Belfast Aurora: “That night directed my path”
In this excerpt from his newly-published Belfast Aurora: A Memoir of a Falls Childhood, 1971-1973 (Merrion Press), the late BBC Northern Ireland journalist and Dart Center Ochberg Fellow Seamus Kelters recalls how a 10-year-old’s fateful encounter with the reality of civil conflict shaped his reporting.
My uncle went to the funeral of this man he did not know. No one, save me, understood why.
I see his silhouette, forty years ago, still caught between the wipers. I heard the thump on the bonnet and my uncle’s foot punch the brake.
His face was on the windscreen, his eyes staring, bulging in fear.
My uncle wound the window down. The man was right there.
‘Get me to hospital. I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot.’ He repeated it as though trying to convince himself.
We had dropped off my father at Mass and I was still in the back seat of the little car. I stayed put. He stumbled round the front, clinging as if afraid my uncle would drive off, taking his life away. The passenger door was open. He threw himself into the seat and, with his scream, we were moving.
The hospital, the Royal, was a couple of miles away. I knew every brick on our route. We were already passing the scrap yard, Eastwood’s. Beyond, the three great western roads in the city, the Andersonstown, the Glen and Falls flowed into a confluence marked by the triangle of cemetery, bus depot and barracks.
‘Ah Christ, no.’
The car hit the ramps at the barracks and the chicane outside the cemetery faster than its suspension could cushion. I saw him shudder. I glanced at Milltown’s gates. I always associated that place with tension, for on the few occasions when I was brought to funerals, there were mumbled prayers and cold and tears. Voluntarily going to such a place seemed strange to a child, so much misery. Even curiosity at the sallow faces could not hold me there and I fidgeted always to be away. Passing those gates always brought a little ice, winter or summer.
‘Aw Christ. It hurts. It hurts.’
I studied the back of his head, concentrating on the engine to avoid hearing his words pitch to screams. I looked out of the window to my left. There were the long railings of the park. Somewhere through the dark, I imagined its bowling green, bandstand and open-air swimming cooler, all swept this night by rain and empty of the joy of people.
Then the way became bordered by the Protestant cemetery, some headstones smattering back glints of light, each one a death’s reminder. I had to look back into the car, forced to stare again at the back of his head.
I glanced down at my knees. They were shaking.
After the junction with the Whiterock came a whole crush of shops. On Sundays, when my father would walk me to a football match at Casement Park, we would go into a little sweet shop there and he would buy me a bag of lemon drops or chewy bon bons dusted with sugar icing. The ‘lion house’ was on the right, imposing with its ornamental gateposts and statues guarding its door. My parents would point to it from the bus when I was younger. ‘There’s the lion house.’ I knew the black stone lions would be watching from their pedestals, judging my fear.
‘Jesus, Jesus stop the car. It hurts. It hurts. Ah Jesus.’
‘Where are you hit?’
My uncle asked the question in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable. I think he was perhaps asking to stop the man’s screams and if that was so, it worked. The man paused. I saw his shoulders ease and he looked at my uncle, as if wanting to help both of them somehow comprehend the enormity of what had transpired.
‘The stomach. He shot me in the stomach.’
I was ten. I could easily distinguish gunshots, the crack of pistols, the machine tat-tat-tat of automatics, roars of the big rifles. I already knew a stomach wound from any gun, even a little one, could end life, could put you in Milltown. I had already witnessed wounds. As we tumbled from a bus, I saw a man’s body lifted into the ambulance. There was a horrible mess around his head, all white and black redness and a lifeless arm seemed to loll back towards his van as the ambulance sped off, its doors still open. A bomb was thrown into the chip shop, so close it had broken our windows. I went outside and saw the bloody-messed bandages and people with bright blood flowing from heads and hands. There was the fleshy hole on my grandfather’s arm, so big I could bury two fingers inside. I had asked him once if it had hurt. He said it had not, that it was numb and that he had run like a rabbit chased by foxes.
This man was deep in pain, scared, terrified, no question. In the darkness, there was the smell of wet sweat. There was steam coming from his head. He said he was a chef in another hospital and had been on his way home. Because he was walking towards Andersonstown, they knew he was Catholic.
We were passing the ‘Giant’s Foot’, an undeveloped sprawl of a track we would use as a shortcut if there was trouble on the road. That was the phrase everyone used: ‘trouble on the road’. It covered everything from rioting and burning cars to shooting and gun battles. It occurred to me that this night we were the ‘trouble on the road’. I saw no other person. There was just the three of us.
Beechmount, a residential home for the elderly run by nuns, sat back in several stepped acres of land. Each autumn we would venture the wrath of its groundsman by hunting under the sprawling chestnut trees for conkers to string, smash and batter each other’s knuckles.
‘He just shot me. It was the pillion passenger on a motorbike. He just shot me. Ah Christ, it hurts.’
There was another smell, metallic almost, like the spirals of drilled aluminium that would cling to my father’s overalls. Blood. I did not need to see it to know the smell. It was like the time the football had hit me square in the nose and even after I had cleaned it off, I had coughed up a big gob of livery redness. This was the same – no worse, stronger.
‘Hail Mary full of grace. Hail Mary full of grace.’
He was breathless between the sentences, unable to finish the prayer.
‘The Lord is with you,’ I said into myself.
‘Hail Mary full of grace. Hail Mary full of grace. Ah fuck, it hurts. Fuck, it hurts.’
I looked around as though expecting a priest or God or the devil himself to spring from the upholstery. Prayer and profanity clashed. It was more shocking than any wound.
I prayed silently he would not pray again.
‘Christ, Christ, it hurts.’
We bumped over the uneven surface where some burnt barricade’s bits of metal were burnished into the melted tar. His loudest screams filled the car, making me want to close my eyes and put my fingers in my ears.
Outside was Beechmount Avenue. I heard myself breathe. This was familiar ground. From here on I had explored every side street and back alley – we called them entries. There was our scout hall in Shields Street and Kennedy’s bakery where, on the way to school, we would jump up to gather dough sticking to the window grills. This would be rubbed in the hands and hardened to throw later at each other in class. Almost opposite the avenue was the Broadway, the cinema where I escaped into the primary colours and sweet storyboards of Disney’s films before submerging, blinking, into the grey light of the city. One of its seven rivers, the Blackstaff, the ‘Blackie’ to us, flowed under the road.
My uncle pressed hard on the accelerator, the engine labouring as the Falls swept up again past the Presbyterian church which the adults always seemed to be confusingly proud of, its congregation’s ability to worship a sign that locals were somehow not as bigoted as Protestants.
The Beehive Bar was on one side of the road and Paddy Hynd’s on the other. Broadway sloped off to the right. In the front room of a little house there, I attended piano lessons each Saturday morning with Miss Theresa McCarthy, a kindly woman who tolerated my disinterest with infinite patience. I imagined the notes on the piano, so shiny and polished. I could hear myself play exercise scales. Now I could see the lights of the hospital ahead. They were the only lights the length of the road. The red-brick wall of the hospital on one side and the opposite big basalt-black wall of ‘the Dominican’, a convent school with its enormous rose stained-glass window, formed an open canyon. With my mother, I had been caught there one night when shooting broke out. She held me close to the wall as bullets pinged and zinged overhead. A chill ran the length of my spine.
St Paul’s was on the corner of my grandmother’s street. There I had been baptised and had my first confession, Holy Communion and confirmation. I filled my plastic water pistols in its fonts, my grandmother lived in the shadow of its parochial house.
Directly across the road was the entrance to the hospital, the way into the casualty department stacked in sandbags in case it came under attack, soldiers stationed inside and on the roof.
The car stopped so quickly my head almost touched the man’s seat in front. I pressed myself back into my own seat as my uncle got out.
‘I’ll get help,’ was all he said, and he was away. The man breathed heavily, my own breathing patterning his, and him seemingly unaware of my presence. I do not know how long we were there, otherwise silent. Steam from the man was clouding the windows again. I tried not to move.
I feared blinking.
My uncle was back.
‘They won’t open the doors. They won’t open the doors.’ Panic for the first time edged his voice.
He was back behind the wheel. The engine spluttered over, easy because it was hot.
The man reacted, not as I expected with another scream or curse, but with something more guttural, a groan quaking through his deep being. We moved off. My uncle wiped the inside of the windscreen with the sleeve of his coat and stared ahead. We turned right onto the Grosvenor Road and then pulled across to the gate in the wall.
Just beyond there, the pigeon-stained Queen Victoria was on her throne, holding an orb, sitting, it seemed, in judgement on the poor of Belfast as they came and went with their ailments and visits to the infirm. The statue was under a canopy that let in a deathly ethereal light. I never liked looking at it because it was frightening. I imagined her coming to life, standing up, frowning at me directly.
‘Christ.’ It was my uncle, not the man. ‘It’s shut.’
The car hardly stopped before it was rolling again down the hill to the far gates. These too were locked. ‘Ah Jesus. Jesus.’
Pain was overwhelming him.
My uncle made a full swinging U-turn, retracing our route back up to the main entrance.
Again he got out. Again the man and I sat, each alone.
He was praying again, this time almost into himself, mumbling rather than speaking the words. I recognised the prayer from the cadence of the hum. When he reached the phrase ‘now and at the hour of our death’, he stopped.
‘You’ll be okay.’
It was as if someone else, not me, was speaking. My voice surprised us both, I think. He started, then made a series of staccato turns, fumbling to shield his side, looking at me for the first time.
‘Och son, I didn’t see you. It hurts.’
‘I know,’ I said. What else could I say? ‘You’ll be okay.’ His door opened. My uncle was back.
‘I got the soldiers. They’re letting us in. Come on.’
My uncle had his arm and was trying to pull him to his feet. Leaning forward I could see he was bigger than I had thought. One leg was out of the car on the ground, but he was rocking against the pain in an attempt to stand.
I leaned forward and put my hand to try to help him up, out, away.
My hand touched him without thinking.
‘Aw Jesus. Fuck. Jesus.’
I pressed back into the seat again and in that moment he was gone, a silhouette shape, one man helping another, fading towards the chink of light 20 yards away across the pavement.
I could feel it on my hand where I had touched him, tacky and disgusting. I did not look, could have seen nothing in the dark anyway.
A car passed. I was alone. I realised my uncle had not completely closed the door.
My chest pounded. I heard the rain beads hit the windscreen and hit the road. I could not move. I feared someone was going to come to the car and blame me. I was there, there was my hand, there was this man who was going to die. My grandmother’s house was at most thirty seconds away. I did not look in that direction. I could not move. Time passed.
The door opening jarred me. My uncle was back.
‘They just wanted to know where we found him.’
He was turning the wheel, pulling the passenger door closed, swinging across the road to my grandmother’s street.
We got out and walked inside, the warmth making me realise I was shivering. There was a clatter of talk, my uncle explaining to my grandmother what had happened and her fussing.
She asked my uncle for his name.
He looked at her blankly, his eyes away on the memory.
‘I don’t know,’ he told her.
She turned the radio on and within quarter of an hour we were hearing the pips count down to the bulletin.
‘Good evening. This is the Radio Ulster news.’ There was the briefest of pauses. ‘A man has been admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital with gunshot wounds. There are no further details.’
I was standing at the sink in the scullery, washing the blood from my hand.
A fortnight later, my uncle pointed to a paragraph tagged on to another story in the newspaper.
‘Meanwhile, a man who was shot two weeks ago at Kennedy Way in west Belfast has died in hospital. He was married with two children.’
All I could think was ‘I knew he would.’
The nightmares did not start until I was sixteen. I would sit bolt upright in bed, staring at the shape imprinted on my mind’s eye, the man through the rain and windscreen wipers. Sweat was cold on my back. The image, always consistent, visited periodically over the following years. There was a discomfort, I put it no stronger, to being in a car on a rainy night.
If truth be told, that night directed my path. I became
a journalist, wanting always to add those ‘further details’ and cursing when I fell short. Sometimes my uncle and I would talk of the man, reliving the intimacy of that so exclusive journey.
The nightmares continued, gradually holding less terror than a daily working reality disproportionately spent standing at white tapes. One day I had a conversation with a policeman. I told him the story of the nameless man.
‘You have no chance of finding him,’ he told me. Records from the seventies had rotted.
Half an hour later he called me.
‘You’ll never guess what I’ve just found?’
Andersonstown Barracks was being demolished. Dated February 1973, a book from B Division was on top of one of the boxes of paperwork that had been moved. Entries told the story of two weekend shootings on successive nights, both at Kennedy Way. The man shot on the Saturday died a fortnight later. The man shot on the Sunday evening? He lived.
He gave me the survivor’s name. Tracing him, I discovered he had never worked again after the shooting. His injuries were too severe. I did not make any attempt to speak to him, for whatever he could recount was not my story. Unquestionably, it was more terrible, much more pain-invested than any momentary trauma experienced by an accidental witness.
The nightmares stopped, overnight.
Some years later, the man died. My uncle saw the death notice in the paper. He felt compelled to go to the funeral of this man he had saved from death. He knew no one in the church. No one there knew him as he listened to the priest speak of the man’s life after the shooting. He saw the holy water sprinkled on the lid, smelt the incense and watched grandchildren bear the coffin out for burial and, yes, he knew the man’s name.