I am not sure why the early part of Thursday 14th August 1969 seems so ordinary. There was a certain feeling that the storm had passed. There was a sense of shame looking at the self-inflicted damage on the Falls Road after the night before.
A certain excitement maybe that some of us had heard gunfire on Wednesday night.
And a certain pleasure that the RUC had been defeated and humiliated in the Bogside. The news said they would be replaced by the British Army.
Readers with a fondness for Law & Order may be irritated that this was a general feeling but sometimes (to misquote the Saw Doctors) to “win just once…that would be enough”.
Revenge is, of course, a nasty word.
But John Lennon did not invent “Instant Karma” until early 1970.
Nobody expected anything that Thursday night.
It was late when we heard the first shots. And then bizarrely we could SEE the shots…tracer bullets flying upwards. It was like watching the Dambusters movie.
But it seemed surreal.
Nobody could fire tracer bullets from armoured cars without intending to kill a lot of people.
We saw no vehicles but later in the morning, some neighbours said they had seen an armoured car go down our street but it was not firing at the time.
The strange thing is that we knew that the action was all around Divis Street. Of course, if we had lived in Divis Street we would have known what was happening. And even if we lived around Raglan Street, Milford Street, the Pound Loney and we would have known what was going on and had some freedom to move around. But we were too far away to know what was going on and all too scared to leave the house.
I want to say that the shooting went on all night but I don’t suppose that it did. I suppose that somewhere there is an accurate Timeline and an accurate count of shots fired that night. It did stop before dawn. When dawn came the people in our street came out. There were little huddles of people and information was coming to neighbours from relatives who lived closer to Divis Street. It was odd in a “mixed” street. I don’t recall the Protestant neighbours huddling. We heard stories of fire-bombed houses and scary stories about the number of casualties. Thankfully exaggerated.
It was a Holy Day of Obligation…a Catholic thing. And I went to Mass in St Peters. The priest spoke about it of course. After Mass, I went around the corner to Divis Street and looked up Percy Street and Dover Street. I heard for the first time that Conway Street and Cupar Street were worse. I went and looked up those streets. There were vans and cars moving families out. Mixed streets…like ours. And it felt terrible. For a few years, I had been in the Junior Legion of Mary and we had delivered Catholic newspapers up there. Catholic Herald. Irish Catholic. The Universe. Irelands Own. I could put faces on the people who must have been burned out. Nice people.
Back home, my parents decided we should move out temporarily and in the afternoon we walked up the Falls Road with some bags. There was a pall of smoke somewhere behind us in the Lower Falls. My cousin met us at St Johns Church. He was a priest on the outskirts of Belfast and we stayed at his parochial house for a couple of nights. It was close to the Dundrod circuit and I was watching the races across the road from some B Specials. It was surreal. We talked to people in the parish hall who had been evacuated from Clonard area and it was only then that I really heard about Bombay Street, again another street on the newspaper route.
We watched The Big Match on Sunday …highlights if that’s the right word of Manchester United losing 4-1 at home to Southampton. And then my cousin drove us back to our mixed street. We had seen the barricades on TV News. There had been an attempt to put a “Catholic” barricade at the end of our street, enclosing all the residents but the minority Protestant population in the street raised concerns and the barricade of two cars was pushed aside and the barricade re-positioned in the middle of the street. This meant our house was outside the barricade and we were in no-mans land. Id always enjoyed the feeling of living in a mixed street. It made us feel…superior in some way. But to be honest, with Conway Street, Cupar Street, Dover Street, Percy Street on my mind I would have preferred to be in the ghetto. It is safer.
And even in 2019, I am unmoved by nice middle-class people spoofing about Integrated Housing.
My sister and mother did not return for two more days. Our first priority was to locate the cats. It took a while until they wandered back. One of our neighbours said that he had broken into our house as he had seen a light upstairs and thought it had been taken by refugees. On the other hand, another neighbour told us that the “good” neighbour had actually broken in to claim the house for a family member. It seems more likely.
TRUTH is a Casualty. For years, there were rumours that an associate of a politician had died in a fire where he was sniping from. That rumour lasted years even if it was easy to disprove.
WE lived for another six months in that mixed street but because of redevelopment and people wanted re-housed, we were moved to another “mixed” area in the Upper Springfield. Within eighteen months, it became Catholic.
One of the great lies about the refugees from that time is that people did not have to leave their homes. It is a big lie to say that Catholics fire-bombed their own houses in August 1969 and another lie to say that the Protestants in Upper Springfield were not really intimidated.
Someday I must go to the Central Library and find a timeline for those few days. But in an odd way, I want to rely on my own memory.
There is some kinda agreed History….agreed by LetsGetAlongerists that the events of August 1969 were all a miscalculation by Catholics and Protestants. Catholics thought a pogrom was being mounted and Protestants thought that there was a rebellion starting. Its maybe the first “shared responsibility” nonsense that has endured for fifty years. Whatever the percentage of “Blame”, it would be odd if it was 50-50.