The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

1981

 

Eamon Sweeney • 20 May 2006

I was nine years old in 1981. The area that I came from was a mixed one. In the North, the word 'mixed' is at best a euphemism for saying that Protestants and Catholics co-existed without rancour, recrimination or bitterness. It wasn't exactly true. Apart from a few genuinely apathetic individuals, strained toleration rather than true ecumenism ruled the roost.

It was nothing unusual for me, simply because I did not know any different. The 'Glen' area of Derry is one of the oldest in the city. A latticed network of about 10 terraced streets, it lies between the wider Creggan district and the farther outlying parts of Derry City like Shantallow, Galliagh and Ballyarnett. The houses in the district were built to accommodate dock-workers, railwaymen and their families. It was into the latter category that my family fell.

As a young child in the 1970's the area was therefore cushioned from the mayhem of Derry City centre, Creggan, the Bogside, the Brandywell and the greater Shantallow area.

Apart from the recurrent IRA bomb attacks on the Mother's Pride Bakery at the bottom of my street, that employed both my parents and the attacks on an English garage owner at the top of the street that continued until he left, the area was quiet.

It is worth noting that that garage is still open. It now houses the Derry Taxi Company, an offshoot of the black hack business. The second section of the garage is now a Sinn Fein office, outside which is parked a redundant British Army jeep used as a 'fun' method of touring your way around Derry. I too had the garage owner tortured. I must have procured many hundreds of gallons of free air from his pump, blowing up bike tyres, my space hopper and countless footballs.

The only incident of a macabre nature that I can recall with total clarity from the mid-1970's is one that that sense of humour I spoke about helped greatly. It is strange that should it happen now, it would be plastered all over most newspapers in Ireland. In those days it was a slight inconvenience.

The terraced house we lived in had a tiny hallway that was shielded from the street by a front door with a vestibule door behind it. The front door was rarely closed and so it was the vestibule door separated us from the street. It was on that door therefore that visitors knocked before entering. I answered the knock one afternoon and before me stood an older gentleman from the top end of the street. He had, as ever his hands behind his back. He had an unfortunate stoppage in his speech that required time and patience to get the message. He asked me to go and get Pat, my father.

I did as I was told and my father without question moved towards the front door. After about thirty seconds of scrambled speech, I heard my Dad swear out loud and tell Charlie to get the fuck away from our house. Most unusually he slammed the front door shut. Old Charlie had been on his travels in the lane behind our row of houses, as was his wont, and had located a hand grenade obviously abandoned in a chase with the security forces. Here he was now, outside our door holding it in an outstretched hand, as shaky as his voice!

Presumably since my grandfather had been active in the IRA in the 1950's Charlie thought that the tradition had simply been passed on and we would or could use a spare grenade. The 'tradition' had not passed on. The army was called and spent a long time taking pot shots at the grenade, eventually managing to explode it.

At the bottom of my street there was a grass verge, in which was contained the remnants of a rusting and twisted metal post. The arrogance of childhood meant that I many unfruitful hours trying to remove that post from its roots. It was a challenge. The strength of its permanence was not a consideration. Bloodied hands from trying to shift it and blistered heels from digging myself in to hoist it from the verge were no deterrent. It wasn't until I was about 12 or so that my father explained to me what the post actually represented.

The post was the marker for the boundary point of Derry City. Just beyond the boundary when my father was growing up was Springtown Camp. The camp consisted of disused Nissan huts vacated by the American and British forces after the Second World War. In the 1950's, right up to their demolition at the start of the 60's the camp became synonymous with notorious social deprivation problems. In fact some remaining pre-fabricated structures there are still inhabited, yet they are privately owned now and perfectly maintained.

Men from the camp, like most men in all parts of Derry City found it almost impossible to secure work. As a result, the roots of the social problems still prevalent in Derry were sown there and then. But, if you hailed from Springtown it was especially hard to find work. The Post-Code lottery existed even then.

It was ironic that in a place like Derry, where Nationalists of all classes were treated with utter disdain that there was a place that other Nationalists could look down upon.

In later years both my father and mother would recount tales from the area. It was apparent that pitched battles between feuding families would occur regularly there. The dreaded RUC, a lot of whom hailed from the Glen, left well alone and intruded to ask questions only when the pick-axe handles, hatchets and sometimes shotguns lay dormant once more.

As a volunteer in the Legion of Mary, it often befell my mother to stretch a 'Godly' sponsored hand into the camp. The legacy of a former armed forces camp was to leave behind prostitutes. The Yankee Army and the British Navy may have gone but it was still easier to 'do a turn' than to do a turn in the shirt factories. At least that was the Catholic Church line. Who am I to judge? Those girls may have been right. The only thing I see can wrong in that situation was the system that denied them any other opportunities.

One night having been despatched to the streets of the city centre from the Legion of Mary headquarters to delay the young women of the night from their earning potential, my mother and her friend happened across one of, shall we say, the market mainstays. Delaying tactics were duly employed, as they took her to the Legion of Mary house and sat her down. There they proceeded to make tea, make the girl up and do her hair. Proud, and rightly so, of their efforts, they released their prey after a couple of hours, pleased that they had done a good nights work.

The priest on duty passed by the young lady on her way out of the house. Looking like a million dollars, she beamed and bid him good evening as she left. It took the priest to point out to my mother and her friend that they had done such a good job that they had probably doubled her earning potential! It shows that in the grimmest of situations there is still humour. God knows that it has been needed, but unlike other things in Derry, humour has never let us down.

The point of all of this is the ridiculous situation of exclusion within a city already excluded from any sense of normalcy. Springtown Camp epitomised the nastiness of Gerrymandering. The camp had a Unionist Councillor. It is said, that he never even knew where the camp was. He didn't need to.

It was small wonder then, that when the Civil Rights movement began, it found a natural and willing ally in the people of Derry.

Zoom forward, through the next 15 years. In 1972 the British Army butchered 14 people on a Civil Rights march. The IRA benefited massively from Bloody Sunday. In the Glen, the mixed social outlook was slightly tarnished when a Catholic from the area tried to hang a local B-Man from a lamppost after dragging him from his house. The lamppost is still there. The B-Man long gone.

I will always maintain, despite the latent moral opprobrium attached to this period, that anyone who joined the IRA in that period cannot be blamed. It was a courageous thing to do in the face of huge military opposition. Politics was still a dirty word remember. There was little other choice after that day in January 1972. What I will never understand however is the fact that they then set about the physical devastation of their own city. Hit them where it hurts they told us, in the pocket. We are still paying for that, in more than financial terms.

It was into Springtown Camp, and its accordant ills, that Michael Devine, was born on May 26 1954. In many publications, Mickey Devine is quoted as saying that the camp was the ''The slum to end all slums''. Moving to Creggan in 1960 was therefore undoubtedly a huge relief. The spacious and comfortable houses in the area provided hope to a beleaguered Nationalist community. Basically Creggan corralled a substantial proportion of Derry's Catholics into one place. It would be a policy that in the 1970's, 80's and most of the 90's that the British Government and army would rue.

A lot of literature, most aptly, David Beresford's 'Ten Men Dead' chart the life and radicalisation of Michael Devine. Like most future volunteers in Derry Mickey witnessed first hand the vicious suppression of the Civil Rights movement, right from the start on October 5 1968. Initially his involvement was with the militant Young Socialist movement. At 17 he joined the Official IRA and unhappy with their ceasefire in 1972, he went on to be a founder member of what was to become the INLA.

His life had already been tempered by personal tragedy. The sudden death of his father when he was 11 and then his mother in 1972, must have had a profound impact on him. Apparently however it did not distract him from his dedication to his cause. Bloody Sunday compounded his thinking, he wrote later: "I will never forget standing in the Creggan chapel staring at the brown wooden boxes. We mourned, and Ireland mourned with us.

"That sight more than anything convinced me that there will never be peace in Ireland while Britain remains. When I looked at those coffins I developed a commitment to the republican cause that I have never lost." The massacre confirmed to Mickey that it was more than time to start shooting back. "How" he would ask, "can you sit back and watch while your own Derry men are shot down like dogs?

In 1976 he was arrested, and sentenced in 1977 to 12 years after an arms raid in County Donegal; he immediately joined the blanket protest. Along on the operation, though never convicted for it, was the late Patsy O'Hara, with whom Micky used to knock around as a friend and comrade.

We know the rest. Mickey died at 7.50 am on Thursday, August 21 1981, as nationalist voters in Fermanagh/South Tyrone were beginning to make their way to the polling booths to elect Owen Carron, a member of parliament for the constituency, in a demonstration - for the second time in less than five months - of their support for the prisoners' demands.

Another Derry City man Patsy O'Hara had been the third hungerstriker to die on May 21 1981. He died at 11.29 p.m. on the same day as Raymond McCreesh with whom he had embarked on the hungerstrike sixty-one days earlier.

Even in death his torturers would not let him rest. When his body was returned to the O'Hara family, his nose been broken and his corpse bore several burn marks inflicted after his death.

In total five men from the county of Derry died in the 1981 hungerstrike. Patsy o'Hara, Mickey Devine and Kevin Lynch of the INLA and Francis Hughes and Tom McElwee of the IRA.

As I was a nine-year old boy in 1981 my exact memories of that dreadful period are vague. I certainly knew that something important was happening, mainly because of the heated debates that were going on all around me. One uncle served on the National H-Block Committee. On the other hand were relatives who saw no dignity in self-starvation and who toed the Church line. With hindsight and knowledge I can see value in all the arguments offered by my relatives then and now.

Interestingly in recent years it was my uncle who had been on the National Committee who first alluded to the deal that was offered in the run up to the death of Joe McDonnell. This was a good time before Richard O'Rawe's strong and plausible contention in his work 'Blanketmen' that this deal could have saved six lives. My relative offered no in depth analysis. An intelligent man and a strong thinker normally unafraid to expound his theories. On this occasion I think his silence said it all. He attached blame to the Provo's contending that the strikers had been used. He simply said, it should have been called off after the first four men died, deal or no deal.

It was customary for me to spend my school holidays with my grandmother in Creggan. 1981 was no exception. Overriding memories are of almost countless amounts of black flags hoisted on every available surface. The upstairs windows of every house in Creggan wielded at least one flag. I can recall my grandmother berating another uncle for causing a mess on the front bedroom carpet. It happened because no matter how hard it rained he refused to take the flag inside and close the window.

Other recollections simply involve conflict. I recall around the Easter period, during Feis Doire Colmcille, a riot starting literally within seconds. Standing in Great James Street with my parents, who were talking to other people, I saw two landrover's come towards the street from William Street. Without hesitating disparate groups of men and youths stopped what they were doing and began firing anything they could get their hands on at the jeeps. There was no pre-planning involved. It revealed that the level of hatred directed towards the army was enormous.

Late on a Summer Saturday afternoon my parents, my little sister and myself made our way from the city centre on foot towards Creggan to visit my grandmother. No buses were in service to Creggan, hence the walking.

As we approached the junction of Beechwood and Broadway, on the edge of the estate there was a Mother's Pride van positioned right across the road. It was the older kind that had big wide storage shelves inside it. As we got level with it, it became clear that lying inside one of the shelves there was a masked IRA Volunteer aiming some type of heavy duty machine gun. Across from the junction was the playground of St Joseph's Secondary School. At the end of the playground was a view of Rosemount RUC station. Presumably that's what the Volunteer was told to keep an eye on. Machine gun or not it didn't matter to my mother who immediately started telling the IRA man off for aiming whilst children were in the street. Despite my father's request that she should quiet down and move along, she continued on her rant until the IRA man agreed to move away.

A heinous incident occurred in the Springtime, during the strike. Joanna Mathers was just 25 years old in the spring of 1981. She was a first class honours graduate from Queen's University, married to a farmer, when she decided to earn some extra money by collecting census forms in Derry city. One evening, she was helping a family in Anderson's Crescent with their return when a masked man dashed up to the doorway. He wrenched the clipboard from her hands, put a gun to her head and fired. The young mother died at the scene.

The Provisional IRA at first denied any involvement. The Derry brigade claimed that Joanna's murder was 'an attempt to discredit the (electoral) campaign of Bobby Sands'. Sands was bidding to become the Westminster MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, in a by-election that would, in time, radically transform the politics of Ireland.

I have listened with interest to the debate concerning where the allegiances of the ten dead men would be now. We don't know what any single one of them may have thought, we never will. Moreover it weakens the ideology of anyone trying to put words in the mouths of the hungerstriker's and is just plain insulting to their memory and to their families. I have also listened with greater interest to former-prisoners from Derry recount their stories in the last few days. Interestingly very few if any I spoke to maintain links to the Sinn Fein party. Only some ventured to suggest that the 10 men would have done this, that, or the other had they lived.

I have also listened to usual Unionist tripe repeating the old Thatcherite mantra that crime is crime is crime. Then Lord Maginnis gave a particularly offensive diatribe on BBC Newsline when he stood debating with Gerry Kelly inside the Long Kesh compound on May 5. Major Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Defence Regiment, as he was in 1981, has some nerve to call anyone a terrorist. Loyalists at least tend to have a grudging respect for the deceased. Take all the politiking out of the equation and the simple fact is that these guys had guts.

Walking through the Glen last week, I couldn't resist looking at the grass verge. Somebody has shifted the twisted metal pole. The reminder than there were once physical limits on the city has gone, as Derry stretches inevitably to greet the cross border towns. The lives long gone from the Springtown Camp are now as much a part of history as young Republican Socialist who was born there in 1954.

Just like things moved on past Derry's rusty boundary post, so things have irrevocably changed on the political landscape. There are no physical limits or concrete H's or restraints holding back the ten men anymore. No matter what creed, colour or any other label you care to mention, for good or bad, without the Hungerstriker's of 1981, we wouldn't be were we are now.



 

 


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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Index: Current Articles



28 May 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Humpty Dumpty
Anthony McIntyre

1981
Eamon Sweeney

Political Status
Geoffrey Cooling

Enough, Enough of Stormont
David Adams

Joined at the Hip
John Kennedy

Loyal to What
Fred A Wilcox

No Rest In Peace
John Kennedy

'Penetrated' Has Become the Sinn Fein Brand Mark
Anthony McIntyre

Code Red
Dr John Coulter

Review of the Field Day Review 1: Debut Issue, 2005
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Profile: Salman Rushdie
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index


16 May 2006

'The Blanket' meets 'Blanketmen'
Anthony McIntyre speaks with Richard O'Rawe

Former Blanketman Speaks Out Against ‘Vitriolic Attack’
Richard O'Rawe

"What Future for Republicans?"
Public Meeting Announcement

An Open Letter to Gerry Adams and the IRA's Chief of Staff of the Army Council
Dr John Coulter

Paper Over the Cracks
John Kennedy

The Famine Season
Russell Streur

DUP Pressure Cooker: About to Blow?
Dr John Coulter

Oil Prices
John Kennedy

Profile: Ibn Warraq
Anthony McIntyre

The Muslims America Loves
M. Shahid Alam

Freedom of Speech index

 

 

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