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Belfast Child- Chapter 5- Surrounded by Madness

Back in Belfast life went on as normal as possible in the circumstance’s and although my early memories of mum occasionally drifted into my mind, gradually mum became a vague memory of my childhood world. Once, a boy at school asked me where my mother was and I remember being embarrassed that I couldn’t answer him. That afternoon when I got home from school and Granny was cooking dinner I asked her where my mum was and she became quiet and asked me to go and fetch the others. When we were all sat down Granny told us that mum had died in car crash and she was now in heaven and we should pray for her. That was it, the only explanation we were ever given and from that day on no one ever really mentioned mum to us again. The few times I did mention her to the others I was told to be quiet and stop causing trouble and that is exactly what I done. There was a massive hole in my life and although deep down I had an instinctive feeling that mum wasn’t dead, I accepted the explanation given to us. In spite of everything I was a very happy child and loved living in Glencairn with dad and the others, surrounded by family and friends and the people of the estate, who were like an extended family. Like most inner city area’s of Belfast the community we lived in was very tribal and everyone was viewed as members of an extended family. The dividing line between the people of the estate was the paramilitary groups and which one you and your family were connected too. Most families in the estate were in one way or another connected to one of the main loyalist paramilitary groups; the UDA and UVF and other splinter groups.

Like the vast majority of people in Glencairn dad and his brothers were members of the UDA and as such were respected throughout the estate. Although the UVF had a stronghold on the Shankill and Woodvale Road, many members lived in Glencairn and on the whole the various paramilitary groups lived side by side, apart from when violent feuds would erupt between them and they would turn their attention from the war against the IRA and other republican groups, towards each other and an orgy of death and destruction would ensue as they sorted out their differences. Eventually as the death toll mounted, local community leaders, politicians and paramilitary leaders would intervene to end the blood bath and before long stability was restored and the loyalist paramilitaries would once again turn their attention to the IRA and other republican targets and continue the never ending war for control of Northern Ireland.

Although I was much too young to fully understand the complexities of the sectarian war raging around me, I understood it was a war between us and the Republicans and like everyone else I celebrated when news of another IRA or Nationalist assassination came through and commiserated when news of the death of a Protestant paramilitary or civilian hit the streets

Our lives were dominated by the brutal violence that surrounded us and we learnt to take the carnage in our stride. Everyday there was a bloody reminder of the destruction going on around us and although we were safe from the IRA in Glencairn, there was no escaping the madness that was going on around us. Day in day out the news reported the latest causalities of war, British soldiers blown to pieces by IRA bombs, innocent people wiped out, either victims because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply because of their religion. Whenever a local paramilitary died in action or became an assassination victim to a Republican death squad, the whole community would feel the loss and an atmosphere of hatred and the want for revenge would hang over the whole Loyalist community. The funerals were always massive affairs and the roads would be lined with thousands from all over Northern Ireland, as the Loyalist population gathered to pay their respects to a son of Ulster, who had died fighting for our right to control Northern Ireland and remain part of the UK.

After the murder victim had been buried the whole of Belfast would await apprehensively in the certain knowledge that revenge was imminent and the Catholic people of the city would brace themselves for the brutal retribution that would surely come, brought on by the actions of the IRA godfathers. It was a crazy cycle of violence, but I was part of it and accepted it as normal and like all the other children around me, I longed for the day I was old enough to take up arms and join the war against the enemy, the IRA and their Nationalist supporters.

But even from an early age I felt sympathy for the many innocent Catholic’s killed by the more extreme Loyalist groups. I knew deep down that I was different, but didn’t yet know why.

Like most of the families on the estate we were living on the bread line and relied heavily on state hand-out’s to subsidise the little dad brought in through various temporary casual work. He done everything from gardening to working as a hospital porter and although we never had much, we never seemed to go without and at Xmas and birthdays we always received loads of presents. All our school uniforms were paid for by government grants and we were always on free lunches at school, which meant that we would have to queue up outside the dinner hall and wait until we were giving blue tickets which entitled us to a free lunch. Not that this bothered me at all; I was the same as 95% of the other kids who attended the school.

Although my education had been and would continue to be punctuated by my time in hospital, I really enjoyed primary school and when I look back these were among the happiest days of my young life. In the school pecking order I was neither bully nor victim and due to the size of my family and their connections I was normally left to my own devices. That’s not to say I was never involved in scraps or anything, but the few times I had come up against one of my peers I had handled myself well and word got out that I was not an easy target and it was best to leave me alone.

One day my cousin Wee Sam and I were mucking about in the school playground and as I was chasing him he accidentally knocked into Jimbo, who was one of the best fighters in our year. Although Wee Sam was also a good fighter, he rarely went looking for trouble and he tried his best to defuse the situation. But Jimbo was having none of it and a scuffle broke out between them. Before the teacher had time to pull them apart, Wee Sam had caught Jimbo a stinging blow to the right hand side of his face and knocked him flying. Needless to say this really pissed Jimbo off and as he was making his way back to the classroom he let everyone know that this was not the end of the matter. As the afternoon wore on word quickly spread room the school that Jimbo was going to beat wee Sam up after school and a buzz of anticipation filled the air, as the hour grew nearer.

I found all this rather exciting and quickly promoted myself to Wee Sam’s manager and I let it be known that Sam would have Jimbo a fair dig at the back of the park after school was out. I took Sam’s silence and lack of enthusiasm as his way of preparing for the fight and arranged to meet him at the school gates at 3:15. By three o’clock it seemed the whole of the school was talking about the fight and when the bell finally rang, crowds of children started making their way to the appointed area. I waited for Sam for ages by the gate and when he failed to turn up I decided that he must have already made his way there and I sprinted to the woods as fast as I could, in case I missed any of the action. When I got there it seemed there were hundreds gathered and I scanned the crowds searching for Sam, but he was nowhere to be seen. At the centre of the gathered mass I could see Jimbo pacing up and down like a caged animal and for a moment I thought it might be better if Sam didn’t turn up, in case he was seriously injured.

As more and more time passed and there was still no sign of Sam the crowd began to get restless and I began running out of excuses for Sam’s absence. Suddenly to my horror I heard someone from the crowd suggest that as Sam wasn’t here I should fight Jimbo instead, because I was Sam’s cousin. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather and before I had time to argue my case, the crowd were warming to the idea and some were actually starting to bay for my blood. As I stared among the crowd for Sam or a friendly face all I could see was a mass of blood thirty spectators who had come to see a fight and they didn’t really care who fought, as long as they got the entertainment they were expecting.

Suddenly I felt a hammer like blow to the face, followed by a quick punch in the stomach and before my brain had time to register what was happening Jimbo was all over me like a rash. I don’t know where I found the strength, but through the cheering of the crowds I clambered back to my feet and started ducking and diving to avoid the raging bull in front of me. I was not very happy with the situation I found myself in , but there was no way I was going to let someone kick the shit out of me. Gradually I began to fight back and before long we were rolling all over the place and I was starting to hurt him as much as he was hurting me. He was the dirtiest fighter I had ever come across, he pulled my hair, nipped my neck as he straddled me on the ground, which was very painful , gorged his fingers in my eyes and squeezed my balls. I don’t know how I survived all that, but suddenly I was on top of him, punching him in the face and sides and banging his head on the ground.

Eventually we both became exhausted with the toll the fight was taking on our bodies and when someone from the crowd suggested we call it a draw, we both agreed and the battle came to an end. I don’t know if the crowd was getting bored with the fight or the shear brutality of it was starting to get someone them worried , but we were both grateful for a way out and took it. It was a brutal fight for two nine year olds and I still remember every detail of it. Such was the impact of the fight that from that day on my profile among my peers went up considerably and I had respect throughout the school. As is often the case Jimbo and I became the best of friends afterward and remained so until an event in the future would bring us up against each other again, this time on a scale of brutal paramilitary violence.

Sadly years later Jimbo began a target of an IRA death squad and left a girlfriend and two young children to fend for themselves, another casualty of the brutal troubles.

As for Sam, the jammy git, his reputation remained in place when we found out that Mr. Wilson had detained him in detention, as a means of preventing the fight from taking place.

By 1974 the troubles had reached boiling point between the two religions and the whole of Northern Ireland were bracing themselves for civil war. The troubles dominated every aspect of our daily lives and every minute of every day we expected the whole of Belfast to explode into a savage bloodbath as the two warring communities vented their pent up anger and hatred of each other. Religious hatred was an integral part of Loyalist culture and we watched with mounting fury and hatred as the IRA and other Republican groups flooded the streets of Belfast with the blood the innocent and guilty alike. On one front the IRA were fighting a dirty war against the British government and army and on another front they were waging war against the Protestant paramilitaries and people. The whole of Belfast was a war zone and we became used to the presence of British soldiers lurking behind walls and lampposts and the ever-present whirling sound of helicopters, watching over us constantly from the sky. Bombs were going off almost daily and from the top of Glencairn we watched with disgust and hatred as the whole of the Belfast skyline was curtained with black smoke whirls, rising from the devastating actions of Republican bombs on the ground, as they tried to bomb both the British government out of Northern Ireland and the Protestant people into submission. At night we would lie in bed listening to it all and as the distant rumble of a bomb going of slowly crept its way towards us we would drift off to sleep. All over Belfast there were nightly riots, as Protestants and Catholics people fought hand –to-hand battles for control of Belfast and when the police and army came to try and restore order, the rage would be turned on them and the security forces would find themselves in the middle trying to keep the two tribes apart. We used to collect badges of the soldiers and compare them like triumph cards and after a riot we would go out and look for plastic bullets and other trophies left from the battle the night before. We were living in a war zone and we were on the front line.

One day on the way home from school David and I were walking past some derelict flats when we heard the unmistakable sound of a gun going off. Followed by a blood curdling scream. This was too good not to have a closer look and we both darted behind a wall and cautiously made our way to the sound of the action. When we got to a few feet of the sound we peered round the building and saw two local men that we knew running away and a third man on the ground rolling in apparent agony. Curiosity got the best of us and we came out of our hiding place and made our way towards the injured man. It was obvious from the two holes in his leg and blood on the ground that he had been shot. As we stood transfixed at the sight he became aware of our presence and slowly started to crawl towards us. As he got closer I recognised him as a local man and wondered what he had done.

“Call an ambulance” he pleaded with us.

“Why did they shoot you?” I asked suspiciously

“I don’t know”, he whispered through the pain, “go and call an ambulance…please”

Moving closer I could see the holes in his trousers and bits of red flesh hanging from the gaps, it was a right mess and I thought I was going to throw up.

“Does it hurt?” I asked

“Off course it fucking hurts, now are you going to call an ambulance or not?”

Before I could answer the sound of an approaching siren began to grow closer and I knew the ambulance was on the way. It was obviously a punishment shooting and no one got shot for nothing, so he probably deserved it. Also, it was normal procedure for a hit squad to call an ambulance for the victims, after they had carried out the punishment.

By now people had started to come out of their houses and by the time the ambulance arrived and started treating him, a crowd had gathered around the man as he lay wriggling on the ground. As usual the police weren’t far behind and they went through the routine of asking if anyone had seen or heard anything. But this was a formality , as they knew no one ever saw anything or spoke to the police and if anyone ever were to help the police , they would be dealt a far worse fate than a kneecapping victim, who would lucky if he ever walked again. The paramilitaries protected us from the IRA and dealt with local crime and punishment and the police were rarely involved in local disputes. We policed ourselves and the paramilitaries kept local crime under control.

When dad got home from that night he knew all about the incident and also that we had been there and he gives us a right ticking off. Although he was heavily involved with the UDA and local community, he tried his hardest to shield us from the brutality that surrounded our daily lives and protect us from the madness going on around us.

Shortly after the shooting incident I began to get severe pain in my left ear drum and after a visit to the doctors it was discovered that I had a perforated eardrum and would have to go back into hospital for another operation. For the first time in my life I wasn’t looking forward to going into hospital. Even being reunited with Nurse Brown in the children’s ward failed to cheer me up. During the past few months I had started thinking more and more about mum and frustrated at knowing anything about her, I began to dwell on the situation. I had never really missed mum before, well not that I could remember, but this stay in hospital was a turning point in my attitude towards mum. I remember one day at visiting time in the children’s ward, I felt jealous and empty as I watched the mothers and fathers of other children coming and going. Dad and the rest of the family visited me almost every day and I really looked forward to the visits, but something was missing and I gradually began to realise it was mum. Before long I was missing mum desperately, but due to the background of the situation I was too frightened and didn’t want to upset anyone in the family, to let them know how I was feeling. I just bottled it up inside, as I was to do for many years and took what comfort I could from Nurse Brown and the family. After I got over the operation I went home with a heavy heart and although I got on with my childhood, I more than ever was aware of the huge gap in my life that would never be filled. I was still going to church and bible studies and I tried to take as much comfort as possible that mum might be in heaven with God and Jesus and one day we would be together again. I was really mixed up emotionally at the time and when I was alone I often cried over mum’s absence in my life. Such was the stigma of mum in the family that I couldn’t even discuss her with my siblings, let alone with dad or granny. As a child I learned early on to hide my pain and I pushed the biggest pain in my life to the back of my mind in the hope that I would forget about it. But this was only a temporary measure and gradually, not having mum around began to have a profound effect on my childhood and it was to haunt me far more and more as my childhood went on.

Life went on as it always does and I learned to live with the pain and growing agony of not having mum around. Granny was a constant presence in our day-to-day lives and whenever we were sad or upset about something she was always there to offer love and support. Sadly for Granny, as David and I grew older some of the antics we were getting up to were threatening to give her a nervous breakdown. The local VG was a co-operative scheme, owed and ran by the people of the estate, with Reverend Lewis in over all control of the operation. One Saturday Granny drew up a weekly shopping list and sent David and I off to the VG with £20.00 in my pocket to do the shopping. On the way I had a brain wave. David and I would steal as much of the shopping as possible and keep the money we saved for ourselves. This worked brilliantly for the first few times and then disaster struck. On this particular day things had been going well until we got to the check out and I took a mad itch in my right leg. As I bent down to scratch it, to the shock of all those present a roll of black pudding appeared from my sleeve and slithered onto the floor.

As we were both led away to the manager’s office at the back of the store, clouds of shame began to quickly gather over me and the seriousness of the situation hit home. My panic turned to horror as I was pushed into Mr. Stewarts, the manager’s office and saw Reverend Lewis standing in the corner. After the check out girl explained what had happened Reverend Lewis turned to both of us and with a look of disappointment on his face, asked had we anything else on us. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife as we both stood there in silence, dreading having to admit that yes, we did have more on our person and dreading even more having to lie to Reverend Lewis. “Well” said Reverend Lewis, “Do you have anything else?”. Unable to speak, I slowly nodded my head up and down and was relieved to see David doing the dame. We hadn’t actually admitted anything up to this point and our souls were still safe because we had not lied to Reverend Lewis .After a bit of persuasion we both began to remove items from our clothing and placed them on the desk, in full view of Mr. Stewart, (I’d never get a job in the VG now) Reverend Lewis and the check out girl. Anger turned to pity as David removed and placed a tin of corned beef, a small tin of beans with four sausages and two packets of chicken soup on the table. Out of my pocket I pulled a small tub of margarine, a packet of teabags and a bird’s eye strawberry flavoured trifle and placed them beside David’s things. When I had finished I stepped back and peered with bitterness at the offending items. Reverend Lewis and the others whispered among themselves for a while and then he turned and asked us to explain why we needed to steal food from the community shop.

“We were hungry Reverend” I ventured.

“I’m sure your Granny or dad would have given you something to eat, if you had asked them” said Reverend Lewis.

“Surely there’s no need to steal?”

I don’t know why I said it, but I heard myself saying that we had no food or money and had not eaten in five days. The moment I said it, I knew I had made a major mistake and the look of terror on David’s face confirmed this. After that things began to move quickly and before I knew what was happening we were in the car with Reverend Lewis on the way to Granny’s house. When we got there Granny was out somewhere and Reverend Lewis left a note on the window and drove us straight to his house where his wife made us a slap up meal, with strawberry jelly and ice cream for desert. We had just finished dinner and were settling down to watch cartoons, when we heard a knock on the door and a few minutes later Granny’s voice. as she spoke with Reverend Lewis in the hallway. Before we knew what was happening Granny had us out the door and dragged us all the way home screaming blue murder. We both got a clot round the ear and Granny was forever going on about how we had shamed her and everyone in the estate must be talking about her and saying she wasn’t looking after us right. Needless to say we never did get to do the shopping again and Granny never got over the shock of such a public humiliation.

About John Chambers

Profile photo of John Chambers
John Chambers is from Belfast , but now lives in the North West of England. He is the author of Belfast Child, which is about his life growing up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and his life long search for my missing Catholic mother. He also blogs and posts articles mainly on Current Affairs, War & History and posts daily on key events in the Troubles and Deaths due to the conflict in N.I. You can follow him at https://belfastchildis.wordpress.com/

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