When Rosaleen McDaid died in October, having finally succumbed to the illness that had enveloped her, 2014 was confirmed as yet another thief in the night, claiming one more of our teenage social circle that had emerged in a conflict strewn South Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road back in the 1970s.
It wasn’t that myself and Rosaleen were bosom buddies, more often than not at each other’s throats as her father Eddie presided over slagging proceedings in their home in Lavinia Street, at which he was an expert and me his apprentice in tow. It was a cauldron of banter and those not quick enough to get by on their wits invariably got scalded by the quicker tongue. The remaining sons are living testimony to that today. I was very friendly with her oldest brother Sean, now also deceased, arguably the dispenser of the silkiest soccer skills ever to grace a pitch in that area. Rosaleen, a year younger than me, learned to adopt and gave as good as she got. With fiery red hair and a tongue to match, I often wilted rather than face her return of serve.
We grew up in an enclave that was pretty much boxed in and under siege. I think there was about twenty six streets buffered from the worst domiciles of loyalism by the Holy Land, the railway line and the River Lagan. We had only to look across the Lagan that stretched along the side of River Terrace, beside which the McDaids lived, to see the masses of loyalism assemble in Nuremburg rally fashion in the Ormeau Park at the behest of Bill "Shoot to Kill" Craig. Around that time the short stretch of road started to become a sort of killing ground for loyalists which in terms of unarmed Nationalists was a source of rich pickings. It quickly earned itself the dubious description, for which there was no shortage of rivals, "Murder Mile." Eddie McDaid and his friend Colm White were both shot and wounded in a loyalist drive by shooting as they stood at the corner of the street where the McDaids lived. The area was often the target of attack by Tartan gangs and those of us that lived on the front of the road were forced, and on occasion battered, into our homes by the RUC in order to allow the unwanted Orange marches to strut by our front doors in a display of triumphalist hate.
That was the inhospitable hostile environment that Rosaleen McDaid grew up in, alongside her teenage peers some of whom were never to make it into their twenties. A frequent visitor to the McDaid home was Joe Fitzpatrick, forty years dead come February, cut down at 19 by loyalism as he swept streets to earn his crust.
The McDaids were good people. Earthy, practical, the type of neighbours that made community a word to be valued. I was such a frequent visitor to the house that it must have seemed I was part of the family. On the run I would call to their home every day. As soon as I was released from prison I was back in it every day, although by this stage the slagging was not as bad. Eddie had settled for winding up the younger sons. When I returned to jail at 18 one of my first visitors was Winnie McDaid, the matriarch of the family. More than a decade later the sons who were children when I was out were now regular visitors. Friendships were forged in that house that have lasted to this day.
Rosaleen McDaid was a person who tried to conduct an ordinary life in a very dangerous environment, never sure that when her brother went out in the morning to make the trek to the abattoir in Duncrue Street where he worked that he would come back safe in the evening. She lived for her work and family. She never married and invested a lot of her emotional capital in nieces and nephews. A comment from a film I watched last night seemed so timely that it is worthy of repeating: Rosaleen was one of those ordinary people whose lives are not measured in terms of years lived but in terms of the people their lives touched during the course of their living.