Easter in Ardoyne
‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death.’ (Mark 14:34)
Eleven Easters ago, Pip McTaggart walked into the darkness of a grove of trees in the grounds of the Holy Cross Monastery in Ardoyne and hanged himself from a branch. He was fifteen years old. His father, Philip, has spent much time trying to imagine the ‘dark, dark place’ Pip must have entered in his mind, and he looks with anguish at that shadowy wood. ‘I’ve gone there at night and just looked around me and it has scared the life out of me,’ he says. ‘It is a terrible place. It is on the interface. There’s a barrier. People have been murdered there.’ Pip’s suicide was followed by a spate of at least fourteen others in and around Ardoyne, many of them young men from his circle of friends. Some of them chose that same small garden of Gethsemane or one of the two tall towers of the church above it.
The suicides of 2003 got a lot of attention. Journalists descended upon north Belfast from around the world. Local counselling centres were set up. The Stormont executive introduced a suicide prevention strategy with a focus on young people. But the suicide rate in Northern Ireland continues to climb.
The death toll of the Northern Ireland conflict up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement is usually put at around 3,600. Almost as many people, 3,200, killed themselves in Northern Ireland in the fifteen years that followed, and the suicide rate doubled over that period. The places with the highest levels of deprivation were the most violent places during the Troubles, and they are the places most afflicted now by suicide, self-harm and self-destructive behaviour. Research by Mike Tomlinson, Professor of Social Policy at Queen’s University Belfast, suggests that in north Belfast the suicide rate is three times the rate in north Down.
The most recent child known to have died by his own hand in Ardoyne was fourteen years old. The youngest in recent years was eight. This little girl left a note which said, ‘I don’t want to be here any more.’
Ardoyne lies in a valley the top of which is dominated by the great hulk of Holy Cross church and its monastery. When you stand at the big crucifix in front of the church you can see right across the top of the area to the Cavehill; detached suburban houses line the slopes that rise up to the cliff known as Napoleon’s Nose, which juts out towards Belfast Lough. You wouldn’t fit many of those houses into Ardoyne. ‘The parish is a square mile into which seven and a half thousand people are crammed,’ says Father Gary Donegan, the parish priest. ‘It is a glorified housing estate, surrounded by Protestant areas and bursting at the seams.’
The sectarian interfaces are marked by high walls, some of which have in recent years been reinforced and heightened. Following complaints about antisocial behavior by some young people, many of the alleyways and lanes behind Ardoyne’s long and narrow streets have been enclosed by high metal gates. One local community worker, a former IRA prisoner, told me that it is ‘like an open prison’.
Along the once grand Crumlin Road, the linen mills where Ardoyne women used to work are shuttered and derelict. The gaol in which many Ardoyne men served time as paramilitary prisoners is now a tourist attraction and conference centre. Across the road from it, the abandoned old courthouse with its great fluted pillars is collapsing, like an enormous pink cake left out in the rain.
Father Gary receives me in a small parlour in the monastery. We sit on floral-upholstered armchairs. The collar of his black shirt is unbuttoned and he appears exhausted. He says that apart from the fact that it is Easter and there are daily ceremonies to be conducted, he is out walking the streets until 2 or 3 a.m. most nights with others from the church’s youth team, trying to stop young people getting into trouble. They started this patrol after rival crowds of young nationalists and young loyalists got involved in serious riots with the police during the marching seasons of 2011 and 2012. ‘One night after we’d got that stopped a young couple with a baby in a buggy came up and they were drunk and obviously disappointed there were no riots,’ he says. ‘A former republican said to me, “You are the parish priest of Shameless.”’ (Shameless is Paul Abbott’s drama series about a housing estate in the North of England where outrageously anti-social behavior is regarded as normal.) Father Gary also refers to some of his young parishioners as the ‘Depressedenders’. He is good-humoured about the nature of the influence he and his team can exert: ‘We bore them off the streets.’
During the time of the deaths that followed Pip’s, he and Father Aidan Troy became known as the suicide priests. The designation made him uncomfortable. ‘The funerals of some of the boys were quite a spectacle,’ he says. ‘It was almost being glorified, it was almost like a show. There would be more flowers than at the Chelsea Flower Show, and all the young people would be wearing football tops with the person’s name on them. These would have cost £50 each in an area of mass unemployment.’ Post-conflict, when tall buildings and glass domes began to rise in Belfast, a lot of Ardoyne men got work in construction. The recession put them back on the dole.
‘Then you also have the hoods and the drug dealers coming to the funerals,’ says Father Gary. ‘I recall a guy coming up to me for communion and I could see him looking at me, wondering would I refuse him, but I didn’t. Next thing he claps me on the shoulder and says, “Thanks, mate.” A lot of these youngsters are third-generation non-attenders at church. They wouldn’t know their way to Holy Cross unless they were following a hearse.’
One young man attended the funeral of his friend and then climbed into one of Holy Cross’s towers and hanged himself from scaffolding. ‘I had just come back from the funeral of an elderly man in Derry. I had to go up the tower and I got disorientated. I reached out through the scaffolding to him. Aidan came and we prayed and cried and I anointed the boy’s back. When the police came, between us we were able to pull him in,’ he says. ‘I looked down and saw that there was a crowd of people on the road staring up and taking photos and videos on their mobile phones.’
Late one night, a few months later, someone rang Father Gary from a bar and told him another young man was on his way to the tower. ‘I put on a tracksuit and runners and ran. I could hear gurgling and I found him hanging. I managed to break the rope and the two of us fell and then I put him in the recovery position. When he recovered he used to make a big fuss about what I had done for him. I said to him, “The only thing you owe me is to get on with your life. Find a nice lassie and court the life out of her and I’ll marry the two of you.” Now when I meet him on the street we just nod. But after that I made up my mind: under my watch, the day of the circus funeral is over.’
The young man who died on the church scaffolding in 2003 was called Barney Cairns. Eight years later, his brother, Michael, known as Mickey, also killed himself. ‘I asked the parents’ permission to say at Michael’s funeral, “Suicide is the wrong option”,’ says Father Gary.
His mobile beeps repeatedly. ‘I have to go and wash some souls now,’ he says.
Just around the corner from Holy Cross, where a roundabout marks the junction at which the Crumlin Road meets Twaddell Avenue, loyalists mill about their ‘peace camp’. It is a sort of mini-Drumcree, a hub for those who still have aggressive misgivings about power-sharing. It was set up last summer to protest at a Parades Commission ruling that an Orange Order parade could not pass through the top of Ardoyne on its way back to the Shankill because of objections by local nationalist residents.
An angry crowd gathers every day at the camp, around a tiny area of waste ground festooned with Ulster flags, Israeli flags, Union Jacks and banners from hardline towns and villages declaring that the Brethren must be ‘let home’ and that there will be ‘No Surrender’. There are occasional outbreaks of hostility with Ardoyne residents. White Land Rovers with riot police on board circle around, keeping an eye. (Father Gary comments to me of the £7 million has already been spent policing this protest: ‘Think what you could do with that money for the young people.’)
On Good Friday a small group of people carrying a big plain wooden cross stand at the roundabout, smiling between the protesters, the police and the people coming and going to the shops on the edge of Ardoyne. These are born-again Christians bringing their message of salvation. The cross bears a biblical reference: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish … (John III, v 16.)’
They give me tea and a bun. One of them, an agitated and exalted young red-haired man, keeps saying that he used to be ‘the thief’. He is saved now and considers it a miracle. He slopes off down the hill into Ardoyne.
James, at the centre of the group, is a youth worker who has given much thought to the subject of suicide. ‘There’s a song our young people sing,’ he says. ‘It is “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers and there is a line in it that goes, “the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep”. The idea they have is that we don’t have a future so we may as well die. Some of them have lost maybe ten friends in the last few years to suicide. They have lost who they are inside.’
I ask him about the crucifixion, and whether Christ’s decision as a young man to give himself up to be killed wasn’t a risky example for the troubled young. ‘No,’ he says. ‘The message of the cross is salvation. But suicide is a sin. We don’t know if you could go to heaven. Grace may allow you in if you have a relationship with Christ. But if you sacrifice yourself through suicide you’d be taking a chance. God knows your heart and your heart mightn’t be right.’
Built in a grid of straight and narrow terraces for mill workers in the nineteenth century, by the 1960s the old red brick houses of Ardoyne were among the worst in the North. At the start of the conflict, loyalists burned a swathe of them out. Others were redeveloped. Today the houses are better, and some have gardens, but the area still feels cramped, claustrophobic. There are no parks. Long terraces plunge steeply down to a few small shops, a few takeaways, a community centre, a youth club and a primary school. At the top of the hill is the Crumlin Star Social Club, once, according to Father Gary, the largest alcohol outlet in Northern Ireland. At the bottom is the Shamrock Social Club, a yellow box-like structure the size of a small factory, and Ardoyne Kickhams GAA club, which has a bar but not a pitch.
Halfway down, one of the cross streets is Berwick Road, which has been transformed this Good Friday into the Via Dolorosa, with laminated images of the stations of the cross pinned up on the walls of the houses. I join the small procession, which is made up largely of middle-aged and elderly women, plus some grandchildren in buggies. Many of the women carry rosary beads. Priests, mainly elderly, in long black robes carry a wooden cross and intone the prayers, the women murmuring the responses.
We pass by Jesus in sorrow and distress at Gethsemane praying that this cup might pass. We see him betrayed, arrested and condemned. We see the bitter tears of Peter, the release of Barabbas. We see the scourging and the crown of thorns as we walk towards Golgotha. ‘Holy mother pierce me through,’ the priest says before asking for us to be helped in reaching out to ‘the many suffering Marys in the world’.
One house has a mural to ‘Our Lady at Holy Cross’ on its gable. She stands meekly in her blue and white robes, her right hand on her heart, her left hand extended. Someone has thrown red paint at her and her left wrist is splashed as if she has slit it and is bleeding. A plaque in silver reads: ‘Peace’. At one house a tricolour has been draped across the inside of the front window. Young men and women are sitting out on deckchairs on the paved-over garden drinking cans of beer in the spring sunshine. Across the road another garden has a cherry tree in bloom and beds of tulips. Children bounce on trampolines. Young men hurry by with dogs – an akita with blue eyes, several burly pit bull terriers.
All along the route we pass other murals. One is covered by black plastic – it is to be unveiled on Easter Sunday. Across the road, ‘PSNI not welcome in Ardoyne’ has been painted on a wall. A mural shows a ‘Blanketman’, looking like a figure from a bible story, from the prison protest that presaged the hunger strikes that began in 1980. A faded mural of a face at a door says, ‘Say no to drug dealers.’ There is a painting of the wounded in the GPO in Dublin during the Easter Rising. There is a tiny garden to commemorate the 1981 hunger strikers, with a Celtic cross and crude plaster eagles. Terence MacSwiney is quoted in Celtic script: ‘It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most shall win.’
I linger at the garden, and by the time I’m finished making notes the procession has vanished. I look up and down the length of Berwick Road but can see no sign of it. Holy Cross church is more than half empty for the Good Friday service. A man with a fine bass voice sings, ‘Were you there when they crucified my lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble …’ A child drowses on his mother’s shoulder, twirling her hair with his fingers. A little girl whispers to her mother: ‘Could Mickey Mouse get in here?’ Nearly everyone takes communion.
Later on Good Friday a man is shot dead about half a mile away from Ardoyne. He is described as having run an illegal diesel yard and as a former dissident republican leader. The local papers run photos of women sobbing over his body on the ground. One paper reports that the man was described by some as a ‘scumbag’.
Ardoyne, according to Bessie Cairns, is a terrible place to live. ‘It’s the paramilitaries,’ she says. ‘They decide everything. They won’t let you live your life.’ Bessie, in her twenties, is elegantly dressed and wears skyscraper heels. She is a sister of Barney and Michael Cairns, who died by suicide. It was at Michael’s funeral that Father Gary said that suicide was wrong. ‘We do pray and all but I wouldn’t be religious,’ says Bessie. ‘My mother is, but. Her house is full of religious stuff.’ Bessie’s mother’s family was hard hit during the Troubles. Bessie names an uncle who was blown up by loyalists, an aunt who was shot dead in crossfire, a cousin shot by loyalists, another shot by republicans. ‘My mummy has pictures all over the house of them,’ she says.
It used to be the IRA that policed Ardoyne with baseball bats and handguns. Today, Sinn Féin has pledged its support for the PSNI, but other republican factions continue the grim practice of ‘punishment’ beatings and shootings. The victims, mostly young men, are accused variously of stealing cars, burglaries, selling and taking drugs, having loud parties late into the night, fighting and drinking in the streets. Some of these are undoubtedly the sort of boys of whom their own mothers would say, ‘Of course, he is no angel.’ Only some, however. The paramilitaries have been notoriously selective in dishing out punishments, and they are themselves immersed in the drugs trade and other criminality. Father Gary told me that he and Aidan Troy (who is now based in Paris) attempted to get threats against young people lifted, to the extent that Father Troy became known as ‘the patron saint of hoods’. Father Gary had recently heard about a fourteen-year-old who has been put under a curfew and was going to have to leave the area.
Bessie describes a punishment beating her brother Barney received, from men associated with the INLA. ‘Three carloads of them came for him. They broke his neck, his two arms, his two legs. They punctured his lungs with pickaxes – he had to get skin grafts and metal pins and all.’ Bessie says her brother had done nothing wrong. ‘He’d got into an argument with some of their wives. They called him a scumbag. After that beating he was depressed and on medication.’
Barney had subsequently been threatened again, by the same people. ‘He was walking through Ardoyne and when he saw them he ran and hid in his friend’s granny’s attic and they came in and said they’d shoot him through the ceiling. They shot him in both legs and he was left with one leg shorter than the other. He was fine for a while and then he started saying things like, “That’s George Bush – he’s come to get me.” He started hallucinating. He thought my daddy had got him shot. He started to shout that he had stuff in his head that he couldn’t get rid of. My mummy and daddy had to sit up with him. He’d wander out into the street. He cut his wrists on my da’s sixtieth birthday. On the day of his friend’s funeral he asked Daddy for money for cigarettes and then he climbed to the top of the tower.’ Barney’s funeral was on Bessie’s seventeenth birthday. Michael was nine.
Seven years after Barney’s death, in 2010, Michael was the victim of a bad sectarian beating by loyalists, Bessie says, and a second beating from men from his own community, after an incident involving one of his friends throwing a pool ball at somebody’s window. ‘They came out and chased them and they got Mickey and danced on his face and then they brought him to a garden and beat him again. I was a few doors away and I heard him squealing. They had him sitting on a plastic barrel and his wee face was all bleeding and cut. The cops were going to do them for kidnapping and assault and all but we were brought up to sort things out ourselves and not involve the police and Mickey rang and withdrew the charges.’
Her brother Mickey had rescued a friend who had tried to hang himself. ‘I said to Mickey, “You are a wee angel.” He was angry with his friend. He said, “Why would anyone do that?” Then I got a call from my sister to say, “Mickey’s gone.” He had hung himself in his bedroom. My Daddy found him. That was on the 16th of April 2011. Two weeks later, Niall Ferrins hung himself and four weeks after that James Clinton hung himself in the Waterworks.’
She spoke of friends who had killed themselves or tried to. One friend is in hospital now after taking an overdose. ‘She says she doesn’t know why she did it and she can’t remember,’ Bessie says. ‘She’s a very positive wee girl, you know. There’s others who are alcoholics or don’t leave the house. You don’t see them. It’s like they all died. There was one wee boy killed himself – everybody wanted to be him. He was tough and good looking and all the wee girls wanted to be with him. The paramilitaries didn’t like him – they threatened him. He began to get violent with his mummy and she had to put him out.’
Bessie says that she does not usually talk about these things, though she has started to get counselling and is finding it helpful. ‘This is the most I’ve ever talked about it,’ she says. ‘I’d be afraid to go too far into it. I keep myself busy. I go to the gym a lot. I like to party.’ Her parents never go out. ‘They don’t live,’ she says. ‘They just exist. They say you are only young – but it is terrible to watch your parents like that.’
The walls of Ardoyne are covered with exhortations to remember the past. There is a painting of barefoot peasants kneeling at a mass rock, and another of people starving in the Great Famine. There is Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa: ‘They think they have pacified Ireland … but the fools, the fools, they have left us our fenian dead … Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’ And Bobby Sands: ‘Many died so that some day future generations may live in justice and peace.’ There is a memorial to the taxi drivers who died ‘in service of their community’. There is a new mural of the late IRA man Martin Meehan firing a rifle against a background of burned-out streets. Another shows an IRA funeral. There are many plaques to IRA men. ‘Better to die on your feet than live on your knees,’ says one.
I see two women, who look like a mother and daughter, walking slowly along the side of the Shamrock Social Club. They stare ahead in a medicated way and then they go into a chip shop which has a plaque on its gable to Thomas ‘Bootsie’ Begley. It says he died ‘on active service’ and quotes Seamus Twomey: ‘It takes courage and passion for your people to take the hard road to freedom.’ Begley was one of the Shankill Road bombers. He died, along with nine civilians, when the bomb he was planting in Frizzell’s fish shop in 1994 blew up prematurely. I see the women later mechanically eating their chips as they sleepwalk home.
On Easter Sunday there is to be a republican parade to ‘honour Ardoyne’s fallen Fianna’. The parade has been organized by the Republican Network for Unity, one of the leaders of which is Martin Meehan’s son, also Martin. He says they are dissenters, though Sinn Féin calls them dissidents. One of the stewards is the son of a formerly prominent Sinn Féin strategist. Another has a tattoo of praying hands entwined with rosary beads on her thigh. The parade is to culminate with the unveiling of the new mural on Berwick Road.
As the Henry Joy McCracken Band prepares to march, Martin Meehan tells me that ninety-nine people were killed in Ardoyne during the conflict and there were six hundred political prisoners. ‘And what have they received since the Good Friday Agreement? Absolutely nothing,’ he says angrily. The march is like going back in time: men in dark glasses and black berets, a woman with bleached Farrah Fawcett hair and dark tan make-up so heavy it looks like a mask, drums beating out rhythms like gunfire, orders barked out military style in Irish, a colour party that lowers its flags at the memorial to the hunger strikers.
A drunk sways out into the ranks and shambles along, punching the air weakly. A tiny girl in a pink Minnie Mouse T-shirt marches in step and swings her arms, smiling with delight when the older girls praise her. Another child on her father’s shoulder beats on his bald head like a drum. I see a blue plastic dinosaur apparently watching from a bedroom window.
Joseph, who has just left school, tells me that there is nothing for young people in Ardoyne, and that since taking power at Stormont, Sinn Féin has neglected the area and others like it. ‘How can an area be normal when there’s peace walls? My Da says he would have taken a bullet for the IRA but he wouldn’t vote for Sinn Féin now.’ However, voters in the area do, overwhelmingly, support Sinn Féin. ‘It is like America, all turf wars and ghettos,’ says Joseph. ‘There’s kids as young as twelve running about drunk. Then they wreck things. I was lucky, my Da could drive and he took me out of the area to do sports. I’m thinking of going away to Liverpool to uni. I am proud to be from Ardoyne but if I was to have children I wouldn’t bring them up here.’
The parade passes the stations of the cross on Berwick Street and ends with the unveiling of the new mural, which turns out to be for four young boys who ‘died tragically on active service’ in 1972. The photograph of one of the boys, David McAuley, had caught my eye in a book, Ardoyne: the Untold Truth, which was published by the Ardoyne Commemoration Project in 2002. The photo is of a child, smiling toothily out from under a poker straight fringe. David was just fifteen.
His friends and family have contributed memories: ‘He was a great rioter,’ says a friend. His sister recalls: ‘He didn’t have a favourite subject in school, he wasn’t really interested; rioting would have been his interest. He would have started a riot in an empty house.’ He was at school and had a milk round for pocket money. He died when an IRA weapon he was handling discharged accidentally. The book describes him as ‘OC (officer in command) of na Fianna Eireann (Cubs) at the time of his death.’ He got a military funeral. He was, after all, a child soldier.
The authors of the 2002 book claimed that Ardoyne had been demonized as a ‘terrorist community’, its victims seen as undeserving of compassion or commemoration. The book has a fiery preface by Seamus Deane in which he describes Northern Ireland as ‘a criminal state’, though he concedes that ‘it is less criminal now than it was’. The British government, he argues, hoped to portray what had happened as ‘the war of a legal state on terror’ but in reality Northern Ireland was a state ‘founded on terror’. He continues: ‘of all the exposed minority areas … Ardoyne is perhaps the most vulnerable … [it] has had the fiercest history, has faced the most unrelenting assault, even to the present day.’ Deane was writing at the time of the loyalist ‘protest’ at Holy Cross, when small girls were subjected to a barrage of sectarian abuse and had a blast bomb and urine thrown at them on their way to school.
It is striking, when you talk with Ardoyne people, how many of them have mixed marriages in past generations of their families. During massive population shifts in Belfast at the start of the conflict, many Protestants who had lived in Ardoyne moved out, and were replaced by Catholics. I have met Ardoyne people who privately blame the IRA for contributing to this sectarian segregation. They say the IRA intimidated those who were not its supporters, and cultivated a ghetto mentality the better to dominate the area.
The book acknowledges that a siege mentality took hold. The conflict is defined in phases. There was ‘the invasion of the district by the RUC and loyalist mobs’ in 1969, followed by the ‘open war’ of the early 1970s, the ‘nakedly sectarian’ onslaught by loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with the security forces in the mid seventies, the era of the prison protests leading to the hunger strikes of 1980, and then the ‘long, slow and often unclear germination’ of the peace process. The book commemorates the ninety-nine Ardoyne residents who were killed. An editorial decision had been taken not to include some thirty members of the security forces were also killed in Ardoyne, nor Protestants killed on the fringes of the area.
It is a brutal history. Over and over the families of those who were killed speak about other tragedies that followed those deaths – families that were wrecked, parents who died of heart attacks or went into irreversible decline, wives who lost the will to live and took to prescription drugs or drink, children who got involved in the IRA and got jailed or killed, families to which terrible things happened that were never spoken of again.
Patricia Ferrins’ husband Eddie sits on the sofa staring ahead. ‘Don’t mind him,’ she says, genially. ‘He’s only a man.’ Then she asks him if he’d make us some tea, and he does. Patricia and Eddie’s son Kieran, who was in his early twenties, killed himself in February of this year. He hanged himself in a Belfast hotel room after spending Valentine’s night there with his girlfriend. Another of their sons, Niall, killed himself three years ago, when he was nineteen. Their nephew killed himself in 2010. They have one surviving son, about whom they are intensely worried, and two daughters.
Patricia tells funny, self-deprecating stories, and then bursts into tears. She is still in shock, she says, and the doctor has given her sleeping pills. ‘They just knock me out cold,’ she says. ‘It is what I need.’ She is just back from doing her shopping on the Shankill Road. ‘I come from a mixed background – my father was a Protestant,’ she says. ‘So I have a lot of relatives and friends over there. My best friend is a Protestant. I love the Shankill – it has the best shops. I have got loads of people from round here going now. I used to get my fish at Frizzell’s so I knew Sharon and Alan.’ Sharon McBride was one of those killed by the IRA’s Shankill Road bomb in 1994. Alan McBride, her husband, is now a leading activist for reconciliation.
The night before he killed himself, Patricia says, ‘Kieran had sent us a picture of the hotel room with a message saying, “You want to see this bed.” They’d had a slap-up dinner with champagne but his girlfriend said he was preoccupied and hardly touched his food. Then it seems he drank a bottle of vodka. His girlfriend said he started ranting and raving at her, calling her names and all. She was afraid. He told her to leave and she did. We don’t blame her. Kieran could get violent.
‘He rang me in the morning and he said he loved me and I’d always been there for him. He asked me to tell everyone he loved them. He said, “I’m away. I have to see our Niall.” I felt something choking me, like something leaving me … I shouted at him, “Don’t do something stupid” and I jumped out of bed. I rang the police. I rang the hotel. We drove down there as fast as we could but it was too late.’
Kieran had been diagnosed as manic-depressive and had tried to kill himself several times before, Patricia says. A family friend had to talk him down off a roof on one occasion. On another, he had set fire to himself. He had been badly beaten up in a sectarian attack in September 2013. Patricia has seen a picture of him taken the day before he died. ‘The grim reaper had already been – I could see it in his eyes. A dark look. A glazed look that says, “There is nothing here for me. I’ve given up. I’m lost.”’ Eddie says that over a thousand people came to Kieran’s funeral. ‘It was good,’ he says. ‘My daughters planned it all. We put balloons up into the air with the boys’ names on them. We played Avicii’s “Hey Brother”.’
‘My mates try to talk to me but I don’t talk,’ says Eddie. ‘I’m a strong person. But I am just numb now. Kieran was an explosive guy and vodka turned him nasty. He was like Jekyll and Hyde. Patricia is like a cannon ready to explode. She and I are like that …’ He signals two roads diverging. ‘She is 24/7 on the go. She works days in a shop. I work nights on deliveries. She is religious. She goes to mass on Sunday. I don’t. I have a hangover. Saturday night is my night out.’
Their son Niall had been good at sports and art and was doing well at school. ‘We have a box of trophies up the stairs,’ says Patricia. ‘He was a great wee singer and a real wee rapper. On our last family holiday in Cyprus the DJ used to call him Cracker – he’d get them all up dancing.’ In 2008, when he was sixteen, he was the victim of a sectarian attack on nearby Clifton Park Avenue. ‘Niall was a small boy and thin, and these were big men in their twenties and thirties,’ says Patricia. ‘They were paramilitaries. It was on the peace line so it was caught on CCTV. My friend went and watched it. They had hoods on and surgical gloves. They beat Niall with golf clubs and put a wire round his neck and trailed him down the road. Local Protestant people gave their names up and they were arrested within minutes but no one was charged.’ She says some who gave statements to the police were intimidated and withdrew them.
Eddie and Patricia’s nephew Christopher killed himself in 2010. Three friends of the Ferrins boys died in a stolen car when it crashed at speed into a wall. Niall rescued a friend who had attempted suicide. ‘He cut him down and called him a selfish bastard and told him you had to think of others,’ says Patricia. Niall’s brain had been injured in the attack in 2008 and he suffered excruciating headaches, tinnitus and epileptic seizures. ‘We called him Batwing after the shape of the scar on his head,’ says Patricia. She felt his life was getting back to normal, but Eddie says he thinks the pain was unbearable. ‘They killed him that night really, I think. He couldn’t sleep with the headaches,’ he says. ‘He had a hamster and the noise of it going round in its wheel was driving him mad. He nearly threw it out the window.’ In April 2011, Niall hanged himself in the toilet of a guesthouse where he was staying with his girlfriend in Newcastle, Co. Down.
I ask Patricia and Eddie if they had much direct experience of the conflict. ‘Do you mean are we cursed as a family?’ Patricia says. ‘Well, my best friend at twelve years of age was killed in a bomb at greyhound racing. I had painted her nails purple that morning. A month later another friend got shot at her home. She used to say, “Put a smile on your face – give it a holiday.” Another friend was walking to her aunt’s house and she got shot dead. In those days you just brushed it off and got on with it, but it left me very insecure and frightened to have anyone close to me.’ While she was still a child her cousin was abducted and murdered by the Shankill Butchers. ‘My Mummy’s cousin was the one who survived the Butchers and ended up identifying them to the police,’ she says. ‘Afterwards he was very disturbed. He wore black and had blue glasses and he drank himself into an early grave. It isn’t talked about. Those things prepared me for tragedy.’
Almost as an afterthought Patricia tells me about the time she got shot. ‘I was working in a chippy when the kids were small and it was in a place that was known as “kneecap alley”. Just before it this incident happened where a boy came in and skipped the queue and I gave out to him and he said, “I’m going to get shot.” So I served him and sure enough, later on, there he was lying in the alley, shot in the legs, and half a chicken burger intact beside him.’ A few days later, loyalist gunmen entered the shop and Patricia had a gun held to her head and was wounded, though not seriously, when she got shot in the side during a struggle. She learned later that the gunman’s father had been shot dead by an Ardoyne man.
She says that dissident republican paramilitaries still exercise a lot of control in Ardoyne. She has herself on occasion gone to ‘see people’ to make representations and get things ‘sorted out’. One of her sons’ circle of friends, angered by punishment beatings and suicides he believed had come about as a consequence, went and smashed up the house of one of the paramilitaries. ‘A priest came and told me they were going to give him a Padre Pio,’ she says – i.e. shoot him in the arms and legs.
Eddie had a friend who killed himself in 1984. ‘He was just a depressive wee boy,’ he says. ‘I was a barman most of my life and he came in and got drunk and started saying he was going away and all. I said, “You are talking crap.” I took his car keys and let him sleep in the lounge. He got up the next day and drove to Lisburn, bought new clothes and drink, went to the Leisure Centre and trained. His brother had been killed in the Troubles. He drove out to his grave, parked the car and gassed himself. Very few did it then. People were more worried about getting shot in the street. Cliftonville Road was known as the murder mile. Nowadays the young ones are into drugs and that is a lot of the problem.’
Eddie says that although he did not join the IRA, he did defend his area during the early years of the Troubles and two of his friends who were in the IRA got killed. Bus services had been suspended because of hijackings, so he used to walk through loyalist streets to Ligoniel to visit Patricia. He says he is surprised the Shankill Butchers didn’t get him, although on one occasion they almost did. ‘Me and my friend were at a disco called the Artillery and a blue Cortina followed us and these guys got out and said they were police. We knew they were the Butchers. We ran. They came after me. I ran through a house and over the back wall and got away. That same night they got a fellow and cut his throat.’
Last year, Professor Mike Tomlinson gave a presentation on his work on suicide to MLAs at Stormont. He wished them to know that the suicide strategy adopted in 2006 had been ineffective because it ignored the context in which suicide in Northern Ireland takes place. ‘The legacy of the conflict has to be built into it,’ he said. ‘Children caught up in adverse violent situations will be less psychologically resilient in later life. The cohort of children and young people who experienced the worst violence of the 1970s are those with the highest rates of suicide now.’
The children of the 1970s were the most ‘accultured to division and conflict and to externalized expressions of aggression’, and a consequence of peace is that such expressions are no longer acceptable. Arguably, he said, aggression then becomes internalized. Mass medication had become a feature of the transition to peace and cutbacks to services meant that there was a significant decline in the number of hospital beds available for the mentally ill.
Rosie Burrows is a psychotherapist who has worked extensively with groups and individuals, including children, in Ardoyne. ‘This is a small, intense community that has been through a lot, and has suffered enormous loss,’ she says. The conflict flared up again in Ardoyne with the Holy Cross dispute in 2001, and Burrows has worked with some of the families whose children were traumatized by the aggression they faced on the streets on their way to school. Father Gary told me several parents have died prematurely in the intervening years.
‘We’ve moved on from simply offering medication, but the standard treatment now offered is cognitive behavioural therapy,’ says Burrows. ‘There is a ludicrous idea that six weeks of this will sort people out. But this will not work when suffering is prolonged and chronic.’ She is concerned with ‘trans-generational trauma’ and notes international studies following other conflicts suggest that trauma arising from such strife may re-emerge for at least three generations.
She is interested in the potential of ‘somatic experiencing’. ‘If trauma is an overwhelming event, shock and energy are held in the nervous system,’ she says. ‘Some people go into fight mode, others into flight and others freeze. They shut down and don’t feel very much. It is a draw towards death rather than life. You find parents who are caught in the past. They are not there for their children. People find themselves orientated to danger even though the danger is past.’ Children end up looking after their parents, and, Burrows says, if no one talks about what is wrong, children may assume they are to blame. ‘There are also secrets – like local heroes who were or are abusers within their families,’ she says.
She has seen a lot of young people who have been affected by their parents’ experiences as combatants or survivors of violence. ‘You can see it in the way they hold themselves, the way they can’t focus or concentrate, the unhealthy relationships they develop with their peers. They are often pale and nervous with extreme hypertension. They are prone to panic and their thinking is in black and white.’ However, she describes herself as ‘a bit optimistic’. ‘As adults it is our responsibility to support the inherent creativity of the young,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen young people turn their lives around. But it takes work.’
PIPS House is on the Antrim Road, not far from Ardoyne. When I go in a woman whose eyes radiate fear is sitting on the edge of a sofa in the waiting area, beside a gangly youth who is holding his head in his hands. There is a poster on the wall: ‘Lean on us when you are not strong,’ it says. PIPS is an acronym – it stands for Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm – but the centre was named after Pip McTaggart by his father Philip, who founded it soon after Pip’s suicide.
The manager, Martina McIlhenny, is a smiling woman with shiny blonde hair. She takes me around the new premises, opened by the First and Deputy First Ministers last year. The soundproofed counselling rooms have low sofas and soothingly painted walls. Each has a good supply of tissues. There is a sense of gentleness about the place.
‘We find a lot of young people have no resilience any more,’ says Martina. ‘And they don’t talk, one to one. They text and they tweet and they put up very personal stuff on Facebook about themselves and their friends, some of it hurtful. That is so different from asking someone how they are and seeing from them if they are sad or upset.’
The organization offers an open-door service. Despite receiving no public funding, it gets referrals from doctors and social workers, not least because of a severe lack of other services. ‘There isn’t a single bed available in Northern Ireland for a person at risk of suicide from North Belfast,’ she says. ‘We send people to hospitals but often there is nothing there for them. We had one boy who lost his mother to suicide in June, his father in July. In December, he realized that he was suicidal. The hospital kept him for five hours and then a doctor said to him, “We need this bed for a real patient” and he had to leave. If you have a cut in your head they treat it, but if you have a broken mind they can’t see it.’
A growing number of older people who were directly involved in the conflict are now finding themselves in trouble. ‘We are seeing ex-combatants who can’t cope with what they did or who can’t cope with no longer being on a pedestal in their community. They are sitting at home now experiencing guilt and remorse and the absence of comrades. They are also looking around and seeing how little things have changed socio-economically and wondering, “Why did we do that?”’
She blames ‘living in intolerable circumstances’ for a lot of the despair. ‘Poverty is a big factor and welfare cuts are making things worse. We see a lot of dysfunctional families. A lot of the young men are on a cocktail of drugs – cocaine, ecstasy, blow, diazepam and alcohol – and there is heroin out there now as well. They get paranoid and angry.’ The young are prone to fads. ‘There is a “cut for Bieber” craze going on at the moment. Girls of twelve to fourteen are slashing their thighs to prove they love Justin Bieber. It is introducing them to self-harm.’ It isn’t just in Ardoyne, Martina says, naming other disadvantaged areas nearby: Tigers Bay, the Shore Road, Ligoniel. ‘They come in here, tormented. We like to see them going out standing tall and smiling.’
All of the coaches at Ardoyne Kickhams GAA club now do suicide-awareness training. During Easter, the club’s chairman, Stephen McVicker, has organized – as a fundraiser for PIPS House – a performance of Pearse Elliott’s play The Man in the Moon by the Belfast theatre company Brassnecks. The play is a rough diamond, an outrageously funny, foul-mouthed and physical one-man show set in a working-class Belfast housing estate. Ciaran Nolan plays Sean Doran, a young man going through a dark night of the soul while consuming a flagon of cider on a park bench. Sean’s marriage has broken up, he has no job, and he has just buried the second of his brothers to die by suicide. He has seen many of his friends go the same way. Sean’s mother’s answer to everything is, ‘Have a wee Temazi, calm your nerves.’
The play ends with a direct plea: ‘People say, “There is no other option.” Make an option. People don’t have to manage on their own. Think of the others who love you, the ones that love you unconditionally.’ Its director, Tony Devlin, tells me that every time they put it on, mostly in clubs and community centres, people come up to him afterwards and tell him stories about suicides. One woman told him her son put a double-barrelled shotgun in his mouth. As we speak a member of the crew comes up to say that a girl has just told him how her boyfriend hanged himself.
Philip McTaggart says he found the show very moving. ‘I could feel the passion of it,’ he says. ‘Pip died at Easter. I’ve thought about Jesus’s mother and the suffering he put her through. My son’s death never turned me against God. I feel that I have turned a corner. Instead of thinking about how Pip died, I think about his life, about the good times. I appreciate life. My faith tells me I will meet him again. After Pip died someone told me Pip had come back through a medium and that he wanted us to know that he was happy. At the time, I said, “Well, make sure you tell Pip that we are not happy.” I felt if I met him I’d kick his arse. Now I feel that I will just hug him.’
As darkness falls, Ardoyne’s young come out into the streets. The alleys are fenced in but there are still places to hang out, among them the long curved walkway that runs along high railings in front of an attractive new old-people’s home. Here the tarmac is buckled from the fires the teenagers light, and loud music pumps from speakers on the ground. Boys with elaborately styled hair and girls with Amy Winehouse eyes promenade up and down, stopping to chat and drink with their friends. There is much shrieking and shouting. It must be a nightmare for the elderly. I am with a friend, a youth worker. The young people are friendly.
‘Ardoyne is a completely crap place to live,’ says one girl. ‘Make sure you write that down.’ Her friend does not agree. ‘People say Ardoyne is a dump and it is true you’ve got hoods and drug dealers and all and murderers,’ she says. ‘But it is our place.’ Two girls in shorts and blazing with excitement approach us. ‘We’re from Ballysillan,’ they tell us. Ballysillan is on the far side of the interface wall. ‘Aye, we’re Huns! It’s alright – they all know. We love Ardoyne.’ My friend mentions to one group that I am writing about the suicides. ‘Maybe the ones that do it think nobody likes them and the pain just gets too much for them,’ one boy suggests.
Thomas Turley, leader of the Ardoyne Youth Club, is seen as a person of vision and energy whose work is transforming lives. Turley is thirty now and losing his dark hair but he remembers his own youth on these streets, understands how it can all go wrong and is passionate about tackling the overwhelming negativity that can overcome people in this environment.
He says he used to be one of the young people who hung around taking drugs and drinking because he couldn’t see anything else to do and had no hope that life could change. He didn’t care about anything. ‘I got into rioting for the adrenaline and the buzz. Nobody said “stop” so I just went for it.’ He got arrested and charged and was ordered by the courts to do community service. He was referred to Ardoyne Youth Club and says now it was ‘the best thing that ever happened to me’.
What he learned, he says, was that he could ‘make something of myself if I got my head down’. He went to university and came back to Ardoyne determined to make a difference. Last year, Turley and other youth workers in North Belfast got Big Lottery funds for a series of projects called ‘Breaking Through Barriers’. Working with the Hammer Youth Club on the Shankill Road, they do ‘leadership for life’ training through the Republic’s Foroige. ‘It is fantastic,’ says Turley. ‘We’ll have put eighty people through it by the end of this summer.’
There are sports events, barbecues and fun days. There is the Ardoyne Fleadh – a huge community celebration which distracts from the provocations of the loyalist marching season. There are extraordinary opportunities, like the chance to take part in a ‘Belfast2Blanco’ exchange which sees young people working for month in a township in South Africa.
Father Gary told me that one night out on the streets he had tensed up when he saw a crowd of young people approaching from the Shankill while another was coming up from Ardoyne. There was a lot of shouting and it took a moment for him to realize that it was not hostile but friendly. These young people had been to Africa together.
Turley shows me a blog one of the young people, Anto Burns, wrote from the township. Misspelt and ungrammatical, it is an emotional and heartfelt account of a life-changing experience and of his own emergence from despair. ‘I feel selfish i feel selfish for the last few months of my life were if anyone that knew me they would know i literally gave up on everything, i pushed everything and everyone that ment something to me away and i more less gave up on life … Done alot of silly things, But yano what i regret nothing because without all those mistakes i wouldnt be were i am today.’ He writes that he can’t wait to get back to his family to tell them he loves them ‘because in a blink of an Eye everything can be took away!’
Ardoyne’s sad and violent history casts its shadows, and its problems are acute, but there are people committed to making life better. ‘Our eighteen-year-olds were born in 1995,’ says Turley. ‘A lot of them want to move on.’
To read the rest of Dublin Review 55, you may purchase the issue here.