A Child of the Troubles brought up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and his twenty five year search for his MISSING Catholic Mother.
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Remembering the Innocent Victims
This blog and my story are dedicated to the memory of all innocent victims of the Troubles, regardless of political or religious background, including members of the British army and other security force personnel whom died as a direct result of the Troubles.
Life’s hard enough without having to worry that you will be killed or abused because you worship a different god or follow a different political system.
Life is for living – So live & let live
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My life growing up in the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and my life long search for my “Missing” catholic mother.
Read my amazing story in the Guardian Newspaper
Click here: Our family, divided by the Troubles
See below for first eight chapters of my amazing story.
Since the Troubles began in the late sixties over three thousand five hundred people have lost their lives and countless more have been injured and scarred, both emotionally and physically by the events that played out in the streets of Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. For almost three decades Northern Ireland descended into a furnace of sectarian slaughter and the legacy of those years will hunt the memory of those who lived through them and hopefully the conscience of the paramilitaries who orchestrated the rivers of blood.
Below are the first few chapters of my autobiography Belfast Child, which tells the story of my life growing up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast during the worse years of the Troubles and my secret twenty five year search for my missing Catholic mother.
My parents were a rare thing in 1960,s Belfast and ignoring the political and civil disharmony between the two warring communities, they crossed the religious barriers and against the wishes of their families and local communities they got married.
Dad came from an ultra loyalist family from the Shankill Road area of Belfast and Mum came from a Republican family from the nationalist Falls Road. It was a marriage doomed from the start and one day mum simply disappeared from our lives and we never heard from her or any of her family again. As I grew older and I began to think more and more about mum, but when I asked questions about her to family members I was told she was dead and not to mention her again. So that’s what I did, I put her out of my mind.
When I was 13 years old my beloved father died and I desperately prayed that mum would return and we could all live as a family again. But that never happened and my siblings and I were split up and went to live with various members of my dad’s family on the Shankill road.
The communities from The Shankill , The Falls and surrounding areas arguable suffered most during the Troubles , as not only were we on the “frontline” of the sectarian divide , but the paramilitaries from both sides lived and operated among us and spent their time killing each other and anyone else who got in the way. This is the backdrop to my story and my search for mum.
Times have much changed since my youth and the turbulent early years of the troubles and life is much better and less uncertain for the Children of Belfast today. Hopefully we can all put the past behind us and build a lasting peace and learn to live side by side and respect each other’s history and culture.
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”
― Maya Angelou
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By John Chambers
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Boarding the Virgin train at London Euston I ignored the day trippers and business travellers and took my seat opposite my brother David and we settled in for the three hour journey north to Preston, in Lancashire. I had been to Preston a few times on business trips previously and to be honest it hadn’t really left an impression on me. But the thought of what or who was waiting for me at the other end now filled me with apprehension and anxiety.
I was going to confront the ghosts of my past.
It was mid January and the UK was in the grip of the coldest winter in decades and outside a heavy snow was falling and the landscape was covered in a thick blanket of white. Looking out the window I watched silently as the train gathered speed and the country scenery flashed past in a blurry haze. David was snoring quietly and I was glad of the silence, I had to prepare myself for what was to come.
I took the letter out of my pocket and read the words for the thousandth time.
The letter had been given to my sister back in Belfast and had eventually found its way to me in London.
I had spent most of my life believing my mother was dead and knowing next to nothing about her. But to my amazement when I was a teenager I had learnt that she was in fact not dead, but alive and well, but due to the nature of my parents breakup and my father’s family being ultra Loyalist from the Shankill Road in Loyalist West Belfast she had been denied access to us and her memory and all traces of her had been erased from our lives’. As I grew older I began trying to find out more about my mother , but this was impossible due to that fact my father’s family refused to discuss her and I was told to let sleeping dogs sleep. When I was in my late teens I began a secret search for mum and I approached the Salvation Army and other agencies who I thought could help me find her, But due to lack of information ( I didn’t even know her maiden name) there was nothing they could do.
Now a year after receiving the letter and speaking with Philomena in Boston I was on train travelling to Preston to meet my mother for the first time in over 25 years and face the ghosts of my past
MUM & DAD
My father John was born in 1944 and was the first of five sons and one daughter born to my grandparents, John and Suzy Chambers, who were both hard core loyalists from the Sandy Row area of Belfast. Dad’s early years were typical of working class Protestants of the time, high unemployment and poverty dominated the area he lived in and home was in a council house in the heartlands of protestant West Belfast among other hard core loyalists. Granda was lucky and like other protestant men from the area worked in the shipyard, which at the time was controlled by protestant unions and blatant in its discrimination against employing Catholics. To the Catholic population of Northern Ireland the shipyard was a symbol of unionist control and a constant reminder that they were treated as second-class citizens in a Unionist run state. Being the oldest dad held a special place in both my grandparents hearts and like his siblings he was brought up to practice and respect the protestant culture and traditions which controlled all aspects of their daily lives. Everything was going well until he met and fell in love with my Mother Sally, a Catholic from the heartlands of republican Belfast.
My mother was a Catholic from a hard core republican family from the Falls Road area of Belfast and when her and my father got together both families opposed the relationship from the start. My grandfather disowned my father and both he and mum were ostracised for daring to cross the religious divide. Although tension and paranoia between the two communities was mounting, at this time mixed marriages did take place but were always controversial and scorned upon by both communities. Centuries of conflict between the two religions had left scars on both sides and it was always expected that when you got married, you would marry someone from your own religion. It was a marriage doomed from the start and although mum and dad tried their hardest to make it work, it was impossible for them to escape the sectarian conflict raging around them.
I was born on the 16th July 1966 and the first three years of my life were spent living in the Grosvenor Road area in the west of the city which was one of the few areas of Belfast were Catholics and Protestants could live side by side in relative harmony. Sadly this was to change within the coming years as the beginning of the modern troubles signalled all out war between the two communities of Northern Ireland and Belfast faced the biggest population shift since the Second World War. Relationships between the two communities of Northern Ireland had reached boiling point and within three years the Troubles reached a point of no return.
I was the third of four children and the first boy. My sister Margaret was born shortly after my parents married in 1962. David the youngest was born in September 1968. In the early days mum and dad tried to shield us from the hatred that surrounded us and in an effort to bridge the gap gave Margaret and David Catholic names. In the tribal world of Belfast names signified which religious group you came from and my Grandfather was outraged that two of his grandchildren were given Catholic names. Hostilities continued between the two families and although my grandparents loved us, they could never accept that we had a Catholic mother. Dad’s brothers were all ultra loyalist’s and there were attacks on my mother’s family, which made it impossible for mum and dad to disassociate them from the sectarian conflict surrounding them.
As if mum and dad didn’t have enough problems it was discovered when I was eighteen months old that I had osteomyelitis, a bone disease which led to me spending the next two years of my life in hospital undergoing a total of sixteen operations as the doctors fought to save my right leg. Little did I know at the time that I was to spend the rest of my life in and out of hospital having various operations on my leg and a host of other medical problems.
The first five years of my life I spent more time in hospital than at home with the family and was shielded from the violent events that would ultimately lead to the break-up of my parents marriage and our family. My earliest memories are of me at about three in hospital, surrounded by other children, doctors and nurses. When I first went into hospital I missed my family terribly and cried myself to sleep feeling very sorry for myself. But as time went on and I realized that I hadn’t been abandoned and mum, dad and other members of the family came to see me almost every day, I began to adapt to my life in the children’s ward. Due to the nature of my disease I had to constantly have plaster of Paris on both my legs and was unable to walk and was confined to my bed unless one of the nurses lifted me up and placed me on a chair or on the floor where I could play with the other children and crawl around until my heart was content. If I was really lucky I would be placed in this little four-wheeled cart and I would push myself around the ward for hours, getting myself into as much mischief as possible.
One day a new student nurse called Brown came to work on the ward and I immediately fell in love with her and decided she could be my foster mother in hospital. I was spending so much time away from my own mother and family that I became confused and cried more when Nurse Brown left the ward at the end of her shift, than I did when my own mother left after visiting me. On her days off Nurse Brown would come into the ward, get a wheelchair and take me on long walks in the park and hospital surroundings, feeding the birds and watching the squirrels fight.
Sometimes she would take me to her living quarters and make us both sandwiches and tea. I became so attached to Nurse Brown that when I was occasionally allowed home for the weekend to visit my family I would scream the place down and demand to be allowed to stay in the ward with Nurse Brown.
Although I was much too young to understand the complexities of my parents marriage I began to sense that something was not right when dad and mum began visiting me separately, with members of their own families in tow. This went on for some time and I gradually learned to accept it as normal.
Then one weekend when I was due to go home for a visit, mum turned up at the hospital early with one of her sisters and bundled me into a waiting taxi. At first I was surprised to find Margaret, Jean and David also in the car, but when mum said we were going on holiday I became excited began asking loads of questions.
“Where are we going? How long are we going for? Where’s dad?
Mum told me that dad would not be coming with us and I thought nothing more of it. Unbeknown to me, dad and mum had finally parted and there was no turning back. The strain of their mixed marriage in the brutal environment of West Belfast had become too much for them to cope with and led to various arguments and the eventual end of their marriage.
Mum took us straight to the airport and the five of us boarded a plane for London. Once we were in London a friend of mum’s picked us up from the airport and drove us to a flat in Stockwell. As a child the whole thing very exciting and we were blissfully unaware of the significance of it all. Within a few days dad arrived on the doorstep with his brothers to take us back to Belfast. There was nothing mum could do about it and although we didn’t know it at the time , when we left mum crying after us on the door step that day , it was to be the last time any of us would ever see or have any contact with mum or any of her family again , for the next 25 years.
From that moment onwards mum ceased to exist in our lives and through time we all came to believe she was dead and it was better not to talk about her. We all loved dad hugely and after mum left, he became the centre of our universe and we all worshipped the ground he walked on. Having spent so much time in hospital , I was used to being away from mum and the family and I think this may have eased the pain of a three year old losing his mother. It must have affected my sisters more, because they were older than me and had a longer time to bond with mum. My brother David was only one at the time and has lived his entire life not knowing what it is like to have a mother and share her love.
Life went on and gradually mum became a distant memory of my first three years on earth and before long I had learned to live without her in my life. When we arrived back in Belfast I was brought back to hospital to continue my treatment and dad brought the rest of the children home to begin a new life without mum. I was four at the time and having spent so much time away from mum in hospital, for the first few years after she had gone I hardly missed her presence at all, but this would change through time. Beside’s I had Nurse Brown and all my adopted family in the hospital to keep me company. I used to pretend mum was still at home with the rest of the family and was too busy to visit me. But as I grew older the pain of not having her in my life tore me apart and I missed her terribly.
On a sunny day in 1970 my osteomyelitis was finally given the all clear and I was on my way home from the hospital, for a couple of years at least. I was so heartbroken to leave Nurse Brown, that on the day of my discharge I hid in a broom cupboard, in the childish belief if they couldn’t find me they would let me stay in the children’s ward with Nurse Brown. The day before dad had explained to me that we had a new home and that‘s where I would be going to live when I left hospital. He explained that we had moved to Glencairn to be near his family, so that our grandmother could help look after us. We all loved my grandmother dearly and although I was grief stricken at the thought of leaving Nurse Brown, I was also excited at the thought of living in a new home and being surrounded by my grandparents and cousins. When I had first gone into hospital we had lived in a mixed area of the city and spent as much time with our Catholic family on mum’s side, as we had with dad’s family. When mum and dad had first parted dad forbade any of mum’s family from visiting me in hospital and as a result when they parted for good we were never to meet any of our Catholic relatives again. The division in my family reflected the religious segregation that was ripping Northern Ireland apart. At four years old my political and religious destination was decided, as I left the children’s ward and headed home to my new life without mum in Glencairn.
Glencairn was a violent, ultra loyalist estate in the West of the city built in the sixties and was controlled by the UDA, the largest protestant paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. The estate is cut into the mountains and is surrounded by glens and forest and from the top you can look down over Belfast City, with the giant cranes Samson and Goliath dominating the horizon of the east of the city. On my first day home I fell in love with Glencairn and I knew immediately that I would like living there. Previously we had lived in a built up area of Belfast and now I was surrounded by vast open spaces and fields and mountains as far as the eye could see. There was only one road into Glencairn and due to this isolation it became a dumping ground for loyalist murder squads
Our new house was on the Forthriver Road, half way up the estate and two minutes walk from the local and only shopping complex in Glencairn, which was made up of a VG , a Chinese takeaway , paper shop , a wine lodge and a UDA drinking club called Grouchos, which dad worked in. Home for us was a ground floor house in a two story maisonette, with two bedrooms between five of us. It was a bit cramped and when I first came out of hospital I got to sleep with dad in his double bed and the others shared the other room. But we were all happy and I was excited about all the sudden changes in my young life. Just facing our house was St. Andrews church, which was to play a huge role in my future life,
Granny and Granddad lived just around the corner from our place and Granny practically lived in our house as she helped dad look after us. About 10 minutes away from our place, at the top of the estate dad’s two younger brothers and their wives and children lived. Like a lot of deprived area’s of Belfast, Glencairn was a tribal community and the Protestant people of the estate stuck together through thick and thin with their hatred of their Catholic counter parts throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland with a passion.
But the best thing for me was dad’s dog Shep, a temperamental Alsatian, who terrorised the area. We quickly became inseparable and before long we were the best of friend’s. After unpacking my things and settling me in, Dad and Granny called me into the front room and asked me to sit down. They explained that mum had gone away and that I would never see her again. If anyone were to ever ask where she was, I was simply to say she had died and leave it at that. Also from then on I was to call Gerard David and Mary Margaret. Due to the ultra Loyalist nature of Glencairn and the people we now lived amongst, all traces of our Catholic heritage and mum had to be eradicated from our past and we were told never to mention mum or her family again. This was done also for our own safety, because had the truth been known we would have been ostracised and picked on.
Within a short space of time I had really settled in and for the first time in my short life I was spending a lot of time with dad’s side of the family and I was getting to know my brother and sisters properly. Due to my leg, I got to sleep with dad in his huge double bed and every night he would carry me upstairs because, due to my caliper’s I was still unable to get up them by myself. Whist I had been in hospital I was surrounded by other children in wheelchairs, plaster and caliper’s and I had thought nothing of it. But now back at home with all those trees and never ending fields I began to feel self conscious about my caliper and the way I walked. When I had to visit the physiotherapist I pushed myself as hard as possible in my efforts to strengthen my leg muscles, so I could climb trees and run with the other kids. But I was getting stronger everyday and within a year of leaving hospital I could walk and run unaided, although I was to have a limp for the rest of my life and suffer multiple fractures due to the weak bones in my bad leg.
As the weakling of the family I got special attention from Dad and my Grandparents and during my first few months at home dad took a lot of time off work as a gardener to look after me and help me settle into my new life. Dad had always been a special person in my tiny world , but now that I was home and spending so much time with him , he soon became the centre of my universe and I must have been a right nuisance as I followed him around like a love sick puppy getting under his feet all the time. Within a few weeks after coming home I was enrolled in the local school, Fernhill which was just behind our home on the perimeters of the park and glens. I was lucky in that aspect that my sisters and brother and all my cousin’s attended the same school and from my first day there I loved every minute I spent there. After school we would all head off to the vast Glencairn park and when we got bored with playing on the swings or climbing trees we would go down the glen to the river and play for hours following the river as far as we could and catching rainbow trout with pieces of string attached to branches and our bare hands. It was an idyllic place to grow up and had it not been for the absence of mum and the madness going on around us, it could have been the perfect childhood.
Before moving to Glencairn I had not been aware that Dad, along with his brother was a member of the UDA. This was nothing out of the ordinary, as most of the adult men and many of the women in Glencairn and the surrounding areas were members of one of the many loyalist paramilitary groups. The UDA played a very active role within the community and if someone had a problem that needed solving or were short of cash and needed a loan they would turn to the UDA. Like a lot of the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, the UDA were looked upon as protectors of the people they governed. Although he was a member of the UDA, like many others dad did not get involved with the military actions of the active units and was a pacifist who hated violence. He had been a practising Christian for most of his teenage years.
Dad played a very active role within the UDA and apart from running the local UDA club, Grouchos, he was responsible for setting up and running the Glencairn Accordion band. From my point of view this was excellent. My sisters and cousins were all members of the band, the younger ones played the triangle or symbols and then like my sisters Margaret and Jean, working their way up the ranks until they were taught how to play the accordion. The band was the pride of Glencairn and won many competitions throughout Northern Ireland. They practiced on Thursday nights and I use to go with dad up to the practice hall at the top of the estate and sit mesmerised in the corner, surrounded by 40 females of various ages. There was one girl who played the accordion and I feel in love with her the first time I set eyes on her. Of course she never knew as the girls went through the rehearsals, playing various loyalist tunes and anthems, I would sing along and pretend to be the leader of the band and march up and down the hall. The girls’ found this absolutely hilarious and in order to gain some control back, dad would tell me off and I would have to sit quietly in the corner again, until a personal favourite of mine was played and I would be off again. During the protestant marching season and the build up to the 12th, the most important day in the loyalist calendar, the band was hired to march with various orange lodges throughout Northern Ireland. On the day of the march our house would be in complete chaos as my sisters and dad got themselves dressed in the uniforms for the march. Granny would come round to help and gradually all our cousins would arrive with various instruments and get in some last minute practice. All the members of the band would meet outside the shops and a large crowd always gathered to see them off. I would almost be bursting with pride as they all fell in together and led by dad would start marching down the Glencairn Road towards the meeting point on the Shankill Road. David and I would follow the band down to the bottom of the road and wave them off before heading home for a snack and then out to play until tea time. The band would normally arrive back in the estate between six and seven and we would wait eagerly near the Road until we could hear the distant sound of them approaching and rush to greet them. When we finally got home granny would prepare dinner and after eating we would all sit down and watch telly, exhausted by the day’s events.
At this stage of my life I was as happy and normal as an eight –year old boy could be in my circumstances and was blissfully unaware that my life was so different from others. Life with dad and the others was a happy life and I now had a routine to my life that was missing when I was in hospital. I still occasionally thought of Nurse Brown and missed her, but I was to see her again in the not too distant future. On Tuesday David and I went to the BB and Sunday school on Sunday’s. Although I really believed that god had created the earth and sacrificed his only son for the good of mankind, my god had become a Protestant god and I did not love my Catholic counterparts. Reverend Lewis, our vicar, was a patient and tolerant man but he occasionally became exasperated at our hardcore Protestant approach to religion and tried hard to teach us the concept of love, not hate.
Although dad did go to church himself it was expected of us kids to attend and religion played a very important role in my early life and teenage years. Also I think dad liked to get us all out of the house for a while, so he could have some peace and quiet time to himself and a rest from looking after us. Sometime’s dad would be on sentry duty outside the UDA club and David and I would go and visit him on the way home. In these early years I used to think of mum only occasionally and once when I asked granny about her she made it clear that mum was gone forever and I was not to mention her again and forget all about her. So I did exactly that and pushed mum to the back of my mind and got on with my new exciting life in Glencairn.
One day after weeks of anticipation Margaret’s cat Smoky give birth to a little of five kittens. We were all allowed into Margaret’s bedroom to watch the birth, including dad’s dog; my best friend Shep, who was told off a few times by Smoky for getting a little too close to the action.
After letting David, Shep and I have a supervised look at the five kittens Margaret banished us from the labour ward, as she needed to spend time alone with her five new charges. I was very thoughtful and to be honest jealous of Margaret having five brand new kittens to her name and I wanted some for myself. There was obviously no quick way for me to find five brand new kittens for myself, so I decided there and then that Shep would have to give birth to five puppies for me before the day was out. The major problem there was that Shep was a he! This bit of fundamental biological necessity wasn’t going to put me off.
After a quick strategy plan with David we headed to our secret den in the park, with an unexpected Shep in tow. My plan was a simple one, I needed a miracle and I was going to ask God to help. Reverend Lewis had instilled in us a firm believe that if you wanted and needed something bad enough god would answer your prayers. Surely god and baby Jesus in their wisdom would recognize the importance of me having five puppies for myself before the end of the day. When we got to the den Shep was more than happy to lay down on the grass and rub his belly and wait for the miracle that god was about to perform. I had little knowledge of how kittens were born and how miracles worked, but I was not to be put off. After a chat with David and stroking Shep’s belly with what I felt was a miracle stroke, I lead David behind a nearby bush, sank to my knees and began a marathon prayer to god and Jesus, outlining the desperate importance of Shep giving birth and me having my puppies. Needless to say nothing happened and after about an hour David and Shep were beginning to give me strange looks and were obviously bored and becoming alarmed at my enthusiasm for the lord’s intervention and after a while I too got bored and disillusioned and decided to throw the towel in… for now at least. It was obvious to me that god in his wisdom had decided not to grant me a miracle today but this did not diminish my faith and I would continue to seek gods help in all matters big and small.
PROUND TO BE A PROD
By 1972 ,when I was 6 years old I had all but forgotten or at least suppressed my early years with mum and her Catholic side of the family. I started to become very aware of the fact that I was Protestant and that the Catholic people of Northern Ireland were my enemies. The troubles were reaching fever pitch as the IRA waged a savage war against the British government and Army. Various loyalist paramilitaries groups fought a brutal war against the IRA, Catholic populations and each other. To be Protestant in Northern Ireland was akin to being British in an occupied state and the Protestant people were fiercely loyal to their British roots and despised the IRA and all republicans for their unjust war against the British crown. Whilst the Protestants’ clung to their British sovereigntry and took pride in the union, their Catholic counterparts felt abandoned and 2nd class citizens in a unionist run state. An attack on the crown was an attack on the Protestant people of the North and the Protestant paramilitaries waged an indiscriminate war against the IRA and the Catholic population. Many innocent Catholic’s and Protestant’s became targets of psychopathic sectarian murder squads. Sectarian murder was almost a daily occurrence and the killings on both side perpetuated the hatred between the two ever-warring communities.
The two tribes of Northern Ireland view each other with suspicion and hatred and the death toll mounted with the blood of mainly innocent people. The grief of their families and communities fuelled the hatred. By the time I had reached my ninth birthday I was deeply proud of my Protestant heritage and took pride in the culture and traditions of the Protestant way of life. Like the vast majority of my peers I hated and mistrusted the veil Catholics and their IRA godfathers, who were responsible for the ongoing war in Northern Ireland. The view that the Protestant paramilitaries only existed to protect us from the IRA was universally accepted and in every area of my day-to-day life I was reminded that I was a Loyalist and therefore all Catholics were the enemy. But somewhere deep in my mind a little voice kept reminding me that my mum was a Catholic and this thought disgusted me. I felt I had a dirty little secret and had to hide it from everyone. This knowledge developed into hatred and before long I had rejected all feelings and emotions I had held for my mother and she became a dirty fenian in my childish mind. This was to gradually change as I grew older and I began to realise that my Catholic counterparts were really no different than me. Besides my mother was a Catholic, so therefore they couldn’t all be bad, could they?
Even the innocence of assembly in school was dominated by the divisions between us Protestants and our Catholic counterparts and hatred bred unabated. During morning assembly when it came to hymn singing, as the whole school was gathered in the presence of god, the service would turn into a vocal protest against the IRA and all things Irish. We hated the Irish and anything to do with them. When Mr Wilson, the bald headmaster stood to take assembly a silent anthem was sang among all those present.
Our wee school’s a good wee school: it’s made of sticks and plaster
The only thing wrong with it, is the baldly headed master
He goes to church on Saturday: he goes to church on Sunday
To pray to god, to give him strength
To put up with us on Monday
Even the words to a classic assembly hymn took on a very different meaning to us and further underlined our hatred of the IRA and all things Irish.
Give me bullets in my gun, keep it firing
Give me bullets in my gun I pray
Give me bullets in my gun and we’ll shoot them everyone
The members of the IRA
Sing Osanna, Sin Osanna…………
Whether Mr Wilson knew or cared what we were singing was never clear to me, but I do know he was a timid little man and always looked about nervously when he had to address the assembly. At one time a rumour spread around the school that he might be a Catholic and some of the older children took to calling him names behind his back and spreading rumours about him. On reflection this was probably why he always looked so uncomfortable.
One day after school David, Shep and I were playing on the hill outside our house when we heard a commotion coming from the direction of the shops. We quickly legged it down the hill and made our way in the direction of the noise to see what was going on. A large crowd were gathering around a woman and there was a lot of shouting and shoving and the woman who was the centre of attention looked very distressed and was crying and screaming. A couple of men dragged the woman to a lamp post on the front of the road and as she screamed, one of them produced a rope from somewhere and she was tied to the lamp post. The crowd had now worked themselves into frenzy and people were pushing and shoving each other as they verbally abused the woman and spat at her. Suddenly a UDA man stepped forward with a pair of scissors cut off most of her hair and threw it on the ground beside her feet. Before I knew what was happening a tin of red paint had appeared from somewhere and thrown over the woman and someone had produced a bag of feather’s which were thrown over her head and body and stuck all over her. When the crowd had finished someone stepped forward and placed a piece of cardboard on string around her neck with the words “Fenian Lover” painted in large red paint. Although I didn’t or couldn’t comprehend it at the time her only crime was that she had been seeing a Catholic and in the environment we now lived in this was a capital sin. The Catholics were our sworn enemies and to cross the religious barrier carried brutal consequences. Tar and Feathering of those who transgressed the rules was a common accordance in the estate and to the vast majority of people living there, it was an accepted part of life and a just punishment. Gradually the crowd began to move a away and David, Shep and I moved back a little and stared at the woman and in our childhood innocence we found the whole thing very exciting and were completely oblivious to the brutality of it all. We watched with anticipation as the crowd started to disperse and after someone had untied and released the woman, she hurried off and like red Indians we waiting for a few minutes and then followed the trail of red footprints straight to her front door and the agony that dwelled behind it.
As a child it seemed like harmless fun to me and the others, but the injustice of it still echoes through my mind and I knew that it wasn’t right. But I was living among the ultra loyalist ghettos of west Belfast and I had to toe the line. These were my people, weren’t they and to be different raised suspicion and there was no way I could ever reveal that my mother was a catholic and I was a dirty little half Fenian.
The Glorious 12th
Like the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland apart from my Birthday, Christmas and our family holiday to Ballyferris, the 12th of July was the biggest and most important day of the year. In 1663 the Protestant King Billy defeated the Catholic King James at the Battle of Boyne and changed the course of Irish history forever. Three hundred years later on the 12th of July every year Northern Ireland came to a standstill as the Protestant majority took to the streets and celebrated the most sacred day in the Protestant calendar. As a child I loved the whole 12th experience and counted the days down until the great day arrived. For weeks before the 12th all the children, with the help of adults would gather all sorts of burnable material for the bonfire that would be lit the night before, to signal the beginning of the celebrations. After school we would rush home, have something to eat and head of in the hunt for wood and whatever else we could find that would burn. Sometimes there would be dozens of us going back and forth to the gel carrying whatever we could find and placing it on the ever growing bonfire in the middle of the square. In Glencairn alone there would be about five or six bonfires and it was always very competitive to see which area could collect the most wood and have the biggest bonfire. Competition between the various parts of the estate were fierce and as the eleventh grew closer, the older boys would be allowed to stay out all night with suitable adults and guard the wood from raids from those at the top or bottom of the estate. As the day grew closer, the excitement was almost tangible and in the early evening sunshine we would gather around the ever-growing tower of wood and play until darkness. There was always a hunt, the command centre and if we were lucky the older boys would let us go inside and wait until they returned from another hunt for wood. One day when there was only myself and a few of the other younger children guarding the wood , the boys from the top of the estate came charging through the square in a bare faced raid on our precious wood. There were only about five of us and there was about fifteen of them and they were all older than us and there was little we could do but stand by and watch as they made off with their precious bounty. Taking control I told David to run as fast as he could and find the rest of our gang. Picking up stones from the ground I began pelting the enemy with missiles. The others soon joined in and before long the enemy had to duck and hide as we threw everything we could find at them. But we were well out numbered and it was only a matter of time before they had over powered us and decided to take me prisoner, as I seemed to be in charge.
Panic and terror washed over me as I was lead away to the enemy camp at the top of the estate. To add insult to injury a boy named Y forced me to help him carry a door stolen from our bonfire. I was threatened with a dig in the face if I tried to run away or do anything stupid, so I decided self preservation was the best course of action and was a model prisoner. As we marched in single file towards the top of the estate and the enemy bonfire, I wondered with dread what fate awaited me when we arrived there. A few weeks before John Jackson had also been captured in a raid and when he was finally set free he had a black eye and a busted lip. As I marched on all sorts of thoughts of pain and torture were going through my mind, when suddenly I heard the sound of running feet and raised voices. As I turned I was delighted to see my brother and about ten of our gang running towards us. Panic set into the enemy as they realized what was happening and some of them dropped what they were carrying and fled. Before I knew what was happening my rescuers had caught up with us and a massive fight broke out between the two warring sides. I dropped my end of the door I was carrying and jumped on Y terrorising him with a blood curdling scream that rose from deep within me. I was free! The noise was deafening as the two sides fought a running battle, but reinforcements had arrived from our gang and before long we had beaten the enemy into retreat. When they had all fled, we gathered up our stolen wood and sang as we made our way back to our camp.
I was a hero and that night guarding the bonfire I wallowed as all those present praised my heroic deeds of the day and I now had access to the hut whenever I liked.
As the great day drew closer our house was always in a state of complete chaos. Dad was busy making sure everything was ready for the bands biggest and most important march of the year. There were over forty people in the band and they all had to have uniforms that fitted perfectly and instruments that were at the peak of their working year. While dad got on with that, Granny took us down town and rigged us out with new clothes and shoes for the big day. Image was everything and regardless of how scruffy and dirty we looked the rest of the year, on the 12th of July we would be immaculately turned out. Granny had an old friend called Isaac who lived in Ballysillan and although he was half blind, deaf and always drunk, he had in his day been a competent barber and Granny saw no reason not to continue sending me and David over to Isaac whenever a hair cut was in order, even though he had been retired for over thirty years. Besides he only charged £1.50 and as money was always tight it made perfect sense. Unfortunately for us he would give us a cut that would have shamed a corpse and eventually I came up with the idea that we should cut each other’s hair and pocket the money for ourselves.
These plans went well for a few months until one-day granny give us the money to go and get our hairs cut. When we got back, Granny was stood by the door waiting for us, which was most unusual and asked us had Isaac cut our hair? When we answered yes, she asked us how he was. By now we were both starting to get a bit suspicious and nervously answered ok. How were we to know that he had died the night before from a sudden heart attached and was now in the morgue having the final hair cut of his life. Needless to say Granny went ape and we got a good thumping for the lies. From that day on Granny personally escorted us to the barbers and watched with a critical eye as we had our hairs cut.
As the 12th grew closer and closer there was always an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation whilst everyone counted the days down. The various bonfires were now mountains of burnable material that towered high above the houses and flats that surrounded the area. Apart from the hundreds of bands and orange lodge’s from Northern Ireland that would be marching on the day, dozen’s more would travel over from Scotland, Mainland England and as far afield as Canada & Australia. This was the most sacred day in the Loyalist calendar. Loyalist’s from across the world would make the pilgrimage back to Northern Ireland to celebrate their culture and age old traditions. Even at nine years old I felt a tremendous sense of pride and loyalty and passion at the Protestant culture and traditions that governed my daily life in Loyalist West Belfast. I was no different from any other child from a working class Protestant family in Northern Ireland. Although unlike my peers I had a secret Catholic mother.
Like all other Loyalist areas of Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland Glencairn was awash with Loyalist flags, red, white and blue bunting, murals and countless houses had Union Jacks and Red Hand of Ulster flag’s flying proudly from the front. As the twelfth of July approached this visual proclamation of Protestant pride took on a new meaning and the paving stones would be painted red, white and blue whilst almost every house in the estate flew a Loyalist or Protestant flag of some description. As a child this added to the sense of excitement for me and I took this as a sign of the glorious party that everyone would take part in to celebrate the twelfth.
When the 11th of July finally arrived Granny would come round to our house first thing and sort dad and us all out and make sure we had enough food to see us over the holiday period. We would be almost bursting with excitement and as soon as breakfast was over, David, Shep and I were out the door and heading towards the bonfire, where we would meet up with our mates and spend the day collecting last minute material for the fire and generally playing around. As evening approached adults would gradually start to gather around the bonfire and the celebrations would get in to full swing. Loud Loyalist music would be blaring from various houses around the square and as the night wore on more and more people would gather and the whole square came alive with the sound of laughter and people enjoying themselves. Everybody took part in the celebrations and the whole community mucked in to make sure the occasion was really special and a night to remember. Local women would prepare loads and loads of food for the party and this would be distributed throughout the day to anyone who needed a bite to eat. As the evening wore on the music got louder, the adults would become very loud and funny as the drink kicked in and as darkness engulfed Belfast the time to light the children’s bonfire would arrive. Finally when everyone was in place, to cries of delight from the gathered crowds, an Effie of the pope was placed on the top of the bonfire. On this night more than any other, the two communities of Northern Ireland were divided more than ever, as the Protestant majority noisily celebrated its supremacy over the Catholic minority. Surrounded by all my family and friends I watched in awe as the bonfire was lit and the flames, slowly at first, then faster licked their way up towards the top and the pope. As the flames grew higher and higher and finally reached the pope and engulfed him in flames, screams of joy rang out through the summer’s nights and echoed around the estate and Protestant Northern Ireland. Shouts of encouragement egged the flames on until finally the pope disintegrated in front of our eyes and we all took great joy from the fact the he was obviously suffering a terrible death.
As grew older & wiser my hatred of the pope and all things Catholic diminished
We had killed and burned to cinders the father of the hated Catholic Church and her people and we sang and yelled with pleasure as the ritual the stirred in us. As the fire burned the crackle of the wood and the spit of the flames filled the air and children would dance round the fire, laughing and singing with the adults until it was time for bed. Eventually Granny would come and find David, Shep and me and bring us home in protest to bed. As soon as we were settled down she would go out into the square again and David and I would climb out of bed and watch from our bedroom window, the antics of the drunken adults as they sang and danced the night away around the burning bonfire.
First thing next morning Granny would be round at the crack of dawn and yell for us to get up as she busied herself making everyone a full Ulster Fry and getting us ready. Before long the house was in complete chaos as Granny washed and fed us and made sure we were smartly turned out for the day. As the morning wore on members of the band would arrive for last minute preparation and before long the whole street was out and about, as the band nervously got in a few last minutes of practice. At about eight thirty the whole band would start to gather outside the shops and take up their places. By now the route out of the estate was lined with hundreds of people, regardless of age or hangovers, who had come to see them off. When everyone was in place dad took up his position at the right of the procession and after one last check shouted, “March” and they would strike up a tune and begin to march. Every year a loyal crowd of followers would fall in beside them and accompany them on the 26 mile march to the field. Much to my annoyance I was too young to be allowed to go with them and I longed for the day when I would be old enough. As we stood on the kerb watching them go my heart was full of pride as I watched dad in his uniform lead them down the Road and out of the estate. When they were out of sight we would all travel down to Ormeau Road, where hundreds of bands and Orange men would meet before making their way to the field. Tens of thousands lined the route and as a child it seemed to me the whole world had gathered to celebrate with 12th of July. Our family always sat outside the garage on the lower Ormeau road and watched as hundred of bands, of all shapes and colours, lead thousands of bowler hatted Orangemen and women to the field.
Throughout Northern Ireland dozens of similar parades were taking place, but the march in Belfast was always by far the biggest and the most important of the day. We watched with mounting excitement as various bands passed and waited with baited breath for dad’s band to come into view, so we could cheer them on.
Each band would be attached to an Orange lodge that marched in front of them all the way to the field. They all had a unique uniform that extinguished them from the other bands marching. The hardcore Loyalist and paramilitary flute bands always got the loudest cheers and when a talented leader came into view everyone watched with nervous anticipation as he done various tricks with his pole, flinging it high into the sky, before catching it on the way down and immediately throwing it over his neck or under his legs before going into an routine.. Although dad’s band was an accordion band and we all took great pride in them being part of the parade, the flute and hardcore Loyalist bands were the crowds favourite and when they played a familiar tune huge cheers arose from the gathered crowd and people would join in and sing a long at the top of their voices until the band passed and another came into view. I always loved the sound of the Lambeg drums as they made their way to where we were standing and their mournful tunes drifted far over our heads and echoed through the streets of Belfast, as a warning to the Catholic people that today was our day and we were the masters of Northern Ireland. A sea of colour washed past as band after band marched by us on their way to the field. Apart from local and famous flute bands getting the loudest cheers , bands from the Shankill Road brought the loudest cheers of encouragement and joy , these were our people, come to our shore to support us in our never ending war against the IRA and Catholic people and we made sure they knew we appreciated their commitment. When dad’s band finally came into sight a huge cheer rang out from all of us and those among the spectators from Glencairn and the surrounding areas. As they passed us we would call dad’s name and when he and the other’s from the band noticed us they would all turn and salute us as they marched past. I almost burst with pride as I watched them move off and disappear in to the distance and always regretted that I was not going with them. The parade took about two hours to pass us and when it was all over, Granny would take us home. Exhausted from shouting and singing after dinner we would while away the time until 17:30, when we would go back to town to cheer them on their homeward journey from the field. When it was all over there would always be lots of parties in the estate as we clung desperately to the day and never wanted it to end. By the time we eventually got to bed I would be counting down the days until next year and the time I was old enough to take part in the parade and go all the way to the mystical field with dad and the rest of the band. Sleep came easily and I dreamt I was the leader of one of the more famous bands and the best leader in the whole wide world.
Every year on the 13th July the entire Chambers clan, aunties, uncles, grandparents, cousin’s, close friends and an assortment of animals would descend on Ballyferris Caravan Park to start the annual holidays. Ballyferris is a small seaside town on the east coast of County Down and like all other aspects of our life it was a Protestant town and a favourite destination for Protestants throughout Belfast and the Shankill road area. It was like a home from home and we all loved and looked forward to our yearly visits there. In the early years we never had a car and would travel down on the bus or train, depending on how much money we had. We must have looked like a Sunday school outing as 9 adults shepherded over a dozen kids through the centre of Belfast towards the train or bus station. When we finally arrived in Ballyferris we would all help unpack the luggage and settle into various caravans that stood side by side looking out towards the sea. There were that many of us that it must have looked as though we had taken over the whole caravan site and the other children always sought us out as they wanted to become part of our massive gang. There was a huge green in the centre of the site and at every opportunity two teams were rustled together and a football match would get under way. I used to love it if I got picked to play on the same side as dad and other members of the family and the rest of the family cheered on from the touchline. I dreamt that I was George Best, playing for Manchester United. When we weren’t playing football or flying our kites David, wee Sam , Pickle and me would go down to the beach in search of crabs and other sea life and if they were lucky to survive being captured , we would bring them up to the green and race them for packets of sweets and crisps etc. Once wee Sam and I got separated from the other as we climbed further and further over the rocks until we were right by the sea’s edge. We lost all sense of time as we cast our crab lines out as far as possible in our quest to catch the biggest crab. Gradually it started to rain and as it began to fall heavier and heavier we decided to pack up and head back to the caravan with our bucket of nervous crabs. As we turned to leave we noticed with mounting panic that the tide had come in and we were completely surrounded by the rising sea water. Our frantic cries finally caught the attention of a man walking his dog on the beach and before long the whole family and most of the other people staying at the caravan site were gathered at the edge of the water telling us not to move and the coastguards were on their way. Panic turned to excitement as a dot appeared in the distance sea and the coast boat came slowly into view. Wee Sam and I were pleased as punch as the boat drew up and the coastguard helped us into the boat. As the boat made its way to the beach we waved like royalty to the gathered crowds on the beachfront. Sadly our joy was short lived as when we arrived on the beach we got a severe ticking off from our parents and any other adult who felt like having a go. Not that we let this spoil our new found fame and at every opportunity for the rest of the holiday we boasted to our peers about our daring rescue by the coast guard from the jaws of certain death.
In the evening if the weather was good we would all gather as much food and drink as we could carry and go down to the beach to have a BBQ or picnic. We would collect wood from the beach and before long we would have a fire going and cook baked potatoes and roast sausages round the edge. As darkness rolled in we would sit around the fire singing Loyalist song and telling stories and before long I would fall asleep on dad’s knee and the next thing I knew I was waking up the next morning, in the caravan to the sounds and smells of Granny making breakfast. The best part of the whole holiday for me and the other children was when we would all be gathered up and went to Millisle , a seaside town about two miles away with a huge funfair. Sometime’s when the weather was really good we would walk to Millisle along the beach front and as it came into view we would race over the sand dunes in a scramble to see who could get there first. The day would be spent going from one ride to another and although I loved it all, I enjoyed the dodgem cars best of all and I drove like a kamikaze pilot as I crashed into dad and anyone else I could catch. Dad always seemed to enjoy our time at the funfair and he took part in loads of different games until he had won us all a present of some description. After exhausting ourselves on the rides we would join our grandparents and others on the beach for a picnic and if we were really lucky we were treated to fish and chips from one of the many chippies along the seas front. After dinner dad and his brothers would go for a pint in one of the local bars and we kids would amuse ourselves by burying each other in the sand and paddling by the water’s edge. It was always with great sadness for me when these days came to an end and I would feel heartbroken as we packed up our things for the bus back to the caravan site. I never wanted these holidays to end and when the day came that we would be travelling back to Belfast I would take long walks along the beach and through the caravan site and considered hiding until everyone else had left and I could stay there forever. Dad and the others were used to my wander lust and a search party was soon despatched to find me and bring me back into the fold. As the bus pulled away from the caravan site, taking us home, I fought to hold back my tears as I said a silent goodbye to Ballyferris and the bright lights of the fun fair.
Years later as a teenager, with my life in tatters and on the brink of suicide, I ran away from home and ended up back in Ballyferris. But this time I was all alone and it was mid winter, snowing, freezing cold and the funfair was in complete darkness. And my beloved father was dead.
Surrounded by Madness
Back in Belfast life went on as normal as possible in the circumstance’s and although my early memories of mum occasionally drifted into my mind, gradually mum became a vague memory of my childhood world. Once, a boy at school asked me where my mother was and I remember being embarrassed that I couldn’t answer him. That afternoon when I got home from school and Granny was cooking dinner I asked her where my mum was and she became quiet and asked me to go and fetch the others. When we were all sat down Granny told us that mum had died in car crash and she was now in heaven and we should pray for her. That was it, the only explanation we were ever given and from that day on no one ever really mentioned mum to us again. The few times I did mention her to the others I was told to be quiet and stop causing trouble and that is exactly what I done. There was a massive hole in my life and although deep down I had an instinctive feeling that mum wasn’t dead, I accepted the explanation given to us. In spite of everything I was a very happy child and loved living in Glencairn with dad and the others, surrounded by family and friends and the people of the estate, who were like an extended family. Like most inner city area’s of Belfast the community we lived in was very tribal and everyone was viewed as members of an extended family. The dividing line between the people of the estate was the paramilitary groups and which one you and your family were connected too. Most families in the estate were in one way or another connected to one of the main loyalist paramilitary groups; the UDA and UVF and other splinter groups.
Like the vast majority of people in Glencairn dad and his brothers were members of the UDA and as such were respected throughout the estate. Although the UVF had a stronghold on the Shankill and Woodvale Road, many members lived in Glencairn and on the whole the various paramilitary groups lived side by side, apart from when violent feuds would erupt between them and they would turn their attention from the war against the IRA and other republican groups, towards each other and an orgy of death and destruction would ensue as they sorted out their differences. Eventually as the death toll mounted, local community leaders, politicians and paramilitary leaders would intervene to end the blood bath and before long stability was restored and the loyalist paramilitaries would once again turn their attention to the IRA and other republican targets and continue the never ending war for control of Northern Ireland.
Although I was much too young to fully understand the complexities of the sectarian war raging around me, I understood it was a war between us and the Republicans and like everyone else I celebrated when news of another IRA or Nationalist assassination came through and commiserated when news of the death of a Protestant paramilitary or civilian hit the streets
Our lives were dominated by the brutal violence that surrounded us and we learnt to take the carnage in our stride. Everyday there was a bloody reminder of the destruction going on around us and although we were safe from the IRA in Glencairn, there was no escaping the madness that was going on around us. Day in day out the news reported the latest causalities of war, British soldiers blown to pieces by IRA bombs, innocent people wiped out, either victims because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply because of their religion. Whenever a local paramilitary died in action or became an assassination victim to a Republican death squad, the whole community would feel the loss and an atmosphere of hatred and the want for revenge would hang over the whole Loyalist community. The funerals were always massive affairs and the roads would be lined with thousands from all over Northern Ireland, as the Loyalist population gathered to pay their respects to a son of Ulster, who had died fighting for our right to control Northern Ireland and remain part of the UK.
After the murder victim had been buried the whole of Belfast would await apprehensively in the certain knowledge that revenge was imminent and the Catholic people of the city would brace themselves for the brutal retribution that would surely come, brought on by the actions of the IRA godfathers. It was a crazy cycle of violence, but I was part of it and accepted it as normal and like all the other children around me, I longed for the day I was old enough to take up arms and join the war against the enemy, the IRA and their Nationalist supporters.
But even from an early age I felt sympathy for the many innocent Catholic’s killed by the more extreme Loyalist groups. I knew deep down that I was different, but didn’t yet know why.
Like most of the families on the estate we were living on the bread line and relied heavily on state hand-out’s to subsidise the little dad brought in through various temporary casual work. He done everything from gardening to working as a hospital porter and although we never had much, we never seemed to go without and at Xmas and birthdays we always received loads of presents. All our school uniforms were paid for by government grants and we were always on free lunches at school, which meant that we would have to queue up outside the dinner hall and wait until we were giving blue tickets which entitled us to a free lunch. Not that this bothered me at all; I was the same as 95% of the other kids who attended the school.
Although my education had been and would continue to be punctuated by my time in hospital, I really enjoyed primary school and when I look back these were among the happiest days of my young life. In the school pecking order I was neither bully nor victim and due to the size of my family and their connections I was normally left to my own devices. That’s not to say I was never involved in scraps or anything, but the few times I had come up against one of my peers I had handled myself well and word got out that I was not an easy target and it was best to leave me alone.
One day my cousin Wee Sam and I were mucking about in the school playground and as I was chasing him he accidentally knocked into Jimbo, who was one of the best fighters in our year. Although Wee Sam was also a good fighter, he rarely went looking for trouble and he tried his best to defuse the situation. But Jimbo was having none of it and a scuffle broke out between them. Before the teacher had time to pull them apart, Wee Sam had caught Jimbo a stinging blow to the right hand side of his face and knocked him flying. Needless to say this really pissed Jimbo off and as he was making his way back to the classroom he let everyone know that this was not the end of the matter. As the afternoon wore on word quickly spread room the school that Jimbo was going to beat wee Sam up after school and a buzz of anticipation filled the air, as the hour grew nearer.
I found all this rather exciting and quickly promoted myself to Wee Sam’s manager and I let it be known that Sam would have Jimbo a fair dig at the back of the park after school was out. I took Sam’s silence and lack of enthusiasm as his way of preparing for the fight and arranged to meet him at the school gates at 3:15. By three o’clock it seemed the whole of the school was talking about the fight and when the bell finally rang, crowds of children started making their way to the appointed area. I waited for Sam for ages by the gate and when he failed to turn up I decided that he must have already made his way there and I sprinted to the woods as fast as I could, in case I missed any of the action. When I got there it seemed there were hundreds gathered and I scanned the crowds searching for Sam, but he was nowhere to be seen. At the centre of the gathered mass I could see Jimbo pacing up and down like a caged animal and for a moment I thought it might be better if Sam didn’t turn up, in case he was seriously injured.
As more and more time passed and there was still no sign of Sam the crowd began to get restless and I began running out of excuses for Sam’s absence. Suddenly to my horror I heard someone from the crowd suggest that as Sam wasn’t here I should fight Jimbo instead, because I was Sam’s cousin. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather and before I had time to argue my case, the crowd were warming to the idea and some were actually starting to bay for my blood. As I stared among the crowd for Sam or a friendly face all I could see was a mass of blood thirty spectators who had come to see a fight and they didn’t really care who fought, as long as they got the entertainment they were expecting.
Suddenly I felt a hammer like blow to the face, followed by a quick punch in the stomach and before my brain had time to register what was happening Jimbo was all over me like a rash. I don’t know where I found the strength, but through the cheering of the crowds I clambered back to my feet and started ducking and diving to avoid the raging bull in front of me. I was not very happy with the situation I found myself in , but there was no way I was going to let someone kick the shit out of me. Gradually I began to fight back and before long we were rolling all over the place and I was starting to hurt him as much as he was hurting me. He was the dirtiest fighter I had ever come across, he pulled my hair, nipped my neck as he straddled me on the ground, which was very painful , gorged his fingers in my eyes and squeezed my balls. I don’t know how I survived all that, but suddenly I was on top of him, punching him in the face and sides and banging his head on the ground.
Eventually we both became exhausted with the toll the fight was taking on our bodies and when someone from the crowd suggested we call it a draw, we both agreed and the battle came to an end. I don’t know if the crowd was getting bored with the fight or the shear brutality of it was starting to get someone them worried , but we were both grateful for a way out and took it. It was a brutal fight for two nine year olds and I still remember every detail of it. Such was the impact of the fight that from that day on my profile among my peers went up considerably and I had respect throughout the school. As is often the case Jimbo and I became the best of friends afterward and remained so until an event in the future would bring us up against each other again, this time on a scale of brutal paramilitary violence.
Sadly years later Jimbo began a target of an IRA death squad and left a girlfriend and two young children to fend for themselves, another casualty of the brutal troubles.
As for Sam, the jammy git, his reputation remained in place when we found out that Mr. Wilson had detained him in detention, as a means of preventing the fight from taking place.
By 1974 the troubles had reached boiling point between the two religions and the whole of Northern Ireland were bracing themselves for civil war. The troubles dominated every aspect of our daily lives and every minute of every day we expected the whole of Belfast to explode into a savage bloodbath as the two warring communities vented their pent up anger and hatred of each other. Religious hatred was an integral part of Loyalist culture and we watched with mounting fury and hatred as the IRA and other Republican groups flooded the streets of Belfast with the blood the innocent and guilty alike. On one front the IRA were fighting a dirty war against the British government and army and on another front they were waging war against the Protestant paramilitaries and people. The whole of Belfast was a war zone and we became used to the presence of British soldiers lurking behind walls and lampposts and the ever-present whirling sound of helicopters, watching over us constantly from the sky. Bombs were going off almost daily and from the top of Glencairn we watched with disgust and hatred as the whole of the Belfast skyline was curtained with black smoke whirls, rising from the devastating actions of Republican bombs on the ground, as they tried to bomb both the British government out of Northern Ireland and the Protestant people into submission. At night we would lie in bed listening to it all and as the distant rumble of a bomb going of slowly crept its way towards us we would drift off to sleep. All over Belfast there were nightly riots, as Protestants and Catholics people fought hand –to-hand battles for control of Belfast and when the police and army came to try and restore order, the rage would be turned on them and the security forces would find themselves in the middle trying to keep the two tribes apart. We used to collect badges of the soldiers and compare them like triumph cards and after a riot we would go out and look for plastic bullets and other trophies left from the battle the night before. We were living in a war zone and we were on the front line.
One day on the way home from school David and I were walking past some derelict flats when we heard the unmistakable sound of a gun going off. Followed by a blood curdling scream. This was too good not to have a closer look and we both darted behind a wall and cautiously made our way to the sound of the action. When we got to a few feet of the sound we peered round the building and saw two local men that we knew running away and a third man on the ground rolling in apparent agony. Curiosity got the best of us and we came out of our hiding place and made our way towards the injured man. It was obvious from the two holes in his leg and blood on the ground that he had been shot. As we stood transfixed at the sight he became aware of our presence and slowly started to crawl towards us. As he got closer I recognised him as a local man and wondered what he had done.
“Call an ambulance” he pleaded with us.
“Why did they shoot you?” I asked suspiciously
“I don’t know”, he whispered through the pain, “go and call an ambulance…please”
Moving closer I could see the holes in his trousers and bits of red flesh hanging from the gaps, it was a right mess and I thought I was going to throw up.
“Does it hurt?” I asked
“Off course it fucking hurts, now are you going to call an ambulance or not?”
Before I could answer the sound of an approaching siren began to grow closer and I knew the ambulance was on the way. It was obviously a punishment shooting and no one got shot for nothing, so he probably deserved it. Also, it was normal procedure for a hit squad to call an ambulance for the victims, after they had carried out the punishment.
By now people had started to come out of their houses and by the time the ambulance arrived and started treating him, a crowd had gathered around the man as he lay wriggling on the ground. As usual the police weren’t far behind and they went through the routine of asking if anyone had seen or heard anything. But this was a formality , as they knew no one ever saw anything or spoke to the police and if anyone ever were to help the police , they would be dealt a far worse fate than a kneecapping victim, who would lucky if he ever walked again. The paramilitaries protected us from the IRA and dealt with local crime and punishment and the police were rarely involved in local disputes. We policed ourselves and the paramilitaries kept local crime under control.
When dad got home from that night he knew all about the incident and also that we had been there and he gives us a right ticking off. Although he was heavily involved with the UDA and local community, he tried his hardest to shield us from the brutality that surrounded our daily lives and protect us from the madness going on around us.
Shortly after the shooting incident I began to get severe pain in my left ear drum and after a visit to the doctors it was discovered that I had a perforated eardrum and would have to go back into hospital for another operation. For the first time in my life I wasn’t looking forward to going into hospital. Even being reunited with Nurse Brown in the children’s ward failed to cheer me up. During the past few months I had started thinking more and more about mum and frustrated at knowing anything about her, I began to dwell on the situation. I had never really missed mum before, well not that I could remember, but this stay in hospital was a turning point in my attitude towards mum. I remember one day at visiting time in the children’s ward, I felt jealous and empty as I watched the mothers and fathers of other children coming and going. Dad and the rest of the family visited me almost every day and I really looked forward to the visits, but something was missing and I gradually began to realise it was mum. Before long I was missing mum desperately, but due to the background of the situation I was too frightened and didn’t want to upset anyone in the family, to let them know how I was feeling. I just bottled it up inside, as I was to do for many years and took what comfort I could from Nurse Brown and the family. After I got over the operation I went home with a heavy heart and although I got on with my childhood, I more than ever was aware of the huge gap in my life that would never be filled. I was still going to church and bible studies and I tried to take as much comfort as possible that mum might be in heaven with God and Jesus and one day we would be together again. I was really mixed up emotionally at the time and when I was alone I often cried over mum’s absence in my life. Such was the stigma of mum in the family that I couldn’t even discuss her with my siblings, let alone with dad or granny. As a child I learned early on to hide my pain and I pushed the biggest pain in my life to the back of my mind in the hope that I would forget about it. But this was only a temporary measure and gradually, not having mum around began to have a profound effect on my childhood and it was to haunt me far more and more as my childhood went on.
Life went on as it always does and I learned to live with the pain and growing agony of not having mum around. Granny was a constant presence in our day-to-day lives and whenever we were sad or upset about something she was always there to offer love and support. Sadly for Granny, as David and I grew older some of the antics we were getting up to were threatening to give her a nervous breakdown. The local VG was a co-operative scheme, owed and ran by the people of the estate, with Reverend Lewis in over all control of the operation. One Saturday Granny drew up a weekly shopping list and sent David and I off to the VG with £20.00 in my pocket to do the shopping. On the way I had a brain wave. David and I would steal as much of the shopping as possible and keep the money we saved for ourselves. This worked brilliantly for the first few times and then disaster struck. On this particular day things had been going well until we got to the check out and I took a mad itch in my right leg. As I bent down to scratch it, to the shock of all those present a roll of black pudding appeared from my sleeve and slithered onto the floor.
As we were both led away to the manager’s office at the back of the store, clouds of shame began to quickly gather over me and the seriousness of the situation hit home. My panic turned to horror as I was pushed into Mr. Stewarts, the manager’s office and saw Reverend Lewis standing in the corner. After the check out girl explained what had happened Reverend Lewis turned to both of us and with a look of disappointment on his face, asked had we anything else on us. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife as we both stood there in silence, dreading having to admit that yes, we did have more on our person and dreading even more having to lie to Reverend Lewis. “Well” said Reverend Lewis, “Do you have anything else?”. Unable to speak, I slowly nodded my head up and down and was relieved to see David doing the dame. We hadn’t actually admitted anything up to this point and our souls were still safe because we had not lied to Reverend Lewis .After a bit of persuasion we both began to remove items from our clothing and placed them on the desk, in full view of Mr. Stewart, (I’d never get a job in the VG now) Reverend Lewis and the check out girl. Anger turned to pity as David removed and placed a tin of corned beef, a small tin of beans with four sausages and two packets of chicken soup on the table. Out of my pocket I pulled a small tub of margarine, a packet of teabags and a bird’s eye strawberry flavoured trifle and placed them beside David’s things. When I had finished I stepped back and peered with bitterness at the offending items. Reverend Lewis and the others whispered among themselves for a while and then he turned and asked us to explain why we needed to steal food from the community shop.
“We were hungry Reverend” I ventured.
“I’m sure your Granny or dad would have given you something to eat, if you had asked them” said Reverend Lewis.
“Surely there’s no need to steal?”
I don’t know why I said it, but I heard myself saying that we had no food or money and had not eaten in five days. The moment I said it, I knew I had made a major mistake and the look of terror on David’s face confirmed this. After that things began to move quickly and before I knew what was happening we were in the car with Reverend Lewis on the way to Granny’s house. When we got there Granny was out somewhere and Reverend Lewis left a note on the window and drove us straight to his house where his wife made us a slap up meal, with strawberry jelly and ice cream for desert. We had just finished dinner and were settling down to watch cartoons, when we heard a knock on the door and a few minutes later Granny’s voice. as she spoke with Reverend Lewis in the hallway. Before we knew what was happening Granny had us out the door and dragged us all the way home screaming blue murder. We both got a clot round the ear and Granny was forever going on about how we had shamed her and everyone in the estate must be talking about her and saying she wasn’t looking after us right. Needless to say we never did get to do the shopping again and Granny never got over the shock of such a public humiliation.
It was around 1976 that it first came to my attention that dad was ill and he was getting sicker and weaker by the day. He had always been a heavy drinker and smoker, but this was normal where we lived and we never really thought anything about it or the health implications these habits would have on him. One day when dad was supposed to be working I got home from school and found Margaret, Jean and some of their friend’s standing outside the front door. When I asked them what they were doing they said that had arrived home from school and on entering the house had heard a strange noise coming from upstairs and they had fled the house.
Trying to act all brave in from of my sisters I causally moved into the house, making sure I left the front door open, in case I had to make a quick getaway. After a nervous look downstairs and not finding anything, I began to make my way slowly up the stairs. As I got to the top I became aware of a deep rasping sound growing louder and louder that stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen enough of Dr. Who to know the sound I heard wasn’t coming from a human and I flew down the stairs and out of the house as fast as my legs could carry me. When the girls finally caught up with me I confirmed that I had indeed heard the sounds and I thought it might be one of those monsters from Dr.Who. The others looked rightly shocked at my analysis of the situation and it was decided that we would call the police. Christine Russell’s mum was the only neighbour we knew who had a phone and while Margaret and the other’s went to make the call, David and I made our way back to the house, making sure we kept a safe distance between us and the front door.
Word quickly spread around the estate that we had one of those monsters from Dr. Who hiding upstairs and before long large crowds began to gather, in the hope of seeing some action. When the police arrived they asked a few questions before entering the house and slowly making their way up the stairs. Whilst we were all waiting about outside to see what happened, Granny arrived and after a quick chat with a neighbour she made her way into the house with the police up stairs. After a while Granny came out with one of the policemen and explained to us that it was dad in the house, that he was sick and would have to go to hospital. In the distance we could hear the sound of an ambulance rushing towards us and suddenly it wasn’t funny or exciting anymore. I watched with the others as dad was stretchered out and placed in the ambulance and taken to the hospital. By the time everyone had cleared, Aunty Anne, dads younger sister arrived and explained to us that dad was going to be ok, but he would have to stay in hospital for a few days and she would be staying with us whilst he was away.
Being so young I don’t think I fully understood the magnitude of the situation and as usual I just ignored the situation that was going on around me and got on with my life. After that first time, dad was in and out of hospital all the time and gradually he became more and more ill. I remember many evenings at home, dad would take these horrible, agonising fits and one of us would have to run to Christine Russell’s house to call an ambulance. This became almost natural to us, but it was always distressing to see dad suffering so much and be unable to do anything to help.
Gradually we all began to realize that dad was very ill, although none of us wanted to accept or believe that he might die. I had already “lost” my mother and surely God wouldn’t take my dad away also? Once when he was in hospital Margaret decided that we would all do up the garden for dad and plant some rose bushes. We all went to work and by the time dad got out of hospital, the garden was looking great and dad was really impressed with our efforts and monitored the progress of the rose bushes with us. I remember the last time Granny took me up to the hospital to visit dad, I was really shocked and upset at how bad he looked. He was thin as a rake and I remember the watch he had worn all the time on his wrist had slide all the way up his arm to his elbow.
I’ve still got that watch, but I’ve never been able to wear it and every time I look at it I see dad in hospital, all skin and bones and at deaths door.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was too young to understand the seriousness of how ill dad was, this was the last time that I would see my dad alive.
I wish I had told him how much I loved him and told him how much the others and I would miss him, how much we needed him and didn’t want him to die.
When I got home I went straight to my room and begged God to save my dad and not take him away from us. But as usual God wasn’t listening and fate was once again messing with my destiny and making my young life a misery.
One day when we got home from school, Aunty Anne was waiting for us and told us that dad had been taken to hospital again, but he should be home in a few days. The day he was suppose to come home arrived and we all busied ourselves tidying up and making the place as nice as possible for him. Someone had told us that dad would be home around three o’clock and when the time came we all went down and stood on the main road watching for the car that would bring him home. Three o’clock came and went, then four and by 5 o’clock we were all getting bored waiting around. Eventually a car did approach us and pulled up, but our relief turned to panic when we realised that only Granny and Granddad were in the back. As they got out it was obvious that Granny was very upset and had been crying. Granddad told us he was taking her home and for us to wait indoors and they would come to see us in a while.
Dad never did come home.
Later that night Granny and Granddad gathered us all in the front room and through tears told us that dad wouldn’t be coming home. She explained to us that dad had died and was now in heaven watching over us. From the moment I heard the news I was distraught with grief and numb to everything going on around me. Dad had been the one stable thing in our lives since mum had left and now we were being told that he had died and we would never see him again.
The pain was almost too much to bear and I kept praying to myself that somehow there had been a terrible mistake and dad was going to walk through the door at any minute. But the brutal truth of the matter was that I wasn’t dreaming and once again fate and chance had entered my life and left a trail of misery and destruction in their wake.
The week of the funeral was the worst and longest of my live and to this day I am still trying to come to terms with dad’s death and the consequences it had on all our lives. After the autopsy dad’s body was brought home and laid to rest in Granny’s front room. Endless people came to pay their last respects and the sound of crying drifted constantly through the house, reminding me of my huge lose. Since the moments dad’s coffin was laid out in the front room, Shep curled up underneath and didn’t move the whole time it was in the house, apart from going for a pee. It was almost as if he was guarding dad’s body and at night when we were sleeping upstairs in Granny’s room, we could hear him whinging softly to himself, as he kept his 24 hour vigil. On the second night we were all brought in to see dad and as I stood over the coffin, looking into his lifeless face, I was praying and willing for him to move and for me to wake up from this horrible nightmare. I don’t know how long I stood looking down at him, but I was completely numb with pain and vaguely remember breaking down in tears and someone leading me away from the room.
When the day of the funeral finally arrived Granny got us all up early and dressed us in new clothes she had brought us for the funeral. I still remember the green and silver dogtooth blazer I wore that day as if it was yesterday and how I hated that jacket. After the coffin had been removed from the house we made our way to the church and I remember being surprised that there were so many people making their way to the church and the main road to see dad off. In the church we took our seats in front of the coffin and suddenly Granny absolutely lost it and threw herself over the coffin, screaming and crying for her baby son. It was really heartbreaking to see Granny suffer like that, but I was so numb with grief that it hardly registered at the time. It had been decided that dad’s band would all attend the funeral and when they stood up and played Amazing Grace it seemed as if everyone in the church was crying. When the service ended dad’s brothers and close family and friends lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and carried dad out of the church and unto the main road, for his final journey. Dads younger, Uncle Sam had been let out of jail for the funeral and his guards respectively give him the freedom to carry dad’s coffin. As the cortege made its way down the Glencairn Road, David and I fell in behind it and we followed the coffin down the Forthriver Road.
Dad had been such an integral part of the community that the whole of Glencairn came out that day to see him off and people lined the whole route all the way out of the estate. I don’t remember much about the graveyard, apart from the fact that it was a beautiful day and I could hear birds singing against the background of people crying. After the burial everyone headed back to Granny’s house for the wake and I remember wishing that I was at home in bed and alone with my broken heart, instead of being surrounded by people talking about dad and the happy memories he had left behind. It was the longest night of my life, with various people coming and going all the time and although they might have been trying to be kind to us, I just wished they would all go home and leave me alone, so I could go to bed and try to begin and comprehend dad’s death and life without him.
Eventually Aunty Anne gathered us all up and brought us home, to our own empty house and eventually got us into bed. I still remember lying there in the dark and thinking over and over again:
Why you dad?
Why, why, why?
Surely if there really was a God, what possible reason would he have to let this happen to us.
Why would he let this happen to us, after everything else we had been through? I lay awake for hours tortured by the reality of what had happened and what the future now held for us without dad to protect us and mum being a distant memory.
Eventually I feel asleep from exhaustion and had a dream about dad that I was to have for many years after his death .In the dream I’m asleep in my bed and am woken up by the sound of dad gently calling my name. I begin searching the whole house for him and finally I realise that the voice is coming from the attic. When I get half way up the ladder, dads arm reaches down and helps me the rest of the way up. In the loft I notice that dads got a camp bed, a gas oven, kettle and it looks as if he has been here for some time. I ask him what he’s doing and tell him that I thought he was dead and I feel really happy now I know that he’s alive and well and still with us. Dad sits and talks to me for ages and when I ask him to come down and see the others he says he’s hiding and I have to keep it a secret from the others. The dream always ends with me crying hysterically for dad to come down from the loft with me and him reassuring me that everything would be ok. I would always wake up crying and upset and glace through the darkness towards the loft in the hallway, wishing the dream had been real.
The day after the funeral the reality of the situation hit all and we all dealt with our grief privately. Now that dad was dead there was the immediate problem of what was going to happen to us and where we were going to live. Aunty Ann had moved into the house and we all waited apprehensively to see what would happen to us. I remember thinking about mum and wishing she was there to pick up the piece and sooth our agony over dads death. Due to the fact that we were now orphans the social services got involved with the case and there was talk of us all going into a home. When we heard this we all prayed that it would never happen and in our childish innocence we hoped that they would let Margaret look after us, so we could all stay together.
This was never a realistic options as Margaret was only thirteen at the time and legally too young to look after us. Although we were all grief stricken at dad’s death, we really wanted to remain together as a family and we let Granny know this. Granny and the family pulled together and fought tooth and nail for the social services not to take us away from them and finally our future was decided. We were to be split up among the family in Glencairn. At least this meant we would still be living close together. Because Margaret was the oldest and closer to Granny and Granddad, she and David would go to live with them. Jean would go to live with dad’s brother Uncle Jim, his wife Maureen and my cousin’s Denise, Karen and Stephen, otherwise known as Pickle, at the top of the estate. I was going to live with Uncle Sam, Aunt Gerry (who was Maureen’s younger sister) and their children Wee Sam, Linda, Mandy and Joanne, on the Forthriver road. It was not a perfect solution and although we were all really upset that we were to be split up, at least we would all be living with members of the family and would see each other on a daily basis.
I was only 11 years old at the time and like the others had suffered a terrible life at the hands of fate and destiny, but there was one more tragedy just around the corner for me to deal with. Because I was so close to Shep, it was decided that he would come and live with me in Uncle Sam’s house. Since dad’s death Shep had refused to eat or drink and two weeks after the funeral he died one night in his sleep. The vet said that he had died of a broken heart and no one doubted this. There was so much misery in my life that I was almost to numb to mourn Shep’s death at the time. Beside’s I felt like I was also dying from a broken heart and I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I was 11 years old and I had lost the will to live.
Life without Dad
Although my little universe had been turned upside down and torn apart, I done what I had always done in a crisis and pushed things to the back of my mind and tried to get on with life. I thought of dad, mum and Shep every day and although the pain never left me, I gradually learned to live with it and was able to enjoy myself at times. I had always been close to my cousins, especially Wee Sam and I quickly settled into my new environment. When I had first arrived Uncle Sam was still in jail on UDA related charges, but I took to Aunt Gerry like a duck to water. I had always been fond of Aunt Gerry and although she was only my Auntie through marriage she had taken me in and from the moment I arrived she made me feel at home and treated me like one of her own children. I remember the first night I spent there and when it was time for the children to go to bed, my cousins lined up to kiss their mother goodnight before they went to bed. As I was unaccustomed to a mother’s love, I lingered in the background not quite knowing what to do. Before I knew what was happening, Gerry was motioning me over and kissed me like the others before sending us off to bed. This small gesture filled me with joy and I went to bed feeling almost happy and knew I was going to enjoy living here under the care of Aunt Gerry. But that night, as I lay awake in the bed I shared with Wee Sam, my heart was breaking with missing dad so very much and I just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I would never see him again. I was still having the nightmare where he was still alive up in the attic and in the morning the reality of my situation tore my soul apart. On the other hand I was missing mum more and more and yet I had no one to turn too. Seeing my cousins surrounded by such love reminded me what was missing in my own life and I longed for mum to come and rescue us and take us away to build a family again.
In the months since dads death I had heard various rumours and snippets of conversation from the adults in the family and I had come to the conclusion that mum had not died in a car crash and was alive somewhere in the world. Although this information filled me with hope and something to cling too , I knew that I could never speak about mum to anyone , other than my brother and sisters and even then I was told to shut up and stop causing trouble. Although we were a very close family and I was as happy as I could be in the situation we were in, there was an unspoken rule that mum was never, ever to be discussed and so as usual I bottled it all up inside me and tried to make the best of what I had.
Also to my horror I eventually found out that mum definitely was a Catholic and this knowledge both shamed and enraged me. I was so very proud of my Protestant heritage and to learn that I was half Catholic added to the misery of my situation. The more I thought about it, the more disgusted I was with the situation. I felt I had a dirty little secret and if the truth was ever to come out I would be ostracised from my peers and the community I now belonged in. My hatred of Catholic’s increased tenfold and I became ultra Loyalist in my view and outlook to life.
Gradually I began to hate mum and thought less and less of her as I came to terms with the awful truth about how dad married a Catholic. How was I ever going to get over the shame of knowing that I had Catholic blood running through my veins. Through all this anger, shame and confusion in the back of my mind I knew I still loved and wanted mum, but things had become so complicated I was unable to deal with the situation and resolved to put it to the back of my mind and never think about it again.
At first Wee Sam and I got on brilliantly and spent every-spare minute together, getting up to all sorts of mischief. We were in the same year at school and after the bell went, along with David and Pickle we would head towards the glens and spend hours playing by the river and trying to catch the rainbow trout as they swam down river. Half way up the glen there was a natural bowl shaped area of the river called The Spoon and in the summer , we along with other children would strip off to our underpants and spend hours swimming and playing in the water. One day when we were swimming in The Spoon the water suddenly changed colour and started flowing a dead red colour. This frightened the life out of us, we all thought it was blood and legged it out of the water as fast as our legs would carry us..
We ran home and told Aunt Gerry and although she couldn’t throw any light on the situation, she told us to keep away from the river for the time being which of course we ignored. About a week later, after school we all rushed up to The Spoon again and stood transfixed as we watched the river flowing a deep shade of purple. We all stepped back from the bank and pondered what might be making this strange event happen and came to the conclusion that it was a magic river, possibly evil and we should avoid it all costs. From that day on we renamed the river Rainbow River and every time we returned the water would be a different colour of the Rainbow River and remained a magical place.
Then one day months later we heard through the grapevine that the reason for the river changing colour was that there was a clothes factory further up the Glen and they had been fined for emptying their waste into the river. We all felt a bit sheepish about our earlier fears and before long we were once again spending large parts of our spare time swimming in Rainbow River.
Gradually Wee Sam and I began to clash and were constantly arguing and fighting with each other. Although I had no fear and wouldn’t let anyone pick on me, Wee Sam was a better fighter than me and although we fought constantly we never really hurt each other and soon made up after the latest scrap. Eventually Aunt Gerry got tired of our bickering and one day ordered us out to the front garden to sort out our differences once and for all. I remember that it was a summer’s day and swelteringly hot and we both took our tops off before getting laid into each other.
The fight was going well and a large crowd had started to gather around the garden to watch the action. Suddenly the crowds parted like the Red Sea and who should walk through, none other than Reverend Lewis. Telling the crowds the fun was over and to go back about their own business , he went had had a quiet word with an embarrassed Aunt Gerry, before giving me a severe look and telling me to behave myself if I wanted to get into heaven one day. Reverend Lewis always seemed to turn up at the most inappropriate times and that night in bed I prayed extra hard for God to forgive me and give me another chance to prove that I was worthy of a place in heaven. I sincerely believed in Jesus and looked forward to the day I would be reunited with Dad and Shep in heaven and we could spend eternity together. Every night before I went to sleep I would kneel at the bottom of my bed and say my prayers. I never forgot to mention the poor and needy and always asked God to send dad back so we could be a family again, but this was the one prayer that could never be answered and deep down I knew it was hopeless even asking God for this.
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Finally the day for Uncle Sam to be released from jail arrived and the whole family along with friends and acquaintances gathered to give him a welcome home party he would remember. All day long preparations were made for the night’s celebration and the house was awash with food and alcohol of every description. When Sam finally walked through the door a huge cheer rang out and after the greeting and hugs the party got into full swing. Although dad had only been dead a few months and the pain was still tearing me apart inside, I really enjoyed myself that night and for a while forgot about the state of my life.
Uncle Sam was dad’s younger brother and was well respected throughout the estate and surrounding areas. He was lovable rogue and with his swarthy good looks and mischievous manner all that knew him loved him and all the local women fancied him. Also, more importantly he was a Loyalist soldier and had served time for a cause he believed in.
All male members of the family looked up to Uncle Sam and we all wanted to be just like him when we grew up. That night we were permitted to stay up into the wee hours and when the adults were full of drink the talk soon turned to dad and I was proud to hear them all talk about what a great man dad was and how they all missed him terribly and wished things could be different. Although we were a very close family, we were typical of the area and emotions were something men never showed and that night I felt proud when I went to bed, knowing that dad’s memory would live long in this house and others were sharing my grief at losing him.
After Uncle Sam had settled back into life outside jail, his thoughts naturally turned to how he could earning a living and bring some money in for the family. Whilst in jail he had done a course in painting and decorating and on his release he let it become known around the estate that he was available for hire at a very reasonable rate. Before long the work started to come in and if he had a job at the weekend Wee Sam and I went with him and helped in any way he seen fit, which included cleaning up the mess behind him and making endless cups of tea. If we were really lucky and the owner of the house was out, Uncle Sam would sit chain smoking and watch us paint the bottom section of the wall to the best of our ability. At first he was making good money and Wee Sam and I were more than pleased with the few quid he give us after completely the job. After a while the work started to dry up and Uncle Sam pondered long and hard to come up with a new means of earning some money.
Suddenly one day he proclaimed that he was going to set up a door to door business selling firewood and half an half later the three of us were on our way to the forest behind the house , with a wheel barrel and a chain saw he had borrowed from a reluctant neighbour. When we had walk some way into the forest Uncle Sam stops, gazed around for a moment and before we knew what was happening shouted “ timber” as the tree first let out an agonising groan and thundered to the ground below. After Uncle Sam had chopped the tree into manageable sizes, wee Sam and I loaded the wheel barrel with as much as possible and taking a handle each swayed our way back to the house were we dumped the wood in the back garden and went back for more. Later that night we all gathered in the back garden and bagged the wood into bags , before setting off and selling it door to door around the estate. After a short time money was pouring in and we had established a large client basis throughout the estate.
Although what we were doing was highly illegal, we carried on oblivious to the laws we were breaking and chopped down trees on an industrial scale. In Glencairn and the surrounding areas we followed our own rules and pretty much ignored the laws of the land. Business was that good I was able to save enough money to buy myself a second hand chopper from the bike shop down the Shankill. All good things come to an end and one day as we were making our way to our favourite felling spot, a team from the forestry department apprehended us and Uncle Sam was read the riot act.
The game was up and we watched with shock as Uncle Sam shamelessly agreed to everything they were saying and promised never to do it again. Wee Sam and I were bitterly disappointed and begged Uncle Sam to chance h his mind. As we made our way home empty handed he explained that because he was out on licence, the last thing he need was the police paying him too much attention or he might end up inside again. What he said made perfect sense and Wee Sam and I reluctantly agree with him. “Besides, as Uncle Sam pointed out winter would soon be over and sales would dry up with the changing weather.
Another scheme Uncle Sam got me involved in was selling his UDA sweepstake cards. As a member of the UDA he was not only expected to pay a weekly donation or dues to the cause, he was also expected to help raise money for loyalist prisoners and their families. The UDA was run along very strict guidelines and had its own welfare department that raised and distributed money were most needed. This was done in a variety of ways, mostly illegal and generated huge sums of money for the organisation. At the weekly meeting sweep cards were handed out to all present to sell and most members would take £25.00 quid’s worth and sell then to their friends and family. As with anything he couldn’t be arsed to do it himself, he recruited Wee Sam and me.One Saturday he handed us a bundle of sweep stakes and told us if we sold them all he would give us two quid each, which sounded like a fair deal to me. After giving us instructions on what we were selling and how best to sell them and how much they coasted, he sent us of and told us not to return until they were all sold.
He would wait for us in community centre, he informed us solemnly as though he was getting the short end of the stick, when in fact we knew that he would be having a few pints and playing cards with his mates.
Equipped with the necessary information wee Sam headed to the top of the estate and I headed to the bottom and knocked on the first door I came to. After a moment or two a woman’s head appeared round the door and I immediately went into my pitch, which I had been working on for a few days and perfected on the walk down the Road.
“Excuse me misses, would you like to buy one of these?
You write your name, pick two numbers between 1 and 50 and if you win you win £25.00.
Price 20p a go,…
most people buy a sheet of five and its only £1.00 in total…….Oh and the profits go to the prisoners and their families “
“Ah…god love you love, thinking of the prisoners. Go on”, I’ll have two sheets she replied”
and I was in business.
I took this like a duck to water and before long I was outselling Wee Sam on an embarrassing g scale. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a natural sales man and years later would have a successful career in London selling everything from life insurance to industrial chemicals, but much more of that later.
Eventually Wee Sam threw the towel in and I took over the whole operation. That’s not to say it was always easy. Lots of people turned me away, some were nice about it and others told me fuck off and never darken their door again. but even back then I was a natural sales man and the insults just rolled over my head and I apologised for interrupting them and made my way next door to a potential sale. It wasn’t long before I had built up a substantial client basis and when on the job I knew exactly which houses to call at and which were best avoided. For my efforts I got £2.00, which was duly spend on sweets and other treats I had promised myself.
As I pounded the Roads of Glencairn selling my sweep stakes the war raged on around me and like most people I took it in my stride. I took some pride in the face that I was contributing to the cause, by raising money for the prisoners. One morning when we were all getting ready to leave the house for school, there was a sudden commotion outside the front door and we all rushed into the front garden to see what was happening. There were loads of armed RUC personnel frantically running from door to door, evacuating the inhabitants into the field outside the community centre. Uncle Sam and Gerry gathered us all up and we went to join the dozens of other families milling about the field. After having a chat with one of the local leaders we heard Uncle Sam explain to Gerry that the IRA had planted a bomb under the car of one of our neighbours, who was a member of the UDR ( Ulster Defence Regiment ) .
This news sent waves of fear and anger through the gathered crowd. How dare the IRA enter our estate in the dead of night and try to kill one of our people. Apparently the man in question had left the house to check the car over before dropping his children at school and going through his normal security checks had discovered the bomb under the passenger’s side of the vehicle. Had he been less vigilant the bomb would have gone off killing not only him, but also his three children and anyone else in the vicinity. This relisation filled everyone gathered with outrage and resentment and once again our hatred of the IRA and their Catholic supporters was justified.
After they were sure that everyone in the immediate vicinity was evacuated, the army bomb disposal unit sent a robot in to detonate the bomb and we all watched in awe as the ground below us shook violently and the robot along with large sections of the car was blown high into the sky to smithereens. We were all kept of school that day and naturally the talk was of how close we had been to being caught up in the bomb that morning and possibly being killed. Wee Sam and I knew the children of the man in question and often played with them after school, so it was with sadness that a few days later we watched them pack their belongings onto a removal van and drive out of the estate never to be seen again.
Like Wee Sam, David and Pickle I felt an immense hatred towards Catholics and Nationalists that day and longed for the day I would be old enough to take up arms and join the war against the IRA and their Catholic supporters. Although I was too young to understand the complexities of the conflict between us and the nationalists I understood that we hadn’t started this war and all the pain and suffering in Northern Ireland was a direct result of the IRA and nationalist call for a united Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s Protestants were a remnant of colonial Britain and we clung to our sovernty like a comfort blanket and the IRA & nationalists were trying to rip our blanket away from us. We felt abandoned and Britain seemed to have turn her back on us The Americans and wider outside world sympathised with the romantic notion of a United Ireland and offered us no support. No one seemed to understand our position and we were living under the brutal, daily menace of the most brutal terrorist organisation of the century and this isolation feed the fears of the loyalist and ensured a steady stream of new recruits for the loyalist paramilitary groups.
During the mid 70s relationships between the two warring sides had reached a new low and innocent people from both sides became legitimate targets in tit-for-tat murder campaign like never before, between the nationalists and loyalist paramilitaries. The violence was out of control and as a child I watched in horror and disgust as the nightly news told of the latest IRA atrocity, as the death toll mounted. Like most of the people around me I rejoiced when news of an IRA or other republican member being killed or even better executed came through and I mourned the passing of any loyalist killed. I hated Catholics with a passion and blamed them on all the troubles of our country and like all around me I saw them as my natural enemy. In response to the increase of IRA atrocities and through self-preservation the loyalist paramilitaries, with the blessing of their people, stepped up the campaign and the streets of Belfast flowed with the blood of the innocent and guilty alike.
Among the countless act of brutality by the various paramilitary groups during this time, the actions of a loyalist death squad call “The Shankill Butchers” effected me mostly and haunted the conscience of the loyalist population of Belfast. The Butchers were a loyalist death squad, lead by a psychopathic killer called Lenny Murphy and during the summer of 75 – 77 they stalked the streets of catholic West Belfast, leaving a trial of unimaginable death and destruction in their wake. They would drive to a Catholic area of the city in a black taxi and pick up an unsuspecting passenger, with the sole intention of torturing and eventually killing them and putting them out of their misery. Although Catholics were mostly their intended targets, Protestants were lifted in Catholic area and mistakenly killed because the Butchers thought they were Catholics. Countless innocent people were taken to a derelict house on the Shankill Road and after hours of brutal, mindless torture they would be killed and their wasted bodies would be driven through the Shankill Road towards Glencairn, where they would be dumped outside the community centre o surrounding areas. The community centre was just down the road from our house and on at least three occasions Wee Sam and I were among the first to stumble across the mutilated bodies and the images would haunt me for years to come. On another occasion we had been playing in a new block of flats being built and suddenly we heard David yelling from another part of the building site. We all rushed to see what was happening and stopped dead in our tracks when we came to the room David had yelled from. The first thing that struck me was that all of the walls and large areas of the floor were splattered with blood and a chair in the middle of the round was surrounded by a puddle of blood and what looked like pieces of human flesh. On one of the walls, a bloody handprint left a trail of blood as it slide down the wall into another pool of blood. Although I was only 11 at the time, I knew I was standing in a room that had been used to torture someone and along with the others I turned on my heel, yelled and legged it all the way home. That night Uncle Sam informed us that we were not to play in the flats again, which we all happily agreed with and nothing more was said about the matter. Whilst The Shankill Butchers carried out their murder’s I was hanging about with a friend called John Jackson, who lived in the middle of the estate. It was a well known fact that the butchers dumped their bodies outside the community centre and not only was this just down the road from our house, I had to pass it on the way home.
On dark winter nights I use to be terrified when it was time for me to go home and I dreaded the walk up the dark deserted hill. Before setting off with a heavy heart, I would find myself a suitable large stick or tree branch as a weapon and nervously make my way up the hill and through the dark streets of the estate and home. The right hand side of the Road was lined with old people’s homes and well lit, until they came to an end and there was a large field that travelled upwards into the mountains and whatever was watching me from the darkness. The field was just across from the community centre and when I got to this area my heart would be thumping in my chest and my senses would be focused on what was going on around me. Most frightening of all was when I heard the unmistakable sound of a black taxi, crawling up the hill towards me. As the taxi drew closer I would brace myself and move to the opposite side of the Road. The only problem with that I now had to walk straight past the community centre, where countless mutilated bodies had been dumped and this frightened the life out of me. Rather than walk past the community centre I would duck behind a bush or tree and hide until the taxi had passed and then I would run the rest of the way home up the middle of the road, yelling in terror. I must have looked a right sight, but I was out of my mind with fear and didn’t give a shit how I looked.
As the butcher death toll mounted leading community leaders demanded that loyalist godfathers reined them in, but the butchers had become a law unto themselves and a liability to the loyalist cause. Apart from the problems they were causing the loyalist leaders, the IRA had issues various death threats against the butchers and they were all living on borrowed time. For Murphy the end came on 16th November 1982. , when an IRA hit squad ambushed and assassinated him, as he visited his girlfriend in Glencairn. For years afterwards rumours circulated that the UDA and/or other loyalist paramilitaries, tired Glencairn was one of the most violent and tightly controlled areas of protestant West Belfast and nothing happened without the top paramilitaries giving their permission or knowing about it. Murphy was given a full UVF funeral and through time other members off the Shankill Butcher’s met with equally violent ends.
As the first 12th of July since dads death approached, I felt mixed emotions and none of the joy I normally associated with the celebrations of my culture. After dads death the girls of the band decided to keep going in dads memory and the band was renamed the “John Chambers Memorial Band” Although I took great pride in this fact, it saddened me to watch them set off on a march without dad being present and we no longer saw the point of following them out of the estate. On a more positive note, Uncle Sam & Uncle Jim had arranged to have Wee Sam and I join the orange lodge and for the first time ever I would get to march to the glorious field in Edenderry. As usual I joined in the hunt for firewood and guarded the bonfire when it was my turn, but my heart wasn’t really in it, as I was still struggling to come to terms to life without dad. When the 11th night arrived I went along with some of the family watch the bonfire being lit and the pope go up in flames and that did raise a cheer from my broken heart.
The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and Gerry scrubbed wee Sam and me, and got us dressed in our outfits for the day. We both wore dark trousers, white shorts and blue tank tops and the crowning moment came when Uncle J Sam placed our sashes around our necks and we were officially members of the orange lodge. After breakfast we were out the door, met up with Pickle and Uncle Jim and were on our way down the Shankill in a taxi by 8:30. When we got to Sandy Road there were thousands of people already milling around and Uncle Sam lead us into the Rangers Club, which was opened for business and jammed packed with early morning drinkers and die hards whom had spent the night there. Singing a litany of top loyalist anthems. After getting the drinks in, we all settled in the corner and whilst Uncle’s Sam & Jim socialised with friends and acquaintances, Wee Sam and I watched the drunken antics of the adults around us. And it wasn’t even nine o’clock.
The time for us to meet up with the band and other lodges arrived and we all made our way down the street, around a few corners and came to the house of that years master, which is traditionally the gathering and starting point of the march and as such had to supply drink and refreshments for all those taking part in the march. Eventually we took up our positions and Wee Sam and I were to carry the strings of the banner and this was a great privilege. The Band that was leading us was a well known flute band, which had one of the best leaders around and they always got a huge cheer wherever they went. I felt proud as punch as we began to march and I thought of dad and how I wish he had been there to share this special moment in my life, but I knew he was watching me from heaven and this eased my heartache.
We made our way to the Ormea Road, where we joined with thousands of other lodges and bands off every description and started on our long walk to the field. At first I felt like a super star marching in front of hundreds of thousands of people lining the route and swinging my piece of string to the same rhythm with Wee Sam and the other strings boys. All along the route we kept our eyes peeled for someone who knew us and our hearts swelled with pride as we heard our names called out from the crowds and turned to wave at pour adoring public.
By the time we got to the field my legs were killing me and I had huge blisters on both feet and if it wasn’t for the joy and excitement of being there, I would have laid down and gone to sleep. This was the Field, I reminded myself. A holy temple of our protestant heritage and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. The march into the field came off a hill and when I got to the top, I stopped and held my breath. Thousands upon thousands of people swarmed around the field around me and in every direction I looked there were vans and lorries of every description, selling everything from fish and chips, loyalist paraphernalia and every alcohol known to man. All the bands arriving were allocated a particular spot and when our band came to our resting place, we along with everyone else sank onto the ground and rested our exhausted legs for a while. Uncle’s Sam & Jim went to the nearest bar tent and told us not to go too far and to be back by 3: 30, when we would begin the journey home… Our first stop was something to eat and after picking up a hotdog each, we decided to go for a walk… All around us was the sound of people celebrating and as far as the eye could see Union Jacks and loyalist flags fluttered in the gentle breeze. This was our day and our field and the event was opened solely to the protestant people of Northern Ireland and those that supported us. I drank in the atmosphere proudly and felt safe surrounded by my own people.
Wee Sam and I took a longer than predicted walk down by the river and getting to the bottom, we were alarmed and shocked to hear a women screaming, in obvious pain in my opinion. Curiosity getting the better of us , we slowly made our way to where the sound was coming from and we were surprised to see four, not two legs protruding from under a bush. The woman was moaning and groaning that loudly now she didn’t hear us approach until I lifted the bush and seeing a man lying between her legs I asked her in a concerned voice if she was ok? Wee Sam being a bit sharper than me, let out a squeal of laughter and retreated behind a tree. Suddenly all hell broke loose and before I knew what was happening the man was up of the ground , chasing me and calling me all sorts of names as he tried to pull his trousers up and kept tripping over. When I got back to our meeting spot, Wee Sam was rolling about the ground in hysterics and the others began teasing me and calling me a peeping tom. I took it all in good taste and spent the rest of the afternoon messing about until it was time to leave or the March home. As we gathered and marched out of the field I couldn’t help noticing that quite a few of the men were walking a bit loop sided and I was glad I wasn’t in their shoes , as we sat off on the 10 mile journey home. The march home proved to be much harder than the inward march and for our efforts fewer people gathered to welcome us home. After a few beers in the master house, Uncle Sam & Jim gathered us up and took us home and we both slept like logs that night.
As was only the case after the 12th celebrations, the whole Chambers clan pack their bags and headed to the caravan site in Ballyferris for our annual holiday. That year for the first time we were travelling down in private transport, Uncle Sam had saved a condememed transit van from the scrap yard and assured us all that it was safe o travel in. This was the first time we had been to the Cavan since dad’s death and at first I couldn’t settle and spent a lot of time in doors and alone. Like the 12th, the yearly trips to the caravan were things I had always looked forward to and enjoyed with dad and that wasn’t now possible. Gradually I came out of my shell and began to let myself enjoy it and that was helped greatly by the fact that David and my sisters were also there, although we were all sleeping in different caravans. We done all the usual things that year , but I just didn’t enjoy it and when it was time to go back to Belfast for the first time I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the place.
Back in Belfast we slipped into the routine of school and day-to-day life and slowly I began to start to come to terms with dads death. Nothing I could ever say or do would ever bring him back and I had to get on top of my grief, before it engulfed me and ruined any chance for happiness I held for the future. Like my brother and sisters my life would never be complete again and we would all have to learn to deal with dad’s death on our own and come to terms with it. From the moment dad died I missed him terrible and the pain has been with me in varying degrees throughout my life. But I knew that my grief was dominating my life and unless I dealt with it, I would never be happy.
Gradually I pulled myself together and through time I learnt to enjoy the 12th and caravan trips again, without dad’s absence tormenting me and evoking painful memories of better times. I had really settled into life with Uncle Sam and Aunt Gerry and at times I even felt optimistic about the future, I resolved to try and get on with my life and make the best of what little I had and started to enjoy life a little more.
Little did I realize at the time that fate had returned to toy with my destiny and once again my life was on a course of instability and unhappiness. The gods must have been in foul moods the day they mapped out my destiny. Before long I would be leaving the security and happiness of Uncle Sam’s house and my path would change again and only unhappiness and misery lined the route of my next journey.
Thankfully this was a short journey and as I entered my teenage years my life would start to improve and as time tick on I began to find I enjoyed life and although the pain of dads death and mums absence hunted me the future was much brighter and I would go on to make the best of my shattered life and in time I would find happiness, contentment and eventually be reunited with the mother I had long ago thought dead and gone for ever.
Much more to follow….
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