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Growing Up In The Troubles

Updated on September 13, 2019
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Opinion Piece. The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues

Growing up as a young child, in the North of Ireland, during the 1970s, at the height of what has become known as The Troubles, we came to accept violence and death as normality. We were not old enough to remember what life had been like before the main outbreak of the conflict, in 1969.

The morning, evening and hourly radio news bulletins, that everyone tuned into, faithfully, provided a litany of the previous night's killings, bombings and all delivered by the newsreader, in the same monotone voice as the football results would be announced. This is not a comprehensive guide to the Irish conflict, or even the 1970's era, but rather a reflection of how some key events appeared, through the eyes of a very young child. For instance, in the town next to us a bomb had gone off, mistakenly, killing civilians and one of the victims heads had been found in the grounds of my Father's workplace. By no means could our childhoods be considered normal.

As young kids, growing up in the 1970s, in the north of Ireland, we used to be terrified of pro-British Loyalist death-squads coming to our house and killing us. In our childish naivety, we used to think at first that hiding under the bed would save us, as that always seemed a great hiding place. However, we heard countless reports of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) sectarian murder squads, managing to shoot victims, who'd hid under their beds, in vain attempts to escape their imminent murders. It may seem bizarre now, but the UDA death-squads were never proscribed (banned) like Irish Republican organizations were and the Loyalist paramilitaries would have been seen publicly on joint patrols with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC - the North of Ireland's sectarian police force).

I can remember after the murders of the Reavey brothers and others, plus the Kingsmills massacre, during that period of endless sectarian murder, it was a very scary time for kids, who always feared the thought of a death-squad breaking into their homes, to kill their parents and very possibly the rest of the family. What was known as the Tartan Gangs (Loyalist teenage gangs), used to be given free rein to terrorize any town where Catholics were in a minority and even in Nationalist towns, Orange band parades were often a weekly occurrence.

Sectarian murders were a daily occurrence then and it is now well documented that the supposed 'police force' and the various British military regiments, including MI5, were effectively directing the Loyalist death-squads, as a key element of their Kitsonian counter-insurgency strategy, in Ireland. Kitson had tweaked and 'improved on', the age-old British imperialist policy of divide and conquer, keeping the Protestant working-class aligned to the ruling class establishment.

We used to go to our late Grandparents' every Sunday and this meant driving along dark, isolated country roads, in our old Hillman car, which invariably meant getting stopped, at least once on the journey, by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR - a locally recruited Loyalist regiment of the British Army) at mobile checkpoints. All we would see as we peered from the back seat of the car, was a single red torch being swung back and forth in the road up ahead. This ominous signal on the roads, at night, meant that if you did not stop your car, and follow orders to turn off your headlights, the heavily armed UDR would open fire on the occupants, without hesitation or fear of legal redress. Being stopped or 'P-Checked' (running your details through the various security services databases) by the UDR, invariably involved the car being searched, the occupants, including sleepy children, being herded onto the road at gunpoint and closely questioned, as to where they had been traveling.

Many people were badly assaulted at these checkpoints and in cases like the Miami Showband massacre, gunned down and/or blown to pieces, at the side of the road. The UDR was basically the UVF or UDA in uniform and they made no effort to hide their hatred of Catholics, Irish Republicans or Socialists. Sectarian death-squads had used UDR checkpoints to murder Catholics, so you never knew if you were 'just' going to get the car searched and harassed, or killed. In the likes of the USA, the nearest equivalent would have been the Federal government arming the KKK and allowing them to patrol Harlem or Williamsburg.

In those days, anyone could listen in to Brit/RUC radio transmissions, via an ordinary transistor radio, with a VHF band function. Listening into transmissions via a VHF radio was basically a national past-time in the 1970s, in the north of Ireland, prior to British Army and RUC communications becoming much more secure. No doubt journalists would have used this to get the scoop, on what would be the next day's headlines in the earlier years of The Troubles. I'd imagine that technically it would have been a grey legal area unless one was recording them.

The Loyalist UWC Strike And Mass Intimidation

The Loyalist Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike, was a reactionary strike which involved mass intimidation of workers by Loyalist paramilitary gangs, who were opposed to what became known as the Sunningdale Agreement, which permitted limited 'power-sharing' for Catholics in the northern state-let. Many supposedly 'respectable' Loyalist members of parliament, openly joined forces with Loyalist death-squads, to effectively shut all essential services in the north of Ireland down, in protest against those very minor reforms. The Trades Unions openly condemned the strike as reactionary, which it certainly was and condemned the mass intimidation of workers by Loyalist gangs. What sticks in my mind, were the daily power-cuts, as power station workers left their workplace and worrying about my Father, who insisted on going to work despite mobs of thugs massing on all main roads, intimidating and often attacking workers. Children were intimidated by Loyalist thugs when they tried to go to school, shopkeepers who refused to close had their premises burnt down or worse. I can remember that due to the power cuts, families had to resort to cooking on little gas camping stoves to make hot meals, to children there was a slight 'adventure' feel to that kind of existence, at first.

The Loyalist gangs would sometimes have allowed perhaps one supermarket in an area to open, which led to bulk and panic buying, as no-one knew when the next chance would be to buy food. Shamefully, the BBC aided and abetted the reactionary strike and intimidation by regularly publishing their 'directives' verbatim, while the RUC and British Army did absolutely nothing to stop the Loyalist mobs and liaised closely with them.

I am glad that my young children, who are now about the same age as me, in the worst days of the conflict, do not have to live with the kind of generalized fear that my generation thought was 'normal' and that they can have a much more 'normal' childhood. In truth, even though we still live in what would be known as a ghetto, they know little of 'The Troubles' and sectarianism plays no role in their young lives, nor does hatred.

Unfortunately, we live in a still deeply divided city, which is crisscrossed with so-called 'Peacewalls', so children have to be told that there are areas of the city where they can never play, or visit safely, as they would risk serious injury or death, because of their perceived religious/political affiliation. Even more tragic is that what passes for peace now, is far from comprehensive, as the rationale for the conflict has not been removed and the likes of the Good Friday Agreement has only reinforced sectarian division and enshrined the undemocratic partition of Ireland. In effect, trying to reform the irredeemable, has been akin to using a sticking-plaster to stem an arterial bleed and the Irish dialectic will inevitably take its course...

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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    • Seven Stars Media profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam A Ryan 

      13 months ago from Ireland

      Paddy1916, Liz Westwood & Mr. Happy, for some reason I cannot reply to you. Probably a glitch. I will answer you all asap.

      Thank you for your comments.

    • profile image


      13 months ago

      Very personal, moving, yet wholly accurate account, mo chara. Like yourself, I am thankful my own kids, don't have to endure what we did and are able to grow up in relative peace. In fact, when I tell them stories about back then, I can see how hard it is for them to even comprehend it. I thoroughly enjoyed that piece, mo chara, tbh, I filled up a bit, ah, sure the wife is cutting onions, that's what it's been.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      13 months ago from UK

      Your article gives an interesting and moving insight into what it was like to grow up during the troubles.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      13 months ago from Toronto, Canada

      Thank You for your article. I appreciate your personal account of growing up during the Troubles. History has always been a favorite subject for me.

      So, what do You think of the whole Brexit issue: is it in any way possible to install a hard border, without starting-up all the violence from the past decades? And if a border is not a viable idea, could Brexit ever happen without Northern Ireland splitting away from the UK? (Maybe Scotland as well.)

      Alrighty, that's about it from me. Good luck and all the best!


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