Death of a Veteran
Thirty-two years ago a nineteen-year-old IRA Volunteer, Martin Forsythe, was shot dead in Belfast city centre by RUC detectives as he attempted to plant a bomb. His companion, a teenage girl, was shot in the spine and paralysed for life. Internment without trial had been introduced two months earlier and every day there were riots, army raids, gun battles and funerals.
When news of Forsythe’s death reached West Belfast there were many incidents, including one in Andersonstown when a mother of three, whose husband was interned, was shot and seriously wounded by British soldiers. They alleged that she was involved in an IRA ambush. She was subsequently charged and later got bail. She fled to Dublin and successfully fought off attempts to extradite her.
This woman, Rita O’Hare, later became the Sinn Fein Director of Publicity. For the past four years she has been the party’s representative in Washington, following a clear understanding from the British government that no attempt would be made to arrest her for the incident in 1971. However, she is one of those termed an OTR (on the run) and faces arrest and prosecution if she crosses the border.
Last Sunday her father, Billy McCulloch, died at the age of 91 and Rita cannot go to the funeral. Nor could she go to her mother’s funeral a few years earlier. Even though under the Belfast Agreement prisoners were given early release the British have managed to use as a bargaining chip the anomaly which exists over the status of fugitive republicans against whom charges are outstanding. They did so again in the most recent futile talks at Hillsborough.
Reconciliation. Understanding. Forgiveness. Closure. Those were the buzz words used to describe aspects of the peace process. To them should be added, vindictiveness.
I am not sure when I first met Billy McCulloch but it was probably through Rita. Then, five years ago, my wife and I moved into his street and we became close friends. He was a wonderful man who came to us every Sunday for dinner and we just loved to listen to his stories or him reciting some poetry. I asked him if he would mind recording him talk about his life and he protested that he was a nobody and an old fool and why would anyone be interested in what he had to say. But I convinced him.
Some things he found difficult to talk about – his son Bill died suddenly four years ago - and sometimes he cried when he recalled that all his brothers and sisters were dead, most of his generation. “I am the last of the Mohicans,” he joked.
Billy was the youngest of three sons and four daughters and was born a Protestant in East Belfast in the year that the ‘Titanic’ was launched, 1911. His father, John William, came to Belfast from Birkenhead as an iron moulder during the engineering boom in the 1880s, bringing with him his new wife, Mary Francis from Wales. At first they lived in a single room but later managed to move into a new house on working-class Rosebery Road, most of whose men folk worked in the nearby shipyard. Billy was the youngest of three sons and four daughters.
He recalled his father bringing him as a child to hear Sir Ernest Shackleton speak about the race to discover the South Pole. Last year Billy was delighted to meet Shackelton’s cousin, Jonathan Shackleton, and they spoke about the great explorer.
Billy was self-taught and had an amazing memory for poetry. He loved choral music and as a boy sang in St George’s Church choir. He also had the distinction of marching down the Lower Ormeau Road with the Orange Order. An Orangeman called Jimmy, who was dating Billy’s sister Mimi, asked him would he like to carry a string of one of the banners on the Twelfth of July parade. “Says I, ‘Do I get paid?’ ‘Certainly, you get paid,’” he was assured. And he did.
Billy worked as a weaver in linen factories in Belfast but devoted all his holiday time to hostelling. One day in July, sixty-seven years ago, in the Scottish village of Balloch, near Loch Lomond, he stopped to look in a shop window. Another young man came up and looked into the window, then said to Billy, “Where are you going?” Billy replied, “I haven’t decided, but I’ll go wherever you’re going.”
That man was Gibbie Allen and they hostelled together, the Scot and the Irishman, were sometimes mistaken for brothers, and forged a lifelong friendship, writing to each other when Gibbie was in the British Army during WWII, and visiting each other, even after they were both married. They met their wives, Maureen and Sadie, whilst hostelling, Billy in Slievenamon in the Mourne Mountains and Gibbie in the Cairngorms. Two years ago Billy and I decided to visit Gibbie in Cumbria.
I remember the glorious evening we sat on a bench in Gibbie’s back garden and I listened with fascination as they reminisced about their hostel days, trekking mountains and bogs, about all the characters they went about with, about the ‘code’, quite chivalrous, that operated in the Youth Hostel Movement in the 1930s, and the respect that young men had for women. Every person lives through a rich history and every story is different, is told from a different, if even marginally different, angle.
We went for a drive through part of the Lake District. The scenery was breathtaking but the countryside was fairly deserted of livestock and visitors due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which had hit Cumbria quite hard. Whether it was a reference to nature or the elements, love or life, Billy or Gibbie would recite part of a verse from Wordsworth or Burns or the Bible, and the other would finish it. I couldn’t keep up with them and I wished I had had a tape-recorder.
That same year Billy celebrated his ninetieth birthday, surrounded by friends and neighbours though he later confessed to one major disappointment. Throughout the night he was hoping that Rita would walk through the door for the first time in thirty years. Over the past two years he increasingly talked about death. He said how much he missed Maureen, about her deep Catholic faith and belief in the afterlife, which he could never share, being an atheist. He talked about his youth, about Rosebery Road to which I offered to bring him, but which he did not want to see.
Shortly after his 91st birthday last November he suffered a number of strokes and died peacefully in the presence of his son Alan and his wife Mary on Sunday morning in a nursing home at the foot of Slieve Donard and the Mournes, an area which he loved.
When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs:
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
- from ‘Farewell’
by Walter De La Mare
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison