Five-minute memoir: Adrian McKinty recalls a scary school run during the Troubles


Each weekday my brother and I would walk over to the major's house and wait with his son, a boy at our school, while he went outside and looked under his Ford Granada for a block of Semtex. When he was satisfied that there was no bomb, he would tell us to come outside and then he'd drive us all to school. This went on for several months until one particular snowy morning in January 1982 when the major muttered that it was too cold for that nonsense and we were all just to get in the car.

This was Ulster at the height of the Troubles. It's a time people want to forget, and a kind of conspiracy of silence has grown up around the entire era. As I researched this period for a novel, and dredged my own memories of that time, several incidents that I had completely repressed came back to me: the time I was knocked down by a police Land Rover in a hit-and-run; fights with local paramilitary thugs (one of which resulted in 18 stitches and eye surgery); the night when seemingly half the police force showed up at our housing estate to arrest one of my neighbours for a double homicide.

And I had forgotten the rides to school I had taken with an army major, when I thought that perhaps this was the day I was going to die.

It's so strange to think on it all now and how normal it seemed at the time.

By the 1980s, the IRA's most effective way of killing soldiers and police officers was by use of the mercury tilt switch bomb. The device would be attached to the underside of the victim's car and it worked by sending an electrical pulse into a detonator which then exploded into Semtex plastic explosive. Crucially, the electrical contact in the detonator was left uncompleted, but a vial of mercury awaited within the bomb and, as soon as the vehicle reached an incline, the mercury would pour and complete the circuit.

The beauty of a mercury tilt device was that it could sit under the victim's vehicle for days, even weeks, and wouldn't go off until the car was driven. Sooner or later the driver would encounter an incline. Of course, the weapon did not discriminate between driver and passengers: Semtex is powerful stuff, and there were many cases of entire families being killed.

On our school runs, the major's son sat up front and my brother and I went in the back. As usual, the major turned on the local station, Downtown Radio. Country standards and Genesis were interspersed with traffic reports and news about the previous night's terrorist attacks.

The first part of the journey was flat but the school was at the top of the North Road in Carrickfergus well into the Antrim Plateau, and that incline I knew would be more than sufficient to trip the mercury and complete the circuit.

We turned on to the North Road and I held my breath. To our left was the grim Castlemara housing estate with its naïve art UDA murals of balaclava'd gunmen, to the right was Carrickfergus Golf Course – all manicured lawns and elegant sand traps. The symbolism was almost too neat – here we were balanced between heaven and hell.

The incline began and I clenched my fists in panic. The ads on Downtown ended and Dolly Parton began singing her haunting early-Seventies hit, "Little Sparrow". This was the missing piece for a perfect movie death: no doubt the car would be torn to shreds, all four of us would be eviscerated, but the radio would survive and Dolly would still be singing among the smouldering debris.

The incline grew steeper. My knuckles were white. My little brother was completely unconcerned and this infuriated me. Didn't he realise that we were all going to die? And of course it was this nonchalance that would make the gods spare him, whereas I would surely cop it.

The song and the hill reached their climax. I closed my eyes and counted off five long seconds. Hesitantly I opened them again and saw, miraculously, that we were at the school driveway. We had somehow survived.

Over the next few years there were several dozen occasions when the major didn't look under his car: when it was really cold – or just when he'd had a late night. Luckily, he was never targeted.

My little brother went on to serve as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and thinks little of this story now, but I've had few genuine near-death experiences and certainly nothing has come close to scaring me like those mornings in Carrickfergus in the early 1980s when I thought that Death was lurking under the car.

Adrian McKinty's novel, 'The Cold Cold Ground' (Serpent's Tail), set in 1981 in Ulster, is out now