This is a re-written/edited version of an article I wrote for a USA-based academic website a few years ago.
I started work aged 17 on 29th September 1969. My parents were deeply disappointed that I had decided to leave school at the start of my final year at a grammar school. This was just nine months away from completing my “A” levels and getting into university.
At that time, my parents did not know that I had actually been playing truant from school for several months. My first working day was therefore just six weeks after the Troubles are generally accepted as started (August 1969).
So in a very real sense, there is a dividing line between my schooldays (pre-Troubles) and working life (post-Troubles).
So I applied for a few jobs in the summer of 1969. The target was being a clerical officer or clerical assistant in Belfast Corporation (now known as Belfast City Council). I had seven “O” levels (two more than I needed to be a CO and five more than I needed to be a CA.
I went for an interview and was appointed as a Clerical Officer.
So…Belfast City Hall….and maybe twelve new recruits in the Corporation Chamber. And we were given our Oath Of Allegiance (to “Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors”) to sign. Incredible as it seems now, this Oath had to be signed before getting employment in any government or semi government job.
Maybe the “Oath” acted as a deterrent to committed republicans not to apply for such jobs. Maybe naive of Belfast Corporation to think that the “Oath” actually meant anything to the Catholic recruits. Maybe it was just a form of ritual humiliation.
But was it really an Oath?
It was actually a sheet of paper A5 size with text on each side. One side was a formal oath, “I swear to Almighty GOD” and the other side was less formal “I solemnly promise”. Catholics signed the promise and Protestants signed the oath. No Catholic/nationalist would ask GOD to witness that nonsense.
So when I get to Heaven…as I surely will….GOD will not hold it against me.
The Corporation had a lot of Departments….Parks, Town Clerk, Surveyors, Gas, Electricity etc. I was assigned to the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department. It was on the Albert Bridge (over the River Lagan). In 2021, nothing remains of the building except a small stone wall opposite Lanyon Railway Station.
The River Lagan divides the city of Belfast. The city centre shopping areas are on the west bank and West Belfast is mostly Catholic, North Belfast and South Belfast are mixed and across the Lagan East Belfast is almost all Protestant. There was a small Catholic enclave (Short Strand) just over the Albert Bridge.
As the name implies, the Electricity Department ran the electricity supply in the city of Belfast….reading meters, connecting services, selling immersion heaters, washing machines, installing supply to new buildings etc. A a clerical officer, my job was converting the readings taken by meter inspectors into quarterly bills.
The higher ups were all Protestant but the clerical staff (lower orders like me) were mixed. For the most part, the Protestant clerical staff lived in the Castlereagh area. Indeed one went on to be UUP Mayor of Castlereagh.
My father had long warned me about Freemasons and their influence in the City Hall. When we paid our Rates or Electric Bill and walked away from the cashier, he would ask me if I noted the man’s lapel badge or the outsize ring he wore….so when I started work I was already primed to note the sub-sect of masons, respectable middle class men who were cosy with each other…and their funny hand shakes. Probably the least secret “secret society” in the entire world.
Although I had lived in a “mixed” street all my life, working was a strange introduction into the various religious and class structure within Belfast Protestant and unionist culture.
Mrs Smith, the anti-Catholic religious woman who left little religious tracts on my desk. As I did not drink, smoke or curse, she viewed me as not being a real Catholic. I could easily be saved if I abandoned my Catholic Puritanism for Protestant Puritanism.
There was Bob, a sergeant in the B Specials. He lked to ask questions. I was fore-warned by Catholic co-workers. “he will be vetting you”.
So the strange mix of “respectable” masons, Orange and loyal order men, religious freaks, anti-sectarian (but unionist) trade unionists, “B Specials”, the downright sectarian thugs in the non-clerical workforce and the handful of Protestants who seemed to prefer the company of Catholics….it was all there.
The Catholics lived in the Falls area.
The Laganbank Road (at the back of the main building) was the area for non clerical staff. Almost exclusively Protestant, (one section had 61 Protestants and just 1 Catholic but oddly that solitary Catholic was not abused…most abuse was heaped on the Protestant married to a Catholic and who lived on the Falls Road) and they mostly lived in Newtownards Road. These were meter inspectors, repair men, installers, drivers, electricians etc.
It was a hassle at times. There was a long corridor, decorated with pictures of Mrs Windsor and Dukey Embra going back to the Coronation. It was a kinda gauntlet of abuse, especially for female Catholic workers. And it accelerated as the Troubles got worse.
The odd thing was that from late 1969 thru to Easter 1970, it looked at times that the genie of Violence could be put back into the bottle. I remember feeling very grown up about going to a party in a nice new house…a housewarming I think….in Carnmoney, in the North Belfast suburbs.. The first occasion I had ever seen alcohol in a private house. And later in Dermott Hill, about 200 metres from my house, where we all listened to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” .
We had a football match …….Boys versus Girls…we even got our photo in a local newspaper. And had a concert for charity in St Georges Hall. All very normal.
But it all went wrong at Easter. There was rioting between our estate, New Barnsley (mixed) and Ballymurphy (Catholic) and in the aftermath, the Protestants left New Barnsley and this had a chain reaction thru the city….as the anti Catholic pogrom had less than a year before.
Any doubt that the violence was unstoppable was resolved in June and the Battle of St Matthews in the Short Strand. There are two narratives for the Battle of St Matthews. One is that the tiny Catholic enclave was attacked by a loyalist mob, determined to burn the church to the ground and repulsed by a small determined IRA unit. The other narrative is that peace loving loyalist Orangemen were provoked into an an IRA trap. Whatever…the IRA won the battle.
Short Strand enclave was just over Albert Bridge from the Electricity Department. In the aftermath, Catholic workers were forced to leave the Belfast shipyard and there were rumours that the Catholics in the Electricity Department would also be forced to leave. It was curious…the Protestants in the workshops were sullen and angry. The Catholics had a strut.
A few days after the Battle, I spent my lunch hour wandering around the streets in Short Strand…Seaforde Street, Madrid Street, Bryson Street etc…I had never been in the area before.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary was re-organised. One of my Catholic co-workers joined up. He continued to live in West Belfast. He was maybe 28 years old. a kinda mentor to us who were in our late teens or slightly older. He had been at both those parties. He played in that football match.
A post-script……I was out with my first girlfriend, Theresa about a year later. And we were on Shaws Road at Andytown and we heard three shots in the darkness. I got her home. One of those shots hit my old co-worker in the head and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I only saw him once again…..when I was walking thru the Outpatients in a hospital and he had an appointment.
He died just over a year ago in 2020. Fifty years in a wheelchair after less than a year in RUC, he was convinced his West Belfast neighbours would not do that. There was not a bad bone in his body.
Theresa…she is part of the narrative. She had gone out with my friend Harry in 1970 and when he dumped her, I seemed to spend every lunch time, hoping I would accidently bump into her outside her office in Corporation Street. Eventually she did go out with me but dumped me in October 1971 because I was too serious. She got engaged to somebody else a few months later.
See…that is the thing about the Troubles. It was civil war. But it was also about Boy Meets Girl. Girl Dumps Boy. It was about new music…”In the Summertime” (Mungo Jerry in 1970), various T Rex and Slade to “Maggie May” (Rod Stewart in 1971). t was also about Sport…Manchester United were in decline from winning the European Cup in 1968 and would be relegated in 1973.
Nobody ever went out. All we had was Television…….British shows like Cilla Black, Generation Game, Black & White Minstrels, Top of the Pops and American shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, Ironside.
As the killings mounted, the Troubles were here to stay. They were not even a talking point in the offices. Or if there was talk…Catholics talked to Catholics and Protestants talked to Protestants. Early in 1972, I went to a funeral of someone I had been at school with. His 50th anniversary is next week.
But Belfast Corporation Electricity Department (the city utility) was about to be merged with other electricity providers into the new NIES (Norn Iron Electricity Service). This meant re-deployment into other Corporation departments or the new Norn Iron wide body. I don’t think that the full merger took place until 1972 but re-deployments and transfers took place in the summer of 1971.
In August 1971, one NIES employee was killed when the headquarters at Malone Road was bombed by the IRA.
I chose to remain in the Corporation and was transferred to the Surveyors Department. Sounded good but it was the Cleansing Section.
The Cleansing Section……….Bins. Dustbins. Bin lorries. Road Sweepers. Bulk Waste, Incinerator. All in the days before Re-Cycling Centres.
At least it was clerical.
What does a Clerical Officer in the Cleansing Section do?
Well every household in the city had a bin….or trash can as the Americans would say. And they were emptied weekly by bin lorries, operating out of sixteen yards, administered by Inspectors (former binmen).
And we had great big ledgers with every address in the city and the date on which the bin had been issued to them. Bins were hired at five shillings a year, either by the householder or estate agents on behalf of landlords. Really nobody ever paid five shillings and while there was technically a possibility of bins being taken away for non-payment, it never happened.
A householder could have a replacement bin after eight years. And we updated the ledgers. And if your bin was missing or damaged we would send an Inspector out to find it or check on its condition.
Often an Inspector would report that the bins had been damaged by the householders themselves. Banging bin lids was the traditional way of alerting the neighbourhood that the Brits were raiding.
Christy Moore explains this better than I can.
It was not without controversy. If we said we could not deliver a new bin to an address in Sandy Row or Tiger Bay, irate householders would tell us “you would not say that if I lived on Falls Road or Ardoyne…..those Fenians get everything” And of course we would get the same abuse from the other parts of the City.
The clerical staff were aware at how farcical working in the Cleansing Section was.
But I was a 19 year old man of some importance. If you wanted a bin, I could get you one. My parents……Uncle Jackie/Auntie Mary….some neighbours……and of course Auntie Sheila/Uncle Charlie. Auntie Sheila used to invite her neighbours in to see the bin her influential nephew had got her. Yes my beloved auntie Sheila kept her bin INSIDE her house. She never used it as a bin……she kept her shoes in it for the rest of her life.
Whatever the farce, there was a war going on outside.
On 9th August 1971, Internment was introduced. In less than a week, 24 people would be dead. The most notorious incident was the Ballymurphy Massacre, a few hundred metres from my home. Nobody in the “official” media would believe or report what happened.. It took 50 years for the Truth to be told.
In December 1972, loyalists killed 15 people in an explosion at McGurks Bar in the New Lodge area. Again it took 40 years for the Truth to come out. RUC seriously spun it as an IRA bomb that had gone off prematurely.
By 1972, it was not phoney. It was very real. Bloody Sunday (January) 14 were killed by British Paras in Derry. More lies that took nearly 40 years to reveal the Truth.
But let’s be honest, working in the “Bin Office” of the Cleansing Section of Belfast Corporation had a kinda stigma. I was applying for other jobs. Trying to get into the Norn Iron Civil Service.
And …20th March 1972, the IRA dumped a bomb into one of our bin lorries. And it went into Donegall Street, the binmen unaware of their cargo. A phone warning was given but it was misleading. The RUC directed civilians into the path of the bomb. It exploded…….killing seven people. Two policeman were blown to pieces. So were the three men on the bin lorry crew. And an Inspector who had just retired and stopped for a chat with the crew.
A week later, the Stormont government was abolished and the British imposed Direct Rule.
Farce. Tragedy. LIES.
I suppose I used the experience of the two Corporation jobs as a learning curve. I was banking things that I had learned.
So I got out of the Corporation and into the Norn Iron Civil Service in May 1972. But the biggest lesson I ever learned was that leaving school before “A” levels was the biggest mistake of my life.
I have always said that an arc of events in 1972/73 was the most significant part in my evolution as a person. I had not realised just how connected it all was to my working career.