And you’re looking and the ambulance coming in and they’re taking your sister away. And them telling me years after they got the electric treatment, the electric shocks and all that. That’s what done me in. The shocks and all.Dessie Trainor, 2019
Dessie Trainor’s interview
My dad, he was a Falls Road man, the lower Falls, a wee place called the Perinoni. A wee district with all wee streets in it. My mum’s from Portadown, County Armagh. A small country town with a lot of history of Orangeism. Portadown and Loughall, the birthplace of Orangeism, y’know the Orange Parade.
They settled in Portadown, an ordinary 3-bedroom house. There was 11 of us, so she was busy rearing us.
I was born in ‘61 in Portadown, I was second youngest. Some of us was at school, but most of us was working in Portadown in the big factory across the road that made tins for food. Another factory called Ulster Laces made garments and my sisters worked there. My da was a roofer, a very busy man.
I remember it as a good time, the first 10 years. There was an accident happened when I was about 3 or 4, on the disused lines where we used to play. I was underneath one of the wagons and I tried to get out and it run over me arm, so I’d a scar from here right up to here. An old railway wagon… and my hand was all busted right up… that was a big thing happened. My brothers lifted me and my ma came out. They brought me to the old hospital, but I can’t remember the incident.
Life was really, really good.
How did it feel in your house? A happy atmosphere? Sounds bustle-y…
Happy. There was a lot of us. My older brother, he got into pigeons and we had pigeons out the back. We had a long back garden and he’d pigeons and he started a wee local football team. We’d have played all the local teams. There was a big field outside our front, a big green. The craic was just good. I can’t remember if we had TVs then, it was that long ago.
Our school was only walking distance, but you had to be careful. There was like Tartan Gangs. Portadown is a Unionist, Loyalist town. 85%, you know. When I was going to school you could feel an atmosphere because you passed other schools and they knew you weren’t at their school. They knew you were going to the wee convent school, the primary school as the masters called it. You had to make your way back and the only way back was over a bridge, a railway bridge. And you would’ve been stopped and shouted at. You weren’t physically hit then, cos you were only a child really. But you knew there was something wrong, you just knew, and you wanted to get home. And maybe you wanted to get home before the other school got out. Wee simple things like that.
You know it’s hard to put it in words. Maybe it wasn’t really starting to kick off. But I think when the Tartan Gangs come in… see the Tartan Gangs used to run about with big boots and they had these steels at the bottom and they used to click them. Ah, you could hear em! It was like the Boogie Man, it was like the Banshee. Tartan Gangs! Really put the fear into you.
…I remember there being these weird stages of something changing, but you don’t quite know how to put your finger on it.
If you did, you’d be classed as a genius. There was a sense, a sense… in Portadown you sorta just knew your place. Don’t get me wrong, we were just playing football, we were just playing Cowboys and Indians, we were just playing wee simple things. But you knew there was a fear in the air and you knew you didn’t want to be out on your own. That was when you were real young.
When I was about 11 or 12 our house was attacked. Maybe about 150 UDA men marched down, see this was when it was kicking off really big time. This was the time of the Loyalist big strike, the strike to bring down Sunningdale. We were still in Brownstown, we called the place. Must’ve been ‘74 I think (Loyalist Strike against Sunningdale, May 1974). Not that long after the big strike. I remember sitting, as a child, in the house and the electric would go off. Or me da or me brothers would come home with a coupla bags of potatoes, that was all you got. Potatoes and bread, chip butties, nothing else. There was no milk, nothing like that.
The house was attacked. And were you in the house?
Funny enough, though I always slept at the back, for some reason I was in the front room. And the windows all came in. There was glass all over the bed I was lying in and my da got me up and got me out and brought me round the back of the house. They were all standing out there shouting and throwing bricks at the houses. “Fenian!” “Get yous out yous Fenians!” and “Bastards!”
That was absolutely the most frightening— I can remember shaking. Shaking. I thought they were going to come into the house. And actually they kicked the front door and broke the front door out. It was really the most scariest thing that I’d seen at that time…
And then everything just changed and we had to get out. We weren’t the only ones getting put out. It came down the hill. We were the first on the hill and we were the first ones to be put out, basically. And then up the hill over a period… everybody was getting put out, everybody was getting attacked. So we had to leave.
Where we were living, it was a lovely row of houses. We moved to what they call Churchill Park. It was like a jungle, there was all these alleyways, it was massive. At one end of Churchill Park there would be a gang and at the other end would be a gang. And you had to be in one of them gangs. If you were caught out, maybe just down the alleyway and that gang was there, you had to make it out. From that there playing football and having a lovely life — a lovely childhood out in the country and going to visit my grannies, having a nice wee life — you just had to be in a gang. Within a space of months. You had the older ones, then us the wee youngsters. But we still had to go to school, still do things like that.
It only lasted for about a year, maybe two years. Things superseded it. If you can imagine, ‘74, ‘75, ‘76, it was an absolute disaster. These gangs would’ve just went out rioting. They all would’ve rioted together, fighting with the British army or fighting with the RUC and down the Tone, which was another part of the town. Even then the UDA and the orange men used to walk down the tunnel, the tunnel is a famous nationalist area in Portadown. We used to walk together and go down the town as one unit then, to start the rioting and protect that part of the area.
Once the Troubles and the rioting started, then we were all together. We were the Churchillians. Us in a gang, we were hard men, well, hard children. We thought we were hard children, which we weren’t because we were shaking like this (mimes shaking). And we still went to school, still had to carry on with life.
Would you have still been at primary school when you were a Churchillian?
No, secondary. Because when we were put out, our school was over in the Protestant area, when I was put out I was around 11 or 12. I have no education at all, like, my life at that time was spiralling out of control.
You had to live with it and accept it, you couldn’t have changed it. My sister did try and take me out of it, she took me over to England. Place called Colchester, but it wasn’t for me. It was like a garrison town, it was just all soldiers in it and all. I couldn’t settle down, I was there maybe 6 months. I just came back, 1978 something like that. But she done her best.
First 10, 11 years life was absolutely… I suppose what it’s like for thousands of children. We used to go down to Belfast cos my dad was from the lower Falls, used to go down the time they built the Divis Flats, that’s where we spent our summers. We thought it was a holiday!
Oh fuck aye, standing on the balcony there was all this noise, soldiers running and shouting and plastic bullets going off and petrol bombs going off. A riot every day. Just every single day. Cars blowing up. When I was in Portadown I thought Portadown was bad, til I went to Divis Flats. We’d go down for two or three weeks with our cousins and they’d look after us, went all over. Went to the cinema in Belfast, went to the swimming pool in Belfast, went on walks in Belfast. We just thought it was our wee holiday, but it was in this cauldron.
That’s what it was. Then I end up getting in trouble and I end up in institutions for years and years after that, like. I was in the Crumlin Road Jail. I was 14 and there was five of us. We were there for a fortnight before we could get up in front of a High Court judge. He said, “These children shouldn’t be in prison.” He sent us to remand, to a training school at the top of the Falls Road. Ever since, it’s been all training schools, institutions, borstals, jails, all through my teenage and twenties and on up. And it all stemmed from…
Once the murders started, it all fell apart, the whole fabric of the family. They were trying to cope for their own, look after their own.
Aye, my sisters. I can remember my sister’s ambulance. Taking my sisters away in the ambulance, you know. I can remember being in the house when my sisters maybe had a breakdown one time and the ambulance coming and the ambulance taking them away. They would’ve been away for 2 or 3 weeks, even longer. Complete breakdowns.
Sitting in the house, I can picture them. All’s they do, tears just streaming down their face. And you’re looking and the ambulance coming in and they’re taking your sister away. And them telling me years after they got the electric treatment, the electric shocks and all that. That’s what done me in. The shocks and all.
You said the murders. Were those directly involving your family?
Oh yeah. We were put out, we were put out because we were perceived as a Catholic family. My da had the Belfast accent, though my ma was a Protestant. Still had Protestant cousins in Portadown, on “the other side of town” we’d call it.
We weren’t there a year. When did I say, ’74? My mum and dad went for a night out at the British Legion. Fuckin British Legion, well, they must’ve thought it was safe. Coming out, they went in the park, it’s called the People’s Park, it’s more or less the divide between the Nationalist area and the Loyalist area. They were up in the Unionist Loyalist area, British Legion. They were coming through the park that they had to go home through. UVF was waiting in the park and they shot both of them. Now my da survived. But my mum was murdered.
They murdered my mum, she was a wee Protestant woman and a wee Unionist woman. So, they shot the both of them, anyway. She was buried out at, it was called Drumcree. There’s two Drumcrees, she was buried out in the Protestant part. You might’ve heard about the marches and the Orange Parade coming down Drumcree in the ‘90s. She was buried out there. My da is buried in Belfast, he’s buried in Milltown, but me brothers is buried in Drumcree up the top, facing the Garvaghy Road.
That’s when I started getting into trouble and into institutions, St Patrick’s Training School and the borstal and Crumlin Road Jail and Long Kesh, all these things, all these bits — and always getting into trouble and always fighting. That was what it was then, that was the whole atmosphere, it was around you. Couldn’t walk through Churchill but there’d be an Army patrol or an RUC checkpoint in it. Stop you to know who you were, up against the wall and all that.
We moved from Churchill to what then would’ve been the new development, Ballyoran — just across the road like. Brand new houses, new development, lovely. Lovely big house, big 4-bedroom, must’ve had compensation because we done it up. All new furniture, real lovely stuff for the time. That was ‘75. Christmas that year, up at school — disco. BOOOOM! The fuckin house was blown up. They came in a car, set the bomb on the window sill and they riddled the house. And the whole fuckin house just got blown up. And me brother who had the pigeons and who had the football team, Brownstown Celtic, he was killed in the blast. (Hits table.) He was only 17.
I heard the blast from school, I knew it was our house. I just knew. You have one of those things. There was the whole house lying in rubble, my da standing outside. He was screeching the place down. Me older brother was in the house and me younger sister was in the house, they were injured. And my brother who was murdered, his girlfriend was in the house and she was injured.
We went from there, we moved back to Churchill. (Hits table.)
Then a couple of years it was just all… all… getting into trouble. So I ended up in borstal, served two years in it. Looking back, it was probably the best thing ever happened to me. Worst thing at the time, but the best thing looking back, because you were disciplined. Looking back, I did make sure I kept myself clean and when I got a house I cleaned my house. Even though, in my later years I was an alcoholic, even then people said, “Fuck, your house is good and clean and all.” Cos they used to drink in the house. And I’d say, “You keep it fuckin clean.” Y’know, alcoholics don’t care, but for some reason I always made sure I’d a nice house to go back to. Always had a tv, always had my comforts, where other friends who were alcoholics had nothing in the house. I’d be, “Why don’t you make sure you’ve a nice nest to go back to?” Well I think that’s because I had the time in borstal, put structure in my life.
When I got out of there I went to live with my sister. Came back, stayed in the family home and my brothers was in there. Then ‘78, he was going up the Brew with his mate and a motorbike approached — and anyway shot the two of them dead. That was him, he was murdered. The family really started breaking up then because he really was the man of the house. Life just sorta disintegrated for the next 20, 25 years. All the Troubles. No structure, y’know.
Quite a few people have said they felt childhood stopped. There was a point when they stopped being kids, but it was a bit too early… When your mum died, how did you get you your head around that?
It was a Sunday morning. Me oldest brother Tommy came up and he woke me and our Gary, “Cmon now, get up!” We knew there was something wrong because he never came up and woke us. This was April Fools Day, 1st of April. “Your ma’s dead.” That was it.
We were took to a neighbour’s house just across the back and she’d three young fellas just the same age as us and it was breakfast. She was putting breakfast out and they were looking and they didn’t know what was fuckin going on with me and my brother Gary. He was across the table from me and the tears were just fuckin — the tears were just running down. I was looking at him and he was looking at me. His tears just come. Then them wee lads they were just looking. Only 13, 14 at the time. For me that was… I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know it on that particular morning, but for me that was when the nightmare started. Once my ma was gone, that was it.
That was 1975. 1976 I was a criminal in prison. At 14 years of fuckin age, d’you know what I mean? Got into trouble, caught, threw into jail. That was it, I had no teenage. There was nothing, that was it.
Did you feel nothing inside…?
I felt anger! Fuckin sure I did. (Laughs.) Why did they do it to us? Why did they kill my mum? She never done nothing. That’s why I got into all that trouble, I thought I had to do something. Trouble then was throwing petrol bombs, was rioting, was bowling down anything that belonged to the Unionists. Just trying to get back at them. Got caught and ended up at St Patrick’s Training School, got a bit of education there. Had to go to school and wear the clothes, the store jobs we used to call them. If you could picture, there would’ve been hundreds of people like me.
1st April 1975. If it wouldn’t’ve happened then God knows what – I could’ve got a job, got something, coulda got out of it. Who knows? You were in a gang, you were doing things, that’s just teenagers. But it progressed up where you were petrol bombing places and doing things like that. And then you joined organisations as you progressed through, cos they would’ve seen, “Oh that boy there, he’s game, he’ll do that there…” As you progressed you joined different things, which you couldn’t‘ve even avoided really, y’know.
Did you feel you were on your mission, or did you feel used?
I threw myself into it. I definitely wasn’t used. Even at that age, I’d’ve been one of the ones that took the lead. I’d’ve said, “Right I’ll throw the petrol bomb, you come down here, and we’ll get them from here…” Wee simple things like that. That’s how I started, I’d’ve had a bit of a reputation, if that’s the word. Even at that young age, I don’t know what it was, maybe I thought I’d nothing to live for, my ma was dead. What’s to live for? She was my life.
Did you want to take a life back?
Not at that age. As it progressed, later I wanted to up the ante… because I’d come from an early age up through borstal you had this reputation — and expectation. You were 18, 19, 20, you’d go into pubs and people would get up out of their chair and give you the chair. They showed you respect and that’s because they knew you. You thought, “Dead on!” You wanted to have that respect. Only way you can have that respect is if you kept a hard image up — “If you cheek me I can give you a smack in the mouth, or I can get someone to give you a smack in the mouth. Because I have boys that’s all around me.” That’s the way it was. It stemmed from that incident.
Has that anger gone?
That anger’s gone, that anger’s gone. It went away in my 20s and 30s. I didn’t get settled down til I was about 33, something like that. Got married and children. Then it would’ve showed in my demonstrations, it would’ve showed in my left wing leaning, woulda showed in organising committees… woulda showed in that way. Sometimes maybe in physical violence when you had to come to fighting. Mostly they were showing respect and I’d show respect and we’d try to calm situations down…
What allowed you to let go of that anger? Killing somebody for instance, or if you smash enough stuff?
When you’re doing the violence, at that particular time, at the moment of doing an act of violence, you don’t think of consequences. You do it. But as time went on, and you seen… once I started having family, I didn’t want my family involved. My two children. In my case, I think I had to be violent because there was people violent towards me. As I got older, I just knew in my heart that I wasn’t a violent person, that I would go and help somebody quicker than be violent. It dawned on me and then the ‘90s came and the Ceasefire came. Then I got active in the Garvaghy Road Residents. You just moved along in life, but there was always this drinking, this alcoholism.
… Later on, did you get to have a childhood? Did it come through having kids?
When I had the children… this was one of the tragedies. When I had my children, I threw all my love into my children. I took them everywhere, done everything with them. The things I hadn’t got. First holiday in Spain — they were so excited. We’d go and see the shows, bring them down to the beach in Battystown, bring them down to the beach in Newcastle. All the things that I hadn’t got. Got meself a car and took them. There were times when alcohol would’ve got the better of me and I couldn’t do it and they sorta understood.
But I broke their hearts in the sense that I left my wife and they couldn’t understand. I think that really, really, really affected them. It was through alcohol, it was me own fault I’m not gonna blame anybody else. I always look back and wonder if their life stopped at that time. My daughter would’ve been 15.
Well I’m hoping they’re happy, my daughter’s married and my son is working. We talk nearly every day. That is a big regret, but it is what it is and it’s done. It was being selfish. But them early years, I made sure they had a good time…
It was, “Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad!” We really have a good relationship… I can imagine them waking up when I left just like I woke up and my mum was gone. Goes through my head sometimes… I put so much love in their early years. I tried my best.
I was at my daughter’s house yesterday… my grandchild… the bond is unbreakable. And you can’t wind the clock back… I’ve a beautiful grandkid. Go down to the park, People’s Park, they’ve redeveloped all up there. That’ll be my next stage, my grandchild taking over.
Going to People’s Park.
Oh aye, go and see the plaque. Because I put a plaque up there. Done it years ago. Got a wee small plaque and put it up in a tree, where my mother was murdered. Once she gets up and starts knowing, I’ll take her up. Yes, yes, yes. I’ve already took her to my mum’s grave, and as time goes on that’s what I’ll do with her. That’s my next stage of my life, will be my grandchild…
Dessie Trainor was interviewed by Philip Davenport in Belfast 2019