The Dead Beside Us
Tony Doherty wastes no time in following up his 'important' debut with a 'profound' adolescent account of conflict continuing to tear through 1970s Derry
For the luckiest and most talented of writers, books are like buses. You wait years for a publisher to bring your first one to a wider audience and then, before you know it, two of them have turned up.
That has certainly been the experience for Derry writer Tony Doherty. It was only last year that his debut memoir This Man’s Wee Boy hit the shelves, with a powerful and insightful remembering of early childhood amidst the political disintegration of Derry in the late 1960’s.
So it is no surprise that, following so close on its heels, The Dead Beside Us presents us with a sequel, picking up from where the first book leaves off – in the aftermath of Paddy Doherty’s killing by the British Army on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Paddy was Tony’s father and in The Dead Beside Us we join his nine year old son following the funeral and become companions for the next decade as he grows up in a city and a family scarred, but not stilled, by conflict.
On the face of it this is an intensely political story but to Doherty’s enormous credit, he resists the obvious temptation to frame his account in this way, instead producing a personal account which is ultimately so much more illuminating.
The killing of his father and the attempted blackening of his name in the Widgery Tribunal are present at various points in these pages but this is not the only story that Doherty seeks to tell here.
The result is a highly relatable tale of family, of love and of the reality of life amidst the chaos of conflict tearing through the Derry of the 1970s. In these pages you get the real sense of the juxtaposition of ordinary life in extraordinary times that was the hallmark of This Man’s Wee Boy. But the context is now changed, in part through the death of his father, in part because a new home in Shantallow takes in a broader canvas of a city in flux than just the tight streets of the Brandywell, but mostly because our protagonist is maturing in front of our eyes.
Through this developing world view we see how the conflict and the reality of daily confrontation with the British Army (who transition from the ‘BA’ to ‘Brits’ as their presence grows more permanent) becomes just another aspect to adolescence, alongside playing with your mates, avoiding school and discovering girls.
The descriptions of life here are brimful with authenticity, these are not the romanticized stories of courage under fire but the lived experiences of a family shaped, but not defined by, the turbulent politics of the time.
Of course, Paddy’s death is an inevitable presence in the book. The change in Tony’s mother, Eileen, unfolds throughout the story but it only comes to the fore when it touches upon young Tony’s life, without being particularly dwelt upon or analysed. It is refreshing to discover that there is no sense here of today’s writer imparting knowledge and insight upon his younger remembered self.
'Friends Lost' by Paul Devine, submitted to Culture NI's 'Capturing Creativity' contest in March 2017
Despite, or perhaps because of, this honesty in the writing it still comes as something as a surprise to the reader when the 17 year old Tony makes the decision to join the IRA. We have seen his growing politicization, but in the context of a desire to confront the Army, rather than to unite Ireland, and his initial attempts to join are rejected for this reason – simple revenge being seen as no good reason to sign up.
As expected, this decision has profound ramifications for Tony and as we leave him in the company of a fellow teenage IRA volunteer, whose father had also been killed in the conflict, the cyclical repeating misery of the Troubles is all too clear to see.
As with his previous book, Tony Doherty once more makes a vital and profound contribution to our understanding of the past here in Derry and in Northern Ireland.
For those interested in the social history of Northern Ireland, this is essential reading. For those interested in how we became caught in a seemingly intractable cycle of violence, this is essential reading. For those interested in how grief and loss impacts and shapes the lives of victims of the conflict, again this is essential reading.
The Dead Beside Us completes an important story but, for this reader at least, leaves us looking wider for narratives from the other parties in the conflict. Tony Doherty tells us something that we didn’t already know about normal life here in the 1970s and leaves us eager to hear more, but from other perspectives.
It can only be hoped that he will inspire others from other backgrounds and traditions to do the same. We need to hear these stories if we are to understand each other and ever move on from the past, and if we can hear them as honestly and cogently as Tony Doherty’s here, then he will have done us all a great service.
The Dead Beside Us is published by Mercier Press and available now to purchase at retailers across Ireland and online. As part of this year's 30th Foyle Film Festival Tony Doherty will read from the book on Thursday November 23 accompanied by music from the Ulster Orchestra which has been specially arranged by its own Philip Walton. The event marks the start of EO Lab II, an exciting new pan-European project. To book tickets visit www.foylefilmfestival.org or call 028 7126 0562.