Not a word you want to associate with your early life, but one that sadly featured a fair bit in my formative years. But it’s probably not the fear that you might expect.
I didn’t lose too much sleep at the thought of being caught in an explosion, I never really fretted about the what ifs that Northern Ireland could throw at you. This was not because of any ingrained stoicism or strength of courage. It was more likely borne from an acceptance that the background friction of Belfast and beyond was simply a fact of life. It was there…floating in the background, often glimpsed from the corner of your eye. When it did come full front-and-centre and you did find yourself in the middle of a riot or some kind of crossfire, your instinct invariably kicked in. You just knew when to squat low and stay under cover until all the chaos subsided. Then you’d dust yourself down and go on your way. I had a few moments such as these and when I look back now, I can feel that I should have been fearful, and my own mortality in those situations resonates more for me now than it did as they were actually happening. I feel the fear of then now, but did not at the time. Weird, huh?
But the fear that I felt most keenly in my youth was that generated by… my Ma.
Any Irishman will testify to this. A Mother upset was terrifying thing to behold, and if you were the cause of the upset…well, Jaysus you’re in trouble.
My Mum wasn’t abusive or a bully…but she was formidable. She could come at you like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Loony Tunes cartoons, all ire and motion, a string of maternal threats on her lips that left you in no doubt as to how you’d managed to mess up at precisely the wrong moment.
I now have sympathy for why my Mother had a short-ish fuse with us. She had a husband who worked in all areas of Belfast and had on a few occasions been delivered death threats as he was a Catholic man working in Protestant areas. My Ma must have counted the seconds from when he left the house until he returned from work on certain, dark days. She also had all us kids to look after and worry about. At various points my sisters and I either attended school or worked in areas that meant we too had to cross the religious and geographical divides. For us kids the danger didn’t seem real. To my Ma, however, it must have been, at times, attritional.
But still… yer Ma was yer Ma…and if you got on her goat (as we used to say in Belfast, it means irritated or annoyed or generally did something she didn’t like or want) then there could be hell to pay.
I’ll give you a perfect example of how fear of the Ma was a real and potent force for us young Irish boys. I recall one day I was ordered to take my dinner, a plate of homemade stew, and lie down on the floor and it eat it there. I was watching Crystal Tips and Alistair at the end of children’s programmes on the BBC. And I was fearful. I was afraid because, at that time, eating Irish stew was my idea of food hell and shovelling the meat, onions and potatoes into my mouth was a struggle. But fear…fear made me persevere. The unholy hell that could be unleashed if I didn’t “eat what’s set in front of ye” was incredibly persuasive.
And that fear far outweighed the reason why I was eating my dinner on the floor and not at the table. My prostrate meal was because there was a full-blown gun battle being fought in our street at the time. I was not in the least bit scared about being shot. I was shit scared that I wouldn’t be able to stomach a full plate of stew.
Yer Ma’s yer Ma, ya know!
PS… as a little footnote to this story, the street in question was Ramoan Gardens in West Belfast. If you go on Google maps and use the photographic option on the image, and you know where to look, the bullet holes caused by that same gun battle can be spotted on a coal house wall even now…