By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
When I arrived in Ballymacarret, or Short Strand’s Bryson Street in the early sixties I did so as a nine-year-old and of one of a family of 10 children.
Some of us arrived on board my dad’s coal lorry laden with the family’s belongings.
We were a spectacle in the street for curious neighbours and children who gathered around the lorry.
Moving from the open plains of Coolderry Gardens, Rathcoole, with its endless green fields and spaciously laid-out houses, Bryson Street was a shock to me with its confined, cramped spaces.
Gone were the trees and grass; in place were rows of red brick terrace houses, narrow alley ways and cast- iron gas lamps.
Another notable contrast between my new and old street was the number of children - too many it seemed - crammed into Bryson Street’s limited space.
In the predominantly Protestant Rathcoole the preference was for small families: a family of 10 turned heads. In the Short Strand, 10
children were practically the norm or in the case of Rita Fitzsimmons many more than that. At 45 Bryson Street, a two-up two-down, Rita and her husband Paddy reared their very large family.
Rita Fitzsimmons died two weeks ago in her early eighties.
The strange thing about being a child of the sixties, unlike now, was that children did not notice their mother pregnant; there was no
obvious talk about the impending occasion; children seemed to just appear.
Rita was one of those women who spent her time between the kitchen and her front door. She was a slight figure, small in stature; her favourite pose was to stand with her arms folded with a cigarette, puffing away, watching over her brood and many other children at play in a street free of car menace.
She was a friendly, chatty woman who greeted passers by with a smile and a comment for the occasion.
Rita was a generous woman with what little she had. Her home was open to the kids of the street. If there was a free sandwich to be had for a hungry urchin you were sure to get it off Rita’s kitchen table; a table ever at the ready for children’s grasping hands, rarely without a loaf of bread, butter and jam.
Into this house I and many others were welcomed in the company of Rita’s son Joey.
Amid the raucous noise caused by children appearing and disappearing in an instant from nooks and crannies in Rita’s house was the sound of music strange to my young ears. It was a mixture of rebel and Celtic songs.
Rita’s was a ceili house for children, a fun place to be where Joey regaled with his accordion. We did not know how lucky we were or innocent the times were.
It all changed so quickly. Inside a few years the sound of children’s voices in Bryson Street were
replaced with the sound of gunfire as the IRA and local defence forces protected the street’s residents from attack by loyalists.
Rita’s house changed too. It became a safe house for republicans.
Between ‘69 and ‘71 Bryson Street, once a haven for children, became the front line in a war zone which saw the street and its houses including Rita’s and my family’s, burnt out.
The war zone extended and engulfed the people of the Short Strand:
internment, Operation Motorman, gun battles between the IRA and British army, roaming loyalist assassins killing local Catholics and scores of republicans imprisoned.
Rita’s new home a few streets away was invaded by the war. Her son Joey joined the IRA and died on active service in May 1972. He was 17. Another of Rita’s sons, Seamus, was shot dead in 1994 while he was involved in a bank robbery. He was 21.
Throughout her life Rita and her family carried this double tragedy with great dignity.
In my youth I knew many Ritas in the Strand: Una, Maggie, Teasie, Susie and Ceile. Some of their children joined the IRA and some died for freedom on the streets where they played as children.
There were many Ritas across the north.
Without them there would not have been an IRA, a Sinn Féin, war or peace or the new Ireland we have today.