All The Dead Voices
Standing at our corner after evening Mass. Girls promenading along the road in the shortest miniskirts in the world. In their wake the faint scent of soap. And a little ache.
An August evening charged with a soft blue haze, nicely cooked by the sunny day. August evenings charged with impending doom. ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is at Number 1. Neil Armstrong has walked on the Sea of Tranquillity. Mary Jo Kopechne’s name surfaces from the bottom of a river. A Derry man called Sammy Devenney recently died of baton wounds and was given a huge funeral.
There has been some trouble in Dungiven.
We head off, Bobby and I, down the Falls to Conway Street to see Joe Doyle, otherwise secretly known as Jericho One, his call-sign on pirate radio. His elderly parents invite us into their small two-up, two-down house. Imagine if I could have told them: Mr and Mrs Doyle, Joe. In a few nights time you will flee in your pyjamas, barefoot, down this street and onto the Falls Road, as every house is burnt to the ground, as eight people are shot dead across Belfast. And a unionist newspaper, Joe, will show a photograph of your charred transmitter and say it was proof that the IRA was involved in the trouble.
They would have rolled around the living room, splitting their sides with laughter. Our Joe in the IRA! That’s a good one.
After Joe’s we head up the Shankill to see ‘Buttons’ who lives on Third Street, to see if he has an oscillator valve that I need for my transmitter. Then we walk to the loyalist Tigers Bay, to the home of Johnny Doak, another ham.
I never feel entirely comfortable during these hours in Protestant areas. One night we nervously drank tea in Johnny’s while a flute band played tunes from another century outside. Later, his daughter Eleanor arrived home in her Orange band uniform and Johnny seemed embarrassed.
Our Protestant friends and we can talk about everything under the sun but politics or religion. Not that I am that articulate, anyway, at sixteen. We operate on the Medium Wave band after midnight, talking for hours, but, in truth, there is a communications breakdown. I would love to know what they really think of Ian Paisley (what if they think he is wonderful?), or our side’s demand for civil rights (what if they think we are frauds or troublemakers rocking the boat?). What do they think of the recent outbursts of rioting – which could be nothing but could be something.
Does Johnny really love the Queen?
Johnny’s house is as humble as Joe’s. He lost an arm in a factory accident many years ago and it is no small achievement for him to have built a transmitter by his own efforts: drilling holes in an aluminium chassis, screwing down valve-holders, painstakingly rolling a tuning coil with copper wire; all that soldering. When we visit on Sunday nights the Dave Allen show is always on the television. This could be a good sign: his liking a successful Irish man from the Free State: or, ominous – Allen, after all, specialises in jokes aimed at the Catholic clergy.
Johnny really means us no offence. I say goodbye to him, not realising that I’ll never set eyes on him again.
Standing at our corner.
A moody Wednesday night, falling in love with fifteen-year-old Angela, floating on air, listening to The Beatles as we kiss in a friend’s parlour. Walking her home through that summer night’s light drizzle, gentlemanly draping her shoulders with my jacket. Gunfire at midnight. Gunfire throughout the next night. Throughout the next thirty years.
Standing behind barricades at our corner, learning to make petrol bombs, suspicious of the new British soldiers. On our side I watch the beginning of a new IRA being built which will come to be known as the Provisionals and which I will grow to defend.
In August 1969 when Johnny hears my transmitter, reincarnated as the ‘rebel’ station Radio Free Belfast, what does he think of me? Later, I recognise the carrier wave of the loyalist Radio Shankill as coming from Johnny’s transmitter, and understand that all is fair in love and war – and both can be very sad affairs.
At our corner, Bobby’s mother coming from Bingo would be killed in a hit-and-run incident by joy riders representing a lawlessness we could never have envisaged.
From our street corner on the Falls Road on a hot August afternoon an IRA sniper would take the life of twenty-four-year-old Kingsman Leonard Layfield as he crossed Beechmount Avenue on the last day of his regiment’s tour. His ghost and that of all the other friends and foes still to be seen wandering through the soft blue haze on evenings such as this…