Once a Volunteer: All the Dead Voices: Extract One
In the first of three extracts from ‘All The Dead Voices’ Danny Morrison describes his early involvement with the IRA
Once a Volunteer
Paul and I were second years, aged around twelve, and our class was queuing up on the top landing waiting to go into Latin.
Paul leaned over the balcony and spat on a first year down below who began crying. At that moment Brother Gibbons, our Latin teacher who was the Vice-Principal, was just passing the first years. He took the rest of the stairs at three at a time and ordered us to our desks. He called for the culprit to come forward or else the entire class would get ‘six of the best’. Then he gave us a chance. We were told to write down on bits of paper who we knew or thought had done it. It would be completely anonymous.
After lunch Gibbons recalled the class and announced that he knew who did it. If he didn’t come forward, he would regret it. There was silence. Paul grew pale. He was told to stand. Gibbons called him to the top of the class. He accused him of spitting on the first year. Paul cried and said he didn’t do it. We knew he knew he was going to get caned. But Brother Gibbons simply said to him, “Leave your books but take your bag, and get out of my school. You are a disgrace, you are dismissed. Now, go home and tell your mother and father why I dismissed you!”
Afterwards, everybody was speculating about who squealed on Paul. I squirmed in the vicinity of such conversation because it was I who had written down his name. I don’t know if I was the only one. Gibbons had collected this lottery before letting us out to the dining hall. After dinner Gibbons collared me beside the lockers. I was shocked: he had recognised my handwriting which I had tried to disguise.
He said: “Are you sure it’s him! Are you sure!”
I whimpered, Yes. All that night I was miserable and despised myself. I couldn’t sleep. But my agony was relieved the following day when discussions between Paul’s mother and the principal saw him back in class. We later became good friends but I never told him, or anyone, that I had been the informer.
That experience at school made me distrustful of authority and highly conscious of the consequences of my actions. I determined to keep secret anything that I was told in confidence. When the Troubles broke out and I was first tempted to join the IRA the fear of not being able to withstand interrogation, to be able to keep secrets, stayed my hand. My conversion to physical force came slowly. It was only after the British army curfew of the Falls Road in July 1970 that I decided to go one step further and hold guns for the IRA on the understanding that they were for defensive purposes only.
My family was on holiday in England and I had the house to myself. Two days later a young fella, acting as a scout, came to my back door, which I had opened as arranged, and a minute later arrived a man in his early twenties carrying a big guitar case. I immediately liked the young fella and he and I stood talking about politics and pop music. The IRA man decided the best place for the guns was under the floorboards on the landing. We lifted the carpets. The boards had been hammered down so tightly that he needed to saw through them. But even then the rifle was still too long to fit in. I suggested just leaving them in the case and putting them under my bunk bed. My mother allowed me to look after and clean my own bedroom. I had kept diaries in a drawer and knew that there had been no intrusion.
I assured them it would be okay, the weapons would be safe. Of course, after they left I had to make a full inspection. Besides the .303 Lee Enfield rifle, there were a Sterling sub-machine gun, a Luger pistol, bags of magazines and loose ammunition, and two hand grenades. I worked out how to assemble and load the weapons and I imagined being in a gun battle, prepared to kill or die. After three of four inspections the novelty of handling guns wore off and I packed them away under the bed, placing in front of the guitar case various boxes of books. I couldn’t sleep for the first week or two but then became accustomed to the presence of the dump and sometimes forgot about it altogether.
We were one of the few families in our area still friendly with British soldiers. None had yet been shot by the IRA. There were weekends when soldiers who were on leave came and stayed with us. They bunked with me, separated by the mattress from an IRA arms dump. It felt odd and exciting being in command of a great secret - and appreciating the irony of the situation. But I also felt guilty because deep down I knew my father would be driven out of his job in the telephone exchange if ever the house were raided. Still, I took a liberty with his liberty, squared it in my conscience that somebody had to hold these guns, and deluded myself into thinking that my accepting full responsibility for them in the event of a raid would exonerate him.
A greater fear was what I would say under interrogation because over the following weeks I had learnt the identities of the two IRA Volunteers involved in putting the guns in my house, one of whom, 16-year-old Jimmy Quigley, would later become my best friend.
One Saturday I boarded a bus on the Falls Road to go into town and as it passed my street I saw the British army begin raiding houses. I got off at the next stop and walked back, expecting the arms to be discovered, prepared myself for arrest and kept repeating that I would not give the names of those who left them. After a few house searches the army stopped short of ours and left the street. I thanked God. One night in January 1971 the IRA came and asked for the guitar case and I was relieved to see it go.
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison