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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.