May 1981

I had been in Belfast for only three days when the first of ten hunger strikers at The Maze Prison (Long Kesh) died. The tension building up to the event was palpable in the community. It felt like everyone was preparing for war. Helicopters stationed above Catholic neighborhoods hovered endlessly throughout the day, spying, photographing, filming activity on the streets below them. The British army sped through the streets of Ardoyne in armored vehicles, and it wasn’t always clear why they were there. Were they simply asserting sovereignty over the people, were they pushing for an incident, or were they spying on local activities? Occasionally an army foot patrol would pass through, nervous young men in heavy gear, four to a patrol. Two would face forward and two would back through the streets so all angles were protected. At a command the soldiers would whirl about to face the opposite direction so everybody got a turn at backing up through the hostile streets.

The children of Ardoyne demonstrated a warrior spirit whenever these patrols passed by. Grown-ups kept themselves scarce, seeking shelter in gated gardens, entryways and the doorways of shops or homes. But the children taunted the passing soldiers, sometimes throwing stones or bottles. When this would happen in the midst of organized games or outdoor activities, the other counselors and I would retire to a safe haven and watch the children we’d been playing with attack heavily armed soldiers. Although I didn’t smoke, I remember borrowing a cigarette from a youngster one day so I could appear more nonchalant. Children as young as six years old smoked publically. I looked down into a car that went speeding past me as I held my cigarette to my lips. A television camera aimed at me from the back seat, the ABC logo prominently plastered on the door of the car.

There was a history of communities invading each other in this part of Belfast. From the start of the troubles, Catholics in Ardoyne had feared the approach of Protestant mobs from neighboring areas. When they came, the mobs would burn homes and attack whoever they could capture. Protestants claimed that Catholics were guilty of the same aggressions. On the one hand, the Protestants believed that the Catholics sought to drive them out of their homes and neighborhoods altogether. Catholics saw Protestant attackers as tools of a hostile government, bent on uprooting homes and businesses and denying Catholics of their civil rights. Perhaps more fearful were the assassinations that took place. Whether or not the victims were actually involved in sectarian violence, it wasn’t uncommon for armed gangs to slip into neighboring communities to kill.

In October 1981 the Ardoyne ambulance corps held a fundraising event at the local pub, The Shamrock. It had astonished me that ambulances were only available where a community decided to support one. In Ardoyne the Saint John Ambulance Corps consisted of one battered old truck barely kept running by a seriously nervous man. The fundraiser was to provide money to keep the truck running. Other volunteers and I purchased tickets to the event. An Ardoyne man who had been elected to the Belfast city council was in charge of the door that night. Worn out from a day of children and sports, I decided to rest rather than party. Besides, my experience at The Shamrock consisted of one night of really bad karaoke, where some drunk woman with bleached blonde hair had stumbled through a rendition of Running Bear to howls of support by equally drunk patrons. Old country and western music was popular there, and so was karaoke.

The morning after the fundraising event I found out that Protestant paramilitaries had attacked The Shamrock that night. They had gunned down Larry Kennedy, the councilman, wounded a few others, including the ambulance driver, and they would have done worse damage if the patrons of the pub hadn’t started throwing chairs at them. I attended Larry Kennedy’s funeral, gazed at his body in the casket: white bandages dimpled over the machine gun wounds in his forehead.

But all that was in the future on my third day in Belfast. I had been listening to the local news, every day a report of the condition of the hunger strikers in The Maze. It was clear that Bobby Sands would die at any moment. At the Glencree House we discussed what might happen, and the prospects were bleak. We expected open warfare between the communities we worked in. Rioting could be expected within Ardoyne at the very least. It seemed like the worst of the activity might take place farther south or east in the city, where larger Catholic communities were even more militant.

Bobby Sands was in The Maze for the possession of a handgun. Depending on where you lived in Northern Ireland at the time, that meant he had serious concerns for his safety or the safety of his family and community, or that he intended to carry out murderous attacks on Protestants. He was definitely associated with the IRA. When an earlier hunger strike had been called off under doubtful circumstances, Bobby Sands decided to become the first of twelve prisoners who would choose not to eat to demonstrate against a new prison policy that treated the IRA as criminals rather than as prisoners of war. He stood for public office during his strike, winning a parliamentary seat for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. But the head of his opposition was Margaret Thatcher. Her government swiftly passed a law that would make it impossible for any more prisoners to stand for parliamentary election.

Recently released documents indicate that Thatcher was secretly trying to bring the Maze hunger strikes to an end. There is debate within the Irish community as to whether the IRA might have been able to save six of the hunger strikers from their deaths. But in 1981, Thatcher was publically an intransigent opponent to the prisoners. She would not give an inch to save their lives. Within Ardoyne, anti-English sentiment grew with every death. Thatcher was personally hated with a passion. In the Spring of 1982 Britain went to war over the Falkland Islands against the Argentinians but in Ardoyne they were rooting for Argentina. That fall the locals were cheering for the Argentinians in the England v. Argentina World Cup match.

Riots were expected, and that is what took place when Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981. The worst of it was in West Belfast. Two deaths took place when a milk truck driven by a Protestant man and his son came under attack on the New Lodge Road, a Catholic neighborhood. The following day the government sent six hundred more soldiers into Northern Ireland. The IRA responded by blowing up  an oil terminal in the Shetland Islands even as the Queen was attending the ceremony dedicating the opening of the new facility, a quarter mile away. British intransigence over the issue of The Maze hunger strikes brought more and more people in Belfast into the opposition. When Bobby Sands’ funeral took place on May 7, more than 100,000 people lined the procession route or attended the services.

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