When I was young a strikingly attractive woman would often pass me by on the Lower Ormeau Road on her way to and from the shops. We would say hello but never much more. It would take an intensification of republican activity in the area for familiarity to grow.
My memory is that Alice McCartan, who died at the start of this year, had lived in Walnut Place in Donegal Pass but who, along with her husband Terry and children, moved the few hundred yards just across the railway bridge that acted as a demarcation line between the Lower Ormeau and "the Pass." In some senses she moved from the frying pan into the fire because beginning in 1973, the loyalists launched a campaign of sectarian killings against the nationalists living in an area of less than thirty streets. Teenagers travelling home in taxis, standing outside chip shops, or sweeping streets to earn their crust were among the many who fell victim to the drive by shooter or opportunist assassin. For a time it became one of the city's colloquial Murder Miles. Alice's brother-in-Law, Noel McCartan was shot dead at the corner of Havelock Street in full view of UTV headquarters while the extended McCartan family became well known during the Northern conflict because of the large number of members killed.
I often tore through Alice McCartan's house via the back door. The rear of her home bordered on the back doors of Cooke Street in a long narrow alley way separating Lavinia and Cooke Streets. The night of my arrest in March 1974, I was desperately trying to make her back door while being pursued by a team of Scottish soldiers shouting the ominous "Halt, halt, halt." If I was to reach there as I had frequently done the odds would shift in my favour.
On an earlier occasion, I managed to get to her door as the British Army reached the top of the alleyway. They blocked the street at each end and began a house to house search. A female volunteer arrived to offer assistance. Her and Alice hurriedly dressed me in the attire of a woman. I walked the length of the street linked to the volunteer and through the cordon and into the safety of McClure Street. Every male was being stopped and the women were paid little attention.
The day of my March arrest had for the most part been spent in the company of Freddie Scappaticci. A British Army foot patrol had hauled me and a fellow 16 year old out of a crashed car in the Markets. I gave them a false name and some daft excuse for being in the car. They took a radio call, immediately lost interest in us and raced off, letting us go. We even retrieved the car which I drove back up to the Ormeau Road and returned to its rightful owner. Complacency fortified by the intake of cider, and buoyed by my earlier escape, I deluded myself that the new regiments were unable to recognise me from their montages. I decided to head from one side of the Ormeau Road to the other on foot. I had just reached Cooke Street from Essex Street when a foot patrol raced out of "Fishy Entry" calling on me to stop. I made the alleyway but Alice's house was too far down to allow me to reach it ahead of a fusillade from SLRs. The "entry" as it was called was so narrow that a blind man could not have missed me had he fired down it. Dragged back to Fishy Entry and given the obligatory beating before being dumped in a Saracen, I ended up in St Patricks Home two days later. My stay was all of a half an hour before absconding as they then termed escaping from youth custody. By the time the IRA arrived at the Home to take me out I was safely in an aunt's house in Turf Lodge. The following day, shipped to Dundalk by the aforementioned Scap, I made my own way back ten days and two Gardaí arrests later. That was when Alice worked her orange magic on my hair.
Still on the run another friend had applied a rinse to my hair in her Cooke Place home, feeling I needed some sort of makeover. It gave off an auburn tinge but didn't change much. If I was in pursuit of an altered image, the endeavour had failed. Later in the day I dropped by Alice McCartan's house in Lavinia Street for a cup of tea. She told me she could do something about my hair and along with a friend proceeded to apply a lightener. The effect was that my hair turned bright orange.
As camouflage its effect was not enduring. After having just walked out of a bar in Cromac Street where I had been meeting someone rather than drinking I boarded a bus just as the British Army rushed into the bar and pulled a guy known as Harpo outside and gave him a beating. His crime - to have ginger hair. After I got off the bus at the corner of Shaftsbury Avenue and made my way to a friend's house in Lavinia Street the bus was halted at the next stop, and particular attention was paid to anybody with ginger hair. Then on leaving the house it too was raided alongside the house next door. No gingers, the occupants were left alone. I only managed to stay ahead of the pursuing British troops by sheer chance, wholly oblivious to their efforts to grip me. That was something I found out later in the evening. It came with the realisation that Alice's bright orange hair was not going to cut the mustard. I was stuck with it.
Within weeks I was trapped in the middle of Essex Street by a crowd of British troops sealing off the immediate block as they launched a search of my home. I miscalculated on hearing the noise of accelerating land rovers and headed for the front of the Ormeau Road rather than away from it. The capturing soldier confirmed into his radio that I had orange hair and a "Macker" tattoo. On arrival in Crumlin Road jail the following day the screw processing me in reception began to record that I had bright orange hair. I insisted it was black. He thought I was yanking his chain until I told him it was dyed, he need only look at the roots. He duly did before commenting that it was as fine a work of dye as he had ever seen: his wife would love to know the secret. Such was the visual effect of Alice McCartan's orange hair work, that when Brendan Hughes returned to the blanket wings after the 1980 hunger strike he ended up with us in H6. He asked out the door if a big skinny kid called Mackers with orange hair was on the wing. He had forgotten in the meantime that my hair had resumed its natural colour. But such was the power of Alice McCartan's hair do: it more than my natural colour had stuck in his mind.
I called with Alice on one of my paroles. She had little time for the Provisional Movement by that point, her sons in constant conflict with them, but she was as warm as ever to me.
A mother of eight children, brought up in difficult times, my abiding memory of her is of a woman who, while by no means a firebrand republican, would never close her door to a young republican haring away from the British Army. She was onto the concept of the future is bright, the future is orange long before the mobile phone companies ever were.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
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