It was a date before another savagery commenced. Our conflict was much closer to home than the D Day landings commemorated every 6 June.
1966 was a time, when as 11 year olds, our broad horizons of innocence and hope stretched out before us – for a while at least.
I have never forgotten that particular date because our history teacher, Mr Henderson or Sammy as we called him behind his back, pointed out something beyond the significance of the commemoration of the D day landings. Such a phenomenon as the 6th of June 1966 – the 6th of the 6th 66 – only happened every 11 years. Next time would be the 7th of July 1977. Sammy was full of this kind of fascinating stuff that we youngsters loved. It thrilled us to find ourselves in class on such an auspicious date. Weren’t we the lucky ones? Not quite, now we had an essay to write: What would we be doing on 7th July 1977?
Sammy as was his wont returned to his piano playing, cigarette hanging from his mouth, leaving us to ponder on our futures. Sammy was the music teacher as well.
At age 11 another 11 years was almost impossible to conceive. But we tried. Predictions flowed. Some wild, but who could tell? It turned out that some came close to the mark. Two friends bent their heads over their essay books in contemplation of those years ahead.
“What do you reckon about 1977, Seumie?” whispered Andy.
“Jesus Seumie, why Gaelic?” said a disappointed Andy. “You’re a brilliant rugby player. They say you could be the next Barry John. You could be out half for Ireland they say.”
“Barry John’s Welsh, ya eijit. Naw, Gaelic’s my game.”
“What’s an ‘all star’ anyway?”
“Best player in the position of all the county teams,” said Seumie. “What about you, boy?”
“I want to travel. See the world. Be an explorer.” His gaze drifted out of the classroom to the summer fields beyond and then turned back to Seamie inspired: “We’ll meet up in 1977 and see who did it and plan the next 11 years!”
“You’ll end up in a big pot being cooked in Africa, the boy ye, with your big ears being fried up like crisps. Jaysus don’t I know it!” Seumie reached out grabbed one of Andy’s big ears, held it tight and twisted. Andy fought back and punched Seamie hard under the desk until he let go.
“Sir, O’Kane says he’s going to be a star in 1977 playing Gaelic,” Andy announced to Mr Henderson behind the piano.
“And Thompson says he’s going tae run roun’ Africa naked chasin’ black wimen, sir” retaliated Seumie.
Engrossed in his piano playing Sammy simply mumbled: “Settle down, settle down.”
The class giggled quietly and the two resumed their dreams of a far off date.
The two boys remained best friends until Seumie left school at 15 in 1970. Andy was glad that his friend wasn’t in school on that awful Monday morning in January 1972 when friends’ backs were turned on each other. Overnight their world had fragmented and spun off on a very different axis. There was no more play fighting. After that Sunday in ’72 it was for real, deadly real.
By 7 July 1977 Andy was a hippy living in the Negev Desert in Israel. He had become something of the explorer he had hoped he would, but he never made it to Africa to get his ears fried. His brush with death came much closer to home. In the bloody summer of ‘72 he left school and joined the loyalist paramilitaries. He ended up in prison by the time he was 18. He was lucky to get out in one piece to pursue his dream of exploring the world beyond the narrow killing lanes of rural Ulster.
Gaelic was a world away from Andy’s. So he wasn’t to know of Seumie’s achievements until in a chance conversation with a Gaelic fan some decades later when Andy discovered with a mixture of delight and sorrow that his school friend, Seumie O’Kane had come close to realising his dream, but a price had been paid. Seumie had indeed become an outstanding Gaelic star by 7 July 1977, only to have drink and a near fatal car crash destroy his health and his ambitions of becoming a full Gaelic ‘All Star’. To his amazement and pride Andy learnt that he, Andy Thompson, ex-Loyalist paramilitary, had sat next to the great Gaelic star, Seumas O’Kane at school when they had made their plans together on that day of days, 6th of June 1966.
Seumie and Andy never met to boast of their achievements as they had planned to or to talk about their setbacks, and their plans for the next eleven years. There was never another suitable date.