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Mickey Culbert's long and winding road

St Gall's joint hurling manager and former republican prisoner Mickey Culbert talks about a road less travelled Picture: Mal McCann.

“It was the era. It was the era.”

 

MICKEY Culbert remembers walking down to Bombay Street with a pillow case on Saturday morning. The burnt-out houses were still smouldering from the night before.

His mother instructed him to go into his two grandmothers’ houses amid the warm ash and retrieve what he could.

But there was nothing left.

Family histories were destroyed in the raging sectarian flames.

“My family lost quite a few houses,” Culbert says.

“My two grannies and my mother’s two cousins’ houses – four houses burnt down.

“We were originally from Bombay Street, but we’d moved to St James’s at that time.”

Culbert vaguely recalls training with the Antrim U21 footballers at Casement Park on Friday August 15 in preparation for their Ulster final against Down in Davitt Park, Lurgan the following Sunday.

In between times, Bombay Street and other parts of Belfast was a furnace.

“I had to go down on the Saturday to scour about the burnt out houses to see if there was anything recoverable because my granny [Elizabeth Ferran] kept everything in tin boxes.

“My ma said: ‘Go down and see if you can find anything.’

“I literally carried a pillow case down with me.

“I went into the house and rummaged around and there was nothing - in both grannys’ houses.”

Leaning back in his office chair, hands clasped around the back of his head, Culbert adds: “Big fella, Patsy Reid, who was married to my ma’s cousin. He was down mopping about his house… Yeah, there was nothing there. I went home with an empty pillow case…

“My granny’s husband [Mick Sweeney] had been a British soldier. He never came home from the War, so we have no photographs of our old family.

“I’ve never seen a photo of my grandfather Mick Sweeney, whom I was named after.”

His granny Elizabeth Ferran also lost her house on Cuper Street during the sectarian pogroms of the 1920s. After being burnt out of her home on Bombay Street in ‘69, she moved to nearby Dunmore Street.

She lost that house too when a controlled explosion was carried out on an IRA bomb by the security forces.

Throwing his head back, Culbert breaks into spontaneous laughter at the memory of his poor granny losing three houses. Black humour is always just beneath the surface.

“My granny was a nice woman,” he says.

“When she died she was the oldest resident in Clonard. She was 108. Good genes. My ma was 98 when she died.

“I remember my uncle Jack who lived with her. I always wondered why he only had half an arm. He was a British soldier too and lost his arm in the war. That was my granny’s brother. My family was very pro-British!”

More anarchic laughter ensues…

“As people did back then, they joined the British Army for the shilling. You didn’t have social welfare. You earned money or you starved.”

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IT’S a grey afternoon in west Belfast. Impatient traffic never ceases on Beechmount Avenue.

Friday’s manic rush has begun.

Coiste na nIarchimí – the co-ordinating body that provides services to Republican ex-prisoners and their families – sits snugly on the street corner.

In front of its mirrored windows, there’s a small sign in Irish with an etching of James Connolly’s head that explains to its visitors: ‘Tá an Cloigeann briste’ that roughly translates: ‘The buzzer is broken.’

I explain to one of the office workers inside that I’m here to interview the ‘head honcho’ Mickey Culbert.

He looks at my skinny looking notepad in my right hand and says: “You’ll need a thicker book than that!”

Culbert’s office is located upstairs.

He fixes two coffees and sets a ransacked tin of Quality Street on the table between us.

Behind him to his right is a bookcase bulging with ideas, perspectives, histories and stories of revolution.

Sitting on one of its ledges is a small, framed photograph of former comrade Bobby Sands.

Mickey Culbert, who celebrates his 70th birthday later this year, is a life lived.

The GAA and Irish Republicanism runs through his veins.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the H-Blocks at the start of 1978 for IRA-related activities and was released towards the end of 1993, a matter of months before the movement’s historic ceasefire.

A staunch supporter of the peace process, Culbert spends much of his life lobbying for an end to legal discrimination against ex-prisoners and regularly shares platforms with former British soldiers and loyalists in speaking to youth and community groups.

“We don’t glorify what happened,” he says, “we just tell them how it was. The common outcome is they are hearing from those who wore the boots and carried the weapons.

“I think it works in explaining life has changed here considerably. It has not changed because of the will of the British but because of the pressures put on them. You’re trying to explain how things are better and why they’re better. People of a certain age know how much society has changed. We know things aren’t perfect.”

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MICKEY Culbert was an uncompromising defender. He played wing half-back on Antrim’s all-conquering U21 team of 1969.

After claiming Down’s scalp in the Ulster final (‘Never before has an Antrim team played with such spirit, dash or determination,’ read the weekly version of The Irish News), Tommy Hall’s young charges edged out Cork in the All-Ireland semi-finals (3-7 to 1-12) with ‘Din Joe’ McGrogan grabbing two goals and the outstanding Aidan Hamill also finding the net.

While the Antrim U21s were preparing for an unlikely shot at All-Ireland glory, “the lower whack [Lower Falls] was in flames”

“Casement Park was always the centre point of GAA in Antrim, so all the training was all in Casement. At that stage I lived in the St James’s area… It must have been very awkward for the players from outside Belfast to get to training, but I never gave it a minute’s thought. I’d just dander up to Casement.”

A couple of weeks later, Culbert was an integral part of Antrim’s U21 side that saw off Roscommon (1-8 to 0-10) in the final at Croke Park, with Andy McCallin notching a game-winning 1-5 for the Ulster champions.

“Mickey took his fitness very seriously,” says St Gall’s club-mate Sean McGourty. “He probably wasn’t the most skilful player you’ve ever seen but when Mickey Culbert went out on a football field he gave you everything that he had…

“That U21 victory was massive for Antrim because at senior level they were doing nothing. It was a bolt out of the blue, really. The 1940s team won Ulster Championships and reached All-Ireland semi-finals but there was no notable success until that ’69 All-Ireland win.”

Culbert never made it to senior level, admitting that he “probably wasn’t good enough”.

Culbert adds: “There were some great players in that U21 team from St John’s, some Dunloy boys. The team captain was Liam Boyle.

“Liam ended up doing a long sentence in prison. Another boy ‘Din Joe’ McGrogan of St John’s was killed in an explosion in the White Fort Inn. A bomb was planted there.

“He was going on his holidays and he went down to do a bet, he went into the pub and somebody planted a bomb and ‘Din Joe’ was one of the ones that was killed.

"So there was a bit of tragedy about that team. They were really nice lads - Andy McCallin, Gerry McCann, Billy Millar from Dwyers was a great footballer. He emigrated to Canada. He was home a couple of weeks ago.

“Most people got on with their lives. People like me and Liam Boyle, we chose a different route.”

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CULBERT thinks about the question but still can’t quantify the impact the burning of Bombay Street had on his political consciousness and his decision to join the republican movement.

The late 60s and early 70s were tumultuous times in Belfast.

“I never really bothered about anything for quite a long period of time. I got on with my life, played my football. I’d a pretty good education behind me,” he says.

“I’ve really no idea where I got my republicanism from, bar maybe my awareness.

“My da [Billy Culbert] would have been very well read, not formally educated, and we’d loads and loads of history books in the house.

“I don’t want this to sound highfalutin but you have to bear in mind it was a time of big change: the Brits were getting tossed out of Africa and you heard about all these uprisings. Women were getting control of their bodies. Che Guevara had been shot a year or two before [in Bolivia]; it was a time of protest.

“And then the PD [Peoples’ Democracy] was around. There was a bit of a whiff of cordite in the air, a whiff of revolution. It was tempered by the emergence of the SDLP, you had the start of the CDC – the Citizens Defence Committees – in the areas.

“We were all doing vigilante because we lived on the Donegall Road and the Village was down the road and we were afraid of being attacked.

“There was nothing directed at the British at that time – you had the local RUC and ‘B’ Specials and the British Army came in late August and it wasn’t long before people ‘twigged’ on that they were part of the problem not the solution.

“I very quickly came to that conclusion. As soon as we saw British soldiers on the street, I bought the concept that this was not good. To sum up, ruling one country should be enough for any country. You shouldn’t be ruling another country.”

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HE was 28 when he ended up in the H-Blocks. His friends had no idea the committed St Gall’s clubman had become heavily involved in the armed struggle against the British.

He was playing his football as normal and working as a social worker.

He was leading a “double life” until he was imprisoned.

“My life was lived in a washing machine between being a husband, father, worker and republican activist. It was the era. It was the era. It’s difficult to explain.

“If you were so inclined it had to be done. I was involved in an anti-colonial struggle. It wasn’t as if the British were benevolently overseeing colonial rule, it was quite a horrible place.”

Monica raised their two sons Michael (4) and Rory (2) and still managed to hold down her job as a school-teacher while her husband served a life sentence.

“My wife brought my children through the St Gall’s club and a few of my friends made sure my fellas were fully participating in it.”

Prison was “very structured” but many of in-mates shared the same interests.

“There were quite a few GAA men on my wing: Martin Hurson, [Francis] Hughes, Gerry McConville, so we’d a common interest.”

Because he was appealing his sentence, Culbert was entitled to ‘appeal visits’.

From those visits, The Irish News was regularly smuggled onto the wing where the weekend’s GAA results were devoured.

The prisoners were rarely out of their cells and the blanket protest seemed never-ending.

When the prison officers left for the night, the wings came alive.

Through his cell bars, Culbert taught French to his republican comrades.

“What we operated in the jail was a very primitive socialistic system where any property coming in after you got some of it, it belonged to the community. And that applied to intellectual property. It was shared. Anybody was wanting what I had, you shared it,” he explains.

“People were teaching me Irish and when the screws left the wing I ran French classes. I was shouting French phrases out the door and they were practising.”

After the ‘Maze Escape’ in ’83, Culbert remembers British secretary of state James Prior visiting their wing expressing his disappointment with the prisoners.

‘You chaps have embarrassed me.’ Culbert says, mimicking Prior’s plummy accent.

“We said: ‘F**k off, get out of here.’” (laughing)

Culbert cites the introduction of Open University in prison as the definitive pathway to electoral politics for many republicans of his generation.

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IN late 1993, with the IRA ceasefire close, many ‘lifers’ were released from the Blocks. Mickey Culbert was one of them. He threw himself back into St Gall’s and quickly acclimatised to family life again.

“There were two big men living in the house [sons Michael and Ruairi] where they didn’t used to be, which was the only difference. One minute they’re running about the house and the next you’re thinking: ‘Who’s that big lad on the stairs? It’s my son.’”

He adds: “Perspectives have changed so much. I mean, at one time I wanted to be Che Guevara, you know?

“Those days have long gone. There is no point banging your head against a wall if it’s not going to go down.

“But a United Ireland is inevitable. I think within unionism they feel it’s inevitable. It’s not coming tomorrow – but only when unionism agrees that economically, politically, socially and culturally everything is safe.”

A matter of weeks after being released from prison, he was asked to become physical trainer of the Cushendall hurlers.

That was always one of Culbert’s strengths.

“I re-engaged in politics and the GAA and I really enjoyed my family,” he says.

He would gladly coach any team that wanted him.

“As long as I have grass under my feet.”

The St Gall’s senior footballers hadn’t won a county championship since 1993.

By the turn of the Millenium, there was a rich bundle of talent about to fall off the Milltown club’s underage belt.

Sean Burns, Mark McCrory, Kieran and Kevin McGourty, Simon Kennedy, Michael jr, Paddy Murray, Colin Brady, Sean Kelly were primed to leave their mark on Antrim’s roll of honour.

Culbert turned out to be a perfect fit, guiding the emerging crop to three county titles in a row [2001, ’02 and ‘03].

“I touched lucky for a great bunch of fellas,” he says. “We won three-in-a-row, other boys took over after me and they kept winning and winning.”

St Gall’s went on to win 13 of the next 14 championships and after losing the 2006 All-Ireland final they reached the holy grail four years later under Lenny Harbinson.

“Mickey was the Abraham and John Rafferty and Lenny Harbinson were the Moses figures – the guys that took us to the Promised Land,” says former midfielder Mark McCrory. “But Mickey was the Abraham of it all.

“Mickey is one of those true volunteering Gaels. His family are totally immersed in the GAA; they just live and breathe it. Mickey expected a lot of himself as a manager and he certainly delivered that.”

Last season, the club’s senior hurlers needed a help out.

John Hopkins and Culbert obliged. After losing their opening four league games this term the pair put a bit of shape on the side and guided them to intermediate titles at county and provincial level.

They have it all to do against Galway champions Oranmore-Maree in tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final but, as Culbert says, the Falls Road men will “give it a lash”.

For the veteran Irish Republican, the best feeling in the world is not always the result.

It’s something more fundamental than that.

It’s the feeling of grass under your feet. Sometimes that's all that matters...

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