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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

West Belfast: Memories of a childhood voyage of conflict

Part Two
Davy Carlin • January 28, 2003

To those that may read this article, it was penned on some notes of memories of yesteryear which at times has me reliving some of those events in my mind. Part one in a wider political context dealt with, in part my youth and religion in the article ‘A Personal Voyage of Taboo' (Archive section the Blanket) a subject to which I will be returning to in part at a later stage in this series of articles, of which there shall be several more. For this article as with others it can take just but a face or a voice to remember, so apart from spelling and grammar I have left this exactly as it is, that is, just a very small part of what immediately came to mind and noted down in my growing volumes of scrap pieces of paper of thoughts of yesteryear. In times ahead I intend to develop this further but for now but another short piece for the Blanket..

A few months ago I accompanied a few writers around the ‘West’, some came from around Britain while others from further afield. West Belfast holds still a lot of interest to many internationally and is perhaps the most politically researched community of recent times. Driving around the ‘sights’ of the West of the city and recounting some of its history I had time to reminisce of times past. Starting of in Ballymurphy (the Murph) we visited the various wall murals which speak out from many gable walls depicting and commemorating various aspects of Irish history with more especially that of the recent conflict. Then we visited the ‘Bullring’ an area in the centre of the ’Murph’, now re-developed, but twenty odd years past as a child I can remember playing in or going to the shops with my Gran. And of course it is an area which holds its own infamous and famous conflict related stories passed down over the years.

Coming into Ballymurphy’s Glenalina Road, the street to which I was born into in the seventies (so being called a ‘Murph’ man due to my place of birth and families upbringing) I see now some material change. I remember in the late seventies around a dozen houses in that street alone which were in some way related to me along with others dotted around Ballymurphy. Although still ten families remain in the Murph which are related to myself, changing political and economic times have meant now more young people and families are able to move further afield. Like many, although but a child I hold many memories of that time and heard much first hand accounts of a community not willing to bow down to a brutal state or to any longer take second class citizenship.

Like many of similar age, as a babe in arms during the early part of the seventies I originally learnt much from my relatives, a lot of it intertwined with sport and politics. I heard personal stories, such as how my mother, despite a British soldier's gun aimed at her face broke the curfew to get milk for her hungry child, of an uncle in the All Ireland finals in Croke Park which I attended, of another uncle beaten to an inch of his life in my Gran's front garden by the ‘Paras’, or of the death of another uncle. Also of my stepfather's father in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one if not the first in Belfast to get the cat of nine tails. I remember also listening with interest about my Gran known as the ‘Rosary woman’ because women from the Murph came to her house in their scores where they prayed and said the rosary. They prayed for the safety of the young men from the Murph as they went off to defend the area during the early day of the ‘troubles’. This oral generational history I remember and much more. Yet it is one's own personal memories that remain etched on my mind of a street and a community which despite the circumstances had a oneness that attempted normality in a not so normal situation.

I remember fondly the personalities and characters of the street, of the many kids' games and the songs that accompanied them, of the street 'get togethers' and my favourite, that of the street bingo. I remember sadly the young kids burnt to death in their home in tragic circumstances and remember the wonderment of witnessing a woman tied to a lamppost with her hair shaved, tarred and feathered. I remember at times of seeing the young men, some local, others foreign, some wounded, others, dying. At times I see the many faces of old of those from the Murph and it again at times throws me back to memories, many of them of fond.

As we came to the bottom of the street I remembered the old ‘climbing frame walls’ and the slabs above the doorways we use to climb up on and sit on as kids in those long hot summer days. I remember also the once various openings and shortcuts that as kids one could use to take you into different streets and the maze of local Murph alleyways, like many such areas, now gone through tactical re-planning of estates. At the bottom of the street I pointed out the old house of Gerry Adams which most wish to see through inquisitiveness and the barracks that once stood across the road, a place as kids where one would vent one's anger, now where stands a new development of apartments. Coming out of the Murph we drove down the Whiterock Road, with on my right the Falls cemetery and park. The park which once held the ‘coolers’ (an open air swimming pool) where I frequented as a kid, now hosts in its place a BMX course. On my left a new Gaelic football pitch now takes the place of again a once fortified barracks.

Now on to the Falls Road, again I remember the regular local shops I went to when I moved permanently to Sevastopol street on the lower Falls in the late seventies with my mum and stepfather, as I had still until then spent my weekends in my Grans. There was Hectors, Lenas and Lillylands amongst others and although some survive many have since closed down. Those with me, like many others who visit are interested in the whole history of the community. Yet for those I accompany, on most occasions it is almost certain that I will be asked the one same question, one I believe to be merely of personal inquisitiveness. ‘What was it like for a black kid growing up in West Belfast during the height of the troubles? In the time ahead if time, finance and a publisher permitting I shall correlate those oral histories and all those memories jotted down when a word, a face, or a street threw me back in time to childhood and will endeavour to write a short book on those primary school years based on the memories and those various accounts of relatives and childhood friends. I feel many have told the story of their involvement in the conflict but few have covered their thoughts as kids growing up during it, so for now I will give but a few of those memories.

Just to note I was also especially inspired in this line of thought of doing this by Brian Kelly, a contributor to the Blanket and author of a brilliant book (Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908 - 21, awarded amongst others the Deutscher award). Also by Michael Patrick MacDonald the author of ‘All Souls, a family story from Southie’, whom I spent a few days with during his last visit to Belfast and was impressed by both his attitude to life and how he revisited and articulated his personal account in such an excellent way in his book. Again a book well worth a read.

As we got out at my ‘aul’ street on the lower Falls which has the Sinn Fein premises at the bottom of it, those with me took some pictures of the mural of Bobby Sands that adorns the Gable wall in Sevastopol street. As they took their pictures I remember standing at that very wall at seven years old, myself and my mate being given a crispy pound note for raising our fist in the air for an American journalist while he took pictures. I left them now to take their pictures and dandered up the street and thought of the time twenty years past looking into the coffin and onto the face of Bobby Sands at his parents home and remembering my thoughts which as a child included that of how alike the outfits of his guard of honour were to those on my own soldiers I played with at home as a kid. I walked up to the second house, number four Sevastopol Street where twenty years past number six was situated and stood and stared. Although I pass up and down that road every day from my home now in Turf Lodge it was the talk of the past that again threw me back in time. The house like all in the street was now new, not like the old decaying houses of twenty years past. The street was all but silent - I closed my eyes

It was August late afternoon 1979 - ‘Here come the ‘Scoppies,’ it’s a fucking convoy’. Here came huge monster tractors and trucks, green and camouflaged accompanied by ‘sixers’ - small six wheeled tanks - and other armoured vehicles. They always came out down by Conway street beside the Divis Flats and could be spotted standing from the bottom of our street which was across from Lesson Street. This time though we kids were standing on top of our wood, our bonfire semi build on the Falls Rd with the rest ‘planked’ (hidden) behind a massive timber sheet which stood in between the Falls Road Library and St Augusta’s youth club. They came up the Falls - a convoy of monster vehicles their noise deafening; their job - to remove our bonfire wood and to cause confrontation.

And so they came and first beat us off our wood then used their huge tractors to lift the wood into huge green trucks and to move the rest up the street so to destroy our partially built ‘bonnie’ due to be lit that night. Our sticks, stones and bottles as kids did little damage to their armoured plated steel, and so the convoy left as quickly as they came leaving the remaining wood strewn all over the street. I remember so vividly women and children all standing at the doors and then I remember going into the middle of the street and lifting a small beam into my arms then walking backwards I started to drag it back to its original place. I was then joined by my three childhood mates, then more joined, and although it was mainly the kids and teenagers who collected and built the bonfire, on that day women and some older youths came from their homes and started dragging the wood back down the street. Later it was decided to have a joint bonfire in Clonard Street as most of our wood had been taken by the trucks. 'Wrecked' I went home at around 10pm and asked my mum to wake me. When I awoke it was morning. My mum told me she didn’t wake me because she didn’t want me caught up in the serious rioting, yet because of missing that bonfire after the days events that day never did feel complete.

Looking again in memory through the house I remember the time late one night in the late seventies when my stepfather, mother, myself and the other kids walked down from my stepfather's mother's house on the Ballymurphy Road back home. In hindsight they have agreed it was a stupid thing to do as it was the time of the Shankill Butchers. We were followed all the way down the Falls by a car with several men in it, the car turned around several times and followed us again, this from the Whiterock all the way to our home. I remember knowing there was something wrong by the look in their faces. My mum to this day says maybe it was the four young kids in tow, one each in their arms, or just by the ‘grace of god’. Whatever the case I remember the settee being laid in font of the door with all us lying on the ground huddled for what seemed like hours, then daylight came. Despite their reassurances, although young I was old enough to know that something was seriously wrong. To be completely honest, I was absolutely petrified as I lay there in my mum's arms.

Looking again at the door, although a different shape and colour I could see birthdays and Xmases, I could see twenty years past my mum at the door talking to the neighbours. Looking up and down the street I could probably still name most of those that lived there such was the closeness of the street. In fact at that time some of them were like a second family to me. When people ask me what was it like to be a black kid in the seventies and eighties in the West I believe they are attempting to ask did I experience racism. It has to be said that at least during my primary school days in my own individual experience (Icannot speak for the handful of other black kids who lived here at the that time) I can never remember one remark to my face from an adult, and it was at times but only curiosity from the kids ('look at that painted boy' etc. ) of my early years in West Belfast. But I remember vividly the state forces. I remember that when almost every army/police jeep that passed me I was guaranteed racial abuse, From 'you black fenian bastard' to 'you fenian mongrel'. A particular favourite of their's shouted out from their vehicles was 'Kootakinti' or when on patrol they would sneer ‘ hey boy, boy lick my boots’ from the then programme ‘Roots’, which ironically was about slavery. While on my own I ignored it but if with my family or relatives I would pretend to look at a shop window or bend down to tie my shoe lace if I seen a patrol approaching. I did this not through embarrassment or immense fear for oneself as I was always taught to be proud of who I was and where I lived. I did it because my relatives would answer back and I feared for them getting a beating. -----

------- It was now the autumn of 1977 a particularly bad day of rioting and so the ‘Brits’ (British soldiers) saturated the area. As usual the women stood at the doors including my mum with myself beside her. The women were shouting at the Brits who were calling them ‘Fenian whores’ or words to that effect. One Brit then walked past my mum and told her in not so many words to get into the house and to take that black so and so with her. This done in more gritty language. I then felt my hand gripped in what felt like a vice. Without a mention of what the solider had actually called her, my mum looked at him and said ‘What did you call my son’. Then saliva first covered then dripped from his face. He lifted the butt of his gun with both hands and aimed it towards my mum’s face. I looked at my mum's face and it must be said that on only two other occasions in my life have I ever witnessed from anybody a face of such complete and absolute defiance as I seen in my mum's face on that day in 1977. I know of many other women who have had their teeth completely smashed in by British soldiers rifle butts, this time though women neighbours were on hand to intervene. The soldier and his colleagues continued shouting, yet that soldier’s voice seemed more subdued, maybe for the very reason that this is etched firmly on may mind - that look on my mum’s face of absolute defiance. It was then I decided to grin and bear it while on my own as to react could later result in a relatives enhanced intimidation or worse when with me. (Eventually such were the frequency of the remarks that I became immune to an extent - when it started to happen in my teens from others, like the conflict it was what I perceived to be but my normality. So then through my adolescence I unfortunately thought that the same logic applied in all situations). So therefore while with relatives I attempted always to hide my face, or tie my lace or to look at the ground when Brits and peelers came by. It was in my own small way an attempt to protect them as I knew they would do for me. I let myself take this for many years. It was my own young decision. It was what I believed for the best. I have nothing more I want to say on that matter.

So many memories - I did not realise I was staring at the ground lost in thought. I then looked up again at the house. I remember in detail that small’ kitchen house’. I remember six kids cramped into a small back room. I remember looking out the back window into my school yard, St Finians and remembering my teachers and classmates of which I can still recite many of the names called at morning roll and see still some of them ‘about the road’. I remember standing in a green jumper and brown trousers as I waved goodbye to my mum who stood at the gate as I went in doors on my first day at school. From the school Gaelic team to the handball team it was a start of a long interest in sport (on leaving St Finians primary school my report stated that I excelled not only in my academic studies but also in sport) which seen me win many awards for a number of sports home and abroad over the years. With soccer trials for Sheffield United (staying with Clive Mendonca, an apprentice at the time and who I seen recently playing in the Premiership) and Celtic, with winning youth championships in Gaelic, basketball, handball, table tennis, and athletics I was doing well at sport. Although a number of bad ‘hidings’ (beaten up) in my teens held me back a bit it was a non - violent approach that gave me a ‘sickener’ and made me from then on see sport merely as a hobby rather than a potential for a career. At the age of sixteen I remember at the soccer trials for N. Ireland school boys, I was pulled to the side and told in no uncertain terms that although I was one of the best players it was hard enough for a Catholic to get into the squad, but for a ‘black Catholic from the West? The guy seemed really apologetic but I was sent back home. Part three of this series will deal with such question of Identity, perceived and real while in later pieces I will deal with other issues such as my young perception of ‘the other side’, of politics, of community and of wider international concerns relating to the local.

Still in thought now looking out of the back window I remember at nights the volunteers running across our outside toilets which were covered only by light iron sheeting and wondering how they were never heard.

It was now 1978 I was running down Lesson street chased by an army jeep, I got halfway down the street and ran into a doorway, the jeep screeched to a stop outside. I opened the door meaning to run through the house and out into the back but when I opened the door, two volunteers jumped up and shouted 'is it the Brits?' I nodded and they split out the back. I just stood there in that house while a woman told me not to worry. Ten minutes later she opened the door checked it was all clear and I bolted up the street. I always wondered why they never came in after me. I suppose they may have thought a kid throwing a stone wasn’t worth it or maybe they thought it was a trap, who knows, whatever the case it gave me a 'frightener' for a while.

'Davy,Davy,Davy, BEEEEEEEP, Davy.' They had finished their picture taking and their visit to the book shop. As I walked down to the car I remember still, like all others here at the time the state beatings and brutality, the shootings, to see the injured and wounded and again at times death. Yet as a child like the others it was but part of our world, our immediate reality, but it did not stop our enjoyment playing hide and seek in the dark when the power went off, of the card games, of the street games, of the water shortages so we had to go to Ross’s Mill at the top of the street, of the water fights when there was abundance, of the Dunville Park summer scheme, of the Falls Library which was like a second home to me, the youth club, the Falls Baths. Of the laughter, of the friendships woven in hard and dangerous times, of companionship, of a street family. Of a street just like the Murph with its character combined with its own street characters in those ‘unusual times’ in which lived a community who despite discrimination had pride, who despite poverty had dignity, who despite the odds set against them had immense bravery. Yet above all it was a street who may have had little but they shared, looked after and provided for each. As we drove out of Sevastopol street and up the Falls I looked back with both a breaking smile and an emerging lump in my throat and promised as I did with the Murph, to at sometime once again revisit those, and many other memories of days gone by.

Now we drove up the Falls up into Andytown (Andersonstown Road) and I knew I had to scribble all these memories down as I see now evermore revisionism creeping in. One's own childhood thoughts and memories however will not be revised. Passing the Andersonstown Leisure Centre it was again the late seventies. ’Hold on tight to each others hands’. It seemed as if we were queuing for ages outside the leisure centre but it would be worth it after many days of we ‘the kids’ being told to be good or we were not going. Standing there with our chocolate and juice it was to be our first time at the ‘pictures’, to watch, Watership Down not long released. I remember vividly it was but six people in front of us when then we heard the shout ‘ sorry full house ’ - We continued up through Andytown towards Twinbrook.

The now sprawling Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lagmore estates holds thousands of people. Part of the Lisburn Borough Council, unionist dominated, the overwhelmingly nationalist estates are still today denied many basic facilities that would be common place in other such areas. Yet I have come to an understanding that socio - economic deprivation exists in many working class estates ‘across the divide'. These particular estates though appear to combine also that old favourite - continuing political, economic and sectarian discrimination.

It is now the first month of the year 1981. I am in a car behind a large lorry which is carrying our furniture from Sevastopol street to the new houses built in Twinbrook. We went up the small winding road surrounded by fields, trees and rivers; ‘ look, look a fox’, we were in the country. To me Twinbrook although but a few miles from the Falls may as well have been a thousand miles away, this was a different world, a world green, open, fresh. My mum said a new home, a new start and a chance to get ‘the kids’ away from the witnessed daily conflict. Within a few months I was first looking into the coffin of Bobby Sands in his parents' Laburnum Way home in Twinbrook, a scene caught on footage film at the time and shown again recently on the BBC on the twenteth anniversery of the hunger strikes. It was a strange feeling twenty years on watching myself as a child looking upon the face of Bobby Sands, especially now as I can fully understand the huge historical significance of that time. Two weeks later I was looking into yet another coffin, that of school colleague, Carol Anne Kelly. An eleven year old innocent child shot dead - murdered by the state, around the same age as Brian Stewart - my partners uncle - also shot dead, murdered a few years prior, like Carol Anne also but a child, again by the state.

‘Davy do you want a fag?'
‘Naa, cheers’. We turned the car into present day Twinbrook. We parked beside various murals on the range of walls across from St Luke’s Church. They got out and started taking more pictures, I stood and looked around me and again I left the realms of present day reality.

It was 1981 and the binlids echoed around the Twinbrook estate late at night as I lay in bed. It was the time of the hunger strikes. I climbed out my back bedroom window, climbed onto our porch (our new house now had two indoor toilets one upstairs and one down, it was the down ones extension I climbed onto) then jumped onto our coalbunker, then into our back garden. I grabbed our binlid and made my way round to the ‘circle’ (a large round circle made out of bricks at the back of our new cul-de-sac, I believe of no known functioning purpose when plans were drawn up other than I presume for décor to accompany these new modern houses. It was used though as a drilling ground for volunteers as my mates and I used to sit and watch them in the middle of the day kitted out in full uniform, men and women drilling to the voiced orders called out in Irish). I began with others to bang my binlid. - So it was one after one that Thatcher then let the hunger strikers die. Those weeks even as a child again will always be etched on one's mind.

‘Where’s Bobby Sands house’?
‘Over there’. I stood and looked around me and could find much memories without an in depth search. Behind me to my right I remember behind the flats facing the VG seeing several faces over a period of years all alike. They were all pale white, blood drained from their faces, all quiet. Some shot through the knees or ankles others through the elbows, some a combination, others all combined. Straight ahead was the field on which as as a teenager I won the Bobby Sands Memorial Cup, presented with my trophy by Gerry Adams. It was the first in a number of times that I won it. Further ahead the state murder of a child spoke out. To my left the church in which I was ‘confirmed’. I remember as a kid coming out of Mass on occasions and seeing young men with placards proclaiming 'I am a thief I am a joyrider' etc. It was either this or ‘kneecapped’. Behind me I remember the dangerous game we played as kids of ‘hopping on’ lorries and buses (to jump on their back bumpers and hold on to the back doors to catch a lift). I remember one kid killed doing this and I remember yet another from down our street killed while on a horse, his foot caught in the stirrup the horse bolted, his head smashing off the side pavements and off walls, he had no chance. --- In a few hours so many memories and yet so many more.

‘Right are we going for a pint’. They had finished their picture taking. What was it like as a kid? .‘I’ll write about it some day so ya can read it’ came my reply. As we headed out of Twinbrook and back towards the Falls to find an ‘Irish Pub’ for a bowl of stew and a pint of Guiness I reflected on those few hours and wrote my thoughts down as written above at the time on a piece of paper - I summed it up though putting past experience into my own present political understanding. As with that programme ‘Roots’:

‘They may bind our hands or shackle our feet but one's thoughts and beliefs will always remain free in our minds. It is though when those ideas become reality through collective action that then and only then can we hope to break free from those binds and shackles and deliver real and lasting emancipation.’



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

9 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Orange Terror in America
Karen Lyden Cox


Street Traders
Anthony McIntyre


West Belfast: Memories of a childhood voyage of conflict
Davy Carlin


Planned Nationhood
Brian Mór


Breaking the Connection With England

Mary Ward


When I hear the word "gun", I reach for my culture

Jimmy Sands


Where Are The Incubators?
Paul de Rooij


6 February 2003


If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
Breandán Ó Muirthile


The Spire
Anthony McIntyre


Brian Mór


The Holidays and Joyce
Sean OTorain


Life Story of the Olives
Annie Higgins


The Letters page has been updated.




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