Belfast Aurora – A Memoir of a Falls Childhood 1971-1973 by Seamus Kelters (Merrion Press, £14.99)
BORN in 1962, Seamus Kelters later became a journalist working for the Irish News and then the BBC. He is one of the authors of Lost Lives which cataloged the deaths of those who died during the conflict. He died in 2017 after a short battle with cancer at the age of 54.
These short sentences in no way do Seamus Kelters justice, however, they might give us a little insight into the man who was born in the right place at the right time and would tell the story of a child’s troubles. perspective in this unique collection and one that would bear witness to his family and the Falls community in which he lived amidst untold chaos and tragedy.
Each chapter can stand on its own like a short story. Reading these 15 stories, you get echoes and flashes of Michael McLaverty. It’s not until the end of the book that Kelters tells us that Call My Brother Back is his favorite book.
I read it, almost in disbelief that anyone would find the place where I grew up worthy of history.
It was fifty years ago, when the same streets Kelters now walked to school every day once again suffered the fate of communal violence. These same streets were a window through which his grandparents renounced the visions and ghosts of the past.
Seamus Kelters’ grandfather was shot in 1921 and lived to tell the tale. Not her grandmother’s favorite uncle. She saw him being shot by ‘random fire’ outside her Lepper Street door as she entered the lobby to greet him. The Troubles of the 1920s loom over these new stories as Kelters tries to make sense of the shootings and bombings that happened daily around him in the early 1970s.
There is his childhood memory of playing in the snow on Whiterock Road on a Sunday in January 1972 as his parents listened horrified to RTÉ radio at the mounting death toll in Derry. The morning after Bloody Sunday, her teacher handed the class colored markers and paper and told them, “Draw what happened in Derry yesterday.”
The book opens with his parents buying a house in Springfield Park in the mid-1960s. Buying their first home was a big deal for his mother and father. However, tensions were rising in the city and from below Black Mountain “CS gas was drifting through the air with distant screams”.
Kelters remembers the Ballymurphy Massacre when Springmartin loyalists raided Springfield Park. Internment had been introduced a few hours earlier. His family joined other Catholics fleeing across the fields to be encountered by the Paras. Four innocent civilians died that night.
There is his childhood memory of playing in the snow on Whiterock Road on a Sunday in January 1972 as his parents listened in disbelief to RTÉ radio at the mounting death toll in Derry. The morning after Bloody Sunday, her teacher handed the class colored markers and paper and told them, “Draw what happened in Derry yesterday.”
Then there were the stones thrown at British Army patrols – and the feeling of victory as they withdrew; the shootings outside his grandmother’s house in Cavendish Street and the panic and worry of Bloody Friday as he listened to the bombs go off, struggling against the stream of people coming in the opposite direction on Grosvenor Road, frantically searching for the “three dearest people in my life” – his mother, father and grandmother.
And then after a disastrous visit to Butlins on a school trip where his class ended up in a fight with a school in Drogheda, while one of his classmates killed a duck on the lake with a stroke of his oar , the admonished and sorry boys soon headed home.
But it is a book punctuated with humor – and a lot of humor. Tales of bombings and shootings are juxtaposed with stories of schools. Their familiarity forcing me to burst out laughing on occasion.
A child stood up to read his essay “what my father does”. He proclaimed, “My father has a machine gun. He keeps it in the attic. He says it’s a Hoover but…” That was all he had before a cuff in Mulvenna’s ear. “Don’t tell those lies about your father; you will get him in trouble.
And then after a disastrous school trip to Butlins where his class ended up in a fight with a school in Drogheda, while one of his classmates killed a duck on the lake by dropping an oar on the unfortunate bird’s head, the admonished and sorry boys soon headed home.
We briefly stopped in Drogheda for the educational part of the day. We gathered at a church there and marched past the head of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, behind glass, inside a golden coffin. I looked at him the same way I had looked at the duck; part intrigued, part repelled. The whispered explanation went along the lines of “the Brits did it”. We exchanged knowing, more discreet glances when we got back on the bus. We had to see soldiers at the border again to wake us up to another refrain: “And every man will stand behind the men behind the barbed wire”.
Listening to the rain on his window at night, the ten-year-old noticed that there was rarely a shooting when it rained after dark. “I concluded that people with guns wanted to avoid rusting them.”
Recognizable characters fill the pages of this book as well as the main room of Kelters’ grandmother’s Cavendish Street house. Come for the latest news; crowd around the television to listen to and comment on the latest political debate. At one point, a trout from a creek below Colin Mountain also filled his uncle’s new aquarium in the room, only to be released into the Waterworks.
But what never leaves Kelters and revisits him again and again throughout these stories is the memory of being “kicked out” of his home in Springfield Park. On one occasion, when he and his father returned to ensure the house was secure, a young couple was living there with a baby, having themselves been “kicked out” from another location in town. They never came home after that; at least not physically.
Belfast Aurora is ultimately a story of love and loss. It permeates these pages as heavy as the fumes from the embers of distant fires and sometimes manages to get into your eyes. Seamus Kelters left us far too soon. He was a natural storyteller who had more stories to tell. We are much poorer not to have heard them.
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