Thatcher on the radio. Blue lights flashing up the road – Susan McKay on 80s Belfast
Female Lines is a new anthology of writing and photography by women from Northern Ireland. In this extract, from her essay 'Thatcher on the radio. Blue lights flashing up the road', Derry writer Susan McKay recalls arriving to live in Belfast at the height of the Troubles
MY TEENAGE years in Derry coincided with the eruption of the northern conflict. It was also the era of creeps like Jimmy Savile on TV. (We knew he was a creep, by the way. We just didn’t know how right we were.) My Granda, an Orangeman, shouted at civil rights marchers on the television. Summers in Donegal, Seamus Heaney and Leonard Cohen, a boy in a Moroccan djellaba. All led me down a path to elsewhere.
I had, as I blithely thought, escaped across the border to Dublin after I left school in 1975. Some troubling imperative had, however, driven me north again – a confused need, I suppose, to find out who I was and where I stood in the mayhem of sectarianism and war in the north and Catholic theocracy in the south.
To learn my place and play my part. In 1981 I got accepted into Queen’s University Belfast to write an MA, and arrived into Belfast Central Station and the bitter exhaustion of the end of the IRA hunger strikes. The broken sign on the platform said ‘Fast Central’.
My diaries thereafter are full of the violence, the bombs and the shootings, the belligerent political pronouncements. "Funerals on the news. Faces torn with grief."
I had been working as a volunteer in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and so I was also attuned from the start to intimations of aggression towards women. Belfast was, I quickly realised, harsher than Derry, and one hell of a macho city.
Waiting for a train I noted: "Uncouth youth at Botanic Station demands at the ticket booth, 'Give us two barmaids by the nipple, would ye?'"
At that time, when you bought a packet of peanuts in a bar they were taken from a poster-type card and each packet removed revealed a bit more of a pouting model with big breasts wearing a miniscule bikini, in what was known as a provocative pose. Cans of lager also featured such images. The models had names, too, like Helga and Candy.
My sister lived beside the women’s refuge. She told me that furious men came and roared outside at night. One evening at her house I heard a woman screaming: "I just want to die."
Another day "a child was standing behind an upstairs window, between the curtain and the glass, tapping with a gun on the pane. Skinheads bearing Union Jacks heading up the Lisburn Road to a football match."
I lived in a rambling old flat on Cromwell Road, off Botanic Avenue, where the lime trees cast their sweet scent on the air. The poet Padraic Fiacc lived a few doors away and wrote of the area: ‘our Paris part of Belfast / has decapitated lampposts now.’
Ours was the only garden on the street so all the local dogs frequented it, but there was lily of the valley hidden away under the hedge and a flamboyant laburnum tree that flounced its yellow tassels under the streetlights. Our rooms had tall windows and fireplaces. Mary Wall wore gold-coloured ankle boots and played the guitar and sang.
One night as Mary and I came out of the York Hotel we saw a couple arguing outside the bookshop, and suddenly he was hitting her and she cried out, stumbled and fell. We ran to help, asked her was she all right.
"She’s fine," he said. "Physically, anyway." She didn’t say anything. She looked at the ground, accepted his arm when he offered it.
Another night we rescued a sobbing woman running from a man outside our flat. We took her in while he prowled up and down the street looking for her. We persuaded her to let us call the police and she said only if they could come in an unmarked car. She said her husband would kill her if he knew she’d sent for them.
When three Land Rovers screeched to a stop at our gate she cursed us.
"The sky is the colour of an RUC Land Rover. A helicopter whines like a trapped bluebottle."
I spent a long time one day studying a print in the Ulster Museum. It was called Lovers With Helicopter, but I could not find the lovers.
:: Derry native Susan McKay is an award-winning writer and journalist and co-founder of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre. Female Lines: New Writing By Women From Northern Ireland, edited by Linda Anderson and Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, is published by New Island (€19.95/£17.99), available in bookshops and from newisland.ie