A DIFFERENT KIND OF HERO
When I first heard the story of the loft-sitters, I thought the information being given to me was false. I thought I was being lied to. I mean I know a little bit about that period in history. I’ve read some books, seen some movies. I grew up in Scotland, and I realize the body of water between Scotland and Ireland holds lots of secrets, but I thought someone must have written about these soldiers somewhere. At that point I had no way to confirm if any of the story I’d been told actually happened, and even today, almost three years later, I can only find one newspaper article from that time which alludes to it. I have other confirmation now though. I mean I had to; I wrote a book about these men.
I’m going to tell you a story about a story, and chances are, you’ve never heard any of this before. And if you’re like me, you’ll be amazed that the exploits of these brave men (and perhaps women too), hasn’t been told in some form already.
Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine shared the first part of the story with me. Without knowing it, he planted a seed, and what he told me was only a small part of what happened, but as with any story, there needs to be a beginning. My acquaintance, when he was a young man, served with the British Army during the 1980’s. While on active duty he was sent to Northern Ireland and given a unique mission. He was a spy, stationed above houses, in attics on ordinary streets. During the time of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, when bombs were going off in residential areas and British soldiers occupied parts of the country, ordinary citizens who were sympathetic to the British cause would volunteer their homes, or the tops of their homes. They’d allow soldiers to sneak up into their attics in the middle of the night, and from there the soldiers would listen to the comings and goings in the homes below. It was a precarious position for the soldiers because they never knew whether the home owner was going to have a change of heart and turn on them and let the Irish Republican Army know they had spies in their homes, or whether the IRA members themselves, having their own sources of information, would discover them.
The British refer to them as “hard men”; we call them tough guys. Often, the soldiers picked for these missions were misfits or hard men, and the information they gathered was extremely important as they moved around above the tenement homes. In some cases they were actually able to move from house to house as some of them had no dividing walls up in the attics. Their listening devices were their ears, and from their perches upstairs in the lofts, as they called them, they’d listen as neighbors visited in the kitchens and living rooms below. The neighbors, not knowing that the homeowner had a soldier spying from above, would talk about the exploits of their sons, their loyalist sons, who were part of the IRA. These were the same sons whose mandate was to find a way to force the British out of Ireland. The means they used often involved planting bombs, and the information the loft-sitters acquired was important, as was the intelligence they collected about the hierarchy within the IRA. The neighbors visiting below were sometimes IRA members themselves, and the hidden soldiers would learn who the players were and how the system worked within the ranks. And when their mission was over, days later, they’d sneak back out, down the trap door into the house, and out in to the night, to a patrol that would pick them up. Then, back to their waiting superiors.
My acquaintance told me of his involvement up in the lofts. He explained how they survived. He talked about the darkness, the boredom, and the occasional kernels of knowledge that would come from sitting, listening to seemingly ordinary men and women talking. The homes the soldiers were placed in were always in a “hot” district, an area that was purported to be heavy in IRA activity. He told me they always left with something they hadn’t known before, and sometimes even a minor piece of information proved to be something their superiors could utilize.
In 2012 I wrote a book, My Name Is Hardly. It was the second book in the My Temporary Life Trilogy. I placed one of my characters up in a loft. I was able to use the information that
my acquaintance had passed on to me to legitimize it all. When I’d finished and had gone through the editing process I was happy with the story. It had all the elements that my readers enjoy. It had suspense, mystery, and a dash of romance. I just had one problem – I didn’t know if there really were loft-sitters, and that was the major part of my story. The stories my acquaintance had shared with me could have been a product of his imagination. So, I went to that huge encyclopedia of knowledge I often rely on. I googled. And, googled. And, I couldn’t find anything to substantiate his claims. Finally, I found the previously mentioned article. The newspaper article I found was from 2003 and quotes a Sinn Fein official. Sinn Fein is a political party that has long been associated with the Provisional IRA. Here’s what the IRA representative said in the article, “In and around that area, over a long period of time, there have been many recorded incidents of British intelligence using houses, buildings and properties as spy posts on the local community.”
The article detailed the exploits of two British soldiers who made a very close getaway from the loft above a building in west Belfast. So, the IRA may have known that the soldiers were up in the lofts. My imagination had already gone in that direction and I’d included that possibility as part of my novel. Now I had a newspaper article quoting confirmation from a Sinn Fein official that there had indeed been loft-sitters. That was good, but it still wasn’t enough to make me feel comfortable. So, I went right to the source; I contacted the British Government.
It took a little while for them to get back to me but the UK Ministry of Defence sent me a nice email saying there was more information available through the Freedom of Information Act and directed me to where I could look further. I was on a deadline at that point, and I knew it would take some time to dig deeper, so I didn’t follow up this lead, and although they were kind enough to respond, it still wasn’t really a confirmation. Before I published, I had another idea. Through my circle of writing acquaintances I contacted a fellow writer who had been a newspaper correspondent in Northern Ireland during the time of the “Troubles”. He was kind enough to read and fact-check my novel and came back with his own confirmation. He also knew of the loft-sitters and although he didn’t know whether or not the IRA was aware of them, he knew the soldiers had been up there.
From there I contacted two Irish writers who had lived in the heart of the battleground during the same time period. They didn’t know about soldiers sitting up in lofts. One had heard rumors, but couldn’t confirm. It didn’t matter though, I felt I had enough. There was still a slight lingering doubt, but it was just a small doubt. The last thing I wanted to happen was to have folks who lived through that time, or worse yet, soldiers who put their lives on the line contact me and say that my story was a bunch of hooey. I decided to forge ahead anyway.
My Name Is Hardly was released in December of 2012. The book has sold well; in fact it’s been a bestseller in a couple of different categories and currently has over one hundred reviews and a 4.5 out of 5 average rating. I was proud to be able to tell the story of the soldiers who until now had not been recognized or acknowledged. That’s not where the story ended though.
A few weeks after I published my book I began receiving emails from people who knew much more about loft-sitting than I did. When I read the first email and it started with I believe you were referring to missions my partner undertook in Northern Ireland some years ago… I got very nervous. I thought this would be where my carefully researched material would crack under pressure, but I was wrong. Here’s a small section from that first email:
I wanted to thank you for shedding light on that time of our lives. We’ve had more discussions in our home over the past few days than we’ve had in all the years since my partner returned. He’d told us that for his last two tours in Northern Ireland (he was there for four), he’d been in a military prison. We now know this didn’t happen. He’s told us of situations similar to those in your book. He’s talking to me and his parents about what really happened. Thank you, Mr. Crosbie.
A shiver went down my spine. No amount of sales or Amazon bestseller badges could equal the feeling I felt when I read that email. My book, with the situation that no one seemed to have written about, had helped a family. And, that wasn’t the only one. Others came in, some confirming, some giving me minor details that they wanted to add. One soldier said he spent more time in ditches watching and waiting than in lofts, but that yes, he had indeed done his time up in the lofts. I corresponded with a couple of them, but for the most part they just wanted to thank me for telling a bit of their story, and then they went back to their lives and their anonymity. Then, I received an email from a soldier who dropped a name, a big name. He had listened in on the most prolific member of the IRA. He’d crouched in a loft and overheard the man who, at that time was the face of the IRA, sitting down below in the kitchen, plotting, planning, and giving orders. Bear in mind, soldiers and policemen were being killed almost daily in Northern Ireland. This wasn’t a game. The conversations this soldier overheard were about activities that would change the course of history, and they’d affect the lives of lots of families.
To this day, he has the same questions that I do. Did they know he was up there? Were the IRA in cahoots with the homeowners or were the homeowners pawns in the whole game? Perhaps we’ll never know. The men who played these deadly games remember what it was like, but nobody is talking. The aforementioned man who was the face of the Irish Republican Army is perhaps the best known politician in Ireland today and he’s not likely to shed any light on it. And, as I can confirm from my correspondence, the soldiers still remember, and they have the same questions.
I don’t think I’ll ever receive a more important email than the one from the woman who was finally able to understand what her partner had been through during the time of the “Troubles”. I don’t know why more hasn’t been written on this subject. These were brave soldiers, heroes, and although my book gave their missions a little bit of light, enough hasn’t been said about any of this. There’s more to be told on this story; hopefully this is only the beginning.