The ill feeling is passed down, even though it is of no relevance to them in their timeframe. But there are people who are my age, our age, who feel this negativity is important because it gives them a purpose.Joe Thompson, 2018
Joe Thompson’s interview
My first question is a classic oral history question. When were you born?
1969. I was the cause of the Troubles!
And your mum and dad, were they working…?
Farmers, grew up rural. Rural mid-Ulster. My father farmed and my mum was a housewife. Typical 1960s, ‘70s, women didn’t work, particularly in the country, they stayed at home. I was the eldest of five, four of us are left, my wee brother was killed, he was knocked down by a car when he was 7. Yeah it was a quite idyllic childhood, in all fairness. In many ways, I was relatively unaffected by everything that was going on. It was very much normal.
It became highlighted not so very long ago, because I have a 15-year-old daughter and me and her mother split up, but she stays with me at weekends. I was leaving her home, it was a Sunday evening about three weeks ago. For whatever reason, there was a police checkpoint on the road. She’d never seen a police checkpoint in her life and it absolutely freaked her. She thought we were going to be arrested, and what was going on, what were these men doing standing around with guns?
I explained, “They’re just stopping.” “But why are they stopping?” “Well I don’t know.” Then I explained to her, “Right up from when I was young, until the early ‘90s, this was a regular thing. You most likely factored in that you were going to be stopped at least a couple of times before you got to where you were going.”
That was the reality of the times back then, but it really did freak her. I was thinking, we just put up with this. For a couple of days after, she was still going on, “But they were stopping us…” And that really annoyed her, but we accepted the military presence. You saw Land Rovers steady, just flotillas of them. And the police cars all had bullet-proof glass.
So that incident brought out what we accepted as being very normal. Living where we were, although we were in the country, we were quite central to four or five prominent towns in the area. All of which had police stations, or police barracks as they used to be called. They were fortified structures. Whenever they would have bombed those — you would’ve heard the bomb, you would’ve heard the dull BOOOOOVVVVM. You would’ve went: “There’s a bomb!” The first thing, you would’ve went up the stairs and went to see if you could see where the red glow was. Then you would’ve said, “Bellaghy Police Station’s been bombed!” Or Magherafelt, or Maghera, or Castledawson, or Toome.
You ran downstairs, turn the radio on, and if I remember rightly you’d go 102 FM which was the police frequency for the radios. I don’t know if this was common knowledge or not, but if it was it was very bizarre that everybody could listen to the police radios. You’d go to 102 FM and then get to hear which one it was, so your guess would be confirmed. “Oh we were right, it was Bellaghy.” It was almost a game, let’s see who can guess, who is good at geography in the locality to see who would get it right.
Our background. My father’s mother was a Catholic, my grandfather, on my father’s side, was a Protestant. As such, we had relatives on both sides of the divide. We were brought up not to distinguish between anybody, there was no animosity whatever. It just wasn’t discussed, the Troubles didn’t really hit us.
I remember one time there was somebody shot about a mile up the road, a small cluster of houses. There was somebody shot. I only remember this because my dad’s uncle Tom lived beside where the man was shot. He was interviewed on the news and all of a sudden he was like a celebrity, “I know someone who was on the news.” That’s the only time I can remember anything distinct about the Troubles as a child.
Forget Troubles and all of that. What’s the first thing you remember?
I remember going to the Isle of Man on my holidays. I was the eldest: the next brother, he was born when I was four. I remember him walking, learning to walk whilst we were on holidays in the Isle of Man. That would’ve put me around about five. The promenade at Douglas in the Isle of Man because that’s the only place we ever went. Him in a buggy that’s almost a turquoise, sea blue colour. A greeny blue, and we all had massive red hair, remember the red hair and him tottering about. “Oh my God, he’s walking now!”
…what about your home?
We lived in a massive big house, it was like an old walled farmhouse. My grandparents on my father‘s side, my grandmother was the housekeeper of the man who owns a farm and my grandfather was the head woodsman. There was an old sawmill in this place and there was 200 acres of land. When my grandpa and grandma got married they lived in an annexe to the main house — and then when the man died, cos he had no family, he left it to my father , and that’s how my father ended up with the farm. We lived in the main house and my grandparents lived in the annexe which was still a big 2-storey end of the house.
Apparently I was very low on iron as a child, a sickly child. The doctor prescribed a bottle of Guinness a day, a bottle of milk stout. To someone who was probably about four or five! I was sent every day into my granny and grandad’s to get a bottle of milk stout. Not many doctors prescribe a pint of Guinness today, but there was iron in Guinness back then. The whole “Guinness is good for you.”
My dad was extremely accident prone and I remember him cutting off one of his fingers with the saw. It was only one of about three or four times that he did that. It was a circular saw and he lost half the middle finger of his right hand. I remember him coming down, cupping his hand, with the blood running through his fingers. My grandfather saying, “Let me see it!” — this finger hanging on by a sliver of skin. Then me grandmother wrapping it with tea-towels and off they went to the hospital. That was one of several times that he tried to dismember himself with saws. He cut his leg at one stage and he eventually lost the rest of that finger in another accident, with a machine for fixing fence posts and my brother accidentally crushed his hand… he ended up with three fingers… used to enjoy that game with kids, “How many fingers have you got?”
What was your family atmosphere like?
I was very solitary. I put that down to un-diagnosed autism. That’s with hindsight, I’m a youth worker now and I work with kids on the spectrum. My own daughter has been diagnosed as being on the spectrum and she has high functioning Aspergers. I can see a lot of what she does in the way I reacted, I read a lot, I stayed in my room a lot. Now I have difficulty in large social gatherings, great difficulty, I can’t do them. I’m uncomfortable, I will just leave.
It wasn’t necessarily a very close family and still wouldn’t be. As I say, my brother was knocked down by a car when he was seven, the 14th December 1987. I was away at college and due to go home at that evening anyway, because it was the Christmas dance for the grammar school I just left. I was waiting on my dad coming to lift me at college because I was going out that night.… I was waiting and they never arrived. They never arrived. Then I saw my dad’s friend’s car pull up. It was a green Fiesta I remember that, I saw him and my grandad in the car. Strange.
They came into the halls and knocked the door. I immediately launched into quite a profane tirade, “What the fuck is going on? I’m supposed to be going out. Look at the time it is. Why is dad not here? That stupid car is broken down again, why can’t he buy a decent car?” I remember grandad putting his hand on my arm and saying, “Joseph… your wee brother’s dead. He was knocked down by a car.”
I remember going, “Aye right. Why don’t you’s tell me the truth? Dad’s car’s broke down…” They said, “You’re not listening. Darren was knocked down, he’s dead.” I was going, “Fuck off, stop telling me lies.” I remember I said fuck off. “Just take me out, they’re all waiting on me. Look at what time it is.” They must’ve told me about five times before it sort of sunk in.
The journey back home was about half an hour. We opened the back door and my dad met me and he hugged me. It is the only time I remember my dad ever hugging me. The only time. He didn’t say anything, didn’t say a word. He must’ve hugged me I don’t know how long, 30 seconds maybe and that was it.
We went into autopilot then. It was the start of December. It was more difficult for our parents than for us as children. We had more to distract ourselves with. I can understand that now as a parent, because as a parent you literally have your children and that’s it. They take over everything and your being revolves around them. I was 18, my brother was 14, my sister was 12 and my other sister was 10. She was with him, they got off the bus and went across the road. She was that footstep ahead of Darren, she got off the side of the road, he didn’t. Car came flying around the corner too fast.
You had other kids and you had your friends and life just sort of went on. Whereas when you’re a parent your children are your life. It’s always difficult and I don’t think my parents ever got over that, and that was 30 years ago. He’d have been 38 this year…
It’s funny how things… It’s music that does it for me. I don’t maybe look like it now, but I was a bit of a rocker back in the day, long hair and all the rest of it. I used to listen to Journey, a song called Don’t Stop Believing, about ‘81 or ‘82. I remember doing air guitar to Don’t Stop Believing with Darren. Then when I turned 40, Journey played Ireland… for my 40th birthday my mum and my sisters bought me tickets to go and see Journey. I drove down, not really thinking about it. Then the second they started playing Don’t Stop Believing I burst into tears, in the middle of this.
It’s still there. It’s still there, yet. I have a tattoo on my back and it’s a memorial to Darren. It says his name and his date of birth and it says Don’t Stop Believing and a little guitar. Those things, it’s not that you forget, but you almost forget to remember in everyday life and then something will happen and it’ll come back.
I bought a car a couple of years ago, it was an old car and it didn’t have a CD player. It had a tape player and I thought I’ll go through my old cassette collection. Bring out these tapes. Reliving my youth a wee bit I suppose: one person would’ve bought an LP and would’ve taped it and given it to 10 others. That was our peer-to-peer file sharing! If you remember tapes, they had a tendency to go earrrrrrgggggh. In the middle of the song, the tape started going earrrrrrgggggh. And then it stopped. And then this voice came on the tape and it said, “Hello there, how’re you doing?” It was Darren, who had obviously been messing about with one of my tapes and had record on the tape player and thought this was hilarious. But he spoke to me 30 years after he was killed. The strange thing was, it was the song that was in the middle of. The song itself is like a love song, somebody has broken up or whatever. But the lyrics are, “In my dreams you’ll always be the way used to be.” In the middle of this, a seven-year-old child. Just saying, “How’re you doing?” That tape is now one of my most prized possessions, I’m terrified to play it now in case it does go. A friend has a recording studio and he’s going to transfer it into digital format for me, so I won’t ever lose it. The tape itself might disappear but I’ll still have the recording…
I was 18 when that happened, the end of my childhood.
That’s quite a bookend to childhood…
The Troubles element, you just got on with life. The marching season, that’s when the flags went up, but that’s when you could distinguish who everybody was. We were brought up as Protestants but there was none of that, there were no flags, nothing. We weren’t aware that you were Catholic, you were Protestant, whatever. That didn’t come into any conversations, politics was not discussed in the house.
Later on, as an adult, as a response probably to what was happening at that time, I decided… I was asked to join the Orange Order. I remember going and asking my Granny’s permission, who had been Catholic but who then had “turned”, as they say, as if that was some kind of vampire or zombie thing. She had turned and she had became Church of Ireland. I asked her permission. If she felt it was something she would be upset about, me being in this organisation, then I wouldn’t do it. Me and me granny were very close. But she said, “No that’s fine.”
I joined the Orange Order, worked my way up through the ranks and became Master of the Lodge. And then I fell out of favour and with old age, and perhaps a different view point, I’ve left that behind. Now I see it very much as an intolerance thing, it’s too intolerant. The clenching point of it – the deciding factor – was the statement that came out this summer that said they could not support any one who wanted equality rights, or reproductive rights, for anyone, and would not support gay marriage, or any same sex relationships and they wouldn’t support anyone who wanted to learn Irish.
My daughter identifies as being gay, I support her 100% in that. She is an ardent activist, even at the age of 15. I wouldn’t be a part of anything that would deny her basic rights. Primarily for that. I also have an interest in learning Irish and I do attend Irish classes and I don’t see an issue with that. I would always consider myself to be a Unionist at heart, I don’t like the term Loyalist because it has become attached to the paramilitary side of things, but I’d always say I’m very much a Protestant and a Unionist. But on the other side of that, I always saw myself very much as a Celt. I take that from the fact that I’m as white as a milk bottle and I’ve got ginger hair (laughter) I can’t deny the fact that I have Celtic heritage.
It’s there in the genes, it’s there in the beard…
It’s there in the genes, it’s nearly gone from the beard! I always was very honest about it and the reality is I do have this Catholic ancestry, which again I can’t or wouldn’t deny. It’s a part of me and I’m very proud. The other side of it is my grandparents were both Irish in every sense of the word because they were born before 1921, so they lived in Ireland they didn’t have British citizenship. My identity is not diluted by the presence of somebody else’s, know what I mean?
I’ve backed away from it, but I held firm to a lot. When I was in the lodge, I didn’t go to family christenings because they were Roman Catholic services, I didn’t go to funerals. I had a brother-in-law who took his own life, I didn’t go to his funeral. People understood. I was very open, I said, “Look I can’t go to Catholic mass… As the member of an Orange institution I can’t.”
But you could have that conversation with people and they’d say OK?
…Outwardly they would’ve said, “Yeah, that’s OK.” I don’t know what ill-feeling that brought internally, or when I wasn’t there. I had nephews’ christenings that I didn’t go to, his father’s funeral I didn’t go to. At least three or four weddings, with close friends. I would’ve been a regular, very much involved in Lodge business, the promotion of the Lodge. But even then I would’ve been seen as too liberal for the vast majority of members. That’s sort of a past part of my existence now.
I ended up getting a job as a part-time youth worker along the western shores of Loch Neagh, which is very much a Republican, nationalist area. Then from there I went to a children’s residential unit, I did five or six years there. Had a year in the middle of all that with adult mental health, then back in the residential unit for a couple of years, then working with young offenders at Belfast. Then up here working with the youth support program, working with young people within the care system. I’ve been here now for 11 years I think, primarily working in the areas you would’ve heard about in the news years ago: the Bogside, Creggan, that’s where I sort of spend my life. Not that I would’ve viewed anyone as inhuman anyway, but you really do get to see the fact that everybody is exactly the same.
Do you think there is a residue, like an echo, that passes from one generation to the next, to the next, to the next? And the kids are affected?
I think they are. There’s been lots of research done, primarily with Holocaust victims, the biological transmission of trauma from the children of Holocaust victims, their children can still feel the effects. There is certainly a residue within families in Northern Ireland round the Troubles and that translation of the trauma. Children were brought up in households where maybe a parent was missing due to imprisonment or they have been murdered, killed, or on the run or whatever. That was their childhood, that would’ve impacted on how they parented. You will have that impact, your childhood does create your adult head. The Troubles? There is that resonance. Plus, it doesn’t help when there are still people who are determined to not let sleeping dogs lie.
I remember working here at the time Margaret Thatcher died, the number of young people that were angry. I have no opinion of Margaret Thatcher one way or the other, do you know what I mean? To me she died and that was it. This outpouring of vitriol, of sheer hatred, from people who were like 13, who would’ve had no recollection of her even being in power. Somebody said, “She took the milk off the wains.” I said, “But you weren’t even born. Why are you…?” “I know, but she took the milk out of the primary schools.” There was still that “knowledge”, if you like, being passed down, with the intention of keeping the ill feeling there.
It was the same on both sides, there would’ve been things said about people on the other side of the community. Some of the people who might’ve been involved in the IRA, or the hunger strikers, or something. The ill feeling is passed down, even though it is of no relevance to them in their timeframe. But there are people who are my age, our age, who feel this negativity is important because it gives them a purpose. That’s not necessarily the transmission of the trauma, but it’s certainly a continuation of the driver of the trauma. That’s going to take a long time to disappear. It’s the pebbles in the water, the ripples are getting weaker, but they’re still there, getting further away from the original pebble drop, still there. Last year, some of the graffiti on the wall: “unfinished revolution”.
I actually went past that, running on the way to get here to you.
I just realised that the stories and the version of history that the young person has who has grown up in this city on one side of the river is totally different than the version of the history of the young person has who grew up on the other side of the river. Now they’re exactly the same story of the same event, the same period of time, but they’re gonna be massively different. And part of that will be due to their experience being different. But it’s too great, the anomalies are too great to just be perception. It’s about how they’ve been told that.
The anomalies are too great… we are talking now as adults, looking back over decades. And yeah I agree there are two narratives and they are anomalous. But how do we talk about this as if we were kids? I was just wondering if you have, like I do, very powerful memories of seeing the Orange parades on the 12th?
There was a village near where we lived, it was called Bellaghy. Now Bellaghy had the honour of being the town in Ireland with the highest proportion of Republican prisoners per head than anywhere else. Dominic McGlinchey came from Bellaghy, Frances Hughes came from Bellaghy, they were hunger strikers, major players in the Republican movement. It was a predominantly Republican town. The Protestant end was quite small right enough, but it was there. They used to have a band parade in the summer time.
Now my mother was really friendly with a lady whose husband owned a grocers shop. They had a mobile shop that went round and had a shop as well. They lived in the main street in Bellaghy. I remember in the early days, we would’ve went to their house to watch the parades with their kids.
As things progressed that became a very contentious parade, to the extent where it was like a mini-Drumcree. You had barricades at one end of the town and you had like police processions on either side of the parade escorting them through. You had riots in later days. But I remember as a child going to watch the parade. We didn’t go to many and even now I wouldn’t think about going to band parade, I don’t like them, I don’t see any point to them, I never did. When I was in the Lodge, I would’ve walked in the 12th and that would’ve been it. I don’t know, maybe it was an autism thing, it was too loud there were too many people, too much going on. I remember going to that as a child and sitting. And being a very social occasion, very good natured, very positive. But also remember the later ones when it became… You were nearly taking your life in your hands to attend it. They would’ve been the same for the church parades around Remembrance Sunday. Got to the stage where they didn’t allow the remembrance parade to go through Bellaghy Village.
I used to work on building sites in Belfast at the end of the Troubles. I drove the digger and the digger couldn’t be left on the building site cos they would have stole it. I used to park the digger in an industrial estate which was about 10 minutes walk from the building site. I went this morning to get the digger and there was a serious police presence and army, it was bad. It was West Belfast, the Falls Road.
Now I worked for a firm who were primarily Catholics, they were local to where I lived. So I asked them, “What’s going on?” “Oh there’s a fella just shot there.” “What?” “Aye, just at the back of your digger.” I went, “Wha…!” “Aye, it was a ginger-haired fella.”
So then I thought, fuck somebody’s twigged that I’m a Protestant here and this poor sod’s got a bullet in the head cos he was at my digger. But I couldn’t say that… Now, that wasn’t the case, the people who shot the guy had meant to shoot him, it was actually Loyalist paramilitaries had shot him. He happened to be a digger driver as well and his digger was parked just beside mine. In their eyes, he had been a legitimate target. That’s the words they used to justify what they did. Then I thought, they could’ve shot me by accident, if they thought he’s a ginger-haired boy and he drives a digger. If I had been five minutes earlier, could it have been me? I said to my bosses, “I’m not working here no more, I’m going to go and get a job somewhere else.”
Don’t blame you.
But that was the most direct, I suppose. Then shortly after that was the Good Friday Agreement and the apparent ceasefire. It was all neatly closed up there — not really, but in many ways. You know what, it’s definitely better. It’ll never be away, I don’t think. There are people who will always see Northern Ireland even being in existence as a bad thing, there are people who will always see it as a good thing. If it turned out there was a unification of Ireland there are people who’d see it as a wonderful thing, others who’d see it as the last thing on Earth they’d ever want. So there will always be conflict.
The thing at the bottom is we are all Celts and Celts are a warring people. They were a people who were tribal by nature, they were a people who didn’t get on with each other. That’s in our DNA to be tribal, you can’t get away from that. That’s the way it’ll be, until we can dilute that DNA by encouraging other communities to come in here, I don’t know. It’s in our nature to be tribal and closed. If you look back to Celtic history, it was tribes and areas. Look at the names: Tyrone was Eoghan’s land. You have Fermanagh, which is the “Men of Manach”. You have Innishowen, the Island of Eoghan. The Land was always divided up into sections belonging to one particular group of people who didn’t like anybody else.
There was always that, whether it was Old Ulster fighting with Connaught, back in the old history. They’d invaded Ulster from down there. And then you had the vikings coming over here, more so the East Coast. Those raiders coming in and that heritage coming in. There’s always been conflict in Ireland and that’s not a defeatist attitude, there always has been violence in our DNA, we’re an island, so we have that island mentality.
The only thing is there’s an increasing number of young people who aren’t religious— my daughter has no concept of religion, would consider herself to be an atheist, so doesn’t see “Protestant”, “Catholic”, she just sees people and there’s an increasing number of young people like that. That’s good.
Did a fantastic project last year with young people, and we had the privilege of meeting Dr Martin Stern, who is a Holocaust survivor, who was arrested at 5 years of age by the Nazis in Amsterdam along with his 1-year-old sister. He was interned in two concentration camps, but he was lucky because the one he ended up in was the poster camp, the one the Nazis used to show the world that they weren’t the evil monsters everybody thought they were. They had barely sufficient food, rather than no food. He survived, and moved to England, Leicester I think. He was a surgeon, until he retired. He’s now in his late 80s. Now he does a lot of work for the Holocaust Memorial Trust, travels and speaks to children and young people. We had the honour to meet with him and he did a video piece about young people, and how he thought they saw things such as immigration and looking at different races.
Then we also did a piece with a young Syrian woman who had settled here, she was 19 years of age. It was really good because the young people were all so empathetic and were very keen to hear how she did feel. Two really good pieces of work. Fantastic. They were premiered last year as part of the Holocaust Memorial commemorations for Northern Ireland. That was one of the events put on in the town here for people to see, these two pieces of video footage that young people made. There is hope, it can only be good. I’ll end there — there is hope.
That’s good. You brought us back.
From the brink.
Joe Thompson, interviewed by Philip Davenport in Derry 2018