1974 - During the troubles Belfast was a place where my mates and I had very limited options of entertainment. These were the days before the digital revolution, when there were just three TV channels and one of them was absolutely no use to me. BBC2 seemed to show nothing but gardening programmes and documentaries about garbage such as the building of the Manchester ship canal. This was a period when the entertainment we indulged in came from our own creative imaginations – there were no other choices and there were even less when the downpours of rain happened, or when it was simply too cold to play outside.
Children of the 1960s and 70s were at the tail end of the obsession with the notion of defeating the Germans in World War II. This generation would also be the last to watch and be mesmerised with films about the American Wild West. These Hollywood movies showed John Wayne kicking the arses of Red Indians. Films such as ‘The Great Escape’, ‘True Grit’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and James Bond movies were the staple of our entertainment. There were good guys and there were bad guys. In the movies good guys always beat the bad guys. It was that simple.
My friends and I would re-enact scenes from our favourite war films and play at being cowboys in search of some ‘injuns’ to mercilessly slaughter. This would involve climbing garden walls, sneaking through neighbours’ gardens and usually being chased out of them by those same neighbours. They just didn’t understand that we were on a mission to capture and kill some Germans!
Sometimes we would play at being the enemy, the Germans. It’s good to see the problem from both sides. We would pretend to be Nazi storm troopers and go looking for British soldiers to take as prisoners. One of these captives was always Roy, a boy who lived two doors down the street from me. He was a year younger than us, which is a massive age-gap to kids. We could therefore by authority of age, make him do what we wanted. The poor boy always complied.
We approached Roy and announced in our best German accent that “vee hef cam to take yoo ez our preezonur yoo Eeengleesshh peeg!” Roy was whisked off to my back yard and tied a post for interrogation. We paced back and forth in front of him and shouted in our best German accents, “vehr arr yor vehpons you Breeteesh shvine-hunt!”
Our interrogation stopped when Roy became very agitated and began crying uncontrollably. He was yelling “Mammy! They’re beating me!” Our prisoner was released at this point before his ma’ came to rescue him and also give me and Marty a hearty Ulster woman’s smack on the head.
Our world of play was also influenced by the troubles in Ulster and during the 1974 Ulster Loyalist Workers’ Strike we saw lots of masked UDA men operating about our neighbourhood. They blocked roads and stopped cars to prevent anyone from getting to work. My mates and I thought they looked great in their terrorist attire of combat coats, hats, dark glasses and a scarf over their face. That was the next form of entertainment sorted out for a bunch of ten year old boys - we were going to play at being the Ulster Defence Association…
Off we went on our separate ways into our houses to search for UDA-style clothes. I managed to gather a brown fishing hat, a green parka jacket, a pair of my da’s sunglasses and my Glentoran scarf. I put them on and stood in front of the hallway mirror posing with one of my toy plastic guns. I had the perfect UDA look. Out of the house and down the street I marched to meet up with my other junior UDA comrades. One by one they emerged from their houses with their best attempts at looking like UDA commandos. I was disappointed with Smickers’ efforts to look like a terrorist. With a black duffle coat, a chequered flat cap and one of his ma’s silk scarves across his face he was not really looking like a fierce warrior of Ulster and more like a dirty old man who would hang around school playgrounds. It was however the closest things he could find to UDA gear so he would have to do.
We set up our first UDA roadblock made from two buckets with a brush pole placed across them. It wasn’t quite a roadblock either – it was across the pavement but we thought we’d start off lightly by initially stopping pedestrians and eventually working up to bicycles and then cars. Down the street came Mrs Richardson. She was a really nice lady so we took down our roadblock to let her through.
“How are you boys doing? Having fun?” she asked in her kind tone.
“Aye, we’re bein’ the UDA!” we replied.
“Very good, have fun” replied this gentle silver haired lady. Mrs Richardson was much too nice to hassle with our terrorism. As she walked past us we began waiting for the next person to come down the street.
Along came four boys from around the corner who we didn’t like and had many fights and arguments with. We weighed up the situation. If we tried to stop them there would definitely be a punch-up. We opted out and once more dismantled our barricade to let them past.
The next person to walk down the street was Mrs Dunne, a strange lady who always wore heavy face make-up. We all thought she was definitely a prostitute. As she approached we stood resolute and declared “Stop! We can’t let you past!”
“Why not?” asked Mrs Dunne.
“Cos we’re the UDA – THAT’S why!” She tried to get past to take down our barrier but we crowded around her.
“Yer nat getting’ past!” we told her. Mrs Dunne started smacking us each around the head.
“Let me past ye wee buggers!” she yelled.
We eventually let her pass but this incident had made us feel a sense of that power, just like real UDA men.
This was our world of Cowboys, Indians, Soldiers and Spies and playing at being the Ulster Defence Association. This is how we relieved the boredom of living in Belfast during the troubles. There were other kids who would take this one stage further and actually join the UDA or UVF when they were old enough to be accepted into the ranks. Perhaps the Catholic kids played at being the IRA? I don’t know as I had never met or knew any Catholics. I went to a Protestant school, lived in a Protestant area and would probably end up getting a job in a Protestant company. This was the way it was, like it or lump it.