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A Christmas Eve Coincidence

Tony Donovan recalls Christmas Eve 1971 in a tense and politically violent Belfast

I have always loved Ireland, ever since I was a kid: its music, what little Irish history I knew.

In 1969, I started reading about the Irish Civil Rights movement in the north of Ireland, and the harsh repression mounted by British Police to shut the movement down. I remember seeing it as small bits of AP and UPI wire press writing, five or six lines on the fifth page of the New York Times. In 1969 the British army arrived there in large numbers and the Catholic areas started to riot.

I decided to go take a look. I bought a used Leica, certainly the most famous camera brand at the time. And off I flew to Ireland. Somehow I had the number and address of the Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, one of Ireland’s secret armies, I think he lived in Navan. Imagine that today! I met with him and told him my plans to travel up to Belfast in two days, on a Saturday.


He told me not to go, to spend my weekend in the South. I asked why. He wouldn’t say, though I did take his warning and stayed in Dublin for those days. A couple dozen bombs went off in Belfast city that weekend. When I got there on Monday, it was a cold, broken city with almost no electric light, nearly empty of people, the constant wail of sirens the only sound.

After a few days I got to interview the Catholic Bishop in West Belfast, poor man he didn’t have a place for me and passed me on to a Priest, not much older than myself who was urgently working to help his Ballymurphy parish deal with a British curfew. He couldn’t have me around, but he told me about a Catholic area in North Belfast called “Ardoyne” or “Owen’s Height” in Irish.

At that time Ardoyne was under siege by its Protestant neighbors, patrolled day and night by British soldiers; its northwest corner, an area of thirty-five to forty houses, was in ruins, burned out during sectarian Protestant against Catholic violence the previous summer.

It didn’t take me long to learn that if I started talking to the British soldiers, or taking their pictures, the Irish people would go crazy. Simply put. The kids would curse me in the street, I’d seen it happen; nobody would talk to me, give me food, a place to sleep. They’d have run me out of the area I’m sure.

You don’t talk to the enemy. That’s what I was taught. “Well” I might say, “They’re not my enemy. I’m just taking pictures. I’m not part of any fight.” But I really couldn’t say that because by then I had made friends in Ardoyne.

But still I did want to take pictures of the soldiers ….

So on Christmas Eve I sneaked out of the area…. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t really get away with it, somebody might have seen me. The Irish had been watching me from when I first arrived; you can’t blame them. After all, who was I? Who was I working for? The red haired boy down the street, teen-age girls in the chippy, the bus conductor who lived next door, it seemed like somebody was always watching me. 

I took a bus down to the center of the city toward dusk on Christmas Eve, to the oldest part of Belfast called the Markets, or the “Markets area” as they might say.

During the previous several years the British army had taken over the city’s failed linen mills, the transportation depots across the city, and in the Markets, the city’s century old gasworks, and turned them into forts of occupation.

Belfast had once been the largest manufacturer of linen cloth in the world. When I was here, British machine guns were nested high up on top the old mill walls.

One night in Ardoyne behind where I stayed, I heard Irish boys sneak out on to the waste ground to take on the British soldiers up on the mill wall. The Irish started it with a short angry spit from one of their Armellites. The British returned fire and the heavy “rat-tat-tat” of their machine gun seemed to go on forever. The dogs up and down Ardoyne’s streets began to howl and cry. After a long frightening beat, the British fired again, “rata-rata, rat a tat-tat”. One of the Irish was shot and cried out, “Help me, help me, Paddy. I’m hit.”

So I knocked on the door of the fort, once the gasworks for the entire city, burning coal to make gas, built at the end of the nineteenth century with Belfast’s famous blood rust bricks.

A friend of mine who was an artist back in New York had made me a press pass that said I was working for Time Magazine. And that’s what I said, that my name was Tony Donovan, I was working for Time Magazine, and I was there to take pictures of the troops at Christmas.

One of the Sergeants said, “Hullo, great, Mr. Donovan, come on in, come on in. We’re going out on patrol soon to be, and you can come with us.”

We loaded into a lightly armored truck, painted forest green, called a Pig. I kid you not! The name is not an acronym, not as far as I can tell. A “Humber Pig”, that was its designation, built to carry eight men with their weapons with narrow hooded slots side and rear out of which the soldiers pointed their rifles.

We crisscrossed the area in low gear, making an angry racket. Two Colonels were with us, one re-presenting the regiment that was in the Markets at the time, the Queen’s Own Lancashire Regiment, and the other from a group coming into the area in a few weeks time, the Green Howards I think it was. And they were making a plan to catch an Irishman by the name of Joe McCann who was the Commanding Officer of the Official IRA in the area. The Officials were an older, smaller group than the Provisional IRA mentioned previously, that held control of the Markets at the time.

Joe McCann was in his early 20s, just a little younger than myself. From his pictures I know that he looked like my brother, or a cousin of mine.

Every Catholic area had their heroes, the one or two men and women, the few teenage boys, who stepped up and took the fight to the enemy. In a time of bloody conflict like this was, it seemed to me that these few were some of the best people.

McCann was that kind of hero to the Market people, a much loved and respected leader.

A British solder must have told me all this. How he went to chapel every day. That’s what they call church over there, instead of “church,” they say, “chapel.” Somehow Joe would slip past the armed patrols and get into the chapel, receive communion with the old men and women, then manage to get a- way; to show his neighbors, I suppose, that they had to fight their fear, that they should take the dare as well.

With the object of war being terror… and so it happened in Ardoyne, British soldiers broke in on a Saturday night disco, throwing the priest at the door aside, “looking for a gunman,” so they said, opened fire into the crowd, killing a young father and wounding a couple of other kids, just to let everybody know, “What’s Up?” Then the Irish do the same. Stop a van out in the country full of Protestant workers going home on a Friday night, shoot them dead; all but one, and he’s left alive only by mistake.

The two Colonels are talking intently. I could hear them despite the motor. I had my camera, and I had a tape recorder as well. And foolish me, being young, I acted more on impulse than on thought, you know? And I pushed the lever of the tape machine to record their plan to catch Big Joe McCann.

And as I pressed “record” I saw one of the Colonel’s bodyguards, see me do it. But I didn’t think he saw me see him. So maybe I had the advantage. After a while we got back to the fort. I have forgotten how I turned the tape off. The Colonels disappeared.

The ground floor was a mess hall for the troops, dirty, dark and cold. What I remember most about the scene is the soldiers, black and white, divided by race, sitting at tables at least ten, fifteen feet apart with Pakistani orderlies scurrying anxiously back and forth between them. I couldn’t believe it. On Christmas!

Then one of the younger Officers said, “Mr. Donovan, why don’t you come up to our club and have a pint with us? After all, it’s Christmas.” So, up we went to the Officers Club on the floor above. Everything became stereotypical for me after that, like a badly cast movie. One of the Officers who looked like a mommy’s boy, pudgy and pink, was opening his Christmas presents all over the bar. A mean looking redhead was sitting apart with his whiskey, already really drunk, a couple of the others looked like accountants. They meant nothing to me. I was standing at the bar, drinking my pint, I had my camera in one pocket and the tape recorder in another. A Sergeant stomped into the room. He saluted and shouted out, “The Captain would like to see Mr. Donovan.”

“Ut-oh”

“And he’s to bring his tape recorder with him.”

“Ooh-shit!”

But what could I do? So up, up we go to what seemed to be the top of the building. Between the time I had gotten back to the fort and up to the Officer’s club I had switched tapes. Luckily I had two, so I took the tape of the plan to catch Joe McCann and stuck it in my pants, and I put a folk music tape in its place. I remember, it was Tom Rush singing a Jessie Winchester song, “Down Around Biloxi”.

An old hippie song.

Down around Biloxi, pretty girls are swimming in the sea.
Oh, how they look like sisters in the ocean.”

That’s the first line, it’s a very pretty song.I stepped into the room. The Sergeant was breathing down my back. An Officer was sitting at a desk toward the back. A middle-aged guy, brown hair, medium build, with a pleasant looking face.

“Here he is, Sir!” and the Sergeant made a furious salute like we were in an old war movie. I walked across the room, the tape recorder in my hands. He’s a Captain. I look for his name on the front of his uniform. And what do you think his name is? I couldn’t believe it! DONOVAN! Same as me! I’m thinking, “How can it be? What are the odds of this guy’s name and my name being the same? Donovan! How can it be?”

And he said, “Well, Mr. Donovan, I’m sorry, but I have to ask to listen to your tape machine.” There’s absolutely no recognition from him of the coincidence that our last names are the same.

I’m thinking, “Yeah, sure…Donovan, Donovan, how can it be?” I push “play”, and we hear:

Down around Biloxi, pretty girls are swimming in the sea.
Oh, how they look like sisters in the ocean.”

Then he said, “Well, Mr. Donovan, I guess there’s been some mistake. You can go.” I’m thinking, “thank you, thank you Mister,” but of course I didn’t say it. And I got out of there as fast as I could and made it back to Ardoyne just a little after one, Christmas morning. People were still at my friend’s house so I had a chance to share in the “craic” and sort of relax.

♜ ♞ ♜ ♞ ♜ ♞ ♜ ♞ ♟ ♜ ♞ ♜ ♞  

There’s a sad ending to this story though, what was to come; because in April of the new year, in April 1972, they did murder Joe McCann, shot him dead in the Markets on a street called Joy Street. “Shoot to kill” they called it.

Tony Donovan is a Connecticut resident and a photographer @ the Ivoryton Studio.

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Anthony McIntyre

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

2 comments to ''A Christmas Eve Coincidence"

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  1. Thanks Tony for putting this the way of TPQ - I think these type of stories add a new thread to an ever expanding tapestry of history.

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