Recording the toll of the Troubles


SCI Fellow and Irish Times journalist Martin Doyle writes about his forthcoming book on the Northern Ireland conflict, finding that efforts to deal with the past risk being derailed by present day politics.

When Belfast writer Paul McVeigh asked me to contribute to The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices (Unbound, 2021), I agreed on the understanding that my thesis would be that, as a Catholic growing up in the North of Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, the prejudice I had faced had far more to do with my religious and ethnic identity than my class. No one ever called me a working-class bastard.

I grew up by the river Bann in rural County Down, in the heartland of the once-dominant linen industry. But what was once the Linen Triangle became notorious during the Troubles as the Murder Triangle. Pulling on that linen thread, I linked the modern Troubles, which claimed more than 20 lives in my immediate neighbourhood, to the violence and sectarianism that surrounded Partition locally, all the way back via the expulsion of linen workers in the late 18th century to a disputed atrocity in the parish during the 1641 Rebellion.

My essay, Dirty Linen, wove a thread that linked the sectarian expulsion of my grandfather and his sister from a local linen bleach green in 1920 to a neighbour’s sectarian murder in another linen mill in 1989. The essay also chronicled other Troubles murders in my parish of Tullylish, including three members of the O’Dowd family in January 1976. Declan, who was only 19 when he was murdered, along with his brother Barry and uncle Joe, had been our coalman. His father Barney, who was also shot but had survived, had been our milkman and we all loved him. The family moved south of the Border after the murders and I never saw Barney again.

When Dirty Linen was published in The Irish Times in May 2021, Barney’s son Noel made contact and he brought me to meet Barney and other members of his family. As I listened to Barney and Noel tell their remarkable stories, I felt compelled to write about them. Noel offered to show me the family farmhouse, abandoned since the murders 45 years before, and as we drove around the parish, he pointed out the sites of other atrocities. We counted more than 20 Troubles-related deaths in our parish. In January 2022, to mark the anniversary of the O’Dowd murders, The Irish Times published my essay, A Ghost Estate and an Empty Grave.

I resolved to record the toll the Troubles took on my parish and the long tail of trauma it has left behind – to celebrate the lives and record the tragic deaths of every person killed locally: from a lorry driver blown up by an IRA bomb at a Border customs post in 1972 to two young brothers murdered by loyalists in front of their sister in 1993 an hour after her 11th birthday party.

Over the past few months, with the support of Social Change Initiative, I have interviewed survivors of Troubles attacks and relatives of victims, which cumulatively, I hope, will convey in a new way the devastating effect of the conflict by focusing on one small rural area.

I plan to preface these emotionally powerful stories with my own account of growing up during the Troubles, and of the community of which I was part, drawing on my own family history as well as putting events in their broader historical and cultural context.

The resulting book, provisionally titled Dirty Linen, will be published in October 2023 by Merrion Press. At once memoir, social history, reportage and cultural study, the book seeks to examine the physical and psychological impact of conflict, chronicling the lives lost and the long tail of trauma.

The Troubles cast a long, dark shadow over my childhood and played an important part in my first decade as a journalist in London. The Belfast Agreement in 1998 afforded me the luxury of no longer dwelling so obsessively on the daily machinations and frustrations of politics in the North.

Brexit changed all that. Pursued by British politicians who cared little for its potential consequences for Northern Ireland and championed by unionists who positively relished its potential to destroy the common ground that the Common Market and its European Union successor had fostered, Brexit dismantled the EU framework that provided a shared European home for rival national identities. Lines that had become blurred were now in the DUP’s words blood-red again.

Beside Banbridge’s war memorial stands a smaller one honouring members of the security services killed in the Troubles. But there is nothing to commemorate local civilians such as Pat Campbell, a Catholic trade unionist murdered by a former British soldier, no Stolpersteine to keep a new generation from stumbling into bad old ways. You will find a memorial to the Miami Showband in Dublin and a plaque on lead singer Fran O’Toole’s old home in Bray. But there is nothing in the town where the band had played in the hours before they were murdered.

Several of the murders I am writing about are currently being re-examined by a team led by a former British chief constable, Jon Boutcher. However, my project also coincides with efforts by the UK government to shut down all avenues of investigation into the past (including criminal investigation and inquests).

 “We are not responsible for the past,” argues Kim Wagner, historian of the British empire, “but we are responsible for what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.”