New collection of oral histories illuminates our troubled past
This week sees the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
In 1998 Northern Ireland was world news and, two decades later, we have garnered international attention again.
Amongst the fanfare, there is a sourness that accompanies the congratulations and self-congratulations. Our society is not a roaring success, old problems remain and, of course, we have ongoing political deadlock.
However, the GFA is just a part of our history, not its defining moment. Not everything was broken before; not everything has since been fixed.
Attempts are made, quite naturally, to measure its success (or failure) both by comparisons of the present with the past, and of the present with some counterfactual reality where there was no agreement.
One striking example of this is the assessment that 2,400 lives have been saved as part of the legacy of the GFA.
This is a good news story (and a story of good news) that takes a crude device and turns it into a striking headline: calculating the average numbers of Troubles-related deaths per year between 1968 and 1998, multiplying that by 20, and using this as an estimate of what could have happened had the conflict continued.
It also ties into one recurring theme of our examinations of our past that is, again, entirely natural but which means that many finer details can get lost.
The Troubles were full of extreme violence and murder and it is these incidents that shine brightest in our shared memories.
However, these are not the only stories of our local history - thankfully, it should be said - and if we want to assess our progress (or simply look at our history) then we need to know the past as intimately as we can.
Remembering the past is not simply an exercise in preparing for the future. It is valuable in and of itself and this week, while the 20th birthday of the GFA was celebrated, a new batch of personal histories were published - stories about life in one of the most fractious parts of Northern Ireland, over the past 50 years
Oral histories have a unique quality. They do many things - provide living histories of individuals' life experiences, give a platform for people who might not get the attention of standard historical records and, through this, allow for new insights and perspectives - but, beyond all that, they provide a texture that mainstream history can fail to capture.
Focusing on the sweep of major events is central to history but it can leave the details of ordinary lives unnoticed. Oral histories have a feel, a granularity, that can be extremely evocative.
And so it is with Reflected Lives, led by the Belfast Interface Project and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, a collection of stories from people living in the Short Strand/Lower Newtownards Road during extraordinary times, including the Troubles and the erection of peace walls.
Older people describe life before the wall went up, how the violence changed their lives and their hopes for the future. Younger people talk about growing up in the shadow of the peace walls, their cross-community relationships, and whether the walls should ever come down.
The testimonies are gripping and Belfast, before 1968, was a very different city.
“There were loads and loads of visitors to your street with horses and carts and donkeys. And I can think of them all, the coal man came to your street with a big shire horse and cart [...] And the man who came with coal brick which was a different thing [...] The baker came with a big flat cart and a big cart that was shaped like a loaf almost and he had big long drawers and all the bread was in these big long drawers, so the baker came round to your house. A little man came round with a granite wheel that he peddled and sharpened knives and another lady came round - Lizzy came round - selling herrings and she would go round shouting ‘Ardglass herrings, Ardglass herrings’ [...] The undertakers came, in those days they still had the big Dracula style undertaker’s wagons with horse and everything, big black horses, that would have been the normal funeral for those days.” - Male, 77, Inner East
Relationships that we now call cross community were not noteworthy.
Protestant girls went with boys from Short Strand and vice versa, the same here, it was all like that. There was no squabbles, there was no nothing whatsoever. We all worked in the mill and the rope works together.” - Female, 68, Inner East
When change came, it came suddenly.
"People were uprooted so fast and the whole environment from peace to conflict just moved so fast and it was, in those days it was vicious, you’re not talking what it’s like now, you’re talking serious stuff. Like gun battles, riots, soldiers on your streets. And you had to move with the flow pretty quick, and that’s the best way I could describe it to you.” - Male, 58, Short Strand.
“It was just like one minute [Bryson] Street was just a normal street with people in it, ‘cos we would have gone round, there was a wee sweet shop in that street that we used to go to, and then all of a sudden this just scene of devastation, you know.” - Female, 56, Inner East.
The Short Strand/Lower Newtownards Road interface was the scene of one of the earliest milestones in the Troubles - what became known as the Battle of St Matthews, a firefight between the Provisional IRA and local loyalists which left three people dead and dozens more injured.
“I was getting the kids bathed in front of the fire. And all girls. So putting something in their hair – this was Saturday night – for mass on Sunday morning. And my husband come in and said ‘I don’t know what you’re bothering with that for, there’s not going to be a chapel in the morning’ [...] that was the one time we weren’t allowed to go into mass by the front door, we had to go to the convent.” - Female, 79, Short Strand.
"[T]he next morning I came out of the house and the British army was actually out on the streets for the very first time. On the streets. And there was like jeeps sitting outside my door, open top jeeps. And armoured cars, and soldiers lying up against the houses. Sitting on the ground, just sitting there, you know, so I think they had been drafted in... throughout the night and the early morning, I don’t even think they knew where they were, never mind, or what they were doing there, they had just been drafted in. So here you have this ten year old kid seeing all these armoured cars sitting outside his door, and jeeps, and thinking this is a war film in my street, this is great, this is brilliant, where’s all these soldiers come from? [...] And we actually brought them up sandwiches and cups of tea to be truthful to you, we didn’t know what they were doing there.” - Male, 58, Short Strand.
The next year saw implementation of internment - including raids across Short Strand - amid the continued escalation of violence, with this area one of the worst affected in all of NI. The social geography of the area changed. People left.
"All the friends I had in Bryson Street I never saw again" - Male, 58, Short Strand.
All that before the walls went up, before the Troubles bedded in and before they became a part of an irregular, scarcely-believable everyday normalcy.
The impact on everyday lives was huge.
"There was an awful lot round here wouldn’t go up the Newtownards Road to shop. But as I said, round here, you pay nearly twice as much for things...There was a fruit shop round the Newtownards Road now and they were Protestants and she especially was the loveliest woman you could meet and if you went round and you had too much to carry and you were pushing the pram, the baby in it and all that, she’d say, ‘och, I’ll get Tommy to nip round with them.’ And they were burnt out.” - Female, 79, Short Strand.
"[Y]ou used to play football and you kicked [it] over the fence and it was gone, that was it, you never got it again. Being in school, every now and again there would have been rocks and bricks and things coming over the wall and I remember obviously play time, I remember the...the dinner ladies saying ‘everybody against the wall’ and everybody run against the wall and all lined up and there would have been bricks coming over the wall and stuff. And obviously we were just kids like, under eleven years of age.” - Male, 33, Inner East.
“[T]hey asked us at the time you can either have a grille put on your window or you can have the reinforced glass. And I said put the reinforced glass on, it’s bad enough opening the windows in the mornings and seeing the big fence up, you know, as it is. [...] no matter how much you clean your windows, you think it’s not clean but it is clean” - Female, 49, Inner East.
Excerpts do barely any justice to these oral histories.
The more you take in, the more the picture grows of a history as it was experienced on a day-to-day basis by people in one of the most pressurised places in Northern Ireland.
When oral histories are referred to as living histories this means they convey a real sense of place and time.
What this project also captures is how things have changed over time, up until the present day, and also provide a feel for why things changed they way they have.
The extracts in this article relate mostly to the 1970s but Reflected Lives has as much to say about the present as it does the past.
In the contributions, one 78-year-old man from Inner East said he wants the walls to come down, but that this is not a straightforward decision: “It’s up to people on either side to decide what’s the plan to get it down? And what’s the time frame? But it has to be the people on either side of it. And not people coming from the suburbs.”
The walls divide opinion as much as they divide communities.
“In my opinion the fence could be made bigger because [...] I can’t believe how far kids can throw” - Male, 21, Inner East.
"They [the walls] should be all down, and live just the way it was years and years ago.” - Female, 68, Inner East.
“[I]n the future, definitely, they will have to come down eventually.”Female, 17, Short Strand.
“[T]he first thing you see when you look out the window is this big fence. It’s.... it’s not annoying, it’s more disappointing that it has to be there. But if it wasn’t there then the place would be distraught like, the place wouldn’t be a nice place to live at all.” - Male, 21, Inner East.
Dr Anna Bryson, a senior lecturer at Queen's University, guided the project. She said: “History is not just about politicians, the famous and the powerful. How ordinary people lived their lives against the backdrop of community tension and conflict is every bit as important. Many of the stories we were told are quite extraordinary. They show the resilience – and also the great sense of humour – that people displayed in difficult times.
“Everyone we spoke to from both communities, young and old, were very generous with their time and we would like to thank them for sharing their lives with us, and helping us to collate such a valuable archive that provide vital insights into lives lived on the interface. We would like to thank National Lottery players for making this possible.”
When it comes to assessing the Good Friday Agreement - and, more generally and more importantly, the trajectory of Northern Irish society as a whole - projects such as this are as valuable as anything else.
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