Growing up in the early 1970s there was always a number of questions any budding new members of our gang were asked: what football team do you support, who is your favourite band and would you die for Ireland? For me it was always Man United, Gary Glitter and yes, always yes. Forgoing old age and dying for Ireland was something I was always aware of. On Sunday afternoons my da would play the same array of ballad songs on his return from the pub across the road with the other men from the flats. As he stacked the same ten or so discs in the battered radiogram his mother had passed on to him, and sat with his dinner on his lap, I always felt left out. For while my other pals were watching highlights from Saturday’s big game on The Big Match or the Sunday matinee on some other channel, my afternoons were taken up with the same players appearing every week: ‘Kelly, the boy from Kilane’, ‘Kevin Barry’, ‘James Connolly’ and ‘Sean South from Garryowen’. Their anthems usually belted out along the balcony, tormenting the neighbours, for a good hour or so with the session always finishing off with ‘Up Went Nelson’ at full blast, after which my da would retire to bed to sleep off his drunkenness, leaving us all back sitting in front of the telly, just in time for The Golden Ball show. So I guess it was no surprise that I grew up thinking that all young lads eventually died fighting for Ireland, the when and where was just a matter of time, and I remember thinking that I’d better get on with enjoying my youth before the knock on the door and the order came to lay down my life.
Dying wasn’t something that could happen to kids. You had a sense of it in the air around your nana and grandad, who were ancient anyway, and sure when your ma and da’s time came you’d be an old man yourself, and that was a million years away, so there was nothing to fear or be scared of. But then it actually did happen. Someone I knew died, and far from being old and grey it was someone just a few months older than me. He was a school pal and at fourteen he was killed by a bread van as he cycled from his home in Ballyfermot to the pub across from our flats in Islandbridge where he worked weekends as a lounge boy. All I remember of it was the sadness, thinking of all the things I would get to do that had been taken away from him. As we stood around his coffin in the local funeral parlour, the only light coming from two flickering candles that stood either side of a book of condolences by the door, I stared at the bruised face, its mouth half-open, its nostrils plugged with cotton wool, and I remember thinking that maybe all those songs were wrong and dying for Ireland wasn’t such a great thing after all for a young lad. So if the knock came to the door I might have to reconsider.
It was five years later before I was to experience death again. This time it wasn’t a pal, just a young man I’d met some years earlier at a march in O’Connell Street. It was his beard that caught my eye, one of those half-grown ones, a bit like Che Guevara’s, which was who I thought he looked a little like too when he held out his hand for me to shake. I didn’t remember his name but when a black-and-white photograph of a bearded, smiling face flashed across the UTV news one evening I was certain it was the man I’d carried a banner with three years earlier. What had stuck in my mind about him was his friendliness, and his smile that put me at ease, as he showed me how to shoulder the huge banner I was struggling with as we made our way along O’Connell Street. It was the first and last time I carried a banner. I remember thinking that whoever made it was good at their job and had obviously trod this path themselves for across the large painted cloth half a dozen small round holes had been cut in it to let the wind pass through.
As the years moved on, my da added more songs to his repertoire. But apart from those ballads I never knew him to be political in any way at all. Come election time I couldn’t have told you who he was going to vote for or if he even bothered to. What I do remember though, is him going on about Stickies and Provos when he’d come home drunk on Sunday nights. It was all a babble to me and I could never make out whose side he was actually on as he’d veer from one to the other over the course of his outburst—and even on some occasions tearfully proclaim that they were both right. But whoever’s side he was on, it would always puzzle me why he could never see the contradiction of arriving home with An Phoblact in one pocket and The News of the World in the other.
The first time my da actually got up off his backside and did something political, it came as a bit of a shock. It was February of 1973 and my grandfather, in his house in Ballyfermot, noticed something odd one morning as he was lighting the fire. How it had passed him by some days earlier was bizarre because watching my grandfather read the newspaper was like watching paint dry, only slower. He would read every inch of it, going through the death columns like a fly fisherman, casting his squinted eyes closely over every name to see if any more of his old stock had passed on, smiling quietly to himself if he discovered that he’d outlived an old foe.
That Tuesday’s Irish Press had covered the incredible news that the British Embassy on Merrion Square had been burnt down. A few days later, and my grandfather was using his stock of old newspapers to light the fire. It was a ritual he practised daily. He’d sit at the dining table and twist the pages into about a dozen short, tight rolls, place a bundle of them in the grate under some sticks chopped from a log with a small hatchet, arrange a few small lumps of coal on top and then light a corner of the rolls with a match to get the whole thing going. That done, he would kneel in front of the small flames holding a page across the mouth of the fire to get a bit of suction up the chimney. Usually all he had to do was hold the page for roughly half a minute and then stand back proudly and call for my granny to look at the inferno he had once again created. But this time as he watched the flames growing behind the paper he saw something strange. At first he thought he was seeing things. It was a photo of the police arresting a man outside the embassy. A Garda had his arm tight around the man’s neck, and the man was grimacing as he was being dragged backwards through the crowd. The fire started to take off and the page was turning brown from scorching, and it was about to burst into flames when my granda roared, ‘Rosie! Rosie, quick!’ He laid the page out across the table, and poined to the photo. It was my da. Granny and granda looked to each other. Suddenly there was a Republican hero in the family.
The photo was cut out, covered in Sellotape to protect it and shown the length and breadth of the street and to every neighbour who passed the gate whether they wished to see it or not. Even the postman was called in to have a look. It wasn’t long before news of the photo made its way to our flats and soon it bestowed on my father a cult status among some of the other fathers there. Soon the usual, ‘There y’are Tommy’, was followed with a discreet nod and a wink which my da, delighted with himself, would return with a stern look and then pass on his way with a mile-wide smile on his face. It wasn’t long either until word had spread to my own circle and some of the lads began to ask me if it was true that my da was in the IRA. I, of course, lied and said yes, but it was a secret and I wasn’t allowed talk about it, which seemed to work. But, as with a lot of what happened in my family back then, drink was involved. And far from being a hero arrested for petrol bombing the embassy, it turned out that my da had just turned up to watch the action with a few pints on him, and full of Dutch courage decided to make his way through the crowd for a better view at the front. When he got to the front, he leaned over a Garda’s shoulder. The Garda, thinking he was being attacked, turned and wrestled my da to the ground and called for help. Soon my da found himself in a headlock, thrown into a Black Maria and on page five of the following morning’s Irish Press. The police, he said, didn’t charge him because some of the crowd sat in the street in front of the wagon and refused to move until he was let loose. And when he was, they carried him shoulder high as if he himself had thrown all the petrol bombs and burned the embassy down single-handedly.
As the seventies rolled on and my da continued to blast out the same old songs, it appeared that too many young heroes were dying for songs to be written about them, never mind sung. Me, I was more interested in Gary Glitter and Marc Boland and my bedroom wall began to be covered in photos of them, usually torn from my sister’s Jackie magazine. But in between episodes of Magpie and Blue Peter, the IRA were in the news too, and in 1976 a new hero made himself known to me. Frank Stagg, an IRA man from Mayo was on hunger strike in England for political status and was close to death. Leaflets and posters were pasted around the city and one day on my way home from school I took one from a lamppost and stuck it up between Glitter and Boland. It stayed there for the duration of the hunger strike and a few weeks after he died. Then I eventually took it down after I had a nightmare that he was in my bedroom staring at me.
When I was fifteen, my da started to take me on his Sunday morning drinking sessions to The Pine Tree in Ballyfermot. Here, every week, a tall man, bald, and with glasses would go round the tables selling The Irish News. My da told me he was Tomás Mac Giolla, who was head of Official Sinn Féin, the Stickies. About an hour later another man would arrive, also selling a newspaper, which my da also bought, An Phoblacht. My da explained they were both from a political party which had split in 1969. One was now the Official IRA and the other the Provisional IRA. My da told me he leaned more to the Officials, or Stickies side, because he was against violence.
It was around this time that five men from a new political party were arrested for robbing a train. They were innocent but an infamous police unit, the Heavy Gang, had beaten false confessions out of them so they were sent to jail. My father, in the outrage that followed, decided it was finally time to act so he joined this new political party, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, and got involved leafleting and selling their weekly newspaper, The Starry Plough. Protests were staged around the city and suddenly my Saturdays were taken up with me being brought into the centre of Dublin, given a placard, and put to picketing, of all places, the Mansion House. It seemed every week there was a protest and I would always end up walking around in circles, carrying a placard alongside a small woman in a duffle coat called Mary.
In 1978, I forget for what, a large march was planned from the GPO to the Dáil. A regular face on protests by now, I was tasked with carrying one part of a huge banner that would lead the march along with another man. He was younger than most men I encountered back then, and along with a beard he had a northern accent. He winked and smiled at me then counted to three as we took a pole each and hoisted the banner high against our shoulders. But despite the holes being placed in the material to let the wind through, it was a struggle marching up O’Connell Street and over the bridge.
What else we did that day, spoke about, I have no memory. What I did remember was his face three years later when news of his death broke across the TV; his name was Patsy O’Hara and he had died at the age of twenty- three after sixty-one days on hunger strike. From all the songs I’d heard sung, stories and history books I’d read, I’d finally met someone who had actually died for Ireland. I called my da in and we both sat there in the silence of it all, not knowing what to say to each other. When the report finished I went up to my room wondering if the men who wrote songs about dying for Ireland had ever gone on afterwards and done it themselves.
Nine other men would join Patsy O’Hara and go on to die on hunger strike that year, and before it ended my granda would pass away too, and his fire-lighting feats passed on to my granny. Within a year my da eventually drifted away from his party and returned to coming home drunk with The News of the World in one pocket, An Phoblact in the other. The Sallins Five were eventually released too, and a blind eye turned to the violent tactics of the Heavy Gang. My own revolutionary dreams had started to fade too, as girls and writing plays started to take up all my interest. Years later I read that the woman in the duffle coat was called Mary Reid, and she had died too, and in very mysterious circumstances, her body found washed up on the Inishowen Peninsula in 2003. Looking back now there aren’t any ballads about any of them, or at least none that I’ve come by. Who knows, maybe some songs are just best left unsung?