Under the Gun in Ireland: A Report From the North – August, 1983

by on March 17, 2018 · 6 comments

in History

Editordude: In honor of St Patrick’s Day, we publish the following piece just sent to us by Michael Steinberg, who went to Ireland a number of times during the 1980s. Michael is the writer of our monthly “No Nukes” column, is a former OBcean and currently lives in San Francisco. “Under the Gun” is about the first time he went there in 1983. At the time he was living in Ocean Beach was working at OB Peoples; he wrote the piece upon his return. He made other tours in 1985 while still living and working in OB, then 2 more times, in 1988 and 1990 while living in North Carolina. Michael had moved to North Carolina to help open and maintain an organic food store. This is the first time this historical essay has been published. Happy Paddy’s Day!

By Michael Steinberg

In the name of God and of dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland,
through us, summons her children and her flag, and strikes for her freedom.

Easter Rising Proclamation, 1916

In 1983, I was among a contingent of 82 Americans, including 7 San Diegans, who  went on a fact finding tour of Northern Ireland.

What we found there was a vicious colonialism that rules through murder, lies and a concerted attempt at total social control. And a native people who exist under this everyday terror and resist it with extraordinary courage and grace.

I arrive a few days before the tour begins to explore the southern Republic a bit. I first visit the city of Limerick at the mouth of the River Shannon on the west coast. It was from here that my great-grandfather Cornelius Donahue emigrated sometime in the mid 19th century.

From there I travel to the spectacular lakes and mountains of Killarney, the soft ocean beauty of southernmost Baltimore, and the historic sites of rebellion in the Republic’s 2 major cities, Cork and Dublin.

The fabled Emerald Isle is indeed a visual delight. But as clear to the eye as the lovely green abounding is the economic domination of US and British interests. Return of the Jedi and Octopussy are the 2 big summer movies.

And, sadly, most of the people of the South seem to accept both this and the partition of their country. People I tell I’m going up North universally advise me to stay away.

Nevertheless, I meet up with the rest of the tour group in Dublin on Tuesday, August 2. We discover 15 states are represented. The largest contingents are from New York and New Jersey, but there are a respectable number of Californians, a state representative from Massachusetts, and others from Washington and Florida, New Mexico and North Dakota, Maryland and Arizona and Indiana. The group ranges in age from under 15 to over 70.

Among our party I discover 6 members of San Diego’s Irish Rights Committee, which sponsored last March’s protest in Newtown Park during Queen Elizabeth’s drippy visit.

The tour has been organized in the US by Northern Irish Aid (Noraid), which provides financial support to the families of Irish political prisoners. The FBI has accused Noraid of also providing arms to the IRA, but these charges have never been proved. Noraid’s most well known member is 81 year old Michael Flannery, who beat federal gun running charges last winter and went on to become Grand Marshall of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City.


After our brief acquaintance in Dublin we board 2 buses and head north. In an hour we’re at the border. The guards, unaccustomed to seeing tourist buses, gladly wave us across their checkpoint.

Soon armored cars and barb wired festooned barracks begin to appear. Union Jacks are fluttering in the ill winds.

Within another hour the city of Belfast is in sight. The Falls Road exit from the expressway takes us into the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast.

We hop off at Sinn Fein headquarters on the Falls. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Republican movement, is our host for the tour. The party, which showed surprising strength in last year’s parliamentary election, actually functions as the political government of the Catholic nationalist minority of the North. Nationalists favor the reunification of Ireland, but not necessarily the creation of an Irish socialist republic that Sinn Fein promotes.

The streets are filled with graffiti and eager greeters. Children with familiar looking faces flock around us, full of giggles and questions. An 8 year ld redhead persuades me to trade my last US dollar for 50 pence.

“That’s George Washington there,” I show here. “He was the leader of army that kicked the Brits out of our country.”

She likes that.

A derelict building a few doors down has smoke pouring from it. We wonder where the fire department is. Oh they’ll get around to it, the neighborhood people tell us.

They show up in about 15 minutes, Not long after a jeep pulls up in front of the burning structure. Pale men with pinched faces jump out and train there Uzi machine guns on folks around. We Americans look at one another nervously. But the people of the Falls seem to pay it no mind.

In a while we are escorted to the homes we will be staying with while in Belfast. Three of us are put up in a typical small rowhouse not far away. It’s just off Beechmount Avenue, also known as RPG (rocket propelled grenade) Ave because of IRA rocket grenade attacks on a British barracks nearby.

That evening we reassemble at the Martin Forsyth club, named for an IRA volunteer killed in 1972. The next day we’re told the club has been bombed 3 times.

Transportation to the club is provided by black taxis. The Republican movement started this alternative transit system after city buses were withdrawn from the Falls in the late 60s. For 45 cents the taxis will take you anywhere between downtown and the Upper Falls. Helicopter searchlights sweep over West Belfast during our ride. Some believe the greatest danger of surveillance is when the lights are off.

We are greeted at Marty Forsyth by Gerry Adams. Adams was elected as West Belfast’s representative to the British Parliament in the last election. In keeping with Sinn Fein tradition protesting British occupation, he refuses to take his seat or salary. And Britain until just recently refused to allow him across its borders. But he is clearly the people’s representative, and also clearly a little uncomfortable with the role of hero some would thrust upon him.

Adams addresses us briefly, impressing on us the importance of support of Irish Americans to the Republican struggle. We are, after all, descendants of those who were “forced to go because of famine or following resistance.” He closes by urging us to “spend time talking not to the Gerry Adamses, but to the ordinary people who live under the shadow of plastic bullets and concentration camps.”

The next day we are taken on a walking tour of West Belfast. Our guide Tom Hartley describes life here as “communal imprisonment.” We soon see why.

British installations are strategically placed in the midst of community centers.The heliport is on top of the hospital. A command and observation post is atop a senior citizen highrise slum. Other barracks are near or in schools and churches. From here the military looks and listens and loads up.

British troops are kept isolated in these barracks during 4 month tours. Most are 20 or younger, and their anxious arrogance barely conceals a communal hallucination of an IRA volunteer behind every baby buggy. The army is supplemented by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose vast majority are Protestant supremacists. In most of Northern Ireland the army supplies tactical support to the RUC, but in Belfast the latter calls the shots.

Protestant loyalist (loyal to continued British rule) paramilitary groups include the UDA (Ulster Defense Association), the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the PAF (Protestant Action Force). Most of the membership of these groups is believed to be RUC men. These “security forces,” legal and outlawed, number over 30,000.

Total strength of active IRA and offshoot INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) personnel is estimated to be between a few thousand or perhaps only hundreds.

They all seem to be keeping a low profile while we’re in town. Only a few land rovers (armored cars with slits to look out or of shoot through) rumble by, a jeep with rifle or machine gun pointing soldiers sandwiched in between.

Proceeding on the Falls towards Downtown, we are show “modern” housing estates with all windows and entrances facing in so as to allow military forces the most efficient means of surrounding and sealing off an area.

Further along are the notorious Divis flats, reputedly the worst housing in Europe. Erected against opposition by the Republican housing committee, and the blessing of the Catholic church, these instant 7 story slums have become a huge breeding ground for despair and suicide, resentment and revolution.

We stumble among the rubble of Christian Place and St. Peter’s Court, blinking at the boarded up windows and crumbled concrete. At night Brit patrols with blackened faces haunt the darkened halls and skirmish with hardened youths.

The Divis flats and the “modern” estates have replaced a close knit nationalist community that was burnt out by loyalist mobs (escorted in the the RUC) in 1969 and subsequently systematically demolished by the British thereafter. In 1971 the entire area was sealed off and placed under a complete curfew while every house was raided. The curfew was broken only when women carrying food climbed over the barricades.

Nearby the few remaining gutted buildings stands a Protestant church, never once touched throughout all the troubles,.Off in the distance, on Cave Hill overlooking the city, stands MacArt Fort. There late in the 18th century, Protestant Wolf Tone and a handful of others, inspired by the American and French revolutions, first proclaimed the Republican movement.

We proceed away from Downtown back to the Falls. Along the way we’re shown a Sinn Fein advice center. People can come here with problems about housing, jobs, wife abuse, police harassment. A steady stream of both Catholics and Protestants come in from opening to closing. Advice centers have been set up throughout the North.

We next head down to Bombay Street,which borders on the loyalist stronghold of Shankill. This street was also torched in 1969. Upon approaching we spot 4 British soldiers lurking at the next intersection. Our guide directs our attention to one corner building. A half visible Brit is hugging it, looking straight down his sights at us. He quickly disappears along with his comrades, hotly pursued by shutterbugs from our contingent.

On another nearby corner is an RUC barracks attacked the previous week by the IRA. British forces found an unarmed 1000 pound bomb here, but detonated it in an attempt to turn people against the ‘RA.

We turn onto RPG Avenue and into the Beechmount, noted for its stark wall murals and aforementioned attacks on the Springfield barracks. About 20 security forces have been shot dead there in the past year. Tom Hartley terms the IRA “the most sophisticated urban guerrilla army in the world, capable of doing an action and being out of the area in 2 minutes.”

The wall paintings are done by unemployed youth.Their previously untapped talents have time to develop thanks to a local unemployment rate exceeding 50%.

Not that they’re totally neglected by the government. Every Catholic youth over 14 is in the computer in Downtown Belfast, which in turn is connected to the US/NATO computer in Germany. Nor is idle conversation ignored. Phone chit-chat is constantly monitored by a system that can randomly tap thousands of calls at a time.

We break for lunch at the Felon’s Club. In order to qualify as a member, one must have been convicted of a felony and served time in one of “her majesty’s hotels.”

After lunch we saunter by the Andersontown barracks, command center of the Brtitish war machine. They’re doing a bit of patch work as a result of a 700 lb. IRA bomb put off here in late May. In order to pass by we have to walk in front of a line of armed and dangerous men.These soldiers seem a bit disarmed, however, by the incessant camera clicking of us Yanks.

Next we visit Milltown Cemetery. Our somber procession is led to the graves of Bobby Sands and fellow hunger striker Kiernan Doherty, of other IRA volunteers recently killed in action, to one monument honoring all those who died doe Irish freedom in the past 2 centuries, to another standing for all those killed in British imperialist forays.

Scattered about are the grave sites of political prisoners whose lives were cut short because of harsh conditions in her majesty’s hotels, and also those of hundreds of innocent Catholics assassinated by loyalists in the last decade.

There is a radical shift in mood that night at a rousing social evening put on by the Royal Victoria Hospital workers. You wold be hard pressed to imagine that these merrymakers are experts in saving casualties from early interment with their brothers and sisters in Milltown.


On Thursday morning we again board the buses to journey to Derry. Unlike Belfast nationalists are in the majority here. Surrounded by high rolling green hills and situated on a sparking bay, Derry’s beauty is reminiscent of coastal northern California.

Down in the city we cross a double decker bridge over the river Foyle into the Republican stronghold of the Bogside. Giant letters cover a wall proclaiming, “You Are Now In Provoland.” (the IRA’s official name is the Provisional Irish Republican Army). A bit further along is Free Derry Corner, marking the site of an early 70s barricade that made this a “no go” area for forces of occupation.

Our buses climb above the Bogside into the post WWII Creggan housing estate. After hearty greetings and lunch at the Creggan community center, it’s back on the buses for a tour of the town. Our guide today is Marsha McClennan, a San Jose Berkeley grad who came for a visit and stayed on to become a Sin Fein activist.

As we descend Marsha gives is a quick history lesson. Derry had firm ties to County Donegal to the west. But when Ireland was partitioned in the1920s, loyalists insisted on keeping the city in the the new entity, Northern Ireland. In spite of a 2/3 nationalist majority, loyalists have achieved a 2/3 majority on the city council by confining Catholics on one side of the River Lee and ruthlessly gerrymandering voting districts.

Derry has also been kept isolated from the rest of the North. Almost all industrial development has gone to the capital, Belfast. Dupont is the major employer here, but unemployment has always been rampant. As in West Belfast, it’s above 50% in the Bogside and Creggan.

The lecture ends but the lesson continues when we stop at Free Derry corner and walk to the Bloody Sunday Memorial. On and around this spot 14 were shot dead during a civil rights march by British paratroopers on January 30, 1972. We see fist-sized holes in stone walls caused by British gunfire that day.

England’s own investigation had to conclude that the killings were totally unprovoked. Nevertheless,the queen herself presented a medal to the British commander for his actions that day. And for good reason. There were no more street protests in Derry until the 1981 marches in support of the hunger strikes.

Back on the tour we cross the river again. A billboard on the other side screams, “IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION ABOUT MURDER OR EXECUTIONS, CALL…”

We arrive at the City Cemetery. Standing tall is a statue of Cuchulainn, a legendary warrior who lashed himself to a tree during battle to be able to fight on until his last second of life. Nearby are the graves of hunger strikers Patsy O’Hara and Michael Devine, modern day martyrs who struggled for Irish freedom until their last living breath. A memorial at their graves also honors those who fell on Bloody Sunday.

Returning to the community center I choose “Technology of Repression” from 4 seminars offered. Mickey English tells of the murder of his son James during the Easter riots in 1981. A British land rover going 65 mph the wrong way down a one way street ran into James and another young man. The vehicle then reversed and intentionally ran over James’ prostate body. There was no street fighting going on in the immediate area.

Mr. English was not even granted an inquest into his son’s death for over 2 years. It finally came about only due to an extensive speaking tour in England and the eventual involvement of Sean McBride, founder of Amnesty International. At the inquest, however , prosecutors and the judge accepted the testimony of the soldiers that it was all an accident. This in spite of contradictory testimony from 13 eyewitnesses.

Murderers Buzzard and Smith are now stationed in Hong Kong.

John Carlin then explains the increasing role of informers. This weapon, used against Ireland through the centuries, assumed a new form subsequent to a high level British cabinet decision in 1978. Psychological interrogation techniques imported from the US military at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, were introduced for use on Republican prisoners. The combination of fear of prison, promises of big money and immunity, along with of a “superagent” personality have netted a few traitors and some big IRA catches.

Raymond Gilmour has implicated over 60 in Derry. In Belfast, a loyalist judge has just used has snitch Christopher Black’s testimony to sentence 22 men to 4000 years in prison (one got 964 years!)This though the judge admitted Black was an “evil man” who had murdered and previously perjured himself. There are no juries in these courts.

We are guests for the night of 2 sisters who along with their husbands are victims of the latest British strategy to destroy the Republican movement. Both men have been imprisoned over a year without coming to trial. One has received IRA related charges. The other is under ”internment on remand.” Each week he is brought in to be charged. Each week he is ordered back the next week.

The next morning at the community center Martin McGuinness, veteran of Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Bogside, narrowly defeated as candidate for the British Parliament recently, assesses the current situation for us. The people of the so-called Free State (the South), “fall into the category of those who have sold themselves.” This will change soon as the economy of the South continues to deteriorate and the youth of Dublin and Cork find themselves in the same fix as their cousins in the North. He predicts that “liberation will come about by young people in the near future.”

Half the population is under 25.

A manifestation o f McGuinness’ prophecy soon follows. After his presentation we file out to make our goodbyes and once more board our buses for the “bandit country” of South Armagh County.

A land rover sits down the street. Clunk. A mother scolds her son for bouncing a rock off it. Suddenly shouts from the Americans. The land rover is aflame. It rolls slowly past us down the road, its imperial tail between its legs, a small white terrier yapping at it all the way.

A white haired veteran laughs at our amazement. “Oh, happens every 5 minutes,” she chuckles.

Bandit Country

A long ride to the south of the North is pleasantly interrupted by a lunch stop at Carrickmore in Mid Ulster. Another great spread is provided for us, and we meet fiery Sinn Fein speaker Danny Morrison, 82 year old IRA vet Jack McGuff, and the family of the late hunger striker Martin Hurson. As everywhere, our stop here seems much too brief to take in the vibrant living history of the people.

Arriving later in the afternoon at the staunch Republican town of Crossmaglen, we are again treated to a fine meal and warmest greetings. The hall we are assembled in is on the town square. Literally right next door is the Brit/RUC barracks. The military seized the local athletic field to construct this fortress.

If in West Belfast and Derry the nationalist populace is under communal incarceration, in South Armagh County it is the insecurity forces who seem the prisoners. They rarely leave their barracks except by helicopter, even to the extent of hauling out their dumpsters by whirlybird.

A week ago this barracks came under mortar attack in retaliation for the UDR assassination of 18 year old Martin Malone of Armagh City. The mortars hit their target or fell short, according to who you talk to.

A monument in the middle of the town square honors fallen freedom fighters. The rest of the town seems deserted, and is, we are told, everyday except Tuesday, when unemployment checks are issued. Only a few miles from the Free State border and eternally neglected, there is no work to be had here.

On the buses again and off into the deceptively beautiful countryside. The narrow winding roads, rugged mountains and forests , and tight nationalist community make South Armagh ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. This is the Republican movement’s most liberated zone.

We bounce along, viewing viewing numerous memorials and battle sites. No land rovers here. We stop across from a housing estate at a stunning memorial to Michael McVerry, killed in action by the British just 2 weeks short of his 24th birthday in 1973. Designed, constructed and paid for by the chronically unemployed people of South Armagh, this remarkable structure is a testament to the sacrifices all are willing to make.

Michael’s father, supporting himself on 2 canes, is there to greet us. “Yes,” he states proudly, “he was one of these men who wasn’t afraid anything.” A poet and actor as well, Michael was much missed and is still very much loved by his people.

We’ve reached the far end of this tour. Turing around to head back, we slow a bit along the road. The Brit helicopter’s shadowing us all along has momentarily disappeared, so what’s up? Ahead Kelly green hooded men with Armalites wave us on, saluting as we pass. Several of the female members of the contingent are ready to jump out.

Though the IRA certainly staged this for out benefit, they just as surely were risking their lives to do so. The helicopter reappeared soon thereafter, but no trace of Michael McVerry’s comrades was ever found. The bandits simply blended back into the green countryside with the subsequent publicity and embarrassment of the authorities as their loot.

Upon our return still another dinner awaits us, along with more music and crack (lively witty conversation) until the wee hours of the morn. We learn that we were earlier raffled off as there were so many families eager to put us up.

Marches, Bonfires, Riots and Bullets

We’re back in West Belfast by Saturday evening, still buzzing with all we’ve seen and heard, exhausted by the grueling pace of the tour. Most of us take Sinn Fein’s advice and rest up. For a few hours anyway. Though tomorrow’s the big march celebrating the 12th anniversary of internment without trial, there’s yet another social gathering tonight. People from Scotland, Wales and England have arrived as the Troops Out Movement, and there’s more merriment in store.

Meanwhile, a firestorm of controversy has developed around our visit. We’re front page news in the Belfast papers everyday. Some loyalist politicians are smearing us with names they usually reserve for the IRA, saying we never should have been let in the country. Since out little escapade with the guerrillas in South Armagh the rhetoric has turned even more ridiculous. How creaky is this ship of state?

The sky is clear, the air warm for the march on Sunday, the 7th of August. Noraid gathers at Sinn Fein’s Falls Road office. My young red-haired friend is there too. She spots some American flags one of our delegation is passing around.

“Is that your flag?” she asks.

“Well, uh, yeah,” I answer, deciding to tell her what we used to do with them during Vietnam War days.

“That’s ours up there,” she grins , pointing to the orange, white and green banners fluttering above both the Sinn Fein office and a burnt out derelict building. The tricolor, the flag of the 1916 Irish revolution and now the official one of the Free State, is outlawed here.

“Do you fly the Union Jack?” she wants to know.”

“No no.”

“We burn it,” she smiles.

I like that.

Noraid is placed at the beginning of the march, followed by Troop’s Out’s striking banners and boisterous fife and drum bands, and local organizations too numerous to mention.

Internment (imprisonment without trial) began at 4:30 one morning in August 1971. Doors were kicked in and hundreds dragged out of bed to Long Kesh prison, with reports of beatings and torture soon filtering out. Though the British said they were looking for IRA, few were found, and as indiscriminate terror directed at the nationalist population still continues, it’s still marked by this anniversary.

People line the streets all along the way. The biggest cheers come at the beginning in Beechmount and the end in Andersontown. Along the route British solders are spotted spying on us from the cemetery. A chant of “Brits Out!” routs them.

Incidentally, this many thousands strong march is totally illegal. Anyone participating in it is subject to immediate arrest.

At a rally in Andersontown after the march, as the world’s noisiest helicopter hovers overhead, the crowd is set to cheering when Noraid spokesperson Martin Galvin says that “hysterical reaction” by the media to our visit is “because the British cannot stand up to scrutiny from impartial eyes.” His 6 time mention of “British terrorism” is also well received. Roars greet Danny Morrison when he proclaims that the Brits can “leave by boat or in a box.”

Afterwards one of my new Belfast friends leads me through a small group of youths lying in wait for 2 land rovers, to a pub frequented by black taxi drivers. During our talk they ask if I have a camera and when I reply negatively, they shake my hand one and al, as I’m the first freeze frameless Yank they’ve ever encountered.

One Monday morning we meet at Marty Forsyth for a series of lectures. This is the one major exception to Sinn Fein’s policy of letting us see for ourselves. What we receive is a crash course in Irish history, with special emphasis on the struggle in the North from the late 60s on.The roles of women, culture and prisoners are explained in great depth.

But the most searing memories all of us will hold from that day are the personal testaments of the families of victims of sectarian murder. Members of “Silent Too Long” stand before us, each with a horribly tragic story. Silent Too Long was formed 2 years ago by relatives of Catholics killed by”security forces.”

One woman tells of how her brother and his wife were walking down the street one night when a British soldier shot the man in the chest. His 4 month pregnant wife threw herself on top of him. The soldier proceeded to shoot him through the head. When their parents were informed of this her father had a heart attack and also died. The woman’s last words turn to sobs and there is a chilling silence.

Noraid also accepted a challenge to meet with “Widow’s Mite” whose husbands were killed by the IRA. But the offer was withdrawn and it was discovered loyalist politicians , representing the widows without their knowledge, were behind the whole thing.

The afternoon daily Belfast Telegraph blares headline relaying another loyalist demand for Noraid’s immediate deportation because of Martin Galvin’s remarks on Sunday. There is also a demand for Danny Morrison’s arrest for treason because of his exercise of free speech at the rally.

Returning to the Falls we notice a number of huge stacks which will become tonight’s bonfires, also in memory of internment. One of the small mountains sports a Union Jack at its crest. The land rovers and foot patrols, no longer trying to impress us, are cruising in force, well prepared for the evening’s festivities.

Torch time is supposed to be at midnight. But of course before then there is a bit more music and crack to be had and a few more pints to be downed. Our tour is now officially over and most of us will be leaving tomorrow, so it’s one or two for the road and bittersweet goodbyes.

A half hour after midnight 5 of us exit to survey the fires. The blaze down the street must be 4 stories high. But we’re anxious to check out the scene on our turf in Beechmount.

A short walk and we’re there, in the middle of a crowd preparing for battle on the Falls. Evidently they got off to an early start here. The bonfire is just about over. Young people are scurrying about, setting empty beer kegs across the road to block land rovers. Most hold rocks or empty bottles. There are no petrol bombs or other weapons in sight in the crowd.

Suddenly several land rovers appear at the bottom of the sloping road. Whistles and jeers arise from the crowd, but no one throws anything. Neither do they give ground. The “security forces” are surveying the crowd with their infrared “night sights.”

Now the land rovers are roaring up the road. I think of James English and scatter down a side street with some others. Many stand their ground until the last second like Cuchullain, then hurl their projectiles and sprint out of sight. The pop of plastic bullet fire rends the night.

I’m separated from my 4 friends, but then spot one of us other Yanks. He looks shaken and doesn’t know the neighborhood, so I go to his side. We run up and down the side street, on and off the Falls, as the and rovers repeatedly parry and thrust. Finally we take refuge in the doorway of a household that has opened to give us and about a dozen others refuge.

As we peek out the doorway we see one man peering out from the corner of an alleyway off the side street. A land rover spots him and attacks. The man throws an empty pint bottle and runs out of our view. The land rover screeches to a halt just in time to collide with the bottle. Five soldiers jump out of the back of the vehicle. One squeezes off a plastic bullet and shouts, “Bastard!” In a flash they’re back inside and gone.

In a panic we pile into the house. One woman has fainted dead away and another is screaming. The rest of us try to calm her and ourselves. We know they know we’re here.

But evidently they’re being kept busy elsewhere, and in a while the 2 of us make our way back to the house I’m staying at.

On Tuesday morning ashes and rubble cover Falls Road. A 17 year old from another section of West Belfast is in serious condition from catching a plastic bullet in the head. In Derry flames engulfed businesses on the border of the Bogside and bombs destroyed 2 land rovers during the night. At 4 a.m. here women clanged garbage can lids, the traditional signal to come out in the streets and fight. It goes on till the dawn’s early light.

I go to the Sinn Fein office the next morning at about 10 to see off the load of Noraiders leaving today. About 20 of us are staying on until tomorrow. As a bus pulls in they’e still sweeping up the remains of a city bus hijacked and transformed into a burning brigade last night.

Danny Morrison walks onto the scene. ”Where have you been man,?” Tom Hartley asks anxiously.

“I’ve just walked 7 miles,” Morrison answers somewhat proudly. “My car engine blew up.” “Why didn’t you call?”

“Call? How?” There isn’t exactly an overabundance of pay phones in West Belfast.

I wave a wistful goodbye as the bus pulls out. None of us will ever be he same.

Not wanting to be accused of being partial, I decide to visit a loyalist area and so begin to walk to their stronghold:Downtown. It’s a half mile straight down the Falls Road.

All is well until I reach a transitional section between the end of the Falls and the beginning of Downtown. British solders line both sides of the street, flaunting their rifles and eyeing everyone suspiciously. Several pedestrians are stopped, but I get through unscathed.

A few wire mesh covered turnstiles and body searches later I’m entering good ol’ Woolworths (called Wellworths here), only to be checked again by an ever smiling gent with a metal detector. At the end of the street a huge Queen Victoria smiles smugly in front of City Hall. It doesn’t take long for the well dressed figures with fine manners to give me enough of the picture of the other Belfast.

On the way back a soldier keeps clicking his trigger as I pass through their line on the way back to the Falls. I steal a look across the street and see a Brit taking dead aim at the back of the gray haired woman escorting 3 kids Downtown.

Things seem to be getting back to normal here.

A few hours laterI’m in a store on the Falls purchasing my last domestic Guinness for a while. A news flash on the radio breaks through. A young man has been shot dead by a British soldier in the Turf Lodge section of West Belfast. Details to follow.

The bloody details , according to numerous eyewitnesses: Private Ian Thain, after stopping Thomas Reilly, 22, kneeled as Reilly proceeded on, and fired fatal plastic bullets into the man’s body. Thane reportedly shouted,”Kill the bastard!” just before opening fire. The RUC subsequently shot plastic bullets at women who tried to cover Reilly’s body.

This murder in broad daylight was so blatant that the authorities were forced to arrest Thain. He was remanded to British army custody the next day but then released on only $150 bail. Thousands attended Thomas Reilly’s funeral and several more nights of street-fighting in Belfast followed.

The lead story on the local TV evening news features a possible scandal concerning bribery of jockeys. Reilly’s murder receives brief mention at the end of the broadcast. Much greater mention will be given to the next 2 nights of uprisings in West Belfast.

As dusk gathers that evening the people of West Belfast are at their doorways, waiting for darkness and retribution. The columns of black smoke mark 2 more hijacked bus bonfires.

Meanwhile, it seems one Noraid visitor will be having a slightly longer stay than the rest of us. Steve Lich, a 23 year old vegetarian from Indianapolis, has been arrested for “rioutous behavior” during last night’s action The RUC claims he threw a big back brick at their little ol land rover. The story circulating around our group is that the Yank was merely taking pictures.

Lich is refused bail by a judge fearful he will skip the country. An appeal to a higher court granted Steve bail of $300. The British minister of law and order, Nicholas Scott, who had agreed to meet with Noraid, withdraws his offer after receiving a personal tongue lashing from Maggie Thatcher, using Lich’s arrest as an excuse.

On Wednesday morning I go out the door to get a newspaper. Six Brits are out on the street, and one is waving his rifle around a few feet from my head.

A surge of fear makes me hesitate and I almost go back in. No one’s out here but me and the Brits. But instead I steel myself and plunge ahead, trying as best I can to draw from the quiet dignity and strength I have seen so many times in the faces of the people of the North who live under the gun in Ireland.

Update: Since I wrote this, many changes have happened. Sinn Fein began participating in a peace process, the IRA disarmed and the Brits have withdrawn much of their military forces. Yet nationalists in the North are still second class citizens and subject to repression by loyalists and police. Britain still refuses to provide justice to families subjected to terror, torture and murder. Reforms are still subject to reversal by British rule. And the UK is still defined as “England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”









{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jettyboy March 17, 2018 at 12:23 pm

Sinn Fein has long ago sold out to the Brits when they signed the Good Friday agreement requiring the IRA give up its arms. All this accomplished was more British oppression aimed at Republicans, who now can be classified as terrorists on a whim by any Loyalist. However not all Republican groups adhered to that stipulation. Knowing never to trust the word of the British government. The rebel song,”No Semtex, or our guns will ya ever get from us” became a rallying cry for Republicans opposed to the agreement. Britain still occupies Northern Ireland exploiting the resources there for their own profit.


Bryan B. March 17, 2018 at 5:43 pm

hmmm, ”No Semtex, or our guns will ya ever get from us” interesting. So lets have a pint and celebrate!!!! No?!


Chris March 18, 2018 at 1:50 pm

Both sides are at fault.


RB March 18, 2018 at 4:40 pm

I enjoyed both Ireland and Northern Ireland on a recent trip. I am hoping the peaceful progress continues, but worry that Brexit and possible new border divisions will hurt both sides.


Chris March 18, 2018 at 7:24 pm

Belfast’s best punk band Stiff Little Fingers said it besthttps://m.youtube.com/watch?v=10iDHAwE7ZQ


Chris March 18, 2018 at 7:37 pm

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