As riveting as the journalist’s stories of the Troubles are this book had to wait a few months for its turn. I bought it last October, during the memorable bookshop crawl, in Housmans. I can now proudly say I read all the books I bought at Housmans (still a lot more reading to go through the entire book haul from that one outing). This book was also part of my education about the Troubles from various angles (together with the Milkman and Eureka Street).
Deric Henderson and Ivan Little reached out to the journalists they knew were covering the Troubles at any time during those difficult thirty years. They compiled together a book that consists of the stories told by 68 of those journalists. Each of them was asked to pick one event, memory, fact, to talk about. Those were organized in a chronological fashion giving the reader a new perspective on how the conflict unfolded.
It is by no means complete, it’s more like human memory, patchy, unreliable, driven by emotions. And thanks to that moving and terrifying. The journalists describe both sides of the conflict, they are supposed to be objective, but many of them are not. What matters in this book is that both sides are represented and neither of them is whitewashed. The constant descriptions of violence happening or the fear of it, the hate, the death, and suffering was difficult to read. But each of the journalists made an effort to make it relatable to explain why this memory mattered to them personally.
They survived to tell the story and see it as their duty to convey those times, to remember the victims, to understand the politicians, or at least make their actions and attitudes known. The book takes us on a rollercoaster trip, with the violence starting at Derry, then spiraling completely out of control, with no will on either side to put an end to it. And then either through exhaustion or through experienced third-party negotiators stepping the slow, long process that ended in the Good Friday Agreement.
I still don’t think I can in any way say I understand what happened during this time and how it got to this level of escalation. But thanks to this book and the two other fictions books I read I think I know a bit more. And what I know scares me, for yet again people did this to people, and there’s no assurance whatsoever that it will not happen again. If anything with Brexit the situation becomes dangerously volatile again, only twenty years after it calmed down (a relative term at best). I do think that a large part of the problem is that not many people outside of Ireland have a deep understanding of what happened. Which means yet again it is treated as a local, side issue. A dangerous stance to say the least.
I still struggle to get my head around the fact that all the violence was happening in relatively small communities, where everyone knows everyone. Where neighbors went against neighbors but as the violence escalated the ‘normal people’ were forcefully drawn into it and became hostages of the fighting groups. I will never be able to understand how killing Irish people is helping to unite Ireland, nor will I understand how bringing in regular army troops into a part of the country to ‘bring the peace’ is supposed to work. The violence and hate is one thing, the multiple bad policial and administrative decisions that led to its escalation are another and they are unforgivable.
Take a look at this books cover, it still blows my mind. Two ladies chatting on a street, but look at the background and it feels like to worlds axis has shifted and things really don’t make sense anymore.