Celtic Illumination, part 59, singing Christians and the Royal Marines.
There were, as you may expect, certain cultural differences between life as portrayed on the Dukes of Hazzard and life in Warrenpoint. They smuggled moonshine and we smuggled poteen. They had a big red car with a flag on the top; our red car didn’t have a flag. They used dynamite tipped arrows to create confusion and destroy things, we used slings. See; I told you there were differences. I was going to say that Bo and Luke shouted “Yee har!” and we didn’t, but I think we did!
Of course one major difference was that our county was crawling with British troops. It doesn’t matter what side you were on, or even if you were in the middle, their presence did make a difference to everyone’s life. We knew that there was a conflict going on all around us. Warrenpoint had seemed to escape the troubles with the exception of some very low level rioting. One day word went around that there was a bomb in the square. I was on my way home, so gave the square a wide berth. I got home and informed my parents. Dad opened all the windows of the house and waited.
I remember standing at my bedroom window. I was looking out at the town of Warrenpoint and beyond that, Carlingford Lough. Then I experienced one of the strangest things I have ever seen. I saw a car rise into the air. Down the town, in the square, I saw a car rise up above the buildings, while around and beneath it, was a rough black cloud with lumps of debris spinning wildly. But there was no sound.
Seconds later the blast wave came at me. The bomb had exploded but because of the surrounding shops and houses, the blast wave had to travel across the lough and bounce of the mountains before coming to me. The fellow who had organised the bomb was Eamon Collins who was two years above me in Violent Hell.
It wasn’t the only thing that came back at us from Omeath. During the heavy days of internment many young fellows were ‘on the run’. On a Sunday morning, buses would arrive from Belfast, full of the wives and children and families of IRA men, or suspected IRA men. They would use the ferries and travel over to Omeath, in the Irish Republic, visit their loved ones, spend the afternoon with them and return at tea time.
At the head of Carlingford Lough sat a Royal Naval gunboat. It was home to a squadron of Royal marines who would patrol the Lough in their inflatable Gemini craft. Occasionally they would stop the ferry boats, mid lough, and take the names and addresses of the passengers. This was a frustrating situation for the IRA men waiting in Omeath, so occasionally they would vent their frustration, by opening fire on the Marines in the Gemini’s.
I would ask you to imagine the scene. Warrenpoint beach, by the ferries, Sunday afternoon. There was always a bunch of happy Christians congregated around the boat terminal on the beach. They would set up an organ, powered by a car battery, and a group of them would stand there, all afternoon, singing hymns and praying. To their right would be an orderly queue of people waiting to get on to a ferry. Between Warrenpoint and Omeath would be four to five large open wooden boats, chugging away under diesel power with approximately thirty passengers each.
The zodiacs could be seen coming from quite a distance, and it must have been like shooting a line of ducks at the fair. The IRA would open fire on them, these moving targets, while ourselves and the singing Christians would be diving for cover as the bullets ricocheted all about.
The O Neill family ran a good few of the ferries. We would help now and again, whether it was with the day to day operations or the winter maintenance of the vessels. Two of the O Neill boys, twin brothers, Brendan and James, were part of our group.
One evening there was a dance in the town hall. We all attended but for some reason Brendan and I ended up with two sisters. They were from Newry but told us that they were moving on to Cranfield, about twelve miles away; to their parent’s caravan, where there would be a night of drinking and debauchery. Brendan and I were of course tempted by this offer but there were so many things against us. One, it was about midnight on a Saturday night and there was no public transport. Two, it didn’t really matter that there was no public transport for we had no money anyway. And three, the pair of us should have been back at our respective homes by eleven o clock. It was raining, well; this was Ireland. And then Fegan happened.
Brendan and I had been standing outside the town hall guessing about how fantastic a night we may have had, when Phelim Fegan pulled up. He was on his way to Kilkeel so Brendan and myself jumped in. Phelim explained that he would drop us on the road by the Cranfield junction; we could walk the final three miles. Three miles was ten times better than twelve miles, so we accepted.
Well; what a party that was. It was dawn when Brendan and I decided to go home. Once again, no transport, no money, and it was raining, so we began to walk.
We hadn’t really thought about what excuse we would use when, as we approached Rostrevor, we saw a car approach us. It was the pervert priest. He swung the car around and as we were about to get into the car Brendan said to me. “Keep quiet I’ll do the talking.”
Brendan explained that we had been lifted by an army patrol, taken out to Cranfield and dumped. We hadn’t been harmed. The pervert priest and both sets of parents were stumped for the police and army were saying they had never seen us. Our excuses were accepted and the matter was put down to the fact that the Brits could never tell the truth. I thought we had got away with it.
Years later I was having a stroll along the sea front at Warrenpoint. I met Mr O Neill, Brendan’s father. Brendan had taken a different route to me and was serving a twelve year sentence for murder and being a member of the IRA. “Hello Mister O Neill,” I said, offering my hand. Mister O Neill shook my hand and you could see that he knew me, but wasn’t sure who I was. We spoke about the weather, the ferries, Warrenpoint, and then I asked. “How’s Brendan?” Mr O Neill tutted and shook his head. “Brendan is fine,” he sighed. “I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to him?” I nodded, knowing that he wouldn’t want to go into detail about it.
We accepted that our meeting was finished and began to part when he held my hand for an extra millisecond. “You know,” he said. “Brendan wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for that fellow he was lifted with.”
I wandered off wondering what on earth Brendan had said to his parents about my involvement in our disappearance that night. It was bad enough getting expelled from Violent Hell, for something I didn’t do, but to have someone hate you for years for something you didn’t do was a new experience I was going to have to get used to.