Our Legacy of Loss

Six IRA volunteers carry the coffin of hunger striker Volunteer Martin Hurson into the graveyard at Galbally, County Tyrone, where he is interred. (Photo: Oistín MacBride)

Terry George, Contibutor
October / November 2005

The acclaimed writer/director reflects on three thousand six hundred and thirty-eight stolen lives. 

In 1964, I had my first real experience of our eight-hundred-year-old war in Ireland. I was an eleven-year-old schoolboy in Belfast when the Reverend Ian Paisley decided that an Irish tricolor displayed at the election office of a Sinn Féin candidate called Billy McMillan should be removed. He led a Protestant march up the Falls Road to take it down. Two days of rioting followed. I remember skipping school to walk up the Falls Road and see the broken glass and rubble. There was rebellion in the air, the smell of smoke and anger. It was thrilling.

Forty-one years on, the thrill is long, long gone. Instead, as the IRA declare that the war is over, I am left only with pain, regret, relief but most of all sorrow. After I heard the news of the IRA’s decision I went back to reread a truly extraordinary book. It is called Stolen Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women, and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. There are 3,638 stories in the book. Stolen Lives has become a sort of prayer book for me. Every time I notice it among my books, I stop what I’m doing and read from it again. There are many people I knew listed in this book. People I loved, hated, respected and feared. I want to tell you about a few.

No. 275 is Gerard Bell, 19. His nickname was “Dinger Bell.” I went to dances with him in Ardglass, County Down. He was blown up along with three other IRA men who were transporting a bomb in a car. I’d no idea at the time that he was in the IRA. As the funeral was leaving the Short Strand area, loyalists on the other side of the road sang the Dave Clarke Five hit “Bits and Pieces.”

No. 2425, Raymond Devlin, 19, used to sit on the wall close to my apartment in Belfast and drink cheap wine. His (probably self-invented) nickname was “Gangster,” but that was a joke; in reality he was a smalltime hood. He used to come into a pool room where I worked. He was funny. I liked him. The IRA didn’t — they killed him for ‘gangsterism.’ His brother Damien, 24, was shot by the UVF six years later.

No. 1370. Billy McMillan, 48. The man whose election campaign in 1964 led to my first introduction to riots. His nickname was “the wee man” and unlike “Gangster,” he was indeed small, but he too was funny in a much more articulate, witty way. He was the head of the Official IRA in Belfast. During his leadership a feud broke out between the Official IRA and their breakaway INLA. Billy McMillan was shot outside a hardware store after buying some nails. He was sitting in his car with his wife when the gunman struck.

No. 2810. Gerard Steenson, 29. The nickname I knew him by was “Steensy.” The newspapers and the Brits called him “Dr. Death.” Steensy was, according to most reports, the man who stepped out of a taxi and killed Billy McMillan. The Steensy I knew, and I knew him very well, was extremely clever and even wittier than Billy McMillan. He had an angelic face and women adored him. He was also ruthless, cunning and fearless. He was shot dead by another faction of the INLA along with Anthony “Boot” McCarthy, who I also knew. Boot got his name from the platform shoes he used to wear. At the bottom of each person’s story in Stolen Lives, the authors cross-reference the dead person with other dead people in the book — either people they died alongside or people they were suspected of killing. Gerard Steenson’s name is cross-referenced with fourteen other entries in the book.

No. 2245. Miriam Daly, 45. Miriam was a lecturer in economic history at Queens University. In fact she and her husband Jim encouraged me to enroll in Queens. My wife Rita worked part-time as her secretary. She was executed by the UDA because she was an outspoken activist at the time of the hunger strikes. Her body was discovered by her 10-yearold daughter at 3 p.m. I arrived at her home at 3:10 p.m. and helped clean her blood and brains off the hallway floor. I also met her husband Jim as he arrived from Dublin and discovered that he had been told she had died of a heart attack. I had to tell him she had been murdered.

No. 3089. Eddie Hale, 25. Eddie Hale was my younger brother’s best friend. They raised pigeons at the back of my mother’s house until somebody introduced a ferret into the pigeon coop. After the pigeons were all eaten, Eddie and my brother went their separate ways. Eddie became another small-time hood. He hung out with a group of petty thieves nicknamed “The Hole in the Wall Gang.” One night they broke into a car parked at a country restaurant. Unbeknownst to them it belonged to a highly secret British Army undercover squad. It is widely rumored that Eddie and his gang found some top secret, highly sensitive papers in the Brit car. The gang’s next job was the robbery of a betting shop. A British army undercover squad was waiting for them. Eddie and two of his gang were gunned down in the street.

I know many other victims in the book: my cousin John, killed by the INLA for being ‘a crook.’ Liam Ryan and Seamus Woods, two young men I met in New York. The hunger strikers Bobby Sands and Patsy O’Hara. The Grew brothers, Dessie and Seamus, both gunned down by SAS/RUC undercover units. Giuseppe Conlon, whose life and death inspired me to write a movie.

Then there are the hundreds of victims I don’t know. British soldiers, RUC men, loyalists, tourists, London shoppers. I bet many of them were witty, charming and complex just like the victims I knew. All 3,638 of them had someone who loved them.

In the last year I have visited and come to know the people of Rwanda, where close to one million people were killed, and the people of Sarajevo, where eleven thousand were killed. One thing I have come to understand is that whether you are killed by a machete in Kigali, by a sniper in Sarajevo, or by a landmine in Crossmaglen, there is always someone left to suffer the pain.

Am I glad it’s all over? Only a fool, and there are some still around, would say no to that question. One of those fools is the Reverend Ian Paisley, who behaves today just as he did forty-one years ago outside Billy McMillan’s office.

Was it worth it? I suppose historians will debate the political impact of the violence and make such a decision. It’s a question I can no longer answer. How can I say “Yes, it’s worth it,” to sacrifice Eddie Hale and Miriam Daly for the cause of freedom? How can I say “No, it wasn’t worth it,” and remove all meaning from the deaths of so many? Would I rather have them all back? Three thousand six hundred and thirty-eight times yes ♦

Terry George recently returned from Sarajevo Film Festival where he screened his movie Hotel Rwanda for three thousand Sarajevo citizens in a square in the town. 

Terry George at work in the director's chair.

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