Three men left the church by a side door. They made to walk down the stone steps, saw our camera, hesitated. We had been filming what every media-savvy toddler in Belfast seems to recognise as a ‘gv’ – a general view – of the Holy Cross Church and Monastery in Nationalist Ardoyne. It was forty-eight hours or so after an IRA bomb had killed ten people on the Shankill Road, including the Ardoyne man who had been attempting to plant it. The local BBC radio station had just been airing a phone-in on whether he deserved a funeral. With its granite exterior and its rook-loud turrets, the Holy Cross improbably recalled Greyfriars School during autumn term. The dead giveaway that this was not Billy Bunter’s alma mater but a church in Northern Ireland was the RUC land-rover drawn up in the drive like an armoured hearse. We wanted the pictures to introduce a story about a priest who had agreed to talk to us about his flock’s fears of Loyalist reprisals. The three men were an irrelevance to the shot – at most, providing a little foreground movement, three parishioners on an errand or call. To tell the truth, I only noticed them as they havered on the bottom step, and then the only one who registered distinctly was the youngest – moustache, grey fleecy sweatshirt. The other two, in their late forties or early fifties, were neutrally swaddled in anoraks or car coats. But now that I gave them my attention, they all looked alike: they were all as shinily pale as camphor.

All at once, a fourth man emerged from the side door and walked towards us with a frown, a dog collar resolving itself from the blur of his mufti. ‘Are you filming?’ he said.

‘Filming what?’ said the cameraman, James Nicholas. The priest said: ‘Please don’t show this family.’ James reached along the stock of the camera and flicked a switch. Trimming what you film has become second nature in the province. Camera crews do not favour the faces of RUC officers; the cabbies who ply the Shankill or the Falls are ingeniously framed in their driving mirrors during interviews. The priest’s request seemed inoffensive; it was a nothing shot. We went back to low-angle views of a concrete Christ in the middle of a flower-bed.

An RUC chief inspector who was also visiting Holy Cross – a passenger in the land-rover – said: ‘You haven’t filmed these people, have you?’ We hadn’t. ‘We have to help them with their arrangements, you see,’ he said. We nodded, we quite understood. We resumed zooming in and out of the priest’s splendid show of early pansies.

In the welter of gunfire over the next two days – a 72-year-old Catholic killed at home; a lethal spree by the Ulster Freedom Fighters at a council cleansing depot; an attack on a Republican at the home of the dead bomber, as a result of which a British soldier has been charged – there was scarcely time to give the encounter at Holy Cross a thought.

However, later that week I came across a pale young man with a moustache, and wondered where I knew him from. In a surreal moment of social embarrassment, I was at an IRA funeral with him and for a moment, I just couldn’t place him. What made it doubly awkward was that I couldn’t really avoid him. He was carrying the coffin. Two older men I had seen with him were there too: the Shankill Road bomber, Thomas Begley, having been identified from dental records, the trio we had nearly filmed at the church were accompanying his modest mortal remains on their final journey.

I had been waiting for them for hours, although of course I hadn’t realised I was going to see them. We were the first crew into Milltown cemetery, preceded by a dozen RUC vehicles – the first of a police cortège that would eventually stretch for 25 fortified wheel-bases – winding through the lines of angels and crosses, the vast rockery of Catholic icons. Squaddies stirred in the undergrowth by the M1 motorway at the far end of the graveyard. Others hunkered down on the sooty slagheap of an adjacent quarry, overlooking the Republican plot. Among Northern Ireland’s resonantly defiled places – Enniskillen, Warren Point, Teebane, and now Greysteel, scene of the Halloween massacre – Milltown excites a special frisson; a sense of desecration, perhaps. Michael Stone, a hero to many Loyalist paramilitaries, ran amok among the tombstones with grenades during a set-piece Republican burial. On the day of another, two plainclothes members of the security services were dragged from a car, stripped, beaten and killed. The UFF, issuing their inevitable take on the council depot shooting, had emphasised that it was ‘only the start of the heavy price to be paid’ by the Nationalist community after talks between the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the SDLP leader, John Hume. Milltown was thus the feared or presumed setting for a showpiece atrocity, the funeral a shop-window for Loyalist marksmanship and ordnance-nous.

It was a cold afternoon, but tension just shaded it, driving out the cold. The air above the city was wintry with the smog of coal fires. The RUC abandoned their bullet-proof hearses and stood chatting distractedly to one another. In their black ties and black flak jackets, they looked like an armed squad of funeral directors. I read the inscriptions to IRA ‘volunteers’ on a memorial or cenotaph, a dovetail-joint rendered in granite. It commemorated the hunger strikers of 1981, including ‘Vol. Bobby Sands’, the former MP, who died, aged 27, after fasting for 66 days. In the surprisingly small, fenced enclosure reserved for the IRA’s dead, there were already three names on the plaque that Thomas ‘Bootsie’ Begley, aged 23, would be sharing. It lay to one side of his grave, which was marked by a mound of earth draped with a length of nylon rope.

A red-haired youth detached himself from a knot of skulking grave-diggers. He began telling us stories of the brusque preliminaries conducted by the security forces. His account of metal-detecting and dog-handling, of sweepings and sniffings, culminated in an allegation that soldiers had leapt out from behind a headstone in front of three men who were taking a walk. ‘They made them lie down like a star,’ said our source. ‘Like a star. There’s supposed to be weapons hidden somewhere in here,’ he added.

Thomas Begley was still inching his way from Holy Cross through the thronged Catholic ghettos. It would be six hours from the time the funeral party left Ardoyne until the burial. Begley had a cold going of it. Meanwhile at the cemetery a group of young men resembling a pub soccer team were beginning to set up a PA system beside the grave, and recommending, indeed pressing for, a strict media blackout.

Among the early-comers at the cemetery was a priest: an elderly-looking man of slightly less than average height, in a black mackintosh and spectacles. He was standing by himself, a little way from the Republican plot, seemingly absorbed in headstone inscriptions and withered wreaths preserved under yellowed plexiglass. From time to time, he rubbed his hand against his cheek. I thought I would go and talk to him: I was intrigued to see a churchman apparently reserving himself a graveside place for rites which many of his fellow citizens thought at best hypocritical.

Having felt the wrath of a grizzled Catholic brother a day or two earlier – ‘If there is a breakthrough here it won’t be because of the newshounds,’ he had rasped at me – I thought it would be prudent to begin with the weather.

‘It’s very cold,’ agreed the priest. ‘I had a pullover on before I came out. I thought I wouldn’t be needing it.’ He smiled ruefully. His face was a bar-chart of broken veins. He said: ‘I used to be in Scotland. It can be raw there, particularly the east coast.’

I said: ‘How long have you been here?’

‘I was born here. I’ve been back a few years now.’ He asked me where I was staying; when I named the hotel, he said: ‘Ah! I went to my sister’s wedding reception there, forty years ago.’

I said I thought that the expression ‘the Troubles’ seemed a feeble one to describe what was happening in Northern Ireland now.

‘I know what you mean. It’s a way the people have of talking. They talk about “a wee bomb”, or someone will come to see me and say, “My wife has a wee cancer.” ’

We were both looking at the empty grave. A couple of women murmured ‘Hello, Father’ as they approached it, and he acknowledged them with a smile.

I said: ‘I don’t suppose Begley ever left Northern Ireland.’

‘I doubt whether he left his own street,’ replied the priest.

‘Do you know the family?’

‘I’m a priest at the church, at the Holy Cross.’ He told me that his name was Father Flannan McNulty.

‘It’s an odd name. We have saints’ names. I knew the grandfather well; a very holy man. I used to visit him on Fridays. We have a programme of visiting the sick. He’s dead now, though. The mother comes to mass.’

I mentioned a story I’d heard that the mother of another IRA man involved in the Shankill bomb, visiting her son in hospital, had been comforted by a Protestant whose relatives had been injured in the explosion. ‘I wish I’d copyrighted that tale,’ said Father McNulty with a stage sigh. ‘I keep hearing other people telling it.’ What he didn’t say, what I only found out later, was that he had repeated the same story earlier that day in church. He had officiated at the mass.

At the time, I said: ‘As you know, a lot of people don’t agree that Begley should have received all the funeral rites.’

Father McNulty didn’t look at me. He was looking at the grave. ‘It really is very cold, I’ll say what I have to say and then I’m going.’

Then I asked the question that sooner or later you ask, or at any rate think, in any conversation about Northern Ireland. I said, ‘What’s the answer?’ and hoped it sounded rhetorical.

Father McNulty said: ‘There is no answer.’

More people were entering the cemetery. They were walking briskly ahead of the main party, and lining up behind the tombstones and statues nearest the grave as if they were barriers on a football terrace. It was then that I found myself within a few feet of the young man with the moustache – the one I knew I’d bumped into somewhere else – as he was shouldering the coffin of his brother into the Republican enclosure. Gerry Adams stood by the grave and folded his arms with the look of a man who has seen a lot of funerals. The press would later excoriate Adams’s role as a mourner, but there was nothing new in his connection with Republican observances in Milltown. I speak not so much of his political past as his literary one. In his collection of short stories, The Street, Adams describes how an IRA man is buried in the graveyard.

He thought of the morning when they had last been there, the funeral winding its way down from the Whiterock, the people crossing themselves as it passed, the guard of honour awkward but solemn around the hearse. He thought of the men and women who crowded around the graveside. Men and women long used to hardship but still shocked at the suddenness of death.

The title of the story, apparently taken from a Belfast graffito, was ‘A Life before Death?’

Father McNulty put on a purple sash and began saying prayers over Begley’s coffin. He was not using the microphone which the pub soccer team had rigged up. The priest crossed himself; among the mourners – four or five deep around the plot, and fanning out across several acres of Milltown – there was a Mexican wave of crossing. A Sinn Fein councillor, Jim McAllister, took the mike. He claimed that Begley and others had not gone down the Shankill to bomb the innocent. He offered his sympathies to the injured, and the bereaved. ‘They may not want to accept them, and I understand that.’

I looked for the priest but I couldn’t see him. And then I could: over the heads of Mr McAllister and the people gathered at the grave, an elderly-looking man in a mackintosh was walking through the lines of banked headstones towards the Falls, and pulling back his sleeve to glance at his wrist.

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