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Little House on the Peace Line
Living and working as a pacifist on Belfast's Murder Mile
by Tony Macauley
It is not essential to enjoying this story to have had experience of the streets and places that feature in the book but, as it happens, as a Belfast kid myself, I can picture a lot of the scenes. My parents were born and raised in the New Lodge Road area and I made many visits to see grandparents, aunts and cousins over the years. I am familiar with the territory as well as the tensions and troubles of Northern Ireland, the ingrained hatred and division, the death and injury, the devastation and destruction, the dug-in-heels-wait-a-wee-minute-catch-yourself-on politics, a somewhat shameful history and ongoing saga. But I am also aware of the organisations and individuals involved in peace and reconciliation, and their persistence and courage.
Tony Macauley (TM) writes: 'In 1985, I went to live on the other side of the peace line. Everyone said my head was cut. It was the summer of Live Aid and Bob Geldof pledged to save Africa from hunger. My ambitions were more modest. I wanted to stop the violence between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast.'
TM was convinced that he could make a positive difference to Belfast's community spirit that he ended up running a youth club. Big deal, say you! But this was a kind of mission impossible because he was a Protestant from the Shankill Road and the youth club was across the so-called 'peace line' in the Catholic New Lodge area. It was a Daniel and the lions thing, but he was driven by faith and determination and by a sound belief that he could find the good in people. It was a tough challenge made even juicier by the stipulation that he had to live near the club, in the Catholic area where everyone knew or would soon find out he was from 'the other side'.
The youth club was situated on a stretch of the Antrim Road, nicknamed the 'Murder Mile' because of a litany of atrocities. The area was experiencing a 90% unemployment rate, a staggering statistic that was not expected to improve much because of a severe lack of employment opportunities. Many young people endured feelings of hopelessness. TM: 'I hated it when older people in the local community dismissed the young people as wee hoods, troublemakers and scum. I was well aware of just how much trouble they could make, but most of the young people I got to know just wanted somewhere to go, something to do and some hope for the future."
Living accommodation started with a makeshift bedsit and progressed to a new house near the peace line with neighbours including an army barracks and a cats home. During this period, TM married Lesley and they set up home in this tricky part of Belfast. The work trying to keep young members' minds on positive activities and managing their natural tendencies towards aggressive talk and actions against anyone they viewed as enemies brought daily pressures. TM's Christianity was tested too, sometimes to the limit, but it was bolstered and rejuvenated by a visiting American pacifist who saw no complications in rejecting violence and forgiving anyone involved.
This excellent, streetwise book has a fair amount of ripe and feisty young characters and pulls no punches on the unpredictable atmosphere in Belfast in those days. Trouble was always brewing and happening, and summers, it seemed, were for riots. TM manages to emphasise the bad things that happened but he also has a great knack for finding comedy in edgy situations and in what people say. Commitment, belief and faith kept him going. Add to that a necessary and defusing sense of humour.
The part of the story that deals with his father's death is very powerfully written, an event that stirred mixed emotions including anger at the circumstances. He talks sensitively and lovingly about his mother's struggles with the grief at losing her husband. He is open about his feelings of devastation at the murder of club member Billy. In fact, throughout the book and all of the humorous dialogue, asides and one-liners, moments of tragedy and sadness keep us in touch with the fact that this was a time of unpredictability. Towards the end of the book, he adopts a more general, reflective tone about Northern Ireland and its people, wise words, based on practical experience.
This is a human story, probably even more important and useful than many a political memoir. This is about real people trying to get through daily life as best they can, when often the odds were stacked against them.
Tony Macaulay is a natural storyteller but he is also an example of someone who believed he could change things for the better and, unlike a lot of us, he did something about it. It took guts, determination and a huge amount of faith to cross that line. I have no doubt that he changed some lives for the better and, when you read this book, he will do the same for you.
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