When I was eight years old my parents decided that after ten years on the dole enough was enough and we were moving from Liverpool to Belfast. There had been no work around here for years, and fed up of scraping by with five kids they moved us all over there in search of a living.
I’m not sure when my dad became religious or decided he wanted to be a preacher, I only know that as far back as I can remember that’s what he was. A lay preacher, in a different church every Sunday, but he had been many things. A postman, a soldier, door to door salesman. Like a lot of working class men my dad had done whatever was necessary to get a decent wage for his family. Being a lay preacher paid less than the minimum wage, and often paid nothing at all.
He was always busy. If he wasn’t out he was writing, or reading things back over and over. Or studying, or lecturing. Or screaming and punching holes in walls. Always something. We would pray on our way home from school that he would be out when we got in. Sometimes he was and we would relax and play. Sometimes he wasn’t, and we would hide upstairs in our rooms until he inevitably screamed for one of us to come and get some job done. He was a scary man, with a heavy hand and a bad temper. It was best to stay out of the way.
When first we heard we were moving we were so excited we told anyone who would listen. “We’re moving to Ireland!” We would exclaim, eyes shining, huge grins. Our dad a baptist minister, you would have thought we would have known that the part of the country we were moving to was by no means ‘Ireland’ as far as the locals were concerned. Our naïveté did us no favours once we arrived. If only we had known the bleak years that waited for us there.
We got on the boat with a truck full of our lives and we left. I was looking forward to a change, it seemed like the adventure of a lifetime. I was convinced life would be different. We had always been broke. There were seven of us and my dad already had at least two kids to somebody else. I thought maybe in Ireland we might be a bit better off. Or at least that nobody would mind if we weren’t. What I learned was that poor was only going to be half of the issue.
Tullycarnet was the estate we were moving into. We laughed at the name as we drove there, what a silly sounding place! A couple of years of living there proved it was anything but silly. We passed our new school and drove up a steep hill onto the estate. Every pair of eyes followed us to our door, and as we unloaded the van kids in the street gathered around to see who we were and where we’d come from.
There was a house on fire on the next main road over, I could smell it. A man had been dragged out, his possessions thrown through the windows into the street where they were burned in a pile in the road. This was our first look at our new justice system. They had found pictures of kids in swimwear in his house, and this was how nonces were dealt with. They burned every scrap of his life. I never saw him, I don’t know what happened to him. Later we found out they had just been holiday snaps of his own kids.
As we unloaded the van a man approached the driveway looking for my Dad. “Hello,” he said with an outstretched hand, “my name is so and so and I look after things around here, give me a shout if you have any trouble.” My dad looked a bit relieved. “Thanks, my names…” but the man cut him off. “Don’t worry Ray. We know you and your wife Anita and why you’re here and all. No problem.” My dad didn’t sleep for two weeks.
The van unloaded we went out to play and explore our new home. My little sister had a Belfast accent within hours. She was only six but she knew the game straight away. Id say of all of us she had the least trouble fitting in. The kids were more or less like the kids at home, except these kids were clad in Nike and Adidas while we all had Ethel Austens and four stripe trainers. My dad used to say the kids were all dressed off the backs off lorries, but I’d no idea what that meant at the time. The fellas who ran the area always seemed to be on hand when there was some sort of cargo accident though, as there was always fresh new gear going cheap. My mum would never let us have any.
Wether it was because they thought it immoral or wether they just didn’t feel like they fit into the well established order of things I don’t know. What I do know is once my mum bought me a bright blue fake diesel hoody, and I felt like the richest 12 year old girl alive.
The kids in the street were relentless. We weren’t Catholics, but we were English. We talked funny and dressed badly and we didn’t fit into their system so we had to go. One incident in particular that sticks out was trying to tell my teacher the kids were making fun of me, but she couldn’t understand my accent. I hid in the toilet the rest of the day. We moved house three times in as many years before settling on another loyalist estate closer to town.
The kids there weren’t much friendlier, but at least they weren’t putting fireworks through the letterbox anymore or terrorising our poor dog into a frenzy. The bullied me in particular relentlessly. It got so bad that my dad had to go and visit the guy who ran the estate and tell him about it. I’ve no idea what was said or done but they didn’t look at me again until I left. Of course it had been four years by then so it was a bit too little too late.
We weren’t Irish, we weren’t Northern Irish. That’s where most young kids understanding of the world ends in Belfast. Scouse was a whole nother planet to them, and although we were all working class and had the same struggles and challenges, the kids there were just incapable of seeing past the prejudice that had been engrained in them. We were different. That was enough to be shut out. And we were.
Even in High School, if anything things got worse. We were weird, different, didn’t belong. It was much worse there actually, because this was a grammar school for children who had gotten an A in their 11+, or who’s parents had donated to the school. As you can imagine, most of my classmates were either very clever or well off, and usually both. It was made very clear to me very quickly that I did not belong with them. Even the teacher could not stand me. She used to sniff at my grey hand me down shirts and £5 school shoes. Bitch.
I had a little grace period when I joined the gang that collected for the bonfire one year. At hundreds of feet high, the collecting would start around February and go on until July. We would rob lumber yards and construction sites and sit on our patch all night guarding our loot from rival estates. The best bit was building huts from the rubble.
We were all sat round in that hut one day, I was the only girl. Having a sheltered home life made me very shy and wary of any sort of attention from boys, but I liked climbing and breaking into places and running away so I kept turning up. This particular day there was a kid there called Daniel. He was well known on the estate and had Down Syndrome. The rest of the kids called him over and told him I wanted a kiss. I was sitting down when he came over smiling, and he loomed over me. I was very conscious of the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing, and I didn’t want to hurt him, but I was terrified. He was very strong. I don’t know how I got out of there, I just remember running home and not going back. A week later the same kids caught me and tied me to a roundabout spinning it until I threw up. Then they left me there for a dog walker to find.
It was only when I first met republican kids at the age of 15 that I felt I was making real friends, and also realised how different their lives were from ours. Their community was much more class conscious and accepting of us, of anyone really. We used to run about in a huge gang, half from one side and half from the other. We would walk up one road singing the Fields of Athenry and down the other singing The Sash. We didn’t care what they meant. It was what we had in common that made us friends, despite the differences.
We hung about together for a whole summer. I smoked my first spliff, stayed out late nearly every night, made friends and memories. It was the best of my time in Northern Ireland up to then. I was happy, it felt like the tension of having to explain myself to everyone I met was easing. I trusted these kids, I wasn’t waiting for the previously inevitable attack when I turned my back.
We never caused any trouble. Just hung about in fields and on the edges of scrubland, smoking weed and drinking. Once we got chased out of a UDA graveyard by the men with woolly faces, but more fool us really. We knew they weren’t trying to catch us anyway.
Towards the end of the summer we all got visits or letters from our various community leaders. We were advised that whilst they personally didn’t have a problem with us being friends, we had to accept the immediate politics of the area and realise that our families and communities would eventually be drawn into this. There had been no problems so far, but we were advised they would come as they always did. We were told to stop being friends. I never saw any of them again.