, I don’t know. The leader explained that they needed our house to launch an attack on the police. He talked to my Dad about some young fellas that had recently been shot by the army near Lurgan. He knew my Dad was from that area. He knew.
They got busy, running up and down our stairs. A couple stayed with us in the living room – one of them chatted to my brother about school – they went to the same school although it was hard to tell how old he was, I would say he wasn’t out of there long. We made some of them, that wanted it, a cup of tea. A cup of tea! Pretty hard to drink through a scarf.
Our house was a three storey house on a corner. My bedroom was at the top. As the night went on, the leader explained to my Dad that we would all have to sleep in the same room but they let us collect what we needed from our rooms so up I went to get my nightie. There in my room, a huge tripod holding a massive gun and rounds of ammo on my bed. I got out of there fast!
Before we were all moved into a lower bedroom, the leader said to my sister and me that he had noticed the posters and political quotes on the walls of our bedrooms and told us that there were plenty of people we could talk to if we were ever interested in taking our thoughts any further. I was 13 and my sister was 11.
We spent the night in my brother’s bedroom. My Dad snored all night and we were all in sleeping bags so I can’t say it was the best night’s sleep ever. In the early morning we heard movement. We all knew that a police patrol sat in their car outside our house most Sunday mornings and it seemed certain that was the target but as the morning passed nothing happened. Finally, someone opened the door and told us they were going. Nothing had happened. The police car hadn’t turned up that morning. Nobody died (you know how people say that? Well, nobody died). And they left. And they told us to not tell anyone and we didn’t.
The following year, 1981, was the year of the major hunger strike in the Maze prison. 10 men starved themselves to death, most famous being Bobby Sands who was elected to the British parliament while on hunger strike. When one prisoner, Raymond McCreesh from our area died, anarchy erupted. I remember my Mum telling us that from the hospital she worked in, they watched people hijack bread vans, delivery trucks, anything and run into the local estates loaded with goodies. Girls came into school wearing black arm bands. On the day of his funeral, it took seven hours for the cortège to get from the prison to his home, an hour’s journey normally. School was empty. The whole thing was a major propaganda coup for the IRA – as martyrs usually are for any cause and quite a few of my friends or people I knew signed up as a result.
In 1985, as I sat in our house one evening, the police station around the corner came under mortar attack. Nine police officers died. The streets all around our house were sealed off. Being Newry, we didn’t talk to the police – they weren’t served in shops and anyone working in a police station was considered a “legitimate target” all over Northern Ireland. But I remember looking out at the police officers standing guard at the corner of our house that night. And I remember one was older and one was young. And my sister and I made them a cup of tea and some toast and although we checked the street before to make sure nobody spotted us, we brought it over. The older man was really nice, the younger one was terrified and in shock. That event did more to humanize the police and army for me than anything else. Somebody’s son, indeed.
I left Newry in 1986. By that stage, I figure, three or four friends had died, another three or four were in prison – lives effectively destroyed. My Dad had lost the job we moved to Newry for and the place was a mess. I hated it and what it represented – the destruction of normal life and of life itself for many people. The bitterness, the anger and the bigotry. I’m sure there are places just like it in Croatia, Palestine, South Africa, Iraq.