Twenty five years onBMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6958.884 (Published 01 October 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:884
- D Sloan
I will never forget the 14 and 15 August 1969 and neither will my father, then a general practitioner in troubled west Belfast. The civil disturbances as they were officially called had been building up over the months throughout the province. Now the major rioting in Londonderry had raised the tension in the cockpit city of Belfast to boiling point.
My father's practice was half Protestant and half Catholic, and journeying between the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road it was obvious that an explosion was imminent. No one, however, was fully prepared for the violence of that explosion. Over the night of 14 August there were fierce riots and gun battles, a dozen or so dead, hundreds injured, and homes and factories left blazing.
I came down the stairs to breakfast to find distraught parents in the hall. My father had just come back from a visit to the Falls Road. One of his patients, a 9 year old Catholic boy was dead - a heavy calibre bullet had drilled through the family's flat and through him. Later that morning he heard of another of the dead, a 35 year old Protestant who had been a patient for years. The telephone rang - more grim news from the caretaker at the surgery. Lorry loads of men had toured the area telling the residents to leave. They were to be “burnt out” to avenge what had happened in the Falls.
There was no time to be lost. We descended on the local hardware store and bought up a supply of nails and all the hardboard they had. Having loaded up the car, my father drove us into Belfast, through Sandy Row, and up to the foot of the Boyne Bridge. Beyond the bridge lay his surgery and the main riot areas. But here we had to stop in front of a Landrover and checkpoint manned by British soldiers. This was their first day on the streets of Belfast and they are still there to this day.
* “He pulled over to the side of the road, broke down, and cried.”
If we went over the bridge, a soldier warned us, it was at our own peril. They had been ordered not to proceed further. Why not for heaven's sake? The soldier only shrugged his shoulders. We pressed on. Driving down the long stretch of the Grosvenor Road, a mixed area, to the surgery was like something out of a film. A scene just before an air raid. In the late afternoon sun of a summer's day people were walking hurriedly or running up one side of the road or down the other. Families with little children in tow clutching bags and whatever few possessions they could carry were anxiously hastening, each to their own side.
Vans careered up the centre of the road, full of young men seen through open swinging back doors. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife, a cliche but true.
At the surgery we frantically began to hammer in the hardboard over the windows, my father sweating and breathing heavily with unaccustomed exertion. Finally it was done - flimsy protection against petrol bombs but it was all we could do.
On the journey home my father drove distractedly through a red light on the snooty Malone Road. A following car beeped us. Such an incongruous act in the circumstances and the final straw for my father.
He pulled over to the side of the road, broke down, and cried. All his life's work was about to be destroyed. For nigh on 20 years he had laboured at building up his practice and looking after his patients of both persuasions. When he had bought the practice there were only 200 patients on the list - hard work and long hours had built that number up to 5000. Evening and Saturday surgeries, nights out on domiciliary deliveries - and to what end? All to go up in flames.
In the end the army did move in later that day and a real bloodbath was averted. The subsequent years were full of incident and tragedy - but that is another story. And 25 years on? All I can do is wish my father a long and well earned retirement and hope that the people can sort out their differences peacefully.