Cian Henderson lived next door to us. We had never exchanged more than informal pleasantries with him, but just from seeing him every day we felt that we knew him; as I am sure he felt he knew us. We knew that he was a stickler about bringing his dustbins in as soon as the rubbish had been collected. We knew that he would get up at five o’clock every morning, come rain or shine, to walk his dog. We knew that he lived alone; that he had never married and didn’t have any children. I suppose he was the oddball of the street. If he were richer, you’d call him eccentric. But, poor as he was, Mr Henderson was known as somewhat of a crackpot.
When you talked to Mr Henderson, he would either lose interest in the conversation and walk away – which everyone thought extremely rude – or you would get locked into talking about one thing and try desperately to break free while he went on and on. One morning, a quick “how are you, Mr Henderson?” left me trapped listening as he berated me about the length of our grass. If we happened to be outside at the same time as him, it was usually quicker and better just to give him a friendly wave and be on our way; not to stop and chat.
We first noticed that something was wrong when his bins were still out late in the evening after they had been emptied.
“I ought to say something,” said Mam, peeking out through the lace curtain in the kitchen. “Give him a taste of his own medicine.” Not too long ago, Mr Henderson had come knocking on our door to moan that our dustbins were still out.
Then, after two days had gone by and the dustbins hadn’t moved, the feeling in our house changed from smugness to concern. Dad accosted the postman one morning to ask if he had seen Mr Henderson lately, and the postman said no. Each neighbour and parishioner that we spoke to also said that they had not seen him, and the worry in their voices was telling. A year or two ago, not seeing Mr Henderson would have been a cause for celebration. But now, a familiar face going missing, even an unpopular one, was cause for concern.
“I think we should go check on him,” I said one night, when the bins had been sitting out for a week. “The worst that can happen is he tells us to sod off.”
Dad nodded. “I’ll go knock on his door.”
“I’ll come with you.”
There was no answer when we knocked on his door, but the dog immediately started barking. Dad and I frowned at each other. The dog being left alone in the house immediately shut down any false hope that we had that Mr Henderson had gone on holiday.
I opened the letterbox and yelled through it. “Mr Henderson? Are you in there?”
No answer; just the dog’s continued, frantic barking.
Dad tried the door, and found it open. “Come on,” he said, jerking his head inside.
The moment we stepped in the house, the smell was overwhelming. It was a stench of dog shit and rancid food, and a house that had been shut up for a long time.
The dog, a crossbreed about the size of a Labrador, came running at the sound of my voice and immediately barreled me to the ground, smothering me in kisses, whining. He was filthy, and smelled like he’d been rolling in his own piss for days. I like dogs as much as the next person, but not when they smell like that. I pushed him aside and tried to engage his super-senses and get him to lead me to Mr Henderson, but no luck. The stupid animal just sat pitifully against my legs and moaned as I scratched his ears, while Dad searched the upstairs of the house. I searched the downstairs as best I could with a large mutt glued to my side.
The good news is that the smell wasn’t Mr Henderson.
The bad news is that there was no sign of Mr Henderson.
We took the dog home and washed him up, and offered him food, but he would not eat. Forty five minutes later, Mam and I were sitting on the floor in the lounge with a cold, wet, miserable, and hungry Labrador between us. Dad was looking through Mr Henderson’s address book, calling everyone who shared the same last name, but no one had seen him. Eventually, we were forced to accept that Mr Henderson had vanished from the face of the earth.
“I don’t understand it,” said Mam, petting the dog’s head. “People don’t just disappear.”
“No,” Dad said, darkly, “they don’t.”
“Dad, do you think that this was the UVF?”
Dad nodded, slowly.
Mam scoffed. “Oh, lay off it. What would the UVF want with Cian Henderson?”
“The same thing they want to achieve by blowing up a school with no one in it. It’s a warning. He’d been running his mouth, and now he’s gone.”
We watched his dog for several days, and kept an eye on his house, too. Although we’d found it unlocked and his keys had been hanging up on a hook by the back door, there was a little part of us that hoped this was all some eccentricity of his; hoped that he would show up at our door acting as if taking off and leaving your dog behind was a perfectly normal thing for a person to do. We called the police and filed a report: a report which, Dad said, they would give no attention. Eventually, when another week had passed; when word had spread through the Bogside that Cian Henderson was missing and no one put forth any information; we were forced to go through his address book again and call his sister in County Armagh. She picked the dog up the next day, and even gave us a little money to reimburse us for what he’d cost us.
We never did find out where Cian Henderson went; and that wasn’t even the worst part.
The worst part was how normal it all felt.
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 rivaled 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.