Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 80’s I recall very clearly the many times I, my family and friend’s families all had to “make do”. Oftentimes, stuff got repurposed and given a new lease of life, in some instances out of necessity, other times out of pure fun.
The latter was certainly the case when we had a terrific snowfall, something we were not used to seeing when I was a kid. A good foot or so of soft, flaky snow followed by a hard frost to create perfect conditions for sledding. My brother-in-law, Paddy, converted an old solid wood headboard into a terrific sled for me, using the slats that attached it to a bed as the actual runners, sanding them down to make sure I got the fastest possible slide. I also remember my mate Scotty getting into trouble with this Mum because he used the top of her twin tub washing machine. Another great example of slip-slidey re-purposing but probably not one that his Mother found all that amusing. Still, we had amazing fun.
Another one was the use of clothes pegs and squares of cardboard. You attached these to the spokes on the wheels of your bike. The clicking noise they made as you rode along was somehow deemed to be cool and suddenly, we were all at it. To this day I’m not sure I ever really understood the point but still….no Xboxes or PlayStation in those days. But hey, we were amused!
But sometimes the re-purposing was done out of a much more urgent sense of community need, something much more fundamental in nature.
I’m not being funny or glib here, but the lid of our council-issued bin had a vital role during that period. The bins were not the plastic wheelie wonders we have today. They were robust, metal, steel I think, the lids heavier than the bins themselves to prevent them from blowing off, leaving detritus to scatter in the wind. And during the 70’s and later during the Hunger Strikes in 1981 these lids became synonymous with heartbreak, fear and anguish.
One of the tactics that the British Army used to disrupt paramilitary activity on all sides of the religious divide was to stage surprise raids on the homes of people they suspected of being involved in such pursuits. These raids were never accompanied by warrants, they were carried out under a sweeping piece of legislation called the Special Powers Act, one that took the concept of individual rights very lightly indeed.
So, once these raids began to increase in frequency, communities were desperate to find a way of sending out some kind of signal once the military personnel carriers were spotted entering a housing estate. The Bin Lid was the perfect instrument. Grabbing it by its arched handle, residents would race out into their streets and bang the lid as hard as they could against the pavement, a clattering, clanging alarm that reverberated across the rooftops and was taken up by homeowners in other streets. The message loud and clear…The Brits are coming.
Over time the use of these “Norn Iron Jungle Drums” began to wane, until their sudden re-emergence during the Hunger Strikes.
If you are unaware of the Hunger Strikes in the Maze Prison this probably not the right blog post to deal with such a complex moment in Irish/English history and relations, but by way of clarity, a number of IRA men (and some women) began to refuse food as a protest against their status as prisoners in the Maze (H Blocks) and Armagh Jails. Margaret Thatcher, the British PM at the time was determined to marginalise any ideological and cultural slant out of the Northern Ireland issue, maintaining that these individuals were not terrorists or freedom fighters, they were mere criminals and were to be treated as such. As a result, during the Spring and Summer of 1981 ten men died, starving themselves to death to protest for their political beliefs.
I was 13 years old going on 14, but I remember vividly the months suffused with tension, violence and a pervading atmosphere that was full of menace and threat. Both sides of the religious divide were preparing for the fallout from any deaths at the Maze Prison. There was talk of Civil War, uprisings and reprisals. A trip to the shops in Belfast town centre was deemed so full of risk it was forbidden. The international press invaded the city, with reporters regularly recording pieces to camera on the Andersonstown Road, in front of the headquarters of Sinn Fein, which was minutes walk from my house. You know your hometown is in the shit when all the journo’s turn up, a look of feverish scoop hunger in their eyes.
It should have been a lovely spring and summer time, I was into my adolescence, I should have been enjoying Adam and the Ants and The Human League on the radio and Superman II at the ABC Cinema. But I wasn’t. I was hunkered down in my own neighbourhood, only venturing out of it to attend school, being forced to take a bus instead of my usual cycle journey, again for safety reasons.
Adults would gather in the streets to have hushed conversations, trying to shield the “kids” from the nervous pitch of their voices. People began quietly stockpiling food and essentials. Cousins who lived south of the Irish border were contacted, could we send the kids down to you if the situation deteriorates? It was truly a horrible time.
And then, in the early hours of the 5th May…the bin lid made its comeback.
It was an unusually warm night, almost muggy, something that we rarely experienced in Belfast, and I was having trouble sleeping when the silence of the air was shattered anyway.
A car, being driven slowly, was making its way through the streets of West Belfast. Remember these were the days before 24-hour radio news or TV channels, there was no internet or mobile phones. But news still managed to travel fast. The slow-moving car was dragging two metal bin lids behind it, their distinctive ring bouncing off the houses and the tarmac.
And to this day, one of the most heartbreaking sounds I have ever heard in my life. My Mother’s voice, talking to my Father, a timbre to it that was full of fear and sadness: “Oh Joe, Joe…that poor fella’s dead.” And with it now, other bin lids took up the call, people rising out of their beds to batter their metal staccato into the clear night air. And, as if we hadn’t already been doing so for weeks, Northern Ireland took a deeper breath and held it. We simply didn’t know what might happen next. The next time I heard that same tone in my mother’s voice was when she and my Father were telling me and my sisters that he had cancer. I truly know the pitch of anguish and fear.
So, there you go, the humble bin lid, re-purposed and re-directed. I can still hear it today, ringing just as loudly off the pavement in my memories now as it did all those times during my early years.
Holy God…what a haunting noise.