Martin Dino McGarrigle recalls his childhood activities from the long hot summer of 1976. Dino McGarrigle is a Strabane raconteur.
In the “long hot summer of 1976” I was 12. Unlike children in the other parts of “the UK” my summer wasn’t spent on beaches or in play parks having carefree fun. For me the summer of ’76 was one of rioting, making petrol bombs and playing cat and mouse with the ubiquitous armoured presence of the British army.
I, along with my peers in the Ballycolman, spent my days figuring out the most strategic attack points and the “getaways” through the streets and alleyways where they couldn’t follow or would get lost if they did. Our nights were spent carrying out these attacks. Sometimes things went well – other times, well, let’s just say we were outfoxed by older, more cruel people who did this kind of thing for a living.
When we were captured we were never officially arrested. We actually had a name for it – “scooped.” If you were scooped you never saw a “police” station. It was a trip in a Landover or a Pig and a severe beating by soldiers with fists, feet and batons before being driven far out into the country, miles from home, and rolled out of the vehicle black and blue, semi-conscious in the middle of nowhere and more determined than ever. (They weren’t exactly winning hearts and minds…)
I remember the Brits capturing Eddie before he’d even reached double figures and instead of “scooping” him two of them marched him home, (holding him in the air by the armpits). And when his Ma answered the door they said “Is this yours?” He was raging that he hadn’t been taken for a beating like the rest of us – for me that sums up the character of the man.
One of my favourite memories of that summer is standing at the side of my Ma’s house and P D walking past. We weren’t what you’d call friends but we acknowledged each other occasionally. He had a box of “Choc Ices” under his arm and was strutting along eating one. I said “where did you get them?” He said “there’s a hijacked ice cream van at the bottom of the Ballycolman Lane, the cab’s burnt out and nobody’s about.” Before he finished his sentence I was sprinting down the lane. Sure enough there was an ice cream van sat there. Not a being about. It wasn’t blocking the road – it had stopped near the bottom of the “flat pad.” My first thought was “it must be booby trapped or there would be 100s of people here.” Nevertheless, the sight of the ice cream slowly melting in the back got the better of me and I jumped in and grabbed a couple of boxes and started running back up the hill. (When you’re 12 and there’s a chance of a bomb but a definite fact of ice cream what are you gonna do?)
I got into the house and my Ma said “what have you got there?” We didn’t have a freezer back then (in fact we’d not long had a fridge). The milk used to be kept in a basin of cold water under the sink. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What are we gonny do way all that ye wee shite?” sez she. I never bothered answering. The greed had got me so I charged back down the lane. Couldn’t believe it. There must have been a couple of hundred people round the van. The Brits had formed an inner circle around it and were pushing people back. An officer was standing on the step at the back of the van and throwing boxes of ice lollies into the air. He and his men would then collapse in hysterics of laughter at the ignorant Paddies fighting over a few ice lollies. Even at my young age I stood back and watched with utter disgust and feelings that I couldn’t actually put into words ‘til years later. It was like the Romans and the Christians.
I walked back up the hill and went home. My Ma asked what was happening; I told her “they’re all making animals of themselves and the Brits are laughing at them.” Within an hour or 2 the Ballycolman erupted in rioting because the Brits were on the edge of our estate at the ice cream van. Buses were hijacked and placed across streets. The Brits moved into the BC in huge numbers in Saracens and landrovers. There was a helicopter skimming the roofs. I was under “house arrest” by my Ma who didn’t want me getting involved. I said to her “gone let me go out in the garden.” After pleading away she relented but I wasn’t allowed to leave the garden. I strolled down our front path (we had a hedge at the time) and nearly tripped over a Brit who was hiding in the hedge that covered our gateway. We stared at each other for a few seconds then he said “can I please have a drink of water?” The heat was cruel that day. Now I don’t know if this is a real Christian/Catholic thing but we were always taught that it was a sin to refuse any man a drink of water. So I looked at him, thinking about this. I opened my mouth to give my usual response beginning with” F” and he said “you collect the sticks don’t you?” (He was referring to the practice of sending lollipop sticks to internees so they could make artwork, statues etc.) I said “aye, that’s right.” He said “I’ve picked up hundreds from the ice cream van, look-“ and showed me a huge bundle of lollipop sticks. “They’re yours just for a drink of water.” In those days our milk came in bottles and the bottles were washed out and left for the milkman. I went into the house and got a milk bottle and filled it with water. I held it down by my side so no one could see it and went to the bottom of the hedge and swapped it with your man for a couple of hundred lollipop sticks.
I claimed afterwards that I’d gathered them up from the streets – but the fact is – in the long hot summer of ’76 I fraternized with a Brit…