PODCAST: Children of the Revolution

John Gray talks with author Bill Rolston about interviewing the children of paramilitary combatants

Bill Rolston is the author of Children of the Revolution, a pioneering oral history of the experiences of children of combatants in the Northern Ireland conflict.

Amongst participants in the book are Gearoíd Adams, son of Gerry Adams; Fiona Bunting, who witnessed the assassination of her father, Ronnie; Mark Ervine, son of David Ervine; and Jeanette Keenan, daughter of Brian Keenan.

John Lyttle, son of UDA leader Tommy ‘Tucker’ Lyttle, also appears, as does the daughter of Dan McCann, who never knew her father because he was killed as one of the Gibralter Three; and Liz Rea, daughter of UVF founder, Gusty Spence.

 

Some of the most moving accounts are from children who rejected the role of their parents, notably John Lyttle and Dan McCann’s daughter. Others were less questioning and, indeed, simply followed in their father’s footsteps.

They provide what is, in effect, their own war memoirs, while still others have found it easier to live with the parental past because it is ‘a foreign place – that was then, this is now’. Rolston justifies the ‘revolution’ of his title because this has been an era of ‘radical change’.

Other themes emerge. There was the practice of telling children lies, albeit for protective reasons, thus Mark Ervine and Gusty Spence’s children did not realise their fathers were in jail. Worse still, wives and mothers often did not know what their husbands were involved in. They had to carry the heaviest burdens.

All then had to cope with the return home of virtual strangers after decades on the run or in prison, and, as Rolston points out, men with very little experience of relationships, in any case, because they often went to jail by the age of 18.

Rolston makes no claims to covering a representative sample. Some children were incapable of speaking to him or ‘fell off the edge’ whether by suicide or otherwise. Yet these accounts reveal ‘survival and resilience in the face of terror’.

At the least there were no ‘inevitable consequences’ of dislocation and trauma. Rolston points to the importance of communities where the abnormal had become the normal as a sustaining force.

He accepts that the experiences of children of combatants may not differ much from that of the children of victims. It is all an arena that he would like to see explored further, and, for example, the lives of children of British soldiers who served here.

Children of the Revolution is out now, published by Guildhall Press.