Take Me to the Worst of It

Take Me to the Worst of It

When I arrived in Belfast on April 30, 1981, to cover the imminent death of 27-year-old Bobby Sands and the climax of the IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh (or Maze) Prison, I had to really scramble to find accommodation of any kind. Every major British, Irish and American newspaper and every big English language television network seemed to have descended on Belfast and grabbed virtually all the available hotel rooms in the fractured city. I got one of the last rooms left in a relatively small hotel, far from the city centre and quickly realized that most of the other guests were from TV networks, plus a few reporters either employed by, or free-lancing for large circulation newspapers. Tough competition indeed. Might I be out of my depth?

I suspect the hotel staff were particularly nice and helpful to me because I stood out as the young underdog trying to compete with the massive resources of my rivals, all of whom seemed to have rental cars, hired drivers and bulging expense accounts. I either walked when possible or took taxis when necessary. On paper it looked like a total mismatch. They were mostly very experienced journalists and international reporters, while I had been covering the cop beat for a few months in Edmonton.

I jokingly imagined myself as the crack, young New York City crime reporter Johnny Jones, from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, Foreign Correspondent, whose old-fashioned publisher—sick of dull, stuffed-shirt foreign correspondents—sends the brash, young, unsophisticated crime reporter with a nose for a story to Europe to get to the bottom of all this Nazi stuff. It was corny, but there was a seed of truth in it that inspired me. There is no substitute for hustle, common sense and real shoe-leather journalism. I was certainly a bug-eyed rookie experiencing my first taste of the big stage, but I was very excited and reasonably confident, probably because I didn’t have enough sense to be intimidated.

It was also crucial that I knew a lot about Irish history, particularly contemporary issues in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, I had long been fascinated by the history of modern Ireland, had read stacks of books about it and, as a history major at university, seriously considered making modern Irish history my area of specialty before switching to political philosophy. I took a huge interest in The Troubles, as the locals called the armed political struggle between Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants. Partially because it was the land of my ancestors, but also because it was both a tragic and dramatic struggle. Sands and his fellow Provisional IRA (Provos) inmates were on a hunger strike over their unsuccessful demand that they be treated as political prisoners.

The history and the politics were complex, but I strongly believed that despite the massive gap in resources and experience, I knew more than enough to provide the necessary context and relevant facts, while capturing in words the daily drama and the poisoned atmosphere as well as any other foreign journalist. Pressure aside, I was enjoying myself immensely. I also spent a lot of time walking the rough streets of inner city Belfast, taking the pulse of the ordinary people in their sectarian ghettos, especially the young people. I didn’t run into any foreign correspondents there.

Each day I talked with my bosses and we decided what scheduled news events to cover, such as protest marches or press conferences, and what features to write. In between researching and writing those feature stories, I attended many events, carefully read the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News newspapers, and kept my ear to the ground. I felt tremendous self-generated pressure to deliver top quality, well-researched stories with local colour and essentially only worked, ate and slept, except for sharing a few pints with local Belfast journalists whose advice and analysis of the politics and the main players proved invaluable.

Everyone was waiting for Sands’ death, which could happen at any moment, as he hadn’t eaten since March 1st. Callous as it sounds, my greatest fear was that he would die at an inconvenient time for my newspaper’s deadlines, because the seven-hour time difference between Edmonton and Belfast could create serious logistical problems. If it happened overnight the paper would get the news bulletin very quickly and my bosses would call me. If it occurred during the day I would surely hear of it almost immediately, at which point I would find a pay phone and call them to make plans and find out my story filing deadlines.

Sands finally died of starvation on the 66th day of his hunger strike at 1:17 a.m., Belfast time, May 5th. That was 6:17 p.m., Edmonton time, May 4th. I was asleep, of course, but my phone rang a few minutes later. It was not my newspaper, but the night man at the hotel’s front desk calling to give me the news and read out a short government press release. Those nice people really looked out for me. I called the paper, which had just received the bulletin, and they told me I had until about 4 a.m. my time (9 p.m. Edmonton time) to file a story. We agreed I needed to head out onto the streets immediately to cover the expected rioting and, if possible, get some comments from Sinn Féin (Irish Gaelic for ‘Ourselves Alone’), the political wing of the Provisional IRA. I believe that it was Linda Hughes, the Edmonton Journal’s city editor, and later publisher, who strongly and wisely emphasized that I should be very careful on those streets.

I raced down to the lobby and asked the desk man to call me a taxi, then went outside to wait for it. It was only a few minutes but it seemed like forever till the cab arrived. The driver asked me where I wanted to go and I told him to take me to the roughest Catholic neighbourhoods, such as Ballymurphy and the Falls Road. That’s where the rioting would be, I assumed. He turned me down flat, then smiled and said he would call me a “Black Taxi,” if I wanted one. When I asked what that was, he said not to worry because the driver could take me safely into the most volatile Catholic neighbourhoods. A few minutes later my Black Taxi arrived and the driver asked where I wanted to go.

“Take me to the worst of it,” I said. And he did. “I’m your man,” he replied, with a smile.

When we arrived in Ballymurphy, IRA supporters were banging garbage can lids on the pavement and honking their car horns to wake local residents and tell them Sands had died. Many angry people poured out into the streets to protest. “Go to Hell, you British bastards,” a woman screamed at the soldiers. People were already putting up barricades, setting cars on fire and knocking over lamp posts, while men wearing ski masks over their faces were doing battle with the police and British soldiers, hurling rocks, lobbing petrol bombs and ducking mainly rubber bullets, plus some live rounds. A few of the petrol bombs hit their targets, setting police vehicles on fire. We watched, and I took notes, but we kept our distance from those violent exchanges. The rioting on the Falls Road was just as wild and I came back there the next day and saw that the street was a total mess. I remember well seeing a man sitting on the sidewalk on a severely damaged couch, puffing on a cigarette and reading his daily paper, unperturbed.

I was impressed that my driver was able to easily move in and out of rioting Catholic neighborhoods without a problem and realized he was an accepted presence there. I asked him how he came to be driving a Black Taxi and he said he had been imprisoned for a few years without charges at Long Kesh and needed a job when he was released. I asked him what he was accused or suspected of, and he said two murders. After I digested that I asked if he could take me to the office of Sinn Féin and help me get an interview. He nodded and about 20 minutes later I was ushered into the office of Richard McCauley, a Sinn Féin spokesperson and later, press secretary for Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, long suspected and openly accused of being the chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, despite his denials.

Richard McCauley, photograph: Alex Wong/Irish Times

“If I had one of those (British) bastards in my hands right now, I’d rip them limb from limb,” McCauley told me. “We’re sad that Bobby Sands died. There’s a great deal of anger here right now because people know he didn’t have to die,” he added, referencing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to meet any of the demands of the hunger strikers. McCauley said Sinn Féin was asking people to behave in a dignified fashion despite their anger. “Hopefully, after tonight, the rioting and petrol bombing will settle down. It depends on how the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British Army react.” As I left McCauley’s office I noticed a few of the high-profile journalists from my hotel waiting in line to interview him and could not suppress a smile.

My Black Taxi driver took me back to my hotel and received a huge tip and a handshake because he did a terrific job. It was money well spent. I called the paper and told my bosses that, thanks to my driver, I could provide a vivid and detailed account of the rioting in Belfast’s Catholic ghettos, Sinn Fein’s commentary on Sands’ death and the Northern Ireland government’s official statement. I had everything I needed to weave together a full account of events and just enough time to compose it, dictate the story to one of our typists and go over it with my bosses and copy handlers, who did an excellent job, as they did on the feature stories as well. In fact I thought everyone I worked with at The Journal did a top job of both advising and managing me and my stories on this exceptionally challenging and rewarding assignment. It was a real pleasure working with them. I crawled into bed, a tired but happy man, looking forward to the next and final challenge—covering the funeral of Bobby Sands. It took me a few hours to get to sleep as I was still buzzing from the pressure and excitement of my night’s work.

In case anyone is wondering about how I could possibly remember the quotes in these posts 37 years later I can confirm that they come directly out of the original stories I wrote in 1981, as I have copies of all of them.

Bobby Sands mural photo by Stuart Borthwick, from his book The Writing on the Wall: A Visual History of Northern Ireland’s Troubles (Bluecoat Press, 2015)

Read Part I The Boys of Belfast’s Ghettos here.

Read Part III Aye, there goes Bobby Sands here

4 thoughts on “Take Me to the Worst of It

  1. I remember it well. I was filling in for you on the cop beat, which eventually gave rise to your greatest piece of investigative journalism (Diary). And you returned with a thick Irish accent, saying ad nauseum, “Bobby Sands was the greatest man that ever lived.” Do you think the fact that the publisher had O’ in his name helped get you support for this reportage?

    1. Great to hear from you, Mike. J Patrick O’Callaghan was out of town when I made my pitch to go and when he returned he apparently said he would not have approved it because I didn’t have enough experience. I suspect I got the ‘go ahead’ because I was already going to Ireland on a bike trip so they only had to pay to move my flight forward and change it from Shannon to Belfast. This is a three-part post with the final chapter about the funeral of Bobby Sands coming on Friday. Don’t miss it.

  2. Another great post from the Intrepid Reporter! This is good timing for me, Tom, as Marty and I are headed to Ireland in mid-September. We’ll be in Belfast for the first two days so this is a terrific (historical) backgrounder. Plus, I’m wading through a second reading of Trinity.
    I am Irish on my mother’s side so this will be interesting to connect in a small way with my ancestors.

  3. Always glad to hear from you Deb. I’m still not sure how I weaseled my way into the fantastic assignment. If you and Marty go to Belfast I recommend hiring a Catholic black taxi which does the tour of the city’s Catholic ghettos and can tell stories about what happened during The Troubles.

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