On a sunny day in 1970 my osteomyelitis was finally given the all clear and I was on my way home from the hospital, for a couple of years at least. I was so heartbroken to leave Nurse Brown, that on the day of my discharge I hid in a broom cupboard, in the childish belief if they couldn’t find me they would let me stay in the children’s ward with Nurse Brown. The day before dad had explained to me that we had a new home and that‘s where I would be going to live when I left hospital. He explained that we had moved to Glencairn to be near his family, so that our grandmother could help look after us. We all loved my grandmother dearly and although I was grief stricken at the thought of leaving Nurse Brown, I was also excited at the thought of living in a new home and being surrounded by my grandparents and cousins. When I had first gone into hospital we had lived in a mixed area of the city and spent as much time with our Catholic family on mum’s side, as we had with dad’s family. When mum and dad had first parted dad forbade any of mum’s family from visiting me in hospital and as a result when they parted for good we were never to meet any of our Catholic relatives again. The division in my family reflected the religious segregation that was ripping Northern Ireland apart. At four years old my political and religious destination was decided, as I left the children’s ward and headed home to my new life without mum in Glencairn.
Glencairn was a violent, ultra loyalist estate in the West of the city built in the sixties and was controlled by the UDA, the largest protestant paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. The estate is cut into the mountains and is surrounded by glens and forest and from the top you can look down over Belfast City, with the giant cranes Samson and Goliath dominating the horizon of the east of the city. On my first day home I fell in love with Glencairn and I knew immediately that I would like living there. Previously we had lived in a built up area of Belfast and now I was surrounded by vast open spaces and fields and mountains as far as the eye could see. There was only one road into Glencairn and due to this isolation it became a dumping ground for loyalist murder squads
Our new house was on the Forthriver Road, half way up the estate and two minutes walk from the local and only shopping complex in Glencairn, which was made up of a VG , a Chinese takeaway , paper shop , a wine lodge and a UDA drinking club called Grouchos, which dad worked in. Home for us was a ground floor house in a two story maisonette, with two bedrooms between five of us. It was a bit cramped and when I first came out of hospital I got to sleep with dad in his double bed and the others shared the other room. But we were all happy and I was excited about all the sudden changes in my young life. Just facing our house was St. Andrews church, which was to play a huge role in my future life,
Granny and Granddad lived just around the corner from our place and Granny practically lived in our house as she helped dad look after us. About 10 minutes away from our place, at the top of the estate dad’s two younger brothers and their wives and children lived. Like a lot of deprived area’s of Belfast, Glencairn was a tribal community and the Protestant people of the estate stuck together through thick and thin with their hatred of their Catholic counter parts throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland with a passion.
But the best thing for me was dad’s dog Shep, a temperamental Alsatian, who terrorised the area. We quickly became inseparable and before long we were the best of friend’s. After unpacking my things and settling me in, Dad and Granny called me into the front room and asked me to sit down. They explained that mum had gone away and that I would never see her again. If anyone were to ever ask where she was, I was simply to say she had died and leave it at that. Also from then on I was to call Gerard David and Mary Margaret. Due to the ultra Loyalist nature of Glencairn and the people we now lived amongst, all traces of our Catholic heritage and mum had to be eradicated from our past and we were told never to mention mum or her family again. This was done also for our own safety, because had the truth been known we would have been ostracised and picked on.
Within a short space of time I had really settled in and for the first time in my short life I was spending a lot of time with dad’s side of the family and I was getting to know my brother and sisters properly. Due to my leg, I got to sleep with dad in his huge double bed and every night he would carry me upstairs because, due to my caliper’s I was still unable to get up them by myself. Whist I had been in hospital I was surrounded by other children in wheelchairs, plaster and caliper’s and I had thought nothing of it. But now back at home with all those trees and never ending fields I began to feel self conscious about my caliper and the way I walked. When I had to visit the physiotherapist I pushed myself as hard as possible in my efforts to strengthen my leg muscles, so I could climb trees and run with the other kids. But I was getting stronger everyday and within a year of leaving hospital I could walk and run unaided, although I was to have a limp for the rest of my life and suffer multiple fractures due to the weak bones in my bad leg.
As the weakling of the family I got special attention from Dad and my Grandparents and during my first few months at home dad took a lot of time off work as a gardener to look after me and help me settle into my new life. Dad had always been a special person in my tiny world , but now that I was home and spending so much time with him , he soon became the centre of my universe and I must have been a right nuisance as I followed him around like a love sick puppy getting under his feet all the time. Within a few weeks after coming home I was enrolled in the local school, Fernhill which was just behind our home on the perimeters of the park and glens. I was lucky in that aspect that my sisters and brother and all my cousin’s attended the same school and from my first day there I loved every minute I spent there. After school we would all head off to the vast Glencairn park and when we got bored with playing on the swings or climbing trees we would go down the glen to the river and play for hours following the river as far as we could and catching rainbow trout with pieces of string attached to branches and our bare hands. It was an idyllic place to grow up and had it not been for the absence of mum and the madness going on around us, it could have been the perfect childhood.
Before moving to Glencairn I had not been aware that Dad, along with his brother was a member of the UDA. This was nothing out of the ordinary, as most of the adult men and many of the women in Glencairn and the surrounding areas were members of one of the many loyalist paramilitary groups. The UDA played a very active role within the community and if someone had a problem that needed solving or were short of cash and needed a loan they would turn to the UDA. Like a lot of the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, the UDA were looked upon as protectors of the people they governed. Although he was a member of the UDA, like many others dad did not get involved with the military actions of the active units and was a pacifist who hated violence. He had been a practising Christian for most of his teenage years.
Dad played a very active role within the UDA and apart from running the local UDA club, Grouchos, he was responsible for setting up and running the Glencairn Accordion band. From my point of view this was excellent. My sisters and cousins were all members of the band, the younger ones played the triangle or symbols and then like my sisters Margaret and Jean, working their way up the ranks until they were taught how to play the accordion. The band was the pride of Glencairn and won many competitions throughout Northern Ireland. They practiced on Thursday nights and I use to go with dad up to the practice hall at the top of the estate and sit mesmerised in the corner, surrounded by 40 females of various ages. There was one girl who played the accordion and I feel in love with her the first time I set eyes on her. Of course she never knew as the girls went through the rehearsals, playing various loyalist tunes and anthems, I would sing along and pretend to be the leader of the band and march up and down the hall. The girls’ found this absolutely hilarious and in order to gain some control back, dad would tell me off and I would have to sit quietly in the corner again, until a personal favourite of mine was played and I would be off again. During the protestant marching season and the build up to the 12th, the most important day in the loyalist calendar, the band was hired to march with various orange lodges throughout Northern Ireland. On the day of the march our house would be in complete chaos as my sisters and dad got themselves dressed in the uniforms for the march. Granny would come round to help and gradually all our cousins would arrive with various instruments and get in some last minute practice. All the members of the band would meet outside the shops and a large crowd always gathered to see them off. I would almost be bursting with pride as they all fell in together and led by dad would start marching down the Glencairn Road towards the meeting point on the Shankill Road. David and I would follow the band down to the bottom of the road and wave them off before heading home for a snack and then out to play until tea time. The band would normally arrive back in the estate between six and seven and we would wait eagerly near the Road until we could hear the distant sound of them approaching and rush to greet them. When we finally got home granny would prepare dinner and after eating we would all sit down and watch telly, exhausted by the day’s events.
At this stage of my life I was as happy and normal as an eight –year old boy could be in my circumstances and was blissfully unaware that my life was so different from others. Life with dad and the others was a happy life and I now had a routine to my life that was missing when I was in hospital. I still occasionally thought of Nurse Brown and missed her, but I was to see her again in the not too distant future. On Tuesday David and I went to the BB and Sunday school on Sunday’s. Although I really believed that god had created the earth and sacrificed his only son for the good of mankind, my god had become a Protestant god and I did not love my Catholic counterparts. Reverend Lewis, our vicar, was a patient and tolerant man but he occasionally became exasperated at our hardcore Protestant approach to religion and tried hard to teach us the concept of love, not hate.
Although dad did not go to church himself it was expected of us kids to attend and religion played a very important role in my early life and teenage years. Also I think dad liked to get us all out of the house for a while, so he could have some peace and quiet time to himself and a rest from looking after us. Sometime’s dad would be on sentry duty outside the UDA club and David and I would go and visit him on the way home. In these early years I used to think of mum only occasionally and once when I asked granny about her she made it clear that mum was gone forever and I was not to mention her again and forget all about her. So I did exactly that and pushed mum to the back of my mind and got on with my new exciting life in Glencairn.
One day after weeks of anticipation Margaret’s cat Smoky give birth to a little of five kittens. We were all allowed into Margaret’s bedroom to watch the birth, including dad’s dog; my best friend Shep, who was told off a few times by Smoky for getting a little too close to the action.
After letting David, Shep and I have a supervised look at the five kittens Margaret banished us from the labour ward, as she needed to spend time alone with her five new charges. I was very thoughtful and to be honest jealous of Margaret having five brand new kittens to her name and I wanted some for myself. There was obviously no quick way for me to find five brand new kittens for myself, so I decided there and then that Shep would have to give birth to five puppies for me before the day was out. The major problem there was that Shep was a he! This bit of fundamental biological necessity wasn’t going to put me off.
After a quick strategy plan with David we headed to our secret den in the park, with an unexpected Shep in tow. My plan was a simple one, I needed a miracle and I was going to ask God to help. Reverend Lewis had instilled in us a firm believe that if you wanted and needed something bad enough god would answer your prayers. Surely god and baby Jesus in their wisdom would recognize the importance of me having five puppies for myself before the end of the day. When we got to the den Shep was more than happy to lay down on the grass and rub his belly and wait for the miracle that god was about to perform. I had little knowledge of how kittens were born and how miracles worked, but I was not to be put off. After a chat with David and stroking Shep’s belly with what I felt was a miracle stroke, I lead David behind a nearby bush, sank to my knees and began a marathon prayer to god and Jesus, outlining the desperate importance of Shep giving birth and me having my puppies. Needless to say nothing happened and after about an hour David and Shep were beginning to give me strange looks and were obviously bored and becoming alarmed at my enthusiasm for the lord’s intervention and after a while I too got bored and disillusioned and decided to throw the towel in… for now at least. It was obvious to me that god in his wisdom had decided not to grant me a miracle today but this did not diminish my faith and I would continue to seek God’s help in all matters big and small.