My new crime novel, The Cold Cold Ground is set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the most famous of the IRA hunger strikes. This was the heart of the “Troubles” when bombings were frequent and terrorist attacks a daily occurrence. I grew up in a Protestant housing estate in the town of Carrickfergus, which is five miles north of the centre of Belfast. Carrickfergus was effectively controlled by two Protestant paramilitary terrorist groups: the UVF and UDA. Everyone on the estate knew who the paramilitary commanders were and kept well clear of them.
Although I’ve written six other crime novels I have never dealt with the Northern Irish “Troubles” in a book before. There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly I didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a book set in this period. Most British readers couldn’t care less about Ireland and the last thing they want to hear about is the Ireland of the bad old days. American readers do care about Ireland but the books they seem to buy in droves are stories of romantic rebels fighting against the evil Brits or tales about rural Ireland in the 50’s or the 30’s and those sort of stories bore the pants off me. The bigger reason I had for not writing the book is because of the effective taboo that exists in Ireland over the whole period of the Troubles from 1968 – 1998. It was such a dark, turbulent, horrifying time that everyone who lived through it now just wants to forget it. But, paradoxically, it was the taboo and the lack of interest in this subject that finally galvanised me into writing about it. The thing that no one wants to talk about is probably the thing you should be talking about if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.
As I began to research 1981 and dredge my own memories of that time, several incidents that I had completely repressed came back to me. I had forgotten that I had been knocked down and injured by a police Land Rover in a hit and run. I had forgotten several fights I’d fought and lost with local thugs (one of which had resulted in 18 stitches and eye surgery). I had forgotten the night seemingly half the British Army had shown up to arrest our next door neighbour for a terrorist related double homicide. And I had forgotten the daily rides to school I had taken with an army major when I had thought that perhaps this was the day I was going to die.
I’ll unpack that last one a little bit because it’s so strange to think on it and how “normal” it seemed at the time.
By the 1980’s the IRA’s most effective way of killing soldiers and police officers was by use of the mercury tilt switch bomb. The device would be attached to the underside of the victim’s car by magnets or gaffer tape and then left there. The way it worked was by sending an electrical pulse into a detonator which then exploded into a kilo or two of Semtex plastic explosive. Crucially the electrical contact in detonator was left uncompleted but a vial of mercury awaited in a sealed compartment within the bomb and as soon as the vehicle reached an incline the mercury would pour from the vial and complete the circuit. The beauty of a mercury tilt device was that it could sit under the victim’s vehicle for days, even weeks, and wouldn’t go off until the driver got in and went for a ride. Sooner or later he would eventually encounter an incline. Of course the weapon did not discriminate between driver and passengers; for although the bombs were usually placed under the driver’s side of the vehicle, Semtex is powerful stuff, and there were many cases of police officers and their entire families being killed.
After my dad lost his job and had to work nights in Belfast my brother and I started getting a lift to school from our neighbour who was a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment. The UDR was a regiment of the British Army that recruited solely in Northern Ireland and was a replacement of sorts for the notorious ‘B’ Specials. The UDR had no police function and its primary job was assisting the police and regular army in the fight against IRA terrorism. As such it was hated by the IRA and its members were always high on their targeting lists.
The mercury tilt bomb was not a secret weapon. We all knew about it and every week or so you would hear about such a device detonating under the car of a policeman or a soldier or soft targets such as building contractors or politicians.
Each school day my brother and I would walk over to the phlegmatic major’s house and wait in the living room while he went outside and looked under his Ford Granada for either the mercury tilt switch or the wires or a block of Semtex taped to the chassis. He would come invariably come back into the house, give us the all clear and he would then drive us to Carrickfergus Grammar School. This went on for several months, maybe even a year, until one particular snowy Monday in January 1982 when the major muttered that it was too cold and icy to be fooling around with all that nonsense and we were all just to get in the car.
My little brother and I looked at one another but we said nothing and followed the major and his son outside.
The major’s son sat up front and my brother and I went in the back.
As usual the major turned on the local easy listening station, Downtown Radio. Country standards and Genesis were interspersed with traffic reports and news about the previous night’s terrorist attacks.
The first part of the journey was flat but the school was at the top of the North Road in Carrickfergus well into the Antrim Plateau and that incline I knew would be more than sufficient to trip the mercury and complete the circuit.
We turned onto the North Road and I held my breath.
To my left was the grim Castlemara housing estate with its naïve art UDA murals of balaclaved gunmen walking over an apocalyptic landscape toting Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers. To my right was Carrickfergus Golf Course: all manicured lawns and elegant sand traps. The symbolism was almost too neat. Here we were balanced between heaven and hell.
The incline began and I clenched my fists.
I wondered if I should say anything but this was Northern Ireland in 1982 which approximated to 1882 everywhere else. Children didn’t offer advice to adults even if it was about matters of life and death. The good child was the one who let the bus knock his grandfather over without making a big song and dance about it.
The ads on Downtown ended and Dolly Parton began singing her haunting early 70’s hit, Little Sparrow. I became convinced this this was the missing piece for a perfect movie style death: no doubt the car would be torn to shreds, all four of us would be eviscerated, but the radio would somehow survive and Dolly would still be singing amongst the smouldering debris.
The incline grew steeper.
My knuckles were white now.
I looked at my little brother who was completely unconcerned and reading 2000AD. This infuriated me. Didn’t he realise that we were all going to die! And of course it was this nonchalance that would make the gods spare him, whereas I, who knew what was going on, would surely cop it.
The song and the hill reached their climax.
I closed my eyes and counted off five long seconds. Hesitantly I opened them again and saw, miraculously, that we were at the school driveway. We had lived.
Over the next few years there were several dozen occasions when the major didn’t look under his car: when it was really cold, or raining heavily or just when he’d just had a late night.
My little brother went on to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq and thinks nothing of this story now, but I’ve had few genuine near death experiences since then and certainly nothing has come close to scaring me like those mornings in Carrickfergus in the early 1980’s when I thought that Death was waiting under the car.