Book Review: The Skelper and Me

Tony Doherty completes his trilogy of Troubles memoirs with more accessible and authentic storytelling, spanning his time as an IRA prisoner to his long journey for justice after his father's death on Bloody Sunday

The Skelper and Me is the third, and final, instalment in the memoirs of Tony Doherty’s childhood and coming of age since the 1960s in Derry. 

Readers of the first two volumes (This Man’s Wee Boy and The Dead Beside Us) will be aware of Tony’s story as an ordinary boy growing up around the Bogside and Brandywell as his city slides into the Troubles and whose world is then shattered with the killing of his father, Patrick, by the British Army on Bloody Sunday. When we left Tony at the end of volume two he had joined the IRA in a response to the injustice of Patrick’s death and was on his way to prison.

The Skelper and Me picks up the story directly from this point, presenting a tale in two parts. The first details Doherty’s years in Crumlin Road Gaol as a convicted IRA prisoner, whilst the second reflects on the years following his release and his role in securing justice for his father and the other Bloody Sunday victims.

The key strength of Doherty’s work, here as before, is in the straightforward authenticity of his voice. A natural storyteller, with a keen eye for humour and lightness amidst the dark realities of the situation that he found himself in, The Skelper and Me is a page turning read that takes us through some important chapters in Northern Ireland’s history with a personal insight and a strong sense of the humanity amidst the history and the headlines. 

In these pages we get a real sense of how the personal and the political coexist in times of conflict and trauma, delivered in a tone that is always accessible, never preaches and genuinely enlightens.

In this re-telling, the prison years are largely a source of humour and anecdote, which makes for some very easy reading but felt for this reader like a missed opportunity for a more reflective treatment of what was clearly a highly formative experience in Doherty’s life. Its a series of stories very well told, but I would have loved to have learned more about the real impact of these years on our narrator’s development.

The second half of the memoir - in which the story of the campaign for justice for the Bloody Sunday victims is told - is a richer experience. Again Doherty’s hallmark storytelling style is here, urging the reader to turn page after page, but the events portrayed give a fascinating insider's view of a very public campaign.

This insight not only brings alive that humour and humanity once more, but also uncovers the deeply personal sense of mission for Doherty and of the many who helped to expose the truth of that day. This is a warm and generous journey into the campaign, with acknowledgement widely given to all of those that worked so hard and so long for justice and a real sense of anticipation as events build towards the ultimate outcome of David Cameron’s apology for the events of Bloody Sunday and the vindication of its victims.

This collection of memoirs really deserve to be read together as a piece. Across the three volumes they pay homage to the notion that one event can set the course of a person’s lifetime. If Tony Doherty had been born elsewhere then who knows what he might have become. Instead, the unfolding of a war in his town and the killing of his father set him on a course of initially seeking retribution, and then tenaciously fighting for justice.

In achieving the latter he was a central part of a movement that challenged the heart of the British establishment and ultimately succeeded. A maker of history indeed.

The Skelper and Me is available now at £10.99 online and from all good bookshops.