Monday, October 10, 2016

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The Falls Curfew: July 1970

Michael Shaw Mahoney captures the Falls Curfew of July 1970 through the eyes of the late Billy Curran.

Billy Curran remembered the night Bombay Street went up in flames. Stretched out in bed with his ubiquitous “fegs” and remote control, his legs rendered inoperative by protracted medical battles, Billy cast his mind back. He leaned into the recorder and told me:

Well it was just awful, the whole street was burned, apparently for no real reason, just sectarian, and the funny thing is during the Second World War most people from the Shankill hid in the underground monastery at Clonard from the bombs.

Billy grew up on Leeson Street off the Falls Road, a place some have called the cockpit of Irish republicanism. The burning of Bombay Street was a watershed, but in Billy’s opinion the Falls Curfew of July 1970 was the true turning point, the event that took Belfast to the brink before pushing it over into a roiling sea. Not far from Leeson Street, walkers and gawkers can now view a large mural that depicts the Falls Curfew. The mural shows a local woman in a raincoat, her chin up and handbag swinging. She and her neighbors march proudly to an armed British soldier wearing a camouflaged helmet. The mural is a reminder, albeit a pale one obscured by the vibrant and strident images that surround it, of a summer that changed the Lower Falls forever, a summer that forced Billy to reflect, to spot and identify an enemy. 

“That was awful,” Billy said as he remembered the fires of 1969:

But the Curfew that was something else. General Freeland, I think it was, came over the rooftops of the houses in our wee streets in a helicopter and told us we're all confined to the house. You couldn't get in for approximately three days.

Following the shootout at St. Matthew’s Church in the Short Strand on the other side of Belfast, a battle in which Provo leader Billy McKee and a small group of IRA men took on Loyalist gunmen, the British Army raided the Lower Falls looking for arms. The British were not subtle. They conducted a military operation in a densely populated area not dissimilar from Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow. The soldiers kicked down doors, smashed up furniture, and busted holes in walls and floors in their mad search for guns and explosives. In some cases they found what they were looking for, but during the curfew the soldiers fired 1,500 rounds of ammunition. Four civilians were killed. Perhaps worst of all, the British dumped CS gas on the Lower Falls.

Billy scurried to protect his parents. He was no passive victim that July, and as a neighborhood defender he had to be extremely savvy and “cute” to avoid direct conflict with the squaddies flooding the area.

“I myself was on the outskirts and went to leave my father's car at a certain place safely,” Billy recalled, “and by the time I got back the barricades were all up, and General Freeland planted more CS gas in the area, lorry loads of it. The place was stinking.” Stinking and toxic and in many cases harmful to the health of Lower Falls residents, especially to the elderly who had known nothing but deprivation their entire lives. They grew up in damp two up-two downs without indoor plumbing. “We had wet blankets over the windows and all sorts of things, people were throwing water around their faces and it was making the gas worse.”

As the tension and anger worsened during the curfew, several nationalist locals reached a boiling point and gave in to emotion. Billy remembered the frustration:

So, you couldn’t get through or anything, but I remember me being outside standing at St. Paul's Chapel and a crowd of families, girls and women, and one boy tried to go over to the soldiers and try to start a fight, and I particularly held him back and I says, "Don't!" And just about five minutes later, of course, he was broken.

According to the now deceased Belfast journalist Jack Holland, both the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA sent men into the area just north of the Grosvenor Road. The Sticks, he claims, even ferried in guns in an ambulance. Billy said:

The women came out with their prams, all their goods, mostly guns (he laughed) - it's a true event - and they just ran right past the soldiers. It was people power.

A good long time ago Billy sent me one of his many letters, this one featuring his memories of the curfew and the treatment that the British soldiers meted out to his family and neighbors. 

The Brits were ‘hated by all our community’ for their abuse & brutality - i.e. on our people, we couldn't leave our homes without being stopped, spread-eagled, kicked and beat with rifle butts. The Brits and RUC kicked in our doors in the early hours when we were asleep and ransacked our little homes, if you could call them that, and on one occasion stole part of my dad's coin collection.

He continued:

Nevertheless we set up a watch thru the nights and if a Brit was sighted, the watch would bang a metal bin lid on the ground to alert every street and with this we took away the ‘element of surprise’ from them. In many cases the noise done their heads in to the extent they physically abused the women who confronted them: this became known as "the bin lid protest", one of many tricks that fucked the bastards up well and truly.

Billy saw the cause and effect relationship between this routine abuse of the residents of the Falls Road area in particular and the nationalist community of Belfast in general. A trade unionist with socialist sympathies, he had a grudging respect for the Provisional IRA, seeing a distinction between its campaign against the security forces and its vigilantism, a practice regularly defended by Sinn Féin.

“It's no wonder P.I.R.A. (Provisional IRA) came into existence,” Billy wrote, “but have now turned into the ‘dictatorial oppressors’ they have become: that was the atmosphere in those days.”

In the same letter, Billy recalled the killing of a stray British squaddie whose capture and gruesome death inspired a scene in the much-acclaimed film ‘71.

Early on in the Troubles a 17 year-old soldier (Brit) was separated from his patrol in Lady Street in the Lower Falls . . . handed himself over to a group of women, who assured him they would get him back to safety in one of the barracks which surrounded our area. I was told he was a sorry sight and pleading with the women, telling them he had just joined the army and after training was posted to N.I. and that he meant us no harm. He had handed his S.L.R. ‘rifle’ over to the women, all of whom I consider were genuinely trying to lead him to safety (despite what they and their families had endured from his comrades). He was crying and had pissed himself when one woman pushed her way thru his protectors and shot him dead with a pistol. I was told his wound was to the head and he died instantly: ruthless and unnecessary as one kid murdered in my eyes, a ‘P.O.W’.

The British reaction to this killing, exacerbated by a mixture of fear and frustration at becoming targets of an incipient urban guerrilla force, was quick and ruthless. The whole world over the physical and psychological abuse of women provokes a visceral response. The men and gunmen of the Falls Road responded in predictable fashion that summer. As much as the IRA has engendered censure - and even backlash within the nationalist community of the North - few could convincingly argue that the IRA, the Sticks and Provos both, did not feel justifiable outrage at the treatment of those trapped by the Falls Curfew. The women of the Lower Falls were roughed up and slimed. They bore the brunt of a British soldier’s execution and the heavy-handed response it helped spark.

“This led to a reaction from the cops and high ranking Brits,” Billy remembered:

which took the form of statements to the press and T.V. which were vulgar and obscene in the contents called all the women ‘en bloc’ every sort of name: vile vermin, barbarians, savages, whores, etc. That's rich coming from them ‘cunts’ that came over our wee houses in helicopters so close to our rooftops that the houses trembled and announced a curfew and anyone seen on the streets after (between) 9:00 pm & 8:00 am would be shot on sight: and then go on to drop CS gas by the lorry loads on the whole Lower Falls. God knows how many people died later from the after effects.

Recalling the courage of his own mother, Billy wrote:

A large crowd of women including ‘my mum’ enraged by the statement from the Brits engulfed Roden St. RUC/Brit barracks and protested to the bosses: the reaction was to bring down a ‘shield’ between the authorities and the people, never again to be lifted and therefore handing the initiative to P.I.R.A.

Those who endured the Troubles as well as a score of academics have tried to locate that moment when Northern Ireland passed the point of no return. Bloody Sunday is an obvious candidate. But one could argue the events of July 1970 made a return to fragile normalcy, to an era marked by NICRA and a pliable Terence O’Neill, next to impossible.

Billy Curran died on the second of June this past summer. His oldest son, no stranger to violence himself, claims his father was given his last rites over a dozen times. For many years Billy suffered from poor health, the result of the usual Belfast vices, the cigarettes and the booze. The stress of extremely trying times also played a debilitating part.

As Northern Ireland moved closer to the Good Friday Agreement, Billy and I took a black taxi into town one afternoon. We left Robinson’s Bars earlier than expected when Billy became annoyed at a man staring at us from across the room. We walked toward City Hall, stopping in front of its wrought iron gates and manicured green. Suddenly overcome with fury, Billy shook his large fist at the building and screamed, “Fuck yous, you left us to rot in them wee houses. We didn’t have a pot to piss in. You built this and left us to die!”

The Falls Curfew must have pushed Billy past what any reasonable person could tolerate. It’s hard enough to live in poverty. Poverty and war make partisans of the poor. The dignity and pride of working class people, of the beleaguered residents a brick and mortar ghetto, was severely tested in the summer of 1970. The British Army simply went too far. Beating and gassing those trapped in economic purgatory forged and hardened resistance. Tough choices had to be made. For some there was no choice.

8 comments :

AM said...

Great piece Mike - thanks for sending it this way. I really enjoy that type of account and it was good that Billy shared his experience with you.

Michael Mahoney said...

Anthony

Though he resisted, Billy always wanted to tell me that going to Queen's was a waste of time, that academics devoted to Irish history would clutter my mind with a bunch of bull. In part he was correct. Becoming an adopted part of the Curran family has definitely taught me much more than any book or lecturer. Glad you enjoyed this account - the tip of an iceberg really. The box with Billy's letters to me, written between 1990 and 2015, is bulky. It's a trove of Troubles history, a collection of a man's thoughts, reactions and vivid memories. Thanks for giving me the chance to share some of those with TPQ and its readers.

Christy Walsh said...

Yeah it was a good piece.

Niall said...

Enjoyed that.

sean bres said...

Just in off night shift and flicking through the Wuill before bedtime. Brilliant piece a chara

larry hughes said...

That was an enjoyable read. Had no idea you could write Mike lol

Michael Mahoney said...

Larry

I seen what you said. Back here in Kentucky my grandma and grandpa reckoned books is better for me than bourbon whiskey and, you know, firearms. Still can't wrat real good though. If it wernt for them growing up in Nelson County, the RC holy land, I might be completely illitrit. Pmsl. Glad you liked the oral history from deepest Belfast.

Mary Welp said...

This is precisely the kind of carefully reported, first-hand account the whole fractured world needs much more of in order to bring about genuine repair.

('is here's a fella Kaintuckian wrattin'.)