December 1st

Interviewed by Joe Austin on Feile FM – the festival radio station which continues to survive against all odds and funding cutbacks. You can hear the station on:

Joe asked me to pick three pieces of music and to tell stories about them. Can’t remember in which order I picked and commented on them. One was John Barry’s theme to ‘Midnight Cowboy’ [one of my favourite books and films], though everyone’s favourite, and mine, is ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson. In jail I was reading the ‘Guardian’ only to discover that the author of ‘Midnight Cowboy’, James Leo Herlihy, had, at the age of 66, checked into a hotel and committed suicide by overdose. Now what was going through his mind?

Another piece of music was ‘The Gadfly Suite’ by Shostakovich [who wrote the score for the 1955 Russian film adaptation. I wrote a feature on ‘The Gadfly which is available here: ]. My third song, for personal reasons, and with great memories of dancing with a loved one after midnight, was ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’ by the Traveling Wilburys. There is a line in that song which goes: “And the walls came down/All the way to hell/Never saw them when they’re standing/Never saw them when they fell.”

When I was writing a book I wanted to use the title ‘And The Walls Came Down’ and met in London a Dub, Frank Murray, the former manager of the Pogues and owner of the pub Filthy McNasty’s, who gave me great advice on copyright. Of the Traveling Wilburys Roy Orbison was dead, though George Harrison, who was to die of cancer and whom of all the Beatles, I would love to have met, was still alive. I wrote to their managements and it was a convoluted nightmare. To get around the legalities I changed the name of the book to ‘Then The Walls Came Down’. It has been reprinted twice but I think it is I who has the last 100 copies!

Twenty people – okay, eighteen! – showed up in the Falls Library, organised by Anne Maxwell, for my reading from work-in-progress novel, ‘Rudi’. Feedback is more important than numbers. I once did a reading in front of three people in Germany and Conal Creedon who did Scribes at the Rock last August tells a story where only one old boy shows up at one of his readings, then falls asleep during it! If you are in Ireland or Britain you can see him telling this story [on the internet for one week only!] on

Two friends objected to one of the main female characters, who is from a County Down Protestant family in the 1940s, being called Francesca. They said Francesca was a Catholic name. I realised that I was trying to remain a little bit too faithful to Hesse’s ‘Knulp’ upon which ‘Rudi’ is based. My wife Leslie has suggested the name Isabel. So, I have substituted Isabel for the name Francesca even though I believe it sounds less euphonious.

December 2nd: Feile an Phobail management meeting.

Interviewed by Marissa McGlinchey, who is into her third year of hr PhD titled, “The Changing dynamics of Northern Nationalism – Post Agreement.”

December 3rd:  Meet in Culturlann with Stephen Todd to discuss [and to promote] the website he is organising, Shared Troubles, which should be available from 17th December. See story at: One of the stories he later sent me is about a British army sniper in Derry and is very interesting. Hope he doesn’t mind me putting it up but here it is:


It was on a late hot afternoon in August 1973. I had been tasked the previous evening from my unit at Ballykinler to report to the Royal Fusiliers in the area of the city wall above the Bogside in Derry.

I arrived about 4pm and reported to the Royal Fusiliers and started to set up a sniper hide on the ramparts of the wall. Sniper hides are difficult in an urban situation, so concealment from fire was the best we could achieve, and sooner or later we would be seen. To solve this problem we moved our position from time to time along the wall.

The City wall area had a brick building behind it called the ‘Masonic’ This building housed the platoon of  Fusiliers, a jolly lot who were quite fed up of bricks being hit out of the wall by rifle fire and showering down on them within and outside the building. The soldiers were particularly annoyed because their dining hall was inside on the upper floor where most bullets struck and they constantly got brick chunks in their food. They had been receiving the aimed rifle fire for some days previously. My task was to: ‘Observe the situation, locate the sniper and return fire for effect’.

I positioned myself and my fellow sniper, Pte Swannick on the city wall. The wall was a high stone structure with a drop of about forty feet down onto a sloping grass bank. The bank sloped right down to the Bogside Inn, which was situated 200 metres below us on the part of the main residential area of the Bogside facing our position.

We chose a sniper hide on the wall near to the Walker Memorial. The memorial had been destroyed by explosion some time recently. The top of the wall was castellated along its whole length. Behind the top of the wall were ramparts that allowed walking along its safe side. The height from the rampart floor to the top of the wall on our side was about four feet, which allowed ample movement. Camouflage nets were draped over the wall. Observation was achieved through the gaps in the castellation, using the camouflage nets for cover and relying on ‘trapped shadow’ behind, to prevent silhouette. In all it was a comfortable task with complete freedom of movement. The Fusiliers behind us meant we had no local security problem; a cushy number, we could even brew tea.

We set up and prepared our ‘optics’ loaded and sat and observed and waited. We positioned ourselves about 10 metres apart. Swannick was an excellent rifle shot. He was renowned for his shooting skill in the Regiment. He was a quiet Monmouthshire man and as steady as they come. I loved to watch him fire on the range, especially at longer ranges. It was as if the rifle grew out of his shoulder, there was no visible bodily movement as the shot was discharged.

A large element of urban sniping is to get to know the pattern of life in front of you. Who lives where; who comes and goes at certain times; who works where, and at what time they leave for work and return home again. The milkman; the postman, people coming and going. It all makes a big picture. An important facture was to watch the reaction of certain people, male and female to the approach of army foot patrols. Some ignored them. Some hid behind walls and corners, some turned and ran. Others would throw a rock over a house at the patrol, believing that they were unseen in the act.

I was not convinced that the sniping, as was firmly believed, was from the Bogside Inn. It couldn’t be. There was no cover, no covered escape route and certainly no unobserved firing positions there. Also it was too public and wide open. I liked the wiry Irish and they were too clever to use that place. For planning yes, but not for the action!

About six pm that second evening two shots came at us from a great distance away and went some feet overhead. The shots came from the area of the edge of The Creggan, about 600 metres away or perhaps from Cable Street. The ‘crack and thump’ give us that indication of distance.  It was the IRA testing a rifle perhaps?   ‘Why waste rounds when there are Brits about!’

Later at about 7pm I was using my rifle telescope and moving my observation from window to window, searching the lower and upper windows of the houses and flats in front of us.  The Bogside had gone quite, which was unusual for a summer evening. I saw some faces looking from different windows and looking in our direction. I saw in two houses that the occupants were using binoculars. I moved to another castellation on the wall and continued my scan of the area. Something sinister was being planned in front of us.

Some minutes later I saw a young girl, walking hurriedly towards a block of flats to my front. It was a hot night and she was wearing a heavy thick check long coat. She walked awkwardly and in my opinion she was carrying a rifle. Her right arm was locked in carry position in her coat, after some steps she would adjust her carriage of the rifle. She was of small physique and whatever she carried, it was heavy for her.  She ran the last few steps to the flats, opened the swing doors and went inside. In all this time I was discussing with Swannick and that I would do the shooting while he observed in case this was a ‘set-up’ for someone bigger about.

The girl and two youths appeared in an open window of a living room on the second floor, distance was about 200 metres. The two skinny youths were quite young and would have had little experience of what they were up to otherwise.  I would not be on to them.

The three disappeared from view. I went with my telescopic sight from window to window on the same level. All eight or so windows were open, most with curtains which were closed or partially open. Once I saw the girl come forward in a window. She was standing alone and looking directly up at our position, she was without her coat. She turned her head as if speaking to someone.  I thought that they were probably waiting for a target.

Suddenly a high velocity shot rang out and hit our position. A near miss! I did not see which window it came from.  I kept my rifle on the flats and waited, my sights moving from window to window. I thought there would certainly be a second shot.

Then I saw the girl appear at the entrance door on the lower floor. She had her coat on again and obviously carrying the rifle. She stood for some seconds and looked directly up at our location. I placed the pointer of my rifle telescope scope right on her breast, just below her throat. I saw a young face with dark hair, a slight girl, a pretty face. I took the first pressure on the trigger and stalled as she looked up towards me. She was like a hunted animal, her head moving sharply in several directions! 

Suddenly she started to run to her right towards the Bogside Inn and then away from me in a straight line.  I placed the rifle telescope on her back and took the first pressure again, an easy target; …I couldn’t do it!

 As she ran I fired two shots, the first a deliberate shot aimed one metre to her left and the second shot a deliberate one metre to her right. The noise of incoming rounds of high velocity so near must have been horrific to her.

I saw her run behind a wall about three hundred metres away. She must have been in a state of shock. A young lieutenant of the Fusiliers talked a foot patrol onto her position by radio. She was found and taken into the base, where I believe she was charged with the offence of carrying arms.

For my part, I felt that I had failed as a soldier in my duty.  At first I was sorry that I had let her go to carry arms again. I cared little about my reputation as a sniper. I cared more that I felt it was not an entirely military target; a young teenage girl perhaps not yet seventeen.

For missing the target, I was called to account by my commanding officer, as a father of two young girls I took it on the chin and made no reply as his ravings went on for some minutes. There followed a long silence, both of us standing face to face in his office. His six foot figure towered over me. He kept repeating, ‘you missed!’ you missed!’ I made no reply, as he glared at me.  I felt he was trying to decipher what I was thinking. Then after another pause he quietly said.  ‘Go back to your company and polish up your bloody sniper skills.’

 As time went on I became glad I’d let her go. Some months later when Pte Swannick was killed at Ballykinler and later more of my friends killed in the county of Armagh, I thought deeply about the incident and regretted my actions.  Now over thirty years later and in different times and with a welcome peace in Ireland, I am truly quite happy with my choice of action. It was a moral issue not a military one. Only the man on the spot has the right to make such choices.

The young girl came from Ivy Terrace in the Bogside. If she reads this narrative or another of her contemporaries reads it, then I am sure she will know exactly who she is!   I hope now that the girl is a happy mother of children. I often wonder if she thinks of that August afternoon in 1973 and does she ever realise that my bad shooting was completely intentional; having seen her face and small feminine figure magnified to three times magnification…I just could not do it!


Speaking at, and awarding certificates to, the creative writers organised by Patricia Gormley, at Tearmann Fold, Andersonstown. Amazing turn-out: I would say 120 people on a frosty night. Patricia was in a creative writing class I organised about eight or nine years ago in Conway Mill and she took part in Feile’s first Scribes At The Rock. I always remember the smile of revisionist historian Professor John A Murphy at her reading when you felt that he knew that much of the stuff that he had been writing about us was a nonsense. Patricia and those associated with the Fold had written a play which was performed in August as part of Feile an Phobail. I only got to see it a month ago and wrote a letter in support of the play to the ‘Andersonstown News’. This is the letter:

A chara,

As chair of Feile an Phobail it is impossible for me and most of the Feile team to see all of the events that feature throughout the year, particularly in the August festival.

However, last Saturday night I had the opportunity of seeing Patricia Gormley’s hilarious two-act play, ‘The Bus Run’, in Conway Mill, which had its premiere at the same venue during the hectic week that is feile.

The play was written by Patricia, a creative writer, who has an acute ear for the idioms of this community forged over decades, and which distinguish the life of our people from that depicted on RTE soaps or ‘East Enders’ or ‘Coronation Street’. To her credit, Patricia’s inspiration is home-grown and came from the pensioners at Tearmann Fold on the Andersonstown Road.

And what a raucous, disreputable bunch of retired West Belfastians they must represent! Not only did their observations and philosophies on life help write the play but some of them take to the stage like natural [albeit thwarted!] Joan Crawfords, Betty Grables, Barbara Stanwycks!

We have a lot to learn about love, friendship, comradeship, sons and daughters, snobbery, pretension, constipation, aspiration and the exchange rate between the Euro and Sterling from this original, genuine and humane work of art!

Let’s hope it goes on another bus run at a venue near you!

Danny Morrison,

Chair, Feile an Phobail


Interviewed by a Croydon newspaper re the outing of Maria Maguire as Maria Gartland, Tory councillor, who wrote an allegedly kiss-and-tell book about the IRA, Dáithí Ó Conaill, and an arms smuggling attempt which I read in Long Kesh in 1973 at the age of twenty without a clue and which did not diminish my comrades and I one iota. I was asked was she in danger of being assassinated and I laughed and said I didn’t think so. Okay, she probably did a deal and was debriefed by MI5 when she retreated to England, but there was no way could she compromise the souls of the activists, or stop the momentum of struggle. I said to the journalist, who was a kid, that you could hardly put Maguire on the same plane as Sean O’Callaghan.

“Sean, who?” he said. And I thought, yes, that indeed sums up the life and times of Mister O’C.

December 8th: Interviewed by a Sri Lankan student, Dinesh D. Dodamgoda, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Dinesh was a Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka and a journalist. His research topic is: “Legitimation and Legitimation: Insurgents: the use of media and the media coverage of insurgencies.”

Always on this date I think of Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett who were executed by firing squad on 8 December 1922. Gerry Adams introduced me to the writings of Liam Mellows many, many years ago. In one of the biographies I discovered that Mellows was born in a barracks in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Manchester, a derelict place which I walked by several times in August 1972 when I was courting Sandra, who became my first wife.

December 9th: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness launches Fr Joe McVeigh’s book. I asked him about the story on Shared Troubles, the one about the British soldier in Derry who spares the life of a young IRA activist moving a rifle after an attack, and he says that he doesn’t think that anyone from Ivy Terrace was arrested and charged in 1973 with possession of a weapon but that he would ask.