I was born on the Twelfth of July, 1942 – a poorly-chosen date for someone from a Catholic/nationalist background. It wasn’t so much a problem with Protestants/unionists as with my own sort, who would mockingly enquire if my middle name was Billy and had I a sash at home.
We lived a mile outside Omagh but in fact I was born in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, in a nursing home. I’m not sure what prompted my mother to go there, but it may have had something to do with her fears for the birth. I was the last of eight children, there was a gap of three years between me and the next youngest, so my arrival was clearly something of a post-script. My Auntie Alice, a Nazareth nun who visited us during her holidays, used make much of how dangerous my birth had been to my mother’s health, how she’d been told that having another baby wouldn’t be advisable. That seems plausible and maybe explains why I was christened Jude – the patron saint of hopeless cases. Having had me on the Twelfth, my mother shortly after returned home to Omagh with me, the last of her children.
The first words I can remember speaking were a compliment to myself. I’m standing at the back of our dairy, which was really a small brick outhouse where we kept the creamery cans filled with milk before they were delivered to Nestlé (pronounced by us without the acute) a mile down the road. So I’m out the back of the dairy and the back seat from an old car is lying beside a tree, its stuffing half gone and its springs protruding. My teeth clenched, I’m lifting one end of it and shouting to my sisters “I couldn’t have done this when I was only three!” As so often when I say or do something, they giggle and whisper among themselves.
I have no one to whisper to, being a boy and three years younger than Meengy and four years younger than Bernie and Tesie, the twins. Many things interested me at that pre-school age but stuff going into and coming out of your body was high on my list. It was noticeable that stuff came out of Bernie, Tesie and Meengy in a different way from me. When they needed to pee they couldn’t just stand there and pull up the leg of their short trousers and do what they had to do against the nearest wall or tree. They had to hitch their skirt, pull their navy-blue knickers down to knee-level, then crouch close to the ground.