“I survived the f*cking Troubles and I survived all the sh*te that was going with it…”

I’m often wary of material that deals directly with our conflicted past, whether in books, films or a series like the BBC’s latest chronicle of the Troubles, Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland. Often there’s some too clever narrative shortcut at play.

Before I dive into this rare piece of slow journalism, some context on how I believe journalism has drifted from its proper democratic mission since 1998. Einstein said explanations should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Well, Jarleth Kearney has the whole thing in one

…there’s too much play-acting at peace-making. Reconciliation needs our urgent, relentless attention. It’s a lifetime journey – not an election cycle. [Emphasis added]

Our public space has become cluttered with tidily packaged (but unanchored) journalistic accounts of the past that are easy to falsify once their apparently reliable narrative runs out of steam or is seen to no longer provide reliable answers we were once told it did.

There is, as Simon Blackburn has argued, no such thing as a post Truth, other than in the minds of populists and would be and/or actual despots and dictators (see the ludicrous spin and counter-spin of last Saturday’s political farce in Russia?)…

It is a characteristic relativist claim that, in principle, we can always make up alternative versions of the stories that we tell about the world. But one finds, if one actually tries, that it is surprisingly hard to do so.

We have drifted into a form of history making that leans on protagonist stories with scant reference to those who “got in their way” that is inadequate to the needs of those interested in building a civic peace. Refreshingly “Once upon a time” restores some of these voices to the public account.

On The View last week, Rachel Hooper revealed some of the techniques used in the making of the five part series, by its director James Bluemel. It’s certainly not a representative history, not least because its choices of interviewees rely heavily on the need to match their accounts with historic footage.

In the first four episodes anyone looking for ‘balance’ will be frustrated. But that’s to miss what’s valuable about Blumel’s approach. In spending so many hours with each person, he extracts extraordinary insight out of otherwise ordinary people.

It leaves little space for the usual play acting, and even in the concluding episode each is given space to tell their stories without any a priori moral judgement being applied. Rather the morality of the piece  arises from the honesty with which the stories are rendered to the audience.

Edited from thousands of hours of footage it is a winding picaresque through interview material including several protagonists to the conflict (most memorably two loyalists and two republicans) alongside others. For many of us it is hard viewing.

Not least because the two Republicans seem, at times during the interview, to have in someway to have enjoyed their careers (one as an ex gunman, the other was a firebomber) happy to follow orders. “We only saw the uniform” said Richard O’Rawe.

The loyalists offered less ‘comfortable’ stories. John Chambers had nightmares about the Shankill butchers. It wasn’t fear they’d kill him but it was in his childhood Glencairn estate that they dumped the majority of the bodies of the Catholics they’d abducted, tortured and killed.

Derry loyalist James Greer spoke of how as a 17 year old he was put in charge of guns. Thinking he’d joined a vigilante group (which is the story the UDA told the world and its 50,000 recruits at the time), it was months later that he realised he was destined to be a killer in the UFF.

Between his requests for refills of tea he shares that he now has a 17 year old granddaughter saying “I couldn’t imagine handing her a gun or anything other than a strawberry fucking milkshake to be honest”. His honesty is searing most of the way through.

“You’ve taken me to a bad place James” he says after admitting his transition into killer. “Just because you’re uncomfortable with it doesn’t mean it’s not there. And I hate to ignore the things that make me uncomfortable because they’re important.”

But it is through the story of former Blanket protester, Richard O’Rawe that we get a graphic personalised view of the traumatic events that radicalised him into a hyper violent career with the Provisionals:

“About 150 yards from our house the sky was absolutely on fire. All red, houses blazing. The world had turned chaotic…”

When the British army was deployed he described how his father and his old Republican friends “went for it like racing drivers”. In contrast his wife Bernadette related how she was told what to do by the Provos and Sinn Féin “as if they owned me”.

The chronological order is skeletal, which for interested strangers to Northern Ireland may be a blessing. You can get lost in the simple order of things and in unanswerable questions of causality that distract from the core human story of the time.

Verbatim quotes give each episode with a chilling progression in and out of madness: “It wasn’t like a movie anymore“, “do paramilitaries lie awake at night“, “so many broken hearts“, “loose talk costs lives“, “who wants to live like that?“.

For those of us for whom it is not a matter of historical reference but human memory, it is frustrating to see large chunks of context missing from the story, like the violence (my young history teacher’s friend who lost her leg in a bombing) and death that preceded the mayhem of Bloody Sunday.

But it’s the small stuff that catches you off guard: small talk as someone settles in for the interview, request for more tea or the sudden realisation that the young woman playing guitar in an Christian band is Sharon McBride, killed in the Shankill bomb years after.

The juxtaposition of Red Nose Day and the murder of comedian Paddy Kielty’s dad in 1988 by loyalists. The deep moral courage of Richard Moore reaching out to the army officer who blinded him, creating space for genuine humility and friendship.

The slow sloughing off an abiding sense of aloneness of the aging UDR Greenfinch and her daughter who lived in fear of anyone finding out who and what she was where she lived on the loyalist side of the peace line that backed onto the Short Strand, and pride in what was endured.

I found the intimacy of the detail emotionally overwhelming at times throughout the series. But that, I suspect, is what allows it to cut through in the way it has to people for whom Northern Ireland and its troubles are otherwise a closed book.

Fiona, whose brother was killed by the British army in Derry, gave a powerful summation in Episode 5:

I just feel angry that so many people in this part of Ireland had to suffer the shit that they did, should it be Catholic, Protestant, Policemen, soldiers, everything in between. I’m not a victim of the Troubles. I survived the fucking Troubles and I survived all the shite that was going with it.

And then…

We all have it in us for a wee bit of change and some have it in us for a big bit of change. And it’s astonishing what you can learn when you open the ears and you drop the guard a wee bit and let the old style of thinking go.

That surely means stepping up and stepping out of whatever too small cages we’ve allowed ourselves to become trapped in in our responses to those awful times. There’s pain and regret and courage and sorrow and even beauty in each of those testimonies. And most valuably of all, truth.

NB: This post and several comments beneath has now been either amended or completely withdrawn to avoid leading anyone to draw unfair inferences from Ricky O’Rawe’s contribution to the programme and we apologize for any difficulty caused to Mr O’Rawe.‘

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