Joe grew up on the New Lodge estate in north Belfast.
“When we moved into it, it was a construction site, everything was brand new and spic and span. It was a lot of adventure and a lot of fun playing on the building sites. Then the Troubles broke out”.
Joe spent his childhood living in an area at the heart of the Troubles, but being a young child, he has fragmented memories.
“McGurk’s Bar, in which fifteen people were killed, was literally 50 feet away from our doorstep. It just shows the innocence of growing up. We remember the bomb, we remember the bang, we remember all of the destruction. Yet, we don’t remember a single funeral, we don’t remember anybody being killed. If you look around our immediate area it was the most dangerous place to be and we were growing up in the middle of it.”
Joe’s memories of his childhood reflect his innocence and lack of understanding about his immediate surroundings.
“If you had asked us who the I.R.A were, we wouldn’t have had a clue. All we knew, that one-minute we were playing with action men and the next minute the action men were running about the streets. We never looked at them as occupational forces or the enemy, we just looked at them as being soldiers who were here for some reason that was way above our heads.”
Joe remembers friends from different social backgrounds.
“I must have been about four. I don’t know how it happened, but I got playing with a young kid from the Shankill estate, we were friends for a long time. It was my turn to go and call over for him and between Unity Flats and the Shankill, there was this massive barbed-wire fence, which had been erected overnight by the Army. He came down because he was wondering where I was and we just stood there looking at each other through this big massive barbed wire fence… after that we never saw each other again.”
“Even today it hurts me that this massive barbed-wire fence was erected for reasons totally beyond us and yet, we couldn’t play with each other.”
Joe left school unable to read or write. He found himself in constant trouble as a young adult. After spending time in a young offenders centre Joe realised that he simply had to change his ways.
“When people say there was no way you could have taught yourself they’re wrong. I was getting words from Ladybird books and compared them with words in the newspapers and it all went from there.”
There was one teacher who provided Joe with the encouragement and academic stimulation that he sought.
“She gave me two things, a children’s dictionary and a children’s Bible. If she had never given me that children’s dictionary I don’t think it would ever have happened, that was the turning point.”
Having the ability to read and write helped Joe become more aware of the social issues in his community.
“One of the things that I started to learn about was the living conditions, we were brought up in a sectarian way, that Catholics had nothing and Protestants had everything. The things that I was reading about were people’s rights in terms of housing and social benefits.”
Joe became actively involved in the campaign to get better housing in north Belfast. Joe became involved in the Ace Scheme (Action for Community Employment), and with others helped to decorate the homes of neighbours.
“It gave a sense of community, it was people in the local area who were working on it, doing stuff for the people of the local area.”
The New Lodge Festival first started in the 1970s and the North Queen Street Community Centre in the 1980s.
“The festival was achieved without funding, there was no money. Everybody did their bit for nothing. The festival always showed the talent in areas like the New Lodge. Even today we have schemes such as New Lodge Arts. I’m talking about kids who can draw, artwork, singing, dancing. The talent is beyond belief.”
The Ashton Centre was a community initiative first developed in 1985. It opened as a centre for enterprise and community development in 1991, to train local members of the community and provide employment opportunities.
“I was only meant to be involved for two years, that was twenty years ago. The New Lodge at that time, the unemployment was beyond belief. Local people came together to change it for themselves. The Ashton Centre has not only got one or two buildings, it has five. It employs over 100 people, most of them from west and north Belfast. It’s no secret that we are cross community employers. We don’t look at people and ask them “where are you from?” We don’t care.”
Joe’s interest in history began in an unlikely setting, the Clifton Street Cemetery.
“I remember growing up in the old graveyard. We done all sorts in there, courting girls, glue sniffing, drinking. I remember reading and being fascinated by all the headstones. I also remember when all of the old houses and old buildings were being demolished, and I remember thinking, why can’t they just fix them up? They’re beautiful buildings. I couldn’t understand why I had this interest in these buildings.”
“I was interested in the gory stuff. One of the first books I did was ‘The Belfast Murders’ Letters appeared in the press. People actually thought that I had made them up. I’d like to think that I’ve uncovered stuff that people would not have known about.”
Since the publication of Belfast Murders, Joe went on to publish his self penned Autobiography – Hooligan to Historian: The Life and Times of Joe Baker (So Far).
On the future of north Belfast, Joe shares with us,
“I used to have a very Nationalist view until I realised, as I grew older, if we get a united Ireland we’ll just be as badly off! The way forward is for people within areas to come together. I believe people should come together to achieve things regardless of what that is, as long as it isn’t something negative.”