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Original Issue


It is four years since The Trouble in Northern Ireland flared anew, brutally devastating and debilitating the land. Against a background of increasing violence, major sports events became hazardous. International soccer matches, which once drew 45,000 people, now were scheduled abroad, or if a rival did agree to play in Belfast, as Canada did last month, only a few thousand spectators came to watch. The terror touched even minor sport. Bankmore Star, a modest soccer team, was one of hundreds that played on weekends in Belfast parks. But then an assassin struck, and players and the team died

The first victim was Patrick Pearse McCrory. He was a large, active, unsuspecting 19-year-old soccer player with Bankmore Star, an amateur club in Belfast. He lived in East Belfast, across the Langan River from the business district, a region of small houses, small shops and pubs that gives way to fine residences and small hedge-enclosed, tree-shaded estates known as Snoozy Hill because of the somnolence of its wealthy residents. McCrory was an apprentice steam fitter when he was not playing soccer.

On the evening of March 13, 1972 the weather was cold and raw, with rain, and few people were out. For that matter few people are outdoors in Belfast after dark even when the weather is fine. But somebody knew that McCrory was home. His doorbell rang and he walked down the hall to answer it. Two gunmen were waiting. It is possible that he recognized them and tried to run. Or it may be that he was ordered to turn around. In any case he died from a shot in the back.

Bankmore Star played in the Willowfield League, a 10-year-old organization built around 18 clubs and a cup called the Henry McWilliam trophy, given by a local soccer enthusiast who had moved to Canada. Mounted on a large wooden stand, the trophy contains figures of three football players and a soccer ball. "It's lovely," said Joseph Murdoch, who has been the secretary of the league since it was organized in 1963. "And then we have plaques for the other teams. Plaques are much better than medals. Medals are carried in the pocket, where no one can see them, and they become tarnished and they fall behind things. Whereas a plaque, you can put it on the mantel or on the television, and people can see it."

As nearly as anyone can remember, Bankmore Star had 24 members when it was a contender for the league championship two years ago. That is the usual membership of a team in a good amateur league. There are 363 amateur soccer clubs in Belfast, or around 5,000 players on clubs that meet once a week during the season that runs from September into May. But that figure does not suggest the hold that soccer has on the sporting imagination of Northern Ireland. In addition, there are 700 clubs and 14,000 players in Northern Ireland's football association (plus innumerable organized school teams and leagues), all in a country that has no more than 150,000 men of soccer-playing age. Part of the obscurity of such teams as Bankmore Star is that there are the great professional organizations, teams like Linfield, which owns its own 55,000-capacity stadium. Linfield competes for the British and European championships. The Willowfield League ranks well below Linfield, even lower than most of the many church leagues, some of which are very strong. Bankmore Star games were played on Saturday afternoons, starting at 2:30. Most of the games were on one or another of the 54 fields of the Belfast Parks Department, available at a fee of £1.10 per game, and since there were many more teams than playing fields, schedules had to be arranged long in advance. No matter what happened, soccer continued to be played.

Bankmore Star was a representative aggregation of hard-playing amateurs. No one expected it to produce champions. But on the other hand no one expected Bankmore Star to produce corpses. The second team member to go was David Colin Poots, age 21, who was killed four months after McCrory. Less is known about David than about his teammates. About four o'clock in the morning of July 12, 1972, people living on Springhill Avenue in West Belfast heard shots. They did not investigate. No one investigates the sound of gunfire after dark in Belfast. Moreover July 12 was the day of the traditional Orange Order parade through the city, celebrating the victory of William of Orange over King James II, and heavier than usual bombing and shooting was expected.

About eight o'clock, long after it had grown light, people venturing outside saw a body lying in an area known as The Flush, adjoining a factory building. David Poots had been shot through the head. His face was covered with a pillowcase. That was all that was publicly reported at the time.

One reason for the lack of notice was that newspapers no longer sent reporters and photographers to scenes of crimes and riots. The Trouble, as the people in Belfast call it, started on a large scale in the fall of 1969, and after two years normal press coverage was impossible. At times there was very nearly no newspaper at all. The brand-new $5-million Doily Mirror plant was demolished by bombs before it began operations and the presses were never rebuilt. The morning News Letter, in continuous operation since 1737, was bombed three times, one bomb taking six lives and another shattering the job-printing department but leaving the main press capable of printing the race results and soccer scores for which the paper is noted. "No, it wasn't the bombs that stopped our people," said George Ace, the sports editor of The News Letter. "It was what happened to photographers. One of our photographers stopped at a traffic light. Two men with guns stepped up. 'We'll need your car,' they said. They kept him in a house while they drove his car somewhere to plant a bomb or something. They came back later, untied Jim and told him where he could find his car. A short time later another photographer was stopped in the same way and held for a much longer time. That was during the worst period, the time of assassinations, when there were several every day. No one wanted to send anyone out. We simply used the army's reports." So there were seldom detailed accounts and photographs of sports events, and no photo of a murdered minor league soccer player with a pillowcase over his face. But the scores of games, or some of them, continued to be recorded.

Early in 1971 Bankmore Star began its best year by beating Harland and Wolff Welders 5-2. You can read about Harland and Wolff in A House Divided, the recollections of James Callaghan, who as Home Secretary in the British government at the time was charged with keeping Northern Ireland peaceful. After one of the first riots in Belfast, the situation was reported as improving "despite the shooting during the night, because the shipyard workers of Harland and Wolff, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, were meeting at midday to press for an end to violence."

Next Bankmore Star beat Deaf United 8-4, and since Deaf United was considered the strongest team in Willowfield League there were glimpses of a possible championship season ahead. It was often difficult to get to games, however. For a while there were 11,500 soldiers, 3,500 police and 3,700 members of the Ulster Defense Regiment on duty in Northern Ireland, most of them in Belfast. The Ardoyne, an area with streets that had property on one side owned by Protestants and on the other side by Catholics, was a maze of fire-blackened ruins in which it was impossible to distinguish any difference between the devastation of either faith. The Falls, a predominantly Catholic area a few minutes' ride from downtown—some 50 blocks containing 5,000 dwellings—was ringed with barricades that the army slowly replaced with barbed wire. In this grim atmosphere Bankmore Star beat Park United 9-2 and followed that with a 6-3 victory over Dennison Trailers.

The team was making a name for itself. It beat Cupar (named for Cupar Street, where rows of houses had been burned in the early riots) 9-2. Park Lodge was beaten 3-0 and 32nd Old Boys 3-2. But a second match with Deaf United, which could have given them the championship, was lost, and Bankmore Star dropped the deciding third game 5-3.

The third member of the team to go was Samuel Boyde, a Protestant who had become a Roman Catholic. On Sept. 7, 1972 some children playing around a house at the edge of The Falls found his body lying in the garden, shot through the head and chest, covered with a bloodstained cloth. "Children played around troops sealing off the entry to the garden," said The News Letter. "The death brings the total of people to die in Northern Ireland since August, 1969 to 548."

When Boyde was described as a soccer player with Bankmore Star, an unnamed member hastily protested that Boyde had never played on the team. It was beginning to be difficult to find out who had played on it. Most of the players had believed the deaths to have been coincidental; now some went into hiding. Since members no longer went to meetings, the club did not pay its dues and was dropped from the Willowfield League.

Any question about the deaths being coincidental became academic last spring. Robert James Millen, a 23-year-old Protestant who had unquestionably played with Bankmore Star, received an anonymous letter. "At last I have got my finger on you," it read. "Every man or car that comes up to you, look at it. I want to see your face as you die."

The letter contained a list of the names of nine men, including Millen, who were marked for death. Ten days later, on the night of April 13, 1973, Millen was walking along McClure Street, a rather narrow side street that opens onto Ormeau Road, one of the main thoroughfares leading into the city. There is a large Methodist church at the corner of McClure Street and Ormeau Road, blocking the view. The traffic there is fast, and exact timing would be required to come upon anyone without being seen. But as Millen approached Ormeau Road a car drove by—two cars, by some accounts—and he was killed by gunfire, facing his assassins. Since his death, at least two other members of Bankmore Star have been shot at and are alive only because the killer missed.

When the Belfast coroner finally got around to releasing the results of an inquest held into the death of Patrick McCrory, the first team member to be killed, he said the killer "seemed to be insane." This appears to be the case. In discussions of the murders, most of the comment has centered on the fact that Bankmore Star was a mixed Protestant and Catholic team. "They've got it all wrong," said Joseph Murdoch. "Many of the teams in the league were combined teams, with men from both religions. Nobody paid much attention to such things before The Trouble. It didn't make any difference. Several big teams—Holy-wood, County Down—were combined teams."

In any case the mystery of the soccer club killings is going to remain a mystery. There is no agency in Belfast capable of bringing the facts to light, and the soccer assassinations have been obscured by later crimes. Last week the number of deaths in Northern Ireland since The Trouble began reached 897, most of them in Belfast and many of them cold-blooded and selective killings like those of the members of Bankmore Star. In the city itself one is not so much conscious of any religious antagonism as of the ease with which long-standing antagonisms of any kind can be exploited. And of the ease with which they serve to provide ready-made answers that block inquiry into matters that would otherwise be questioned.

But in Belfast one is even more conscious of the extraordinary resiliency of the people who have to live with the mysteries and the danger. These days conditions are reported to be better than they have been in a long time. You are still searched going into a store or the post office. Soldiers at gates on side streets check everyone entering or leaving the area. From time to time a street is blocked with armored cars during a bomb scare. In the evening the midtown crowd vanishes as if darkness had become a plague. Everywhere one is conscious of one-armed people—survivors of bombs—riding on buses, waiting on customers in stores.

And even relatively good times contain ominous developments. Recently a fishing party from Ulster was ambushed in a remote western part of Ireland, one of the rare attacks on vacationers. And in a matter of a month there have been 10 kneecap shootings in Belfast, a form of punishment "for suspected informers," said an authority, "or for people who don't toe the line"—a crippling punishment often visited on Catholic girls who go out with Protestant boys, or on Protestant boys who court Catholic girls, or on both.

As ghastly as the terror remains in Belfast there now seems to be something contrived, almost literary, about it. It is as if the people engaged in carrying it out had read books about what ought to be done or had analyzed social structures and calculated points of stress. Meanwhile, the population at large continues to go its way, just as the members of Bankmore Star played out their schedule during the worst of the violence. Has the example of that team discouraged soccer playing? "No," said Frank Starr, the administrator of the department of parks. "There has been no decline in the use of our football facilities. On the contrary there has been an upward trend in the demand."