A moving essay from Anthony Quinn, author of DISAPPEARED.
Not every Catholic schoolboy gets to receive his Holy Communion in the same hands into which a few days previously masked gunmen had pressed a bullet destined for his father. But then, I grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, where, as a character in my debut novel Disappeared remarks, religion and violence were all mixed up, like mixing drinks, a dangerous and intoxicating cocktail.
During the 1970s and 80s, fear and hatred were the norm in Northern Ireland. Like many Catholics of my generation, I grew up in an atmosphere of intimidation spawned by the British security forces and Protestant paramilitaries, where violence became so commonplace it was difficult to insulate oneself from the fear and loathing. One winter night, a loyalist murder squad shot dead a good friend of mine in his front living room. As a teenager walking the streets of my local town, I was often frogmarched by British soldiers at gunpoint and interrogated at the back of an armoured jeep for no reason other than having a Catholic sounding name.
Of all the crimes that I witnessed, however, the one that haunts me the most took place on a bright spring morning in the hallway of my family home. Like the ill-fated character of Oliver Jordan in Disappeared, my mother and father were able to see through the fog of sectarian hatred and cultural rivalries that had descended upon Northern Ireland. My mother, a tireless nurse and community worker, declined a proposal to stand in an election for Sinn Fein at the height of the IRA’s campaign of violence, while my father rejected a similar offer to don the IRA’s black beret and join its paramilitary ranks. We lived in a republican heartland, and the natural thing for them would have been to support the IRA in whatever they did. However, my parents were God-fearing Catholics, and their stand against violence of any sort marked us apart. It ended any chance of us having a normal family life, but then who did during the Troubles?
Early one morning, my mother saw a group of gunmen assemble in the hedge at the back of our garden. She automatically assumed they were loyalist gunmen come to shoot my father. She was wrong. They were our co-religionists dressed in balaclavas and bearing Armalites. Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army acting on behalf of the Irish people. They held my parents, my six brothers and sisters, and myself at gunpoint while their comrades took the family car and used it in a murder bid on a Protestant policeman.
To ensure my parents did not tip off the security forces when the IRA left, their leader, his ginger moustache poking out from under his balaclava, handed me a gold-coloured bullet. He warned me that the IRA would use it to shoot my father, if he contacted the police before the appointed time. It was a small moment in the tumult of a mad morning, but one I remember vividly. At first, I thought he wanted to shake my hand. A conscientious child, I accepted the bullet, and held it carefully until the IRA gang departed. I knew it carried an important message. I gave it to my mother who placed it in the kitchen cupboard, next to where she kept the milk money. Later that night the police took it away for forensic examination, and nobody said anything more about it.
Growing up during the Troubles, especially in a staunchly republican area, you had to be careful about what you said. Words could kill. If you said the wrong thing, you might never be seen again. The phrase ‘and whatever you say, say nothing’ was a mantra for survival. My family didn’t talk about the hijacking or the intimidation that followed, the death threats and abuse shouted in the small hours of the night. Denial, silence, putting on a brave face, these were the coping strategies during the Troubles.
Fast-forward more than twenty years to 2005, and the peace process was changing life beyond recognition in Northern Ireland. The focus of life had moved from war back to work and normal family life. The armed raids, checkpoints, and bomb-scares had stopped. Paramilitaries were whitewashing their propaganda murals and reinventing themselves as politicians. People were eating out in restaurants, going on holiday several times a year, forging a brighter future for their children. Construction cranes, the new emblems of the peace process, were replacing the barren buildings and smokestacks of Belfast’s skyline with shiny new apartment blocks and shopping centres.
Returning from Scotland where I had been employed as a social-worker, I decided to switch careers and take up a post as reporter for a newspaper in my home county. I expected to be covering stories about agricultural shows, flower arranging, and parish events, with the odd burglary or car accident thrown in, a good starting place for a career in journalism, but one which might not sustain my interest for too long.
However, I soon found myself drawn back into the darkest corners of the Troubles. My first big story was an interview with a father still searching for justice over the death of his nine-year old son, who had been killed by a loyalist car bomb more than thirty years before. The murderers had never been found, and to compound the tragedy, clear evidence had emerged that the killers had been protected by British security forces. It made the front page of the newspaper and seemed to open the floodgates to a host of similar stories.
Over the next few years, I found myself interviewing elderly men and women from both sides of the conflict in living rooms that felt like shrines to their lost sons and daughters, murdered by republicans or by loyalists and the shadowy security forces. Their grievances had not diminished in spite of the peace process. Their lips still quivered as they lit candles next to pictures of their loved ones.
What struck me from the outset was the fact that few of these emotive stories were making the headlines in the national or even the local press. They were widely ignored, a taboo subject, censored by a society that did not want to be reminded of its past. Lurking somewhere at the back of people’s minds was the superstitious fear that talking about the Troubles might somehow increase the chances of a return to violence.
Denial and silence might have been good coping strategies during the Troubles, but in peacetime, they struck me as dangerous and destructive. In the newsroom of the local paper, the phone kept ringing with people keen to break their silence, and I kept taking notes and writing up their stories.
One night a man came to my home and handed me a legal file containing British Intelligence information, the core of which were the transcripts of a British Army surveillance operation on a house in the days leading up to the murder of its elderly female occupant by loyalist paramilitaries. As well as a dug-in unit of SAS men observing the house, there was a secret camera camouflaged in the hedgerows relaying footage to a nearby police base. The passages that had not been redacted made grim reading, right down to the description of the gunfire on the night of the murder and the instruction to soldiers to remain hidden in their positions. The murdered woman’s family claimed that loyalist paramilitaries had colluded with the police and the British Army, and from the evidence in the file, it was hard not to see the justification in their claims. However, in spite of repeated legal hearings, the family had yet to receive any form of justice or be told the truth about what really happened that night.
I could see the anger and hurt that lived on in these families, many of whom felt abandoned by Northern Ireland’s political parties. Their lives had been irredeemably rocked by tragedy. For many victims it is not their own silence that is hardest to bear, but the silence of the entire community. The cracks in my vision of what I thought was a peaceful, harmonious new society were beginning to show.
These were the stories which jolted me into writing Disappeared. As I began researching the book, I found myself returning to my own memories of the Troubles. The little boy who was unable to sleep after he’d held the bullet destined for his father. In my confused ten-year-old mind I’d felt that by accepting the bullet I was somehow complicit in the threat., in the same way that many conscientious Catholics felt complicit in the IRA’s terrorism. We didn’t pull the triggers or set the bombs but we were cowed into silence.
Disappeared might be peppered with violence, and layered with conspiracies, betrayals and deceptions, but it is also about breaking the silence - the desperate silence of many Catholics like my parents who felt they were walking a tightrope with the IRA at one end and the British Army and Protestant paramilitaries on the other. I realised that I, too, had been living with silence, and that I had a story that needed to be told.
My tenth year was an overwhelming one for me, brought up as a devout Catholic, receiving in my hands something as frightening as a bullet marked for my father, and then something as holy as the consecrated Body of Christ. You would have thought the latter would have negated the former. The good cancelling the bad. The brutal gift of the bullet reversed by the redeeming gift of the Eucharist. However, it didn’t work out like that. One inflamed the other, like throwing raw alcohol on a wound. To this day, I can still feel the imprint of the bullet in my hand.
The experience left me feeling conflicted in ways that are hard to explain. I became a deeply spiritual teenager with a guilty fascination for IRA violence. I listened obsessively to the daily morning, noon and evening news bulletins, tuning in to the litany of bombings and shootings, which were always delivered by the newsreader in the same monotone voice with which he announced the weather. I was frightened and at the same time thrilled by what I heard, and I wasn’t the only one. Listening to the hourly radio news became a national pastime during the Troubles. Many of my generation were addicted to those little charges of excitement that flow from bad news, swinging from dread to overwhelming relief and satisfaction, and then back to apprehension again, waiting pensively for the day that the news bulletin heralded a personal tragedy. We were the children of the 1970s, and when darkness fell, we brooded on bullets, guns, and bombs. The violence terrified us, but, to an extent, it also entertained and diverted us. Many of us became hooked on it.
It was this splintered personal landscape that I wanted Disappeared to shine a light upon - the contradictory sense of being terrorised by the IRA and at the same time protected and somehow energised by them. This very personal fault-line runs through the book, and is the inspiration for the character of Dermot Jordan, the answers-seeking son of Oliver, the innocent man branded an informer and murdered by republican paramilitaries.
I don’t feel cursed to have lived through the Troubles, but I don’t feel blessed either. The conflict made me who I am today – for better or for worse. The Troubles were the over-arching narrative of my childhood. They gave me nightmares, but they also made me a streetwise young adult, and endowed me with an acute sensitivity to social injustice and the overwhelming pointlessness of violence. Disappeared has given me the chance to break the silence and tell my story. As a journalist, it’s probably the most important story I’ve told.