- I want to be known for what I am doing now. At the same time I think there is obviously extra interest in the play because here is an ex-loyalist prisoner doing a bit of writing for a change. It's usually the ex-republican prisoners who go down that route – Beano Niblock, Newsletter
Bobby Beano Niblock is a former loyalist prisoner. He is also a community intellectual - the universities with their abundance of professors and PhD people do not monopolise the breed. Recently he helped launch the Etcetera Theatre Company which was set in motion ‘to help working-class Protestants express themselves and their politics through the arts.’
A while back I asked him if he could be bothered sending me a copy of his poetry book which Stephen Ferguson, another loyalist who occasionally commented on TPQ, had recommended. Not only could Beano be bothered, he actually sent two. The first didn’t arrive so a replacement copy was despatched by post. It was delivered only then to be followed by the original which might even have been rerouted via Spookville before making its way to me. So I ended up with both, one of which I passed onto a republican friend who has been a source of considerable solace over the past few years.
I told Beano I would review it. He was modest and suggested I might not find it worth the effort. Ever suspicious of loyalist devils with horns I declined to take him at his word so picked it up one morning and read it while travelling on the bus to Dublin. I am glad he failed in his attempt to put one over me, just to deprive a recovering An Phoblacht subscriber of a good read because, I found ingesting the poetry he had assembled under the title Battle at Oldbridge ... and other Poems a genuinely rewarding endeavour.
For the greatest part the author picks key events in loyalist and unionist political history and conveys them to a wider audience through the language of the poet. More people might write poetry than actually read it, as the truism has it, but there is much to be gleaned from what Niblock writes here.
In the opening poem, Battle at Oldbridge, there is plenty about papish hordes but it is pretty much evident that this is not the language of some ranting bigot venting his hatred for Catholics. The poet here is making use of the authentic contemporary language of the era he writes about. The very act of scripting that particular cadence into the structure of the work preps the reader's mind, allowing it to soak up something of the atmosphere the poet seeks to convey.
Early Morning, Picardy Plain, July 1st 1916 is a poem about the First World War. To republicans 1916 conjures up images of an entirely different phenomenon. Yet there is no doubt that for unionists those events whatever we may think of them are deeply etched in their minds. They don't see marauding soldiers bayoneting women and children but brave young men advancing at walking pace into the well placed aim of their military opponents. Contest the cause of the marching men as they approached the end of their mortal coil if we wish, even their wisdom, but their bravery cannot be gainsaid. 20,000 died in the suicidal attack their officers ordered launched on the German lines. Their last hours were spent in
a trough not fit for swine
but occupied by lions brave and proud
This immediately emblazons the descriptive dagger from World War 1 that has been thrust through the black heart of officialdom ever since: lions led by donkeys. It was a thought revisited by Niblock in the scathing '69 was Warm and Fair when these lines jut out like a poke in the eye:
led by Blinded Fools
Artisans with sharpened tools
hacked from where to where?
To cages dark
beyond despair ...
...Youth got stalled at the starting gate
no time for reason
gone too late
Which in essence captures the role that emotion played rather than reason. There is something from the logic of the philosopher Louis Althusser at play here, when the French Marxist posed the question whether people believe in god, then fall down and pray, or if they fall down and pray and then believe in god. Niblock suggests that kneeling at the exploding altar in 1969 helped send countless young people off to worship the false god of violence in the hope that it would somehow cleanse the soul. It has cleansed the streets of thousands yet still the hatred spews.
He again hits out at the supposed quality of leadership with his wryly titled poem The men behind the Ire, which he helps introduce with a photo of Bill 'shoot to kill' Craig, a purveyor of naked sectarian hatred par excellence.
We are often cynical about loyalists maintaining as a motivation a defence of their communities. Yet it features so much in their conversation and writings that it is simply impossible to think they are all lying. Besides, we republicans know only too well that the conflict seemed to give us a disproportionately large share of the liars. Over and over again we experience the impact that Bloody Friday had on young people growing up in loyalist areas. As he draws towards the conclusion of One Friday In Late July, he switches lanes to issue a reminder that we republicans who know the failure of the armed campaign, understand only too well:
Four decades on
a distant dream
Even when he dips into another world that he inhabited growing up which would not have been all that different from his later enemies on the republican side, Sixties Soliloquy, Niblock does it with a certain flourish that is so rapidly delivered that one reading is not enough to absorb the content.
For a great piece there is McGladdery’s Last Night, on the final hours of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Belfast Jail. There is no adulation here. The man was as much an outcast to unionists as he was nationalists. In telling the story Niblock uses his pen in such a way that it is like a needle through which the mind is first threaded and then weaved into memories of Crumlin Road prison with its dungeon-like cells, many of which I occupied on three of its four wings, since I first landed there at 16 years of age.
None of what Bobby Niblock writes changes my view of loyalism. I think it a profoundly negative political project. But it is an ensemble populated by people who are always a mix of good and bad. Having witnessed what we have over the past forty years it is simply impossible for us to believe that the loyalists got all the bad people and us only the good. Our faith has been tempered by our experience.
On the Long Kesh Inside Out website where this booklet of poetry is plugged there is a call for loyalists to get their story out. I could not agree more. Every possible thread that can be sewn into the tapestry that explains our history is a valuable addition to the shaded complexity and diversity that have shaped us. The top down self serving bland narratives of political leaders and their falsifiers need countered with voices from below.