Books: The Telling Year – Belfast 1972

What I remember of 1972 is searching through front page headlines to see who’d been killed the night before, and all but on one occasion being thankful it wasn’t anyone I knew. Even traumatic events like Bloody Sunday quickly faded as Republican and Loyalists took it upon themselves to conduct a particularly nasty game of tit for tat, snuffing out the lives of many ordinary people in the wider population as a kind of macabre tally of success. One Protestant assassinated one night, possibly meant two Catholics the next: a bloody arithmetic, that seemed to have no end. In the middle of it were journalists, the local variety used to writing up stories about lost budgies, new roads, and lovely girls who, in three years of sustained civil disorder barely knew what had hit them. It was Malachi O’Doherty’s first year as a journalist. A year he recounts with unremitting honesty in his book, A The Telling Year: Belfast 1972. You can read my review from this month’s Fortnight magazine here.

  • Dewi

    It’s a nice book – really get a sense of time and place – and a young man’s angst.

  • Adam Pedant

    Mick,

    The book is quite clearly called ‘The Telling Year’, yet you twice call it ‘A Telling Year’.

    Attention to detail, please!

  • Mick Fealty

    Even though my brain was quite clearly telling me it was ‘The’ and not ‘A’ my typing finger went on a delinquent solo run all of its own making.

  • Mick given, a) the men who fill the role of first and deputy first ministers b) legislation about smoking in the work place,do you really think it likely that their offices are “smoke filled”?

  • Prince Eoghan

    A worth while read you reckon Dewi?

    I read that McKay book, Northern Prods. What an eye-opener this was, and belies the line taken by the middle-class Unionists on here.

  • I think when you said “eye-opener” what you meant to say was “bag of shite”.

  • Granni Trixie

    Even as a strong supporter of Fortnight, I was curious as to the rationale behind their reduced rate of subscription applying to “unwaged/students/prisoners”. What is the rationale for itemising “prisoners” who presumably are “unwaged” – and is this concession patronising or privileging? Or to be consistent why not target “women” – as is clear from this edition of Fortnight women are virtually absent as contributors.

    And yes, Malachis book is the tops (to get back to the original point).

  • Prince Eoghan

    Chekov

    As someone who has had quite a few experiences of being on the wrong side of sectarianism, I found it frighteningly real.

    Are you saying she made up the interviews, were the people fictitious, did she take licence. or perhaps she just caught them in unguarded moments?

  • Dewi

    A worth while read you reckon Dewi? – yeah – different from the usual. I’ll try that Mckay (still got your book by the way….in Glasgow sometime in March…)

  • Mick Fealty

    PE,

    I too have read McKay’s book, in fact I bought it a second time after it failed to return from a friend who borrowed it. But what, pray, has that got to do with Malachi’s book?

  • I’m not going to get into a discussion about that book here, but suffice to say she knew the book she wanted to write before doing any research for it. I know for example of a number of interviews which didn’t make the book. I wonder why that was?

  • joeCanuck

    Chekov,
    I take it you are unaware of the metaphor(?), “all smoke and mirrors”.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Nothing in this context. Just thought I’d mention it, don’t mean to derail conversation.

    Dewi

    Bring the telling year as well if you have still got it, saves me buying it.

  • Dewi

    Will do PE. Some of the scenes in the book are very vivid. Once he blew a whistle when BA forces were outside his house…..you can imagine what happened next. One of the questions frequently asked here is to name anyone who the Provos saved in defensive mode. Malachi O’Doherty’s brother was one – saved from Loyalists by the IRA.

  • willowfield

    Prince

    I read that McKay book, Northern Prods. What an eye-opener this was, and belies the line taken by the middle-class Unionists on here.

    Except when you realise that the subjects in McKay’s book are not representative of Northern Prods, and therefore the impression given by the book is false (albeit perhaps an impression that you are happy to have.)

  • Robbie

    I would also like to add that Susan McKay’s book is infiitely superior to O’Doherty’s. She never puts herself at the centre of the analysis like O’Doherty does (and did in the ‘Trouble with Guns’. If it’s a history book, stick to that discipline), just speaks to the great and the good and the not so good of Ulster Protestants.

    An infinitely more subtle, insightful and invaluable contribution than O’Doherty’s anecdotal frivolity.

  • Robbie

    And anyone who thinks that McKay speaks to ‘unrepresentative’ Loyalists hasn’t read the book. She speaks to all shades, including people like Ivan Cooper, Tom Paulin and Gary Mitchell, as well as the more enlightened Unionist politicians.

    This is more interesting than Malachi any day.

  • Harry Flashman

    I have to say I found Malachi’s book disappointing, it’s neither fish, fowl nor good red meat. Is it an eye witness account of Belfast 1972 from a journo’s perspective? Is it a heart searching account of a young man’s journey into political awareness? Or a gritty account of life as a fledgling reporter in a local newspaper at a time of extraordinary change?

    Well it’s kinda all and none of these, combine Ivan Little’s “Little by Little” with Kevin Myer’s book and you’re nearly there, borrow it from a friend or otherwise give it a miss.

  • willowfield

    And anyone who thinks that McKay speaks to ‘unrepresentative’ Loyalists hasn’t read the book

    Clearly untrue, since I have read it.

    She speaks to all shades, including people like Ivan Cooper, Tom Paulin and Gary Mitchell, as well as the more enlightened Unionist politicians.

    Most of the subjects fall into one of two categories:

    – not-very-intelligent or thoughtful bigots
    – intelligent and thoughtful people, but who aren’t unionists (or at least strong unionists)

    The large majority of Protestants who fall into neither category don’t figure prominently in McKay’s subject list.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Garibaldy

    To be fair. If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know it.

    Robbie/Harry

    Thanks for the intro on Malachi’s book.

    Willow.

    >>Except when you realise that the subjects in McKay’s book are not representative of Northern Prods, and therefore the impression given by the book is false (albeit perhaps an impression that you are happy to have.)<< That is a wee bit unfair Willow, what are you trying to say? I found the book shocking, is it any less truthful for your jumping up and down crying foul?

  • Star of the County Down

    Nice of Susan McKay’s editor to pop onto Slugger, isn’t it? Or is it Susan herself?

  • Harry Flashman

    *To be fair. If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know it.*

    Completely unfair Eoghan, neither you nor Garibaldy have ever met me yet you are both fully aware of my background to an extent that is far in excess of anything that I know about you.

    So in what way do I strive to conceal my background?

    Simply because I do not conform to stereotypical preconceptions does not mean that I in some way try to hide or disavow my upbringing.

    Are we all to be placed in neat little boxes that conform to our identities at birth?

    As a politically libertarian Derry born Muslim convert I think I have no need to be ashamed of my political beliefs make of them what you will 😉

  • willowfield

    Prince

    That is a wee bit unfair Willow, what are you trying to say?

    I don’t think it’s unfair, but I do think it was unfair of McKay to present an unrepresentative picture of “Northern Protestants”, especially given that it was a very negative picture.

    I found the book shocking, is it any less truthful for your jumping up and down crying foul?

    It is less truthful if it presents something as representative which is not. Just as a book about “Irish Catholics” would be less truthful if, say, it featured an unrepresentative list of subjects biased towards extreme violent republicans and devout, daily Mass-goers, than if it featured a full and representative list of subjects.

    In what ways were you shocked?

  • Mick Fealty

    Harry,

    My own thoughts on it are at my own site. My own view is simply that it is autobiographical, and that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

    The comparison with McKay’s book is a little bizarre, since they bare little resemblance to one another in style, form or content.

    Maybe it’s because I remember the livid chaos of the time that I related to it so well. And how people leapt on journalism like that of the Sunday Times Insight team to gain some inkling of what on earth it was all about.

  • willowfield

    Prince

    No pass here Willow. Please explain to me why I would be happy to have such an impression of Prods?

    So that you can more easily justify to yourself your support for the actions of nationalist terrorists? So that as someone who identifies with the opposing tribe, you can feel superior? Just two possible reasons, but I am happy to accept that neither apply to you, and apologise for making the assumption.

    Are you for real? Have you read it at all? Describing me and mine, because of an accident of birth, a catholic in pejorative language, using euphemisms like vermin for catholics/Nationalists that I thought were only found in the vestiges of hate arena’s like Mr Vance’s ATW. Denying that bloody sunday ever happened, and that they deserved it anyway. I could go on, but what is the point. It was shocking, or perhaps not to some.

    Yes, I have read it, and I recall feeling perhaps less shock than yourself (I have personally encountered such disgusting bigotry among Protestants [and also Roman Catholics]). I also recall feeling anger that people with such repugnant and disgusting views were being given prominence in a book supposedly about Protestants generally. I know that such people exist – but I also know that they are a small minority, and that their views are not in any way representative of Ulster Protestants.

    That is why I am concerned that you think the book “belies the line taken by the middle-class Unionists on here” – implying as it does that you think the specimens selected for McKay’s book reflect better the general Protestant attitude than do the many reasonable posters on here.

    And the reason I suggested that perhaps you were happy to think such was because otherwise I would have hoped that you would have realised that McKay’s book did not survey a representative sample of subjects.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Mick

    I have had two comments removed. none of which had anything wrong with them at all. One was a response to Harry, and the other to Willow.

    I know that it is becoming strictly verbotten to mention a certain right wing hate mongers name or blog, however everything I said is true. It is in the archives. If indeed it is verbotten, could you not list it in the rules or commenting policy? So that we know.

    Why not just snip the offending(to you) half line out anyway?

  • Prince Eoghan

    Willow

    I am glad you had a chance to read my response before it was cut. However;

    >>So that you can more easily justify to yourself your support for the actions of nationalist terrorists? So that as someone who identifies with the opposing tribe, you can feel superior? Just two possible reasons, but I am happy to accept that neither apply to you, and apologise for making the assumption.<< Hardly worth going on about the first part, if you really mean the second. Regardless apology accepted, we all make an erse of ourselves sometime. And I may need your forbearance then. Regarding the rest of your post. Apart from what I read online, I do not know any middle class Unionists. Thus have to form my opinions accordingly.

  • “It was shocking, or perhaps not to some.”

    It’s shocking that if you set out with the intention of finding people with distasteful views you will find some? Good grief, you’re easily shocked.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Chekov

    If you have read the book, why is it such a surprise that I was shocked?

    Or is such things so common place in your world?

  • Granni Trixie

    My problem with Mckay’s book is that she obviously followed certain leads mainly to “republican” Prods and did not clarify this rather as Fionualla OConner did not differentiate which kind of Nationalists she was describing.

    Malachis approach is different and to me superior beause it conveys the complexity with honesty ie he puts himself in the frame, what anthropologists would call participant observation.

  • willowfield

    Regarding the rest of your post. Apart from what I read online, I do not know any middle class Unionists. Thus have to form my opinions accordingly.

    So I am correct in inferring that you believe the views of those online on Slugger are not representative, but the views of the bigots in McKay’s book are?

  • Mick Fealty

    PE:

    One of them was fairly innocent, but it was ancillary to a man playing game that was going on elsewhere. As for the other, it wasn’t in the least offensive, it was just a simple case of playing the man. And that, as you know, is a breach of the rules.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Mick

    I admit that I am not great with these rules, but I do try.

    Willow

    It is not only your measured, if occasionally pedantic middle-class Unionist views that I am exposed to online. If only it were then I would not have had my post to you deleted for mentioning the name of one who is in my view, not of the same class as yourself.

    Also the line taken on slugger by many Unionists is one of complete innocence in voting for politicians who at the very least have had dalliances with members of Unionist paramilitary groups. Also the belligerence to all and any thing espousing the nationalist view of Ireland, make me suspicious(probably much like yourself on occasion) as to the real motives of it all. All in all, I make no excuses for being shocked at Mckay’s book. And it does indeed belie the line taken by many on here.

  • Mick Fealty

    For those of you who haven’t clicked through to the Fortnight review, here’s one of the most important passages in O’Doherty’s book:

    “I lived among bombers and heard little criticism of them from my family or our neighbours. I had ambiguous feelings about them. I was morally confident that they were wrong in their methods; but I could not share in the mockery of their rationale. And those who were unionist and Protestant, who were confident in their history and position, made no distinction between ideas and method when sneering at those who brought bombs into their workplaces. And at a moment at which they were under threat seemed a tactless time to correct them. Therefore I immediately felt shamed into silence. The sense of shame would stay with me all the time I worked at the newspaper.”

    That sense of shame, I think, arises from his inability (at the time) to bear honest witness to the various and conflicting truths around him. As I have noted towards the end of the review:

    “…journalism in 1970s Belfast consisted, as sociologist Frank Burton once described it, of a series of “leaps into the dark”. In the years since, O’Doherty has continually asserted his value by stepping outside his own community and reflecting its often bitter and conflicted truths. An anomalous stone, perhaps, ‘to trouble the living stream’.

    “If ‘The Telling Year’ is anything to go by, it wasn’t the journalists who enjoyed their war.

    Again, I repeat myself for the benefit of those who’ve not read it. At its heart this an assay of what can or cannot be done by an individual caught between the conflicting forces of military ‘order’ and paramilitary ‘chaos’. It is not just another run of the mill account of what happened and why.

    I wouldn’t make the comparison with McKay’s book, but what they both have in common (with Granni T’s caveats accepted) is that they have both told some awkward truths to their communities, the public representatives of which have reaped benefits from, but have been loath to openly admit it.

  • susan

    Mick, “The Telling Year” has been on my list of books to read for about a year now. Thank you for the reminder, and for your eloquent review.

    I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the opinion piece in today’s Guardian by Philip Zimbardo on good and evil, but I highly recommend it. Nothing to do with Malachi’s book, but everything to do with the chaos that engulfed many in both the military and the paramilitaries in the worst of the Troubles.

  • Dewi

    Susan – worth a read honest – but you get more satisfaction through watching me nephew play piano honest.

  • susan

    Dewi, your nephew on keyboards is more than satisfying it is luck at the click of a mouse — both my daughters took firsts in their competitions that day after hearing it.

    It also helped me cope with the extreme moral vertigo I tend to suffer in efforts not to come patently unhinged reading too many Slugger comments.

    I am going to order Malachi’s book online right now. That way neither Mick nor Malachi can become too (visibly) annoyed when I show you my other favourite clip of this month —

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=u17nOCMR4Js

  • Dewi

    OK – each to her own….

  • susan

    Sorry, Dewi. I should have known that on Slugger, even the (to me) self-evident charm of otters holding hands would be a matter of contention here on Slugger.

  • willowfield

    Prince

    I think you’re contradicting yourself.

    On the one hand you say that those unionists posting on Slugger come across as extreme, yet on the other you say that the McKay book shocked because of the extremity of the views portrayed which “belie” the views of those on Slugger.

  • Prince Eoghan

    Go back and re-read what I wrote.

    Now I realise that you thrive on finding a comma out of place and invalidating someone’s point of view because of it. However you are out of luck here.

    The testimonies documented in Mckay’s book belie the line taken by middle class Unionists on here(slugger). Meaning that they all(from memory) claim to not be bigots, yet Mckay’s expose shall we say, shone an altogether different light. Notwithstanding the remote chance that all middle-class Unionists here(on slugger) are indeed not bigots, and Mckay just happened to interview a cross section of middle-class Unionists who happened to be the genuine article.

    I really don’t see where the confusion lies. Perhaps you never got a chance to remember the name and blog of he who I am not allowed to mention. That place is a den of hate, no question! Balance that up with guys who try to come and go on occasion like yourself, and perhaps Turgon before he rebuilt the barricades.

  • Robbie

    It does seem strange to have comments ‘removed’ from here. that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. I see people ‘playing the man’ on here regular enough. Certain idiosy seems to go unpunished. But hey ho.

    No-one including the person who wrote the review of Malachi’s book in Fortnight picked up on his biarre ending anecdote (Malachi always has these, they are fascinating and pointless in a bland kind of way). This one involves Andy Tyrie. Its meant to be Malachi’s great denunciation of the paramilitaries; the poor fools ‘enjoyed their war’. For some reason the little story involves Andy Tyrie, then commander of the UDA. Andy and one of his Loyal cohorts made quite a funny quip (I thought) of trimming Malachi’s hair to make him look like someone they knew. Now, this was to be the basis for Malachi’s whole ‘groundbreaking’ and absurdly acclaimed written history. Tyrie is mentioned at no other point in the book. Now it would be good writing if it stayed on its chosen community, its apparent subject; the book is meant to higlight Republican activity, turmoil mushrooming, civil war. Yet this Loyalist leader Tyrie is not mentioned at any other point in the entire book. He is not even briefly biographed or assessed. Someone with rudimentary research skills might observe that killings caried out by the UDA under Tyrie’s watch were very slight following the failure of the ’77 Strike (Lost Lives has it at a few a year, minor compared to the late ’80s and early 90s when some oboxious little fellows by the names of Gray and Adair re-activated serious, sectarain death squad activity). This is also not to mention the encouragement offered by ‘Beyond the Religious Divide’ and ‘Common Sense’ documents.

    This serious history doesn’t matter of course, because it doesn’t fit O’Doherty’s naiive and frivolous viewpoint. No matter. Tyrie arrives in time to provide Malachi with a personal recollection that somehow explains the genesis and analysis of the Troubles, which seems to suggest that men enjoy violence. Woop de doo. Very poor, a mouse of a thesis.
    (It woud be good if this was not removed. Playing the book?).

  • DM

    God, that book of McKay’s was dire; it took a lot for me to wade through to the end. To be honest I’d suggest that anyone who has to rely on a book for an insight into ‘the other lot’ is probably going to struggle to form an accurate picture regardless of how good or bad a book it is. Far better to get out there and meet people, as opposed to going on woeful caricatures cherry-picked by a writer working to her own agenda.

  • Prince Eoghan

    >>I’d suggest that anyone who has to rely on a book for an insight into ‘the other lot’ is probably going to struggle to form an accurate picture regardless of how good or bad a book it is.< < Agreed. However I have communicated widely with middle-class Unionists on-line(some I wish I hadn't the pleasure of) and heard Unionist leaders and politicians on many occasions(again some I wish I hadn't) At no time have I declared that I personally believe that I have formed an accurate picture. >>as opposed to going on woeful caricatures cherry-picked by a writer working to her own agenda.<< Look, in case some of you think I work for Mckay's publicist, I don't. Though how you can just use generalisations as a means to dismiss the book is frankly beyond me. As Mick fealty has commented, the book has some uncomfortable issues for Unionism. Ignoring them, will not make them go away. Robbie I only wish I had read this book to appreciate your in depth comments. one thing is for sure, you don't work for Malachi’s publishers.

  • DM

    Not generalising, I read it and think it’s rubbish. I’m guessing by ‘uncomfortable issues’ you mean it contains interviews with protestants who have bigoted/sectarian views; unsurprisingly I already knew that people like that exist, in all walks of life and of all religions. What I take issue with is the idea that they automatically represent the opinions of the wider protestant populace. But hey, I doubt Malachi would be too happy if he saw how much publicity Ms McKay is getting off the back of a blog on his book… Maybe best to leave the tangent for another day!

  • Robbie

    Prince

    I’d have to recommend Glenn Patterson’s writing instead if you haven’t read him already and want that more autobiographical style as opposed to a straight history. Much better writer, less strange piety, more substance.

  • willowfield

    Prince

    The testimonies documented in Mckay’s book belie the line taken by middle class Unionists on here(slugger). Meaning that they all(from memory) claim to not be bigots, yet Mckay’s expose shall we say, shone an altogether different light.

    But they only belie the unionists on here if you believe the McKay specimens to be more representative than the unionists on here. I’m saying that that is not the case.

  • Pancho’s Horse

    willowfield, So?

  • malachi

    It wasn’t the point of the Tyrie encounter to say, ah now, the scales have fallen from my eyes and I understand everything. The book wasn’t a novel and that wasn’t a denouement.
    But nice work for the spoilers to jump in with diversions and nonsense.
    Any regular reader of Slugger will recognise that much of the commentary on my writing is vindictive and not to be taken seriously.
    Thanks for the review Mick. Much appreciated.

  • susan

    Well, I wanted to post this earlier, but was delayed in the kitchen. Nonetheless:

    “I was a new reporter, still three weeks away from actually starting work, and the biggest story in Europe was on my doorstep.”– Chapter One, opening line

    A year after I intended, I’ve finally sunk my teeth into “The Telling Year” tonight. And it’s going to be a great read. I only hope I can finish it quickly, before someone “borrows” it off me.

  • Mick Fealty

    Malachi,

    Vindictive is right. There’s a lot of serious comment on here, but the vituperative stuff is easy to spot, since it generally shies away from engaging directly with the material.

    Robbie,

    My last line referenceed the Tyrie story. I wasn’t just thinking of Malachi when I wrote that line. Not many journalists died in the Troubles, but many of them lived on their wits. I can also think of a few ancilliary workers who died for working on the wrong paper. With colleagues then pursuaded to keep the contract by ‘forceful’ argument.

    As also noted in the review, it was autobiography, not a thesis. Neither, I expect, was it intended to be definative. Any one old enough to remember that year will remember the way men with guns sought the easiest victims, and put them to death, seemingly without a second thought.

    There are dozens of stories about such gung ho behaviour, and it cuts across the paramilitary organisations. I don’t believe all truth is bitter, but some of it undoubtedly is.

  • kensei

    But they only belie the unionists on here if you believe the McKay specimens to be more representative than the unionists on here. I’m saying that that is not the case.

    There is little in the book that is any worse than has came out from Unionists on here. I think the book captures some of the complexity and range of opinions within Unionism; I don’t believe for a second it captured it all.

  • susan

    Truly, a good book about a godawful time. Sevebt chapters in now, and would be much further along if time allowed.

    Whatever your politics it’s well worth the time invested to read it. I imagine readers’ own personal histories with the military and the paramilitaries will colour the details that resonate with them, and those they gloss over.

    One telling detail from Malachi’s recollection of a Summer holiday his parents took to Donegal in 1971 ricocheted around my head at odd moments all day today. Of his mother, he recalls, “I think that was the last time I saw her playful. She was 55 years old, the age I am now. She was on holiday and merrily, not darkly, drunk. She was relieved of a heavy work routine, that was part of it….The troubles had been horribly demoralising for her and I had already seen her at times so fraught that she was almost shrieking in ordinary conversation.”

    A description that would resonate with many, I reckon.