Friday 21 October 2016

Stitching together tales of a city torn apart

Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary, Eimear O'Callaghan, Merrion Press

Mark Edmund Hutcheson

Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30

'Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary', by Eimear O'Callaghan, is published by Merrion Press.
'Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary', by Eimear O'Callaghan, is published by Merrion Press.

Belfast Days is a wonderful book. Or, rather, two wonderful books, each interleaving with the other. First is the diary diligently kept 43 years ago throughout 1972, the worst year of the Northern Troubles, when Eimear O'Callaghan was a 16-year-old schoolgirl living in west Belfast; then comes her commentary on the diary, and the events - both personal and public - recorded in it, composed since 2010 when Ms O'Callaghan, now a seasoned Northern Irish journalist with over 30 years' experience, re-discovered the diary - "stuffed into a battered briefcase in a spare room wardrobe" - just before the British PM, David Cameron, was to announce the findings of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

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The wonder of the book is precisely this combination of the personal and the public, the past and the present. Accordingly, on the one hand, we see the ever-increasing turmoil of Northern Ireland after the ­introduction of internment-without-trial in August, 1971, and the appalling horror of Bloody Sunday in January, 1972 - we see the violence and mayhem, the ­shootings and bombings, the bitter, mutual, deep-rooted hatred dividing Republicans, Loyalists, and the 'security' forces; on the other hand, we walk through the year in the ­delightful ­company of a sensitive, intelligent, ­charming young girl, fearful for the lives of her family and friends, trying to cope with the carnage, find some sense to it all, and to do the normal girly things teenagers ­everywhere else in the Anglo-Celtic Isles were allowed to do: enjoy school, make clothes and cakes, go to the flicks or the disco, and, above all, to swoon at the sight of a good-looking fella.

Then today, some 40 years later, ­O'Callaghan re-reads her diary, proceeds to give it a rich, highly-informative ­context, to elaborate on all the happenings it ­records, and overwhelmingly to remind us of the ferocity and scale of the conflict, the ­inexorable murder and destruction in a city devouring itself, a story to make one weep.

In an epilogue she acknowledges how, after the success of the toil that went into the Peace Process, Belfast is now a city of relative harmony and tranquillity - ­although the recent murder of Kevin ­McGuigan, subsequent assertions by the PSNI that the Provisional IRA are still alive and killing, and the withdrawal of the Ulster Unionists from the Stormont power-sharing Executive suggests that peace is fragile, and could very easily unravel into renewed bloody chaos.

In the course of the diary, however, there is an escape from the unrelenting ­horror. Often Eimear and her family go to her ­maternal grandparents on the Cooley ­Peninsula, and they have one very ­enjoyable summer holiday in Sligo, visiting Yeats's ­Lissadell House, and swimming at ­Mullaghmore (where the IRA assassinated Lord Mountbatten).

But it is France that truly enables Eimear to get away from it all. She is ­studying French at school with such ­enthusiasm that, from the start of the year, she longs and plots to see the country for herself.

And eventually she does, staying with the noble de Marignan family in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the south west. She is daunted by their sophistication, and her limited French, but it is a door opening on to a wholly different, wholly happier, world. She also falls gently in love with the amiable son, Antoine.

Belfast Days illustrates how far the city has travelled from its homicidal past, how life could - had to - go on, and how, ­particularly, one young girl triumphed over the self-destructive madness.

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