On August 14-15, 1969 British troops were deployed onto the streets of a part of the United Kingdom for the first time – other than during the exigencies of wartime – since the ‘General Strike’ of 1926.
This part was Northern Ireland where law and order had finally broken down. The excellent ‘Lost Lives’ states that prior to that fateful day, eight people had been killed – including several some three years before the ‘accepted’ start of the Troubles. It is not the brief of this oral history to cover this period and, for the sake of a beginning, it must start the day before with the first deaths in what the Ulster folk call the ‘wee hours’ of that August day.
With that day barely minutes old, Herbert Roy, aged 26, from the Loyalist Shankill Road area became the first of five people to lose their lives before the stroke of the next midnight. He was involved in rioting in the Divis Street area of Belfast and was shot and died of his wounds around 30 minutes after the start of the new day. Within minutes, little Patrick Rooney, aged 9, had been shot and killed – tragically in his own bed in the Divis Tower by a stray round.
The author, a young and naive soldier, watched with horror and disbelief the TV interviews conducted with his absolutely distraught parents. One remembers the black and white pictures of how a devastated, yet calm-looking working man described the way that he had to scrape part of his little boy’s head off the bedroom wall with a spoon. That interview, those words and the horrific imagination which accompany it will follow this author to his grave. Little did he or any of the watching world realise that many, many more grieving parents and other loved ones would suffer the same way before the Troubles breathed their last – and finally, claimed its last victims.
Private Hugh McCabe – a British soldier home on leave and merely observing the rioting – was shot and killed in Whitehall Row, also in the Divis area. He was buried with full military honours by his comrades from the Queen’s Irish Hussars and, by the end of that fateful year (139 days later), a further five British soldiers would also be dead.
Almost 17 months after the troops had gone in Gunner Robert Curtis was shot and killed in Lepper Street, Belfast on February 6, 1971 along with his comrade Gunner John Laurie, who died six days later from his wounds. Popular convention has accorded Curtis – whose pregnant widow gave birth some months later – the epithet of being the first soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I believe that there is evidence to the contrary and that Gunner Curtis was the 22nd soldier to die during the Troubles.
Ken Wharton is author of ‘A Long, Long War’ Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland 1969-98‘; ‘Bullets, Bombs and Cups of Tea. Further voices of the British Army in Northern Ireland 1069-78‘; ‘Sir, They’re Taking the Kids Indoors. The British Army in Northern Ireland 1973-74‘ and ‘Wasted Years, Wasted Lives Volume One. The British Army in Northern Ireland 1975-77‘.