30th January, 1972.
The date is painful to remember. Seeing it, now, I wonder how I might have gone about my day had I known how it would end. Had I known that my life would change forever over the course of the next twenty-four hours.
It started out as a day of jubilation. Thousands of us were gathering in the streets to protest internment. Dad and I were going to march side by side; carrying a banner calling for civil rights. It was bullshit, the way they were treating us. It was absolute bullshit that they could arrest and keep us on a whim; that we were being locked up for the crime of being Catholic, of wanting our freedom.
“It’s going to end in violence,” Mam said, shaking her head as she watched Dad and I finishing up our banner, the night before the march. “It always does.”
“Not this time, love.” Dad was adamant. “We’re going to show them just how peaceful we can be.”
I don’t know if Mam had yet figured out that the IRA in Bogside basically did what Dad told them to. That he could be so confident in peace because he was commanding it so.
“Well, I won’t hold my breath.”
But Dad and I didn’t have time to coddle her tonight. There was too much to do; too much to get ready. She didn’t join us for evening prayer, either, and we pretended not to notice that she’d been missing those with increasing frequency. After our usual evening prayer, Dad added a new one: the prayer of a soldier going into battle. Because this, after all, was war.
We gathered on the Craggan in the afternoon, bundled up against the cold. The sun had come out to shine upon us and lend its support: we couldn’t have asked for better weather. It were as if God himself were smiling down on us. They had banned protests as soon as they introduced internment, but they were powerless to stop us now. Thousands of us marched the streets – Catholics from all walks of life; all united; all side by side – singing as we went. The police and the British army stood aside, dumbfounded; caught in stalemate. With this many of us rallying together, to start making arrests or to open fire would be to cause a riot.
Dad was at my side, holding one supporting pole of our banner. “Alright?” he asked me, and I barely heard him over the din; over the sound of Catholic voices crying out to be heard. I beamed back at him in response, telling him all he needed to know. God, I felt so alive. This is what I was born for: to fight for Northern Ireland, for the wee six, for our freedom. Windows opened and people waved at us from inside their homes as we marched by, some coming out to join us.
We reached the corner of Williams Street and Rossville Street, where the British army had set up their barricade. There, we split. While some hung back, uncertain, others pressed on; confronting the soldiers.
I turned to Dad. “You feel like telling them to feck off?”
Out here, there was no reprimand for bad language: out here, I was not his seventeen-year-old daughter, but his battle comrade. “Always,” he said, grinning.
We joined the throng that was confronting the British soldiers. God, they were cowardly. Dressed from head to toe for battle, they wore full riot gear: helmets with visors; flameproof flak vests; gloves; steel-capped boots. They were armed: they were always armed. Dad and I pushed our way through to the front.
“Turn back and go home,” one of them was saying. “That’s enough of this, now. You’ve made your point. Go on home.”
I spat in his face, and it landed on his cheek. He looked at me and I stared back; defiant. He walked away, talking into his radio.
“Scared off by a girl, are ye?” Dad called after him.
I don’t want to claim that I started it, but all around us, others started spitting at the British, too. Stones were thrown, and that is when things got ugly.
It started with rubber bullets. We took down fencing and used the sheets of corrugated iron as shields to protect ourselves; but the British were not interested in keeping things peaceful. They turned their fire hoses against us, sending jets of purple-dyed water at us with such force that we were knocked, flailing, to the ground. Dad and I remained close enough to the wall of the British to be out of range of the jets, but something just off behind their armoured jeeps caught his eye.
“Shit,” he said, tugging at my arm, “that’s the first para.”
And he was right: they were unmistakable. The First Battalion Parachute Regiment were feared throughout Northern Ireland for their brutality. They rivalled even the Black and Tans for their ruthlessness.
“What do we do?” I asked him. It wasn’t in us to run away, but the 1-Para was a different matter; and it seemed that Mam’s prediction of violence was going to come true.
Suddenly, the area around was enveloped in smoke.
“Gas!” Dad yelled, and both of us immediately covered our mouths with our scarves, but it was too late: I felt my eyes and my throat burning; and I doubled over, blinded, unable to straighten up as my body was racked by coughs. Breathing was agony; every breath feeling like knives coursing through my windpipe. I was aware of a hand gripping my arm and dragging me forwards, and I hoped and assumed it was Dad. I could not see, through the smoke and my own tears, who it belonged to.
“In here, quickly!” came a woman’s voice, and the air suddenly became clearer. We were in a stranger’s living room. “Those bastards,” she said, and as the room gradually came into focus I could see that it was indeed Dad who had dragged me away. At least we were together.
The woman brought us a bowl filled with warm, soapy water, and a couple of wash cloths. We rinsed the gas from our eyes so that at least we could see, but there was nothing we could do about the burning in our lungs.
“Thank you,” Dad said to the woman.
“You’re welcome to stay until it’s all died down,” she said. “It might be a while.”
“Oh, no,” said Dad, grinning now, “thank you, but we know where we need to be. Ready, Moira?”
I took one more gulp of the clean, fresh air. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said to the stranger, and we headed back out into battle.
I don’t know how much time had passed while we washed the sting from our eyes in the comfort of a stranger’s living room, but it was time enough for the streets to descend into chaos. Dad led me down back streets to an alleyway where the rest of his IRA cell were gathered.
“I didn’t lie to your mother,” he said, uneasily, “but we had to be prepared, just in case.”
It was then that his fellow freedom fighters stepped aside to reveal a stack of petrol bombs and guns.
“You can turn back now and go home,” Dad said. “We won’t think any less of you.”
I shook my head. “Not a chance in hell. Tell me where you want me.”
“We’ll take William Street. Tommy, you come with us. Seamus and John, you head up to Rossville Street. You two-” he gestured to his remaining allies, “-run supply.”
“Mick…” the man named Seamus looked uncertain. “Don’t take her near William Street. They just opened fire on a bunch of kids up there. One of them is dead.”
I felt my heart skip a beat.
“Perhaps you should go home, Moira.” Dad said.
“No!” I was indignant. “I am not going home. So either you can tell me where I need to be, or I can try to figure it out on my own.”
“Why don’t you two go up to Rossville, and we’ll take William Street?” Seamus said.
Dad nodded. “Come on, Moira. Load up.”
We grabbed a handful of nail bombs each, and made our way up to Rossville Street. It was easy enough to get to the top of Rossville Flats. From there, throwing nail bombs at the British down below was as easy as dropping a bottle and then ducking from the return fire. I didn’t have time to feel guilty for breaking my promise to Mam; I didn’t have time to think about who was beneath us or what was right or wrong. All that mattered was fighting for Derry. Beneath us, we watched in horror as the army rounded on civilians, trapping them in the courtyard of the flats. I had a bottle in my hand and was taking aim when Dad’s fingers gripped around my wrist. “No,” he said, “not like that. There’s too many of us down there. Come on.”
We went down the way we came, back out onto the streets, and joined a throng of civilians sheltering between flat blocks one and two.
“Everybody okay over here?” Dad asked, and although the faces all around him were white with terror, he received a few quiet murmurs of “yes” and a few nods. No one was injured. We could hear the smattering of gunfire, and the very distant screams of protestors beyond the Flats.
“Hey, did you hear that?” someone said, and although we couldn’t have been any quieter, we all held our breath.
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