MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Much of Belfast owes its being to the Victorian linen mill masters, who, with true Christian charity and a shrewd eye for productivity, built row upon row of workers' houses marching with the symmetry of the Brigade of Guards, terrace following terrace in anonymous uniformity. In the very heart of the city, narrow streets run between the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road.
Many Shankill Protestants are staunchly Loyalist. They salute the Union Jack, believe God to be an Orangeman, and Ian Paisley his anointed. In the Falls district, committed Republicans fly the tricolour of Eire in defiance of the laws of Northern Ireland and belong to such outlawed organizations as the IRA and Sinn Fein. The factions are barely separated yet for years they managed to co-exist despite their deep differences-until the Troubles.
Gerry Connolly was born before the Troubles, on the seventeenth of January, 1950. He came into the world in a corridor of the Royal Maternity Hospital. Too many patients were labouring and being confined for his mother to be afforded a room to herself. His birth occasioned no great stir. He was neatly fielded, eyes swabbed, cord clamped, bottom slapped, wrapped in a towel, shown briefly to his semicomprehending mother, and taken off to an aseptic nursery, where he spent the next six days in the company of fourteen identical infants. At least he had a cot to himself.
Mrs. Connolly took him home to Cupar Street to a small house where a crucifix hung in the bedroom and a plaster image of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes stood on an old dresser in the front parlour. For the first five months of his life he slept alone in a drawer at the foot of his parents' bed, but when his early morning noises became too much for old man Connolly, he was transferred to the room next door, where three elder brothers shared a double bed, and Brendan, only thirteen months his senior, had, until Gerry's arrival, the monopoly of a crib. Brendan did not take kindly to having to double up. From the moment of his birth Gerry was rarely to be entirely alone.
His mother died, quietly, unobtrusively, and with a sigh of relief, bearing the eighth Connolly baby, leaving Gerry a sturdy child of six, already able to hold his own with the other boys in the street. His father, a welder in the shipyard, was too preoccupied with feeding eight mouths to take a very active part in his children's upbringing, but there was a rough affection, a sense of family.
Gerry lived in a crowd. He played on the streets, and on the bomb sites, reminders of the nights the Luftwaffe had visited Belfast, the arse of his trousers torn, his upper lip shiny with a snot track, periodically rubbed away with a grubby sleeve. People, noise, congestion were all part of the normal pattern.
Saint Gall's, where Gerry went to school, was run by priests. The building, of ageing red brick, softened by drizzle and pitted by corrosives from the factory chimneys, squatted in a tarmac yard facing Cupar Way. The fathers, well-meaning men, struggled with their primitive surroundings, the gloomy passages, the high-ceilinged barns that did service as classrooms, and the feeling, prevalent among the children, that book learning was a waste of time. Gerry's lessons were confined to the three Rs and Irish history, taught by a bitter, stunted Nationalist whose idea of the torments of purgatory was to live forever in an Ireland "crushed beneath the Saxon's heel." Gerry did not grasp the imagery of the little priest's diatribes but was made to see clearly the fate of any Catholic foolish enough to become involved with the Protestants.
His early indoctrination was tempered by Father James. The tubby cleric taught by example and illustration, leading rather than driving, rarely having to resort to the cane. Father James, as well as teaching maths, had a special responsibility for religious instruction. He discharged this duty with an eccentric disregard for dogma and preferred to instill a code of behaviour based on the work of Kipling rather than the Holy Writ. Above his lectern a framed copy of "If" took the place of the more customary biblical scene and was religiously recited at the beginning of each lesson. Gerry soon learned the poem by heart and sometimes wondered if Mr. Kipling had written any others.
Gerry was a poor student, but he liked Father James and paid attention in his classes, trying to please. He felt shame beyond endurance when, aged twelve, he was caught copying his homework, and in an effort to save his own skin, told. The priest made Gerry wait behind after class and gave the boy the thrashing of his life, punctuating each stroke with the same words. "Don't you ever tell tales again." Gerry, sobbing, had sworn not to and was dimissed with a curt reminder that a promise was a promise.
Father James had one other talent. For such a rotund man he was remarkably nimble and as a boy he had been a keen boxer. He taught Gerry how to box.
Gerry left school at sixteen. He was a stocky youth, black haired, dark eyed, with a bent nose he'd picked up in the ring. He could read and write and number well enough to know if he had been short-changed on a packet of cigarettes. He was a Catholic, more by conditioning than from any deep conviction. Unemployment was high in Belfast, and the shipyard where Gerry was to have joined his father as an apprentice plater was not taking on. He joined the queues at the Labour Exchange, "the burroo," instead and drew his unemployment benefit from a myopic blonde clerk who, secure in her job, dispensed the money with the condescension of royalty on Maundy Thursday. From time to time he sought work on building sites, travelling on corporation buses packed with men in Dexter coats and smelling of damp undervests. He met with prejudice and was usually turned away disappointed. No one ever asked his religion. The simple question "What school did you go to?" was sufficient to identify him. An inborn acceptance of his inferior status, rather than any generosity of spirit, kept bitterness from marking him.
His days were long. There wasn't much to do but stand on street corners with other men, smoking, talking, wasting his time. Wasting his life. Sometimes to amuse his friends he would recite "If." They would always have a good laugh at the bit about filling the "unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run." All their days were full of unforgiving minutes and nowhere to run to.
Often the conversation would turn to what might happen if the six counties could be reunited with The Republic. Gerry found the visions of Celtic Twilight romantic but unrealistic. He could see that if it happened, his chances of getting a job would be no better and the British dole was higher than the handouts from the Irish government.
And he needed the cash. He had to chip most of it in at home for board and lodge. Da didn't let Gerry keep more than a few bob for pocket money. Enough for fags and beer and the occasional trip to the Palace Ballroom. When he met Bridget there, his life brightened for a while. She was pretty decent about paying her whack, she could afford to, Gallagher's cigarette factory gave its women workers a fair wage, but she drew the line at buying his pints or cinema tickets. Good thing she got lots of free samples of smokes.
Sometimes Gerry would spend a few bob on science fiction magazines that he bought in a second-hand bookstore in Smithfield Market. There he came across an old copy of Rudyard Kipling. Selected Verse. He thumbed through the pages looking for "If." He felt as though he had found an old friend, gave a moment's thought to Father James, and bought the book.
It took him several months to read it all. He did not understand a lot of the poems, but some of the ones about soldiers, the ones that told stories, were as exciting as any of the Buck Rogers stuff. Kipling's far-away places were closer than Altair or Beetlegeuse, though Gerry realized that he was as likely to go to Afghanistan or India as to the Spiral Nebula. "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" was his favourite poem. He found something heroic about the soldiers of the broken British square, even though he knew he should be pleased about anything that gave the Brits a poke in the eye.
He'd tried to read some Kipling to Bridget but she'd thought it was silly. She didn't like poetry much. In fact, she didn't really like Gerry much anymore. Any man good enough for her had to have a steady job.
For several months he missed their heated fumblings in the back rows of cinemas or the dark alleys of the Falls. She'd never let him go all the way, but then he hadn't expected to. Girls brought up at convent schools were like that. He hadn't bothered much with girls since. He'd put away the Kipling, too.
He settled for loitering with his mates and his rarely successful attempts to find short-term labouring jobs. Sunday was the bright spot of most of his weeks. Da and Gerry and the rest of the boys would go to Casement Park and watch Gaelic football or hurling matches. They'd done that for as long as Gerry could remember. Da was funny about Sundays. He insisted that after the game the whole family would sit down for the supper Gerry's sisters had prepared. Da said it kept the family together.
Fridays, dole day, Gerry spent the afternoons in betting shops and the evenings in the pub. Over a pint of stout, he was as happy as the next man to blame all his troubles on "Them" at Stormont but in reality understood little of events in the political world, events over which he had no control.
* * *
Robert Atkinson, Her Majesty's Minister of Industry and Commerce, sat in an oak-panelled office in London. He had a hangover, which put him in remarkably bad humour. The occasion responsible for his pounding head had not been pleasant. Last night he had been taken to dinner by some very strong-willed men from Ulster who had come to persuade him to give more money to the already shaky shipyards. They kept him in conversation for much longer than he had anticipated, the while plying him with a very excellent brandy.
His temples throbbed and his mouth felt gritty. No doubt the shipbuilders had made convincing arguments, but so had the people who wanted his ministry to fund a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland. The Highlands were as economically depressed as Northern Ireland. He was supposed to have dinner with the Scots delegation again tonight, and, perish the thought, they were probably hoping to sway him with single malt whisky.
He saw little to choose between the two proposals. In the end it all boiled down to politics. The Scots if disappointed would not vote Labour in the next general election, and the Scottish seat was marginal at best. Ulstermen? They had no choice. No matter what he did they'd vote Conservative and Unionist if they wanted to keep their gloomy six counties part of Great Britain. The Tories had played that card since the days of Lord Edward Carson and Winston Churchill. Besides, he would have to visit the recipients of his industrial grant and the salmon fishing was a damn sight better up north.
The insistent ringing of his telephone intruded, and he was less than pleased to hear the nasal voice of the head of the Ulster delegation.
"Well, minister, have you decided yet?"
He sighed. "Terribly sorry, old man. There's simply not enough to go round. I only wish there-"
"Bugger you." The line went dead.
Robert Atkinson sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and hoped that the repercussions of his decision would not be too catastrophic.
* * *
On the day that this conversation was taking place, Gerry was trying-and failing-to find work. It had been several months since his last job, and the boredom of enforced idleness made the hours hard to fill. He placed a few hopeful bets at the bookie's, killing time between races in a pub across the street. He took his pint with spiritless men, long unemployed, who sat on rough benches, drank from straight pint glasses of watery porter, reminisced, swore, spat in the sawdust, resignedly tore up losing tickets, and selected more runners from dog-eared copies of the local paper.
Gerry rose from his seat. He'd had enough of the cramped room. The cigarette fug made his eyes water. He might as well go home. None of his horses had come in.
He stepped out onto the street and pulled a few coins from his pocket. Shit. Not even enough for bus fare. Ach well, he was in no rush. The walk would fill a bit of time. Those other fellows in the pub were enough to make anyone miserable. He felt cleaner just being in the open air, such as it was in the city. He walked on. An unimaginative display in the window of an army recruiting office briefly caught his eye. He smiled. He didn't need to break his stride to know that it promised "A Man's Life." Had they used posters like that when Mr. Kipling was writing?
Gerry felt the unspoken, subdued feeling of apprehension the moment he arrived home. His father, naturally inarticulate, was even less communicative.
"What's up, Da?"
"Yard's going to lay off more men."
No wonder the old man was tight-lipped. Liam, one of his younger brothers, had been given his cards last week.
"What about them bosses that went to London?"
"There's a rumour out they done no good."
"Have you not seniority, Da?"
A derisive snort. "Served my time before you were born. Fat lot of good it'll do me if they close the graving dock."
"Maybe the rumours is wrong?"
"Aye. Maybe." Da's eyes held little hope.
The blow fell three days later.
"Twenty-seven fucking years at the Big Yard." Da stood looking out the kitchen window, his back to Gerry. "D'you know that song, 'Belfast Mill'? '... I'm too old to work but I'm too young to die.' That's me, Gerry." Da turned. "I'm not saying it's because I'm a Catholic but a brave few of the Protestants got kept on. I just don't know how we're going to get by."
Gerry soon saw how strapped the family was. He tried desperately to find work.
He and Da went down together on Friday to collect their dole. Da counted the few notes.
"Ach, to hell with it, Gerry. Come on. I'll buy you a jar. Just the one."
On the way to the pub they passed the army office. The recruiting poster still hung in the window. Gerry stopped and stared. "Come here a minute, Da."
His father turned back. "What?"
"I could join up."
"Not at all. England's always fought her wars on the backs of the Irish. Come on." Da strode off.
Ach, well. It had only been a notion anyway.
They stood together at the bar. The pub was packed.
Da took a deep swallow of his pint. "Were you serious?"
Just like Da. Say "no" then think a thing over.
"Well, it would be one less mouth to feed at our house, and the pay's not bad. I could maybe send a few quid home." I could get out of Belfast, too. Even see Mr. Kipling's India, he thought. That idea was suddenly appealing.
"We'd miss you, son."
"Aye, but I'd get home on leaves. I might even get sent to Palace Barracks at Holywood."
Da finished his drink. "Get that down you. We'll go and have a word with the sergeant. You're under age at seventeen. I'd need to sign some papers."
Gerry wished the sergeant wasn't in such a hurry, rattling through the routine. The little ceremony was important to Gerry. The papers were quickly completed, Da signed, and Gerry found himself holding a Bible and taking the oath of allegiance. The phrases were solemn, and their sounds pleasing. The soldier sitting at the desk opposite might not care, but as Gerry returned the book he suddenly remembered Father James and heard his words, "A promise is a promise."
"Right, then," said the sergeant. "Come back here next Monday. Bring your suitcase. I'll have your orders and a travel warrant."
"Yes, sergeant." The man didn't look a bit like Gerry's image of the colour-sergeant in Kipling's "Danny Deever."
Da grunted. "That's that then." He took Gerry's arm. "Come on. We'll have one more wee wet. Going away present."
And Gerry saw that Da's eyes were misted.
* * *
It would be two years before Gerry returned to Belfast. A very different Belfast. Much was to happen to him in those two years. At Catterick Camp in Yorkshire he was surprised by the impersonality of induction, but was no stranger to the indignities of communal living. The jostling, like cattle, in a mass of bodies through the showers, hair cuts, inoculations, free-from-infection-inspections, and kit issues did not bother him. Nor did the idea of sleeping twenty to a barracks, messing in echoing halls with crowds of other bewildered recruits.
He soon settled into the life of a peace-time soldier. "Boots-boots-boots-boots, movin' up and down again." He didn't mind. The discipline was tolerable, and Sergeant Edwards, in charge of Gerry's hut, may have been a living caricature, but he was no worse than many of the priests at Gerry's old school. The course of Gerry's basic training, where he learnt the intricacies of the about-turn on the march, the workings of the FN rifle, and the traditions of his regiment, passed uneventfully.
He liked the traditions and was sure Mr. Kipling would have approved, and among the men of his platoon he found a new family. Most of the men were Cockneys. At first he ignored their teasing about his being Irish, but when a big lad from Bermondsey called Gerry a "thick bloody Paddy" once too often and the other men laughed, Gerry snapped, "Fuck off."
The ensuing brawl might have been just another barracks scrap if Sergeant Edwards hadn't arrived, dressed both men down, and ordered them to the gymnasium. Gerry had learned Father James's lessons well. He demolished the big private in the first round, and Sergeant Edwards promptly put Gerry on the boxing team where he managed to win a lot of bouts and quite a bit of money for his platoonmates. The English squaddies soon became his friends.
Anne didn't approve of his boxing, and Gerry, not wanting to do anything that might displease her, packed it up after the Regimental finals.
He'd met her one Sunday. He had gone by himself to Richmond, a town a few miles north of the camp. Usually he went out with his mates but sometimes he just wanted to be on his own. He would take long walks over the Yorkshire Dales, never ceasing to marvel at their peacefulness. The first time he had stared out over all that empty space he had felt a little frightened. All his life he had lived in crowds, comfortable with people and narrow places. Once he had recovered from his initial unease, he found that up there in the hills there was a tranquillity he had never known existed. And there was something wonderful about being alone, feeling like the only human being on Earth. It was good to be solitary but The Dales were even better when Anne came along.
Before he met her that day he'd been sitting on a dry stone wall reading Da's last letter. It contained the usual, "Thanks for the money. Nobody can get work. When are you coming home, son?" Da had asked that in his last letter, and the one before. Gerry sighed. The army had opened a new world to him. He didn't want to leave it. Ever. He'd stuffed the letter back into his pocket and headed back to the small town. He knew he should go to Belfast. Maybe on his next long leave. It would be good to see Da again.
He'd fancied a cup of tea and had gone into a small café. He was struck by the hazel of the waitress's eyes, a dimple that appeared on her left cheek when she smiled, and how freshly she smelled. Not like that Bridget back in Belfast.
He often wondered why she had said "yes" when he'd plucked up enough courage to ask her out.
They walked the Yorkshire moors together as often as he could get free. He fell in love.
One Saturday afternoon they sat together in the lee of a wall, high on a ridge. Gerry looked down over the brown and purple heather, studded with white sheep, to a granite cottage snug in its farmyard in the valley.
He'd proposed to her that day, in a roundabout kind of a way. She'd asked why he never went back home and he'd tried to explain that he sent his da money and never had enough left for the fare. Then he'd blushed and said he should go because he wanted his folks to meet her. She'd pretended not to know what he meant but had happily accepted his stumbling, "Because I want to marry you." When he had tried to explain that because she was a Protestant and he was a Catholic there might be some difficulties, she had indignantly demanded to know what that had to do with anything?
Gerry, so enraptured with her, had forgotten for a while what he had said that afternoon, but he soon had cause to remember his reply. "Where I come from, it matters a whole hell of a lot."
* * *
Indeed it did. Soon after Gerry proposed, the situation started to deteriorate in Northern Ireland. In their letters Da and the married sister Eileen mentioned that things were getting worse. Gerry felt vaguely concerned for his family yet delighted to be well away from the place. Sure Da and the others would be all right.
Gerry couldn't afford to marry until he was promoted to lance corporal, and he had every reason to believe his advancement was imminent. They kept their engagement secret. Until things settled down a bit in Ulster he was even more concerned about how Da would react to the news that his son wanted to marry a Protestant.
In August 1969 all hell broke loose. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, no longer able to contain the riots in Belfast and Londonderry, asked for help from the British regiment garrisoned in Ulster. The General Officer Commanding Forces (NI) sent a terse request to the War Office for more men.
The Honourable Ronald Atkinson, moved in a recent cabinet shuffle from Commerce to the Ministry of Defence, made the case to cabinet. They approved. He phoned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the decision was made. The first battalion was already stationed in Ulster. It would make sense to dispatch the second battalion from Catterick, a battalion where private Connolly of B Company Rifle Platoon was ordered to pack his kit and prepare for embarkation.
The mess hall was packed. Gerry, sitting in the middle of the crowd, watched a young captain mount the podium.
The buzz of conversation stilled.
"Good evening. I am Captain Bristow. I want to tell you a little about what's going on across the water."
It seemed that in early 1967 a civil rights movement had been founded in Belfast. The students of Queen's University had felt it to be their sacred trust to protest. Copying the Americans, the captain suggested. It was unimportant what they protested about as long as they made themselves heard. One or two attempts to publicize the plight of the Biafran refugees and the war in Vietnam had failed in the face of public apathy.
No one, said Captain Bristow, was exactly sure who had the inspiration to demand fair treatment of the Catholic minority, and although this was something the populace could be expected to understand, it was probable that even this bit of agitation would have fizzled out had it not been for the inevitable backlash from right-wing Protestants. There had been ugly scenes in January when protesters had tried to march from Belfast to Londonderry. In the next six months, name-calling had turned to scuffles, scuffles to riots, and riots to a state close to open civil war. The guns were out on the Falls and the Shankill, and men were dead. That was why the army units already involved in peacekeeping were being reinforced. Their job would be to keep the two sides apart and protect the Catholic population.
He went on about not upsetting civilians, cooperating with the police, details of troop movements, but Gerry was more concerned for his family and worried because he was not going to see Anne. The convoys to the troopship waiting in Liverpool were leaving tomorrow. All passes were cancelled.
He was able to phone her, tell her how much he loved her, ask her to wait, but Gerry was still worrying as the ship docked at Queen's Quay. He stood at the rail. The docks looked the same. He had left from this very berth only two years before.
He forgot about Anne as he sat near the tailgate of a one-tonner while the convoy made its way slowly through the city. He caught glimpses of broken glass, boarded-up windows, dirty black scars where petrol bombs had melted the tarmac. The shells of burnt houses, black like rotten teeth, interrupted the regular terraces. Over all hung a mist of smoke, acrid in his nostrils.
He shrank from the jeers as the lorry went past sullen knots of men and women. The people, he realized, had been scorched too.
Once in the barracks, unpacked and properly fed, Gerry's platoon was ordered to report to Captain Bristow for a further briefing.
The captain used a wooden pointer to demonstrate on a large scale map of Belfast.
"There are gangs of hooligans here, here, and here."
Gerry strained to make out the street names and flinched when he saw that the stick rested one street north of Cupar Street.
"We are not yet prepared to patrol at night in the alleys between the Shankill and the Falls. Headquarters thinks the IRA may be on the streets there. Those boyos are almost certainly armed."
There wasn't even a phone in Da's house. Gerry could only hope the old man was all right.
"Ardoyne and Turf Lodge are the responsibility of first battalion. It's coming under control up there. When the rest of your unit arrives, second battalion will move into the Falls. Now. Any questions?"
Gerry had one, but before he could ask a Cockney voice shouted, "'Ow can we tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants, sir?"
"You've heard that Orange song, "The Sash My Father Wore"? Whistle it. If you get to the second verse and still have your teeth-you're whistling at a Protestant."
He waited for the laughter to subside.
"Very well. Last thing. If there are any men here who come from Belfast, report to my office. Dismiss the men, sergeant."
Gerry reported to the company office.
"You must be very worried, Private Connolly."
Gerry remained at attention.
"You've family here?"
"Up the Falls, sir. Cupar Street."
"Mmm." Gerry watched as Captain Bristow consulted a sheaf of documents. He looked up. "There was a Connolly family on Cupar Street."
"They've been rehoused in a block of flats on Divis Street. Here."
"Are they all right?"
"Sorry. Can't tell you that." Gerry could see concern in the captain's eyes. "That's their new address and I've given you a pass until ten tonight." He handed Gerry the papers. "Do not try to go there in uniform. Good luck, Private Connolly. Dismiss."
Gerry slammed to attention, saluted, made a smart about-turn and marched out. Jesus. It had been all very well over there in Yorkshire, pretending to himself that he had left Belfast behind, but Da and the lads could be in all kinds of shit. Gerry's hands trembled.
He changed into civvies and took a taxi to the address Captain Bristow had given him. It should have been a twenty-minute journey but it seemed to be taking forever. Detours past the worst-hit areas accounted for some of the lost time, but the continual checking of credentials, both by the military and by self-appointed civilian groups, caused the most delay. Jesus, this was bad.
The taxi stopped again. A soldier stuck his head through the driver's window. "Driver's licence, please."
Enough. Gerry looked at the meter and thrust the notes at the cabby. "I'll walk from here." He climbed out.
"Just a minute, sir." The soldier, menacing in full riot gear, grabbed Gerry's arm. "I'll have to see some identification."
Gerry pulled out his army paybook. "Here."
The soldier scanned it. "I'd not go up there if I was you, mate. They've all gone fucking mad."
Gerry grabbed his paybook and ran. The evidence of the rioting was everywhere. Some of the terrace houses were gutted, stark, pitiful in their nakedness. Smoke and tear gas fumes stung his eyes and made them water. Broken glass crunched underfoot. He stopped to catch his breath and bent over, hands on knees. As he straightened up, he came face to face with a group of men. Men carrying pick handles. One spoke.
"Who're you?" His voice was flat.
Gerry let his natural Belfast accent thicken as he said, "Gerry Connolly."
"Where are you going?"
"Home. Cupar Street."
"You're a fucking liar." The big man hefted the pick handle. "Cupar Street was burned out two nights ago."
"I know that, for Christ's sake, but my da and my brothers is here." He dug in his pocket and handed the address to his interrogator.
"Say your name was Connolly?" another man asked. "Have you a brother, Brendan?"
"Brendan Connolly?" The man handed Gerry back his paper. "He's with us."
Gerry did not like the way the men were looking at him.
"Hang about. You the Connolly that joined the army?"
Gerry heard the suspicious tone of the man's voice, but if they knew Brendan he must have told them about his brother in England. There was no point lying. "Aye. What about it?"
The big man took a step forward. "We hate fucking soldiers."
For a moment Gerry thought he was done for until another of the group intervened. "Hold on, Huey. The Connollys is decent folk. Leave the lad alone. He's a Catholic."
"I just want to see my folks. See they're all right, like."
"Leave him be, Huey."
Huey lowered his club. "Aye. All right. Come on. Me and the lads'll take you down there."
Gerry had not realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled. "Thanks very much."
Ten minutes later he stood in the shabby hall of a six-storey block of flats. His escorts had left. Huey had said, before turning away, "Don't you come back round here again. I told you, we don't like fucking soldiers."
Gerry wiped his sweaty palms along the sides of his trousers. He took the lift to the sixth floor and hunted along the narrow corridor for number 605. There. Plastic numerals hung lopsidedly from a door that had long ago been brown but now bore deep gouges and scrawled graffiti. He rang the bell.
Da answered the door. Gerry flinched when he saw how much his father had aged-once thick black hair now thinning and greying, a paunch that had not been there before.
Da growled, "Where'd you come from?"
"Palace Barracks. My unit's been sent here." Gerry pushed past his father into a cramped room, furnished with a cheap table and chair set and two large armchairs. The stuffing was leaking from one of the armchairs. "Are you not pleased to see me?"
Da closed the door. "Decent of you to let us know you were coming."
Jesus, but Da could be sarky. "Come on, Da. I'd no chance to."
"All right. Sit down."
Gerry sat. No wonder Da was upset. It must have been bloody awful, being burnt out. "Look, I'm sorry. Fair enough? How're you doing, anyway?"
Da took the seat opposite. "I suppose I'm all right." His voice was listless. "Me and Brendan and Liam and Turloch's living here now. Home away from fucking home."
The bitterness in his father's words hurt. Eileen had said in one of her notes that their da was turning sour. No wonder.
"It's been bad, like?"
"You never seen anything like it. Two nights ago..." He sat hunched forward, forearms on his knees, staring into Gerry's eyes. "There was hundreds of the buggers. Hundreds. They chucked bricks, chunks of iron manhole covers." He shook his head. "Some Protestant fucker threw a Molotov cocktail through our front window." He sat back and pointed at Gerry. "The young lads weren't in. Me and Brendan was bloody lucky to get out alive."
"I heard about the riots, Da. I've seen some of the wreckage. It must've been bloody awful."
"You don't know the half of it. It's a damn good thing Liam and Turloch was out."
"The boys is all right then?"
Da relaxed a bit, crossing his legs, scratching his head. "Your big brothers is well out of this. You mind they left home after you joined up?"
Gerry wanted to ask about them, but Da ploughed on. "Eileen and her man popped in last night, just to see how we're doing here, me and Brendan and the two youngest ones." He waved his arm round the little room dismissively. "How the hell would we be getting on, four of us in this pokey wee place?"
"Right enough. It's not Buckingham Palace. I suppose it could have been worse."
"Worse? How could it have been worse, for Christ's sake?"
"You could all've been killed."
"Fuck." Da rose from the chair and stood, arms hanging limply. Gerry noticed the stoop in his father's stance, saw his lower lip begin to protrude. "We bloody nearly were. Jesus, Gerry, it's desperate the way things are going. Minding your own business. Some Prod git throws a petrol bomb into your parlour-" Da raised his voice and shook a fist under Gerry's nose. "I worked bloody hard to buy that house an' rear you youngsters right."
Gerry pulled his head back and took a deep breath. "I know, Da. I know." He stood and hugged his father. "I'm just glad to see you in one piece. I've been away near two years, you know."
His hug was slowly returned. "Ach, Jesus, Gerry. I'm just mad, that's all. You're right. Sit down. Tell us what you've been up to." He lowered himself into the chair, but Gerry remained standing.
"My platoon only just got here. My officer's a decent man. He give me a pass so I could come over. See how you were, like."
"Aye. Well. You've seen."
"I know. It's not great."
"Gerry, you feel so fucking helpless."
"Maybe now there's more of us soldiers we can help."
"Fat lot of good the soldiers have done so far. They're meant to protect the likes of us." Da laughed derisively.
Gerry sat and put one hand on his father's arm. "Da, they're doing their best."
"Aye. Well, it's not good enough. The Lord helps those that help themselves. Brendan and the boys are out tonight." He grimaced. "They're for getting together a bunch of the rest of the folks and tomorrow night the lot of them are going down the Shankill. Show those Protestant fuckers." He looked at Gerry for a long moment. "Would you go with them?"
Gerry pulled his hand from his father's arm. "Ach, come on, Da. You know I can't get into anything like that." He tried to make a joke of it. "My sergeant wouldn't like it."
"Look, Gerry, you're a Connolly, an' a Catholic. I want you here."
That was an order. The old man was asking for the ranks of the family to close. Gerry found he was at a complete loss for words. He needed time to think.
"D'you hear, Gerry?"
"I'm a Connolly right enough, Da. And I go to mass on Sundays. But I'm a soldier too, so I am. You were there the day I took the oath." Gerry looked for some sign, any sign that Da had understood. "I can't get into civvy fights, sure you know that."
Da's nostrils flared. He clenched his teeth and growled, deep in his throat. "You mean you won't. Away on back to your English friends." He pointed, his finger quivering. "You needn't come round here till you're with us."
"Da, don't be like that."
"Get out." Gerry felt himself seized by one shoulder. "Get out, you turncoat. You're no son of mine!"
Gerry rose slowly. "I'm sorry, Da." He had to make one more attempt. "Look, I can't go back on my word."
"Get out. Get out. I'll hear no more."
Gerry was close to tears by the time he found a cabby who was willing to drive out to Holywood. He sat in the backseat, wishing he had brought a warmer coat. It was cold in the taxi, as cold as Da's, "You're no son of mine," which refused to stop repeating in Gerry's mind. Maybe if he had come for a few visits in the last couple of years, Da would have understood. Still, he couldn't desert, could he? He owed loyalty to his own flesh and blood, but he owed allegiance to his mates in the company and the traditions of the regiment. And then there was Anne. God, but he missed her.
"Two pound fifty."
"You're home, mate."
Gerry stared through the window at the high barbed-wire fence. The posts and coils of razor wire were stark against the dusk sky.
"Right." He paid the driver and identified himself to the sentry. As the gates swung shut, Gerry paused and looked at the tarmac parade ground, the rows of wooden huts, the red brick headquarters building, the flagpoles with the Union Jack and the regimental colours. The whole place seemed pretty bleak, but the driver was right. It was home now.
Some home, he thought, as he tossed restlessly in his cot. Lights out had been hours ago, but sleep would not come. All around him men snored or muttered. The place stank of farts and dirty socks. He closed his eyes and tried to picture the peace of the Yorkshire Dales but all he could see were burnt houses, shattered glass, charred timbers-and the look on Da's face, "You're no son of mine."
What the hell was he going to do? Da had reared them all after Ma died. God only knew how hard that must have been. He owed Da. But he owed the army too. Blood's thicker than water. A promise is a promise.
He drifted into an uneasy doze and woke before reveille. As the weak light of a watery dawn crept through gaps in the curtains he decided. He'd have to go back and see Da. Try to explain. Hope that the old man had been so mad with worry and his desire for revenge that he hadn't been thinking straight.
Other men stirred. Usually most of his mates liked to stay in their sacks until the very last minute but today was going to be different. No wonder the rest of the lads were rising early. As soon as the rest of 2nd battalion had been briefed, his platoon would be going on the streets. And after what he had seen last night he knew that it would be no Sunday School picnic.
Gerry just had time for a quick wash and a hasty breakfast before the Motor Transport lorries started to arrive.
The one-tonner stopped on the Grosvenor Road. Gerry smelled the fear of the men around him, yet sensed that his mates, like him, were taking comfort from the nearness of well-known faces.
Sergeant Edwards formed them up on the pavement.
"Right, you lot. Next street up's the Falls Road. The bobbies are in a bit of bother there. Our job's to dig 'em out. And, remember what our officer said. 'Be nice to the civilian population'."
Gerry had never seen such a sneer on the company sergeant's face.
He soon understood why.
The platoon advanced and turned the corner. Gerry could only stare, open-mouthed. A group of green-uniformed RUC men was hemmed in by a mob of rioters. The policemen had been backed up against the wall of Isaac Agnew's burnt-out car dealership and were trying to take cover behind their long perspex shields. Their attackers pelted the hapless men with a constant barrage of rocks and bottles. A Molotov cocktail arched through the air, smashed on the ground, and flared into stinking petrol flame.
The noise deafened him. Shrieks, curses, yells of pain, and a savage metallic clamour like a demented Jamaican steel band. Women standing in doorways, beating on dustbin lids with wooden spoons.
And the sergeant expected them to go into this? Jesus. It wasn't "Gunga Din" anymore. More like "Fuzzy Wuzzy," and the people in that mob were the savages.
Gerry glanced at the private in the rank beside him. The Bermondsey man. He saw stark terror in his eyes.
"Platooon. Shun." The sergeant's orders could hardly be heard above the earsplitting row.
Crash of boots on tarmac.
"Sloooope arms. Poooort arms."
Gerry held his FN aslant across his chest.
Gerry took a very deep breath and stepped out.
He heard someone yell, "Here come the fucking soldiers!"
His world dissolved into a blur of missiles, swinging rifle butts, egg stains on a child's torn sweater disappearing under a flood of blood from the boy's split head. The lad going down shrilly screaming, "Baastaards!"
A jagged piece of concrete thumped Gerry on the shoulder. He would have fallen if another soldier hadn't grabbed his arm.
Gerry had tried to avoid hitting anyone. These were his own people after all. The piece of concrete changed that. He waded in swinging the riflebutt not caring if teeth were lost or bones shattered. The platoon slowly gained ground. The mob was losing. That was all that mattered.
How long the battle lasted he had no idea. All he knew was that he was desperately relieved to be sitting back in the one-tonner. His shoulder throbbed, but by the looks of some of his friends, he had escaped lightly. All of the men were filthy, many had jagged tears in their uniforms. One sat forward, holding his head as blood dripped on the lorry's floor and a medical orderly tried to staunch the flow.
Gerry's old boxing opponent sat on the bench opposite, wiggling a tooth between his finger and thumb. "Fuck it. I'll lose this one." He raised his eyes to heaven. "You're all right, Gerry, but the rest of that lot are nothing but a bunch of thick bloody bogtrotters."
Gerry was in no mood to be offended. This was the bloke who had hauled him to his feet when the concrete struck. "How do you mean, thick?"
"Christ, mate. We took a bit of a pasting, but did you see what we did to them? Paddies, two. Army, two hundred."
Gerry knew his platoonmate was exaggerating, but he also recognized the truth. It was fucking madness to pit civilians against armed troops who were trained in riot control.
"They are bloody stupid. You're right."
Gerry lapsed into silence. Now that the action was over he could not help thinking about Da and what he'd said. Brendan and the rest were going to start a street fight tonight. They'd be massacred if the troops were sent in. He'd have to warn them. He'd have to.
* * *
Captain Bristow had given Gerry another pass and he stood in the flat's foyer willing the ancient lift to return to the ground floor. He was wet and out of breath. He'd had to run all the way from the City Hall. Through the pissing downpour. The taxi driver had laughed. Drive onto Divis Street? Not bloody likely.
Gerry had not liked the look of what he had seen on his way. There was an awful lot of sullen people on the streets, and curfew time wasn't far off. Those folks shouldn't be there, he thought, as he stabbed at the call button again. At least he hadn't run into Huey and his crowd.
Come on. Come on. He hit the call button. At last the doors opened. Gerry jostled a fat woman as he ran in and pushed the button for the sixth floor. He had to be in time to stop Brendan and the rest.
He left the lift, tore down the hall, and pounded on the door of 605.
Da answered. His face lit up in a huge grin. "Gerry, I knew you'd come. I knew it." He grabbed Gerry's hand and shook it. "Go on now, boy, away on down. If you take the back alley, you'll catch the rest of the boys. They've only gone about five minutes." He clasped his son's upper arm. "They wouldn't take me with them, said I'd to stay on here and mind the place, but they'll be as pleased as me to see you."
Gerry heard the pride in his father's voice and for a moment wanted to obey.
"Come on, boy, what's keeping you? Have I to say I'm sorry for roasting you last night? You know I am."
"That's not why I came, Da."
"I'm having no part in it. I came to get you to see sense. There's no good fighting. You'll only get hurt worse." He sank into one of the armchairs, head bowed. "Ach, but it's no use, there's nothing I can do now." Gerry waited. Then he looked up.
Da was shaking his head slowly, like a dazed prizefighter. Did he still not understand? "You're not going? You mean that? You're not going?"
After last night Gerry had expected Da to rage, but instead he sounded sad. Defeated. "I don't understand. I just don't understand. Why?" There was a catch in his father's voice as he took the chair opposite. "Do we mean nothing to you anymore? Haven't you seen what's been going on?" He reached over, lifted Gerry's face, looked deeply into his eyes. "Are you scared, is that it, are you scared? I know I was wild. I said you were no son of mine-am I right, Gerry?"
Gerry had never heard his father plead. He usually demanded. It was unsettling. Gerry spoke slowly, his voice tired. "Yes, I'm scared, but not the way you think, Da. I was in one of those riots today, I seen what happens to people down there. Da, the soldiers'll murder the boys. They've no mission." Gerry saw the hurt on his father's face. "Don't you see, Da? There's nothing to gain from getting your head split. It won't get you back to Cupar Street. It won't make the Prods love you."
All the time they had been talking Gerry had been aware of noises coming from the street below. Suddenly the clamour became louder.
He stood and stepped to the window. Below him a crowd was retreating towards the flats. They were being pushed back by a squad of soldiers, helmeted, rifles at the high port.
"Da, come here and look at this."
Gerry felt the presence of his father by his shoulder, heard the old man say, "Ah, fuck."
Gerry didn't turn to Da. He could not tear his eyes away from the scene below. Behind the soldiers a police water wagon, armoured, repulsive as some of the bug-eyed monsters he'd read about in his science fiction stories, poured high-pressure jets at the demonstrators. He watched as a woman was caught and hurled aside. Her forearm, stark white against the black of the tarmac, was bent at an impossible angle. The bone must have snapped. Paddies, two. Army, two hundred.
Behind him the door slammed open.
Gerry spun and saw his brother Liam standing there soaked, dishevelled, panting. "For God's sakes, Da. It's a fucking shambles down there."
Gerry went to hug his brother but was stopped dead when Liam snarled, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Da told us you were here last night. You wouldn't come with us."
Da put up one hand. "Easy, son. Sit down for a minute and gather yourself."
"Sit down? Sit down?" Liam dragged in another great breath. "There's no fucking time for sitting. Brendan's in deep shit."
"Is he hurt?"
"Worse. He shot a policeman."
Da crossed himself.
Gerry looked from Liam to his father and back again. No one spoke.
Finally Da begged, "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm fucking well sure. Wasn't I with him?"
"Oh, God, Liam. Where is he now?"
"Dunno. Him and me got split up. The last I seen he was charging up a back alley. I think he got away all right."
"God, I hope so. If the soldiers catch him, they'll murder him."
Gerry moved to the centre of the room, away from Da and Liam, away from the hellish racket below. He flinched as shots punctuated the eldritch howling. There was no mistaking the sounds of gunfire, clear and staccato above the rumbling of the armoured car. He slammed his hands over his ears, but they did not stop him hearing Da say, "Right, we'll need to get Brendan and Liam over The Border. Brendan will likely make for here and between the four of us we'll manage it."
"How, for fuck's sake?" Liam asked.
Da spoke rapidly. "We'll hide him till, you, Gerry-Take your hands off your head and listen."
Gerry bit his lip as he obeyed. He couldn't get involved in this.
"Go an' get your uniform."
What was Da asking him to do? Gerry shook his head.
"Gerry. Go and get your fucking uniform. When Brendan comes, you can escort him and Liam past the patrols. Tell the Brits the lads are your prisoners. If they can get out of the Falls, they can steal a car and head south."
Gerry straightened his shoulders. He wasn't a youngster anymore to do as he was bid. What Da wanted him to do was wrong. He clenched his teeth. "No."
"What?" Da's voice rose to a high-pitched shout. "I'm talking about the family."
"So Da was right about you?" Liam hawked and made as if to spit. "Blood's not thicker than water?"
Gerry looked at his brother's face and saw contempt, anger and hatred.
"Keep you out of this, Liam." Da pointed a finger at his younger son. He turned to Gerry and pleaded. "Gerry, Gerry, you told me why you wouldn't fight, but-this is your brother we're talking about. For the love of God, you must help. You must." He seized Gerry by the shoulders.
"I can't, Da." Gerry felt like he had as a wee lad when Da had wanted him to catch a hurling ball in his bare hands. He'd known it would hurt and had begged his father not to throw. The old man had kept on and on until Gerry had caved in. The hard ball had stung his hands and he'd cried. He looked Da in the eyes and said, as distinctly as he could above the din, "No. Now let me be."
"Ah, Jesus. Why not?"
It was the hurling ball all over again. Da simply did not know when to quit. Gerry began to tremble, but fought back. "Because-I told you this before-do you remember the day you signed me in? Do you remember me with a Bible in my hands swearing an oath? Remember?"
"Is that all it is?" For God's sake, Da was smiling. "What's your word to the English anyway? How often have they kept their word? If you've any love for us, any love at all, you must help." He spoke softly, gently.
More shots rang out from the street. Da's grip on Gerry's shoulders tightened, and he pulled away. Keep your bloody hurling ball, Da. "Let me be." Gerry's eyes pricked. He broke from his father's grasp. "Leave me alone!" The door of the flat was still open. He ignored Liam's yell of, "Come back here, you," and rushed through, up the stairs and out onto the flat roof. He stood, oblivious to the downpour. His ears were filled with the clamour from the street below.
Fuck them. Fuck the rioters. Fuck Liam, who wouldn't understand. Fuck Da and his going on and on. The Connolly family or the army? Gerry saw the knot of khaki uniforms below and ached for his platoon. He wanted to go back to them. He wanted to go back to the wild solitude of the Yorkshire Dales. He wanted Anne.
Below him he could see that the worst of the fighting had moved away from the flats. He stepped back from the edge, took a deep breath, and swallowed. He'd go back to his unit. The road was clear. He'd go back home.
As he passed the mouth of a narrow alley, strong arms encircled his throat. He flailed helplessly as he was dragged into the darkness. He dimly recognized the voice of big Huey saying, "You, you shite. You fucking British shite. I told you not to come back," seconds before a pick handle beat Gerry's head to a bloody pulp.
* * *
The Honourable Robert Atkinson was on the telephone.
"I see, General. So your boys over in Ulster are taking a beating are they? One killed last night? Pity."
He toyed with a marble-based Parker pen set as he listened.
"Why do you think he was a deserter?"
That was a very elegant piece of marble.
"Just because he was found in a Republican area and didn't come back from a pass doesn't mean he ran, surely? Oh, I see. So you think your chappie might have been trying to help his brothers go South?"
Robert Atkinson frowned. There could be a lot of bad publicity over this.
"Tell you what. See if you can put a good face on this one. Claim he was abducted trying to return to his unit."
Atkinson sighed, the miserable little province seemed to dog his career, and said, "Why? For the sake of his family."
On March 31, the Junior Orangemen paraded. They were attacked by groups of Catholic youths. Seventy soldiers of the Royal Scots who were sent in to control the riot were pelted with stones, bottles and petrol bombs.
On July 3, rioting was so intense that the Falls Road, a predominantly Catholic part of the city of Belfast, was placed under curfew for thirty-four hours. Three people were killed and 1,600 cannisters of CS gas were fired.
1970 Dead 25 Total Dead 38
On February 6, Gunner Robert Curtis became the first British soldier to die while on duty. He was killed during a riot in Belfast.
On August 9, internment without trial of suspected IRA sympathizers was instituted as a security measure. More than 300 people were incarcerated.
On December 4, fifteen people were killed by a Loyalist bomb in McGurk's Bar in Belfast.
1971 Dead 174 Total Dead 212
Copyright © 1997 by Ballybucklebo Stories Corp.