A poignant collection of first-hand accounts drawn from interviews with people from a variety of different backgrounds, this collection brings the personal toll of the Troubles to life.
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About the Author
Marie Smyth is a Research Fellow for INCORE, the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity, University of Ulster and the United Nations University, and Project Director of The Cost of the Troubles Study. Marie-Therese Fay is the Research Officer with the Cost of the Troubles Study in Belfast. They are both coauthors of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, also available from Pluto Press.
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'The Troubles is my life'
Alice Nocher was interviewed in Bawnmore Greencastle, a Catholic enclave area in North Belfast in April 1997. Her brother was killed in 1975 in a bomb explosion. A couple of years later she was shot herself and survived. In 1983 her husband was shot dead in a sectarian attack whilst at work.
What really brought the Troubles home to me was the day my brother was killed. He worked to one o'clock that day and he came home. His two friends called for him. He went out and he never came back. Two o'clock there was an explosion and he and his two mates was killed.
I was working, and a woman came in and says that I was wanted at home immediately. I remember looking at her saying, 'Why?' And she said, 'You're wanted to comfort your mother.' I said I wasn't moving until she told me what was going on. So she says to me, 'Did you hear the explosion?' And I says, 'What explosion?' And she says, 'No, nothing. Just get your coat!' But it still didn't dawn on me that there was an explosion and my brother was involved in it.
I looked down and I seen all this rubble and I kept shouting to people I knew, 'What's wrong?' But nobody would tell me.
So then I got into the house and there was all sorts of doctors and nurses who just grabbed me and brought me into the working kitchen and gave me tablets. It was an awful day.
The lady that brought me home said, 'It was one of your brothers.' That's how I knew it was a brother. I had seven brothers. And when I got home I was looking at all their faces to see which brothers I could see. 'Cause no one would tell me which one it was. I remember seeing my brother Pat and says, 'It's not Pat!' And then I seen Frank, 'It's not Frankie!' and all down the line like that. And then I heard my mummy squealing, 'My Sammy, my Sammy!' That's how I knew it was Sammy.
My mummy was actually crawling the walls in the living room. She was on the settee crawling the walls squealing for her son. They sedated my mummy. That was one of the worst times.
I remember after he was buried, I remember going in night after night trailing her out of his room. It just went on and on.
I used to have to bring her walks at three in the morning just to get her out of the house.
Everybody was wrapped up in their own grief for him. My life totally changed. It was like the end of family life as we knew it.
As I say, these doctors and all were giving tablets. But I was the eldest girl, so they said to me, 'You have to be strong for your mother.' I wanted to go to pieces. But, you know, I had to be strong for her. They gave me a glass of water and two tablets. I was shaking that much, one of the nurses had to take it and hold it to my mouth to get the tablets down.
I felt I wasn't allowed to cry or do anything like that, in case I upset my mummy or anything. I cried, but very rarely. I held it all back really. I just kept going over in my mind as to who could have left that there. I was angry at the ones who left it there. I was angry, I was hurt. It was a mixture of everything.
I tried to get someone to blame but when you can't find someone to blame you start saying, 'Maybe if he had've stayed at work or if he had've stayed and had that cup of tea.' If, if, if. It's not going to change anything. They had whole lives ahead of them.
My mummy didn't get any help really either. Because after the initial shock and the doctors and all left that was it. You were left to cope. Other than the neighbours calling in, no one came near us.
But I didn't go to that inquest. I'm not even sure whether my mummy went, but my daddy definitely went. Because my poor daddy had to identify him. It took my daddy an awful long time to get himself together again. My brother wasn't really mutilated too badly. He'd lost his legs and his arm and half of his head. But the other lad was absolutely in bits and pieces. And I thought it was very cruel. Because when they went to identify the bodies, the policeman or whatever threw a black bag up on the table and says, 'Identify your son!' My daddy was able to identify my brother because compared to the other two he wasn't that badly mutilated. I thought that was the cruellest of things to do. And my daddy couldn't get over it. He used to disappear every night and when he came back from his pigeon shed you could see he'd been crying. But that was the man's thing to do. You don't cry in front of women. But you could see every night, nobody ever said to him, 'Were you crying?' He just come back and we knew. And that went on for a long long time. Long time. It was an awful strain. Awful strain.
I remember going to work. After that they gave me an awful time where I worked. They stopped me and said, 'We're going to do you!' And they sort of branded the family 'Provo bastards' or you know 'scum of the earth' and all this. Well I was really really frightened. I knew something bad was going to happen if I didn't get out of it. They were going to do this and that to me. In between times I went and looked for another job myself. And I came home from work on the Friday and there was a letter to say to start at Abbey Meat Packers on the Monday. So I said that I was going to work there. And that was another wrong move.
I remember going in and crying my eyes out the whole day 'cause my brother had worked there and I'd another brother worked there at the time. I remember going up to him and crying my eyes out the whole lunch time. And after a week or two I got back into a routine and everything was OK. And then we were shot down there going to work one morning.
This is me and my best friend Margaret. And there was three young lads in the car. We got into the car and Margaret and I were fighting about who was going to get into the back seat. There was only two doors on the car. I says, 'Auch, I'll get in first.' And I was the only one to survive it. So actually, by me getting into that seat first really saved my life.
We left in the car and we went along to Whiteabbey. And we turned up Glenville Road and he sort of jerked the car and stopped suddenly.
We were half asleep in the back seat you know, and I actually thought he had hit someone. And I says 'What's wrong?' And the next thing the door was opened and he shouted, 'Get out, get out to fuck!' And I looked out and there was a car pulled up in front of us and there were men getting out with guns. And just looking at it, I knew it was us they wanted.
I remember saying, 'We're not going to get out of this!' There were only two doors in the car and we were trapped. I looked at Margaret and I says, 'What are we going to do?' And Margaret says, 'Lie down, lie down!' I can't describe the terror that went through me. It was terrifying. The thoughts that came into my mind was that I'm too young to die. I was just frozen on the spot.
The boy at the end tried to get out. He pushed the seat forward to get out and they shot him. And the other two got away, thank God. So that just left Margaret and I in the car. So they riddled the car with a sub-machine-gun. It seemed like an eternity, I heard the shooting. But they were actually shooting at the lads running down the street. And then I felt pain, like a burning sensation. And I remember as each bullet hit me, it lifted me off the seat. So when we were in a lying down position, as the bullets hit, we were sitting up. At one stage my head hit the ceiling of the car. It lifted me that high.
I was hit in my arm, two in my hip, one in my thigh. One in my leg, foot and ankle. One in my hand. Eight times altogether.
And I remember when it was over, like a burning smell in the car, like someone had struck a match, but far stronger. But the police told me later, that was the smell of them going through the metal.
But I remember it just went silent. I rolled down onto the floor. And I remember Margaret saying, 'Get up, get off me, you're hurting me!' And with my good arm I lifted myself up. I remember shouting out 'Help us! Help us! Somebody help us!'
These people lifted us out of the car and left us on the pavement. I heard Margaret shouting my name a few times.
Margaret lived for a week. She died a week later in hospital. I knew in my own heart she was bad. And someone says she was only an arm's length away from me on the pavement, but I couldn't see her. And I kept calling for her and all.
I thought Margaret and I would be together in the ambulance. But it wasn't. It was the wee boy of sixteen. And that terrified me, because he was on one side of the ambulance and I was on the other. He was shot in the head. And I could see this. And he was breathing very deeply. He was really fighting for breath. And the ambulance man was attending to him. And then he turned round and he started to dress my wounds. And I said, 'No! See to him, he needs you more than I do!' And he just looked at me and said, 'You are a very brave wee girl.' And I says, 'I'm not brave, he needs you more than I do.' And he says, 'There is no more I can do for him love.' And that was awful, I felt useless. I couldn't help him or anything.
And then I heard later three o'clock that day or something, he died. I remember the journey [in the ambulance] because it passed this way and I was looking out the window. So, if I could see my family just one person, a brother, anyone just to see them. And the strangest things go through your head. I thought maybe they were following us to the hospital to shoot us again. I didn't feel it was over in that way. And even in the hospital after they'd operated and all I never felt secure the whole time I was there. I kept thinking they would come in and do it again.
When we got to hospital I heard Margaret again in the next bed shouting my name. And they asked me was I in much pain. And I said, 'Yes' and they gave me morphine or something. By this time my family were there. So the first one I seen was my daddy. My daddy came over and kissed me and told me I was going to be all right and that. And then I saw Margaret's daddy. And I just told him the truth. And he says, 'Don't you worry about that. You just worry about getting yourself better!'
So then I was brought into the operating theatre. And then when I was put into a ward my daddy came in to see me. And I said to him I was shot at least seven times. And my daddy went out and told my mummy and she practically called him a liar. She says, 'Don't be stupid, you'd be dead if you were shot that many times!' And then they went and asked the doctor, and the doctor said that was right. And they just couldn't believe it that someone could be shot that many times and survive it.
The doctor used to come round, and he said Margaret was coming on great. And then on the following Monday about three o'clock he says, 'You had a wee friend in intensive care?' And I says, 'Yes!' And I was waiting for good news. And he says, 'She died at two o'clock today.'
I was just devastated. I knew she was bad but I always thought she would pull through. He says, 'She'd died.' I never seen her after that. I wanted them to bring me down to see her but they wouldn't let me. The first time they got me up I fainted with the pain. And I couldn't go to the toilet myself, so I used bed pans and stuff. And being young I detested it.
Sleep was really – it was very hard to sleep. And when I did sleep it was all bad nightmares and very, very bad dreams. Woke up in sweats. It did go on for a while.
I remember coming home that day and I couldn't believe this. Right in front of us on the motorway was a hearse with a coffin in it. And the tears just flowed right down my face. Because Margaret had been buried that day and they wouldn't let me out for the funeral. And there it was just travelling in front of us. It broke my heart. Because I was saying to myself, 'That could have been me going home.' I remember looking and I could see my daddy's eyes through the mirror and he was crying, knowing I was crying and that was the way it went on.
For when I got out of hospital I had to go down to the doctors. Mummy made me, because I wasn't sleeping or anything and I'd lost weight. I was always a very thin girl, you know, in my teens. But my weight went right down to seven stone four or something. My hair was falling out. And when I went down to the doctor he told me 'to run away on – I was lucky that my hair didn't turn white over night'. And that was the sympathy I got from the doctor. He says, 'It will recover itself – it was the shock, you don't know how lucky you are!' Well I did know how lucky I was. I didn't need him or anyone else to tell me. But this is all you got. Getting up in the morning and there was bunches of hair and my hair was down to my waist when I was young. It was just lying on the pillow. And I was afraid to wash it. That went on for about a year I think. I can't remember really. But it did grow back itself, eventually
[I got] no help from anyone and they just didn't want to know. Then it was about a month after that my daddy said, 'Come on. I'm bringing you to the doctor right now.' The least wee noise I was hiding behind the settee and I was going up to my room at night and putting the wardrobe over the door. So I went to a different doctor and he said I was going through a breakdown and as I was actually talking to the doctor I wasn't looking at him. I was looking at the door to see who was coming in the door. And he noticed this and he says, 'There is no one coming in the door Alice. No one is going to hurt you again.' And he said to my daddy 'She's going through a breakdown and I want you to get her away not tomorrow, not next week, tonight.'
So my daddy put me on a plane to England that night. And I stayed with my brother. I went over there and as we were going along this road I was still jumping at every car going by and they were laughing at me saying 'It's not like that over here.' And then it suddenly dawned on me that it's not! This is a different place. And I relaxed. And I came home a lot better. I stayed about a month.
But I fell and I broke my plaster in half. So I went to their hospital over there. And I'll never forget their attitude towards me. 'What happened to you?' 'I was shot.' And automatically they assumed I was guilty of something. And I was treated like absolute dirt. So within three days I had myself home.
I was terrified to come back. I didn't want to go through that again, sitting in my room and not going out. I wanted to be on my own. I kept thinking to myself – if they do come in to shoot anyone I would be more of a hindrance than help. Because they would be that busy looking after me they would get themselves killed. I couldn't understand. 'Why?' I asked myself that question. The UFF, they said they done it. It was a bus load of soldiers and their wives in England and there was a couple of them killed. They said they shot us in retaliation for that bus. And I was saying to them, 'What bus?' Didn't even know about this bus.
There was a court case some years later and I was subpoenaed to go as a witness and there were three fellas standing in the dock. Their faces were covered anyway. They were masked. And that was terrifying because I had to relive that all over again. And in the end they got off. I said to the detective 'Why did you put me through that knowing that you hadn't enough evidence to convict these people?' He says he thought there might have been a chance.
The judge was very sympathetic. It was absolutely terrifying. I had to get up to walk round them to the stand. I would like to have been able to say they are the guilty ones. It was the detective who said to me they were the ones that done it, though he couldn't prove it.
I don't know where I got the courage from. I just stared straight back at them and I stared into every one of their eyes and they sort of looked at me and turned away. They looked everywhere but me. I felt I was the strongest of us all for doing that. After the hearing Margaret's daddy put his arms round me and he says, 'I'm so very proud of you for being able. Even when you were being sworn in when you had the Bible in your hand you didn't even shake.' I says, 'I was literally shaking inside.' He says, 'It didn't show.' So that was a wee boost, him saying he was proud of me. But it is wonderful where you get the strength from. Because I kept saying, 'Mummy, I can't get up there, I can't get up there.' She says, 'You'll get up and you'll do what you have to.' And I did.
I had no teenage life. I just locked myself in my room every night. Didn't know what it was like to go out. I was afraid. I remember going into the post office to get my sickness benefit and couldn't stand in the queue for shaking that much. I had to leave. I took, like, agoraphobia or something. Everything that was so simple before was an ordeal. Just stayed in the house. All my teenage years just wasted away. Just every day got that wee bit easier, but it took time. It wasn't like going home one day and getting on with it.
Excerpted from "Personal Accounts From Northern Ireland's Troubles"
Copyright © 2000 Marie Smyth and Marie-Therese Fay.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of Northern Ireland
1. 'The Troubles is my life'
2. Multiple bereavement and loss
3. Serious injury
4. Living with the aftermath
5. Taking up arms
6. In the minority
7. Loss of a father
8. His only child
9. Unintended death
10. All in a day's work
11. 'That was the last time I seen him'
12. 'I don't ask God for anything'
13. 'Just me and the kids'
14. Rough justice