For five years, I have been a reluctant resident of a Northern Irish town having made the ultimate sacrifice as a drifter by settling down in the birthplace of my fella. Since shoving his clothes over the far side of the wardrobe rail to make way for mine, I have endured a trying-to-like/hate relationship with it. Hating it for seeming to forever occupy the stereotypical midland mindset within the North; trying to like it for not pretending to be somewhere it’s not, the likelihood of it remaining my permanent home, and the local folk whom I have grown immensely fond.
My Husband was reared on the curve of a side street on the periphery of the commercial heart of the town during the late ’70s and ’80s. He was largely shielded from The Troubles by regular trips to his Granny’s in the countryside, teenage indifference, the shrill soundtrack of a clatter of sisters, and corresponding hypnosis from dreaming of playing professional football in another country. So he’s not a very reliable narrator of local history.
In my job, I work alongside folk he half-knows that he half-thinks lost family or served time. Some of these individuals are currently engaged in community efforts to have a pedestrian underpass on the far side of town closed up. It has become a magnet for young people who have few places to go except through a short cut towards risky behaviours a shadowy underpass allows. They will likely be displaced to somewhere new once the project is complete. Moving the problem along rather than dealing with it head-on. An Irish response to a Northern Irish problem.
Amidst the hand-wringing discussions, I have barely been able to snatch an insight to the site’s history. The odd throw-away comment and knowing laughs from a few of its now balding graduates was enough to suggest there is more to this underpass than discarded beer cans, abandoned young people, and foul smells. Enquiries are met with scarcely more than tight-lipped stares into the middle distance, and a nod to it being in the past. As if the past is a viewable monument just out of sight.
So earlier today, I Googled a locally revered surname and my eyes fell on another that leapt out from the search. Guardian writer, and local native, Sean O’Hagan, took the reader on a walk through his old neighbourhood in an article from 2002. “…Below it [the school] is a place known locally as ‘the tunnel’, where a pedestrian underpass runs beneath the road. Thirty years ago, the tunnel was the epicentre of most of the rioting locally at the beginning of what came to be known as the Troubles.”
He reminisced about his own tenure in the underpass. “I spent many a Saturday in the early 70s at the tunnel, throwing stones and bottles at the RUC and British Army patrols that regularly skirted the housing estates, playing cat-and-mouse with the snatch squads who hit the ground running from the backs of Saracens and Land Rovers. (Surreally, everyone would go home for dinner at one o’clock – no one called it lunch in Northern Ireland – and regroup at two, to start the ritual all over again.)”
The Tunnel’s silenced history kept tumbling out. “The tunnel is where I helped hijack a coal truck, and watched enthralled as older lads set it on fire with petrol bombs. It is where a lorry carrying Dr Martens boots was commandeered, making us probably the best-shod rioters in the long, volatile history of Northern Irish insurrection. It is where I first tasted the blinding, gagging sting of CS gas, and where I was hit on the elbow – right on the funny bone – by a rubber bullet. It is, in short, where I had a lot of wild fun as a regular teenager in an irregular time. It is a place loaded with good memories.”
And inevitably, with some very bad ones. In the weeks following Bloody Sunday in January 1972, trouble in The Tunnel, as elsewhere, intensified. “What once had been fun was suddenly fraught with very real danger. Like most of my friends, though, I was addicted to that danger. That same week, on the morning of Saturday 5 February, a bread van belonging to Irvine’s bakery was hijacked at the tunnel. On the way back from town with her shopping, my mother bumped into the distraught bread man. A lorry carrying bales of hay was also attacked. It sped through the crowd, flames leaping high into the air.”
“In the housing estate where I lived, a small family drama was simultaneously under way. My younger cousin, Dessie, who lived on the other side of town, had been drawn into the area by rumours of blazing lorries and bread vans. (He has since, incidentally, become a fireman.) In the afternoon, my father, sensing that more trouble was imminent, instructed me and my brother to remain in and around our house, while he set off to take my cousin out of the estates and into the relative safety of the town centre. Within minutes, they had literally walked into trouble.”
“On the ring road, a small gang of youths, impatient for an afternoon riot, had broken away from the crowd gathered at the tunnel area and headed for the turn-off [to the local church]. There, they attempted to hijack an Ulsterbus carrying passengers to a nearby town. In the confusion that followed, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a smashed window. It exploded in the lap of a woman passenger.”
“My father and my cousin saw the crowd, mainly young teenagers, force the bus down on to the slip road; saw someone heave a large pole thought the front window; saw flames leap up inside the bus and frightened passengers leap from the emergency door. Alongside two other local men, my father boarded the smoke-filled bus and helped the driver carry the injured woman off. They waved down a passing car which took her to the city hospital. In the hazy, frantic moments between running on to the burning bus and laying the woman – unconscious, her hair razed, her dress and nylons melted into her skin – gently down on the roadside, the crowd evaporated. For years afterwards, my father would wake in the night, convinced he could smell burning nylon and flesh.”
The woman survived for seven weeks and two days before she died. She was 38 years of age and a cherished housekeeper for a prominent Protestant family in the town. The 323rd victim of the Conflict.
Haunted by these events, O’Hagan made a visit to the woman’s family home thirty years later. He was greeted by her sister who talked about that day as it unfolded and her sister’s employer coming to the house to break the news of the incident.
Flicking through old photographs, he noted many of those teenagers he rioted with, kicked a ball about with, sat next to in school… are all gone. All young victims of the Conflict. Included in this group is the man with the surname I Googled. I no longer half-know the facts.
Pausing on the ring-road that leads to the Tunnel, O’Hagan remarked that “Everything has changed in the interim, but everything looks just the same. A photographer is trying to capture the sweep of the road and, in the foreground, a lamppost painted green, white and orange. As if on cue, an Ulsterbus trundles by. My head is flooded with memories; vague images from another time, not that long ago, that now seems unreal, almost unfathomable.”
Twelve years on from the writer’s pilgrimage home, and his tour of the town’s soul, it all still looks the same. That generation of disenchanted teenagers has been replaced twice over. But some things have changed. The widow of the murdered woman’s employer, who made the journey to her family to break the news, is now a prominent local Unionist politician. The brother of one of the teenagers in O’Hagan’s grainy photo, shot down in his prime by security forces, is a community activist in his Nationalist community. Today they sit alongside one another on the working group to close the Tunnel.
And in learning the sad legacy of its history, I feel a little less hard-hearted towards the place I’ve come to call home.