By Will McGuirk
“Grab it and change it, it's yours” - ‘Alternative Ulster’, Stiff Little Fingers
For some young people growing up during ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, life was neither the green of Republicanism nor Loyalist Orange, it was grey. These teens didn’t buy into the binary choices presented to them; be Catholic or Protestant, be Irish or British; they wanted a third option. There had to be an alternative to the Ulster they inherited, even if it was one they had to build themselves from the few resources available.
‘Alternative Ulsters: Punk Rock and Teenage Kicks in Troubled Times’ is the title of a retrospective exhibition and panel discussion event taking place Friday, May 10 2019 in Dublin.
This event is hosted by The Hope Collective under the We Shall Overcome - Dublin banner. We Shall Overcome was started in Britain, as a way to focus on those creating in a politically negative environment.
A wide variety of activists who had worked to make their own future in Northern Ireland during those troubled times will be featured. Among the special guest speakers are Henry Cluney of Stiff Little Fingers, Sheena Bleakney of the Warzone Collective and Sean O’Neill of Spit Records and co-author of “It Makes You Want to Spit.”
“There are alternatives, even in politics,” says Cluney. SLF’s anthemic call out “Alternative Ulster” released in 1978, was a touchstone for many inside and outside Northern Ireland.
Cluney came from an area which was a flashpoint he says.
“We had shooting going on on a constant basis. It just made me think that there had to be a better way. This was before music, but it’s how I grew up,” he says.
“Growing up in Northern Ireland, in particular Belfast, was difficult” says Bleakney, who founded Warzone in 1984, but her creative side, and a love for music, art and writing gave her a place to grow, and hide she says.
“My sister (Julia) and I started a fanzine at 12 years old, mostly to discuss our thoughts and feelings in a way we could not express to our family or friends in school. For me, secondary school was a difficult time where i was bullied and lacked confidence, so art and writing and creativity was my form of expression, but also the only time i was aware of being good at anything. The notion that i was doing things for myself, did not occur to me at this young age.”
Yet that is exactly what Bleakney was doing.
Two years after The Warzone Collective launched they opened a drop-in centre and cafe called Giros, named for the welfare cheques. It was also a venue, a practise space and screen printing workshop. It was all DIY. Over its existence it became the counter-cultural hub in Belfast.
Understanding her own personal experience of not having a voice in the either/or world she grew up in, allowed Bleakney to understand others whose voices had been silenced.
It was not an easy journey. She rebelled against her parents’ concern for her safety in such a world. She found them constricting and she ran away, eventually spending time in juvenile penitentiary. This gave her time to hear from others from different circumstances but with similar concerns about how to build bridges beyond the walls.
“This was the huge changing point for me, I was always sticking up for the underdog, I realise now that i was more concerned for others than I was for myself, and social change became imperative to me. Our fanzine discussed issues of race, sectarianism, class, gender, and most importantly for me, animal rights. I became involved with some direct action at that point; marches, demos, and talks, both in school and outside. I became involved with Just books so I could cook veggie meals for other people, began hunt sabbing (sabotage) at 16, wrote about animal rights in our fanzine,and of course was passionate about setting up Giros and a veggie/vegan cafe at 17. Music and punk, to me, were never about the image or the look, it was always about social change and having a voice. We honestly thought we were going to change the world,” says Bleakney
“My own personal resistance probably came from just a sense of not fitting in,” she says. “I recognise that now as a lack of confidence, which i think stemmed from the fear around us in the city, and my parents worry of letting us go out into that world.”
In that world, the normal teenage rebellion against Mom and Dad’s rules, was amplified, to rebelling against society at large.
“All teenagers rebel against their parents, we were no different,” says O’Neill, “We loved this new music that was emerging with its outrageous sense of style. It was exciting, dangerous but most of all, fun. That’s what drew us together. Not caring to ask what religion your new found friends were was almost a byproduct of the music.”
The divisionary aspect of religion lost out in a manner to the unitary nature of music and within this new environment, created by the songs of SLF and the Undertones and those featured on the Spit Records compilations, teens could create a future for themselves, independent of the one their birthplace dictated.
O’Neil’s future was as a chronicler of the people populating this new environment. Interest in the stories in the book led to interest in the music behind the stories.
“When compiling the book I had obviously spoken to lots of people from old Northern Ireland punk and New Wave bands and quite a lot of these people had unreleased demo recordings of their old band. I thought that it would be a good idea to release a compilation of these tracks, as almost a companion to the book if you like,” says O’Neill “Lots of these bands were mentioned in the book but unless you saw them live at the time, you had little chance of actually hearing what they sounded like. These compilation albums became Shellshock Rockers Vols 1 & 2. My aim with the label was to unearth previously unreleased recordings by Northern Ireland bands and issue them on limited run CD or vinyl. It is a way of archiving the material and also sharing it.”
The label is an ongoing concern, issuing not just rare and unreleased original punk bands but also bands currently active.
The Warzone is also an ongoing concern. Although there have been difficulties across its history, the ideas behind the Collective have remained strong and relevant. Changing the world is exhausting and many quit, many too, leave for a variety of reasons, but not Bleakney.
“Belfast was always home, and I am so glad I stayed, because look at it now,” she says, “For me, I stayed and learned and grew in confidence and raised a son and set up a business and now, at 50, I’m still involved in vegan activism and have a vegan food business, all while being surrounded by loving friends I have had since the days of Giros. I have travelled a lot, but leaving for me was never even a thought. . . I had far too much going for me in the fantastic city,”
“Why break away from a place that you love and where all your raw material is?” he says.