And we were being radicalised, so I ended up being sworn with paramilitary paraphernalia: gloves, berets, guns and a bible. You’ve always got to have a holy book… So I’m handed a Webley 38 revolver and a bible – “I swear that I will hold the blahblahblah of Ulster and die for the cause…”James Greer, 2018
James Greer’s interview
I don’t remember my mother ever putting her arms around me and saying she loved me. Being beat was about the size of it. She tried to drown me when I was 4, she was bathing me. I was crying, the soap was in my eyes and she pushed my head down, saying, “I’ll drown you, you wee bastard!” But she must’ve thought better of it. She was a very violent woman. Put your finger here, feel that ridge [shows head wound]. She hit me with a teapot when I was about 10, she lifted it and just clobbered me with it. I don’t know if I was knocked out but there was blood running down the walls. I don’t think she meant to kill me but it must’ve been near. I was the person who ruined her life in her mind…
Yeah the child within. I don’t think you ever put the child within to bed to be honest. And we’ve all been that child. And that child lives happily or unhappily within us. And I had a horrendous childhood and a terrible mother so a lot of my injuries are mental scars you know. Physical and mental, you know… I was utterly petrified of my mother. If she said “Come here!” and she was standing with a poker in her hand, I’d think, “I’ll go and get it now because it’ll only be worse later.”
[Speaking of fears…] you were saying your Granny believed in fairies?
She was so respectful of the fairies she wouldn’t even say, ‘The fairies’. She’d look over her shoulder and whisper, ‘The wee folk’. You could offend them by calling them fairies. My Granny used to put out small bits of bread and a biscuit a bit like Santa and Rudolf food you know.
I don’t think she ever saw one herself. She wouldn’t talk about them directly, she talked around them. A lot of people were very very superstitious about the wee folk – you ever see thorn trees, like hawthorns, growing in the middle of a field on their own and they’re huge, maybe a couple of hundred years old, they’ll not knock one down. You hear stories, “Peter Jackson cut one down and — Jesus, sure the next day a wall fell on him and killed him.” There’s stories like that everywhere. So generations of farmers, father to son, will not touch those trees round these parts and Donegal’s probably worse.
There was a woman living near us. Me and my little brother went round with our dog who ate the little people’s food on the back step. We thought it was funny but she was ashen…
The fairies’ food? Bad move. You daren’t, in my Granny’s age, you daren’t offend them. They will punish you.
So now, we’re up to age 11. 1966…
There was a homelessness protest in ’66 in Dungannon and the early civil rights stuff…
I can remember my father saying “The IRA are using this as a front!” And that was your father speaking, the Gospel According to Daddy Greer.
But how did you understand it as a kid?
Where I lived, a lot of my friends were Roman Catholic… And very, very slowly you didn’t see as much of these guys and to this day I couldn’t tell you what they’re doing. In the end the divisions became more pronounced.
From my point of view, I was maybe 15 before I really grasped that here was real division. I started working as an apprentice joiner and working in the town and started seeing things, there was a lot of bombings and shootings and I was working on the building of an RUC station in ‘71, ‘72. And the police were moving people out but we were a bit back from it and we used to watch these bombs going off. It happens in slow motion, it was the weirdest thing: there was a flash of light, then there’s like nothing, a delay, and then stuff starts flying everywhere. And then, there’s a bang and all the alarms start going off. And you’re like fascinated or scared – your mouth wide open, “What is this?”
… You feel it through your whole body…
Yeah scary to the point of not being scary… Once you adapt to the situation, it starts to feel a bit like background noise. We were walking through, next thing there’s a raid on the police station, there’s mothers pushing prams and they’re firing shots and there’s bullets bouncing off the walls and there’s only about 20 rounds but by the time it’s all bounced off, it sounds like 200. After that kind of initial craziness and the shooting, see the silence that comes after that, you can hear it. Then the normality creeps back – you hear a car, one of the women checks her baby, and on we go. I remember these women with their silk headscarves and everything and they’ll just pick up with their conversations, “So Mrs Jones what were you saying…?” People just accepted it — an ordinary person has no power in that anyway, no investment in it. Not even the soldiers, they just got sent here. They’re just here to do the things they were told to do. So they’re the victims of the consequences of what was happening above their heads you know.
I never told a soul my story, for some reason combatants don’t talk about it – maybe with each other, but anyone else can’t understand. It’s like Lee (Lavis), he can’t even bring himself to say the words about the things he can’t talk about.
You came back to Derry after leaving the Army as a young man, just on the cusp of being an adult (19), and what happened?
I came back from the Army to Derry and the violence had intensified… there was an incident down at a checkpoint, a border crossing. They drove a man, a human bomb, they tied him into the van with chains with a ton of explosives in the back and just as he drove into the VCP they detonated the bomb. It killed him and six soldiers – it was that bad that they only buried parts o’ ye, they could only find a piece of an arm, only the remains, or… parts that were no bigger than a letterbox. There was a kid whose father was actually murdered by my organisation, and the father knew he was being watched and someone called out his name and he turned round and he was shot and the killer melted back into the crowd … Every night the news was an extended news so they could fit it all in. Barricades were going up in Belfast and Derry. There was mistrust in the air – nobody trusted anybody. The UDA (Ulster Defence Association) was formed in Belfast basically as a vigilante organisation as the WDA (Whitfield Defence Association). And then it spread to other areas of Belfast and further into Ulster and became the UDA.
The rhetoric was: “We’re being trampled into the ground here so we must take a stand.” And we were being radicalised, so I ended up being sworn with paramilitary paraphernalia: gloves, berets, guns and a bible. You’ve always got to have a holy book… So I’m handed a Webley 38 revolver and a bible – “I swear that I will hold the blahblahblah of Ulster and die for the cause…” and 4 pages of crap. And I was terrified – if I say one word wrong here, they’ll shoot me. I was talking to an IRA guy and we compared notes and if you substituted “Ireland” for “Ulster”, the oath was pretty much verbatim, it’s like there’s a devil sprinkling oaths or something… you can’t trust anybody, you’ll die for the cause, you can’t leave this organisation alive… it frightened the life out of you. They’re all pressing the same buttons. Fear, excitement, terror, euphoria and wide-eyed wonder about what was going to happen down the road. You were led by the nose so starting off with small jobs — hijackings and intimidation and generally terrorising people. And then on the 10th October (5 days after my 19th birthday) – and we were sent out to do something, to plant a device. I didn’t make bombs, I just planted bombs. And they were crude and they were dangerous and this one happened to go off.
I just remember a massive flash of light and I was inside it… I was within a massive big ball of light and the silence happened and I’m patting my arm, my leg just checking it’s all still there. And my friend, his arm was off… Don’t be fooled into believing that this is some glorious act. It’s not. If you survive it, the stink will never leave you, it’s with you every day…
We found out later, the Army were waiting on us and if it had of been a couple of years later when the shoot to kill policy came in we’d’ve been dead. We just missed that one. They saved my companion’s life in all honesty, he was bleeding like I don’t know what and they took him to hospital in an Army helicopter. We were arrested by the Welsh Fusiliers with their red and white hackle …
We were taken away to interrogation. I spent three days in these blood-soaked clothes, it hardened and went black so I was crunching about the place like I was in wooden trousers… They took us to Crumlin Road in Belfast … the novelty wore off in about 10 minutes, we knew we were going to prison for a long long time. The cells were meant for one person and there were 6 men to a cell so they stacked the bunks 3 high and they’re not that wide so we had to take it in turns, one at a time, to get dressed in the morning. There was a bucket in the corner and a big enamel jug of water. You were locked up at 8, the lights went out at 10 until 8 in the morning. It wasn’t meant to be a hotel, it was meant to be nasty. The other guys in the cell were family – that wing only housed loyalists, ‘A’ wing was the republicans. In the loyalists’ wing you had the UDA on their own and the UVF, the “Ulster Vegetable Farmers”, and the Red Hand Commandoes, the Ulster Volunteers, about half a dozen different factions within the UVF. The UDA were just the UDA or the UFF as it was – it was nothing to do with defence, it was just aggression but “Defence” sounded good. That was just the political wing, the military wing was the UFF. It was amazing, that loyalty…
But now you don’t have any affection for it? Did something change?
Christmas ‘74 – I meet this guy called Damien and he changed my life.
Damien had red hair and he was small, stocky and these blue eyes. And he starts talking and says, “I’m wanted for killing people.” And you weren’t allowed to ask questions, so I’m going (bored voice), “Really?” He says, “I was sent out to shoot a shopkeeper.” He didn’t know why. So he walks into the shop and it’s a small shop like my grandfather’s and Damien opens the door, ding! And the guy comes out: “Hello sir can I help you?” And Damien shoots him dead.
Damien starts to go, but next thing, in comes his wife and her husband’s dead in a huge pool of blood at her feet and she starts screaming blue murder, so Damien shoots her as well.
I’m thinking, “Oh, Jesus do I really have to hear this?”
And he says: “Would you believe it the fucking door opens again and in walks this 8-year old girl…” And I’m a tough guy at this point right, so I have to go (bored voice), “Oh yeah, what happened?” And he says, “I started shooting at her of course, I was going to kill her, but she wouldn’t stay on one spot, she started running round the shop and I ran out of ammunition so I had to go and leave her and she didn’t die.” And there was a look of — disappointment, failure in his mission, that look of self-loathing in his eyes — and I thought, “Jesus, really?”
Turns out that Damien hung himself later. I went away back to my cell that day and I sat down and I thought, “I can’t, I can’t be a part of this. This isn’t what I signed up for. Fuck, this isn’t normal, we’re killing children, we’re killing women.” Some people can do it but that was not for me. And that changed my life.
I was eventually sentenced to 15 years for the bombing and possession of explosives and a whole fucking host of other stuff, you know. I had to spend my time in prison, acting like I was part of the organisation. We were the first people to ever have political status and then Margaret Thatcher, she said we were criminals, that’s what sparked off the whole hunger strike thing… God knows how many lives she cost.
It was weird being released you know. So I’d done 5 years and you’re let out on a 10 year licence. And I’d made the agreement with myself that I was devoting myself to creating the peace and I had to back away from the loyalist movement. But I thought at the time that I couldn’t turn my back because they’d kill me and they pestered me at the start to become involved again, then it was a couple of years and they started to lose interest in me…
I don’t seek people’s forgiveness, I seek their understanding. Pointing the finger and holding on to hate doesn’t really do anything for anybody.
It’s like Lee Lavis says, “We have stepped out of our comfort zone and found ourselves in No Man’s Land.” And we really can’t go forward at any great pace and the people we used to be with see us as traitors and maybe No Man’s Land’s where it’s at, maybe it’s the place to be. And if everybody was in No Man’s Land it would be Everyman’s Land. And that’s not a bad place.
James Greer was interviewed by Philip Davenport. Derry, 2019.
Names changed, apart from references to project participant Lee Lavis.