Courage under fire: New book 'Firefighters of Belfast' chronicles selfless and quiet heroism displayed during Troubles
They were among the first responders during the worst of the Troubles and were confronted with scenes of carnage and destruction. Now one of those firemen, Brian Allaway, has compiled a remarkable book chronicling the selfless and quiet heroism with which they carried out their duty. He tells Ivan Little why he felt it was important the extraordinary feats carried out by ordinary firefighters deserved to be chronicled for posterity
Firefighter Brian Allaway can barely remember the day he'll never forget. Everything happened so quickly on Bloody Friday in Belfast more than 46 years ago that he finds it difficult to piece together the sickening sequence of horrific events in his mind.
"All I know is that the chaos never seemed to stop," he says. "We were going from one bomb attack to another.
- New book is a tribute to courageous firefighters who served the entire community during our darkest times
"When we eventually returned to our station in Chichester Street, we found that the engine room had been turned into a makeshift first aid post."
The building had been pressed into service because it was right beside the bloodiest of the Bloody Friday bombs - the one that caused carnage at Oxford Street bus station.
After returning from tackling fires across the city, Brian and his colleagues immediately set about using their medical training to help the injured.
Their base was almost unrecognisable, as was the city, which was at that time coming under the worst bombardment it had seen outside of wartime.
"We were patching people up as best we could and trying to get them off to hospital in whatever ambulances were available," Brian recalls.
At least 20 bombs exploded in the city in the space of 80 minutes on July 21, 1972, killing nine people and injuring more than 130 others. Two soldiers and four civilians were killed in the attack on the bus station.
"It was almost impossible for the health services and ambulance crews to deal with so many casualties after what happened at Oxford Street," Brian says.
"Many of the trainee firefighters from Chichester Street were just about to pass out from the training centre that day, but they were thrown right into the Oxford Street chaos because all the other crews were out responding to bombs which had already gone off."
Brian was to witness many other shocking attacks and fires in his time on the front line.
Now, the 65-year-old retired fireman, who is married to Diane, with a grown-up daughter and son Kerry and Steven, who both live in Northern Ireland, has written a book which isn't just a personal memoir but also a tribute to the courage of firefighters who sacrificed so much to work with the Belfast fire service throughout the Troubles.
"I didn't want it to be just my story but also the stories of as many firefighters as I could get," Brian stresses.
"It's not an opinion piece. It is, I hope, an academically valid history of the time.
"I want the book to be something that people will read not only now but also in the future to see what it was like in Belfast during the Troubles."
Brian, who is now based in Edinburgh, interviewed 28 firefighters to record their memories for his chilling and harrowing account of his time in the service and of Belfast as a whole.
His pride in what his colleagues did to save lives and property is as unmistakeable as it is unshakeable.
"I think that, in very negative circumstances, the firefighters of Belfast did an incredibly positive job," he tells me. "When they went to an incident, they were just there to help. There's not many people who can say that. They had widespread respect."
Brian sees his book, Firefighters of Belfast: The Fire Service During The Troubles, 1969-1994, as a way of ensuring that the contribution of fire crews - and the history of the service - were recorded before it was too late.
"In 20 years, we will all be gone and there will be nobody left to tell the story, which is something that cannot be forgotten," he explains.
"Throughout the Troubles, the fire service tried to keep a low profile.
"There's very little documented to acknowledge their achievements.
"They didn't sing their own praises or blow their own trumpets - and probably for very good reason."
Brian, who lived on the Upper Crumlin Road in the city, joined the fire brigade at the age of 16, straight after school and almost by accident.
"I wanted to be a painter and decorator, but I couldn't get an apprenticeship," he says.
"I thought about joining the Merchant Navy instead, but my late father talked me into answering an advertisement for the fire service in Belfast.
"The deal was that if I didn't like it after the two-year training period, I could go to sea, but that was never going to happen.
"Just a couple of weeks into my training, I knew that firefighting was the job for me."
Brian, who's donating all the royalties from his book to The Fire Fighters charity, stayed with the service for 41 years before retiring in 2010 as a senior officer in Scotland, where he now lives.
The devotion to duty he showed in researching the book was similar to the commitment that he and his colleagues demonstrated during the worst of the bad times.
"I spent three days a week for nearly five years looking through every copy of every paper in Belfast from the Troubles," he explains.
"And I was lucky that they were all in the National Library of Scotland."
The Belfast Telegraph is frequently quoted in the book and Brian says hardly a day went by without him finding an article or photograph in the archives about Belfast firefighters having to respond to bombings during the Troubles.
After Brian completed his training, his first taste of real firefighting came on July 12, 1971, when he was 18 and stationed at the Central Fire Station on Chichester Street, near the Royal Courts of Justice.
The Troubles were exploding all over Northern Ireland at the time.
"There were a lot of difficult times, especially in Belfast ... a lot of incidents, a lot of bombs, mutilations and injuries and some really difficult fires to deal with - the destruction was senseless," Brian recalls.
As well as Bloody Friday, a number of other terror attacks loom large in his reflections about his career.
But on Bloody Friday itself, Brian responded to a call to Lower Donegall Street, where one of the IRA's first car bombs had exploded outside the News Letter offices after two telephone warnings claiming the device was actually in a nearby street.
Three council binmen and two police officers were among the dead, with 150 people also injured.
Brian heard the blast on what had been a quiet morning for firefighters. When he and his colleagues got to Donegall Street, they found "a scene of absolution devastation, with casualties scattered around in the dirt and the dust" of what he says looked like a battlefield.
Another atrocity that still haunts him to this day is the UVF bombing of the Rose and Crown pub on the city's lower Ormeau Road in May 1974, just 15 days before the same organisation carried out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 34 people.
A total of six Catholics died as a result of the Rose and Crown explosion.
“The bomb went off near the front of the bar, which collapsed on top of the people who had been inside,” Brian recalls.
“We found a charred torso on arrival, but we had to dig the others out. It took us more than two hours to deal with that particular incident.”
Then there was the firebomb attack on Bank Buildings on April 8, 1975.
“Three of the devices detonated and a fierce fire started on the upper floors,” Brian writes in his new book.
“The first device exploded at 5.20pm in the restaurant on the second floor, and two others detonated within 10 minutes.
“By the time we arrived, the fire had a firm hold on the old building, and we could see that we were in for a difficult firefighting operation — the fire took a number of hours to bring under control and over 30 hours to extinguish fully.
“It transpired that there was at least one other device in the building. Five days later, demolition workers found a further bomb under debris on the third-floor stairway. It was defused by the ATO (ammunition technical officer).”
A further incident that lingers in his memory is a UDA bomb that killed two men drinking in the Club Bar near Queen’s University in May 1976.
“That’s another which stays with me, Brian admits.
“Youngsters were celebrating the end of their exams ... the worst casualties were near the toilets, where the bomb detonated. The victims were still at the table where they’d been sitting.
“The upper parts of their bodies were okay, but there was a tangle of legs below the table. We didn’t know which limbs belonged to which torso.”
On top of the bombings, firefighters responding to calls during the Troubles had to be wary of rioters, who could turn on them very quickly.
Despite that, Brian believes he and his colleagues were spared the worst of the violence.
“Yes, from time-to-time we were targets — we were stoned, we were petrol-bombed and we were shot at,” he admits.
“But firefighters were particularly proud of the fact that we went to every incident in every area — we didn’t discriminate at all. I think that both sides, by and large, saw us as neutral.”
But the Belfast fire service also had its share of casualties.In February 1973, fireman Brian Douglas was shot dead by the UDA as he tackled a blaze in a boutique on Sandy Row.
In November 1976, sub officer Wesley Orr was killed by an IRA bomb at a bonded warehouse on the Glen Road.
Brian had been on his way to take over from Wesley at the scene, and he arrived to see his colleague lying on the ground.
Another fireman was shot dead when he was off duty and driving a taxi. A statue outside the headquarters of the Northern Ireland
Fire Service in Lisburn stands
as a memorial to all the firefighters who died in a
number of different tragedies.
But they, like Brian and his colleagues, didn’t exclusively deal with terror-related incidents.
Just five days after he started work in Belfast, Brian responded to a call to the Regency Hotel in Botanic Avenue, where three people had been killed.
One of them was UTV presenter and former Irish rugby international Ernest Strathdee, who’d fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette.
They were the first bodies Brian had ever seen, and he was physically sick after he left the hotel and went outside.
Another distressing incident he recalls was a house fire on Matchett Street in the Shankill Road area.
Brian and a colleague were both wearing a breathing apparatus, and were hopeful that an eight-year-old girl they had rescued from an upstairs room would survive. Sadly, she and two other female members of her family died.
Road accidents were commonplace too. At the time, firefighters had only the most rudimentary of equipment to get people out of cars.
It was a busy time, an unpredictable time. “You couldn’t plan anything,” says Brian. “Okay, you knew that anniversaries of various events would mean an upsurge in violence.
“But you went from doing your routine work in the station to going out to deal with something horrendous with your adrenaline pumping.
“However, the training came into play and you just got on with it. I wouldn’t downplay the tough times, but I never regretted joining the fire service.
“The real motivation was that you were helping people on what was the worst day of their lives — you were coming along to try and make it better.”
Brian worked in Belfast until the early-1990s, when he transferred to Portadown — a stint not covered in his book.
“I’d originally intended to write a history of the fire service right across Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but it became too big, so I decided to concentrate on Belfast,” he explains.
Brian obviously couldn’t be in two places at once, but his book covers most, if not all, of the major atrocities of the Troubles in Belfast and scores of forgotten bombings and traumas as well, all seen through the eyes of the firefighters who were at the scenes.
In 1994, he transferred to the Lothian and Borders fire brigade in Edinburgh, and in 2002 he was promoted to firemaster, a historic title dating from at least 1824, but which was changed to chief officer in 2005.
What he learned in Belfast stood him in good stead when he moved to Scotland.
“Firefighting is the same no matter what city you are in, really,” he says. “But it was a different dimension in Belfast because of the fact that the fires were often started by bombs, incendiary devices or by rioters.”
In his final chapters, he writes about the damage done physically and mentally to his colleagues, with anonymous accounts of their struggles in the wake of their service and the gruesome sights they were facing in the days before anyone was offered counselling.
“We just came back to the station from terrible incidents and talked to each other about our experiences over a cup of tea,” says Brian, who also writes about how a heady cocktail of dark Ulster humour and alcohol were employed to help some firefighters cope with the almost daily horrors they encountered on the streets.
Firefighters of Belfast: The Fire Service During The Troubles 1969-1994 by Brian Allaway is published by Luath Press Ltd, £12.99. Brian will be signing copies of his book at Waterstones in Belfast on Tuesday, December 4, at 4pm