The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
West Belfast - The Politics of Childhood (Part Four)
Davy Carlin • 11 September 2003

A few years back Marie and I had the opportunity to visit North Africa. Sitting on an isolated beach one evening as the sun was setting we heard in the distance music. While we could almost make out the song, which we believed we recognised, we however still strained to hear it. So we went to investigate as to where it was coming from and to find out what the song was. As we got closer we began to make out its lyrics, which to our surprise came from an Irish Republican song. The music directed us to a hotel just along and off the beach, and on arrival other such songs mixed in with ‘some traditional Irish music’ met us. They were coming from an ‘African DJ’ whom had one parent of ‘Irish dissent’ and had visited Ireland on a few occasions, where he had acquired such music. Yet to us it was a surprise to hear such, such a long way of from Ireland. So while chatting to him he said he considered himself African and Irish, an ‘African-Irishman’. I have continually found though that ‘the Irish’ can be found all over the world and an interesting book on the Irish Diaspora I had read recently was that by Tim Pat Coogan entitled ‘Wherever green is worn’, which gives an interesting insight into this.

Yet as I have touched on in my previous article in this series the whole issue of identity, and ‘Irish ness etc’ is an important issue to many. When I look back at my childhood and hear such questions asked about such, one found that one was always slotted into many different categories, (putting aside the issue of race). May it be Irish, Catholic, Nationalist, Republican etc as one still is today, and even whether one agrees with it or not. So it has been historically the nature of this state and its Unionist governance to use such on many cases for the issue of discrimination. I remember in college writing letters and filling out application forms for jobs. I sent off at least twenty and received no reply and was getting really frustrated. So a ‘Protestant lecturer’ at college suggested to me to leave out my estate, which was then Twinbrook (a Republican-Nationalist estate) and stick in Dunmury, which was the surrounding area in which I lived, along with my postcode when sending of letters and application forms. The reasoning being, that usually no –one could then tell whether I was a Catholic or Protestant, with that I sent of four applications and received four replies and got a job. Therefore like many many others a ‘perceived’ or ‘real’ identity was and still is on many occasions used for the purpose of discrimination.

For me though in childhood many of my mates held families like myself of Irish Republican, Republican and Socialist beliefs. Yet from growing up together we then all went our separate ways through moving away to different areas, to different schools, or just moving on and in many cases, to very different directions in life. I have seen though on many occasions in recent years faces on television or on the front pages of various news papers of many that I had known, with some because of the recent conflict having seen them, jailed, killed, murdered or having committed suicide.

I had seen a childhood friend on Television a while back being released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. I seen another whom had escaped from prison, another again a next door neighbour whom used to follow me and his big brother around, recently sent to prison for killing someone in a stolen car, while also seeing in the media the case of a young woman being shot dead by soldiers while in a car. I hold pictures at home with my arms around Big Andy Kearney, slaughtered in the name of Republicanism as he was left to bleed to death after being shot. Andy had held aloft many football trophies with myself over the years and we had had many pints together when I was in my late teens early twenties after our many victories, before his life was snuffed out, brutally by the IRA. I have read of others whom as a child and teen I had known, one was found in a bed-sit after committing suicide, another kicked to death, another having being gunned down by loyalists, others by the state, while another again killed by aspects of Republicanism. The list goes on and on over the years of those whom I knew like those above whose lives went to, or were taken to, a particular direction, mostly though the direction being of death.

Yet such is the relative small size of the community of West Belfast many would know such persons or instances, so with many memories and faces of yesteryear being seen with regularity in the present, let me go back again to West Belfast, the West Belfast of my childhood ---- It was again the late seventies.

‘Jesus Christ did ya fucking see that’! My mate came running up and was pulling on the sleeve of my jumper. I had seen it, in fact I could not have missed it as the man was within inches as he ran past me. A house which I visited often in childhood which held a kind lovely woman, whom I used to talk to and run errands for, had seen a man jump straight through the front room window and onto the street as I approached the house. He ran past me straight up the Falls Road and into the side streets, I watched until he had disappeared then went on my way as I did not feel it was exactly the right time to pay a visit to the woman.

Much was going on in those days that ‘our click’ (we kids) could see and hear, and to us it was exciting. We knew as kids that there was a difference between the ‘IRSP’ (Irish Republican Socialist Party), the ‘Sticks’ (Workers Party) and the ‘Provos movement’ including (Sinn Fein) yet nevertheless one would stand and watch all the differing parades and marches with their bands and tunes etc. The kids could also at times come across crates of planked (hidden) petrol bombs or see volunteers from various groups sitting openly in various places with their ‘rods’ (guns). ‘The click’ could ensure that one was also kept well equipped with various items from the hijacked vans and lorries, which were soon to be, or indeed already being set on fire as happened quite regularly at the bottom of our street to use as barricades (although the ‘boys’ eventually put a stop to this). I remember on one of these occasions when a lorry was hijacked which contained crisps, and so the kids after stuffing ones faces then planked (hid) around thirty odd boxes of crisps to get wired into (eaten) later. I also remember another occasion when it was a lorry full of roller boots and eventually ‘the kids’ armed with the speed of those roller boots and the knowledge of the alley ways, then took to making home made ‘catties’ (catapults) made out of a wire coat hanger, elastic bands and a piece of leather. With that then for a few days one felt confident enough to skate forward with the very small army of seven to twelve year old ‘roller booters’, and armed with the wee catties, to then take on the might of British Imperialism and every thing she could throw at the kids in the form of her tanks, trucks, personnel carriers etc. It was not the classic guerrilla hit and run tactic but I think some may have been responsible for inventing the first ever hit and roller tactic. Unfortunately not only did it not catch on but also the defeat of British Imperialism was not at that time forthcoming through ‘the kids’ actions.

For me now though in the present I have developed a concrete understanding of those various parties, their histories and their present ideologies. For me as I have stated previous, I hold no belief in Nationalism while on defined, Socialist Republicanism, I hold much understanding and support for. Similarly in relation to much of Connolly the United Irishmen, etc. Yet on Republicanism, that is, that as defined as Provisional Republicanism which is the main force in West Belfast, I seen not only historically more needless slaughter in relation to its continual military campaign but also on the political front their type of Irish Republicanism has ever more embraced the unity for and of all ‘Class Nationalism’ as seen through Sinn Fein. They also held a centre right approach while in governance in the North while embracing some left ideas in the South. They said one thing yet did another, although they attempted to give reasons as to their actions. Yet now ever to often we have seen their contradictions coming more to the fore, the meeting for example where their leadership as well as the SDLP (Nationalist Party) and others who had said that they were opposed to war in Iraq, which they attended with US President George Bush. He who had come here to this tiny island on the back of the Irish peace process to host his war summit while slaughtering innocents in Iraq. This even though many of their rank and file members were on the streets protesting against the war. Also their initial welcoming, before implementing, privatisation such as PFI, their corporate sponsorships, the donations from multinational organisations and other donations from right wing organisations and individuals etc has made clear their present position. Although while I don’t believe in purist politics as one needs always to adapt to the present, their actions and their political direction though shows that they are now a Nationalist party based on that Unity for all class Nationalism albeit stating that they follow a ‘historical Republican tradition’. It was brought all the more closer to me (if it had needed to be) once again practically at a meeting that I had attended a few months ago in West Belfast when one could hardly tell the difference between a leadership speaker from Sinn Fein and the one from the SDLP. In fact if an observer whom did not know the speakers, had been there, the only give away could have been at the start when they were introduced by the chair and told which party each were from. Whether one believes or not that they were always a radical Nationalist party albeit with the use of violence, many within their actual organisation and their supporters had nevertheless seen themselves as Republicans, but now Sinn Fein openly and frequently admits as being the spokespersons of their supporters and community - that of Nationalism and that of the Nationalist community.

Yet through the ‘troubles’ and the changes I can and do have an understanding as to why people can be pushed to fight back at the oppression and repression, even the most passive of people.

It was late 1977 another day of rioting, it was though relatively quiet now and I had ventured from my door down to the bottom of my street, Sevastopol Street. Looking up and down the road I then went amongst the debris to attempt to build up my collection of rubber (rubbers) and plastic (plastics) bullets. Then from Lesson street a young man ran up and I heard a jeep raving behind him, I dropped my newly acquired collection of rubbers and plastics and ran up my street a bit. Then across the road at the bottom of my street the young man slipped and fell, he was a boy of around sixteen whom I knew from the area. The jeep then caught up with him and out jumped a snatch squad and they started to beat him brutally with batons as he screamed out for help and for his mother. I ran down to the bottom of the street screaming at them across the road to leave him alone while screaming for help. I could see the blood pouring from his face as they dragged him into the jeep. He held on in one last vein attempt to the door but a baton crushed his fingers as he was trailed inside by the hair. I by now had edged almost onto the Falls Road and a few others were coming out onto the street. As the jeep took off with the back doors still swinging open I seen gun butts, batons and boots being savagely laid into the boy who was squealing for help with his face completely hidden by his blood. As it took of down the road, I don’t know why as I could do nothing to help him but I took off after the jeep, shouting, screaming and crying. I ran down the Falls a bit then stopped, I went over then to a corner, I covered my face, I sobbed deeply.

I cried because I was angry, because I felt helpless, because they could do this and there was nothing I could do. After a while I walked back up the Falls in the middle of the road and looked upon the boys pool of blood, I lifted up the few teeth that lay there belonging to the boy amongst chucks of his hair and put them in my pocket, I went back up my street.

Two or three days later, I was sitting at the top of Sevastopol Street with a childhood friend Michael, who lived also in the street. A foot patrol was coming up the street so instinctively I put my toy machine gun behind my back and sat up straight against the wall of a house. When they reached there my mate asked one of the Brits could he hold his gun, to which the Brit replied 'no'. Michael then stated that his toy gun (which lay openly on the ground) and my toy gun was better than his so he didn’t care, which got the Brits attention as he looked at me in hopeful anticipation. Guessing by my suspicious stature that mine was behind my back he asked to see it to which I said no, he then stated that I could hold his gun if I would let him see mines, I again said no. He then kicked my foot and asked more aggressively to which again I said no. He then pulled me away from the wall quite roughly and as I stood up he lifted up my toy gun. He looked at it then laughed then threw it back at me and continued to laugh while making a racist remark about myself to one of his chums. I lifted the toy gun up and aimed it at him and pressed the trigger and the little whirling sound it made came out. The Brit laughed again, I continued to press the trigger, I pressed and pressed it as I continued to aim at him. His face had changed now to one of puzzlement. I then let out a squeal aaaaahhhhhyaabastard, while still pressing my toy guns trigger. I did not look at his face I just ran and he and they did not follow me. I went around the block until they disappeared then went into my house and went out the back to our outside toilet. Now shaking uncontrollably, pissing and shitting one self (literally). All my anger at the almost daily racism towards myself by them, seeing the brutality dished out to those I knew or loved, being treated like dirt and humiliated and much more had driven me to squeal out like that and had directed my behaviour. I had stopped shaking, in fact I now felt good, I walked back into our kitchen and took a glass of water, and with now a smile I looked into the cracked mirror

Now once again in my life I was now seeing eyes of defiance and also now of hate emerging as I looked into that mirror. From fear, to tears, to a smile, and of now slightly laughing to oneself at my image in that mirror, I then walked back out the door of my home and made my way down my street onto the Falls road to join the gathering crowd, but now this time - for the first time - stopping to pick up bricks and any unbroken bottles I could find on my way.

I was but seven years old yet I had taken enough.

I was generally a passive kid yet their (the state) continual actions even in me forced a physical and emotional reaction. For me therefore although I may not agree I though can understand (although many cannot) why many individuals, in the main coming from social and economically deprived working class areas, felt the absolute last alternative left to them was to hit back physically (through desperation, self-defence, anger, frustration and growing hatred) as to what was happening to both them, their loved ones and those around them. Given the nature of the state and its continual brutal actions towards many innocent persons many were then ‘driven’ into the politic of the gun. And to do that they joined organisations who could and would provide the means and the direction.

Therefore I can understand it not only within a political context, but also at that time actually feeling and being driven to re-act, albeit in a much lesser scale even as a passive child. Fortunately by the time I was in my late teens much of the daily conflict was away from my sight and the overt state racism towards myself lessened, also an embryo of a peace process was in the making and some very limited change was forthcoming. I could go to college and eventually was able to look forward to a career. In those previous days though no such thing realistically existed for persons in such working class estates. That’s not to say such economic and politic discrimination does not still happen today, it does, one just needs to looked at the Unionist dominated Lisburn City Council as I have stated before to see such. Now today more kids from such estates can go to college although the 11plus, tuition fees etc still enforces educational discrimination on working class children. And that brings me to a memory on the point of education.

I had gone to a Secondary school in West Belfast. It had a strict catholic teaching, even in the school song it’s wording held strong bonding words with the church and our Lord. Yet it was and is an excellent school both academically and within the sporting arena. I was happy there, but one occasion sticks out in particular which is held on my mind. I was doing my GCSE exam in English Literature; I had chosen this exam, as I loved reading, writing essays and poetry. I remember at family gatherings where I and a cousin of similar age would recite poems we had written.

The particular event in two parts happened on the same day. As we sat in class it was the day that each of us had to get up and give an oral presentation on one of the books our syllabus had dictated that we were to read during that year. The teacher called for a volunteer to lead of and with that everyone’s head looked at the floor and so with the deafening silence one could even have tried to listen out for grasshoppers in the distance outside our windows. I then put up my hand and was directed to the front. I had chosen one of those books dictated to us it was called ‘Animal Farm’. I started into my speech describing not only the content of the book but also of what I had thought of it, good and bad. At the end I was greeted with huge cheers, banging of desks and stamping of feet, and to be honest I had thought I had given an excellent speech as many of my classmates had said to me later. The only person that did not clap although he had done to most others was my teacher. He just looked at me and his eyes directed me back to my seat. Later that day I got my essay back from course work I had done and had got a poor mark. I asked the teacher could I speak to him about it after class to which he agreed. I asked him why I had got such a low mark as I had thought it merited a higher mark and I had put an awful lot of work into it.

His words to me were ‘I don’t believe you wrote it’. I was shocked and I told him I had written it and had spent a lot of time on it. He still would not listen and I asked him what he meant and he picked out a part of a sentence, which I remember still today. It was about someone who was daydreaming about happy experiences in the past and had then come back to the real world it read ‘and his daydream memories had now dissolved him into a basin of bliss and satisfaction only to be broken when he returned to the realms of reality’. I told him again I had written it and parts of the essay were poetic as I wrote poetry at home, but to no avail.

I felt sick to the stomach.

As I stated the school was and is a great school and I had happy times there, but I raise this one incident as it is important in the overall context of my developing understanding of issues.

He would not change his mind and there was nothing I believed I could do (I knew nothing about appeal boards etc in those days), so having learnt about the ‘authority of the state and the church, I now was faced with a position where one person could in effect dictate my chances in life by failing me in my course work which made up a large proportion of my exam. Although I had written the entire essay myself with no help (unlike others I knew at other schools whose parents had hired personal tutors for their children), in future then I left out any expression which would have been more poetic or part of my own self expression about things, as I tended to at that time detail small things in a deep and meaningful way. By doing that, I then scrapped through with a C pass and therefore could go on to college. In effect, from that day on while in his class I wrote only what he wanted to read or hear and probably then in doing so re -enforcing what he had actually thought my abilities were. I felt that I had no alternative, I needed the exam, yet once again I had learnt another lesson, about another aspect of authority.

As a child I had then made up my mind that when I was with those I loved when the Brits were around I would try to avoid detection but on my own or within the crowd I could vent my anger. My anger was dictated much by my personal experiences from those various ‘authorities’, but much of that anger was laid dormant for many many years as I pushed memories to the back of my mind, some occasionally made there way to the front again, while others were triggered by other events. It was in relation to this that moved me to become involved in politics.

It was almost twenty years after walking out of number 6 Sevastopol Street, and making my way those few yards as a seven year old down to the Falls Road, and for the first time stopping to pick up bricks and bottles.

Now again I was seeing friends and loved ones then almost twenty years on being brutally battered of the streets of the Ormeau Rd seeing the Garvarghy road etc and innocent people being brutality laid into was in part to politicise me. Nothing had changed, yet things needed to change. I became a political activist and was to eventually develop a political understanding of a Socialist Revolutionary while could also hold support and understanding for various other political ‘traditions’, which put the politics of unity and not division at the fore. As a socialist I became involved in an active way looking to put theory into action or practice, thus developing a concept of ‘ideological activism’. The abstract notion within some perceptions held that socialists were persons digging up the ground in some collective in Donegal or sat around with beards and beads all day discussing the meaning of life in some backroom smoked filled bar looking for something ‘trendy’ to get involved in, was a initial humorous insight as to what some thought. But I came to understand that some people held and hold many weird perceptions of different ‘groups’ of people and individuals for various reasons. For me though my ultimate aim was and is to see a society based on equality both politically and economically while always striving in the present to bring closer in whatever way, real and practical, aspects of social justice and equality while standing against oppression and repression both at home and internationally.

It was late 1981, Twinbrook estate, ‘what will we play dead (or best) man fall, or wounded soldier’. These were two of the favourite games for us at that time, yet the games themselves I believe were at times reflective of the immediate violent times in which we lived. ‘Dead man Fall’, was a game in which we ‘kids’, stood on a quite high wall (to us) around in the ‘circle’ at the back of some houses. Then one person stood in front of us and said what do you want, and then those on the wall would decide which way they wanted to be killed. ‘ I want a hand grenade’ went one, and with that the kid in front pretended to throw a hand grenade at the kid on the wall. The kid on the wall would take a sprint run along then wall and leap of it (while pretending) to be blown to bits by the hand grenade. Others would choose machine guns etc and would wriggle around on their last death throws while on the ground, with the winner being the one who did the ‘best death’. The other game ‘Wounded soldier’ meant that one stood as the edge of the wall and had to run across it without being hit. ‘Hit’ meant that a person a few yards away from you would kick a football and try to hit you with it. If your were hit on the leg you had to hop the next time, hit on both legs you had to drag yourself along next time by the arms which gave the kicker of the ball ample time to have many shots at you. To die you had to have the football kicked at you and to be hit in the head. I witnessed many bloody noses but when at times a Hurley stick and a tennis ball were produced to be used, I thought it was taking the game a bit to far, but one participated.

Many such games of war were played with also many of our childhood songs being directed to the likes of the Queen and eventually to ‘Maggie Thatcher, ‘ to take the piss’ out of them (make fun of them). Many other games were less ‘politicised’, in the sense they were traditional kids games, Hop scotch, skipping etc with its own songs to accompany the turn of the rope, and many whose lyrics I can remember still to this day. The politic of childhood embraced much and provided much learning for one-self and I presume many others would have experienced similar. From laughter to tears, from fear to defiance it was a childhood in which materially like many others I may have had little but had still gained much.

For now I will take a break, but sometime in the future I will return again to my childhood, and to the ‘West’ of Belfast.

 

 


 

 

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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

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Index: Current Articles



11 September 2003

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

Seconds Out for Round Thirteen
Eamon Sweeney

 

UN Report on Human Development
Liam O Ruairc

 

No Sign Yet of an End to the Cold War
Anthony McIntyre

 

West Belfast - The Politics of Childhood
Davy Carlin

 

Review of Eoin O'Broin's Matxinada
Douglas Hamilton

 

Help Renew the Republican Dream
Gerry Ruddy

 

Three Meeting Announcements
Belfast & Dublin

 

7 September 2003

 

Bush, Coke-a-Cola and the Nazis
Eamonn McCann

 

A Regime of Silence
Anthony McIntyre

 

Lower Falls Memories
Kathleen O'Halloran

 

My Axis of Evil
Pedram Moallemian

 

In Memory of Israfil Shiri 1973-2003
Debbie Grue

 

IRPWA Calls on Paul Murphy to Reveal Recommendations
Martin Mulholland

 

A Letter to Mr Foley
Matthew Kavanagh

 

 

 

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