Belfast, 1969: The Troubles were coming

In an extract from his memoir, Malachi O’Doherty recalls the end of his childhood, 50 years ago

It is Belfast in the summer of 1969. There is unrest, unease, rioting, but the hostilities we now call the Troubles have not begun. The Troubles are something which took place a long time ago, between 1916 and 1922. In this exclusive extract from his memoir, journalist Malachi O'Doherty recalls the end of his childhood, 50 years ago, in Belfast, on the night of August 14th, 1969: the night the guns came out. He has witnessed a riot erupt into a major gun battle and recalls events of that night, and the preceding days from the safety of his bedroom. 

When I was walking away from the rioting on Divis Street tonight I was stopped by two American journalists who asked me if there had been any gunfire here yet. I said, “Only blanks.”

Why did I say that? What did I know about what people were doing, how bad this would get? I have no insights into the organisation of the riot, no familiarity with the people who led the attacks on the police.

But I just assumed that this skirmish was like others I had seen; and if there was the odd crack or rattle that might have been a gunshot, I had heard these before and no one had suffered bullet wounds or seen holes in walls or windows afterwards.


She doesn't believe that teenagers chucking petrol bombs at the police care a fig about civil rights: they are out enjoying themselves. She's probably right

So, pretending to understand the pattern of trouble that has become familiar over the past year, I said no, only blanks.

Then, when I heard machine-gun fire, there was no mistaking it. It was murderous. You wouldn’t confuse that with fireworks or something falling over. You could hear the clear intentionality of it in the blunt, abrupt, clean dunts, like rapid hammer blows.

I had left Jo to the bus station. We had not been able to go down the Falls Road, so we had detoured to the south of the city and taken a bus along the Lisburn Road and walked across town.

We saw a huge water cannon trundle across King Street in front of us, and heard the clatter and banging and shouting further away. She scoffed at the mob. “If they had jobs to go to tomorrow they wouldn’t be at that carry-on.”

She is a Protestant and comes at this differently. For one thing, she knows more people in the police, for very few Catholics are in the Royal Ulster Constabulary – none at all in the Special Constabulary, those part-timers who were called up tonight for back-up.

So she has more sympathy with men in uniform. Her family probably votes for the Unionist Party, which has been in unbroken control for nearly 50 years and which is challenged by these riots and the demands for civil rights.

She doesn’t believe that teenagers chucking petrol bombs at the police care a fig about civil rights: they are out enjoying themselves. She’s probably right.

I left her to the bus and came back. I joined about a dozen others watching. It was some show. Police in black uniforms with shields confronted young men throwing bricks and petrol bombs at them.

The bombs were milk bottles, which arced through the air, then smashed on the ground and produced a sliver of flame.

This was all under the view of Divis Tower and there were men on the roof. I watched them throw down a whole crate of bottles, smashing them on the ground. I thought at first they were just discarding them, making a racket, but as the rioters pulled back and the police charged, I saw what they were up to. One of the men on the roof dropped a petrol bomb into the mess and whoosh, it went up in flames.

I saw a young man in a pink cheesecloth shirt and jeans being grabbed by two policemen and led back behind the lines in front of us to the station.

The police had their sneaky strategies too. They would pull back, closer to us, and entice the rioters into the range of armoured cars parked on Conway Street and Dover Street.

These weren’t like the big water cannon. A man near me in the crowd called them whippets. They were small, almost pyramid-like on top. They had mounted machine guns. They whirred and they spun.

Two came out from different directions to break up the rioting mob and then the police launched a baton charge after the scattered men and brought one or two down with a strike at the knees and pulled them in.

I saw a delivery van for a sausage factory pull up on our side of the line, and special constables with rifles climb out the back and rush along the wall into the police station. A senior officer in ordinary uniform, with a peaked cap, not a helmet, came and spoke to us. “I urge you to disperse. We cannot guarantee your safety. This is getting much more serious.”

“They should bring in the army,” said the man beside me. “They’d soon show them. They’d throw their petrol bombs back at them.”

I left the group and went back the way I had come with Jo. The buses were all off now.

That was when I met the Americans and reassured them, and they must have marvelled at my innocence, my ignorance.

Sniper on the roof

I walked up Grosvenor Road, to join the Falls Road on the other side of the riot, anticipating a three-mile walk home. I had turned the corner on to the Falls when I heard the first string of blurts from a machine gun. At first I had no idea where it had come from. There was another.

I was passing the front of the hospital and worked out that there must be a sniper on the roof, for the noise of the gun was so loud it seemed almost beside me. I ran into the front of the hospital for cover and faced the double escalator.

Both sides were coming up now. There was no way in. I wondered if my panicked mind was hallucinating. I was fired with urgency – not debilitated by terror, as I would have expected. I was studying everything and reading my reactions.

Even as I turned and ran up the road, close to the front of the hospital, I was registering an insight: that if Jo had been with me in those moments I would have been no use to her. Then I walked with my head down, but the shooting started again. Bop-bop bop-bop-bop. A couple of boys on the other side of the road started running for cover along the stone wall of the convent school, St Dominic’s.

I ran. And as I did so a car pulled up ahead of me; a man jumped out and grabbed me by the arm and with his other arm pressed my head down. “Keep low.” And he ran with me to the car.

There was a young fella in the back seat. They drove me home. We passed groups of people at bus stops, apparently still thinking there was some normality there. There was. The man and I did not talk about the gunfire or the politics. He just said, “Your mother will be worrying about you.”

Dreams of war

I am 18 years old. I live in a housing estate called Riverdale on the very edge of Belfast. Beyond our streets when I moved here as a child there were only fields to play in, trees to climb, goats to outrun, the remnants of wartime Nissen huts and coils of barbed wire. When I was smaller I had dreams of war, my imagination fired up by those traces.

Later there were building sites all around me, and I was outrunning the nightwatchman when he caught me and my friends sneaking in after the workmen had gone, on summer evenings, to bounce on planks, climb through window frames.

Eight of us live in a semi-detached house with three bedrooms – or really two bedrooms and a box room. One bedroom at the front is for my parents. The box room is for my two sisters and the rear bedroom is for the four boys.

The house was built for two parents and three children at most, on the understanding (later voiced by the Northern Irish prime minister) that Catholics, if given proper housing, would live like Protestants and, by implication, have smaller families.

There are several Protestants living in our street, most of them families of policemen. And they are friendly, though their children go to different schools so we don’t get to know them as well. Other Protestants down at Finaghy are more fearsome and sometimes shout at us when we go to the railway station.

One of the anxieties of British Northern Ireland is that those of us who are Irish – that is, Catholic – will outbreed the Protestants and take the territory into the Irish nation, where most of us think it rightly belongs.

By that thinking, building new housing estates for Catholics is reckless self-harm. The counter-idea is that full citizenship will help us to feel at home.

When I was younger, one of the advantages of Britishness was the welfare state. My mother was paid a family allowance for each of her children. The doctor would come out to the house in those days if one of us had a temperature. He would press down my tongue with a flat piece of wood and tell me to say “Aaah”.

And if by some miracle any of my mother’s children would get a place at university, or at least at the teacher-training college, the state would pay all the fees and a maintenance grant.

Catholic education

I went to Catholic schools, which asserted their distinction from the state while taking most of their funding from the government.

My first school in Belfast was the pavilion of a sports ground, Casement Park, which smelled of damp concrete. At Mass every Sunday my parents paid into the school building fund to help with the cost of the new primary school, the Holy Child.

We would be holy children ourselves, the boys going in one door, the girls another, our models being Dominic Savio, who mortified his flesh by sleeping on walnut shells and died young, and Maria Goretti, who resisted the man who would rape her. He stabbed her 14 times but she forgave him on her deathbed and he went on to become a monk while she went to heaven.

Discipline in primary school was applied with the cane, 3ft of fine bamboo with a curve at the end like the handle of a walking stick, swiped at the tips of the fingers and not just for running in the corridor, scuffling in the yard or failing to do homework but also for bad handwriting and not getting the sums right.

Some of us still maintain a pretence to Mum and Dad that we don't smoke and therefore only light up outside or when we have the house to ourselves

Our house is much more spacious than the redbrick terraces of the back streets where most working-class people live. We have an indoor toilet and a bathroom. In many other houses down the road, children and grandparents make up beds for themselves at night around the fireplace, on the sofa or the floor, and smaller children squeeze in beside their parents.

And they wash in a tub brought in from the yard and filled from pots of hot water boiled up on the cooker. They don’t have gardens but open their front doors on to the footpath.

We are on the corner so the waste ground is our garden. It extends like a blade towards a point, and we shout at people who take shortcuts across it. This is a new estate, and some of the best rental residential housing in Belfast for families. I don’t know that we are crowded here, that my own adult self will look back and say this was poverty.

I don’t know anyone who has central heating in their home, so I don’t miss it.

We take heat in the living room from a coal fire, supported on colder nights by a paraffin heater at the other side of the room. Nearly all of us smoke at home. Some of us still maintain a pretence to Mum and Dad that we don’t smoke and therefore only light up outside or when we have the house to ourselves.

We watch television together most evenings through a grey-blue haze, from Teatime with Tommy through Crossroads or Space Family Robinson and Panorama or Bonanza, often arguing over which channel to watch. There are three of them now.

The proliferation of choice has only made home life more contentious. Richard Baker and Robert Dougal read the news to us in tones that assure us that everything is under control despite the devaluation of the pound and the grotesque violence in Vietnam.

It’s 1969. My mother is 53 and my father is 55, their parenting having been delayed by the second World War.

Like a lot of people their age, neither of them has teeth. When the NHS arrived they thought the most sensible thing to do was to have them all taken out and replaced with dentures in order to have no more trouble with them.

Religion and violence

My school days are nearly over. I have been to a Catholic secondary school where most of the teachers were Christian Brothers, like half-formed priests in black robes. Each was armed with a coiled strap in a pocket in the robe, which could be curled out ready for swinging as the other hand reached for my wrist to position my palm as a target. The relationship between religion and violence on this scale is familiar to me.

I was raised in religion, to a belief that I had the one true faith. I believed in hell and damnation; I believed also in Heaven but that was a long way off, for I would still have to endure the fires of purgatory to cleanse me till I was fit for it.

The church is changing. After 1964 and the Second Vatican Council, our teachers said that Protestants might go to heaven too, though it would be even more of a struggle for them.

It was difficult to be sure of how much of this my parents and teachers really believed. Worries about salvation clearly did not preoccupy them, and they would even scoff at those who took religion seriously. The culture was one in which you fulfilled your religious duties to the satisfaction of your neighbours and gave little thought to how much God noticed or didn’t.

I have never been more than a hundred miles from my home. My cousins are in Dublin and Donegal, both in the Republic of Ireland.

Day trips to visit them take us over the Border to another country that is a bit dilapidated, which has brands of chocolate and soft drinks we never see at home, such as Tiffin and Cidona, and cigarettes such as Sweet Afton and Major.

Sometimes there are armed special constables on the northern side of the Border, those men of a force that is all Protestant, amateurish and of whom we are taught to be wary. It is always a relief to arrive at the other side, as if that’s home.

United Ireland

When I was younger I enjoyed the mischief of wearing a lapel pin of the Irish flag when I was in Donegal, for the flying of that flag was illegal in Northern Ireland – or the Six Counties, as we called it.

I wanted a united Ireland. I could sing all the rebel songs, such as Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley and Kelly the Boy from Killane.

Later I had a school friend called John, who was a republican. I was a socialist by then and argued that the Border had become a petty concern. Besides, what chance had you of getting a decent job if you were a rebel, if a police file somewhere said you had flown the Irish flag from your bedroom window?

Very few people I know are republicans. There are occasions when the numbers seem greater, like at the close of a céilí when the Eddie Fegan Céilí Band declares a final end to the night by playing the Irish national anthem – The Soldier’s Song – and we all stand and declare our lives to be “pledged to Ireland”.

I have a weekend job in a bar now, as a waiter in the lounge, where men drink pints of lager and buy Carlsberg Specials or vodka and orange for their girlfriends. I have worked in other bars, where most nights ended with a fight and Bert the barman wading in with the broom to break it up.

There was a lot of fighting then, as there had been at school dances, in the school yard or on the corner of the street. There seems to be a pent-up violence in young men. My brother has read Freud, in summary at least, and says it is sexual frustration, but that can’t be right. I’m sexually frustrated myself but I don’t want to fight anybody.

Sometimes it surprises me how civil people are. Those who come into the lounge bar are the upper working class, people who behave themselves, who value manners.

Class distinction here is between the mannered working class and the unmannered working class. None of us are middle class yet.

Fighting commoners

The disparaging term for the unmannered is “common”. You don’t want it to be said of you that you are “awful common”. I know immediately whether someone is common or not by their language and attire: the girls who wear bobby socks and chew gum and say “fuck”; the boys in their winkle-pickers, dressed for a fight.

When the common boys fight they kick and give headbutts. Those of a better class might learn to box or do judo – not so that they will fight better and more cleanly but, they say, so that they will never have to fight at all.

Fighting between boys has always been part of the culture, going back to the school playground. I knew boys who preferred a fight to any other way of amusing themselves, who would stand at a corner, near the chippie, and wait for a likely target to come along, one of the lighter-built, nicer boys who annoyed them so much. I was one of those.

I don’t seek to understand those who accost me by reference to misfortune in their lives. Why should I? It is just in them to be like that; their fathers and brothers are the same.

They impose themselves on others; they assert that they know better than anyone else what this place is and who belongs here. If they lived in England they would be beating up homos and Pakis but there are no Pakis here and very few homos that anyone knows.

A small few are preparing to tackle A levels, which are considered almost unattainable by my generation and may go to university

Thankfully, few men of this type came into the public bar, the Star and Garter, which was a “queer bar” I worked in. Here effete and good-natured older men drank sherry and smoked cigars and, on the occasions I was sent to help out, they spoke very nicely to me, took a great interest in my education, my hopes for myself, detained me at the table to know me better.

The queers came to this bar but there was no particular welcome for them and the staff sneered at them but put up with them. Once, two men who had been drinking in the lounge at the back, the Red Barn, got thrown out after visiting the toilet together. Tommy, the owner, would have none of that carry-on.

I’m still not sure what I want to do when I finish my education. A lot of the boys I went to school with are already working. Some left at 15, into apprenticeships to be plumbers or barmen or electricians.

Some that stayed on for O levels left then to get jobs in the civil service or at the City Hall as junior clerks, and some went into the post office as telegraph boys. These were considered the luckiest of all because they were issued with little red motorbikes to deliver telegrams about the city.

Frankie Callaghan from our class has gone into Short Bros to make aircraft. He’ll go into the army. Caoimhín de Búrca, who sat beside me, has gone away to be a Christian Brother. A small few are preparing to tackle A levels, which are considered almost unattainable by my generation and may go to university.

Designs on journalism

Some among us got redirected for various reasons towards the “tech” or the College of Commerce to do ONDs or City and Guilds exams. We might end up as accountants or quantity surveyors. I want to be a journalist. Some chance!

I have seen the reporters for the Daily Mail and other papers in the Star and Garter using our phone to relay copy to their offices, reports of court cases or civil-rights parades or some of the disturbances in Belfast, Derry and Armagh that came with the political unrest.

I don't know if these are good reporters and I assume that being a reporter is a stage on the way to being a proper writer. I would like to ask them what they think of Hemingway or Steinbeck. I will later meet some of the great reporters, such as Simon Winchester and even Christopher Hitchens, when Belfast has become one of the biggest stories in the world, but this seems unlikely now.

If I want to cover wars and tumult I will have to go abroad. And I am not sure that I do.

There are big employers in Belfast, managing the heavy industries of shipbuilding, aircraft and missiles, machinery for textiles manufacture. Most of their employees are Protestant.

Many Protestants in working-class areas think they don’t need education to get jobs; the way is cleared for them by older brothers and fathers who have jobs in those big industries and can get them in.

The news occasionally includes reports that the Irish Republican Army – the IRA – has been conducting arms training for members on the other side of the Border.

Three years ago, 1966, was the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which triggered the Irish War of Independence, which led to the creation of an Irish state, though with our six counties in the North locked out of it. That anniversary roused fervour for unity again and paranoia among unionists. The IRA set off a few small bombs. Loyalists shot dead a Catholic barman who had gone to a Protestant area for a drink, with little or no apprehension that he was taking a risk.

Protestant girls

I work in bars near there myself now. There are two of them facing each other on Agnes Street off the Protestant Shankill Road, the Enfield Arms and the Cliftonville Hotel.

They are owned by a Catholic family who have asked my father to manage them. I go there every Saturday and help behind the bar in the Cliftonville. I know all the regulars and they know me.

I have learned to pour a decent pint of porter, which costs a shilling. There is an art to it. It might be the cheapest drink in the bar but it is the one that takes most work. You pour the flat body and the high head from different barrels on a shelf and scoop out some of the white with a plastic blade and top up with more black until the balance is right.

Now I am at the College of Commerce, where for the first time in my education I am mixing with girls and Protestants and, most illuminating of all, Protestant girls.

There is a sense among Catholics that they have inherited injustice. I have marched with the students and sung "We shall overcome"

We are drawn by curiosity to each other. They want to know just how much I am answerable to the church, what happens in Confession when I go every Saturday at noon to kneel in a built-in cupboard in the chapel and unburden myself of my sins, including my sinful thoughts about Protestant girls. I want to know if they have casual sex; is it just like being nice to someone for them?

It will be hard for Catholics to get promotion in the civil service and big companies. In the expectation of discrimination there, many are seeking employment in small businesses such as pubs, law firms, accountants’ offices.

And they and others are taking to the streets in civil-rights protests now to demand an end to discrimination, better housing, a fairer local-government franchise that isn’t weighted in favour of house owners and graduates.

Eager Paisley

There is a sense among Catholics that they have inherited injustice. I have marched with the students and sat on the street and chanted “One man, one vote” and sung “We shall overcome”.

We have learned from watching other marches on television, in Alabama and Paris. I was bewildered when a Protestant cleric called Ian Paisley organised counter-protests and urged the government to ban our parades for we were the puppets of Rome, the pawns in a papal conspiracy against the British monarchy.

He thinks that a 400-year-old war has resumed. And he is eager for it.

The news coming from Derry this past couple of days showed chaos, hundreds of people on the streets, chucking stones and petrol bombs at the police, and the police a shambles in their management of it, stumbling about the road, beating the flames off their fallen with their coats, running back uphill with the rocks and bottles bouncing at their feet, regrouping to attack with batons and looking as if they would do less harm by just going away.

Then it spread to other towns. In the morning we will get the news of the dead and the damage.

Fifty Years On, The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland, by Malachi O’Doherty, is published by Atlantic on August 1st. It will be launched on Monday, August 12th, at 7pm in Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, by Mairia Cahill; and on Thursday August 22nd at 6.30pm in Eason, Foyleside Shopping Centre, Derry, by Denis Bradley