James ‘Mick’ Magennis VC

Tom Paulin

You get off the boat
and they call you Paddy
– Paddy or Mick
of course it’s the same thing
and sometimes that nick-
name’ll stick
as it stuck to me
– clamped – mine
waiting for that time
we nudged our midget submarine
under the Takao’s keel
– I tried open the hatch
but it hit on the cruiser’s bottom
– there was no room
no room to get out
so I loosened the catch
on my breathing set
took a deep charge
of oxygen
then pushed the set through
followed it out
and fixed the set back
– talk about setbacks
that was like squeezing
between two positions
but the ship’s bottom
it was all one dense mass
of barnacles weed
and razorsharp shells
that tore my hands and my divingsuit
– no way could I make
the limpet mines stick
I went back to the sub
and noted the gap
was even narrower now
– the tide was dropping
– got to be quick
or I’d be trapped
then captured – and worse – by the Japs
so I took some rope
and lashed the mines to the keel
then back to the sub
and squeezed my torn rub-
ber suit and me in
to the wet and dry compartment
– I closed the hatch
and started to drain down
but to free the sub
from under the cruiser’s keel
was almost impossible now
so Lt Fraser – Titch –
he blew out the ballast tanks
and we bopped to the surface
just for a moment
– no searchlight nothing
we dropped back
onto the ocean floor
just a few yards from the Takao
then he pulled a lever
– both side carriers
two tons of Amatol explosive
they fell away
but the limpet mine carrier
it wedged us hard in
and wouldn’t drop clear
Titch said he’d go out
– I was bate sweating dogtired
but no this was my job of work
so taking a big spanner
I made a third visit
outa that jammed hatch
and turned off the crate
then got the fuck out
not a moment too late

I tell it now
for all that it was
– an exact adventure
except that hatch
and the ways I squeezed through
come back like a catch
in my lungbursting tale
– Sir Crawford McCullough
a hardbollock
Unionist Lord Mayor
he wouldn’t make me a Freeman
of the City of Belfast
while down at St Finian’s
my old school on the Falls
no one stood in the classroom
– not a single Nationalist
I’d betrayed the cause
thats’t they said
I left the Navy
and when times got hard
sold my VC
– but I-BUY-ANYTHING Kavanagh
he give me it back
– my photie in the Tele!
I was shamed to the world
so I left Belfast for good
– I blew up that ship
but the city
it blew itself up
again and again and again

this is no green rub
no hard luck story
for when I took that deep breath
to push out of the sub
I was inside history
and away far out of it
– I’d squeezed through the gap
and swum free
a silent bubblebrushed diver
who moment by moment
knew exactly what it was
to dive like a gannet
into the deep deep ocean
then rise out of it again
free and complete
yes a one off a genius!

Mick Magennis was the only Ulsterman to win the VC in the last war. Though the population of Northern Ireland celebrated and rewarded his heroism, his community on the Falls Road in Belfast rejected him on his return, while the Unionist authorities begrudged his achievement and failed to honour it officially by making him a Freeman of the City of Belfast. He emigrated to England where he found comradeship among the Yorkshire miners – there is a plaque to his memory in Bradford Cathedral and a street named for him in Gosport. Although a statue to Magennis outside Belfast City Hall was recently unveiled, there is still resistance to honouring his name. BBC Northern Ireland has twice refused to commission a documentary film about him.