Francis Murphy

Francis Murphy

Francis Murphy lives in Belfast, and is a lifelong campaigner for civil and human rights.

Belfast in 1969 and its aftermath: a memoir
Thursday, 17 June 2021 09:11

Belfast in 1969 and its aftermath: a memoir

Published in Life Writing

Francis Murphy presents a memoir of Northern Ireland in the late sixties


Once again Northern Ireland is back in the headlines. Small scale rioting in Loyalist areas and the resignation of Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), reflect a growing awareness in the Unionist/ Loyalist community that the Brexit settlement has been a disaster. In the year that Ulster Unionism would have hoped to come together to celebrate the Centenary of the Partition of Ireland, and the benefits of the Union with Britain, what is on display is the duplicity of the British PM.

DUP MPs at Westminster kept the Tories in power when they had a slim majority. The DUP feted Boris at their Annual Conference. But, despite having several lawyers in their leadership, the DUP failed to understand the “Northern Ireland Protocol” that places a de-facto border in the Irish Sea.

 Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. North Belfast, scene of the most serious recent rioting, has a sad history of violent division and has been describes as a “patchwork quilt” of sectarian identity. So-called “Peace Walls”, twenty foot high concrete walls and miles of corrugated iron fencing, divide working-class areas.

The essay below is my personal experience of how one piece of that North Belfast patchwork – the small Catholic area known as Ardoyne – was attacked and burned in August 1969. Ardoyne bore the brunt of the huge frustration of Unionist State forces and their Loyalist allies at their inability to suppress the Civil Rights Movement. In particular Derry, Northern Ireland's second city, seemed to be in full scale revolt.

The difference in 2021 is that Unionism/Loyalism does not have direct control of the armed forces of the State. The centenary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state provides us with this timely reminder  of the violence that was used to maintain that state.

For its first 50 years Northern Ireland was a fiefdom of the Ulster Unionist Party, a staunchly Conservative and sectarian political force closely allied to the Tory Party in Britain, whose formal name is the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Unionists ruled Northern Ireland as a one party state that excluded Catholics. Totally unhindered by the Westminster parliament, they systematically discriminated against Catholics in housing allocation and employment, and maintained local political power through electoral gerrymandering.

State forces such as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were almost entirely recruited from the Protestant majority. The RUC were also supplemented by a reserve force, the Ulster Special Constabulary (the “B” Specials) which was effectively a Protestant militia. Both forces were armed. Power was maintained by the physical intimidation of the Catholic minority. A “Special Powers Act” allowed the Unionist Government to introduce internment without trial and accorded extraordinary powers to the RUC and the “B” Specials.

In the early decades of Northern Ireland’s existence, state-condoned pogroms were carried out against Catholics, burning their homes, occasionally killing and wounding. These were deliberate acts of intimidation, designed to terrorise the Catholic population -forcing them into well-defined areas.

Personal Background

I'm 68 years old, and grew up in a trade union family in Ardoyne in North Belfast. Both my parents were members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Having survived the events described here I was told by the police  I should leave Northern Ireland. I took the immigrants' boat to England and ended up in London where I got a place at  Enfield College of Technology – which became Middlesex Polytechnic. I started Middlesex and I helped set up the Anti-Internment League. 

I started Middlesex in September 1971, one month after internment was introduced in Northern Ireland, and graduated in 1979. I spent the years in between in almost full-time political activity exposing Britain’s Dirty War in Northern Ireland. I returned to Belfast in 1979 to help with Peoples' Democracy’s campaign to build a mass movement around the struggles in the prisons. I was involved in building local Smash H Block Committees, and in the development of the PD’s Electoral Strategy, which Sinn Fein subsequently adopted with great success.

Working in PD’s constituency office drew me into developing legal services such as the Northern Ireland Law Centre. I served on the management committee of the Law Centre for 20 years, and helped set up many voluntary agencies such as Victim Support and Survivors of Trauma. I retired in 1998, went to the USA to research innovative treatment models for trauma and addiction, and trained as a counsellor. I never expected to live this long.

August 1969 and its aftermath

The first time I held a gun it was the early hours of August 15th 1969 in Ardoyne. I was standing with Martin Meehan in the cover of a little alleyway that cut through Herbert St, in the old District of Ardoyne. The old District had been attacked. Homes burnt and people killed and injured. I had witnessed the attack, and in the course of the bright summers evening of August 14th, I had come under fire from police rifles and machine guns. Had seen my oldest schoolfriend Brian shot in front of me. And discovered the dead body of Sammy McLarnon, shot dead in his own home by the police.

Martin Meehan had given me the single barrelled shotgun he’d been using and I was holding it as he instructed, firmly against my right shoulder, sighting along the barrel at the shape coming through the smoke. Smoke that billowed from the burnt out remains of the familiar pubs, shops and houses on the Crumlin Road and the cramped little streets that fed off that main road into the old District. I was 17 and very scared. But I knew the men and boys I stood with in that alley would do their best to help the people of the District.

August '69 or more precisely the evening of the 14th August 1969, changed the direction of my life. It changed many people’s lives. Across Belfast many poor people were put out of their homes. Many had their family homes burnt - all their worldly possessions lost. In the little streets of Ardoyne, Sammy McLarnon and Michael Lynch lost their lives that night, and I almost lost mine.

A police bullet killed Sammy McLarnon, an ordinary family man, husband and father, in his own front room, right in front of his wife, Ann. I was in Herbert Street opposite the McLarnon home when the police fired the reckless fusillade of shots that killed Mr McLarnon. I had just turned 17 and had high hopes of going to university.  I was the first person to reach Mrs McLarnon as she ran from her house and stood in the street screaming.

My schoolfriend Brian Quinn had just been wounded, by the same police fusillade and I had pulled him out of the line of fire. An older man who seemed to know what he was doing was helping him. The rattle of the police guns was still ringing in my ears, but I heard Mrs McLarnon. She was standing screaming in the Street and I thought  “She’ll be shot if they open fire again!”

A brief sprint from cover and I had bundled Mrs McLarnon in through her front door. At first I didn’t know what she was saying or what I was seeing. On the floor in front of the fireplace lay a body and across the chimneybreast something like paint was splattered.

Sammy McLarnon had been pulling the blinds – a brave attempt to protect his family and shut out the danger in the street outside – when the RUC and B Specials had so recklessly opened fire, sending a hail of bullets into the cramped little street. One had torn through Sammy McLarnon’s forehead. It was his blood that had sprayed across the chimneybreast. How was I supposed to deal with this?

I had turned 17 in June 1969 and was staying on at school to get my A levels. Me and my schoolmates were the first of our generation with a realistic chance of going to university. A chance to escape this backward sectarian state. A great big world outside the black North and the grey South beckoned if we could only keep our focus and get our ticket out.

We Shall Overcome

It was a big “if”! The Civil Rights Movement and Peoples’ Democracy had caught all our imaginations after the images of Duke Street and Burntollet had bounced around the world. My classmates had talked about Civil Rights. We were all touched and influenced by the Black Civil Rights movement in America – Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers! The music of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding stood alongside Dylan in our soundtrack. It was fashionable to link our situation in the North with the people of Alabama. To sing “A Change is Gonna Come!”, “The Times They Are a-Changing “and “We Shall Overcome!” in Kelly’s Cellars.  

My generation was also hugely affected by the murder of Bobby Kennedy so soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King. More than anything else in Catholic homes throughout Ireland, the Kennedys represented not just “success” but vindication! After centuries of oppression, discrimination, mockery and vilification – the Kennedy’s were a shining example of what “we” could do, what “we” could achieve given half a chance.

Romantic twaddle it might well have been. But we were kids, young men talking the talk, virgins. Bunking off school to attend Peoples Democracy rallies at Belfast City Hall, hoping some of those fine-looking student girls from Queens University would change that situation – never mind Civil Rights! And we were also finding new confidence. Finding a voice in the heart of a city that never took us to its heart, that always treated us as aliens, suspects, that told us to keep our voices down and mind our manners.

It was great to be 17 in ’69! Maybe its great to be 17 at any time. But ’69 was my time. Belfast was buzzing. The music was brilliant, Motown and Morrison. I loved dancing and wanted to sing with a band! I had a part-time job and spent my spare time and money in Belfast’s booming dancehalls – the Jazz Club, the Maritime, Betty Staffs and the Plaza!  All ancient history now! A lost era, a lost generation and lost dreams.

Northern Ireland in turmoil

Northern Ireland was not yet in flames, but Derry was alight! Every news bulletin reported the rioting. But In those days Derry seemed very far away. And in the inspirational words of the Who, this was –

“My Generation! My Generation Baby!” and I wanted my Summer of Love! So, with all the confidence of youth, just days before my world fell apart, I left our North Belfast ghetto and, with my mother’s words of warning ringing in my ears, I hiked across the city, over to the exclusive leafy suburbs’ of Minnowburn, to attend a Pop for Peace Concert.

If Derry seemed far away, Minnowburn was another country. An alien place. But the Americans had just done the impossible and landed a man on the moon. Surely this wasn’t such a giant step! And my optimism was rewarded with a gloriously muddy, rainy afternoon of music and pretty girls singing – “All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance!”. It was my short-lived Woodstock.

Unfortunately for me and my generation, the ever present spectre of the North’s violent sectarian division of power cast a dark shadow over this brief idyll. Despite my best efforts, on the evening of the 14th of August, the very eve of the real Woodstock, a very different type of epoch defining event, a very clear statement of that sectarian power, reached out and grabbed me. And it left a very much darker mark on my life.

The rioting in Derry had spread to other parts of the North, as Catholic areas protested against police brutality and came onto the streets in solidarity with the people of the Bogside. Inevitably it spread to Ardoyne and there were riots and running battles on the Crumlin Road. I wasn’t involved. I studiously ignored the rioting on the Crumlin Road over many nights. Even when Bernadette Devlin made a brief visit to Butler St. in the old District of Ardoyne, I wasn’t tempted out of the safety of our house.

When a fire engine had sped down our street earlier on the evening of the 14th, I had stayed put. My friends and I had agreed - we weren’t getting involved. We had a plan and we were sticking to it – get our exams – get A levels – get out of here! So I stayed in watching “Elliot Ness!” on our little black and white TV until a trusted school friend came to our door and knocked me off the fence.

There was something in Jim's voice that brought me out of the house. “You’ve got to see this!”  he pleaded. He told me the shops and houses on the front of the Crumlin Road below the chapel  had been set afire and huge numbers of police and Loyalists were attacking the old District!. He said we had to find a way to help. So we ran down my street, Ladbrook Drive, to Berwick Road - the quickest and safest access to the old District.

 Ardoyne was comprised of two distinct areas – the old District and Glenard – where I lived. Glenard had long streets of relatively modern terraced houses with gardens. The old District was much older with small, cramped, badly constructed terraces of mill houses. Both parts of Ardoyne were held in check by the Crumlin Road, the main bus route into Belfast City Centre, and were overshadowed by the spires of Holy Cross Chapel and Ardoyne Monastery.

The boundary between Glenard and the old District was a very long street called Brompton Park, which backed on to the old District, creating a long alley – or “entry” as we called alleyways – all the way from the Crumlin Rd, past a small Mill Dam, to the Spinning Mills in Flax Street. Berwick Rd. effectively cut Glenard in two, running from its junction with Brompton Park across Glenard to leafy Alliance Ave.

Where Berwick met Brompton there was a entry known as “the Gap”, a little pedestrian pathway through the long terrace of houses into the old District. It was a well-worn path, for the Gap led through into Herbert Street and to the back gate of Holy Cross Boys Primary School. Our primary School – my Primary School! For like almost every other boy from a Catholic family in Ardoyne I had walked through the Gap, to that school almost every school-day from I was 4 until I was 11. 

The Gap was as familiar to us as our own front path. And when Jim and I reached Berwick. The sight that greeted us was shocking. The fire brigade were putting out a fire in a car. The car had been rammed into the Gap. Abandoned, and set on fire!

 Before I could register just how unusual this was in itself - remember this was 1969, there were not that many cars in poor working class areas! There was no joyriding – car theft was rare. A car set on fire in our District? Unheard of!

Before I could take this all in, a woman I knew started screaming at me at the top of her lungs and pointing towards the Gap and the old District  - “Help them, don’t just stand there, you have to help them! They’re trapped in there!” And so it began.

I raced to the car and helped push it aside.  Almost immediately, people started scrambling over it out of the old District. They were terrified, and I didn’t know what to do. Then I was joined by another school friend, Brian Quinn. When Brian clambered over the bonnet of the car into Herbert Street, I followed. Another trusted friend, Martin Crawford was in Herbert Street and he called us forward to Butler Street.

Like Brompton Park, Butler Street ran down through the old District from the ornate gates of the Chapel on the Crumlin Road, to the bare walls of the Mills in Flax Street. Herbert Street ran from the Gap across Butler Street to the Crumlin Road.

At the corner where Herbert Street cut across Butler Street a steep slope dropped away giving a full view over the waste ground where we had played marbles as kids, across the terraced roofs and beyond to the Crumlin Rd. From that vantage point the scene that was revealed below us was scary, like a movie we were too young to watch.

The familiar landscape of my childhood was transformed into a fantasy - a scene from a nightmare. In the distance, buildings were burning on the Crumlin Road. Black ranks of police in helmets and riot shields were half way up Hooker Street. They weren’t putting out the fires. The RUC and B Specials had obviously pushed their way in from the Crumlin Road and were beating people back up Hooker Street. Behind the police, as they advanced, homes were being set on fire. They were pushing into Ardoyne. It was a full scale attack. They were burning the old District.

 I had heard stories about the terrible events in Belfast in the1930s, when my father's family were put out of Ballymacarret, in the east of the city. The pogroms that had shattered the working-class solidarity of the Outdoor Relief Movement. How Catholic families from Ballymacarret / Short Strand and Sailor’s Town had been put out, their homes burnt around them. My granny and many others had been forced out and escaped to Ardoyne, for safety. They had squatted in Brompton Park, in the new estate being built in Glenard. And here it was again, right in front of my eyes.

The RUC and B Specials were leading the attack, hammering their shields with batons. In response to that hard mechanical thumping there was a throaty roar from the crowds directly opposing them in Hooker Street. Other people gathered on the waste ground at the bottom of the street, and there was a mingling of outraged human voices, screaming and shouting. This wall of sound hit us. It seemed like chaos, but there was a deadly plan in play and just how deadly was almost immediately revealed as we ran up Herbert Street towards the Crumlin Road.

Herbert Sreet took a sharp right turn just after the old Hibs snooker club. This bend hid a deadly pincer movement. A column of police advancing from the Crumlin Road was aiming to trap the crowds opposing the RUC and B Specials in Hooker Street.  As we clambered over the makeshift barricade of broken paving slabs outside the Hibs, we saw the column advancing slowly down Herbert Street from the Crumlin Road.

At the very front of this column was a small armoured vehicle, flanked on either side of the street by heavily armed police. They were carrying rifles and other weapons. I just had time to make out a wicked looking machine gun mounted on a turret on the armoured car, when two flaming petrol bombs lit up the night sky.

I didn’t see what the petrol bombs hit as I had instinctively pulled back into the cover of the Hibs, but my friend Brian was just in front of me. He couldn’t get back in time to avoid being hit by the police response to the petrol bombs – a fusillade of shots that raked the street. I had never heard real gunfire. It was terrifying. I don’t know how long it lasted. I was just aware that Brian was knocked off his feet and we needed to pull him to safety.

Others had joined us and an older man we came to call the Big Man, said that Brian was shot and needed to get to hospital. Then I heard a woman scream and ran to help her, and found her husband’s body. My first reaction to discovering Sammy McLarnon's body was to drop to my knees and pray. I was a boy, a good Catholic boy. This poor man was dead – had been killed. What was I supposed to do?

Then suddenly the Big Man, the adult, who had been looking after Brian, came into the McLarnons’ house, put his hand on my shoulder and said “That’s no use to him now! - get a sheet or something to cover him!” I was embarrassed by his practicality in the face of this horror, and I did what I was told. Then I ran messages, for the Big Man and helped the few other adults like Hugh Magee and Martin Meehan who seemed to know what they were doing, as bullets whizzed down from the chapel grounds. Hugh would later be murdered, shot driving his People’s Taxi.  Helping ferry people too nervous to take the bus down the sectarian interface into town.

The rest of that night flickers through my memory as a series of scenes. Someone got Mr O’Connor’s black taxi to move Sammy McLarnon's body. Brian and a guy called Michael Lynch who was badly wounded were taken to hospital. Brian recovered and I heard later that Michael Lynch died from his wounds.

I don’t know why but the police pulled back. It would be comforting to think that maybe wiser, more humane heads recognised the disaster that had just occurred and sought to avert a full scale massacre. Occasional bullets still whizzed down Butler street, or a loud bang or rattle would be heard. I marvelled when I heard people sing “Faith of our Fathers” from the cover of Elmfield Street. What was that about - bravado? A taunt – we’re still here, do your worst? Faith? I’ll never know, but I was comforted by it, as I hugged the wall beside Toal’s shop on Butler Street, wondering what I could do to help.

 And when Martin Meehan spotted me and called me over to the Herbert Street entry, I didn’t think of the bullets and ran to his side in the alley. For like the Big Man, I respected him. They were both tough men, but fair, authentic, decent - with enough maturity to know I was a kid out of his depth. But then again we were all out of our depths.

All except Meehan that is.  He was in his element. Like he had been preparing for this all his life. Fearless, calm, decisive. We had to make a stand he said; we had to do something, we couldn’t let them roll over us into Glenard. We couldn’t let them think they could burn the whole of Ardoyne, unopposed, without a fight.

I didn’t shoot anyone that night. The figure in the smoke identified himself and I gratefully relinquished the shotgun. When daylight came on the 15th, the second attack we feared would overrun us hadn’t materialised and we were still alive. The Wheatfield Lounge and most of the front of the Crumlin Road from the Flax Street Mill to Herbert Street were smouldering ruins, as were many homes in Brookfield Street, Hooker Street, Herbert Street and Chatham Street.

I was finally told to go home and fell exhausted into bed and whilst I slept my Dad and our wonderful neighbour Pat Crossan, who were both busmen, helped to drive the buses out of the local bus depot and put them across the streets leading from the Crumlin Rd, blocking access. They were very effective barriers and boundaries. Pat would later pay with his life for this – like Hugh Magee he was murdered whilst providing a public service,  driving on his bus route.

During the afternoon and evening of the following day more of my schoolfriends turned up and we joined the groups of men and boys who fought running battles across the Crumlin Rd. Bricks and petrol bombs against shotguns and revolvers. Later that evening I was introduced to the Brothers. Each had a shotgun and told me that Fr. Marcellus had asked them to create the impression that Ardoyne was well-armed and defended. 

Before we set off they went back over the rudiments of how to use a shotgun that Meehan had showed me, in that little entry off Herbert Street. The first of many weapons they would teach me how to use. I fired a gun for the first time that night, with one of the brothers at my shoulder giving instructions, just as Meehan had done.  And, as I was to do many times in the Troubles to come, I shadowed the Brothers, as they calmly followed Meehan’s example of firing into the abandoned empty streets. And crawled beside them up to the burnt-out buildings to fire across the Crumlin Road “just to keep their heads down!” as the Brothers said.. 

All through that night the wee armoured car – Meehan called it a “Whippet” – drove up and down the Crumlin Road and fired into the buses. I remember being sent to check on a house in Hooker Street. Someone had said an older woman might have stayed behind, and might now be too terrified to leave, or call for help. As I crawled along in the shadows I heard the Whippet pull up and knew they would open fire into the bus that had been used to block the street. All I could do was hug the ground in a doorway in the shelter of the bus.

Suddenly there was terrible noise and I watched as a burst of machine gun fire from the Whippet strafed the bus, and whizzed on down Hooker Street to cut chunks out of the old school wall. There were fiery streaks and someone explained later that the ammunition belt that fed the machine gun would have special rounds called tracers, at regular intervals, designed to light the path so the gunner would have some idea where they were firing. The Whippet moved on and did the same in Brookfield Street. Just to keep our heads down, I suppose.

On the 16th, Ardoyne seemed to emerge from its state of shock. Or maybe that was just me. For I remember more about it. People came out of their houses in Glenard and seemed to be organising. I was sent to Jamaica St. I was told there was a weapons “dump” there that was being opened and I was to help out. The weapons were bundled in a blanket and I was sent ahead up Brompton Park to clear the way. Crowds had been gathering and we didn’t want well-meaning people to get in the way. We were getting organised and working as a group – a unit.

Once again the Gap in Brompton Park was to play a pivotal role. As I asked people to clear the Gap and mind their own business, I spotted an unfamiliar face, a man, in the crowd. This was my home. We all knew each other – at least by sight and family resemblance. Once I’d completed my task I went over to the man and asked him who he was.

He was taller than me, and I was quite taken aback when he leaned down to me and, in what seemed a very formal way, introduced himself as an officer in the Irish Republican Army. He said he had been sent from Albert Street (the headquarters of the Republican Clubs on the Falls Road)  to liaise with those defending Ardoyne. Candidly this was the first time I’d heard the IRA mentioned. Maybe I hadn’t been listening, too traumatised, too busy trying to help and stay alive.

He mentioned the name of one of the men for whom I had been running errands, and demanded to be taken to him. I wasn’t going to take him anywhere near the house where the weapons were being cleaned and sorted. But I knew where the Brothers were and I took him there. And so began the end game.

Almost immediately, after I had brought him to the Brothers, he seemed to take over. The older men all met with him. I was then asked to take him around the Old District and show him the damage done. After he had talked to the older men, his attitude softened. As we walked he asked me to describe the various attacks, where they had come from and how we had tried to defend the District. He called me his “scout”, and I took him through the burnt out ruins of Brookfield Street, Hooker Street up Chatham Street to the top of Butler Street, and back to the still smouldering ruins where Herbert Street met the Crumlin Road. I was with him when the British Army came on the Crumlin Road and into Herbert Street.

From the shelter of a burnt out building, we watched a Loyalist mob gather on the Crumlin Rd. They were waving flags, and cheering. Then  a British squaddie carrying an SLR rifle with bayonet fixed, turned into Herbert Street from the Crumlin Rd and took up a defensive position against a burnt out building. He was pointing down Herbert Street, into the old District.

He was quickly followed by another British Soldier with a Bren gun. This soldier took up a well-practiced position. He lay down, set the tripod of his Bren gun on the ground, adjusted its characteristic magazine and sighted along the machinegun down Herbert Street, past the burnt out buildings – ironically he was aiming directly at poor Sammy McLarnon's house.

 I was shocked. I hadn’t thought beyond the task in front of me for days – too scared to let my fertile imagination conjure up the fate that awaited me. I’d overheard that the British Army were on the streets of Derry and would most probably appear on the Crumlin Rd at some stage. If I had entertained any thought that the presence of the Brits would save me, they quickly evaporated as I saw two British soldiers emerge from a mob of flag-waving, cheering Loyalists! I was shocked when these British Soldiers took up position and pointed their guns into Ardoyne. They were aiming at us, although we were the victims, for God's sake.

My companion sealed my disillusion when he nodded at the Brits and casually said “We’ll be fighting them soon”. I was relieved when he removed an old Wembley revolver from his belt and told me to take it back to the house that was acting as the weapons store. “We’ve been ordered to dump arms, as soon as they come in” he said. 

His exact words have stuck in my mind all down the years. I see that moment in my head over and over. In the short time I’d spent with this man, I’d come to like him, even admire him, he was calm and attentive to detail. Before the Brits came onto the streets I thought I might have to fight beside him, defending the District against the next surge. But his words opened a chasm between us. All I could think was “Did this mean it was over? Had I survived?!”

I didn’t say anything, but the thought that jumped to the front of my mind was very simple – “I’m not fighting anyone! If they’re not attacking us I’m not fighting them. I did what I could do to help but now I’m getting out. Going to college: I want a different Life!”

 I did as I was told. Passed on his message and asked if there was anything else I could do. I was so relieved when I was told to go home. My poor Mum and Dad were glad to see me home safe. I was so shattered I couldn’t even eat and I just crashed out and slept for what seemed like days.