Bogside Ballad

A longish free form ‘poem’ that is realy a narrative about my personal experiences in 1973 in the Bogside. It was provoked by the interest shown for the poor horse that suffered so much in the first world war. I wonder how many people that felt concerned by the fate of those animals – as I am – have thought a little about the more than 3000 people that died in the so-called Troubles, including the hundreds of British soldiers dead or injured? We forget, perhaps, that initially the troops were sent in to protect the Catholic minority that was acknowledged as having had to suffer second class status for so many years. The Good Friday Agreement is now, sadly, under threat by politicians who are either suffering from memory loss or have decided not to read modern history books. When the UK decided to join the EEC, it was acknowledged by most people that the Republic of Ireland would have to join at the same time. It is amazing to me that people wish to pretend that the UK decision to join the EU, as the EEC became, was purely economic. We must have been living on different planets. The 1975 referendum confirmed that the British people had chosen a third way between the Soviet bloc and that of the US.
By the way, as a matter of historical record, most of our Ireland training took place in a purpose-built film set in Germany…can’t remember where exactly. I can remember that there were dozens of men injured during the training, though. I was one of them. I jumped out of a window to chase a ‘suspect’ to find that I wasn’t actually on the ground floor – just a few grazes and a broken ego!

A Bogside Ballad

They had trained so hard to foresee every event

Military pragmatism – pretence of precision

On studio-made streets, hostile crowds played by soldiers

Within a purpose-built building in the German countryside

Flashes of light in this deliberate, desperate darkness

Objects thrown and brutal, baffling noise

Helmets, Perspex shields and baton rounds

Riflemen behind, pretending to identify snipers

This was simulation, though the injuries were real

Weeks later, their reality was in the Bogside

Along grey streets of grim terraced houses

An atmosphere filled with fear and hatred

Well-trained yet surprised and unprepared

Berets and redundant rifles replaced riot equipment

No permission was granted for baton rounds

They were there to search homes and keep a low profile

In the early hours of the morning, the crowd assembled

The banging of dustbin lids accompanied groans of over-armoured vehicles

Women on the front line shouted obscenities into the obscurity

But these sights and sounds were not simulated

These sticks and stones were meant to break bones

They had arrived in Ireland a few weeks earlier

Direct from a military airfield by chartered plane

Then by big green bus from Belfast

As if to advertise the presence of British soldiers

So vulnerable during that journey

First feelings of futility and fear

The unseen enemy was not foreign

Same language, same skin, same religion for many

Same roads, same houses, same bleak seventies’ recession

The start of so many surreal juxtapositions

But, that night, there was what can be called a riot

A special experience that confirmed the army’s weakness

They could not search houses in riot gear

And there were not enough troops to do both

Among a population, perhaps a hundred times greater

And the hostile indistinguishable from the others

Bloody Sunday had shown the folly of treating this as a foreign war

This was a civil war, the army in support of the civil power

A power, seen as corrupt, undemocratic and vicious by many

A mother tried to snatch a rifle, strapped to a soldier’s wrist

She received a blow from the unbound fist

Another, full of anger, spat at a fresh, fearful face

And, when pushed away, shouted of the disgrace

Arms were found – a few old rifles, a sub-machine gun and ammunition

Some were arrested, many were injured

Soldiers that were not infantry were used as infantry

Infantrymen were kept away for fear they might do their jobs

As they had tried to do a few months before

An attempt to resolve a political problem by military force

Lives and liberties lost to sustain the unsustainable

Some who threw stones would later become political leaders

On Rossville flats there was an observation post

To keep one man on watch, it required eight to guard him

Two sat by the lift shaft at all times, relieved every two hours

And two NCO’s managed the mission while the relief slept

One night the two lift guards were shot dead from behind

By freedom fighters from the fire escape

Afterwards the access was blocked by an armoured panel

The stable door was closed after the horse had bolted

Few soldiers took the time to look at a large map

Wherein one could see the proximity of the border

As if the sight of the size of the task

Would sap the simple soldiers’ enthusiasm

A horse could reach safety in such a short time

On patrol a sergeant knelt by a junction box

To better hear the radio and catch his breath

His beret was found later on the branch of a tree

His body parts recovered in a black bag

The stand-by teams were sent in

To arrest someone – anyone – in a show of strength

A bomb had exploded as another horse had bolted

Few have heard of the heroes of this conflict

The soldiers that risked life, limb and legitimacy

For a cause that had become void of substance

Who had left their loved ones in real foreign lands

Who had their pay reduced because they were returned to their own country

Who had never joined the army to be in the infantry

Who thought the enemy was the Warsaw Pact

This was not glorious active service

Against a tyranny or religious extremists

This was deadly public service

Meriting a mere medal and a mauve and green ribbon

And a few lines in the local newspapers

We remember the fallen in great foreign wars

And the horses that suffered with them

But seldom those that bolted after closed doors

And the victims of that military mayhem