Carrying the difficult memories of others
During my PhD research in and on Northern Ireland I was privileged to spend time with a wide range of people who would identify with the nuanced levels of victimhood associated with the NI conflict, or at least those nuances which tended to be acknowledged by academics and critical thinkers. The conversations I had with these people were not directly to do with my research. They were not interviews, and were never recorded, but have impacted on me as memories I carry and give me the motivation to keep working. I don’t know how, but people seem to be comfortable talking to me, and I like to listen when they do because you never know what you'll learn.
Two instances in particular have stayed with me. In early 2010, I organized a research seminar with Tom Magill, director of the Belfast-based Educational Shakespeare Company, and we screened MickeyB, an adaptation/cultural translation of Macbeth made in collaboration with serving prisoners of HMP Maghaberry. After the event a nervous middle-aged man began telling me about the ways that his life had new purpose due to his involvement as a rehabilitating ex-prisoner volunteer for the ESC. He told me – with no prompt from me – that as a seventeen-year-old he joined a loyalist paramilitary organization purely out of hurt and anger. His parents were not sectarian, and weren't even particularly political. But his older sister was one of four killed by an IRA car bomb. He was angry and wanted to enact vengeance without really knowing what that meant.
As was common, he was directed by the elders in his organization of choice to commit an act they would not be seen to commit themselves. Often this kind of order was as much about exerting control over those in the ranks as it was about eliminating an enemy. He was ordered to shoot dead an IRA officer commanding. He explained in vivid detail – I still see it playing out in my head, just like a movie – how he, armed and masked, entered this older man’s house that morning in broad daylight and aimed at him. He folded. He, a seventeen-year-old boy, could not shoot this man in front of his highly distressed young grandchildren, and he left. Later that day he shot the man dead in the street in broad daylight. A few days later he was kneecapped by members of his own organization for not completing the mission in the way they had ordered.
While telling me the story in the foyer of the Queen's Film Theatre, he insisted on rolling up his trousers and showing me the scars where the bullets went through his kneecaps. I cannot un-see this.
He continued. Still no prompts from me, just a sympathetic ear, he told me about his life in prison, how he was relatively safe there because he did go through with it, but had to keep to himself. His life was even more isolated when he was released after serving twenty years of his life sentence. Early release of political prisoners was of course a stipulation of the Good Friday Agreement. It was hell for him. He could barely go outside – all sides were after him. His enemies wanted him dead, and his own wanted him deader. People outside don’t realize the gravity of allegiance to loyalism.
I can’t remember how he said he came across the ESC, but he said finding them was the only good thing that had happened to him his whole life. Volunteering for this not-for-profit arts and education organization was the only thing that gave him purpose. I could tell he never really grew up, never experienced an adult relationship, hadn’t had any friends for a very long time, and didn’t have any concept of social etiquette or boundaries. He was the loneliest person I’ve ever met, always looking over his shoulder and never forming anything close to an identity; a shell of a person. I didn’t know how to feel. He was a murderer, capable of shooting someone dead in cold blood. And yet I felt tremendous pain for him. A life wasted, unlived.
This anonymous man is the very definition of the complex nature of a conflict that has long been painted in the media as sectarian. It was clear he had no understanding of the historical implications of the war he became embroiled in. His response to the violent death of his sister was visceral, fuelled by raw emotion, and the organization he chose to join happened to be the nearest one in his neighbourhood. He possessed no ideological or political position with which to find alignment to a cause. Due to his ambivalence he is the very definition of a victim of the Northern Ireland conflict; like so many young people he was hurt and fought back. The paramilitaries preyed on the likes of him. The dead’s troubles are over, but his quietly persist, unofficial and unacknowledged.
The next year I attended a conference based at Queen’s University called ‘Nine-tenths Under’, using the iceberg metaphor in relation to civil conflicts. One of the performances attached to the event was a community arts presentation featuring women from NI’s western counties. They fulfilled all imaginable perceptions of victimhood. I've heard fellow academics deride community arts, claiming that they 'lack artistic value' in their imagined elitist hierarchy of ‘the arts’. Esteemed professors of politics have even told me - and remember, my PhD and monograph are underpinned with demonstrations of the significance of the arts in post-conflict society - at conferences that the arts in general have no relevance in peacebuilding. A member of this troupe of women from Counties Fermanagh and London/Derry proved otherwise, and she volunteered her story to me.
She told me all about her grown-up children living in Britain and elsewhere – part of the continuing brain-drain that I’ve now joined who could not get work at home. She volunteered information about her physicality. She had difficulties with mobility and I could see without trying to stare that the flesh of her face and arms was pocked all over. She pointed out the dents, telling me they were all over her body, and told me that her injuries were incurred during the Omagh bomb, the blast claimed by a dissident IRA group on 15 August 1998, several months after the signing of the Belfast peace agreement. The cruel irony was that this caused the highest body-count in one event of the 'Troubles' but, depending on whose statistics you follow, the twenty-nine deaths (including of a woman almost to term with twins) are not necessarily included in official death statistics of the conflict.
The woman explained that the pub she ran was all but destroyed in the blast. It was early in the day, so luckily they had few customers, but anyone who was in there was injured. Being behind the bar, she experienced one of the worst casualties in the building, her body became almost instantaneously riddled with shards of glass. Her business and livelihood were destroyed, and her mobility substantially decreased for the rest of her life. The pain was constant. She was entitled to no victim support given that the event took place after the official end date of the conflict. She was forced into early retirement with a diminished pension. Her husband was also injured and neither of them were able to work ever again. Meeting her and hearing her story affirmed for me what I had felt for some time, that it is the living who continue to suffer, and it is for them that those of us with the wherewithal and capacity to take action must at least strive for some sort of resolution and social justice.
I carry these stories, these experiences, and more like them always. I remind myself that they are all too real and all too personal. The political is the personal as much as the personal is political.