Belfast Days

Excerpts from Eimear O'Callaghan's teenage diary written at the height of the Troubles in 1972 

1972 has become a well trodden path in recent writing as the low water mark for the Northern Ireland conflict and the year in which in almost 500 people were killed.

In Kevin Myers' and Malachi O’Doherty’s earlier memoirs (Watching The Door and 1972 – The Telling Year) we have read accounts of the sickening unfolding of horror and violence of the time from some of the key figures of Troubles reportage, and one may wonder what else we need to know of those dark days left long behind us.

Fellow journalist Eimear O’Callaghan brings us the answer to this question in the form of her 16-year-old self and the diary that she kept throughout 1972 while living with her family in west Belfast. Her account shifts between the unedited diary entries from the time and her contemporary reflections, given with the benefit of more than 40 years of hindsight.

As the daughter of Civil Rights activists living in Fruithill – a relatively comfortable part of Andersonstown – O’Callaghan’s perspective as both a woman and a teenager is genuinely refreshing.

Through the diary entries we get a real sense of universal teenage angst in the context of a war zone – a term not used lightly but which accurately applies to Belfast throughout most of 1972.

As we hear of the seemingly endless litany of bombings, shootings and killings in the early part of the year we come to learn some of the complex realities of it all – the real fear that was felt of being caught up in a bomb or the ‘protestant backlash’ that could follow, for instance.

Such concerns are intercut with the frustration at not being able to get into the city centre to buy the blue ‘strides’ that our young protagonist covets, or the steadfast refusal of the nuns running St Dominic’s to interrupt the school as carnage unfolds upon its doorstep. In the diary entries we see and hear real life, described as it is lived.

It is through narrative shifts back to O’Callaghan’s contemporary perspective on her younger self that we are given some useful context for these events. But this switching from the teenage past to the reflective present also works on a much more universal level, adding a further layer of interest and occasional amusement in O’Callaghan’s revisiting of her younger self and her thoughts on life in general, as well as the conflict.

This interweaving of both the conflict and ‘normal’ life, as well as O’Callaghan’s teenage and present selves, brings a freshness and vibrancy to the account, despite the apparently unremitting devastation that unfolds around her. The Troubles are ever present and often dominate but they are never the only narrative presented, and in this we probably come closest to a real insight into the reality of life for so many in those early conflict years.

As 1972 unfolds and the conflict intensifies, we begin to see the roots of so many of today’s problems laid bare, as the clearly intelligent and open-minded teenage O’Callaghan finds herself beginning to think the previously unthinkable:

Bomb tonight – it turned out to be in a pub on Sandy Row. 14 injured, not seriously.
Should condemn it but feel an unchristian type of satisfaction – frightening.

As I read the entries, I can’t help but wonder how many others found themselves drawn into the same thinking as violence crept ever closer to home. However, it is in the normality that our knowledge is refreshed. The joy of O’Callaghan’s escapes – to family in Carlingford and briefly even to France – leaps out of the page and works to underscore the ever-present tension of life in Belfast.

In these passages, O’Callaghan also puts some perspective on the notion that the conflict was perhaps more gently experienced by the (relatively) middle-classes. Yes, she was fortunate to have some occasional respite but events on the streets of her home town were impacting daily and directly on her and all around her.

The influence of violence spread well beyond its direct victims and begin to shape a city and its people. It is in this clear-eyed, unarguably naïve, retelling of events in a young girl's diary that the book is infused with real power.

For anyone with even a passing interest in where we have come from and how we have ended up where we are today, Belfast Days is essential reading. It is not a grisly revisiting of the worst year of our conflict, but an inside look at how extraordinary and horrific events impacted on the lives of ordinary people and the myriad ways in which they managed to cling on to semblances of that ordinariness in spite of it all.

This book’s gift is the honesty of O’Callaghan’s teenage self – if truth was the first casualty of the Troubles, here we begin to see some signs of recovery and hope for a better future, now that we can understand what went before, and just how much it changed everything.

Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary is out now, published by Merrion Press.