A Child of the Troubles? Part One

In which Bronagh sees some fires and a man bleeds on some roses.

On some kind of official level, I may be classified as a “Child of the Troubles”. “The Troubles” of course, being that sweet, sorry-to-bother-you-with-this, term for what would – in other places – be a civil war. That is, the period from about 1965 to 1995/2006 (whatever your allegiance lets you believe), when Northern Ireland was defined by running battles between all kinds of paramilitaries vs., the British Army or other paramilitaries.

I’m not here to tell anyone what The Troubles were about, who was right and who was wrong. I can certainly point you in the direction of some people with very strong opinions on this matter but I am a Politics graduate and therefore fall into the category of “the more you know, the less you understand”. If you want to know all about it, ask a Belfast taxi driver.

This is more a view into a corner of life in Northern Ireland at this time – my life (well, it is my blog). Born in 1967, my life has been fairly defined by what went out during this period. Before I delve into it anymore, I have to say that my family and I have been relatively unscathed by what went on. Many, many others were nowhere near as lucky. I’m not going to claim post-traumatic stress or anything like it. It was my life at the time and I didn’t know any different. With hindsight, it wasn’t normal or anything but, well, normal – very over-rated as a state, isn’t it?

Part one, then…

From 1969 to 1978, I grew up in Holywood, about six miles outside Belfast. On Belfast Lough, very pretty and a nice place. We walked to school, cycled our bikes, lost dogs and generally did what children do. My father was – and still is – a weaver at the Folk Museum. My mother was at that time, a nurse. We saw little or nothing of the violence sweeping Northern Ireland at that time although I remember seeing fires across the water on the north side of Belfast – these were the houses on fire in Bombay Street as entire streets underwent ethnic cleansing (of course it wasn’t called that then – but it’s a lovely, cathartic phrase, don’t you think?).

This was the peak of the most randomly-violent times of The Troubles but we saw little or none. We went into Belfast to buy my brother a Bionic Man for his birthday once. I remember walking through the plastic tunnels that surrounded the city centre, being searched before being allowed in. We had to come home early because my brother needed to pee and there were no public toilets in town. Public toilets were too easy a place to leave an explosive device and shops and restaurants wouldn’t let you use theirs in case you did just that.

The Troubles then – to this time – had done nothing more than add some inconvenience to our lives.

We lived in a little mixed area. That is, Catholics and Protestants lived together. It’s a tiny fact that wouldn’t even cause me to comment if I lived in Southampton or Iowa. Two of our neighbours were policemen although it became obvious to even kids that we weren’t supposed to know that or tell anyone. Policemen were “legitimate targets”, who pretended to be civil servants and whose wives had to dry their distinctive work shirts indoors in case the wrong person saw them.

So slowly, insidiously, what went on outside our street began to creep in.

A bomb scare on a train stopped opposite our house and we all had to leave. All except my Dad who refused to go in case anyone (he meant the army but didn’t say so) stole anything from the house.

My mother visited prisoners in Long Kesh and some of our ornaments were things like Celtic crosses carved from turf.

A man was shot in the knees in a tunnel under the railtracks and crawled into the garden of a house at the end of our street. The lady had to wash his blood off her roses the next day.

My mum cleaned her ornaments on a newspaper that had a picture of two girls tied to a lamp-post, tarred and feathered. They had dated soldiers, which I learnt was a bad thing.

We travelled to Dublin to see our relatives on the day of a ferocious bombing in the city centre. As the train pulled into Connolly Street station, spirals of smoke rose up from the middle of town. Dozens died. We had to get a bus the rest of the way to my Granny’s house.

Most of the time, we just played Charlie’s Angels, Letters in Your Name and 1-2-3 Red Lights. Once in a while, we ran up the hill to watch convoys of army tear down the motorway. My first football team were Sunderland because they won the FA Cup and there was a free picture of them in the Sunday paper. My mother wasn’t allowed to vote as she was born in the Republic of Ireland.

In 1978, we moved to Newry.