Paddy Mulligan

Anthony McIntyre remembers an old friend from the Short Strand who died in May.

Paddy Mulligan was living on the Mountpottinger Road in East Belfast when I first met him back in 1974. His was the most hospitable of families. I became quite friendly with him, his wife Annie and their six children. I had known one of their daughters in passing prior to that, at first thinking her aloof, only to discover later that I had confused aloofness with intelligence. We shared many good conversations the evenings I spent in their home.

In their house I was always called John-Boy. The provenance of that lay in one of the children asking me for my name. The Waltons were on TV at the time and Paddy or Annie jokingly told him I was John-Boy. And John-Boy I became! Last year when one of the sons sent me a Facebook friend request he opened with the John-Boy line.

At the time they had two nephews in Long Kesh, Sean and Denis Donaldson. Later I met both men, Sean in Crumlin Road and later Magilligan, where I became quite friendly with him, and Denis after I was released in the 1990s. When I got out from my first spell of imprisonment towards the end of 1975 I would call in on the family anytime I was in the Strand. Annie would later come up to see me in the H Blocks during my life sentence, on occasion bringing her young granddaughter with her.

Prior to moving to the Mountpottinger just across the road from the RUC station, Paddy and his family had lived in Anderson Street at the time of the 1972 bomb explosion which killed 8 people. It was an IRA mistake in which the organisation lost four of its young volunteers but would subsequently seek to blame loyalists, claiming that the volunteers were merely trying to defuse the device. If anybody bought it, I have yet to meet them.

Their son Kevin was shot in July 1987 and died from his wounds the following March at the same time as the UDA attack on mourners in Milltown Cemetery, where the funerals of three IRA volunteers summarily executed in Gibraltar were taking place. It was a dark period in Belfast. Kevin had been working in a garage in the Albertbridge Road at the time. A few years younger than me, even in 1974 he was always rooting away at something or other: he and I would stand in their back yard while he tinkered with a broken radio or lamp. He had that practical inquisitive mind, curious to understand how things worked. It was not hard to imagine him working in a garage musing over a mass of car parts. His death was devastating for the family. When I called on them on one of my earlier paroles a day or two after Christmas 1990 Annie was in tears discussing Kevin. Paddy was less outward, locked in quiet contemplation about what happened to his child. It was an assassin's bullet straight into the heart of a loving tight knit family. While there, he served me up a few glasses of Bulgarian white wine and I remember the journey back home to Twinbrook, along May Street, being much less steady than it was in the other direction.

That type of risk was a daily hazard for many Strand people who had to travel outside of their community to find work. Either on the way to and from their job or on it as in Kevin's case, they would be prey to loyalists who were willing to kill them for no reason other than they were nationalist or Catholic. Another family I had stayed with around the same time in the Strand, saw a similar fate befall them: one of the parents was gunned down as he walked home from work in the Newtownards Road. Always a vulnerable area, many of us on the blanket protest recall the screws cheering loudly when Marius O'Neill and Paul McCrory, former classmates of mine, were gunned down in November 1979. The screws thought Digger McCrory, one of the blanket men on our wing in H4, had lost a brother and decided to great it with raucous approval.

The Short Strand was a tiny nationalist enclave regarded as an unwanted protuberance by East Belfast unionism. Sitting on the margins of a sprawling loyalism with a massive hinterland, sprawling back to Comber, it was hemmed in by the River Lagan on its other side. Throughout its existence it produced a vibrant community, in large part gelled together by the sectarian hatred displayed towards it from without. It became famous in republican mythology for the battle of St Matthews, crucial to the symbolism of an emerging Provisional IRA. Later, inadequately trained IRA volunteers from the area died in premature explosions - it lost eight in 1972 alone.

While in Magilligan in 1975, the Strand Bar was bombed by the UVF. The attack left four women and two men dead. My thoughts immediately went to Annie and Paddy, although I had no reason to think they would have been in the bar. I wrote to them from prison in the wake of the devastation. There were suspicions that the UVF had acted in consort with the British security services, a commonly held belief in Belfast at the time in respect of loyalist attacks and which has grown in time as more evidence of collusion emerges.

The toxic fumes of political violence were a constant that Paddy Mulligan and parents of his era had no choice but to inhale. Among them were often to be found the unsung heroes of societal conflict who tried to hold the family unit together when wider society was ripping itself apart. Later, when most people thought the war between the IRA and the British was behind them, Paddy's nephew Denis Donaldson would die a lonely death in a Donegal cottage to which he had relocated after admitting his own ties with British intelligence agencies.

I last saw both Paddy and Annie in Belfast not long before I moved to Drogheda. They were in Iceland in Corn Market and we stopped to chat.

When I think about people like Paddy Mulligan it drives me to reflect on matters like the pompous British New Years Honours list, where the practice is to award troglodytes like the insufferable Bob Geldof not for the heights they have scaled but the depths to which they have plummeted. People like Ariana Grande make it genuinely worthwhile but through snubbing the damehoods rather than grabbing them. The real honours should go to people like Paddy Mulligan who live compassionate and caring lives, trying to do no harm despite the harmful times they live in.

A good man never dies ...
Who lives to bravely take
His share of toil and stress,
And, for his weaker fellows' sake,
Makes every burden less,--
He may, at last, seem worn--
Lie fallen--hands and eyes
Folded--yet, though we mourn and mourn,
A good man never dies. 
James Whitcomb Riley

Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.

Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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