Our extract this week is an essay by Bronagh McAtasney, taken from the book The New Frontier: Reflections from the Irish Border, which is edited by James Conor Patterson
CHASING BOYS THROUGH WOOLIES AND OTHER WAR STORIES
by Bronagh McAtasney
I am a blow-in. No matter how long I live here or try to assimilate, I will always be a blow-in. I’ve lived here now, down near the Border, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else but I have no roots here, just slight tentacles that cling tenuously to the community. To make things worse, my bloodlines span the Border. A Northern father, a Southern mother. One side steeped in the aftermath of a Border, the other refusing to come anywhere near it for decades. When my mother crossed that line, she effectively disappeared for her family, only existing by phone call or whenever we all went down south. Come to think of it, she didn’t really exist in either place, and was not allowed to vote in one place or the other. Up here, everyone asked her where down south she came from. When she was down there, they laughed at her northern accent.
Until I was 11, my family and I lived in Holywood, County Down. Then a quaint little town protected from the Troubles by a forcefield of affluence. I could look from my window, across to north Belfast and see the lines of flames, but it was a world away. I remember only two incidents when the forcefield cracked: A bomb scare near our school, which meant we all had to crouch behind a wall for a few hours, and the time when a man had been shot and crawled into Mrs Caldwell’s garden, only to annoyingly bleed all over her rose bushes which she was forced to clean with disinfectant.
In 1978, my father decided that we should move to Newry. He had been offered a training job, which for him meant the opportunity to pass on his skills as a weaver to young people. Passing on his skills was very important. I’d never even heard of Newry. I knew little about the Border other than it caused problems. I’d seen a photo in a news- paper of a girl tarred and feathered because she mixed with the soldiers and that had something to do with the Border, somehow. I don’t remember how we were told about the move. The three of us children had no say in it.
One day we were cycling around our cul-de-sac in Holywood, the next we were sitting outside Newry swimming pool waiting for a man to come and pick us up to take us to our new house. Children deal with these big events in different ways. Some accept it all and aren’t phased. Some overthink it and retreat within themselves. I – with my pretensions to be Nancy Drew, or at least an amazing reporter – decided I was going to document my life, and when I got my first diary at 13 (in 1981) this was going to be my moment. In hindsight, I think writing was a way of helping me make sense of things, to put the world in some kind of order, because suddenly life was very very different. The cul-de-sac was gone. There was no garden, no beach around the corner, no park with a Witch’s Hat to swing on dangerously.
The ‘new’ house was in fact very old, very smelly and on a busy street with no gardens anywhere; just traffic and noise and big writing on the gable wall that said ‘Sniper’s Corner’. What was a sniper? I don’t want to write a ‘Child of the Troubles’ piece. It’s more of a ‘Life with tinges of violence and an emerald green Triumph 20’ thing. In my diary the Troubles are always there just because they are. But we lived our lives relatively unscathed. Bomb scares were a nuisance which stopped you going places. Bombs and incendiary fires sometimes provided opportunities for water-damaged bargains or shrapnel souvenirs. For Border people especially, life is all about grabbing opportunities.
Borderlands, hinterlands, shadowlands. Places where laws are simply guidelines or challenges. Where authority doesn’t come from the places it does elsewhere. And heroes are the people who get away with things, fighting not so much for what was right but more against being told what to do by people far away. Teenage life is all about finding your tribe, belonging and sharing obsessions with others. By 13, I had discovered and fallen madly in love with all things Two Tone. My tribe was ska, the ’80s kind with distinctly English roots. But the English were also bad, oppressors, tyrants, vengeful. Still, I covered my walls with posters of Madness, skinheads that looked like the soldiers crouched in our doorway.
Slowly though, beside the cannibalised pages of Smash Hits, other groups of young men began to appear. When Hunger Strikers began to die in 1981, my hero worship became confused. Bobby Sands, Francie Hughes, Ray McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara sat side-by-side with The Specials. When Bobby Sands died, the girls from South Armagh came into school wearing black armbands and I begged my mother to make me one too. Someone gave me a H-Blocks badge and I wore it until my father saw it and tore it off my school blazer in horror. As the summer went on, posters demanding the return of Ireland to the Irish went up and reciting the names of all ten Hunger Strikers became a competition; something that made you cool. I wanted to belong to this gang, rebelling against more than just my parents or school rules. This felt real. But boys and cycling with your little gang and falling out with school friends was also real.
Going down the town on a Saturday afternoon was the focus of our week. Getting the timing just right for optimum running-into-boys opportunities was an art form. Accidentally being in Woolies at the same time as the boy you fancied took precision and organisation worthy of any British regiment. The will he, won’t he saga of Valentine’s cards took up three weeks’ worth of pages in my diary and as the year progressed, I had to juggle my dreams to marry Suggs (Plan B was a Newry boy) with my pretensions of being an amazing reporter and Irish rebel. It was a tough balancing act.
On the day Bobby Sands died, for example, I was compelled to report that I had managed to produce edible Cornish pasties in Domestic Science class. The truth is both of these facts were of equal importance to me. I saw no hierarchy of events. Teenagers don’t. In the beautifully insular world of puberty, everything is high drama. How my friends fell out with each other was as vital to note as the bombing of a local hotel or the death of an IRA man. And because I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, rank the things happening around me, my compulsion was to write it down, the bible-thin pages of my little diary turning solid blue as I crammed in all the news and stories I needed to record in my tiny writing.
I made an Irish tricolour out of cardboard and stuck it to the back of my bike only for a boy called Jeffrey to tear it off and throw it in the bin right in front of me. I didn’t really know the importance of a flag or a painted kerbstone, but I soon learned. In 1982, as I grew up, the idea of rebelling took hold. ‘Whadda you got?’ as Marlon Brando once said. The walls of my bedroom were now covered in posters and stickers. The pop stars and freedom fighters. The diary had gone as I was far too busy going to discos in the Parochial Hall and trying to shrink my jeans skin-tight in a bath of cold water. Lots of storming about, slamming doors in anger and tears. Bananarama and The Wolfe Tones on my record player. So far, so cliché. But it was a lie. I hadn’t the true heart of a rebel and I wasn’t really a Border person.
I tried so hard. I hung around on the periphery of the cool girls’ gang, laughing and nodding along but I could never flick my hair right, and I didn’t have that South Armagh – or even Newry – accent and, worst of all, we weren’t related to anyone. People couldn’t say, ‘Oh, the McAtasneys from the Meadow?’ and then use that short-hand to place you because of your grandfather or your aunt and the industry your family worked in. I longed to have even a second cousin in the town so people knew who we were. It was bad enough to have a surname no one had heard of, but to come to Newry from Belfast, to have parents from two different places, each child born in a different county, was just too much. We were an unknown entity.
Worse was to come. The opportunity to show my real rebel potential soon presented itself and I was found to be severely lacking. One Saturday night in October 1982, we were gathered around the TV, doing that most ’80s of things: watching the snooker. The snooker was huge. Everyone watched the snooker. When the doorbell rang, I went to the front door and looked out the spy hole to see who it was. Everyone watched the snooker and had a spy hole in their front door. I didn’t recognise the fella so I didn’t open the door and went back to get my Daddy.
When he came back in, the man was with him and he was carrying a gun. He was very calm for a man with a gun. He didn’t have a mask and he simply told us that our house was needed and that we’d all be OK. He said there’d be more fellas along soon and then he just… sat down and watched the snooker. When the doorbell rang again, more men came in. Six, maybe seven. Some masked, some not. The one in charge explained that they had to use our house for an ‘operation’ and it would all go very easy if we did as we were told.
He knew Daddy was from Lurgan and talked about a recent incident up there. One fella sat beside my brother and when he found out what school he went to, he asked about a few of the teachers who had been there when he was. It was all strangely easygoing. I made them the tea they asked for and we stayed in the sitting room as they ran up and down the stairs. As the evening went on, they explained that we’d all have to sleep in the same room as they were going to stay overnight in readiness for the attack they had planned for the next morning.
Someone had worked out that an RUC car sat outside our house every Sunday morning and that was their target. I needed to get my nightdress and I was allowed to go up to the top of our five-storey house and into my bedroom. So set the scene. The house is full of masked gunmen. There’s snooker on the TV. A massive gun sitting on a tripod in my bedroom. Belts of bullets lying across my Snoopy duvet cover. The Madness and Hunger Strikers posters alongside more recent additions condemning British occupation. Pierrot wallpaper and sullen teenagers. That’s all quite Troubles-by-numbers. I’m actually embarrassed by the entire setup.
They’d definitely cast James Nesbitt in a drama based on this lot. Probably squeeze in a few poorly-done generic Northern Ireland accents. I’d be played by a young-looking 34-year-old.
It all came to nothing. It would be a different story had anyone been injured or killed. The RUC car didn’t turn up. The worst things that happened was Daddy snoring all night, and the men taking our car and cutting the phone. If the attack had gone to plan, the news story would have said that two men with South Armagh accents took over a house and carried it out. That’s what they told us to say the previous night. That taught me to never believe a news story again.
How did I fail as a rebel in all this? My posters. My posters gave the IRA men a false sense of who I was. The head fella came to me for a chat. ‘I see your posters. Good girl. That’s what we need. You know, if you ever want to really make a difference, there are plenty of people you can talk to. Wouldn’t it be great to be part of the cause?’ It wouldn’t, I thought. My stomach dropped. I wanted to run upstairs and pull them all down. I wanted to say that I just wanted to belong. I wanted the girls in school to think I was one of them. I knew I could fake it enough to be in the gang, but I definitely didn’t want to shoot anyone or die. When it came to real commitment, I couldn’t do it.
I wanted to marry Suggs far more than I wanted to fight for Ireland. I was terrified they’d make me and scared to death that they’d figure me out. Over the next few years, people I knew did make the choice. Some died. Some went to jail. I wondered if they really felt passionate enough to commit to the cause or just found themselves facing the same options I did. I took the posters down. None of us told anyone what had happened. I could have and it probably would have bumped my chances of getting in with a tribe, but I knew that I was a fake. I decided rebellion wasn’t really my thing and focussed instead on music and making lists of the charts which were reliable and not life-threatening.
A few years later I moved back to Belfast for work. Cities are so much easier to belong to because you don’t have to belong at all. Ten years after that, I moved again. This time to the US, but it wasn’t really for me. There, the Irish people I met seemed to have become more Irish the further they moved. I could have gone full Foster and Allen and lived a happy life of shenanigans (probably in a bar called Shenanigans) but instead came home and ended up living outside Newry in rural County Down.
I still don’t belong – I fling about words like ‘slurry’ and pretend to be a culchie but I’m not. I coo at the lambs where my neighbours see their dinner. Newry still dances along the edge of legality and knowing about a man who can get you that thing you want. The Border is there and not there. My sister married a Newry man and I can belong vicariously through his name. I’ve probably become a Borderlands zealot, feeling the need to prove my credentials by learning about its history, but I don’t think I’m fooling anyone.
Bronagh McAtasney lives outside Newry, County Down. She is a public historian and curator of the Twitter account @NrnIrnGirl1981 which recounts her childhood journal. She has worked with archives and outreach programmes at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the UTV Archives at Northern Ireland Screen.[/restrict]