As the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday approaches, writer and Belfast Telegraph columnist Malachi O’Doherty looks back half a century to our darkest year, when he was a young journalist witnessing the unfolding horror of the Troubles
Whenever TV documentaries look back on the early days of the Troubles, they will often play the pop music of the time over images of funerals or bomb wreckage.
This doesn’t work for me. When I stood watching funerals or riots I wasn’t humming those songs to myself. Was anyone? I doubt it.
I had to ask Google for the number one song on the day of Bloody Sunday. It was Don McLean’s American Pie.
I know that song by heart but have never before connected ‘The Day the Music Died’ with a day in which I almost died to music myself, numbed by the news coming in of the rising death toll.
The fact that I knew and loved that song tells me that there were times even in the worst year of the Troubles when I was cheerful and sang to myself. I doubt I missed Top of the Pops once that year. I can easily recall sitting in the living room on a Thursday evening with my siblings to see the New Seekers, Cilla or Olivia Newton John, hoping that my father didn’t arrive home before it was over to tell us to turn ‘that bloody racket’ down.
But I don’t, and can’t associate that youthful interest in the music of the time with the dark mood that descended on the city when the violence was at its worst.
For me, and I suspect for most of us, it was like living separate lives almost simultaneously, or trying to hold onto normality and feeling, mixed in with every shock not just horror but deep disappointment.
‘Tension is rising in Belfast’, the newsreader would say. Another cliché of the time but one that, unlike using the pop music as a soundtrack for the violence, had real meaning.
It meant more than the newsreader could have known.
The tension really was in the very air and palpable. You could nearly have opened your window and put your head out to sense if there was danger. And the realist will say that what told you there was trouble was the distant clamour of shouting, that might have been a football game in the park, or the hint of wood smoke.
I often that year sat in with my mother in the evening waiting for it to start.
A couple of rifle shots on the main road.
The popping of soup cans in the Busy Bee when it was burned down after Bloody Sunday, alarming at first when it seemed it might be unprecedented gunfire, and then the realisation that gunfire had never sounded quite like that.
Young men in the neighbourhood actually passed our living room window with guns from their dump nearby.
I worked that year as a journalist on the Sunday News and lived at the same time on a corner near two IRA safe houses.
When seven men escaped from internment on the Maidstone prison ship a young heart could marvel at the courage and cheek of it. When they moved in across the street and established barricades to turn our estate into a no-go area, life was more restricted and the sense of living separate lives increased.
I wrote an article about life there and presented it as an interview with an anonymous housewife but it was all based on what I saw going on around me.
There was snow on the ground on the day after Bloody Sunday. Some kids on Bingnian Drive hijacked a lorry carrying electric heaters. Some of them tobogganed on the heaters. Others went door to door giving them away.
The paratroopers, when they came back from Derry, adopted a different way of walking to soldiers in other regiments, the rifle stock resting on the hip, the barrel pointing proudly into the air. They swaggered.
On early Sunday mornings when a taxi took me home from Donegall Street up the Falls Road, paras with blackened faces crouched in shop doorways and tracked every passing car through their gun sights.
This was Belfast’s darkest year. The streetlights in many areas were out at night, believed to have been vandalised by bombers taking the timers from them, though sometimes the lights came on during the day, those timers having been disrupted by power cuts.
I worked in the city centre and we were often cleared out of our offices by bomb scares.
I was often sent to small towns and country areas to write lighter feature articles and would arrive back in the city in the evening after a bombing, when the pavements were littered with glass and thousands of workers tried to make their way home because the buses were off.
The pubs near home that were safer to go to were often concentrations of militant culture and there were new shebeens set up to cater for people wary of travelling outside their area and to raise money for their causes.
Chunks of the city fell apart around us. I was off work on the Monday that Donegall Street was bombed. Afterwards I was told that angry workers had come to the office looking for me and found another reporter.
Compositors on the paper who did not like my Irish name often dropped it from my articles.
One photographer told me ‘we only want hundred percenters here’.
The Troubles worsened through the major events of that summer, The Abercorn bomb, Bloody Friday and the heightened sectarian tit for tat during a notional July ceasefire, Operation Motorman, the army’s invasion of the No-Go areas.
Staff photographers declined to come into Andersonstown with me and we had to hire freelancers. But it was understandable that people were angry and afraid.
The one time that I did walk down Royal Avenue singing in the rain was on the afternoon the ceasefire was announced, naively thinking the Troubles might now be over.
One night during the ceasefire my midnight taxi was stopped at an IRA checkpoint on the Falls Road and I got out and asked one of the IRA men to show me his Armalite. I had heard plenty but never seen one up close.
The taxi driver, the following week got his own back on me by detouring up to the Shankill through loyalist checkpoints there, scaring the wits out of me.
I was on Lenadoon Avenue when the Provos ended their ceasefire over the army’s refusal to let homeless Catholic families move into empty houses on Horn Drive at the bottom of the hill.
That ceasefire established some basic peace processing principles that endured, such as that the IRA would always be regarded as being on ceasefire if they said they were, no matter how many people they killed, so long as they weren’t police or soldiers.
More people died in the two weeks of the ceasefire than in the two weeks before it.
On Bloody Friday I was out shopping at lunchtime with another reporter, Eddie. I bought myself a nice little suede jacket for nine guineas in a shop on Royal Avenue. We heard the first bomb while walking back to the office.
That wasn’t unusual. We commented on it but we didn’t rush for cover, until there was another bomb and another.
There was urgency more than actual pandemonium in the office. A girl who had been bombed before when working at the Milk Marketing Board was being carried screaming down the stairs. We sheltered in the long print room listening to more distant explosions. My friend Steve nudged me to look up and I saw that the high ceiling over us was one of those serrated factory roofs with skylights, glass that would shower over us if shattered by a blast.
Back in the office I answered the phone to Gerry O’Hare, the press officer for the Belfast Brigade and swore at him.
My news editor took the phone from me and told me to be more civil to people who were useful contacts.
I was a young journalist and felt inadequate before the horror and scale of the big story of the Troubles and resolved in later life to revisit that period and write a book about it. I wrote a short memoir, The Telling Year, in 2007 and last year brought out The Year of Chaos, studying the political and military machinations more closely. The paperback will be published later this year.
What I discovered in my research was that I was not alone in grasping for a handle on the meaning and course of events, that the most senior players in governments and in the army, in community groups and paramilitaries were struggling to comprehend and manage the forces that had been unleashed.
Today they will explain it all in terms of strategies and ideologies. They’ll blame it on partition, discrimination, terrorism, the denial of civil rights, sectarianism or political ineptitude. For me looking back it feels, as it did then, as if a plague of madness had overwhelmed us.
The Year of Chaos, Northern Ireland on the Brink of Civil War, 1971-72, Atlantic Books, is available now