Many of the Tributes which will be published and broadcast for Sam McAughtry who has died aged 90 will mention his working class Belfast background, his service in the British “Royal” Air Force during World War Two,his career in the Norn Iron Civil Service, his trade unionism, his leftyness, his career in retirement as an author, journalist and broadcaster, the Peace Campaigner, the member of the Irish Senate.
These are of course publicly known facts. If you want to know more about that you must go elsewhere. This is kinda “personal” tribute which is ironic…and indeed difficult …because of the very PUBLIC nature of the Blog.
Sometimes a certain “secrecy” makes Truth easier.
Sometimes actual facts become a kinda “parable”…names and places changed to facilitate a Greater Truth.
Rarely is it just right to say it as it is…or was.
Because I knew Sam McAughtry.
In June 1972, I got a job in the Norn Iron Civil Service. The Troubles were at that stage getting worse on a daily basis. I had just turned twenty, and in this Blog, I have often written about the arc of events in 1971-72, which I think influenced my thinking in so many ways. At that stage Internment (August 1971), McGurks Bar (December 1971) and Bloody Sunday (January 1972). And there had been a major gun battle in and around Ballymurphy-Moyard.
I suppose a good sign that I got a job.
But…for a dazzling urbanite like myself, the Department of Agriculture (yes Agriculture!) seemed an unlikely place to have a career.
And a ten storey office block at Dundonald meant a serious logistical problem.
A bus when available from Upper Springfield into Belfast City Centre.
Another bus (#16 or #17 ) from Malcolmsons the Jewelers via the Queens or Albert Bridge, Newtownards Road…to Dundonald.
Not an appealing journey for a Ballymurphy youth…in the summer of 1972.
I took an instant dislike to the place and the job. The hierarchy was irritating.
An office of maybe twelve people.
A Staff Officer with a shock of white hair sat at the top of the room, school-master like.
He tended to stare absent-mindedly.
The Junior Staff Officer was a mousey spinster lady who seemed to have no real life.
Two Executive Officers…one, who was nearing retirement was Catholic and he marked the young Catholics card…identifying the “bastards” for me. The other Executive Officer was ambitious and just too nice to be credible.
And then there the rest of us ….the flirty 40 year old woman, the 45 year old ex-RAF man ( as was the Staff Officer), the lazy old English woman, the quiet lady with one arm, the flirty school leaver girl and the very funny guy who would later be convicted as a UVF bomber.
Outside…in the corridor were professional men (yes all men) who had their own offices and to whom we never spoke.
There was a general Civil Service resentment. A few months previously, the Stormont Government and parliament had been abolished and Direct Rule imposed from Westminster. It was almost as if civil servants felt personally humiliated.
A Hierarchy…and an alien environment and I hated it.
The Office was doing very mundane work but it seemed to tick by.
By the way, the Staff Officer with the shock of white hair was Sam McAughtry.
So Friday, 21st July 1972 seemed like just another day.
It wasnt of course.
It was Bloody Friday.
And from our viewpoint in the Dundonald Office Block, we heard the dull thuds and watched the rising plumes of smoke and people kept getting updates on the casualties and deaths.
We were all allowed to go home.
But with one of the bombs going off in Oxford Street Bus Centre, the public transport system was suspended. Not a major problem of course for those who lived in the east of the City. Inevitably the majority of staff lived in suburban East Belfast..and commuter towns like Newtownards, Bangor, Comber etc.
As my colleagues left the office, with barely a backward glance, it was clear I was being left to my own devices…a trek of maybe four or five miles thru “hostile” territory…past the Short Strand inter-face to the City Centre and the comparative safety of West Belfast.
At that point Sam McAughtry arranged a lift for me…from one of those “professionals” in the corridor. We passed the journey in total silence…the “professional” …and I will never forget his name….and his female passenger….pointedly did not speak to me at all.
He just dropped me at the Albert Clock in the City Centre and did not even acknowledge that I had thanked him.
God, I hated that office. In fairness, it was…and the Troubles were being played out against some late teen angst of the “Boy-Girl” kind.
But I just hated it.
One morning….I just had enough. I was given an audio typing tape (how quaint that expression sounds now) and told to bring it to the Typing Room downstairs.
And I left the tape…and just walked out of the building and walked to a bus stop and got a bus into Belfast City Centre and went to the Central Library.
Of course that was a very effective RESIGNATION.
Except that it wasnt one.
When I got home about 6pm, my mother told me to go and see our local priest. He had a message for me. Of course my mother did not know about my “resignation”. Nor did I tell her.
As it happened, the local priest had been a reference on my job application.
He had been told about the walkout.
And urged me to go back to work. Mr McAughtry wanted to talk to me.
Well I had no choice.
And the next morning I went and talked to Sam…who told me to take a few days off and they would sort out a transfer to an office in central Belfast.
In talking to me, Sam talked about the trauma and indeed the drama of flying over Germany in a bomber in the Second World War and coming home to the anti-climax of a clerical job in the Norn Iron Civil Service…his first job was actually in the old Labour Exchange…and how one day just working for arrogant bosses made him explode angrily at one of them.
He was lucky to keep his job.
And so it was.
A couple of days leave…and back to the office, where people like the flirty 40 year old woman and the ambitious Executive Officer tippy-toed around me. Until I got a transfer to another office…and its odd ensemble of strange people, like the woman who had been jilted at the altar and the man with the drink addiction.
It was like they had gathered together all the problem people in one office.
Thank GOD I left the Civil Service.
Of course Sam McAughtry, in retirement went on to a second career as broadcaster, writer, Peace Campaigner and even appointed to the Irish Senate.
A good writer…A good lefty kinda guy (who really had too much faith in that whole NI Labour stuff).
When I took the head staggers and walked out of the Stormont block and estate, nobody actually knew that I had done so voluntarily. When it was noticed, I was missing,…there was some very brief concern that I might have been abducted. Police on the Stormont estate were briefly involved.
That #16 #17 bus…in the 1970s UVF gunmen got on one of those buses and went straight upstairs and shot dead a Catholic coming home from Stormont. They knew exactly who to shoot.
Things were really thatbad.
Sam McAughtry RIP