My first job upon leaving school was as a ‘box-puncher’ in Cleland’s box factory, Foxes Row, Belfast. W.W. Cleland, was one of those places that catered for both sides of the community. I was on the dole as soon as I left school in June, and recall the figure 54 pence on those early dole cheques which was cashed and handed to my mother. I knew I didn’t want to stay on the dole, because no job meant more availability for republicanism, and getting a job was a way of moving away from it, from meetings, and a term known as stand-by.
This was in the wake of the UWC strike, and I was in my fourth year as a republican, but wanted more out of life. I’d already witnessed enough violence and death, and getting to the dole in Corporation street each week meant avoiding the British army in Divis flats, because when they stopped you, frisked you, and did their usual Personality Check, known as a ‘P-check’ it took anything from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on their mood, or ours, and they’d tell you to go or eff off.
Sometimes though, a second army patrol would do do the same because that patrol leader would radio through to them, or another patrol-head would be listening in on our previous checks. Those dole trips inevitably became one of hide and seek, and times we were nallered on a staircase exit leaving the flats, in King street and passing Smithfield. We couldn’t really engage them in arguments because it would have meant arrest, and they knew this.
However, the city centre was always crawling with the sectarian UDR, who would also have picked up on those ‘Checks’ over the airwaves, and they’d be would be waiting to pounce.
For those of you who don’t know what all this entailed. It was a delaying tactic aimed at preventing us from signing on the dole, and if you didn’t get there at your specified ‘signing-on’ time, no dole for your mother. This didn’t exactly endear those people to anyone, and certainly there were times when we’d failed to get paid. Fifty-four pence went a good stretch in those day because items were cheaper, but I was the only one fed-up with it and as the weeks passed our crew became smaller as some obtained work until there were two of us were left. So, Johnny and I would visit Gloucester house 2/3 times a week to seei what jobs were on the boards, but nothing, and we were convinced one day while there to apply for the Merchant Navy, and we took the forms home that day, filled them in, and returned with them next day, and but thought no more about it.
In early October, a friend who worked in Cleland’s, picked us up application forms for there, and after completing them handed them to him in hope, but by then the two of were well versed in avoiding the Brits, and the UDR, and we’d talk as we walked, about republicanism and people we didn’t trust, and teenagers we knew who’d went to ‘The Kesh, or the Crum’ of it all, and I’d say that the Merchant navy was our best chance to get out of Belfast, but not to tell anyone we’d applied for the boats, as some people saw it as a wing of the British government, and the idea of a life at sea became a lifebelt of hope for us. But Johnny was unable to contain himself, and he told someone, who told another, and that was raised at a Company meeting with the emphasis on we might get a job on the boats but we wouldn’t be welcome back home. It was a threat and it was petty, but that there was republicans of rank who saw themselves as super-republicans cannot be denied, and we became cautious. I never blamed Johnny for that, he was just excited, and he felt bad about it for years.
On October 22nd, 1974, Johnny and I managed to get to the dole without being stopped by soldiers, and we returned via Gresham street to King street, talking about a life at sea, and he was trying to convince me he’d have a girlfriend in every port, and we laughed about that as I fished twenty-something-pence from my jeans pocket,
‘Let’s do a bet, maybe we’ll be lucky,’ I said, and we went into the Eastwoods Bookies and I went to the first shelf at the left, in front of the counter, lifted a docket and began studying the form on the papers pinned to the boards, to be interrupted by my mate.
‘JS, look,’ he says, pointing to a radio across the other side of the Bookies on the shelf there, just sitting there all alone, and no-one near it, and we looked at each other.
‘What do you think?’ I said.
‘Joe Kavanagh’s would buy it,’ he replied, and we made our way over, and I pretended to study the form on the paper there as I zipped down my jacket, and as he lifted the radio to place inside my coat, a man, he was taller than us, his long hair slicked back from his face, was rough shaven, and wearing what I seem to recall was a long dark coat that went over his knee. I could describe that coat, but I won’t here.
I used to think the radio was a Bush, but it could have been a Sony, Roberts, Toshiba, a Sharp, or a Panasonic, but while it did have a handle, it was not a small hand-held one. This is one you’d have seen in a kitchen.
That man we learned later was called Dominic Donnelly, and his nickname was Lucky, and he began screaming at Johnny, that the radio was his, and my mate dropped the radio on the same shelf as Mr Donnelly began swinging punches at him, and began ducking and diving to avoid being hit, and laughing, Johnny took off towards the rear exit into Marquis street, and Dominic Donnelly realising I was still there, began swinging at me, that saw me duck and dive my way out of the Bookies down the long haal to the rear exit and Marquis street.
Before I tell the remainder of the story, I should say that the day in question, like another one, involved deaths we both witnessed, and there have been a number of stories relating to Mr Donnelly, published on CAIN, and the Facebook page of SEFFS, an Advocacy For Innocent Victims Project, and none of them know the truth, but I do, I was there, and I’m writing it today because being an advocate for justice, for truth, means standing by those beliefs, and today there are families out there, relatives, still seeking closure to the murders of their loved ones. You know them as Cold Cases’ and they deserve closure, they deserve to know the truth. I’m only sorry it has taken me years to get to the point I’m now at.
Anyhow, I exited that rear doo in Marquis street, and took a right for Castle street, and Johnny, always had this crazy habit, that when he laughed; always had both hands on his backside, and that’s still fresh in my mind as is the red slimline van to the left of that exit, and the lad in the passenger seat reading a newspaper. He had short hair, maybe a suede-head, and I think he wore a white t-shirt below a jean jacket.
I saw all that in the few seconds of exiting that bookies as I ran after Johnny, who I then saw take off into the air before I felt a surge of something that forced me into the air and to the right, hitting my head on an old cast-iron drainpipe, falling to the ground, my head spinning, my ears ringing.
It was Johnny who helped me up, and I was very disorientated and unsteady on my feet. He was talking, well, his lips were moving but I couldn’t hear a thing he was saying, noticing a lot of people had gathered at the back of the bookies, and leaning on him for support made our way down towards the bookies.
Dominic Donnelly, was on the pavement to the castle street side of the exit, and he was dead. The teenager in the van was being helped out by a Priest, who was wrapping a white cloth, I think a white altar cloth around him, that was turning red with his blood. His left arm was gone at the shoulder, his face lacerated and bloody, because when Dominic Donnelly exited that Bookies, he obviously switched on that radio that he’d hidden inside his longcoat, and while the blast blew the windscreen of the van in on that teenager, Mr Donnelly’s longcoat I believe, helped contain most of the blast.
As more people gathered my hearing began to pick up, albeit still ringing in my ears, nudging Johnny still looking at the scene, the carnage and death, and whilst the sirens in the distance announced an ambulance, it also meant the cops would be on their way, and we left the scene.
You have to understand that because we were from Divis Flats, and had first hand experiences of the security forces sectarian racism towards Catholics that some of them had, then staying there was something we couldn’t do, because barring the fact that Johnny did have that radio in his hand for a couple of seconds before Dominic Donnelly got his hands on it – not the first time a Catholic boy was framed by the cops, and we’d have been prime suspects for that bomb.
However, just let me say, that SEFF’s Advocacy for Innocent Victims Project, in stating: that Dominic Donnelly, a 48 year-old Catholic civilian, single, and unemployed, was accidently killed by a radio booby trapped UDA/UFF bomb that exploded in his face’ is wrong. Because I remember his face had a look of serenity upon it. I don’t remember seeing any hands, and an injury to his torso.
In fact accidently killed doesn’t cut it either, because the Shankhill road woman who left that bomb, was a member of the UDA, and she transported that radio into the bookies in a babies pram, and inside the pram was a doll, not a baby. That device was left in Eastwoods to kill people, to kill Catholic’s because it was seen as a Taig Pitch, she intended to kill people, and that information came to light years later, at a wake, in fact it was Johnny’s father in law being waked.
SEFF’s advocacy facebook page also states – that at the inquest, which I take to be Mr Donnelly’s, some of the customers in the betting shop had seen the radio but were wary of it, and, ‘that a man in his 20s was seen acting suspiciously around the time the radio was left.’
I’d say there was no more than seven or eight people in there that day, and Johnny and I were two of them. We were also the youngest in there, because the others were much older, and certainly more that thirty, let alone twenty.
SEFF, site also report, ‘that Dominic Donnelly stepped forward and said the radio was his’.
No, he didn’t, he was screaming that it was his, and obviously had the same idea that Johnny and I had, which was to nick it, and sell it on. Would he have brought it to Joe Kavanagh’s to sell it, like we intended, who knows.
SEFF, and organisations like them, need to get their act together and advocate for those murdered like Mr Donnelly, through better investigative skills, because the fact is that most if not all the murders that occurred in the troubles, had witnesses, and like Johnny and I, didn’t wait around to give a statement.
Johnny and I made a promise that day never to tell anyone about that bomb, and kept it between us. We never told our other mates, and never told our families as we were well aware of self-preservation, and being Catholic, let alone republicans; were never going to engage with the cops or anyone in government about that day, because we believed it would be pinned on us, and certainly, after the St Peters Parish Curfew, like many; saw the security forces as the enemy. Therefore, unless you were being P-Checked, then you had no reason to talk to them, because speaking to them was seen as collaborating with them, and it could have meant the difference between living and dying.
I’m older now but not exactly wiser, and see things differently now, but those times when you grew up where I did, the cops and the army were part of a network that lied and framed our people. Therefore, Johnny and I really had no choice but to say nothing and headed to the flats that day unable to do the right thing for fear of being put in jail for something we didn’t do. That wasn’t the first time I was self-muffled, there were others, burdens I’ve carried for years, yet those times dictated a lot of what you could do or not do. What you could say, and couldnt, because you also had to worry about people in republicanism seeking any excuses to kill their own comrades, their own people, those who didn’t like, and/or to maintain an image of hard-core, devout republican.
I’m not the only one to have witnessed death, and we all have different experiences and memories of those things, but mine are unique to me and I’ve never forgotten Dominic Donnelly, or that his nickname was Lucky, and what a terrible irony that was, and that nickname compounded the manner of his death for me.
Alas, Dominic Donnelly’s actions that day were lucky for me and Johnny, because he saved our lives, and that was in a sense, a miracle that was gifted to us from Almighty God, and believe me when I say, that I’ve been the reipient of a number of life-saving miracles, that when one becomes two, then three, and more, you reflect on those events and wonder at the mechanisms of intervention that are heavenly sent.
I believe in God, I believe in my Guardian Angel, and I’m a sinner who can never give enough thanks, or ever do enough to repay my God for those gifts to me.
As for the boats, yes we got accepted, receiving affirmation letters, but didn’t go due to the petty threat served. The good thing was that we were both busy working and handing money into our homes by then,. However in December of that year, things were to occur that changed my life, something I’ll be dealing with in my life story.
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