As the 14th of August this year marks the 50th anniversary of the British state/unionist pogroms of 1969, I wrote this piece to remember the night our family and many other families were burnt out of our homes and the reasons why. In the hope that such pogroms should never be allowed to happen again in Ireland.
I must say our maternal Granny Nellie McDonnell had experienced this before and I believe her resilience helped our family and others through what was to come. Attempts had been made to burn her out or force her out of family homes on three occasions as a result of British state/unionist pogroms at different stages in her life. Her home and her sister Maggie’s home among others in Norfolk Street had been attacked and an attempt was made to burn them out when she was a young mother on the 10th of July 1921. This was two months after Maggie’s son Volunteer Sean McCartney had been shot and killed in action by the British army and black and tans on the Lappinduff mountain in County Cavan, where he was operating as part of a joint Belfast/County Cavan IRA flying column. A day later on 11th July a local IRA man James (Seamus) Ledlie who was on defence stand by was shot dead by a unionist sniper as he stood in Norfolk Street not long after leaving her house in the reign of terror which paved the way for the formation of the northern state in the 1920s.
Her house was attacked again in the aftermath of the outdoor relief strikes in the 1930s. When the British government again used sectarianism to divide the working classes. As Catholics and Protestants had been protesting together and even rioted together against the state. When the state decided to end payments for the unemployed and replaced them with food vouchers and other poverty inducing cuts that had families almost starved.
Then again in 1969 when she had her own children reared and was now a grandmother and great grandmother watching herself her youngest daughter, son in law and her grandchildren and some of her siblings being burned out of our family homes in Norfolk Street when the state again decided to attack Irish Catholic citizens burning their homes. On the 14th of August 1969 we were to experience the sectarian fascism our Granny had already endured twice before and was to endure again for a third time.
Our family my mother, father and their three sons were burnt out of our home as was our Granny Nellie and some of her siblings who lived in different houses a few doors away. My mother told me years later although tensions were slightly high due to certain unionists among them Ian Paisley stoking up the sectarianism with anti papist and anti Catholic rhetoric within speeches he was delivering at the time. She believed it would blow over until a short time later when an incident happened the day before loyalists burned our houses down. My mother was putting our bin out for the bin men when a few unionists from the Shankill were making there way along Norfolk Street to the Falls Road where many unionists from the Shankill worked in the 1960’s. One woman made a remark to my mother saying that she could possibly be wasting her time putting the bin out as that may be the last bin she would put out as all the dirt and rubbish would be cleared off these streets very soon.
Unionists alongside members of the RUC and B Specials entered our streets and proceeded to attack our family homes the next evening burning many homes and leaving us as homeless political refugees in our own country. As I’ve said sadly this was nothing new to Granny Nellie as this was her third time either having homes attacked or being burned out of different family homes in the Norfolk Street area by unionists and state forces.
The pogrom in which my family and our granny were burnt out of our homes in Norfolk Street was on the 14th August 1969. It was part of a systematic state-led reign of terror when loyalists, orange men and the UVF led by and under the tutelage and command of the B Specials and RUC attacked houses in streets which ran between the Falls and Shankill Roads. These streets were forcibly entered by the above gangs raking them with gunfire and then throwing sawn down lengths of scaffolding poles to break through the windows of small two up two down terraced houses. After the windows had been broken scatter cushions soaked in petrol with lengths of wire tied to them and petrol bombs were lit and tossed into the houses. The homes burned like tinder boxes. These were our homes, the homes of young families, elderly people, and some people living on their own. The common bond this community had and which made us targets was the fact we were working class Irish Catholics living in Belfast.
Almost every family in our street, Norfolk Street were burned out that night on Thursday 14th August 1969. I was too young to have any definitive memories of being burnt out in 1969 or how our family including our Granny, who moved with us every step of the way, became homeless political refugees in our own country. How we had to live in caravans in Beechmount, a school in Andersonstown or my aunt Sadie McVeigh’s house in Kinnaird Avenue, Andytown, along with her husband Tommy and their family of twelve children at the time.
We moved from pillar to post before eventually settling around 1970 in Annadale Street in the New Lodge district of north Belfast. One thing that always stuck with me was the attitude and character of our Granny Nellie. Regardless of her multiple experiences she hadn’t a sectarian bone in her body as she always maintained friendships with Protestants whom she knew a lifetime. She was shrewd enough to know and often made sure we knew that those who burned us out were in fact pawns in England’s game of divide and conquer as well as being ignorant of their own background. They themselves were in fact a residual over spill of a people once plundered and conquered by the very same imperialist racist/sectarian mindset. They were now being used as muscle and puppets. They were the total opposite of people like Theobald Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken, William Drennan and other protestant Irish men and women who were the founders of the political concept known as Irish republicanism.
Shortly after 1969 a lot of people left Belfast to get some form of respite going to places in the Free State like Gormanstown army camp were they were provided with food and shelter. Our family never made that move as our Granny Nellie maintained the belief that regardless of what was happening she wasn’t for leaving Belfast. She said she wouldn’t flee south as a refugee from British state/unionist pogroms in the early 1920’s when her home was attacked and the country was partitioned or the 1930’s and she wasn’t for fleeing in 1969.
She always seemed to be adamant in seeing a difference between the evacuation of WWII, the Belfast blitz and the various pogroms and sectarian attacks by unionists and the British state. She went to Katesbridge when the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast but would never leave when unionists, British military, B Specials, RUC, armed orange men and the UVF attacked her homes at different times in her life. She maintained that she and none of her family would “never allow anybody or anything to force me from the city where I was born and raised my family”. When we moved to the New Lodge our Granny Nellie came with us as we settled in 55 Annadale Street which ran between Lepper Street and the Antrim Rd. Pinkerton Street, Carntall Street in the New Lodge and its hinterlands of North Queen Street, Vere Street, The Fenian Gut, Little Italy and Carrickhill in north Belfast is where my paternal family in Belfast all hailed from when my paternal great grandparents settled in Belfast.
Although by 1970 we were settled as I said I think it was hard for both my Granny and my mother as they were Falls Road women who had left all they’d known and the community they’d grew up in. A plus side to our moving was the fact that my mother’s sister Mary and my father’s brother Arder lived in the last house at the junction of Carntall Street and the New Lodge Road and they were closer than most in laws to an extent as two brothers had married two sisters. My Granny was a Falls Road woman born and bred, although she lived the final five years of her life in the New Lodge and died there. I don’t think her life or my mother’s life were ever the same after 1969, and to be honest, I don’t believe a lot of lives including my own were ever the same either. She always maintained it would never happen again as the people had an army (referring to the IRA) which would never allow such pogroms to be repeated.
I often thought about this throughout the last few years. That like many others I had grown up in a war zone, an unjust war which was foisted upon us in an abnormal setting which had became a normal way of life to us. Though that situation would have different effects on thousands of people as a roller coaster of emotions shaped our lives throughout those years. Emotions from being happy at times when realistically you should have probably been solemn and not knowing how to be empathetic in any meaningful way or being in a position where anger became to easy a way to deal with things. At times things happen which bring you back to things that happened which has a direct effect on you personally or others around you.
One such incident happened when I was in Krakow in a few years ago as I visited the Jewish ghetto in a square. While at a holocaust memorial which consisted of metal chairs which symbolised the furniture among other belongings which were dropped on and around that spot by Jews who had been forced to live in the ghetto as they were being rounded up to be assassinated by the Nazis. I thought of my granny McDonnell and my mother and father who had lost all their belongings as they too were burnt out by fascists who would have been happy to assassinate them. At that moment in the square I felt a tingling mixed with a shudder in my body and my eyes welled up, not with sadness or fear but with a sense of pride and gladness. Pride that no matter what my mother, father and Granny came through they would never let it define them in a negative way or turn them into hate filled beings.
I’m glad that they rose above it to still believe that equality and justice would some day be in place in an Ireland free from racist/sectarian British misrule and interference.