Wrote a feature about the hunger strike which appears in today’s print edition of An Phoblacht. I called it The Night of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and its relevance becomes clear. Here it is.
Sometimes the bell didn’t work so you banged on the door. If he didn’t know you, Stoker Cosgrove would shout, “Who is it?” But he had known me since I was a 10-year-old and knocked about with his son Tommy and Tommy’s older sister, Nora, who had been a bit of a tomboy. The Pigeon Club, where Stoker did security, also happened to be my Da’s watering hole after he finished the night shift at Telephone House.
Next door to the club at one time had been Iveagh Elementary School, attended by Protestant children, some who came from around the side streets off the Falls, but most from down Broadway where Broadway became part of the loyalist ‘Village’ area. The headmaster and staff got on well with the locals, and relations had always been good, even after August 1969 when thousands of Catholics had been burnt out of their homes. In response to our desperate attempts for protection (and before the IRA reorganised) the British army billeted in the school and we welcomed them, brought them cigarettes and made them tea.
It was Stoker who had said, “You’ll rue the day you made them sandwiches.” His statement struck me at the time – which is why I recall it with such clarity.
On Thursday, 4th September, 1969, a loyalist mob, whipped up by Ian Paisley, marched up Broadway. It was after midnight and they were mostly drunk, having looted Roddy’s Bar. They came up to remove our barricade, claiming that their kids couldn’t get to school – a claim repudiated by the headmaster and the Rev Ray Hill, minister of Broadway Presbyterian Church on the Falls Road. We had built an access for pedestrians, though one that could easily be closed down if there was an attack.
We rushed out to defend our homes only to be met by the British army who turned on us with fixed bayonets on their rifles and forced us back whilst a motorist was badly beaten by the mob. One of our neighbours actually joined with the soldiers in trying to push us back, arguing that we should trust the army to deal with the situation. He pushed young Tommy Cosgrove once too often and it ended in a punch-up. That neighbour ended up in the SDLP, Tommy in the IRA.
During the commotion 57-year-old Jimmy Dempsey, a father of four, who lived seven doors below me, dropped dead and an ambulance couldn’t get into the area.
It wasn’t until a lone gunman took up position at a fence in Iveagh Crescent and fired shots over the heads of the loyalists that they retreated.
Stoker had been right. Rather than tackle the loyalists the Brits had turned on us. The same was to happen a few weeks later when in full view of the Brits and the RUC, loyalists burned down Catholic homes in Coates Street, behind Hastings Street Barracks.
I banged on the door of the club and Stoker opened it and said, “Your Da and Mrs Morrison are over in the corner,” which always struck me as being funny. He didn’t want to say “your Ma” but it sounded as if my Da was out with another woman!
1980 had been a tough year. I had spent much of it visiting prisoners in Armagh and the H-Blocks, mostly Mairead Farrell and Bobby Sands, in the build-up to the hunger strike. Now, the hunger strike was over but instead of taking the opportunity to resolve the crisis (which is what the Catholic hierarchy and the SDLP, amongst others, claimed would happen if only the prisoners ended the fast) the Brits were arrogantly pressing home a presumed advantage to defeat the resolve of the protesting prisoners. A second hunger strike was inevitable.
It was the last day, the last hours of 1980, and my wife and I decided to see in the New Year with my parents. It was a while before I relaxed. The club was packed, noisy and dense with smoke. Someone requested a particular song and the two musicians nodded to each other and played a cover version of Johnny McEvoy’s 1967 hit, ‘Nora’. It was quite ironic – as things turned out.
The song has an interesting history. It was first a poem, written in 1864 by a Canadian schoolteacher to his wife and was titled, ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’, and is about a couple in old age reflecting back on time. But in actual fact the teacher George Johnson’s wife died just months after they were married and the words were adapted as lyrics in a song popularised from 1866. ‘Maggie’ became ‘Nora’ when the romantic ballad appeared in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’.
At midnight the musicians played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and we got up and linked and sang heartily and to my right I discovered that I was linked with Nora – for whom the song, I realised, had been dedicated – and for a guilty while I was able to forget that eight miles away three hundred men were lying in the H-Blocks still on the blanket, and for some a clock was ticking.
Nora was now no longer a tomboy but a married woman with three young children. That night none of us could imagine what was to unfold.
Just after 5am on Wednesday 8th July, we received news that the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, had died. I went to the Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road to deal with the media. The eight o’clock news was on the radio when a dull shot rang out. It was nothing unusual and shootings had become fairly routine phenomena around this time. ‘Bingo’ Campbell, who ran messages for us, shouted up the stairs: “They’ve shot somebody in Linden Street!”
I ran out to see what was happening and found a small crowd around a body lying on the ground, encircled by a much larger crowd of both dumbfounded and angry people.
“The fucking cops just opened fire for nothing!” I was told. It was clear from the scene – and later proved by a Canadian camera crew – that there had been no rioting in the area. The victim had been shot in the head and her face was swollen and certainly wasn’t recognisable to me. An ambulance came and I went back to the Sinn Féin office to resume work.
Only later in the day did I learn that it had been Nora. She had got up that morning and found that she was without cigarettes. She left the house for just a minute to go to the corner shop. RUC Chief Superintendent Jimmy Crutchley had been driving past her corner as the front seat passenger in a jeep and he ordered another officer to fire. The jeep had to make a deliberately sharp right turn to enable fire. Nora died the following day from a skull fracture and brain injuries inflicted by the plastic bullet. Crutchley was later promoted to Assistant Chief Constable of the RUC.
At the time of Nora’s death her brother Tommy was on the blanket, his third time in jail – twice interned, now sentenced. Another blanket man at that time, and one familiar to many people throughout Ireland, was Seando Moore, who died last June and who, had he been alive, would have been on the road this year taking the hunger strike exhibition around Ireland, such was his devotion to his fallen comrades.
Seando had married Patricia McCabe whose brother Jim was Nora’s husband.
After Nora’s death in 1981 Jim was left to raise seven-year-old Paul, two-year-old Jim and three-month-old Aine. He is still active in Relatives for Justice, campaigning against the use of plastic bullets.
A city so silent and lone, Nora
Where the young and the gay and the best
In polished white mansion of stone, Nora
Have each found a place of rest
Is built where the birds used to play, Nora
And join in the songs that were sung
For we sang just as gay as they, Nora
When you and I were young.