The Last Night of Sammy McCleave – June 1973 – Part I

Despite the violence which had plagued Northern Ireland since 1969 people in Belfast and the larger provincial towns held firmly to some sense of normality. In this regard they were accommodated by an eclectic selection of night-time entertainment provided by the various cinemas and music venues. Any notion of Belfast’s nightlife being completely decimated by the subterranean levels of violence society had witnessed throughout 1972 is contradicted by a quick glance through the ‘What’s On’ listing in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday 1 June 1973. The Majestic cinema on the Lisburn Road was showing Hot Bed of Sex and Erotic Love Games while the Strand in East Belfast had a similarly raunchy offering of low culture in the form of Diary of a Half Virgin and Sex and the Vampire. Those who preferred their entertainment in a more highbrow format could attend one of the final performances of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Arms and the Man at the Lyric Theatre off the Stranmillis Road in South Belfast while The Godfather was showing at the Grove Theatre in North Belfast. 

In Unity Place, on the northern edge of Belfast city centre, a young man named Sammy McCleave was getting ready to go out for the evening. Unity Place was part of the Unity Flats complex, a so-called modern housing project which had been built to replace the dilapidated dwellings of old Carrick Hill. For decades the area had been an epicentre for sectarian conflict with the mainly Catholic working class community who lived there being at loggerheads with their near neighbours on the Shankill Road, the heartland of urban loyalism in Northern Ireland. Unity Flats was like a scaled-down Thamesmead estate in London which was supposedly the future of working class housing as modelled on futuristic Swedish architecture of the time. By the early 1970s Thamesmead had become run down and abused, its grim and foreboding walkways firmly associated in 1973 with Stanley Kubrick’s grimly prescient dystopian film adaptation (1971) of Anthony Burgess’s satirical novel A Clockwork Orange.

Sammy McCleave

Unity Flats was based on the same modern planning as Thamesmead. Planners mistakenly believed that working class people would be better off without the old terraced-style housing stock which had characterised industrial Belfast for decades. The open walkways and balconies of Unity Flats quickly became associated in people’s minds with prison-like structures which in turn created a ghetto feeling among the residents who were the ongoing subject of loyalist ire in the pages of a publication by the firebrand leader of the Red Hand Commando John McKeague.

It has always been difficult to run against the grain in Belfast. It is small and village-like, and in 1973 any perceived anomalies in a young man’s persona would be picked up and remembered in what had become an unforgiving city, redrawn on increasingly sectarianised lines since 1971. 25-year-old Sammy McCleave was different. He was recuperating after suffering two severe beatings in recent years, supposedly at the hands of local gangs of Protestant youths known as the Tartan. The Tartan gangs were vicious street-fighters who had emerged from the exploits of a group of young lads known as the Shankill Young Team who had stolen Burberry scarves during a trip to Glasgow in the late 1960s to watch their beloved Rangers play at Ibrox. Thereafter they were dubbed by older youths at Linfield games as the Shankill Young Tartan. The Tartan moniker stuck and became popular. When the conflict broke out in Northern Ireland in 1969 the gangs quickly proliferated and became defenders of their communities against republicans. They also gained a notoriety for spontaneous and bloody violence and were feared as much within their own communities as by their Catholic adversaries.

Sammy was a dandyish character. One of the freaks in a city where there weren’t many. Later the journalist Ted Oliver would write that Sammy McCleave ‘… was a bit of a wisecracker. He loved dancing. He wore really modern clothes. He knew nearly everybody and nearly everybody knew him.’ His family told Oliver that Sammy had been badly beaten on the West Circular Road two years earlier, his mother adamant that this changed him. ‘My son was never the same after that beating. He was on drugs for his nerves and he lost a lot of weight. He just wasn’t the same lad. The beating affected him very badly. He was getting tablets from the doctor and he was attending a psychiatrist.’

On the afternoon of Friday 1 June Sammy spent some time with one of his older brothers, Gerry. Gerry was 37-years-old and had ten children. As the afternoon turned to evening and Gerry took his leave of his younger brother, Sammy’s mind began to drift toward what this particular Friday evening would bring. He wouldn’t go to the cinema to see any of the sexploitation films that were showing. A Friday evening spent watching a film like The Godfather would be a waste of good dancing time. Since the beatings he had suffered Sammy had become insular. He was unable to work and used some of the giro money he received to go out and socialise on a Friday evening; often his only reason to leave the house. ‘He never left the house except on a Friday night. Then he would go to the Tavern, have a few beers and maybe go on to a disco in the centre of town’ his mother later revealed.

Before having his tea, Sammy helped some of his other relations deliver pools coupons round the doors of Unity Flats. For this he was given 25 or 30p.

Roy Wood’s Wizzard were number one in the charts with the single ‘See My Baby Jive’ while Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and 10CC’s ‘Rubber Bullets’ also provided the soundtrack for the youth of Britain in late May and early June.

Sammy’s mother and her youngest daughter had left Belfast earlier on the Friday afternoon to holiday in Coventry, a city which had been devastated by the German Luftwaffe during the Second World War. She had left Sammy with a warning to behave himself and not to be going out at night. ‘I was worried about him going out because he always seemed to be getting chased or beaten. Sometimes I used to go down and see if I could stop him.’ As Mrs McCleave settled into her temporary holiday accommodation she could not have known that her son had ignored her advice to stay inside and keep a low profile.

The Tavern public house was less than five minutes’ walk from Sammy’s front door in Unity Place. Located at 65 Union Street, the Tavern was in a dank and lonely location in 1973. In recent years the area has come to life and has been adopted by Belfast’s vibrant gay community. The Tavern still stands at the corner of Union Street and Kent Street and it still has a security cage over its door. It isn’t known as The Tavern anymore; these days it is called the Sunflower and is a meeting place for many of Belfast’s bohemians and left-wing political intellectuals. In June 1973 it was The Tavern, a local pub for Catholics from the surrounding area. Back then the security cage wasn’t even the significant, curious feature it has become in the year 2020. Many pubs had these steel cages installed simply in an effort to deter the relentless attention of the gunmen and the bombers.

*PLEASE NOTE: I have since been correctly reminded that The Tavern at this stage was in Unity Flats. Any future publication will change this part of the account to reflect that.

Sometime during the evening of Friday 1 June, a young man named Joseph Dempsey was drinking in The Tavern. Dempsey also lived in Unity Flats and was friendly with Sammy.

He sat beside me and we chatted and had a few drinks up to about 11.30 pm and we stood outside the bar for another few minutes talking and then we went round to his house at [redacted]. We stayed there for about 15 minutes or so and Sammy told [redacted] that he was going down town to a dance. He had a bit of a wash and away we went. He told [redacted] that he would be in for 2 o’clock.

Despite Northern Ireland being in the full grip of civil strife, there were still a number of night-time venues which catered for people wishing to enjoy a late drink and dance. In fact some entrepreneurs were undeterred by the violence and threw their finances into opening new clubs. One of these was Shelleys which had opened in 1970. Shelleys was on the ‘wrong side’ of Victoria Street; near the Townhall Court but also close to the docks and the Albert Clock. After dark this could be a seedy place which was frequented by prostitutes and others who were down on their luck. The owner of Shelleys was a Londoner by the name of Louis Wise. There were suggestions that a sense of hubris on his part meant that he defied local advice to steer well clear of opening a new club in town. After all, how could a disco in one of the city’s main thoroughfares fail?

In fairness to Louis Wise, there were few people in the spring of 1970 who could have envisaged that Northern Ireland was staring down a twenty-four year abyss of bloodshed and death. A large advertisement was placed in the Belfast Telegraph towards the end of May [pictured below] which promised to be a ‘Great New London Style Disco scene for Sophisticats’ where patrons could ‘Eat from nine ’til breakfast time’ and ‘Hear the sound go round with COUNT MORRIS – Shelley’s own Jamaican D.J.’

The doors were due to open for the first time on Friday 29 May 1970 at 9 p.m. Memberships could be applied for by those over the age of 16.

The locals knew what Louis didn’t, and their familiarity with the characteristics of that part of the city meant that they were proven correct in their assertion that Shelleys wouldn’t attract the ‘fashionable set’ that Louis Wise had envisaged. Some later spoke of ‘invisible boundaries’ in the city centre that only people from Belfast could see.

At 12.30 a.m. on Saturday 2 June 1973, Joseph Dempsey and Sammy McCleave arrived at Shelleys, having walked from Sammy’s house in Unity Place. On foot the journey would normally take no longer than ten minutes, but the two young men had been drinking a fair bit throughout the evening, and it is likely that Sammy had, like a lot of people do, overlooked the effect that alcohol can have when mixed with antidepressant medication.

Sammy’s mother was right to worry about him, and her assertion that he was always being chased or beaten was sadly correct. He just seemed to have a ‘devil may care’ attitude to life, something that was later confirmed by Alice McCann, a cashier at Shelleys. On 3 June 1973 she told police the following:

I knew Samuel McCleave, [-] Unity Place, Belfast for about the past 4 years. I first got to know him when I went to the Abercorn Bar about 4 years ago and he was a regular customer in the bar.

I took up employment here [Shelleys] about 2 years ago. At that time Samuel McCleave was a regular customer at Shelleys. He was always well behaved and he never appeared to have a lot of drink taken. However about a year or so ago when Sammy came to the Disco he appeared to be under the influence of drugs. He did not appear to have drink taken but was staggering about and was definitely drugged. On these occasions he would fall about all over the place staggering. He never gave any trouble or became involved in any rows, he just made a nuisance of himself.

As a result [redacted] barred him on several occasions. He would stay away for a while and then come back and hang around the door and try to get in again. Each time he was barred he would eventually come back in a normal condition and would be allowed in again. After he was allowed back he would then start taking pills again and would be staggering about and he was then barred again.

Around about January 1973, Sammy McCleave was barred again from entering Shelleys, presumably by Louis Wise himself. Despite this, Sammy did manage to sneak his way past the doormen and cashier and dance with all the other kids in their hotpants and gypsy tops and flares and ruffle shirts. It was just a great place to dance and meet people, and Sammy loved dancing and he loved people.

Looking back, Sammy’s brother Gerry found it strange that he hadn’t dressed up for dancing: ‘He wasn’t dressed for going down the town. He always put his gear on. But that night he had on the same clothes as he was wearing in the afternoon. He was wearing a polo neck sweater and that wasn’t Sammy’s style for going out.’

As she retired to her bed in Coventry that evening, Sammy’s mother more than likely thought about her son and the troubles he had endured over the past few years. She worried about him as any parent worries about a wayward child, no matter their age. ‘We always treated Sammy as the baby of the family. He was just like a child’ Mrs McCleave recalled. Sammy was a ‘mummy’s boy’ – he was close to his mother, to whom he was devoted: ‘He would sit and watch films on TV and say aren’t those girls lovely’ she later said. ‘We would say Sammy, why don’t you find a nice girl and get married. He would say, ‘Sure me ma’s my best girl. She’s all I need.’


Part II to follow.



BELF/6/1/1/39/36A – Coroner’s Inquest relating to the death of Samuel McCleave who died at Hill Street, Belfast. Date of death: 2 June 1973.

Belfast Telegraph

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Published by gmulvenna

Co-editor of 'The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); author of 'Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash' (Liverpool University Press, 2016) Currently: -Collaborating with Billy Hutchinson on his autobiography -Curating and archiving photographs of West Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s taken by my late father-in-law Paul Molloy -Trying my hand at creative writing

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