“What did it feel like to be shot?” Interview with Bernadette by Blindboy Boatclub

To mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in the six counties last year, Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubber Bandits hosted a podcast at Ulster Hall in Belfast on October 6th 2018. He interviewed veteran Irish revolutionary Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey in front of a packed room.  The podcast is over two hours long. In this part he poke to her about the loyalist attempt to assassinate her and her husband Michael on January 16, 1981.  At the time, Bernadette was a key figure organising support for republicans being held in British prisons, including the blanket protest, the dirty protest, and the 1980 hunger strike. At the time of the attempt on her life, a new hunger strike was in the air – this was the famous hunger strike of that era, with ten prisoners’ deaths.  The entire interview will be published on The Transcripts.

Blindboy: When we were backstage I was asking you about, we were discussing the nature of trauma and I was asking would it be okay if I asked you about the time you had an assassination attempt. And you said: Yes, that would be okay.

Bernadette: Uh-huh. Yep. That’s okay. That’s okay. Yeah.

Blindboy: Can we talk about that?

Bernadette: Yes, we can talk about that.

Blindboy: So – what was it like being shot nine times?

Bernadette: It was interesting. It was interesting. And it’s funny that I can talk about that much more easily than I can talk about that memory, you know, that memory of Bloody Sunday is more traumatic for me than the time that I was shot. And I think it was because, you know, as we were saying, it’s because I didn’t see Bloody Sunday coming. I didn’t see the 5th of October coming.

But by the time people came to our house and kicked the door in and held my two daughters, one at that time four and the other nine, at gunpoint while their parents were shot I knew they were coming, if you know what I mean?

Miriam Daly, murdered by British agents, June 26, 1980

I didn’t know they were coming then. But Miriam Daly had been shot. John Turnley had been shot. Noel (Lyttle) and Ronnie Bunting had been shot. And we knew that the penalty for defending the rights of prisoners, the human rights of prisoners, was putting civil rights and human rights campaigners in the firing line and we kept on doing it and that’s why I was saying to you the question is nearly not: What did it feel like to be shot? But was: Since you knew at some point the penalty for doing this was that we were going to be shot. And John McMichael went on television and said we would be shot.

So when the people came to our door it was, for us, a day that was always coming and because you understood the context of what was happening I think, for us, the trauma was somewhat less – I mean the emotional trauma afterwards not the physical trauma of it – than for people who got caught up in a bomb or something and didn’t know what was going to happen to them. But what it was I was shot nine times.

John Turnley, murdered by British agents, June 5, 1980

And again, the real point of this is: The UDA (Ulster Defence Association) just didn’t decide to come to our house. It was part of a campaign that they had been involved in. The British Army and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) knew they were coming, on the day they were coming and the time they were coming. And they let that happen. They let that go ahead. And after we were shot and left to die on the floor of our own house and our children there the soldiers that I spoke to going home, going into my house that night – and I know why I was shot: The hunger strike had ended after Christmas, the whatever deal was not done – and that’s a whole new story – but it was clear that within the prison itself Bobby Sands and others were unhappy with what had happened – this deal that was supposed to be done didn’t materialise and that there was going to be another hunger strike. And I, in fact, was coming from an H-Block meeting that was discussing this problem and fear and what we would do if it happened. And I almost knew that it was going to be my turn to be shot because I was the PR and I was good at what I was doing so the key person to take out of the equation before the next hunger strike started had to be me. And we were taking precautions at home because of that.

Ronnie Bunting and Noel Little, murdered by British agents, October 15, 1980

But when I came home from that meeting, and I live in the country, pulled my wee car up very close to the wall because it was a frosty night, I could see the soldiers and I spoke to them and I said: Have you no homes of your own to go to? That’s what I said to them. Have you no homes of your own to go to – lying out there outside decent people’s houses? And I can still see their wee eyes peeping up at me and their camouflaged faces but nobody spoke. And I went in, and you know it was about one o’clock in the morning, really cold night and I said to Michael: Soldiers are lying outside our house. Now we lived in, we live in the bog, we lived in the moss, it was up a long lane and an isolated place. And then I got into bed and went to sleep. And the next morning – and there are things, you know, there’s a touch of terrible humour in the midst of tragedies, but when we look back on it sometimes we have to laugh at the chaotic nature of it – but Michael heard the car coming and pulling up right behind mine and he looked out the window and he saw the three men getting out of the car and coming round the front of the house and one of them had the sledgehammer. So he’s shouting at me to get up, get up – they’re outside the house. I don’t like being wakened and I’m not really good at this and I’m saying: I know! (You know what it’s like?) I told you that last night! ‘Cause I thought he was talking about the soldiers. Because he was saying: Get up! Get up! They’re outside the house! He was talking about those men but I thought he was talking about the soldiers I saw.

So what really woke me up was the sound of the sledgehammer hitting the front door which bounced the door open and the first gunshots were fired then through the hall door at Michael who was trying to hold it shut and then they came – Smallwoods stood and held my two daughters, Róisín and Deirdre, in their bed at gunpoint. Róisín was the older of the two. She got the younger one into her bed with her and covered her head up so that she couldn’t see what was happening and she kept, I remember her saying in her statement, she kept watching the gunman so – the funny thing I did that myself, that kind of belief that if you’re looking the people in the face they’re not going to do anything to you – and then Smallwoods was doing that and watching them. Graham – it was like a firm of solicitors when you heard of them in the court: Watson, Smallwoods and Graham – they came on in and Michael tried to draw them into the kitchen and he was shot there. And then Watson came into the bedroom and I had just lifted Fintan, who was the youngest, and I realised when I lifted him:
If I’m shot he’ll be shot, too.

So then I had to throw him – he was only a toddler, he wasn’t two – and it was just as I threw the child away that Watson came in very close behind me and I think he was startled by the fact that I was standing up with my back to him so close to him because he fired straightaway – and I can still remember in slow-motion each place I was hit and how I fell back. And not that it’s a comfort to people but, you know, and I’ve told people who have had relatives killed and whatever little comfort that is that I was totally aware of the impact of being hit and I could smell the gunfire, I had a very strong sense of smell and vision – I could see the blue light of the flashes of the gun and I knew I was being hit – but I couldn’t feel the pain. And I didn’t feel any pain until I was actually being trundled across on a trolley from the helicopter to the military hospital and that was about, must have been about a good hour later. But while we were lying, they shot us and they walked – now they were roaring and shouting when they put the door in and came into the house – but they walked out casually like you’d walk out of a pub. And just when they walked out I heard the English voices saying: Put your hands against the wall. And at that minute I thought it was the soldiers who killed us. I’m still thinking, I saw these soldiers and I thought that a neighbour had heard the shooting and come over and I was waiting to hear more shots to hear the neighbour being killed. But I heard a gun drop and I knew a gun had been dropped on the bonnet of my car and a voice said: Fuck this for a double-cross! 

Now I believe that that voice was Andrew Watson’s. That’s that who said that. So the Army arrested people who did not expect to be arrested. And then the guys came in and they were Paratroopers and they ran away again, and they put up a flare and Argyll and Southern Highlanders came and administered first aid and then Hew Pike, the Chief of the Paras (Parachute Regiment), gave a press conference on our front street and we – you know, Hew Pike, head of the Paras, never went to give a press conference for anybody else that was shot in Northern Ireland – and Michael and myself were taken to Musgrave Military Hospital and we remain the only two non-combatants who weren’t British soldiers in the whole of The Troubles to have been taken directly to the military hospital. And the reason for that was because we didn’t die – and nobody knew what we knew or what anybody else knew – or what had happened and, much like Bloody Sunday, until the Army got its story straight everybody had to be controlled.

And we’re still looking for the truth of who ‘up there’ – you know, never mind Watson, Smallwoods and Graham were found guilty, pleaded guilty, and did their stint – but the real culprits, the same as Bloody Sunday, the same as the people who ran special agents, were ‘whoever’ – in British military and British politics and British Intelligence – were playing poker with the lives of people in this country for forty years.

Posted on March 31, 2019, in 1981 hunger strike, Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, British state repression (general), British strategy, Civil rights movement, Commemorations, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Interviews, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Public events - Ireland, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Revolutionary figures, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, Women, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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