Paul F. McCann


It was the summer of 1969 and all around me, houses burned.

The illegal paramilitary were armed and placed snipers who perched themselves on roof tops. One by one they picked off innocent targets on the street. In Belfast we learned to zigzag when we ran and help those who were hit.

I stood there with many others and watched the senseless destruction of hundreds of homes in my village.

But what a difference a day makes because the very next day a promise was made to rebuild the houses and give them back at no cost to a community who had seen enough of violence at their door. A great sense of pride returned to the district as three streets of new homes were built.

It was a genuine love behind every brick laid. There was a heartfelt generosity from all sectors of the community. Businesses donated building products and people offered their skills free of charge. After six years the homes were finished, but not the troubles.

After many assassinations in our district the local people were forced to take matters into their own hands. They formed a group of vigilantes to protect the people in the district. One of these men was Jackie.

I knew Jackie well and respected his efforts over the years in appealing for peace and calm between the British Army who were seen as the invaders and the community of North Belfast.

I laughed the day Jackie jumped up and sat on the top of an armoured car screaming out to the people for peace. Jackie ended up standing up on top of the vehicle and echoing his opinions about the injustice of war. Before long he had a crowd gathered around; most of the audience were women and children who cheered each time Jackie finished talking.

The British Army saw no problem with Jackie’s antics and slowly drove along the Crumlin Road with Jackie on the roof of their armoured car. People marched behind the armoured car and it was all just harmless fun.

It was like watching a movie that suddenly slowed down when it happened.

Out of nowhere a car pulled up in front of the armoured car. This man got out and fired off arcs of bullets from his sub machine guns into the small streets where I lived. Jackie was hit and fell to the ground. People dived for cover as the British Army returned fire.

So it was on that evening in March after Jackie had been shot dead that the picture turned very ugly. Gang leaders emerged and run territories around the province. Armed thugs and villains roamed the streets applying force as they saw fit.

On the other hand Jackie’s death spurred on a new fight for law and order.

The civil rights movement had been formed. At last people spoke of equality. No one was in minority and no longer would anyone be manipulated and trodden underfoot. No longer would people turn away in fear. No one really expected this uneasy peace to last but it did for a moment in time until a new situation erupted.

The IRA began their offensive against the British army.

In 1969 as internment was introduced the IRA went on an all out fight to the end. For some it was their last stand. Death or freedom was the cry as the gun battle in our tiny streets never let up.

The British Army kicked in front doors and dragged out all the men and boys over 16 years of age. Everyone was deemed a suspect. All suspects were put into internment camps and prisons without a fair trial. Many of those large families where then left without a father, husband, brother or son. Those members who were left behind felt bitter and cheated by those who had been sent to keep the peace. No longer could they trust England and the occupation of their army.

The troubles escalated from that day with daily rioting, and looting.

Young men grew up and took up the gun as their fathers spent their days in prison. Locked behind the barbed wires of Long Kesh internment camp and other hastily built internment camps, an entire generation of men were locked up without trial and had to accept the law that had put them in there.

On the outside a new breed of freedom fighters emerged; ruthless and relentless in their cause to push England out of Ireland. There were car bombs and kidnapping, killing and confusion with new electronic warfare. Double agents and super grasses were employed on all sides of the divide.

It was serious stuff and tit-for-tat assassinations began as names and secrets were being passed around the various paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. No one felt safe answering a knock on their door and when anyone left their front door each day it was never sure if you would return.

A rent strike had been in existence along with the gas meter strikes in the catholic districts. Anti-social behaviour had crept into every corner of the city. Every community had to have its own police force. The underground paramilitaries kept things under control with knee cap jobs, tar and featherings and punishment shootings.

A new breed with a new culture emerged from the rubbles a city street being blown apart. They had a new blend of music and new batch of songs. They had attitude and grudges and found a hardness not many had known or experienced before. All around the little streets barricades and grenades fell among the people who stood and watched helpless.

There was no work because there was no industry. There was no peace and no hope left as hard times brought a gritty substance into the expression give us this day our daily bread. The church seats were not as popular as they once were and many hard questions were being asked. Families began to hurt deeply and a hunger for justice cried out loud. God seemed absent there and grief filled every household in the district.

Hard times indeed.

More and more factories where burned to the ground as were many small businesses and soon the intimidations began. It was dangerous to travel and even more dangerous to talk of peace; those who did found claims on their life.

Somehow my family and I found an escape hatch.

Dad applied in desperation for emigration to Australia. It all happened so quickly. We had been accepted for emigration and were given two weeks to prepare to leave Belfast and enter Australia. A new life in a new country awaited but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. It was devastating to leave behind everything that meant anything to me in life.

The last week was hectic. Saying farewell to my friends was difficult. Everyone told me how lucky I was to get away out of Northern Ireland. I wished I could have taken them all with me.

On my last night in Belfast I took my long walk home along Etna Drive. What a shock I got when a sniper from the end of the Street opened up with a semi-automatic weapon. I hit the deck and could feel the bullets skimming past my ears. Some women came to their door and shouted over to see if I was all right. The gunman stopped to reload his weapon and I made a dash for the nearest garden wall and dived over into safety behind a thick hedge.

As morning came I got up with only one thought for the day. My very last day ay home struck like a dagger in the heart. When the taxi pulled up at the house all our neighbours stood at their doors waving goodbye. I took a last look at Black Mountain and as the gentle hue of a morning sun peered over the rooftops I felt no warmth in its kiss.

When I arrived in Australia I thought to myself: “Is the war really over?”