Ireland is most famous for its Guinness, the shamrock, its international music figures Bono and Van Morrison, but what about Belfast?
Belfast has grown massively over the years being a fragrant city of culture, opportunities and landscapes of outstanding natural beauty. The city is widely famous across the world being the birthplace of the Titanic, the divide between the catholic and protestant communities, and the conflict known as ‘The Troubles’.
The height of the troubles dominated all of Northern Ireland since the 1960’s and ended in 1998 during the Good Friday Agreement.
The conflict still continues with the occasional riots, the mighty protests, the 12th July marches and murders making headlines on a regular basis.
I wasn’t born during the height of the troubles during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, however during the 90’s was enough to traumatise me. Unfortunately today there are still aspects of my life today which is badly affected, battling with PTSD.
I lived in an area of the Limestone Road known as Parkside situated 50 yards away from Tigers Bay. Parkside was a catholic neighbourhood and Tigers Bay being protestant. There was a huge divide between both communities which fuelled the troubles.
I have many experiences to share, some being small and others huge.
My journey to primary school was at the top of my street, but taking that walk each morning, you never knew what you where going to face, whether it be rioting, verbal abuse or a bomb scare. You never really knew, it was a gamble each morning.
It was a terrifying time and now in adulthood and reflecting back, I honestly don’t understand how I managed to cope all those years of suffering.
When riots started whether it be 10am, 9pm or 3am you were alerted each time by the loud sirens that rang from the neighbours gardens.They sounded just like the war sirens you would hear in the films. Everyone was alerted, adults would get together, teenagers would wake to get involved and the children, some watched, some cried in fear.
During the days after school or the weekends, the kids of the area, me included would gather up stones, slates and rocks in huge buckets and glass bottles would be collected too. Crates would be led out in rows and we’d be given petrol to make petrol bombs for when the troubles would occur.
It would usually start with verbal abuse, some shouting and some stones would be thrown. Then glass bottles and before you know it, petrol bombs are being used, blast bombs going off, group charges and the police would arrive in their riot gear, ramming both communities with their land rovers and before you know it the British Army are in their land rovers and saracens and they would be lifted out in their riot gear.
I’ve seen land rovers being set on fire and some blown up, I’ve even seen a land rover being rocked so much so it was pushed on its side. I’ve seen police shoot, soldiers on fire and have seen a lorry being given permission by its owner to be pushed towards the protestant community, set on fire and abandoned. That’s how dedicated people where during these moments of conflict. It was pretty horrific!
I would love to say I never got involved, but with friends sneaking off and throwing a stone, I wanted to do the same. I was terrified and the one time I did, I was caught on camera. My ma and da gave me a hiding when the found out. It was my first and last time.
When the riots was happening it was scary, but when nothing was happening it ghostly too. Usually when it was quiet you knew something was up or something was going to happen. You just didn’t know when.
At night the street lights would be cut and you’d hear breaking glass shatter, you’d smell the fumes of the paint that was thrown over cars, a neighbouring houses and across the street roads. The next morning when bright you’d see the damage, the disgust on the faces of those targeted and the anger bursting from every person on the street.
I was a target myself having a knife put to my throat as a teenager, being accused of terrorising an alcoholics home. Thankfully nothing more happened other than the blade sitting beneath my chin and the warmth of urine streaming down my leg. I wish I had have been that person terrorising the persons home, then I would have known why and that the scare I would have deserved, but I was completely innocent.
Another night my siblings and I where in bed and my mum and grandfather was sitting in the living room downstairs at around midnight. The street electrics was cut, rowdy crowds was heard and flashes of fire was seen. My family home was targeted in an arson attack with petrol bombs, leaving us homeless for months living from one hostel to another. My mother grabbed us all and we evacuated the building, my grandfather was stood outside shouting god forgive you to the arsonists. I remember that night as clear as if it was yesterday. I can still feel the coldness of the ground beneath my bare feet as I ran from the building wearing nothing but my batman pyjamas.
Months after the attack we moved back into the same house after it was renovated, I wore my shoes to bed for I do t know how long and the area became super cautious.
Another day I left school and from there we had to scoot to Tesco for our weekly shop. We had to pass our house to reach the supermarket and I didn’t want to carry my school bag, so I left it at my front door. We went to the shops and on our return, the street was closed, filled with police, the army and bomb disposal. My schoolbag looked suspicious propped up against our front door, they called for emergency services and the street was evacuated. I had to explain it was my school bag and had to identify the bag and the contents inside. That just showed how cautious everyone became. Again, I got another hiding for making a scene and being a lazy b*****d!
The riots continued and continued, it was like a competition, game scoring who one what fight. Even on Christmas morning rioting still occurred, it was just horrible.
The troubles where bizarre all over Northern Ireland, the news on the television was always crammed by the riots and the newspapers front page was blaze after blaze.
The trauma was endless, the sights became a regular thing and nothing would surprise you. I seen a gunman put a gun to a neighbours head and run off, I was dragged to the ground by a stranger telling me they where shooting, I was evacuated from school due to suspicious packages being found and bomb-scares being made.
The area soon became a horrible environment and residents lost interest in their home, some fleeing the area and many putting barriers up on their windows and peace walls was erected, cameras were put in place and although they didn’t stop the riots they reduced them a little.
My family ended up moving away from Belfast to a seaside village in County Down. It was a game changer having little worry, the peacefulness and the freedoms was immense.
Parkside still exists with new developments, the peace wall within the local park is open during daylight and one of the peace walls was made into a garden whilst another was removed. Tigers bay still stands with new developments and the two communities are working together.
Right across Northern Ireland you will always have political groups scattered here and there and conflict will always continue, but if two communities can join forces and become one, I am hopeful for our future.
Despite all the hardship, the trauma, the worry, the fears and sleepless nights growing up, the sights I have buried into my head and the memories replaying constantly…
I can honestly say I have zero anger towards any protestant community. I have nothing bad to say about the emergency services whether they are police or soldier, man, woman, young or old. I don’t hold grudges For I have learnt to accept all for who we are and what we can do together to create hope, love and peace.
– James Keenan