They say you never forget your first. Well, Eammon was my first. He broke my duck. Got me off the mark. And here, thirty years later almost to the day, I'm taking time to remember him.
Jim came later and Christine in rapid succession. And after that, well, after that there were more — I think anyone whose early adulthood was spent back then in Belfast would have a significant list — but as I say, it's the first time that leaves the impression.
It's the first time that sears your soul.
I noticed his fingers first. He'd had some kind of accident with fire years back, and they were all melted around the tips like the wick end
of candles at the close of a long night. It's funny how skin can do that, I always thought, trying to avert my gaze. And of course there was the ubiquitous blue curl of Gitane smoke drifting up from his left hand. Back then there was nothing so cool.
We used to sit up in the second-floor snack bar. Queens University Student Union. Early nineteen seventies. And somehow in there, if you sat at the best tables, you could feel the gradual deconstruction of who you'd been, experience the blurring of the tight lines that your upbringing had drawn around you. It was a dangerous place. Sitting in the fug of the smoke, only some of it legal, joining in the conversations, wrapping your head around the life experiences of others — it was like every week brought a new mental challenge. A new frontier to cross. An old place to leave behind.
It was a strange place, Belfast, back then. It still is, I guess. A hard place to call home. Home for me has always been someplace where you could grow safely. Where you could try on ideas, experiment with identity and beliefs. Get it wrong nine times out of ten, and it still
wouldn't matter because you'd still be loved. Belfast was nothing like that. You have to be right in Belfast. And walk on the right streets.
At one of the tables near ours, the 'Christian Fundamentalists' used to sit. Ironic name now, given how the world's gone. There was no smoke curling upwards from their fingers. One of their favourite games was to send a message to the porter's office. Would any member of Gay Rights come to the nearest black phone? Then, when they heard it come over the
tannoy, they'd watch the phone in question like hawks. Noting the identity of anyone brave enough to respond, they would target that person for months with Bible verses and visions of burning hell. Seriously.
I remember one time the Fundamentalists burned the Rag magazine on the steps of the Student Union. Apparently they didn't get the jokes. Anyway, they sang a few hymns, mumbled some prayers and lit the match. A historic moment for Ulster, I believe they said. Some of those guys are big wheels in politics now. Trying to doctor the Agreement.
Anyway, back to Eammon and me.
I didn't know back then how differently the city treated its children. I had grown up around the edges of suburbia in a succession of attractive middle-class houses, had attended the schools of privilege and had lived totally untouched by the unfolding tragedy that was
nineteen seventies Belfast. I'd even been born into the ascendant tribe. I did not know that there were children whose play patterns were constructed around the intrusion of plastic bullets fired in indiscriminate rounds through their letterboxes. I did not know that a front door was no protection from the outside world if that world appeared in combat garb carrying a battering ram. I had never visited the darkest corners of fear. I'd never met a Roman Catholic.
Until I sat, a philosophy student seeking a context for thinking, at a table in the Student Union snack bar. Trying to make sense both of what I was reading and of the world in which I was reading it. Jean Paul Sartre, welcome to Belfast. Kinda makes me smile now.
And that was where Eammon came in. He was one of six of us who formed a study group. At once the most unlike me and the most accessible. He'd come from a place of which I'd never heard, about three miles from where I'd once lived. Like the inhabitant of a secret room in those rambling old homes so beloved of second-rate children's novelists, where the door's always locked and there's a conspiracy denying the very existence of the dysfunctional brother kept inside, Eammon had grown up in a world whose existence had been denied by the keepers of the gates to my own
world. My own Belfast. You'd have had to live there to understand its depths of denial.
He could talk a good game too, could Eammon, though there was no aggression in the passion with which he opened up the life he knew outside the university. He brought me out of my ghetto and into the world in which I now live. Argued with me until I understood truth. Told me how it was in the place where he came from. And when those of a less
understanding temperament would question my place at the table and would show deep frustration at the slowness with which I seemed to grasp issues, Eammon would smile that smile of his and wave one melted finger in the air. Give him time, he'd say, give him time, all the while that Gitane smoke curling up towards the ceiling. And me, working it all out.
And so it was that over months, years maybe, I was able to come to understand that the city we called home was, in fact, a different place for each of its inhabitants. That none of us saw it through the same eyes or knew it painted in the same colours. I came to see how one
man's villain might be another man's hero, one man's crime be another man's act of glory. That the price of privilege is always paid by the unprivileged. And that there would always be outsiders. I don't think that Eammon ever said any of that straight out to me, he just chipped away at my pre-programmed shell, and smiled when I got the point.
It seems strange now to think of the me before Eammon. The me who was so tribally contained, whose friends all came from the same mindset. Whose ethics and politics were all bunched on such a small wave band on
the spectrum of what could be. Who had never been touched with the beauty of diversity. Never encountered the possibility or passion of another way. Didn't know the music in the songs.
And then in February seventy five he broke my duck. In February seventy five I crossed a Rubicon.
It was the Belfast Telegraph that broke the news. No friend
of mine had ever been on the front page before. And certainly not the main headline. For just a moment I was excited. It's Eammon. What's he doing to warrant this?
He had been walking on the Antrim Road, it said. Near where my grandmother had lived when I was young. Where I'd lived with her for six long years. Just down the road from the house I'd called home. The information, even now, makes stark reading. The only entry he has in the record books reads:
Eammon _____ : Status: Civilian (Civ), Killed by: non-specific Loyalist group (LOY)
Shot while walking along Antrim Road, near Camberwell Terrace, Belfast.
Of course I immediately wrote him a song, I mean, that's what we did back in seventy-five. It wasn't even a good one. It was finger-pointing and crass and the tune was appalling. The rhymes were weakly contrived. There were too many verses. It wasn't how he would have put it at all.
And then as I say, within six months there was Jim. Gunned down beside his firm's minibus near Bessbrook on his way home from work. And then Christine, shot dead outside her church one sunny Sunday evening (a tit-for-tat thing, apparently). But re-runs never have the impact of your first time, do they? Don't ever leave you just as numb. And anyway, I had no more songs to write. They were all wrung out of me.
It's thirty years this month since Eammon made the front page of the Belfast Telegraph and here I am, for some reason, thinking about
the times back then. Thinking about the route my life took since those long ago days. Thinking about how all of our times got stranded.
Everybody has their tragic stories, I imagine. Even today there's a note in the paper about somebody's brother shot dead in Belfast. Bullets don't have a sell-by date, it seems. I guess everybody knows somebody who meant something to them and touched their soul for a moment. Who blazed across their sky and left a glow for cradling secret, deep in some hidden cavern, before the light flicked out. Everybody has their
And all of us, I think, keep some kind of inner space as sacred, no matter what or who it is that we believe in. All of us have a place inside us where we face up to the darkness, when the lights have all gone out. Where we remember and restate to ourselves who it is we are. Open the jar and let the memories all come tumbling out. Face up to our worst fears. And we're always alone when we go there. Always alone. With the wick end of candles at the end of a long night.