“Baptism in Belfast,” PART TWO

A Memoir by Jack Deacy

Read "Baptism in Bellfast," Part One

PART TWO

The explosion of 20 bombs in the city center had thrown Belfast into complete chaos. Ambulances, fire trucks, and rescue units filled the streets. Royal Victoria Hospital was overwhelmed with the injured. The Army and police had set up roadblocks. The mood was ugly, a mixture of shock, anger, and fear.

“They’re a little late with their roadblocks,” an I.R.A. man in Ballymurphy said to me. “We showed them what we were capable of doing today. Now the Brits will take us seriously.”

The I.R.A. had called in a warning to the army and the police before the bombs went off. But the authorities said the warnings had come too late to effectively clear all of the sites.

Many saw the bombings as the I.R.A.’s payback for Bloody Sunday six months before when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholics during a civil rights march in the city of Derry.                    

In Ballymurphy McKinney told me that we would be spending the night at the home of Frank Gogarty in the exclusive Fort William Park community. Gogarty, a small trim man of middle age, was a dentist with a practice in the rough Protestant community called Tiger Bay. Many there referred to him as the “I.R.A. dentist.” He was also chairman of the nonviolent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) formed in the late 1960s to protest and reform discrimination against the Catholic community. But he was also a staunch I.R.A. supporter, which led some to believe that he was diverting money raised by NICRA for humanitarian aid to the I.R.A. to buy guns and ammunition. I had met him briefly in New York years before when he accompanied the fiery civil rights leader and future member of the British Parliament Bernadette Dev­lin on a fund-raising tour of the U.S.

When we pulled into the driveway of the Gogartys’ beautiful old three-story Victorian house, an angry crowd from a nearby Protestant public housing estate was beginning to gather in the street in front of the house. They greeted McKinney and me with a shower of rocks and cries of “Fenian bastards.”  

“They’re really pissed,” McKinney said.

“So I noticed,” I said. “This is not a good way to begin the evening.” 

In a lounge area off the kitchen, I met Gogarty, his attractive French-born wife, their four teenage sons and several other young men. Also in the room was an elderly French couple, friends of Mrs. Gogarty. They had come to Belfast on an ecclesiastical “mission of peace.” Their timing could not have been worse. The man was a Protestant minister who a half-hour earlier had been attacked and punched by the same Protestant mob that hurled rocks at us. Irony knows no bounds in Belfast.

The evening news was on and we all watched in silence. Mrs. Gogarty was weeping. Mr. Gogarty was drinking. There were grim TV scenes of firemen and policemen shoveling up body parts after the bombings. It was becoming clear that many I.R.A. supporters, even some in this room, were appalled by the day’s bombings and the loss of innocent lives.

As night fell, the angry crowd outside grew louder and larger. They were enraged by the day’s events. The I.R.A. dentist would have to pay a price. And so would his guests. It was becoming obvious that at some point the house would be attacked.

McKinney took charge. The front and back doors were reinforced with lumber and furniture. The huge first-floor windows were taped and partially boarded up. Seven of us were armed with hatchets, hammers, knives, pikes, shovels, and pitchforks.

At about 9:30 a huge cheer went up and about 60 men charged the house. I was near a window with a pitchfork. A hail of rocks smashed windows. The front door held. Several men tried but were unable to get through the windows. The crowd overturned one of the cars in the driveway and set it on fire. Then they withdrew to the street.

As they were regrouping, McKinney asked me to try and get someone on the phone who could get the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the Army to respond. In the phone book I got the office number of the U.S. Consul in Belfast. Miraculously, someone answered the phone. I explained that I was a journalist and an American citizen and the house I was in was under attack by a mob. Then I was actually put through to the American Consul. I explained the urgency of the situation and pleaded with him to call the Army and the R.U.C. and demand that they respond.

“First of all, Mr. Deacy, remain calm,” he said. “Secondly, I would advise that you leave the house as soon as you can.”

“I can’t leave the house. It’s under attack by a mob of Protestants. For Christ’s sake, call someone.”

“Mr. Deacy, unfortunately the U.S. Consul doesn’t carry much weight here in Belfast. But I will do what I can.”

The mob now had flaming torches. They charged again. Several torches landed in the house but were quickly extinguished. They withdrew and regrouped.

I cornered McKinney. “If they come back with Molotov cocktails or guns, we are dead men,” I said. For the first time in my life, I thought I might be going to die.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “At least your obituary will say you died fighting for Ireland.”

We both laughed.

Over the next hour, the mob charged twice more. But no Molotov cocktails. No guns. Now I thought I might live. We were all very lucky.

About 11:30 the R.U.C. arrived. We could see that an officer was talking with a few men in the crowd. He then walked slowly, hands clasped behind his back, to the front door. McKinney let the officer in.

“Here’s the situation,” he said. “Some of their leaders are convinced that there are guns in the house.”

“If there were guns in the house we would have used them to defend ourselves,” McKinney said.

“The leaders say that if two of them can join me in a quick walk through the house, then they will disperse. And I’ll make sure they do.”

After some back and forth, a deal was struck. One mob leader would do a walk-through with McKinney and the R.U.C. officer. 

When Gogarty, now in the lounge drinking, heard what was proposed he was enraged. He bounded down the hall and went for McKinney. “Don’t let those bastards into my house,” he roared. “They’ll map every room in every part of the house. And then they’ll break in and kill me and my family. Don’t let the bastards in.”

I was able to restrain him and get him back into the kitchen. The house tour took place, the crowd dispersed, and an R.U.C. squad was posted in the street. Against all advice, McKinney got into his windowless car, drove through the city to Ballymurphy, and brought Seamus Drumm and another I.R.A. man back to Gogarty’s. They each had a modern Armalite rifle and would spend the night. Just in case.

As things began to calm down, Seamus Drumm and I went upstairs to the second floor to get some sleep. The other gunman remained downstairs with McKinney, one of Gogarty’s sons, and a few others.

A few hours later a shot rang out downstairs. Drumm was up and had his weapon. He headed downstairs to see what was up. I waited by the stairs.

When Drumm reached the kitchen, he got the story. The other gunman had broken down his Armalite for McKinney. In putting it back together, a round discharged, missing Gogarty’s son’s head by just a few feet. As the sun came up on a wounded city, the long night’s journey in Mr. Gogarty’s house was coming to a close. I got out my portable typewriter and began to write about my first few days in my new city.

A few days later the Gogartys moved out of the house. A month later it was burned to the ground.

I spent another seven months in Belfast. It was to be the bloodiest year in the 30-year struggle in the North. I thought if I got close to it, I would understand it and all would become clear. It didn’t happen.  

On a rain-soaked Thursday afternoon in early 1973, I drove out of Belfast for the last time, leaving my original romantic notions about the struggle behind.

I noticed something on that awful morning of September 11, 2001, in downtown Manhattan. I had seen the look on the faces of people fleeing the World Trade Center before. I had seen it in 1972 on the faces of people of Belfast. The look was one of absolute terror.

When I went back to Belfast in 2002 I did not recognize the city. Someone had scrubbed Belfast clean. The British Army was gone. Gone too were Jack McKinney, Frank Gogarty, Jose Torres, Jim Bryson, and so many others. Seamus Drumm was alive and raising a family.

Belfast was alive and breathing again. Peace was at hand. And at long last in a city where too many innocents died, life had finally trumped death.


Jack Deacy was a columnist for the New York Daily News and a contributing editor at New York magazine. He has a house in Springs.