Tony Macaulay: How living on the peace line toughened me up

Tony Macaulay's new memoir Little House on The Peace Line recalls his years working with disadvantaged teens in north Belfast during the 1980s. The Shankill Road man tells Joanne Sweeney how surviving this turbulent time and his father's suicide made him more resilient

Little House on the Peace Line is the fourth of Tony Macaulay's Belfast memoirs. Picture: Mal McCann
Joanne Sweeney

"I hate misery memoirs and I hate to read them," author Tony Macaulay says as he promotes his latest memoir, Little House on the Peace Line, which tells of his time living and working on what was known as Murder Mile during some of the worst days of the Troubles.

"And I would hate to think that I was patronising any person who found themselves caught up in what were really difficult times".

Macaulay was a recent graduate and a young Christian who fervently believed in his faith, pacifism and working with young people no matter which side of the religious divide they came from. The only problem was that he was a Shankill Road Protestant and his first job as a youth leader took him to the Saltshaker youth club at 174 Antrim Road in Belfast, with a stipulation that he lived within one mile of where he worked.

It was from 1985-89 and the teenagers who came to the Saltshaker to play a game of pool or snooker faced 90% unemployment in a chronically economically deprived area. They also experienced almost daily clashes or run-ins with the security forces, along with the impact of having family members killed or seriously injured in the conflict.

In 1985, Macaulay brought his bride Lesley to live at a new house on the wrong side of the peace wall, at the top of the predominantly Catholic New Lodge Road, where her favourite question each night was, 'Is there anybody there?' as the terrified couple would wake to strange sounds out in their backyard.

But there's little that is miserable about Little House, the fourth in Macaulay's popular Belfast memoirs' series, which started off with Paperboy (2010), Breadboy (2013) and then All Growed Up (2014).

What shines through from the broadcaster and veteran peace campaigner's writing is the quick, dark humour of the 'lads' from the Saltshaker and his own eternally and naive optimism that everything was going to be alright - despite the routine thievery and the odd bit of destruction.

The level of sleggin' – the north's favourite word for some wicked ribbing that's ungentlemanly not to take on the chin – knew no bounds for the Saltshaker's young leader, fondly dubbed 'speccy b*****d' by his charges, particularly before Macaulay got married as he was known to 'have waited' for his marriage.

Likewise, 6ft 5 American youth leader Dave Moser became known as a Chewbacca (of Star Wars fame) and there's a hilarious episode when the youth leaders took a group of kids to Belfast Zoo, only for them to run amok in the prairie dogs enclosure.

However, through writing the book, Macaulay became painfully aware that even though he was only five to six years older than the teens, he too was going through similar tough times.

In Little House, he writes how his father Eric took his own life, an event which had a lasting effect on his and his brothers' lives, and on his mother, who died just last year.

"This was the first time that I wrote about my father's suicide and I felt that I couldn't write honestly about that time and not talk about it," explains Macaulay, who is a voluntary chair with suicide prevention charity Contact, which runs the Lifeline 24-hour helpline.

"I don't want any other family to go through what my family went through. I don't want any other wife to experience what my mother went through. She died last year and she was heartbroken to the end and it wasn't just the way she lost him early, it was the way she lost him.

"As I was writing the book, I realised that I was there at the Saltshaker to support other people, who were also going through difficult family circumstances. But it became very clear to me was that I was dealing with my own very difficult family circumstances, and in some ways, they were just as bad.

"So I really wasn't just a good-doer from suburbia, although I was accused of that a good few times. But any stretch of the imagination, that wasn't my life, so I think that when you have that kind of pain in your life it does stay with you and makes you perhaps a bit softer or more understanding, as you never know what someone's story is or why they are the way they are.

"The hard part of this period of my life is something that has made me who I am today and I say that in the book. It probably toughened me up and made me more resilient to deal with the rest of my life."

Another poignant moment in the book is when Macaulay recalls how one of the lads, Billy Kane (19), was shot dead by the UVF in January 1988 as he lay on the sofa in his living room.

He has dedicated Little House on the Peace Line to Billy.

"At that time we couldn't believe that what we feared would happen had happened and that was one of our members was killed,” says Macaulay.

“In fact, Billy had been up to the Saltshaker earlier that day. I wanted to dedicate the book to Billy and rang his mother beforehand to see if that was OK and she was very happy about it.

"She and Billy's two sisters came to the book's launch at the Duncairn Centre on Monday last and she was just delighted that someone remembered him. I hope that when they read the book that they see Billy as they remember him and see that's written with fondness and respect for him."

Macaulay has finished a draft of his first novel, unsurprisingly set along the peace wall in present-day Belfast.

No doubt there will be plenty of 'sleggin' in that as well.

:: Little House on The Peace Line by Tony Macaulay (Blackstaff Press) is available now from good book shops and online at Amazon, priced at £9.99 (€12.99). Call Lifeline helpline on 0808 808 8000 if you are in despair or distress

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