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Extracts from 'Before the Bandits',
by Shane White

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Shane White... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Shane White, with the permission of Guildhall Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
front cover The following extract is taken from the book:

Before the Bandits
by Shane White (2000)
ISBN 0 946451 54 0 Paperback 108pp

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This chapter is copyright Shane White (© 2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author or the publisher, Guildhall Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:

There’s a saying that you should never go back. Shane White does go back and he takes the reader with him. To a childhood in South Armagh where his father was the RUC sergeant during the 1960s on the edge of the glory of Slieve Gullion. For many this book will remind them of a unique time that once existed; for others it will introduce them to a South Armagh they probably thought could never have existed.

Spend time with the two drunken postmen taking hours Leaving each other home; join the RUC as they chase smugglers and negotiate seizure over a glass of poteen; but most of all enjoy a stroll through a childhood untouched by fear or worry.

The author recalls childhood friends, many of whom were policemen, others became terrorists. All now dead at the hand of ‘The Troubles’. Including his own father.

This story was before the ‘Bandits’ came. And there are those who say they came in many different uniforms.

Shane White was the winner of the Irish Post/Irish Ferries Donal MacAmhlaigh Short Story Award at the Listowel Writers’ Week 1997. He has recently been commissioned by the BBC to write a six-part sitcom set in the border area of South Armagh.

It is a rare pleasure to discover such a distinctive new creative voice.
Shane is a unique talent with a wealth of original ideas.

                                Kate Croft, BBC Northern Ireland Drama

Chapter Twenty

I think it was the Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan, who sent the troops on to the streets of my country. Callaghan is alleged to have told Gerry Fitt it would be no problem getting them on to the streets but he couldn’t feel so confident in getting them off as quickly.

How could this man be the prophet of such a tragedy which would unfolded over the coming years?

The soldiers came to Forkhill; friendly, unconcerned lads. The sleeping arrangements were less than adequate with many snoozing under the kitchen sink and in the bathrooms. Unmarked tins of food led them to eating cocktails of bully beef and peaches with remarkable resilience and appetite. God, we had no idea how long it would last.

Soldiers on our streets meant little to us apart from the obvious novelty value. Their appearance then smacking more of the unprofessional UDR. They seemed lost in a country soon to lose its way.

Derry blazed, policemen from all around the six counties were drafted in to quell the disturbances. My father and a number of the lads spent exhausting hours in Derry while the station at Forkhill was left essentially unguarded save for two young policemen, my mother, my brother and I, and my stick wielding grandmother.

They would come home in the early hours absolutely shattered. Bricks and the squalid life under which the nationalist community existed in Derry came flying over the cordons of police and smashed into the ranks leaving bloodied and frightened men.

It was all starting.

I have no wish to bore anyone with my personal feelings or opinions on the situation but the evening the Provisional IRA planted a bomb in Canary Wharf in London still brings a chill to my bones. Two more people lost their lives. And everybody blamed everybody else. Reminded me of a court case I once read about.

These two neighbours were always rowing. One would play his classical music too loud, the other refused to cut his trees which were encroaching on the neighbour’s land and blocking out the sun. One day the classical music lover said he would turn his music down if his neighbour would cut his trees. He gave him three weeks to do it.

The neighbour agreed but in the following three weeks failed to keep to his side of the bargain. In a rage the classical music lover took a saw to the trees. There was hell to pay. After the court case at which the classical music lover was found guilty his wife said. "Why didn’t you tell the judge that he said he would cut the trees? That it was his fault." The man looked at his wife.

"I didn’t have to cut those trees down but I did it. I did it because I wanted to do it. I am responsible for what I do. Not you, not him, not God. But me."

Maybe if we Irish accept responsibility for what we do and stop blaming everyone else then we might, just might, have a chance.

And now we have new Ceasefires and the establishment of a Peace Agreement in an attempt to take us out of the dark ages. I am prompted by the memory of those whom I knew personally and who are no longer with us to have at least the hope of peace.

Sammy Gault: policeman, killed in the Enniskillen horror. Sammy never had a bigger smile on his face than when he was off on leave. Back to his beloved lakes of Fermanagh.

Big Willie Hunter: policeman, gunned down at Jonesborough in 1961. Big Willie was politeness itself. The night before his murder he called round to see my father to ask, without much confidence, was there anyway he could be relieved of ‘doing the bags’ (standing guard at the sandbagged entrance to the station). Willie had met this girl and wanted to take her to a dance. My father said no problem,

he would sort something out. Willie went to the dance and my father ‘did the bags’.

Thomas Morrow: policeman, killed by a bullet ricocheting off a factory wall at Camlough in 1972. In a few weeks time he was to marry his girlfriend.

Gerry ‘Scullions’ McKiernan: IRA man. Scullions shot himself outside a hotel just over the border, apparently overcome by remorse at what he had done or was about to do. In the twenty-aside football games we used to play you would always want him playing on your team. He was like a freckled faced whirlwind. I always remember him with a big smile on his plump features.

Billy Turbitt: policeman. Billy was shot dead in an ambush at a crossroads between Crossmaglen and Camlough in 1978. The gunmen took his body away and chucked it in a river. He was found weeks later. Billy was one of the many mobilised men who passed through Forkhill and he would always say how grateful he was to my father for helping him prepare statements, and indeed my father would type up Billy’s statements for him.

Raymond McCreesh: IRA man. One of the hunger strikers who died, died it’s said without ever having a girlfriend. He used to do the milk run with my brother when they were younger. One time when the milkman was ill my brother drove the lorry with Raymsey as his passenger. Heading up a particularly muddy, cow pat adorned laneway, Raymsey shouted: "Go on, Leo. ye boy, keep her going." Words which splattered the air as the hole in the floor of the lorry treated both Leo and Raymsey to a splattering of cow dung.

Big George McCall: policeman. When he was stationed in Forkhill George owned a bit of land and would always prefer to be there during the day and then do the night shift. He was forever switching shifts without my father’s knowledge so often that my father questioned who was running the station, him or the men? I don’t think he got a reply. Big George was killed by one bullet in Newtownhamilton as he stood guard outside the barracks. He had swapped shifts.

These were all people I knew and at one time or other with whom I had a laugh. I remember others who joined the IRA. I remember them pointing toy guns at me down the Orney Lonen or in the rhododendron bushes behind the barracks. Some were imprisoned, others shot and wounded. They were all part of my life.

And my father.

How he and I suffered pain and enjoyed moments of air-punching jubilation over the years as we followed his hometown club, Coleraine, in their efforts in the Irish League. The player-manager then, the legendary bow-legged ex-Celtic and Irish international, the one and only Bertie Peacock. He also managed Northern Ireland and one day my father and I called into his pub in Coleraine for his autograph. He gave us both a drink and promised to get me the autographs of the Northern Irish team and those of their next opponents, Albania; as you can imagine, the latter were much sought after.

I got George Best’s autograph; big Pat’s; Johnny Crossan, himself an ex-Coleraine player; Jim McLaughlin; Bobby Irvine’s and many others. I sold Best’s years later for 2/6d (12 pence) to a girl I fancied. True love? Not at all, I had another autograph of his alongside those of the great Manchester United team of the late sixties.

What a great day we had at Windsor Park in 1965 when Coleraine beat Glenavon in the Irish Cup Final and a trip to Dalymount Park in 1969 saw us take Shamrock Rovers in the Blaxnit Cup (Bertie Peacock’s last game). Having secured a 2-1 lead from the first leg watched by 20,000 at Windsor Park we fell behind in Dublin to two quick goals from Lawlor and O’Neill. Dessie Dickson, good old reliable Dessie, scored the winner for us amid scenes of elation. We won it again the next year. Maybe its time to reintroduce this North/South tournament.

I hated going to Mourneview Park for matches against Glenavon. We used to sit in what was loosely termed a stand (it was to a stand what miniature golf is to St Andrews) with a few Glenavon supporters. The most vociferous were a Lurgan trio of two men and one woman who berated the ref from start to finish and they were joined, from an opposing viewpoint, by my father who questioned the referee’s every decision, even during half time. Dad, a man brought up on the idea that wingers wearing either the number seven or eleven shirt had to hug the touchline, was quick with his knowledgeable comments should either winger stray a yard or two infield. ‘Stay out wide, out wide. What is he doing?’ my father would moan. I wonder how he would cope with the marauding surges by the modern day full back?

My father didn’t seem to notice I sat well away from him during the game and used to ease myself back towards him as the final whistle blew.

‘Bloody referee," moaned my father.

"Bloody referee, a useless bastard," complained the Glenavon contingent. My father and the Glenavon trio never exchanged a word in all the years we went there. But then, was there a need? They were united, they might well have worn different scarves (actually, no - both Glenavon and Coleraine played in blue and white, Coleraine in stripes!) and the performance of the individual players was hardly ever criticised. Loyalty and all that. Now the referee, he was a whole different ball game. He was a bloody useless bastard.

How can I ever forget the day many years later when my father, mother, and my wife and I went to Craven Cottage to see Fulham play Hull. Fulham v Hull, not the match of a lifetime you might feel. George Best was playing for Fulham. As we walked to the stand to take our seats before the game the man himself came towards us on his way to the dressing rooms. I stood gawping. My all-time hero, the man whose photographs adorned the bedroom walls, the man who can rightly call himself ‘God’ if he wants to, was inches away. If the ‘real’ Gods wants to pop down and contest his claim. heh, we’ll take it from there. My father spoke. "All the best, George" he said. Bestie winked shyly and raised his hand in what appeared a polite expression of gratitude. It made my father’s day. Hell - it made his life.

My father saw big Willie Hunter die; he himself was ambushed in Jonesborough and shot eleven times in 1971 by two gunmen. When I arrived home that night having sank a few in a pub in Dundalk, where myself and my mate, Andy Weir, sang The Big Strong Man our house was surrounded with people. I immediately sobered up and went with my family to Daisy Hill Hospital to see my father as he lay with blood staining his mouth. Eleven bullets had hit him. During the attack he managed to jump out of the car and started to run but a bullet severed a nerve in his leg. He fell to the ground and dragged himself into the ditch. He tried to flag down two cars but they passed by. Finally a man stopped and took him to the hospital and physically carried him into casualty.

My father’s life hung in the balance. Blood transfusions seeped through his body. We stood by his bed all night listening to his pain. In the morning the doctors thought it safe to move him to the Royal in Belfast. With the great care of the hospital staff, and I believe my father’s love of life, he made it.

"They nearly shot the arse of me" he complained a few days later in hospital. Sandwich wrappers were found at the spot where they had fired from. They say you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. But kill...

On 18 June 1982 as Northern Ireland were battling in the World Cup, the previous night we had drawn with, I think, Honduras, my father was shot dead. Dad was buried on Fathers Day. He wasn’t to see us draw 2-2 with Austria and then beat Spain. I recently watched a video of that match, A Night In Valencia, when despite an obviously partisan crowd of over 50,000, a bent referee, and some outrageous tackling by the host nation, the ‘wee six’ manfully pulled together and beat Spain with a great goal by Gerry Armstrong. Jesus, what a night that must have been.

Sammy Mac; wee ‘Dee’ McCreery; Mal Donaghy, sent off for an innocuous challenge; big Billy Armstrong who supplied the cross for Gerry; all of them and more gave Northern Ireland a great night.

And I missed the game. My father would have loved it. We would have talked about it for years. That, and no doubt many other things. I was only just getting to know him as a friend. I liked it so far.

After dad had recovered from his injuries in 1971 he secured himself the post of Civilian Manager with the Crown Prosecution Service based in Newry police station; he took to it like a fish to water. He missed the police and the every day involvement but he enjoyed the crack with the lads and was forever starting debates/arguments and then slowly slipping away, leaving many at each other’s throats.

Soon he adjusted to his new routine and my mum would pick him up for lunch and take him home after work each and every time from the same spot and at the same time. The day of his murder, my parents travelled home the usual route and as they turned in Balmoral Avenue, just off the Rathfriland Road, a car suddenly screeched in front of them. My father immediately recognising an attack shouted: "No, Winnie, no". The gunman leapt out of the car and fired a couple of shots through the windscreen, two missed, the third glanced off my mother’s chest. Bruising over the next couple of days testament to how close she had come to her own death.

My father scrambled out of the car with a black umbrella in his hand to fight off the killers. My mother told me that she too was going to get out until she heard my father’s voice (or what she thought was my father’s voice, for even today she cannot confirm that he had spoken) telling her to stay where she was. The gunman fired into my father and he fell to the ground. The gunman stood over him and continued to fire bullets. My father was shot in the head, upper body and thigh. Within what seemed like seconds to my mother, the gunman and his accomplices were gone. My mother knelt beside my father and prayed for his soul as his eyes flickered. She gently closed them and caressed his bloodied face.

She will never forget the evil look on the gunman’s face as he smiled.

Someone called Eamon Collins recently had a book published in which he describes his involvement in my father’s murder and many others in the area. The book claims my father was targeted because he was in the RUC; he had medically retired eleven years by then. It is claimed the IRA couldn’t tolerate a policeman living openly in Newry. The author claims that following my father and getting to know his movements was quite a determined surveillance operation because of the fact that my father regularly varied his routine and routes home. It is also claimed that my father once sat in his car in Dundalk outside an IRA safe house as my mother was away shopping. The IRA were going to shoot him there and then only they had difficulty finding a gun in this safe house. When I heard about this detail a vision entered my head of a bunch of IRA men running around a house looking for a gun. "You had it last," one might have uttered. "No, I saw you with it" could have been flustered comment from another.

If there was one thing my father hated was sitting in the car, he would have been out wandering the streets.

The author states my father was armed. He wasn’t, he hated guns. The book also states my mother bent over my father and took a gun from him and chased the gunman with a gun in her hand. She apparently called the gunmen bastards as she tore up the road. Her life was apparently spared as the gunman considered her a brave woman.

We now call her Annie Oakley! As she said if she had had a gun she would have wiped out the whole street such was her aim.

The author claimed my father whimpered as he got out of the car to defend himself with a black umbrella. My mother remembers every second of the attack and will never forget the deathly silence splintered only by the life taking bullets.

I’ll always remember the people who turned out for his funeral. Respect hung in the air. Policemen saluted his coffin as my brother and I carried him into the church. I felt so proud that I was his son. We carried him with strength. He was relying on us. Sean McCreesh from Forkhill took care of the funeral. Who else could we have asked? Many people came from South Armagh. I will also remember one of my aunt’s on my father’s side refusing to go into the chapel. Jesus Christ, even in death, bigotry comes to the surface. I suppose she was being even handed. She hadn’t been inside a Protestant church in years.

I got the uneasy feeling that there are some of my relatives who wouldn’t have bothered had my father died of a heart attack. They were able to say, their brother, brother-in-law, whatever, died as a victim of the troubles. It’s almost a boast, one which I truly wish they were not able to make.

I thought, quite honestly, that his death would be the last. That the utter gut wrenching despairing grief that covered our family must somehow touch those responsible. Just a wee bit. How many families have thought the same since? We were so naive.

We can but hope that the Ceasefires and the Agreement last. So many people during the last cessation felt euphoric. I felt a deep re-emergence of grief. I missed my father like never before. I felt resentment. He should have been with the rest of us at least hoping for peace. I wanted him back knowing he should never have left. While the killing continued you accepted death as inevitable and in a way glad that he was in fact dead, so nobody could ever hurt him again.

I just wish that those who felt the uniform he once wore was unacceptable had looked beyond the clothing; my father was in fact in favour of a ‘a nation once again.’

In his article the day after the Agreement was signed, Ross Benson, the Daily Mail journalist, spoke of the dramatic events and said "...if you listen hard you can hear the silent cheers of those innocents who lost their lives..."

Over three thousand died for Ulster or Ireland. I can but assume that the great majority would have declined the offer of dying for either. Had they been given the opportunity.

Take the guns out of Irish politics is an oft-mentioned cry. There should never have been any guns and I make this statement when I recall another episode in Forkhill not long before we left for Newry as my father had been promoted to Inspector and transferred there.

He and a constable colleague were out in front of the station sawing a few trees recently purchased for use in heating the station. The two policemen, their eye protected by goggles, fired up the saw, loaned by the Forestry people, and proceeded to create chunks of fuel, the noise of the saw intruding on the dominating hush which always seem to envelope the village. This took about an hour and during that time a constable would periodically shout at my father and wave him towards the station. My father, sweat blinding his eyes and possibly his common sense, indicated impatiently that he would be in in a few minutes. The exasperated constable told a senior constable of his unsuccessful efforts to get the sergeant into the station and the latter loaded a sub-machine gun and fired several shots out the back of the station into a grass bank. The wood cutting policemen fell to the ground, fearing an attack, and lay there for a few minutes until the senior constable came to the door. "Boss," he said in a relaxed manner, a yawn filing his features, the sub-machine gun cradled in his arms. "The District Inspector wants you on the ‘phone, he’s been ringing for the past hour. Might be important."

"Why didn’t you call..?" my father angrily began but on realising the situation walked past the constable and into the squad room. "You’ll have to account for them bullets," was all he said to the constable. As to how they were accounted for is anybody’s guess.

This story is a trip down memory lane for me. I hope it reminds some of the times which existed in South Armagh and introduces others to a South Armagh they probably think now could never possibly have existed. A time when RUC men would attend almost every social function, being fed and watered while the local kids looked after their landrover; when the very small Protestant population used the local Hibernian Hall to fund raise for their church and each and every Catholic attended; when the RUC would use the many unapproved roads which were known more intimately only to the smuggling fraternity, to dander into the south to buy cheaper drink and cigarettes; when many RUC men and their families were in tears, on the day of their transfer from the area, leaving ‘their friends and neighbours’ as they put it, and were never as happy again.

And when, as one policeman told me, the RUC were considered by the locals to be ‘their police force’. I feel privileged to have experienced this unique time first hand. This was of course ‘before the bandits’ came. And there are those who will say they came in many different uniforms.

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