The Shankill Butchers ride tonight
You’d better shut your windows tight
They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
And taking all their whiskey by the pint
— The Decemberists, “The Shankill Butchers”
They were the worst gang of serial killers in British history. From 1975 to 1979 they terrorized Northern Ireland. Today the area they haunted, Shankill, has become synonymous with savagery.
The Shankill Butchers were a loyalist (Protestant) gang, many of whose members belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Headed by Lenny Murphy, a former convict, the gang brutally murdered 23 people within a period of four years. Catholics were abducted on the streets and slowly tortured. Some were ferociously beaten. Others were shot or had their throats cut open.
The group’s deeds were so legendary that they soon passed into folklore. Catholics who grew up during the height of the “Troubles” (as the war came to be known) recall how their mothers would warn them not to go out at night, or the Butchers would get them. Yet as sadistic as their methods were, it’s worth asking whether this gang was really the most extreme form of evil in a conflict that ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives.
Continuing with our Celtic theme for this week, today I would like to share one of my favorite songs, “There Were Roses” by the Irish activist and balladeer Tommy Sands.
The song is a true story based on events in Tommy’s own life. He grew up during a time of civil war in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. But one of his best friends (Allen Bell) was a Protestant, and another (Sean O’Malley) was a Catholic. The three friends vowed that the conflict would never get in the way of their friendship.
But then one night Allen was murdered. Enraged, the Protestant loyalists went looking for a Catholic to murder in retaliation. They ended up killing Sean, and Tommy was left friendless and devastated.
But in the midst of his grief, he wrote this song. This is the more famous version by Moloney, O’Connell, and Keane. It will break your heart.
Today was the first day of this year that actually felt like fall. Like October.
It was a windy day, cool and dark. Half the leaves on our trees are still green, but the other half have already died, and there are brown patches in the yard where the grass is dying. There was no sun. The clouds were a strange color: not quite gray and not quite blue, but somehow both.
This time of year always produces conflicted feelings. So many bad things seem to happen in October and November, and the whole world is graying and mournful. Appropriate, I guess; elegant in its own way; yet also terrible and bleak and unutterably sad.
But it isn’t evil. It feels right, somehow. Right for this time of year. Continue reading