By age ten I’d heard shots ring out and seen the injuries caused by bullets and beatings. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the scene outside Glencairn’s community centre on Forthriver Road on an overcast morning in October 1976. Before heading to school I polished off my cornflakes and, kicking and protesting as ever, had my face wiped by Granny, who spat on a handkerchief and assaulted my grubby mush with it. ‘Come here, ye dirty wee hallion!’ she shouted as she grabbed me for the unwanted daily routine. Struggle over, I let myself out of the front door and walked the few doors to Uncle Sam’s to call for Wee Sam.
He too had succumbed to the humiliating last-minute face scrub from Aunt Gerry and as we trudged down his garden path and on to the main road through the estate we muttered darkly about our so-called elders and betters.
We’d only walked a few yards when up ahead we noticed a gathering of green and grey Land Rovers and Saracen armoured cars, which we nicknamed ‘Pigs’. That meant only one thing that the RUC and the army were out in force. To the side stood a small knot of onlookers, mostly women on their way to school, the wee ones holding their hands. This group had turned away from the scene and were speaking together. As we approached, we heard murmurs from the women and the occasional shaking of a scarfed head.
‘Fuckin’ hell,’ said Wee Sam, wide-eyed, ‘somebody musta gotten kilt up there. Look at all the peelers around.’
A knot of fear tightened in my stomach as we approached the scene. Despite being on supposedly ‘safe’ Loyalist territory, grim-faced soldiers gripped their SLRs tightly while uniformed police from the RUC spoke into radios and plain-clothes detectives huddled in a group. Judging by the mood hanging over the community centre on this cold, grey morning, we were about to see something unprecedented.
Maybe we should’ve walked on by. But we were just wee boys. Filled with childish curiosity we rubbernecked all the time. ‘C’mon,’ said Sam, grabbing me by the sleeve of my snorkel jacket, ‘let’s see what’s going on!’
We ducked past the group of clucking housewives and right up to a tall soldier in full battledress. ‘Hey mister, what’s happenin’?’ I asked. ‘Is somebody dead?’
The soldier looked down on us, not unkindly. We weren’t his enemy. Maybe he viewed similar aged boys from the Catholic areas of Ardoyne and Andersonstown in a different way, but up here we were the good guys. Supposedly.
‘If I were you two I’d bugger off to school pronto,’ he said, in a northern English voice. ‘There’s nowt to look at here.’
He was wrong. There was something to look at, lying just a couple of yards from where he stood. Behind the soldier’s back, down the grassy bank at the back of the community centre – UDA controlled, of course, and a social gathering point for those in the estate – we saw a pair of shoe-clad feet sticking out at angles from beneath a brown woollen blanket. This covered the undisputable shape of a body, and surrounding it was thick, red, jellified blood. Pints of the stuff that had spread across the grass on which the body lay, creating a semi-frozen scene of complete horror.
‘Jesus!’ I said, stepping back a couple of paces from the soldier. ‘What the fuck happened here?’
‘Never you mind,’ he said. ‘Kids your age shouldn’t be seeing things like this. And watch your language, lad.’
I ignored him and looked again. By now, a typical Belfast morning drizzle had begun to fall, covering the blanket in a fine mist. I craned my neck, and could just about see a tuft of dark, bloodstained hair sticking out of the top. Even at this age I knew that a single bullet, or even a couple of them, couldn’t have created such a mess. Rooted to the spot, I hadn’t noticed that Wee Sam was no longer by my side. I turned to see him talking animatedly to a boy of about our age standing beside his mum and went over. Wee Sam grabbed my sleeve, pulling me into the conversation.
‘Jimmy’s ma says it’s the Butchers who’s done him,’ he whispered, pointing to the body. ‘They carved him up wi’ knives and a’ that. Just cos he’s a Catholic.’
I couldn’t believe it. I knew Provies killed Loyalists, and we killed them. That’s how it was. In my mind that was all fair. We were under siege, and at war. But to have murdered this man just because he was a Catholic? And to have used knives on him, literally carving him up like a piece of meat? I knew something about this was terribly, terribly wrong and I wondered why God in all his wisdom would let such things happen. Was this the point when I started to lose faith in a Saviour who seemed to ignore the suffering of mortal men?
For weeks previously we’d heard whispers across Glencairn about a gang called the ‘Butchers’, or the ‘Shankill Butchers’. We knew they were Loyalist UVF paramilitaries, but seemingly nothing like the uncles, cousins and friends who aligned themselves to the UDA or UVF, collecting for prisoners and running shebeens, illegal drinking clubs that brought in funds. Those we knew to be UDA members, hardened as they were to whatever was going on across Belfast, seemed to be talking about this particular set of murders with a mixture of awe and horror.
As time went on, it became clear that the ‘Butchers’ killings had little connection with everyday Loyalism and more to do with the psychopathic condition of the gang’s members. It appeared they were using a black taxi to pick up their victims – innocent people on their way home – before kidnapping and murdering them. But they were also killing Protestants too; people who’d fallen foul of their notorious leader, Lenny Murphy. In short, they enjoyed killing for killing’s sake, and in mid-1970s Northern Ireland the opportunity to destroy lives at random, for any scrap of a reason, was unprecedented and easy. Life was cheap and victims would be forgotten about by the next day as another victim took their place.
The politics of Loyalist feuding was way over my head back then, but like everyone else I came to regard the Butchers as nothing short of bogeymen. They invaded my dreams and seemed to be pursuing me during my waking hours. On late summer nights and into the dark nights of autumn 1976, a group of us would gather at the bottom of the estate, playing around the woods and streams that gave this area a kind of weird beauty in the midst of all the mayhem. When darkness fell and it was time to go home, I would walk alone back up the estate, listening out in mortal fear for the distinctive sound of a wailing diesel engine climbing the hill behind me that could only be a Belfast black taxi. I was only just ten by then , but I had no reason to believe the Butchers wouldn’t grab me and rip me apart with their specially sharpened knives, just for the fun of it.
These guys meant business. The body Wee Sam and I saw was the first of four that were dumped on Glencairn by the Butchers, along with others murdered in Loyalist feuds. Some months after we came upon the scene in Forthriver Road, we were playing in and around a building site in ‘the Link’, a new part of Glencairn still under construction. Several houses were being created and while we shouldn’t have been there, nobody was stopping us from running wild around the estate and doing what we liked. We’d poked about one particular half-built house and were about to leave when I spotted what appeared to be words written on an unplastered wall.
‘Gi’e us a match, Sam,’ I said, ‘I wanna see what’s written up there.’
Sam produced a box of matches from his jeans pocket and I struck one, holding it close to the wall. The colour drained from my face as I read the words ‘Help me’. They had been written in blood. Dropping the match we legged it out of there and ran all the way home.
I told Dad, but if I expected him to be shocked I was just as surprised when his reaction was indifference. ‘Just leave well, alone, John,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You’re better off out of it.’
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See: Shankill Butchers
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