Redrawing the battle lines: Former loyalists paramilitaries to display work in west Belfast
Two former loyalist paramilitaries, one now a poet, the other a visual artist, take their work into the heart of republican west Belfast tonight. Malachi O'Doherty reports
Two loyalist ex-prisoners with growing reputations as artists will present their work Thursday night in west Belfast.
Robert Niblock, a playwright, is publishing his first collection of poems. He will read from them at the Irish language centre An Culturlann on the Falls Road.
His book is illustrated by George Morrow, who developed his artistic skills in Long Kesh and is now an impressive landscape artist. Several of Morrow's paintings also go on display.
Both men are responding to the lives they had and might have had, reaching back nostalgically to a Belfast they knew before the Troubles.
Niblock, for instance, writes about The Watchie's Hut - "A half-round corrugated shelter with shovels and picks and donkey jackets", and "An eerie glow from the well-packed open brazier out the front".
Morrow paints pictures of Cave Hill and the housing estates from high over west and north Belfast.
One, featuring the east of the city, celebrates the life of David Ervine, another, Plum Smith.
And he drops small hints of his commitment to opposing sectarianism now with his subtle use of green and orange, as the colours appear in nature.
Both men served long periods in prison; Niblock for the murder of 23-year-old John Thompson in 1975 and Morrow for armed robbery. But neither seeks to justify his past.
Niblock says he started writing in the 1990s during the Drumcree stand-off. Seeing kids as young as 14 in masks on the streets, he wrote his own testimony of his experience to urge them not to get drawn into the violence or to join paramilitary groups.
"And I went round loyalist groups delivering this testimony. I said: 'I have been here before'. A lot of these kids wouldn't have been born during the Troubles. I was saying I got involved at 14, got elevated through the Tartan gangs and ended up in prison.
"I was warning kids that sometimes it is easier to fall into line than to walk away, and I was telling them not to get involved."
The poetry has no political message, but refers by its title - A Laganvillage Childhood - to the place he grew up. He spent his childhood in that area between the lower Ravenhill Road and Woodstock Road.
One poem recalls his fear of the boys of St Augustine's school. "Cohorts clothed in grey and red and black, Primed for my appearance and ready to attack".
He says he had written short stories, but not shown them to anyone because he had no confidence in them, but later got an opportunity to work on his first play, A Reason To Believe, which was staged at the Welders' Club and at venues across Belfast during the Feile of 2009.
At one showing, in An Culturlann, two loyalists with a few beers in them got carried away and stood up to sing The Sash and were put out.
Robert says: "I think one of them apologised and was let back in."
But what does his own loyalism mean now? "In hindsight - which is the best weapon we have - I certainly feel that none of the violence here was justified and can't be justified. It wasn't worth it. It didn't change anything.
"I would consider myself loyal to my community and loyal to my family. I was a sectarian bigot. There was no lightbulb moment, but you evolve as a person and you change and there is nothing bad about that.
"I'm of an age where I can say it wasn't right, and I can stand by that."
Niblock is engaged on other drama projects. He says he has been working for some time on a script about Ervine, with the working title A Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary.
That title will make sense to those who remember Ervine's idiosyncratic use of English; his preference for a recently discovered word over any he knew before.
And he has been commissioned to work with a group of former members of the UDR.
"I was in workshops with people and they want their story told, but not in a mawkish way. A lot of these people lived double lives.
"The Greenfinch (woman soldier) was a hairdresser, had to get kids out to school, check under the car for a bomb. This was different from full-time soldiering."
Tonight Niblock will read some of his poems in an exhibition space displaying the paintings of Morrow. These are landscapes done in riotous colour, with lavishly coloured stormy skies.
He says they are not references to the Troubles, though they are certainly not serene romantic depictions of the city and the hills, but do actually create an impression of explosions of colour in their fine bittiness.
Like Niblock, he says he is being nostalgic for a happier time, growing up before the violence, but this is not a recollection of an easy life.
Sometimes, in his paintings it is hard to make out where the urban landscape ends and the countryside begins, for the colours of nature bleed into the streets.
He says: "It's all Belfast-related, with me growing up in Belfast. It's really trying to remember how happy I was before the Troubles and how marvellous the landscape around Belfast is.
"It's always dominated by Cave Hill and Napoleon's Nose. In some, the landscape is quite industrial, the towers and the churches that dominate the skyline. There is a beauty in the old stone and the trees. I don't call them picturesque, they tend to be more dramatic.
"There was the time my mum was in hospital before she passed away and I noticed the view across town from the tower block and I made sketches and developed a painting from that."
He likes the idea of putting the pictures on display in An Culturlann.
"I spent a lot of time over there, walking across the Falls to Broadway. I knew it all when I was young and so the idea of putting the pictures there is good."
The two men respect each other's work and have made similar journeys away from violence and anger.
That Niblock makes a name for himself as a writer is painful for those who grieve for the man he killed, and that has been made plain to him.
Morrow respects him as a fellow artist. "I like the poems. Bobby is a deep character. People don't expect you to be deep. He is a real person.
"There is a lot of insight and feeling in the work, where he has taken himself back to that age. He never contents himself with just throwing something together. It all works very well."
The works of Robert Niblock and George Morrow will be presented at An Culturlann, Falls Road, this evening (5pm). The event will be introduced by Malachi O'Doherty