What was life like for children of political activists during the Troubles? A new book by Bill Rolston and published by Guildhall Press during the summer has collected together the stories of twenty Children of the Revolution whose parents’ activities – and in many cases, imprisonment – had a significant affect on childhoods and life choices.
For me, this summer’s reading has been dominated by people telling their stories. Evangelical Journeys collated together ninety five interviews with evangelicals and ex-evangelicals into a fascinating account of their spiritual journeys and an honest insight into the complexity of faith and practice.
A few weeks ago, Irish Peace Centres published their report into LGBT Communities’ Experiences of Faith and Church in Northern Ireland. Again this was interview based, and used the personal stories of twenty three people as a powerful way of clearing away the sanitising barrier of academic language and painting a picture of how real people say they experience the world around them.
It’s very possible to have lived in Northern Ireland for thirty or forty years and not really grasped the full gamut and heard the stories of what went on in other neighbourhoods and communities.
In the introduction to Children of the Revolution, author Bill Rolston explains that while some ex-prisoners, army and police personnel have to greater or lesser extent publicly told their stories, other voices have been inaudible.
Towards the bottom of the narrative ladder is the story of children and the conflict, and within that, the direct voice of the children of combatants has barely been heard at all.
Rolston’s interviews were conducted right across the political and paramilitary spectrum. There are many insights from the eyes of the children.
John Lyttle remembers his father Tommy (West Belfast UDA Brigadier) kneeling at the end of the bed for hours each night, “negotiating” rather than praying. As a child he doodled “blood and guts and helicopters and bombs” while his “father and his friends would be at the Formica breakfast table in the kitchen, chatting about who needed to be killed”.
Living with terror in the house and the consequent threat on his own personal security left John feeling that as children “we were being offered up”.
Every day of my childhood, and I do mean every day, from the age of about nine until I left at eighteen, I expected to die. I thought about death every day. Getting on the bus, it’s going to blow up. Walking past Unity Flats, is a sniper going to take me out?
Dan McCann was in the IRA and shot along with two fellow volunteers by a British Army undercover squad in Gibraltar. His daughter expresses a disconnectedness to her father: “… although he’s just a parent to me, to the outside world he’s something different”. She questions her father’s selfish motivations.
You could have changed society forever, but no – for a point, for a one-off, for an event! … To me, it’s a simple choice. For God’s sake, sit down, look at your situation and make a choice that actually benefits your whole family in the long run. Don’t make one that suits you at the time you made it and then not alter it for the rest of your life, which turned out to be very short. There’s 1,001 things you could have done, but no, you had to choose the most risky.
She talks about the normality of Gerry Adams visiting the house, and the inappropriateness of other people commemorating her father’s death with impersonal, bloodthirsty hoopla.
Many of the children express dissatisfaction that one of their parents (usually their father) put the ‘struggle’ above family life. Cathy Nelis’ mother Mary was politically active in Derry, campaigning for the return of political status for politically motivated prisoner, and was later a Sinn Fein councillor and MLA. Cathy says:
We slag my ma. We say, ‘If you were doing that now, you’d be up on child neglect.’ … I remember looking at a photo of her and she was six stone. The anguish that she must have felt about what the two boys were being put through in jail. That would have been enough to drive a lot of mothers to drink or other unhealthy coping strategies … I would say, alongside all that anguish, she enjoyed the activism as well. If I’d been living through the times my mammy was, would I have done what she did? Probably.
Many of the interviewees describe regular and at times brutal police raids on their homes.
I can remember the peelers hitting the house all the time, looking for guns. We got tortured because of him. [My ma] took the beatings, she took everything else.
I would have been about four or five. And I remember Brits coming into the house, doing raids. They’re not horrific memories; I don’t think that they have traumatised me in any way. I don’t remember being scared. To be honest with you I remember being really excited. It was an event to fill an hour in the day, sort of thing.
One of my earliest memories is getting raided and getting lifted out of bed at three o’clock , four o’clock in the morning. I must have been about three or four and there was a Brit in the room behind my mummy and then the house just getting tore apart.
Sometimes terror visited their own homes. Fiona Bunting recalls the night her parents were shot. She talks in the book about coming out of her bedroom and seeing her mum “lying in a big pool of blood” and having to step over her dead father to get down the stairs.
Gearóid Adams (son of Gerry Adams) says that his relationship with his father started at the age of five when his father got out of jail. He recalls an uncle coming into school during his P6 year. “Paddy gave me this comical story to try and put me at ease that the Adamses were hard men, and then he told me that my da was shot but that he was okay.” He met up with his mother in hospital. A fracas ensued as police prevented the family from getting to the father’s bedside. All while Eamonn Mallie waited to do an interview. Normal life?
Gearóid Adams wasn’t alone in the book complaining about being known as someone’s son or someone’s daughter, rather than being accepted for themselves by their parents’ comrades.
Children also describe unglamorous trips to prison, sometimes involving long and expensive travel, and often with more sense of duty love. Some talk about their own imprisonment, one even ending up sharing a cell with his father.
Stories of children appalled by their parent’s actions. Stories of children who followed their parents into paramilitary activity. Stories of children who are proud of their parents. Stories of children who haven’t yet asked too much about the detail of what parents got up to.
Jeanette Keenan (daughter of IRA quartermaster general Brian Keenan) sums up the themes in the book well when she says:
We have a generation, two generations, of children who were directly affected by the way and by parents not being there, being away in prison and parents who now can’t come to terms with being out. And lots of parent and their children who can’t talk about how they feel or cope with their feelings, and this affects their relationships now.
The book is a warning to parents – even those outside the world of conflict – that their occupations and priorities may have long-lasting effects on their children. And an insight into how a significant group of people in Northern Ireland society resiliently cope with the aftermath of their parents.
I’m sure these kind of stories can be told about conflicts throughout history and right around the world. But when it’s on your own doorstep, it’s disturbing.
Thanks to Guildhall Press for supplying a review copy of this book.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.