…but a matter of life and death. These were the lads who would go on to be the ‘top boys’ of Loyalist paramilitarism and in time would become infamous in Belfast and well beyond. They’d do time in the Maze prison or in ‘ the Crum’ – the damp, dank Crumlin Road gaol that is now a major tourist attraction in Belfast. I have to confess that I was in there too – but not for any romantic notion of defending Loyalism against hordes of Republican invaders.
In fact, it was for motoring offences.
I had a very reckless approach to taxing and insuring my scooter and given that I was prone to crashing or falling off it, this wasn’t great behaviour. Time after time the RUC would flag me down and demand that I produce my documents at the nearest station. Of course, I never had any of these so it would be off to court, and a fine that I couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. This happened so frequently that eventually the magistrate demanded that I either pay the fine straight away or spend three days in Crumlin Road gaol.
Well, I didn’t have much else to do that weekend, to be honest. And I didn’t want to be slapped with a big fine that would be on my mind for ages. So to the surprise of the magistrate I said, ‘I’ll take prison, please,’ and with that I was marched down the steps of the dock and through the tunnel that links the courthouse with the gaol. As I walked I thought about all the paramilitary hard men from both sides who’d been taken on this very journey, many receiving multiple life sentences for the terrible stuff they’d done. I wasn’t exactly in their ranks, but a taste of the Crum would be something to tell the boys when I was finally sprung on the Monday.
Unfortunately for me, I’d overlooked two things. The first was that my time in prison coincided with a bank holiday Monday. There wouldn’t be enough screws present that day to take me through the release procedure, so I’d have to come out on the Tuesday instead. That took the wind out of my sails a wee bit. The second was my clothing. I’d arrived at court complete with sixties paisley shirt, eyeliner and a string of beads around my neck. This wasn’t great gear for going to prison in and when I arrived in the prison to take the obligatory shower the screw in charge gave me a filthy look.
‘Are ye seriously goin’ in there looking like a fruit,’ he asked. ‘D’ye think that’ll be fun for ye?’
I looked at myself in the cracked mirror. The guy was right. Some of the fellas in here were psychos, not exactly sympathetic to lads who looked a bit gay, as I’m sure I did. I couldn’t do much about the shirt, but I scrubbed off the eyeliner and handed in the love beads for safekeeping. Then, in an act of defiance, I scratched the words ‘Mods UTC’ (‘Up The Hoods’) on the door of the shower with a pen before handing that in too. I headed into the prison and to my cell for what turned out to be a pleasant few days.
Because I wasn’t in for anything heinous nobody took any notice of me. Also, I was a skinny lad with hollow legs and I enjoyed the carb-heavy prison food served up to us three times a day. I can’t say I was sorry to be released but it was an experience, and I could always talk it up a bit for the benefit of my mates.
Many years later I took my young son on an organised tour of the prison, which is now a museum. I showed him the shower, and the graffiti that I’d etched on to the door. An American tourist overheard me talking to my boy about my ‘time’ in the Crum, and for the rest of the tour he and his fellow visitors treated me like royalty – Republican, no doubt. I didn’t tell them the truth . . . .why let the facts get in the way of a good story ?
As I’ve said, the spell in gaol was towards the end of a long period of joy-riding, shoplifting and drug-taking, some of which I was lifted for, many others that I got away with. In the 1980s, stealing cars and joyriding was almost a full-time occupation for many of Northern Ireland’s teenage males, especially in the Loyalist and Republican-controlled ghettos. There was always a danger that an untrained driver would crash, accidentally or deliberately, into an army checkpoint and be shot dead, and this happened on multiple occasions during the Troubles. I wasn’t confident enough to drive, but I was a regular passenger in cars that had been stolen by my mates in Belfast city centre and driven at high-speed back up to Glencairn, where they’d be burned out.
This was the scenario one such Saturday night, when we jacked a car just…
Tarred and Feathered: Street Justice Belfast Style
Life during the Troubles
Here are the opening few pages of my bestselling book: A Belfast Child
As a child, I loved the housing estate of Glencairn. To my mind it was paradise. Cut into the hillside, and with unbeatable views of the city on one side and the Divis Mountains on the other, it was like arriving in heaven after the hell of living among the urban sectarian flashpoints of West Belfast. Here were trees, lush green fields, sparkling clear rivers and streams that rushed down from the mountainside and were filled with fish. Us kids spent long hot summers splashing about in the ‘Spoon’, a natural cavernous feature of the landscape filled with water, and feasted on wild berries, strawberries and nuts that grew along the banks of the river.
Here were our close family and friends, housed in the damp flats and maisonettes that had been hurriedly built to house those Protestants ‘put out’ of their homes in the city by avenging Catholics. They too were being burnt from their homes but back then my young Loyalist heart felt no sympathy for them; in my opinion they supported the IRA and had started the ‘war’.
Up in Glencairn we felt safe and free. As long as we all obeyed the rules, of course.
These rules were not the laws of the land. They were not enforced by police, army or government officials. They were not set down in any written form, but we all knew what they were and who had made them. And even as small children, we knew that a heavy price would be extracted for those foolish enough to break the rules. A heavy price, and sometimes a very public price too.
Our two-bedroom maisonette was situated at the bottom of a small grassy hill facing St Andrew’s church Church and the local shopping complex, which consisted of a Chinese chippy, the VG general store, a laundrette, a newsagent’s, a wine lodge and the local Ulster Defence Association – UDA – drinking club called ‘Grouchos’ . In fact, we could roll down it almost to our back door – a game my younger brother David and I played frequently. In the winter when the hill was covered in snow, we would make sledges out of old bits of wood and spend hours and hours going up and down the hill, never feeling the cold. Dad would have a go at us for all the mud and grass we trailed into the flat but his was a good-natured telling-off. The truth was that he was pleased to see us all happy and carefree again after the trauma of the previous few years, and the sudden and final disappearance of my mum.
One late spring afternoon I was revolving rolling towards our back door, Dad’s beloved Alsatian dog Shep (my best friend and constant companion) in hot pursuit. Dad called him Shep after the Elvis song and he was able to knock our letter box with his nose when he wanted to come indoors. The grass had recently been cut and was damp, meaning that it stuck to every part of my clothing. I came to a halt just short of our back wall, the sweet smell of cut grass filling my nostrils, before standing up to brush it all off my jumper. As I did, I noticed my cousin, Wee Sam, running up towards our house from the direction of the main road.
‘John! Davy! C’mon, hurry up! There’s summin’ going on down the shops!’
Wee Sam was red in the face and could hardly get his words out. ‘It must be good,’ I said, ‘cos you look like you’re about to die.’
‘Not me,’ he replied, ‘but there’s a woman down there looks likely to. C’mon, we gotta see this!’
He turned tail and without thought we ran after him. As anyone who’s ever grown up on a housing estate will know, if there’s a commotion taking place word gets around like lightning. In Loyalist Glencairn there was always something going on and it was violent as often as not violent. As we ran, it seemed that from every direction half of estate was also making its way to the shops from every direction facing St. Andrews church from every direction. ‘This must be big,’ I thought as I ran, my wee brother trying to keep up with me. On this estate, as in every area of Belfast afflicted by the Troubles, very few people turned away from troubledanger. The natural sense of curiosity found in spades among Northern Irish people was too strong for that.
In the few minutes it took us to run from our house, a large crowd had already gathered outside the shops. A gang of ‘hard men’, whom we all knew to be paramilitary enforcers, seemed to be at the centre of the action. Local women stood on the fringes of the crowd, shouting, swearing and spitting.
‘Fuckin’ Fenian- loving bitch!’
‘Youse deserve to die, ye fuckin’ Taig-loving hoor!’ (‘Taig’ is an offensive slang term for a Catholic).
I pushed in to get a better look. At the heart of the crowd was a young woman, struggling against the grip of the men holding her. Her cheap, fashionable clothes were torn and her eyes were wild and staring, like an animal’s before slaughter. She screamed for them to take their hands off her, spitting at her accusers and lashing out with her feet. It was no use. One of the bigger guys pulled her hands behind her back and dragged her against a concrete lamppost. Someone passed him a length of rope and with a few expert strokes he’d lashed the young woman against the post by her hands, quickly followed by her feet. She reminded me of a squaw captured by cowboys in the Westerns I loved to watch and then re-enact using local kids in games that could last for days.
Except this wasn’t a game. This was justice Glencairn style – all perfectly normal to me and my peers and we took it in our stride. Although she was still squealing like a pig, the resistance seemed to have gone out of the woman. Smelling blood, the crowd pushed forwards and the woman’s head hung low in shame and embarrassment. One of the men grabbed a hank of her long hair and wrenched her head upwards, forcing her to look him right in the eye.
‘You,’ he said slowly, ‘have been caught going with a Taig, so you have! Do you deny it?’
Now I recognised the woman. She was a girl off the estate. I ha’d seen her walking down Forthriver Road on her way to meet her mini-skirted mates. They’d pile into a black taxi and head into town for a bit of drinking and dancing. I guess it was on one of these nights out that she’d met the Catholic boy – the ‘Taig’ – who was at the centre of the allegations. Good job he wasn’t here now, because he might already be lying in a pool of blood, a bullet through his head.
The woman shook her head. There was no point trying to talk her way out of anything now.
‘Fuck you,’ she said defiantly. ‘Fuck youse all.’
‘Grab her hair!’ shouted a female voice from the crowd. ‘Cut off the fuckin’ lot!’
The enforcer produced a large pair of scissors from his pocket. Slowly, deliberately, he tightened his grip on her hair before hacking savagely at the clump below his fist. Amid cheers he threw it at her feet before continuing his rough barbering skills. Within minutes he’d finished and now the woman looked like a cancer victim. Blood oozed from the indiscriminate cuts he’d made on her head and as it ran down her face it intermingled with her tears and snot. She was not a pretty sight.
‘ back!’ demanded one of the enforcers. The crowd parted and someone came forward with an open tin of bright red paint. Knowing what was to come, and not wanting to be physically contaminated with the woman’s shame, the crowd moved even further back.
The UDA man poured the contents of the tin all over the woman’s head, allowing it to run the entire length of her body, right down to her platform boots. She looked like she’d been drowned in blood. Then a pillow was passed up, and ham-hands the enforcer tore a big hole in the cotton, exposing the contents – feathers, hundreds and thousands of them.
‘G’wan,’ said a voice, ‘give her the full fuckin’ works.’
Without further ado the man poured the white feathers all over the woman, head to toe. They clung to the paint, giving the impression of a slaughtered goose hanging off the telegraph pole.
‘That will teach ye not to go with filthy Taigs,’ said the enforcer. ‘Any more of this and youse’ll get a beating then a bullet, so you will. Understand?’
Through the paint and the feathers came a small nod of the head.
‘Good,’ said the man. ‘And just so ye don’t forget, here’s a wee something we made for you earlier.’
To laughter and jeers, the man produced a cardboard sign which he placed around the woman’s neck. In the same red paint used to humiliate her, someone had written ‘Fenian Lover’ across the middle of the cardboard.
‘Leave her there for half an hour,’ commanded the man to a subordinate, ‘then cut her down.’ The crowd dispersed, a few women spitting on the victim as they left.
‘Jesus,’ said Wee Sam, wide-eyed. ‘Did you see that? Looked like she’d been shot in the head and the feathers were her brain running down her face. Fuckin’ amazing.’
‘Course I saw it,’ I said. ‘I was right at the front, wasn’t I? The bitch deserved it. Imagine going with Taigs, the dirty whorehoor.’
‘Let’s wait round the shops till they chop her down,’ said Sam. ‘See where she goes.’
We’d been playing one of our eternal games of Cowboys and Indians recently and we’d got into the idea of tracking people down stealthily. So we waited until another paramilitary cut the woman’s rope and watched as she slumped to the ground.
‘I think she’s pissed herself,’ said Sam.
‘Ssh,’ I replied, ‘she’ll hear us. Wait while she gets up.’
We watched the woman slowly pick herself up from the pavement. She wiped her eyes and looked around. The area outside the shops was now completely deserted, as though nothing had happened. An angry mob had been replaced by an eerie silence.
As she stumbled off, we nudged each other. ‘Look,’ I said., ‘Look what’s happening. She’s leaving a trail!’
She was too, a trail of blood- red boot prints. We gave her twenty or so yards’ start, then in single file began to follow her, sidling up against walls and lamp-posts like the gang of Cherokees we imagined we were. We must have gone a good quarter- mile when she turned into a pathway leading up to a small, shabby flat. We saw her fumbling in her pocket for a key, noticing the relief on her face as she found it still there. The lock turned and she went inside without a backwards glance.
‘That’s it,’ said Sam, ‘fun’s over. Let’s go home.’
‘Wait,’ I said. I watched as the woman put on a light, looked in a mirror then drew the curtains tightly. Some part of me, the part that wasn’t screaming ‘Fenian bitch!’ with all the others, suddenly felt hugely sorry for her. She only looked about seventeen17 or eighteen18 – not much older than my sister Margaret. What had she really done wrong, other than meet a nice boy she liked? Did she deserve such brutal treatment? After this I never saw her around the estate again. She’d probably fled for her ,life, never to return. And who could blame her?
Something inside of me knew I’d witnessed a terrible thing, yet I knew I couldn’t even begin to think like this. It was against the rules; the same unwritten rules and code of conduct that this young woman had disobeyed. Fear of the paramilitaries created a culture of silence and where we lived this was a survival strategy we all lived by. We were all products of this violent environment and we were had been desensitised conditioned to events that no child should ever have to witness.
I shuddered, pulled my thin jacket close around me and with the others, headed for the safety of home.
Even now, more than forty years later, whenever I smell the sweet smell aroma of cut grass I am transported back to that dusky spring evening in the early 70’s seventies and the woman’s brutal punishment, and I can hardly believe the madness of my childhood in Glencairn.
See below for details on how to order a signed copy:
The book is selling beyond my wildest expectations and the reviews are awesome , so good in fact you’d think I was paying for them ,lol
I have quite a few copies at home and if you would like to receive a signed copy they cost only £10.00 plus postage .
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Date 1st September 2020
Here’s a quick update on the book launch, promo and a link to order a signed copy.
Only thirteen days to go until my life story is in the public domain and having worked on it and waited almost twenty five years to see it in print I must admit I’m extremely nervous and apprehensive about its forthcoming release.
Having grown up during and lived through some of the worst years of the Troubles I know my story is far from unique and many have suffered far more both physically and emotionally due to the nightmare that stalked our lives for thirty long blood soaked years.
However due to the secret of my dual heritage, compounded by growing up in and around some of the most violent Loyalist estates in West Belfast the sudden and final disappearance of my catholic mother hunted me throughout my life and my search for her is the main theme throughout the book. The Troubles provide the backdrop and needless to say my story includes brief accounts of some of the highest profile and soul-destroying times that we all lived through.
Although I know this area will be a very divisive issue I hope when reading it folk bear in mind that I’m writing about these accounts as seen through the eyes of a child living through them.
Despite the madness throughout the book/my life there is much laughter and many accounts also of my crazy teenage years in and around Glencairn and drug fuelled mod years and later the rave scene in and around London. When all is said and done no one else has ever walked in my shoes and although I expect much criticism when folk read the book, I hope it might make them stop and think for a moment : Was it all worth it ?
I think not.
Sadly, due to the coronavirus I will not be doing book signings in Belfast, Scotland and Ireland as originally planned. Thank god because I hate that side of things and wasn’t really looking forward to it to be honest lol. The publisher has informed me that this may change over the coming months and I will keep you updated via here or on Twitter.
If you want a signed copy of the book see blow.
In regards to interviews etc there are quite a few lined up, including radio , podcasts , TV and in print and I will be posting details of these as and when they happen or become available.
Another aspect of the publishing world Im not looking forward to.
The cost is £10.00 plus £2.50 for postage per book.
Please note the book will be dispatched within a few days of payment
Read the introduction to my No.1 Best Selling book here:
‘Historically, Unionist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were first class citizens . . . and without question people believed them. Historically, Republican/Nationalist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were second class citizens . . . and without question the people believed them. In reality, the truth of the matter was that we all, Protestant and Catholic, were third class citizens, and none of us realised it!’
Hugh Smyth, OBE (1941–2014). Unionist politician.
Although I was raised in what is probably one of the most Loyalist council estates in Belfast, I was never what you might term a conventional ‘Prod’. Don’t get me wrong – coming from Glencairn, situated just above the famous Shankill Road and populated by Protestants (and their descendants) who fled intimidation, violence and death in other parts of Belfast at the beginning of the Troubles, I was (and remain) a Loyalist through and through. I was unashamedly proud of my Northern Irish Protestant ancestry (still am) and couldn’t wait for all the fun and games to be had on 12th ‘The Twelfth’, or ‘Orangeman’s Day’ (still can’t). Even after 30 plus years of living away from the place my dreams are populated by bags of Tayto Cheese & n Onion crisps, pastie suppers from Beattie’s on the Shankill and pints of Harp lager. I cheer on the Northern Ireland Football team (though I’m not a massive football fan I watch all the big games) and I bitch frequently about the doings of Sinn Fein.
I’m a working-class Belfast Loyalist through and through and very proud of my culture and traditions. Yet from an early age I sensed that I was somehow different. As a child I couldn’t quite put my finger on it and when I discovered the truth in my early teens, I was embarrassed, mortified and ashamed – but maybe not particularly shocked. I always knew there was something not ‘quite right’ about me. The secret was that I wasn’t as ‘Super Prod’ as I thought; there was another strand of Northern Irish tradition in my background, one that was equally working-class Belfast, but as diametrically opposed to Protestantism as you’re likely to get. There’s a comedy song that probably still does the rounds in clubs across Ireland, North and South, called ‘The Orange and The Green’, the chorus of which goes something like ‘It is the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen/My father he was Orange and my mother she was Green.’ In other words, a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. This song could have been written about our family directly, so closely did it match our dynamic.
Now, if you’re reading this from the comfort of any other country than Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or Scotland, you’ll be (just about) forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Catholics marrying Protestants? So what? No big deal, surely. No one cares . But in a country like Northern Ireland, where tribalism still reigns supreme and the local people can sniff out a person’s religion just by looking at them, theof the ‘mixed marriage’ is still cause for a good gossip, at the very least. During the Troubles period it was an excuse for deep embarrassment, banishment, a paramilitary beating, or worse. Those Protestants and Catholics who married and stuck it out either slunk away into some quiet corner of Northern Ireland, trying to ignore the conflict while hoping the neighbours wouldn’t ask too many questions, or left the place altogether, never to return.
The marriage of my own parents, John Chambers (Protestant) and Sally McBride (Catholic), fell apart in the late 1960s as Belfast burned in the early days of the Troubles. The ferocity of hatred between the city’s two warring communities scorched many people desperately trying to find sanctuary in a country heading towards allout civil war. As we’ll see, my parents’ marriage was among these early casualties. Their lives, and the lives of their four children, would change forever and were shaped by the sectarian madness that tore Belfast and all of Northern Ireland apart and brought us all to the brink of an abyss that threatened and ruined our daily lives.
This isn’t a book about the day-to-day events of Troubles. There are plenty of excellent histories available detailing the period in all its gory glory, and from all viewpoints. If you need deep context, I’d recommend reading one of these, or even visiting Belfast. It’s safe now and as a tourist you won’t find a warmer welcome anywhere on this earth. As we say, Northern Irish people are the friendliest in the world – just not towards each other.
Although I love history I’m not a historian and I don’t intend this book to be a dry run through the events of 1969 onwards. As I child I learned the stories and legends of the Battle of Boyne and the Siege of Derry at my grandfather’ and father’s knees, becoming immersed in the Loyalist culture that would shape and dominate my whole existence.
I just happened to be there at the time – an ordinary kid in an extraordinary situation made even more complicated by the secret of my dual heritage. This is simply the story of a boy trying to grow up, survive, thrive, have fun and discover himself against a backdrop of events that might best be described as ‘explosive’, captivating and shocking the world for 30 long years. I’ve written this book because even I find my own story hard to believe sometimes, and only when I see it on the shelves will I truly know that it happened. In addition, it’s a story I would like my own children and grandchildren to read.
I want them to live in peace, harmony and understanding in a multicultural world where everyone tolerates and respects each other. I suppose I’ve always been a dreamer….
When they read my book, which I hope they will, they might understand what it is to grow up in conflict, hatred and intolerance, and work towards a better future for themselves and others. When I was 20, 21, I knew that if I didn’t leave Northern Ireland soon, I would end up either in prison or dead, or on the dole for rest of my life. This was the brutal reality I was faced with. My own personal journey through life and the Troubles had lead me to a crossroads in my life and I made the monumental choice to leave Belfast and all those I loved behind and start a new life in London.
I would hate to think my son, daughter or nephews and nieces back in Belfast would ever have to make the same drastic judgement about their own situation.
My Loyalist heart and soul respects and loves all mankind, and providing theyou worship or the political system you follow is peaceful and respectful to all others then I don’t have a problem with you and wish you a happy future. Just because I am proud of my Loyalist culture and traditions doesn’t make me a hater or a bigot; it just means I am happy with the status quo in Northern Ireland and wish to maintain and celebrate the union with the UK and honour our Queen.
As a child growing in Loyalist Belfast during the worst years of the roubles I hated Catholics with a passion and I could never forgive them for what I saw as their passive support of the IRA and other Republican terrorist groups. However, unlike many of my peers around me I was never comfortable with the killing of non-combatants, regardless of political or religious background, and I mourned the death of innocent Catholics as much as innocent Protestants. In my childhood I looked up to the Loyalist warlords and those who served them and when they killed an IRA member I celebrated with those around me. As I grew older and wiser my views changed. I no longer based my opinions and hatred on religion, but on politics and the humanity shown to others.
I’m a peace-loving Loyalist and therefore want everlasting peace in Northern Ireland. We do exist, despite perceptions from some quarters, but our voices are rarely heard, drowned out by the actions of the few, and certainly nowhere near as frequently as our Republican neighbours who are very much ‘on message’ with their own take on events. I hope this book goes some way to redressing that balance, and that whatever ‘side’ you might be on (or on no side at all) you will enjoy it, and that it will make you stop and think.
Finally, the story you are about to read is my own personal journey through the Troubles and my perception of growing up in Loyalist Belfast. In no way am I speaking for the wider Loyalist community or Protestant people and the views expressed here are my own. For reasons of security, some names have been changed.
Well folks only 77 days to go until my life story is in the public domain and to say Im nervous would be a gross understatement. But when all is said and done folk have always found my story interesting and this has encouraged me to put in all down on paper and has ultimately lead to: A Belfast Child being published within the very near future.
The one thing that was paramount when telling my story was to be as honest and as frank as possible and this has resulted in the book having many epic highs and at times soul destroying lows and although that may be what folk like to read and find interesting it was mentally and emotionally draining at time revisiting my past and having to relive events and times that still hunt and torment me to this day.
But I never wanted the book to be just another book about the Troubles and i think I have achieved this with the tone and theme of the book and I hope folk will read it and have a better understanding of what it was like to grow up during the worst years of the Troubles in the badlands of Loyalist West Belfast. My story is a reflections of all the kids whom had to live and grow up surrounded by the madness that hunted all the people of Northern Ireland for thirty long brutal years and it is their story also.