By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
In the early spring of 1964 I arrived on top of my dad’s coal lorry outside 53 Bryson Street in Belfast’s Short Strand.
On board that lorry were the entire possessions of the Gibney family.
We were on the move for the first time in our lives; all 11 of us - nine children and mum and dad. Granda Gibney had died and granny was lonely.
We were honouring society’s long established custom and practice of the time we moved in with my granny - 53 Bryson Street in the Short Strand would be our new home for the next seven years. To mammy and daddy it was a homecoming, their birth place, to their offspring a new world waiting to be explored.
For me, a 10-year-old, my world was about to be turned upside down.
My new home could not have been more different from the one I had just left at 1 Coolderry Gardens, Rathcoole.
Rathcoole was heaven sent for a boy like me with a wild streak a mile wide.
When you opened your front door there was a new horizon - fresh air, green grass, clear skies and open spaces greeted hungry eyes.
Bryson Street was entirely different.
The air was contaminated by industrial gases from nearby factories, streets made of concrete replaced green fields; entries, nooks and crannies were my new open spaces.
In these nooks and crannies I would play with other children my own age.
In my innocence I didn’t know that some of them had already lived half their lives. In a few years time they would join the local IRA. The coming conflict would claim them before their 20th birthdays.
And so began a contrast of worlds, the old and the new, which I still carry and will take to my grave.
Some of the old came with me; indeed it was already in the Short Strand but in a more disturbing form.
As a six, seven, eight-year-old in Rathcoole I knew nothing about being a Catholic. But other boys of a similar age knew. They were Protestants.
They not only knew, they said so, when together as a gang of kids we were out collecting wood for the July 12 bonfire.
“What’s he doing here? He’s a Catholic,” one said. “No he’s not”, another said. “Are you?” asked someone.
I nearly said ‘No’. But for some reason I said “Yes”. “He’s a Fenian” was the final retort. I never collected bonfire wood again. I needn’t have worried.
I was in the Strand now. You didn’t do that sort of thing, certainly not for the Twelfth of July.
There’s a scene in the film Mississippi Burning where a black family are peering in fear out their front window watching an effigy of a black man burn on top of a Ku Klux Klan bonfire.
That was us every July 11 night in Rathcoole. We stood as children in fear wrapped in each others arms peering out our front window watching our perfectly respectable God-fearing neighbours burn the effigy of the Pope and dance around a bonfire.
I didn’t know why we had to experience this ritual.
Nor did I know why our friendly Protestant neighbours stopped talking to us for the entire month of July.
We had a few Protestant neighbours in Bryson Street, not as many as in Rathcoole. They too were friendly but as well as not speaking in July they flew Union flags from their homes.
Their Catholic neighbours resented it but they appeared not to care. Occasionally the neighbours, in silent protest, walked to the edge of the footpath to avoid the shadow of the flag covering them when the wind blew as they passed by.
These flags flew in our street.
The last mixed street before unionist east Belfast. But there was one family who flew the Union flag in the heart of the Strand. They lived in Comber Street.
I was told someone pulled the flag down. And I think it was in about 1967 that the residents of Comber Street watched in sullen and silent anger while a large number of armed RUC men guarded the owner as he put the flag back up.
The RUC men stayed outside his house protecting him and his flag.
Some years later an equally large number of armed RUC men arrived outside a house round the corner in Beechfield Street.
It was Easter. They were demanding the family remove the tricolour flying from their front window because it was illegal and could be seen by Protestants who were upset and lived in Thistle Street several hundred yards away.
I remember the large crowd of neighbours looking on in silent anger.
I can’t remember the outcome.
Then the Short Strand was the gateway to Belfast’s rich vein of industry.
Dotted around it was the shipyard, Shorts, their spin offs and right in its heart was the Sirocco works on the Mountpottinger Road.
Employment for thousands of protestant men and women. But not for the Catholic men and women of the Short Strand rearing their families.
They stood in their own streets outside their own doors and watched in silence and anger, day in, day out, year in, year out, as this army of labour walked through their streets to work, while they crossed the bridge to the dole and, if lucky enough, to work elsewhere.
Unknown to me, a mere boy, beyond these streets events were happening which would deeply change these silent people. My street, Bryson Street, was the scene of one of the major gun battles of the conflict. It was there on June 27 1970 that a small band of young men and women, mostly from the district and some in the IRA, others in a local defence league, prevented loyalists from raising the district to the ground.
From a half-lit doorway in Comber Street, on my hunkers, I watched teenagers and young men carry rifles bigger than themselves to the street corner. Between 11pm and 4am they used whatever ammunition they had to repel the armed loyalist invaders who were intent on killing us, or forcing us to flee the district, by burning of our homes and our chapel, St Matthew’s.
By the time the British army arrived at dawn the young men and women with the rifles, had grown in stature.
With their weapons, they disappeared into the two-up-two-down houses and found refuge. They reemerged as IRA heroes. The modern IRA was born.
Time and the conflict of the last 30 years has changed the district; gone are the narrow streets with their terraced houses. Gone too is the industry that the people were not part of because they were Catholics.
Gone too is the people’s silence.
They paid dearly to be heard.
Scores of people have been to gaol, nearly 50 lost their lives.
Today the district has a deputy mayor of Belfast in Sinn Fein Councillor Joe O’Donnell and they have an IRA at peace. It took a long and difficult time to get both. And the people don’t want to lose either. And while the storm of accusation continues unabated about the IRA and Sinn Fein and what their real status is, the people of the Short Strand - like their equivalents all over the country - are proud of the republicans that their district produced since 1969.
When the British prime minister and the Taoiseach and the unionists and the SDLP point the finger at the IRA and Gerry Adams and say “criminal” the people look at them and say “What planet are they on?”
The people who support the IRA, the people who vote Sinn Fein, the people who made the peace process possible, know the IRA are not criminals.
For them that is not the issue.
The issue is peace.
They know as I do the valuable contribution that the IRA and Sinn Fein have made and are making to getting us out of the quagmire of violence created by this sectarian state.
Long may that continue.