ONCE UPON A TIME IN NORTHERN IRELAND: DAVID’S STORY
Much of my childhood and late adolescence contained an awareness of violence and major unrest in Northern Ireland. I’m not from that part of the world and I barely knew anyone who was, but it seemed that most evening news bulletins carried grainy images of bomb explosions and killings.
Many historians identify 12th August 1969 as the beginning of the Troubles, as they have been termed. A loyalist parade in Derry sparked three days of rioting and violent reprisals. A loyalist group, known as the ‘Apprentice Boys’ marched through the Bogside, a largely Catholic part of town. This triggered a violent reaction, as nationalist Bogsiders barricaded the streets and hurled Molotov cocktails.
The ‘Battle of the Bogside’, as it’s now known, raged for three days and the unrest spread to Belfast, where loyalist groups turned on Catholic neighbourhoods and burned 1,500 homes to the ground.
By August 14th, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence Marne O’Neill, was so overwhelmed by the unfolding events that he called on the British government to send in troops to restore order. It was the beginning of thirty years of a British military presence on the streets of Northern Ireland. The next three decades saw unceasing conflict between the British Army, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and various loyalist para-military groups.
Although largely restricted to Northern Ireland, the IRA also staged bombing campaigns on the UK mainland, as well as Europe. Between 1969 and 1998, somewhere in the region of 3,700 people were killed and 30,000 wounded.
Living with the legacy
The BBC has recently broadcast a five-part documentary series called Once Upon a Time In Northern Ireland. The programmes combine raw personal accounts with archive footage to tell the story of the people and communities who had to live with violence daily – and are still dealing with its legacies today. The series gives a voice to the people who lived through the Troubles, sharing intimate stories from all sides of the conflict.
David Hamilton is not one of the voices heard in this extraordinary series, but his story is captivating. He is now an evangelist and pastor, but it was not always so. I recently met David, whose life has been shaped by the Troubles. I began by asking him about his early years.
‘I lived in a housing estate that was probably predominantly Protestant, but some of my friends were Roman Catholics. At the age of 13, a bomb exploded and blew me out of bed. It was just across the road from my house and it was the first bomb explosion that I ever heard.
And when I went out, all the neighbors and everybody who was out on the street were pointing to where the blast had been, and somebody was saying that it was the IRA.
This was 1969, so I was thirteen. When I was probably around 15, I was walking home from school, when a group of boys approached me, four or five of them. I knew they were Roman Catholics by their school uniform, but when they got up to me one of them said to the others, “I think we should beat Davie Hamilton up.”
‘The next thing I knew, the guy started punching me. After they beat me, they tossed me into the river. As they turned to walk away one of them stopped and looked around. He told me that I was a Protestant and they were Catholics, and Protestant and Catholics fight with each other. So that was a turning point, that day in my life.’
Another decisive meeting took place shortly after this incident: ‘I was in a youth club one night, when these men came in with army uniforms and set them on top of the table tennis table. One of them said, “We are starting a Protestant paramilitary group to fight the IRA, and we want gang members to join.”’
David became a paramilitary, being trained in armed combat and organised crime. He eventually served a number of long stretches in prison, feeding on sectarian bitterness and the reality that four of his family had been wounded in a republican bomb explosion.
Whilst in prison, David began thinking about God in a completely new way. ‘I was sitting on my bed drinking my tea, and a voice spoke to me. “David, it’s time to change – become a Christian.” And I thought, this is a strange thought.’
He found himself replaying episodes from his life: ‘I said to myself, David, God has spared your life. David, it is God that has kept you alive. For the next half an hour or so, God brought revelation to me, back to occasions where I should have died. ‘I was planting a bomb one time in a building and as I was exiting the building, the bomb exploded prematurely and blew me up in it. And I woke up lying on the ground, and the building was on fire, and I thought, I’ll be cut to pieces.
And when I stood up and examined myself, there was not so much as a scratch! But that night, sitting there on the bed, I thought, was that God? And then the thought came that God only loves good people. Would God save me, a terrorist? And that was the whole dilemma for me, thinking that God would intervene in my life.’
Then another memory came, probably my worst experience. I was walking up the street and the guy on the other side happened to look over. Why is he watching me, I thought? He ran across and he opened his jacket and he pulled out a gun, and as he came over he pointed the gun at my head. I reached out and grabbed his arm and pulled his arm down, but he shot me three times, and I was lying on the ground.
‘And as I was lying on the ground, he leaned over, and he put the gun right in my head. I looked up at him when he pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. That’s what happened, and he cursed me then and ran off. Someone heard the shooting, put me into the car and got me to the hospital.
They operated and took three bullets out of me.’
‘But you know what? I was sitting on the bed in jail, and I said to myself, God, was that you protecting me. Though why? Why? And I thought this just doesn’t make sense, because if God only loves good people…?’ This led to a moment of profound change in David’s life:‘I asked Him to change me and make me a new person. When my cellmate was sleeping, I actually got out and knelt down and I prayed. God in His mercy listened to my prayer, and I got up from my knees – I was smiling to myself when I got into bed. The next morning when I woke up, even my cell mate looked at me, and he says, “What are you smiling for”?’ And I laughed and said, ‘I became a Christian last night.’
David left prison a transformed man, communicating to others the profound renewal he has found in Jesus Christ.
You can read David Hamilton’s full story in his book A Cause Worth Living For. It tells of how a former loyalist terrorist became a Christian after serving time in the notorious Maze prison.
He now spends his life telling people about the transformation Jesus can bring. David lives in Manchester with his wife and five children
A Cause Worth Living For