This Man's Wee Boy
Debut author Tony Doherty lends a vital human voice to Derry's darkest period with a childhood portrait of life in the city
As time and space has grown between us and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the room has developed for some new perspectives to emerge on past events. The descent into, and impact of, the conflict has been well chronicled by historians, politicians and journalists over the years but there has been an ongoing lack of a human voice amidst the analysis.
We are all aware of the cataclysmic events of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s but we know much less of their impact on normal life for normal people in Northern Ireland, people who feel no need for objectivity and no desire to show expertise in history or politics.
In This Man’s Wee Boy:A Childhood Memoir of Peace and Trouble in Derry, first time author Tony Doherty makes a substantial and important contribution towards filling that gap.
Written from first hand recollections of childhood memories, this memoir takes in a five year period, from 1967 – 1972, of a child’s upbringing in the Brandywell area of Derry City. Through the book Doherty grows from a six to a ten years of age as both personal and political changes take place around him.
In many ways it is a book of two halves, with the early years really recounting a working class urban childhood of the 1960’s. There’s a backdrop here of poverty and overcrowding in nationalist Derry, but the authenticity of the writing is here in the fact that these are not the central to the story but incidental details. Six year old boys are not generally concerned by such things and so it was for young Tony, whose life revolved around marbles, sweets and fear of the mythical world beyond his few streets.
In these pages we are presented with a portrait of life in the City that has rarely been captured in such detail before – the bogeyman of politics always tending to overshadow other accounts. The naivety of young Tony’s recollections and the very smallness of his world, in terms of both physical locality and the close knit community of families that he lives amongst, give a very human insight into pre-troubles life in working class Derry. For this alone it is an important book for its contribution to the social history of the City.
But it is in the second half of the book that political events come to the fore, even through ten year-old eyes. As the Civil Rights movement grows in the City and the British Army is deployed, politics come increasingly to be played out on the streets and the lives of Doherty and all of those around him, are changed to varying degrees.
Whether it is through his wide-eyed wonder and innocent excitement at gun battles taking place in the alley behind his home, or in his father, Paddy, berating one of the first British Soldier’s to enter Hamilton Street after the Free Derry period had ended, Doherty’s accounts are always interspersed with the everyday events of ten year-old life – whether it be trips to the swimming pool or the trauma of a hair cut. On every page we are literally reminded that this is normal life in abnormal times.
In this way, the book is a good companion piece to Eimear O’Callaghan’s Belfast Days, which offers a teenage view on real life through similar times in Belfast. However, Doherty’s account differs in that he is often directly caught up in many of the events that unfold.
Derry is a small place and when nine year old Damien Harkin is run over and killed by a British Army Saracen in the Bogside, he is a classmate of Tony’s. But, such is the honesty in the writing here, on being told the news his initial reaction is one of relief that he wasn’t in trouble for destroying a new jumper. It is only afterwards that the real impact of the death sinks in. In this way, Doherty’s account contains a ring of authenticity as it builds its way through escalating levels of conflict in the City, before culminating in the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972.
The description here is the climax of the novel, and its critical point. Tony’s father, Paddy, was killed on Bloody Sunday and Tony became one of the leaders of the Bloody Sunday justice campaign. For many Paddy Doherty, like the vast majority of the victims of the conflict, became just another name. A life tragically taken but largely unknown.
This Man’s Wee Boy issues a corrective to this. The reader is taken inside the human reality of an innocent man being suddenly and violently killed. As the book closes we do not think of Paddy Doherty, Bloody Sunday victim, but of Paddy Doherty, father, husband and friend and we are left with a small inkling of the void that opened in the lives of those he left behind.
For any student of the conflict this is essential reading – it as all too easy to forget in the sweep of history that these events are about real people. Doherty’s book issues a powerful and moving reminder of the human impact of conflict and violence and will resonate with the many who have suffered similar loss whether in Northern Ireland or beyond.
As we have moved past conflict here there are times when we may appear to take some of what has been achieved politically for granted. This book works to remind us of just how far we have come and how precious peace is. Read it to remember and to learn.
This Man’s Wee Boy:A Childhood Memoir of Peace and Trouble in Derry is published by Mercier Press and is available now to purchase at retailers across the country, and online. The book will be launched by Jimmy McGovern on Thursday, August 25 from 7.00pm at Derry's Long Tower Primary School.