In 1969, a sectarian mob burned 1,500 residents from their homes on Bombay Street, Belfast, 44 years ago this week, helping to give rise the Provisional IRA. Originally recorded in 1999, the following are the recollections of people who bore the brunt of one of the worst loyalist pogroms of the recent conflict.
“We lost everything but our sense of humour,” says Rita Canavan. In a photograph taken in August 1969, two small boys are standing outside the burnt out facade of what had been the Canavan family’s Bombay Street home. Short trousers, spindly legs and cropped hair, one child stands up straight for the camera, but his face seems pensive, anxious, unsure. His companion, hands on hips, strikes a more defiant pose.
Behind them, a row of modest terrace houses, fire gutted, roofless, without doors or windows, stand in silent testimony to the sectarian hatred in which they had been engulfed. It’s a simple snapshot but all the elements are there, fear and defiance, vulnerability and courage. For the last 30 years, the image of Bombay Street has haunted not only the memory of residents whose homes were destroyed but the Northern nationalist psyche. And not without reason.
Between 1969 to 1973, it is estimated that 60,000 Six-County Catholics were driven from their homes. Last year, over 1,600 residents, the vast majority Catholic, requested rehousing following sectarian intimidation. To the present day, the petrol bomb remains a pivotal weapon in the loyalist arsenal of sectarian violence. Just over a year ago, the burnt out image of a house in Ballymoney was also accompanied by a photograph of small boys, three faces just as well scrubbed but whose fate was less kind.
Thirty years after the Bombay Street pogrom, children are still found on the front door step of Rita Canavan’s home but the scene is no longer one of desolation. Now 73 years of age, Rita is a proud mother of five, grandmother to ten and “I’ve one great-grandchild,” she says. Outside the youngest members of the family are playing in a street bathed only in the light of summer sunshine. “Take our photo,” they call to An Phoblacht’s photographer.
As newlyweds, James and Rita Canavan moved into Bombay Street almost 50 years ago. Today a roof high wall straddles the two communities, it’s presence affording a measure of protection from the loyalist gangs who still regularly pelt nationalist homes with bricks, stones, paint bombs and less frequently petrol bombs. Thirty years ago there was “no peace wall,” says Rita. “Protestant and Catholic houses were back to back.”
Rita remembers the area as a “quiet community of decent hardworking people.” The largest factory, “Mackies”, despite being located in a predominantly Catholic area of West Belfast, drew its workforce almost exclusively from the Protestant community, the vast majority from the Shankill. Catholics were more likely to be employed in unskilled, low paid jobs, as store keepers in warehouses, in the mills and at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Whenever there was trouble brewing, Catholic families lived in fear of Mackies’ afternoon shift finishing before the local men, forced to work outside the area, had returned home. When on Friday 15 August, 1969, hostile loyalist crowds began to gather for a second evening running, “there was an insufficient number of men to defend the area,” says Rita. “Some women wanted to put up barricades but we were persuaded that everything would be alright by a local priest who was in contact with members of the Protestant community.”
Outside a shoe shop on Cupar Street, members of the RUC and B Specials were standing with a crowd of loyalists. “We thought the RUC were there to stop the loyalists invading the area,” says Rita. “We were wrong, they gave us no protection at all.” As fears of a loyalist incursion increased, the decision was taken to evacuate Bombay Street and a number of vulnerable streets in the surrounding area. “Crates of petrol bombs had been seen by one of my neighbours.” Residents boarded up windows and barred their front doors. “Mrs McCarthy and I were the last two in the street to leave,” says Rita.
St Paul’s parish hall was overflowing with refugees. “There were people there from Ardoyne and other areas of Belfast where Catholics were being attacked,” says Rita. Despite the noise and smell of burning, the refugees at the parish hall did not anticipate the scale of the destruction which would greet them the following morning. “A priest told everyone to go home except those families from Bombay Street,” says Rita. “We thought the house had been looted, we never imagined the whole street had been burnt to the ground. There was nothing to salvage. All we had were the clothes we stood up in.”
With four young children and expecting a fifth, Rita and her family stayed with relatives until they were allocated a caravan in Beechmount. “It was like a refugee camp,” says Rita. “We stayed there throughout the winter of ‘69. It was so cold even the toothpaste froze in the tube.” But as well as the hardship, Rita remembers a sense of community and individual acts of kindness with affection and praise.
The young men who held loyalist gangs at bay while their families saved what they could, “they were heroes,” says Rita. The Travelling community who faced loyalist violence to collect the furniture of fleeing Catholic families in their lorries, “they were great,” says Rita. And the many thousands of people who contributed time and money to rebuild Bombay Street are also remembered. “I moved back into Bombay Street on 11 July 1970,” says Rita, “and I’ve lived here ever since.”
“Bombay Street was a watershed for me and many of my generation,” says Seán Murray. “It started in Derry, but at 16 years of age it wasn’t until I saw what was happening on my own streets that it really hit me.”
When large scale riots broke out in Derry after the first civil rights march in October 1968, it seemed to one of the organisers that it was “all out of proportion” to the housing and employment issues they had been protesting about. After all, sectarian discrimination had been borne quietly by the nationalist community for decades. They had seen, as the song goes, “it through without complaining.”
In his study, ‘From Civil Rights to Armalites’, Niall O Dochartaigh identifies the actions of the RUC and B Specials as the key factor in the escalation of the conflict. “From the outset, the response of the state and its forces of law and order to Catholic mobilisation was an issue capable of arousing far more anger and activism than the issues around which mobilisation had begun,” writes O Dochartaigh. “Police behaviour and their interaction with loyalist protesters probably did more to politically mobilise large sections of the Catholic community than did any of the other grievances.”
On Tuesday 12 August 1969, an Apprentice Boys parade through Derry clashed with nationalist residents. The RUC responded by baton charging the nationalist crowd and armoured cars roared into the Bogside. In the Bogside, the RUC encountered fierce resistance from the residents, who forced the RUC into retreat armed only with bottles and stones.
August 13 and with Derry still under siege, RUC barracks in nationalist areas in Belfast were stoned in protest. On 14 August, loyalist mobs responded by burning Catholic houses in Belfast. “It was rumoured that loyalists were coming to burn down Clonard,” says Seán, “I remember a lot of people being on the streets and the priests promising to ring the chapel bell if the area came under attack.”
The loyalists didn’t attack Clonard that night but from the chapel grounds, Seán watched houses burning as loyalists attacked other parts of the district. “There were houses burnt down in Dover and Percy Street, down facing Divis Street,” says Sean, “Catholic homes in Conway and Cupar Streets were also attacked. We stood and watched in sheer disbelief.”
“One particular lorry was piled high with the belongings of a family forced to flee for their home,” says Seán. “As it was turning from the Kashmir Road into the Clonard area, a loyalist threw a petrol bomb onto the lorry and the whole thing went up in flames.”
Using Browning machine guns mounted on Shorland armoured cars, the RUC fired indiscriminately into nationalist areas. In Divis Flats, nine-year-old Patrick Rooney was killed as he sheltered in his back bedroom. Four high velocity bullets pierced two walls before striking the child in the head.
As morning broke on Friday 15 August, the scene in several nationalists areas of Belfast was one of utter devastation. Six people had been killed, more were injured. Catholic homes across the city were burning; in some districts entire streets had been destroyed and hundreds of nationalists had been force to flee their homes.
“After the Mackies men got out of work on Friday afternoon, loyalist crowds started to gather,” says Seán, “and the scene was set for further sectarian attacks that night.” Families living in Cupar Street, Bombay Street and other vulnerable areas had already left their homes. The loyalist invasion of Clonard began early Friday afternoon. The RUC refused to come into the area, they gave the loyalists a free hand.”
“We had to defend ourselves,” says Seán. “People came out and did the best they could. Gerald McAuley, a 15-year-old member of Fianna Éireann, was shot dead defending this area, others were shot, some seriously injured. Alex Robinson and Eddie Donnelly were two of several seriously wounded.”
d for many young people at the time, once the disbelief had been dispelled, a grim determination to make sure it could never happen again set in.
“We were politicised overnight,” says Seán.
“He’s not coming home,” says Nellie McAuley. “They were the words that confirmed my worst fears.” A large black and white pen portrait of her son hangs in the living room of Nellie’s terrace street home. “It was drawn by one of the prisoners in Long Kesh,” says Nellie, “and given to Gerald’s uncle. It’s a good likeness.”
Gerald McAuley was 15 years old when he was shot dead while defending the Clonard district from loyalist attack. The likeness shows all the optimism and confidence of youth. The kind of face which should have been more at home on a GAA pitch challenging his peers, than facing a pitched battle against a rampaging Orange mob.
At 7am on Friday 15 August, Nellie was in Belfast city centre where she was working as a cleaner in one of the big stores. “I was working when I heard the news that a wee boy, Patrick Rooney, had been shot dead by the RUC in Divis Flats the night before,” says Nellie.
There were no buses for the return journey home. “A young woman was standing at the bus stop in the town,” says Nellie. She was a Protestant, the girl told Nellie, and was too afraid to walk home through West Belfast. “I told her she’d be alright with me, and we linked arms and walked home together.”
Years later, the two women met again. “She remembered me and also knew that my son had been shot dead just hours after we first met,” says Nellie. She thanked Nellie for her kindness and said she had been sorry to hear Gerald had been killed. “It was ironic,” she said. “No, it was tragic,” said Nellie.
“I’d been out queuing for bread,” says Nellie, “and when I returned home there was a commotion at the house. Someone said Gerald had been shot. Another neighbour said he’d only been hit with a stone.” With an increasing sense of foreboding, Nellie began a desperate search for her son.
“I heard some of the wounded had been taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital. I pleaded with a nurse to let me search the wards.” A neighbour waiting in Casualty for his injuries to be treated confirmed that Gerald had been shot but he wasn’t at the Royal.
Back at home, news reporters had visited the McAuley’s, asking for a photograph of Gerald. “He must be dead,” Nellie told her daughter Frances. Finbar McKenna’s father took Nellie to the City Hospital. “A sister at the hospital said Gerald wasn’t there but there was a 19-year-old youth in the morgue at Musgrove Barracks,” says Nellie. “I knew it was Gerald; he was only 15 but he was big for his age.”
Returning home, the reaction of people manning a barricade at Kennedy Way added to Nellie McAuley’s fears. “They moved so quickly and quietly out of our way.” From across a road a priest called to Nellie. “Are you looking for your son?” said the priest, “He’s not coming home, go home now, he died for his faith.” Later that night Gerald’s father travelled to Musgrove to identify his son’s body.
“I didn’t know Gerald was a member of the Fianna,” says Nellie. “He was often away from home cycling and camping but I never thought anything of it. I was told later that he had been helping evacuate families, loading their furniture onto the back of a lorry.”
The McAuley family’s ordeal did not end there. Three weeks later a British army captain knocked on their front door. “He asked for my husband and told him he was wanted down the barracks to identity his son,” says Nellie. “My husband told him Gerald was dead and buried but he insisted. ‘Is it Jim?’ he asked. At the barracks the RUC roared with laughter. It was their idea of a joke, a sort of initiation stunt for the British army officer.”
“They were a few men with very few weapons but they fought bravely to defend this district,” says Patrick McParland. Patrick was a young man of 20 when he watched a handful of IRA Volunteers repel an armed loyalist mob intent on driving Catholics out of the Clonard area. “Bombay Street had already gone up in flames,” says Patrick, “but I tell you it could have been a lot worse.”
Patrick describes the attack of 15 August 1969 as “well planned” by loyalists and endorsed by the RUC. “In the early hours of Friday morning, the RUC raided a house in Kane Street, arrested two men and ‘recovered’ the only weapon in the district,” says Patrick. The RUC’s action suggests they not only knew of loyalist plans to attack the area but also colluded by disarming nationalists in advance.
At Mackies factory, the loyalist workforce held a secret meeting. “A Catholic working in the factory walked into the meeting in the tool room by chance,” says Patrick. “The room fell silent and he was questioned about what he had overheard.” When Mackies afternoon shift finished work, the workforce was strangely quiet and quick to leave the district.
“Trouble started as soon as Mackies workers were away,” says Patrick,” as if they had waited until everyone was safely home on the Shankill before turning the heat up.” The Catholic district began to be showered with hundreds, perhaps thousands of petrol bombs.
“They must have been up all Thursday night preparing that amount of petrol bombs,” says Patrick. “This was not a spontaneous riot.” The RUC had guaranteed Clonard Monastery that they would defend the area against any sectarian attack. “The RUC lied,” says Patrick. “They did nothing.”
As residents desperately tried to defend their homes, fires began to take hold in some houses under petrol bomb attack. “At Teddy Lynch’s, a loyalist threw a grenade and the whole house just went up.” says Patrick. Teddy later came back to collect his motorbike - “Motorbike? there was no bloody house!”
“Geordie McMahon took the initiative,” says Patrick. “He hijacked an articulated lorry and threw it across the bottom of the Kashmir Road.” At a gap between the back of the lorry and a wall, a loyalist gunman appeared.
“He was dressed in a black hat and black tunic and his face was covered with a hankie. He was carrying a sterling sub machine gun.” As the gunman appeared, nationalist residents at the top of the hill ran to the left. “Gerry McAuley ran to the right, he made it as far as Waterville Street, but there was a burst of fire and he fell.”
The gunman who killed the 15-year-old was a well known local loyalist whose family lived next door to a Catholic-owned bar in Cupar Street. Three other people were shot and seriously injured by loyalist gunmen in the Clonard district that day.
As Bombay Street began to burn, firemen refused to drive into the street. “I think they must have been intimidated by the loyalists,” says Patrick. “Colm Meehan drove one of the fire engines up himself. We didn’t know how to use it but it was worth a try.” The fire engine was abandoned when loyalist gunmen fired through the windscreen.
Then the IRA arrived. “A handful of men and they weren’t very well armed “ says Patrick, “but what they lacked in manpower and firepower they made up for in courage and tenacity. The men who fought that day became the founding fathers of the Provisional IRA of today.”
“A .303 rifle with eleven rounds of ammunition saved Ardoyne,” says Martin Meehan. “In August 1969, the IRA of that time left nationalists in North Belfast defenceless.” Trouble had been brewing in the north of the city for weeks. By August, as sectarian attacks on Catholic areas intensified, the steady flow of families fleeing their homes became a tidal wave of refugees.
“It was like something you would see in Kosovo,” says Martin, “wave after wave of refugees fleeing to relative safety within Ardoyne and further afield to West Belfast.” Every classroom in the local school was sheltering families with their few belongings.
In early August, the then IRA leadership decided to move any weaponry held in North Belfast into a central pool in the west of the city. “It was all done very quietly,” says Martin. “They disarmed the area, we were left defenceless and we didn’t even know. It was to cause a lot of resentment later.”
On Thursday, 14 August, the RUC and B Specials “came in very heavy”. Catholic homes and businesses were burnt along the front of the Crumlin Road. The decision was taken to use buses at a local depot to barricade the district against further attack.
“About 50 buses were used,” says Martin. “They were used to block off as many roads into the Ardoyne as possible. It was our line of defence.” That afternoon loyalists opened up with shot guns,” says Martin, “20 people were hit and Ardoyne was in turmoil.”
Martin remembers with some amusement the casualty ward in the Mater Hospital. Injured nationalists and loyalists sat within spiting distance of each other “and never a word was spoken,” says Martin.
Snipers had climbed to the top of mills overlooking Ardoyne and were firing at anyone who moved. Unarmed and under fire, a few local men later set fire to the mills as a defensive measure to deny the sniper a vantage point.
“Someone produced a .303 rifle and 11 rounds of ammunition. That rifle saved this area,” says Martin. The weapon was moved from street to street and “the roar of it gave the impression that we were well armed.”
Both loyalists and the RUC did not attempt to invade the area beyond the barricade of buses. “Catholic homes on the other side of the barricades were attacked and burnt but on this side we were able to defend the district.
“In the immediate aftermath Republicans paid a heavy price for the then leadership’s decision to take weapons out of the area. The seeds for the split which gave birth to the Provisionals were partly sown in North Belfast in ‘69.”
“My husband was murdered for being a good neighbour,” says Ann McLarnon. In the front parlour of the McLarnon family’s Ardoyne home, Ann recounts the night when as a young wife she was robbed of a gentle husband and her three small children lost a father they were too young to really know.
On the wall hangs a small snapshot of a happy couple on their wedding day, holding hands as they walk together down a terraced street. Above the television hangs a much larger framed newspaper cutting of Sammy McLarnon’s funeral cortege.
As Ann tells her story, her voice is trembling and there are tears in her eyes. If Sammy and his bride’s joy had been brief, the grief of his widow has been as long as the trailing line of grim-faced mourners carrying Sammy’s coffin along a winding road.
“We heard shooting earlier that night but I didn’t know what shooting was and when Sammy dismissed it as only blanks I was reassured,” says Ann. “Sammy wanted me and the kids to go and stay in his mother’s house but I refused.”
Ann and Sammy moved into Herbert Street shortly after they were married. By August 1969 the young couple had a two-year-old son, Sammy, a baby daughter, Ann Marie and Ann was expecting their third child, Samantha. Ann was only 20 years old, her husband just 27.
At the top of the street, a crowd of loyalists had gathered together with some members of the RUC. “A house had been set on fire,” says Ann, “and Sammy went up to help put out the flames.” Shots were fired as a few local residents tried to save the house. “Leave the fenian bastards to us,” an RUC officer had shouted to the loyalist mob.
“When Sammy came back into the house we both stood by the front window watching two fellas standing directly across the road,” says Ann. “The RUC spoke to the two men and they were moved away.” Ann went out into the kitchen.
It was only a few moments later. “As I walked back into the front room, three shots rang out,” says Ann, “Sammy fell to the ground.” Ann remembers calling her husband’s name, screaming and running for help next door.
Sammy McLarnon’s body lay where he fell for over five hours while the RUC and B Specials refused to let an ambulance through to the house. In the end, the dead man was taken away in a black taxi. Ann and her children were taken to Sammy’s mother’s house in Andersonstown. “I was in a state of shock,” says Ann. “I couldn’t think. I didn’t want to believe Sammy was dead.”
Later on the night of the killing, the RUC opened fire again on the McLarnon family’s home. The walls of the house were riddled with gunfire. It was over a month later before the RUC sent a forensic team to investigate the crime scene.
“There was only three shots fired when Sammy was killed,” says Ann. “I have no doubt that those shots were aimed. The RUC deliberately killed my husband and then covered it up. The house was riddled so that it seemed as if Sammy had been killed by a stray bullet, an accident.”