Children of the Revolution (Bill Rolston)

Children of the Revolution by Bill RolstonWhat 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.

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  • lamhdearg

    Been there done that, having read your review alan i will wait untill it’s available for £1.50 on ebay in the hope that not all interviewed for the book where big mens kids. thanks all the same for drawing attention to it.

  • granni trixie

    Thanks for this reminder Alan, I intended to buy this book when I first heard about it.even though I find the authors work v. partisan, I also respect his contributions.

    I think that it is generally a good thing to document accounts of the troubles from behind the scenes. Would like to think that they will, through time, amount to a body of work conveying the full spectrum.
    Wonder if there are many accounts of children from families in ‘the middle ground’? My daughter tells people for instance of how since she could write she remembers sitting round a table addressing election material. As a grown up,disgusted by politics in NI generally, she totally switched offall that. I smile at memories of her younger brother on the other hand as as h.e chirped into discussions during Alliance meetings in our house Galvanised by seeing GA at Mass, his ambition was to be an Independant representing WB. Alas, he never lived to do so.

  • Turgon

    An interesting read Alan: a good review of another partial book. Not dishonest by intention but partial. Just like the “Evangelical Journeys” book which ignored most Evangelicals but rather talked to a small subset in order to gain a distorted view of Evangelicals.

    The children mentioned in this book had a childhood with fear and lack of parenting through no fault of their own and that is terrible. The fact most of the children suffered because their parents “sacrificed” their children’s needs and feelings to their squalid sectarian cause simply illustrates another facet of their moral bankruptcy.

    There was another much larger group of children who had similar experiences: I know quite a few of them. They were the children of members of the security forces. Most for years were not told what mummy or daddy did for a living: their parents forced to lie to their own children about something as basic and fundamental as their occupations. Then when they were told the children had to continue the lie to all but their closest friends and family: producing a charade of their parents’ employment as social workers, civil servants or whatever.

    One of two I knew had the nightmare of coming home to be told that Daddy had been murdered by terrorists.

    Even the children whose parents were not murdered knew fear. One I worked with told me that the IRA had planned to murder his father whilst he was leaving his children to school. Several have told me of having to make “midnight flits” as there was intelligence that the IRA intended to murder their parents for the “crime” of being border Protestants. The difference is that their parents were going out to do an honest day’s work; often to try to stop the murderers and maintain law and order for the rest of us.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Revolution? Did I miss something?

  • “children of political activists”

    The presentation looks more like a description of the lives of the children of paramilitaries.

  • Spud


    In my experience it was the actions of the security forces particularly the UDR that impacted on the minds of the youth when I was growing up. Where I was raised it was quite common to get harrased by the UDR at checkpoints to and from football practice at our local GAA field. We where held and questioned and had our kit bags searched and strewn over the road.
    In on instance a friend was told by a soldier that they had his father in the sights of his gun while he was in the fields foddering cattle. Quick as a flash my friend says “Well thats the difference between my father and you, for if he had you in his sights you wouldnt be standing here now.”
    It was experiences like that that had a big impact on the young people in Nat/Rep areas in the East Tyrone area and led another generation to follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

  • leftofcentre

    Alan you are doing these book reviews wrong.

    You are taking the time to actually read the books, then writing considered reviews on what you have read.

    Much better to do as Turgon does and just slate them without ever having so much as opened the cover.

    Don’t you realise that in this internet age it is best to judge a book by its cover?

    Anyone who is foolish enough to spend their time researching and interviewing subjects for a book is nothing more than a fame seeking academic apologist.

    As a society we are better served by the ‘bloke in a pub’ anecdotes of anonymous internet commentators.

    Please consign all future reviews to a more twitter friendly 140 characters or less and please whatever you do stop wasting your time reading the books.

  • Rory Carr

    Turgon yet again displays his total imperviousness to any sense of irony when he posts a response absolutely seething with its own ‘partiality’ to accuse Alan in Belfast of omitiing any mention of ‘partiality’ in his review and then going on to accuse the book’s authors of deceit by virtue of this perceived ‘partiality’.

    He fails to mention whether or not he has actually read Bill Rolston’s book himself. If he hasn’t then he ought to be careful, lest by his own values, he leaves himself open to accusations of dishonesty, if not by intention, at least by omission.

    Yet it is good that at least Turgon is able to feel such sympathy for the deprivation caused to the children of those men and women who “sacrificed” their children’s needs and feelings in the cause of maintaining a sectarian regime, of using the law to promote and execute sectarian murder. At least he can comfort himself with the knowledge that these children were less likely to suffer great economic deprivation give the monetary reward that cosseted those home-grown protectors of a squalid little state (and neglecters of their own children) from material want.

    So, to summarise, a review of Turgon’s response would be, “Partial, perhaps, but touching in a way in its ability to care.”

  • Nevin – the majority, but not totality, of the interviewees were children of paramilitaries. Mary Nelis’ was a definite exception.

    Turgon – sounds like you need to find someone to write another book!

  • “Thanks to Guildhall Press for supplying a review copy of this book.”

    .. and to the tax-payer who provided funding via the Community Relations Council.

  • Despite – or even with all that in mind – it’s an interesting read.

  • Reader

    Spud: Quick as a flash my friend says “Well thats the difference between my father and you, for if he had you in his sights you wouldnt be standing here now.”
    That’s the key difference between the BA and the IRA, isn’t it?
    Intelligence gathering. “Yeah right, sonny – and what sort of gun does your dad have anyway?”

  • Alan, it would be difficult to argue that Mary Nelis was a political activist apart from paramilitarism. She was active in the Hunger Strike campaign and subsequently joined Sinn Fein.

  • andnowwhat

    A couple of posters here are demonstrating the lazy, convenient characterisation of the republican community, the type of behaviour used by those who throw the term terrorist about with gay abandon.

    Turgon could not even be arsed with any pretense (who would expect anything else from him given his transformation of late from a person who gave reason to his argument to one who just posts Vance style crap) of analysis to instant whataboutery.

    My father was briefly involved in the stickys which was more in a defence situation as the local catholic community was being attacked by local loyalists with the partial assistance of the local RUC. When the local priest ad some men, icluding my father, went to the police, the priest was told to fuck off. The local chapel, St. Bernard’s was burned the very next day. Their only option was to turn to the official IRA who organised the men.

    There’s more to my story from that era at which time I was 7 years old.

    Of course none of this means a damn thing to certain people. My father and our neighbours who defended the area should have done nothing and what we and others suffered should have just been accepted and didn’t justify any of their actions.

    My dad was a deeply religious man. I never heard him curse once in all my life and he sure as hell was no criminal

  • HeinzGuderian


    The catholic community were in far more danger from pira murder squads,than they ever were from the UDR !!

    That’s a fact,boy !!!

  • BluesJazz

    Revolution? Did I miss something?

    MU, that was my thought. A lazy title at best. The publishers no doubt thinking people will remember the T-Rex song and compare.
    A more accurate title:
    “‘Children of religious- sectarian murder gang members” doesn’t quite have the same buzz.

  • lamhdearg

    I wonder will the book get another mention.

  • lamhdearg

    opps well done Bluesjazz, ps,if you do not really know, they where not all driven by religion.

  • alan56

    What is the point of this book?

  • Rory Carr

    I must say that I found Nevin’s contribution above rather strange.

    Margaret Thatcher was also pretty active during the Hunger Strike and had previously joined the Conservative and Unionist Party, can we then conclude, according to Nevin’s criteria, that it would be hard to categorise her as a political activist?

    I don’t suppose the book includes any references to one of Mary Nellis’s children later taking up gun-running, recruiting mercenaries or organising a failed attempt at a coup d’etat in another country.

  • Rory – it tells the story through the words of her daughter Cathy, but she does refer to two brothers being inside. See the quote in the post above:

    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 …

  • Rory, you can see from this interview that she threw her lot in with the PRM following her earlier days of political activism. According to Wiki, she had joined the SDLP in 1974 but resigned a year later.

  • Alan

    Thank for this review it is good stuff, as a parent I found it very emotional, I wonder how many of us actually listen to our children, especially when they are young. We are often far to caught up in our own world and the things we believe in.

    Perhaps if we did, we would not have helped make such a mess of this world.

  • Limerick

    “I don’t suppose the book includes any references to one of Mary Nellis’s children later taking up gun-running, recruiting mercenaries or organising a failed attempt at a coup d’etat in another country.”


    Or that she was married to a UDR soldier?

  • Limerick

    By the way. This is nothing new.

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    Philip Larkin

  • aquifer

    T.Rex Song, remember it well.

    No you won’t fool the .. Children of the Revolution.

    Paramilitary violence postponed any possible revolution.

    A new book ‘Fighting like the devil for the sake of god’ suggests that sectarian violence in working class communities has its own spatial dynamic that developed following urban riots in Victorian times, displacing moderates and segregating communities. Foreign money, Eastern Bloc abbatoir gear and cars just increased the scale a bit.

    Few gained by these childrens’ suffering.

  • Stu DeNimm

    >turn to the official IRA who organised the men

    Should reasonable people have believed at the time that organizing IRA cells to defend communities from the RUC and loyalists was going to be effective?

    It would be possible to argue that locals did keep the RUC out of certain areas for a while, at notoriously high cost, but these were barely organized networks of civilians armed with informal weapons like rocks and petrol bombs. Was it ever likely that a guerrilla cell of a few men could win engagements against the police, who would have been backed up by at least the UDR? One of the things the Stickies got right was that this really wasn’t a viable strategy.

  • Rory Carr

    “…the police, who would have been backed up by at least the UDR…”

    Most unlikely, Stu. The UDR was not yet established at the time of which we speak. The predecessors of the UDR though, the ‘B’ Specials were very much active and eager to help in anti-Catholic pogroms.

  • Rory, Tim Pat Coogan took a different view of the role of the ‘B’ Specials: “The B Specials were the rock on which any mass movement by the IRA in the North has inevitably floundered.”

  • Rory Carr

    I don’t see any contradiction, Nevin. Coogan was thinking by and large of the IRA Border Campaign of 1956-62 which foundered on the rock of internment in the Free State supplementing internment in the North. It is true that fear of anti-Catholic pogroms by the ‘B’Specials had restrained the IRA from launching any campaigns in the North after 1922 but that does not take away from my assertion one iota – rather it might be said to reinforce it.

  • Rory, the establishment of the ‘B’ Specials was a response to IRA attacks; this establishment may well have prevented the sort of blood-letting that was seen in the south-west of Ireland. If Lynch had acted in the manner of Lemass we might have been spared some of the atrocities of the more recent Troubles. If your theory had any basis we could have expected to have had anti-Catholic pogroms by the ‘B’ Specials during the ’56-’62 Campaign. The real surge in deaths during the Troubles took place after the departure of the ‘B’ Specials from the stage.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Anyone else remember the kids’ show Marc Time? It was Bolan’s last contribution to popular culture. Would be a nice circularity if any of the subjects of the book watched it.

    Also I’ve seen the tree he crashed his car into, it’s in SW London.

  • andnowwhat


    The area I am talking about was/is a mixed area, Glengormley, not a republican area with distance between the police and the community. In fact, one of the RUC men who served in the area, lived across the street from me and I played with his son.

    The men who organised themselves did not set out against loyalist gangs, most notably, the Tartan gang(s). Their most common weapon was a hurl, not petrol bombs or rocks. Of course, they were hassled by elements within the local police but they most certainly had an affect on attacks in the Glengormley village area, Elmfield and other areas including the Carmoney area

  • wee buns

    Alan thanks for the very comprehensive review. Despite the pretentious rock n’ roll title; it seems a worthwhile read.

    An unforgettable radio interview with a (now adult) child of seven who lived in the Rossville Street flats in Derry recalled waking up to the quiet & eerie morning after 30th Jan ’72. He looked down from the balcony to where a group of men stood solemnly gathered. When he went closer he saw that they drew close between them a matchbox. Inside it was a single eyelash. It had been peeled from a pillar of the flats where one of the victims had been shot. This eyelash was the only bit left.

    The observations of children can be amazingly impartial & hold a simple gravity, unlike the bias of adult commentary, forever hung up on conjecture, of what would and should have been.

  • Stu DeNimm

    RC, thank you for the correction re the UDR.

    ANW, I think my point is even clearer if we are talking about gang beatings as opposed to police riots. Sectarian attacks by gangs or paramilitaries were normally unexpected attacks on isolated individuals, lasting somewhere between the duration of a gunshot and that of a beating. How could a few men have expected to be on the scene with hurleys in hand at the right time? If they could do that, why would they want the IRA involved in it?