07 May 2005

Daily Ireland

No duck squads walking in a Gerry wonderland

I remember a time when the walls of West Belfast were covered with SSRUC, UTP and FTQ, which I have confidence in your ability to decipher for yourself.
Nowadays, it’s UTH and FTRA, which is a telling reflection both of the number of hoods in my part of the world and those fine gentlemen’s attitude toward the Aughnacloys. Clearly, though, not all youngsters are estranged from the republican movement.
I was walking home from St Oliver Plunkett Primary School after having exercised my franchise on Thursday evening when I happened upon a group of some 15 or 20 youths at the entrance to the Glencolin Estate.
They were carrying big Gerry Adams election posters which they had liberated from the lampposts and their attention was focused on two PSNI Land Rovers which were crawling along the Glen Road. As they walked alongside the vehicles they burst into song...

“There’s only one Gerry Adams
There’s only one Gerry Adams
He’s got too much hair
But we don’t care
Walking in a Gerry wonderland”

At that they loosed a volley of bricks and stones at the Land Rovers which roared off towards Woodbourne Barracks, leaving the boys waving their Gerry Adams placards triumphantly above their heads. From the lampposts above their heads, Alex Attwood looked down disapprovingly. Me? I smiled and decided to stop off at the Roddy McCorley’s for a couple.

At the bar we agreed that it wasn’t as much craic voting now that there are no Trevors with automatic machine guns surrounding the building. Half the fun was waving your Irish passport in the air and whistling The Broad Black Brimmer while the forces of law and order gritted their teeth and longingly fingered their safety catches. And, of course, you never placed your X in the booth, you did it with a flourish in front of the Stoops and the Sticks as soon as the elderly woman in the blue rinse handed you your paper. Ah, happy days.

I was left bereft in the early 70s when the Brits took the school over. At that time Oliver Plunkett was merely Blessed, but regardless of what title the Catholic Church had bestowed on him, the place was turned into a fortress overnight and the hedge school returned to Ireland. Sadly, I was to be back in my primary school rather sooner than I had imagined.
I’m going to plead the fifth about exactly what I was up to on the Glen Road outside the school that fateful day when the snatch squads got smart. Let’s just say that I was to the rear of a very fast-moving group which was being hotly and vainly pursued by some 20 King’s Own Scottish Borderers in full riot gear. Suddenly, to my left, a small group of lightly dressed Kosbies wielding huge batons emerged from a hedge and I was undone.
Down the school driveway I was frogmarched, bottom lip trembling, fat, salty tears welling up in my eyes. Past the sandbags and parked Saracens we went and into the assembly hall.
Where once we had recited decades of the rosary and played Chinese football, scores of heavily tattooed young men in green t-shirts were gathered around our dinner tables reading dirty books and smoking like laboratory beagles.
They looked up as I trudged by, grateful for a break from the tedium. But they didn’t snarl or spit, they grinned widely and some of them even whooped and cheered.
At the bottom end of the hall my captors found an empty table and plonked me down on it. Now it begins, I thought – the electric wires on the testicles, the blackjack to the back of the neck, the lighted matches down the fingernails. As I awaited my fate, I gazed through reddened eyes at the houses beyond the playground and wished I’d stayed at home and watched Scooby-Doo.
When he returned a few moments later, the tall black soldier who’d captured me didn’t have a pair of pliers or a cosh; instead, he held in his hands a tin of Fanta and a Wagon Wheel which he placed in front of me and invited me to take with a nod of his head.
For some 20 minutes I sat alone, slowly eating and drinking while all manner of thoughts raced through my mind: What are my ma and da going to say when word gets back? Am I due a few months in St Pat’s Home? Could this be the end of my altar boy days? And is this enough to get me membership of the Felons?
The big black guy appeared again and motioned me to follow him. We retraced our steps and at the Glen Road he pulled the gate open and told me to go home. I ambled off, relieved and confused. At the bus terminus my yahoo mates let out a cheer when I came round the corner.
They gathered round and I regaled them with tales of my ordeal in the belly of the beast. But somehow, I completely forgot to tell them about the Fanta and the Wagon Wheel.

By the time the Brits moved out I was at the big school, but on summer nights we would climb the gate to play handball against the huge gable wall and, on Mondays, peek through the heavy curtains at the Charismatics who met there once a week.
It was odd to watch your neighbours speaking in tongues and then suddenly falling down, but it all made much more sense when we discovered lager at around the age of 16.
I was back in the assembly hall last year, invited there as an ‘old-boy-made-good’ to present some end-of-term awards.
I stood at the back of the hall waiting to be called up and as the priests and teachers spoke I was struck by how small the hall seemed now, filled with five to eleven-year-olds, and how huge it had seemed back then when it had been filled with squaddies. And it struck me what a marvellous thing it was that none of the children had ever seen a British soldier in Lenadoon, much less be rugby-tackled by one.

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