"Show Me The Man"
The Martin Meehan Official Biography By Joe Graham
“ Show me the man who does not love the land where he was born”
Who does not look on it with Pride, no matter how furlong,
I only know that I loved mine and long again to see
Old Ireland and Ireland once more free
loves old Ireland still.
Ardoyne Born And Bred
Martin was born in Jamaica Street Ardoyne, in a Belfast that was so different to today, his family was living in an upstairs room of another family, this was Belfast 1945, houses were scarce so friends and family would rent out, or share one of their two rooms to accommodate other families. My Grandmother lived at 30 Jamaica Street, and again at one point my own parents lived in one of my Grandmother’s rooms with their then seven children during the war. I mention about my grandmother because she used to love to tell the story of how when she was first married she got a house in Crumlin Street, this was about 1910, her mother immediately said, “Oh Biddy dear, those old houses in Crumlin Street have been condemned, they are not fit to live in”, my granny in desperation took the house and her three children were born there...the houses were not pulled down until the 1970’s. Martin’s family in the late 1940’s eventually got to rent one of these Crumlin Street houses that had been condemned over a half a century earlier. Annie and Seamus Meehan reared their four children, Martin, Anne , Mary and Kevin, in the house, they sadly lost another child, Seamus, in infancy. A terrible tragedy of Seamus’s death was that Seamus snr. was in Crumlin Road Prison for his republican beliefs at the time. He was refused parole to attend his child’s death yet the prison was hardly a mile from his home, this Martin said was forever a memory he grew up with and years later he heard of the brutality inflicted on his father and other political prisoners.
Martin’s father, Seamus, had been involved in the IRA and had just been released from prison, but lucky enough had a Dockers background so was able to find employment. In the main, allowing for the days, life for the Meehan’s was no better nor worse than that of most working class Catholic families in Belfast. Martin as a child was used to the yearly flooding of his street when the river Rosehead which passed under the street would overflow during heavy rains. He noted how the mil owners immediately send out a team of workers to stem the flooding from getting into Lindsay Thompson’s Mill by blocking Flax Street at Crumlin Street corner with hundreds of sand bags. The result was that the flooding river poured into Crumlin Street and the homes there despite the fact that the people attempted to block their doorways with short planks. One year Martin remembered the neighbours all rushed out at the first sign of a flood and blocked the end of Crumlin street making the waters pour down Flax Street . Within minutes the police arrived from nearby Leopold Street Barracks and tore the peoples barricade down telling them “You can’t do that, you are flooding the mill”. Even at such a young age Martin realised that people like the Linen Barons thought little as to the comfort of the working class and they could always depend on the Unionist Militia, the RUC, to look after the interests of the rich.
The arrival of his mother, Annie’s, brother, Martin Clarke, with his family, having just returned from England where he had been in prison for republican activity meant that there now were two families living now in the tiny two up two down mill house. These houses consisted off a small living room, a small scullery one biggish bedroom and a small bed room, and a toilet in the yard. Today’s generation could never begin to imagine the conditions the families lived in and yet his Uncle Martin and his family all fitted in well. Four Adults and six children all lived there until the early 1953 when the Clarke family obtained a house in the then new Ballymurphy housing estate. Ballymurphy was right on the edge of Belfast in those days, Martin and family would visit them and actually felt that they had a day in the country.
1953 was a big year in Nationalist Belfast, it was the 150th Anniversary of the Robert Emmet Rebellion and many homes displayed the Tricolour, the National Flag of Ireland. But Ardoyne, and Crumlin Street in particular took it a bit further, on the gable wall where the Linen Barons used to block the flooding river, a mural was painted of the Bold Robert Emmet. It was a colourful thing, a proud thing, a thing of beauty that stirred the heart of any child. I would come round many a time to gaze on it, but Martin, he lived with it , and was so proud of that mural until the day he died. In fact just weeks before he died he said to me, “When you think about it Joe ..Crumlin Street was special, to be the only street in Belfast to have a mural at that time for Emmet ”. I agreed but I remember feeling how Martin could be so innocent even childlike at times. He knew exactly where he came from and was tremendously proud of his Crumlin Street rearing. He had the simplest values, indeed I would not hesitate to say of Martin that which was said of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, at times “He could be as fierce as a lion , and yet as gentle as a lady”.
Martin attended the local Parish school and had a pretty uneventful childhood, but one memory never left him. He would have been about 10 years of age and was playing football on the street with a couple of chums when the peelers arrived and took all three children away to the nearby Leopold Street Barracks. Neighbours who witnessed the incident informed Martin’s father who rushed round to the Barracks but on arriving was nearly arrested himself. There was a ten year old child standing in bewilderment whilst the peelers antagonised his father for merely asking why did they arrest three children off the street whilst not informing their parents. “We know you Meehan”, the father was told, “We will have you back down to the “Crum” (Crumlin Road prison) if there is any lip out of you” . In later years Martin realised his being taken to the Barracks had really nothing to do with playing football, it was their way of getting at his father, to antagonise, or belittle him over his republican background.
The sectarianism of the State was never far away and was very evident in Belfast, the biggest shipyard in the world, biggest rope works and huge engineering complexes but so little of that prosperity filtered down to the catholic people. The average Catholic would probably have settled for equality in employment and housing etc but the politically aware knew that no matter what crumbs came off the Unionist/Orange table they would merely sustain an existence. The only solution was to unite Protestant Catholic and Dissenter and once again attempt to break the connection with England and establish that elusive 32 County Irish Republic. Martin whilst very young began to recognise that as Sean Hueston executed in 1916 said, “ Freedom will not be handed to us on a plate, we will have to fight for it,”
I recall one night as young teenagers about six of us, including Martin, we would have been about 13 years old, going to the Savoy Picture House. This would have been about 1957, the IRA’s Border Campaign was raging and armed “B” Specials (Orange Special Constabulary, oops one today isn‘t supposed to say they were Orange.. so I will just say they were as black as your boot) could be seen on the streets of Belfast amidst an uneasy air. As we came out of the cinema there were two “B” Specials standing outside, as we passed them in the ignoring way that was second nature to Catholic kids, they called on us to halt. They asked us our names and addresses and on hearing the Ardoyne address’s began treating us as ‘the enemy’. Here we were, typical young lads being grilled for no reason other than we were Catholics, they were letting us know who were the bosses in the six counties. It could only be likened to a clip from “Mississippi Burning”, the ignorant southern trash sheriff hassling a few black kids, keeping ‘ the niggers in their place.’ These “Special Constables” were nothing better than jumped up corner boys with a sectarian attitude, it is hard and self insulting to listen to little men on an ego trip, especially after just having watched a John Wayne movie. So we started to wind them up, “That coat is a too bit big for you” said Martin to the wee skinny one,” The special fumed , “Are you trying to be smart”?
“No”, said Martin feigning innocence, “I am just saying your coat is too big for you”. The bigger special gripped Martin by the shoulder and half turning him he said, “Get up that road, you shower of Fenian bastards”. Martin shrugged himself free, stepped well back and laughingly said, “But his coat is too long for him, it’s trailing the ground.” So I thought I would add my penny’s worth, “Yeah, its a good job he has such big ears or his cap would fall over his eyes.” Making sure we had all stepped back arms length from the Specials, we started name calling them getting ready for the chase. “The IRA will fix ya !” said one of the lads, then Martin ventured ,”Sure the two of them together wouldn’t make a patch for an IRA man’s arse”. The chase was on , us running at our ease in front of them and every time they slowed down making more remarks to wind them up. “Careful Sammy, you will trip over your coat”, Anyone who knew Martin at all will speak of how he had a terrific, if impish at times, sense of humour, All good fun but there was an underlying anger at the audacity of these armed corner boys parading round harassing Catholic people, and the incident stayed with us all, particularly Martin, for I remember him 40 years later reminding me of it at a time that I had nearly forgot about it. We had a laugh about the incident and those warriors of Ulster. It is an historical fact that they were not the brightest and cowardly into the bargain, during their existence thirty of them either accidentally shot each other, or themselves, dead and they cost the old “Northern Ireland” (Six Counties) government a fortune for the claims made by farmers who woke up in the mornings to find their cows and sheep shot in the fields. These Ulster warriors were not the brightest yet they were turned loose on the streets armed to the teeth, to ‘Keep the Fenian’s in their place’. Perhaps the list of following incidents will bring home to the reader just how nervous, careless and pathetic these upholders of ‘the law’ were, I quote from the 1920’s, an era when they had criminals like the infamous Buck Alec Robinson, who was known to have murdered many innocent Catholics, in their ranks.
S/Con William Graham Died 3 April 1921 Fatally shot by mistake joining a patrol who failed to recognise him.
S/Con John Russell Died 9 May 1921, aged 48 Fatally injured in a fall off a wall on guard duty at a military barracks.
S/Con Robert Armstrong Died 1 June 1921 Shot dead by the accidental discharge of a colleague's gun.
S/Con David Torrens Died 9 June 1921 Killed by the accidental discharge of a rifle at the barracks after patrol.
S/Con James McInnes Died 18 February1922, aged 25 Killed when his patrol were fired on by mistake by another USC patrol.
S/Con Foster MacGeagh Died 20 March 1922 Died of gunshot wounds accidentally received in Antrim Road Barracks.
S/H/Con Alexander Compton MC Died 6 April 1922 Fatally injured in a fall off a vehicle when ambushed by IRA gunmen.
S/Con George B. Johnston Died 19 May 1922 Fatally injured when the vehicle in which he was on patrol crashed.
S/Con Thomas McNeill Died 20 May 1922, aged 22 Shot dead by another patrol in the confusion of an IRA barrack attack.
S/Con James Murray Died 3 June 1922 Shot dead on guard duty when a police rifle accidentally discharged.
S/Con Richard Black Died 5 June 1922, aged 36 Mistakenly shot dead by police investigating suspicious activity.
S/Con Thomas Hume Died 11 June 1922 Shot dead when a rifle accidentally fell and discharged in the barracks.
S/Con William Liggett Died 20 June 1922 Killed in a road accident when his vehicle overturned while on patrol.
S/Con James Skillen Died 28 June 1922 Killed by the accidental discharge of a weapon he was cleaning on duty.
S/Con Thomas Cochrane Died 11 July 1922 Fatally shot in an RUC station when a rifle was accidentally discharged.
S/Con David Surgenor Died 27 July 1922 Shot dead in the barracks when a revolver accidentally discharged.
S/Con Samuel Hayes Died 5 August 1922, aged 45. Shot dead as he had a drink in the Brittania bar by Arthur Young, a UVF man who mistook him for a Catholic.
S/Sgt Alexander Ross, Died 13 August 1922 Shot dead when mistaken for an intruder by a guard at the barracks.
S/Sgt Alexander Ross Died 13 August 1922 Shot dead when mistaken for an intruder by a guard at the barracks.
S/Con Samuel Holmes Died 20 October 1922 Accidentally shot himself while handling his revolver in barracks.
S/Con John Alexander White Died 16 November 1922 Fatally injured in a road accident when his police vehicle overturned.
S/Con William Finley Died 4 July 1923 Fatally shot when a revolver fell to the barracks floor and discharged.
Is it any wonder that as teenagers we had no time or respect for such street corner boys, in any other country in the world they would have been laughed at judging by their bungling, as seen above, they would be likened to the Keystone Cops. You may wonder why I am lingering on Martin’s early life, but I would remind you of the line from a story Abraham Lincoln told. “Its NOT the final blow that fells it, but all that went before!”.
Despite their dismal show most Unionist regarded them as ‘Their Army’ and had a feeling of respect for them. The historian R.B. McDowell recalls childhood memories of these years in his most recent book, Crisis and Decline (1997) "... one bright evening I stood at a window, looking out on an eerily deserted and silent [Belfast] street - curfew was in force. Suddenly I heard footsteps and saw a patrol of B Specials, decent, middle-aged men with police caps and armlets, carrying themselves with solemn determination. I felt reassured"
Martin left school at fifteen, his first job was on the building of the then new Richardson’s Fertilisers factory, and then he done a spell as a galley boy on the Belfast-Heysham Ferry. It was inevitable that he would follow his father and grandfather into the family trade as a docker.
Martin was very proud of and was an active member of the ITGWU and prouder still of the great James Connolly’s link to the Union. At that time, before the container system was introduced, the Belfast deep sea Docks was one of the busiest in the world, so Martin’s future was pretty well mapped out for him with steady, though hard, well paid employment.
An interesting story Martin told me was when one day, in about 1962, as he cycled up the Crumlin Road from work he noticed a lone protester outside the Crumlin Road Prison, holding up a placard saying “Release The Political Prisoners” This lone protestor was Eddie M’Ateer, the Derry man and President of the old Nationalist Party, also brother of Hugh M’Ateer, Chief of Staff of the IRA. The IRA had a border campaign going on the border for the previous six years and had publicly called off the campaign and yet the Unionist Stormont government was still holding republicans as political hostages. What struck Martin was the staunchness and individual bravery of the lone protester, how he stood there surrounded by frowning members of the RUC and being screamed at by passing unionists and yet he was prepared to face up to the sectarian statelet, the man’s dogged determination to make his voice heard impressed Martin greatly and left a telling mark.
Martin took to boxing for the St. Gabriel’s Boxing Club then joined the legendry Don Bosco’s A.B.C. this, as any one involved in boxing will tell you it is great discipline and form of training for any young man. He wasn’t as committed to it as many of his peers but he did leave a good account of himself, by beating a few well positioned opponents both here and in England. His boxing experience certainly stood by him later when he was dished out some barbaric punishment and torture by British troops when he was arrested. It was in the early 1960’s that a local group released a record, called “Show Me The Man Who does Not Love The Land Where He Was Born ”, another release of their was “ Up Went Nelson ” a stirring song of how the Irish Republican Army blew up the huge statue of the English Hero Nelson in O’Connell Street Dublin at the time. The 1960’s was the decade of the young, music filled their souls, fashion fed their image, drinking was not common among young people, the weekend was for dancing and socialising.
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