The Trauma of the Troubles

The Trauma of the Troubles

In recent depictions of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, we find not the blast sites of the conflict but the domestic spaces that absorbed the fallout.

A still from Derry Girls. Left to right: James, Michelle, Erin, Orla, and Clare (Netflix)

In November 1973, the sisters Dolours and Marian Price, along with a handful of other members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, were convicted of carrying out a bombing in London that injured hundreds. The sisters immediately declared a hunger strike, arguing that they ought to be classified as political prisoners and allowed to serve their sentences back home, in Northern Ireland. The authorities started force-feeding them after two and a half weeks, and the strike ultimately lasted 203 days, after which they were transferred to Armagh Prison, outside Belfast.

Although the strike was over, the sisters didn’t start eating normally again. They had developed anorexia so severe that they were ultimately released because they were on the brink of starvation. The hunger strike had “alienated us from the process of sustenance, the whole process of putting food into your body,” Dolours Price said years later. Their detractors accused them of faking it, or of being motivated by vanity and a desire to lose weight. Dolours continued to struggle with food-related issues for years—as subsequent hunger strikers perished, as she withdrew from the armed struggle, as the Good Friday Agreement was reached.

Dolours Price, who died in 2013, is a central character in Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s best-selling history of the Troubles—the period between 1968 and 1998, during which the long-standing strife over British rule of Northern Ireland broke into a protracted guerilla war. It’s an expansive book, covering many intertwining lives, dramatic events, and intimate moments, but the detail about Dolours Price’s lingering eating disorder stands out. The more famous Irish hunger strikers are the ones who died—particularly Bobby Sands and the nine men who followed him. In a way, those men and their legacies, as fighters and emblems, are easier to make sense of than Price’s. Her story points to a more complicated experience, in which the traumas of war seep into people’s emotional and mental fabric.

When Americans think of war, we usually imagine some sort of divide between the military and civilian worlds—a protective barrier, either geographic or conceptual, that preserves the idea that back home, where the women and children are, is a status quo worth protecting. During the Troubles, that boundary barely existed; the home front was also the battlefield. (When police came looking for IRA weapon stashes in one predominantly Catholic housing complex, the housewives who lived there would lean out their windows and pass guns down to their neighbors in a chain, staying just ahead of the search.) And, although the Good Friday Agreement officially ended the violence, the long tail of the conflict has been increasingly apparent in recent years: paramilitary activity has been on the rise; a journalist, Lyra McKee, was shot by an IRA faction in April 2019; Brexit threatens to topple the region’s delicate political balance; and Northern Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world—a trend that researchers attribute to widespread PTSD from the Troubles.

In the past few years, there have been several depictions of the Troubles focused on examining not the blast sites of the conflict but the domestic spaces that absorbed the fallout. These treatments—which include Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman, and the Channel 4 show Derry Girls—center on the experiences of women, children, and families. The bombings and battles become a backdrop to stories about the ways in which people mold their lives around conflict and learn to live within large-scale trauma.

In times of war, nations often take psychological refuge in the notion that the fighting is necessary to protect some stable normalcy at home. The Ferryman explores a counterpoint: how those supposedly protective and protected domestic structures can be co-opted by violence, becoming a medium for its dissemination. The play introduces us to the Carney family, whom we meet on the morning of their annual harvest feast. A herd of kids clamors around a cheerfully cluttered farmhouse; elderly relatives tease and bicker. They seem boisterous, loving, and happy. But at the end of the first act, Quinn, the head of the family, receives news that the body of his brother, Seamus, has been found in a bog. Seamus was disappeared years earlier by the IRA, which suspected he was a police informer, and the family has never known for sure what happened to him. The news is delivered first to Quinn, then to Caitlin, who, earlier in the act, you might have assumed to be Quinn’s wife—the two of them joked and flirted and wrangled the kids together. She is, we discover, Seamus’s widow. (Quinn’s wife, Mary, either severely depressed or a hypochondriac, spends most of her time in bed.) As the news about Seamus spreads through the family, other subcutaneous ruptures become apparent. Long-buried grief, anger, and suspicion start rising to the surface.

In The Ferryman, normalcy isn’t a refuge; it’s a thin plaster that hides wounds and allows them to fester. Until the information about Seamus arrives, the only acknowledgement of the political situation comes from elderly Aunt Pat, who is mostly ignored as she shouts at everyone to shut up so she can listen to the news on the radio. (The play is set in 1981, in the midst of the hunger strikes that killed Sands and the others.) Quinn shuts off her radio, saying that “there’s a time and a place” to discuss such things, and “it’s not here, and it’s not now.”

Quinn, who was once part of the IRA himself, has tried to shield the family’s younger members from the Troubles. His imposed silence was meant to block the past from invading the present, but it has only smoothed its passage to the next generation. Unspoken horrors plant seeds where new tragedies will grow. The play ends in a Shakespearean bloodbath as the past comes back in the form of keening banshees, literally haunting the family. The play is forceful and intricately crafted, but there is a clear Chekhov’s-gun effect at work—the gun being not only Seamus’s body but the Troubles themselves. The detonation has the feeling of a culmination—a sudden and final reckoning with everything the family had tried and failed to contain. We don’t see the long process through which the pressure builds.

Milkman, a knotty and disorienting novel, which won the Booker Prize in 2018, dwells in those unspectacular ambient changes that conflict causes in the psychology of a society. It’s a hard book to describe: it never identifies its setting as Northern Ireland and, in fact, contains hardly any proper nouns. Instead, there are “political problems” concerning “the place over the water” and violence involving uprisings by “renouncers of the state.” Certain details make it clear that the setting is probably the author’s hometown of Belfast in the 1970s. But, as the narrator says, historical context and political particularities can be “misleading and cumbersome” if the goal is to understand the web of allegiances and aversions that defines people’s lives.

The narrator is a nameless eighteen-year-old who has attracted the attention of a person known as the milkman, a high-ranking operative in a nameless organization that is presumably the IRA. He begins stalking her, making vague threats about car bombs and her boyfriend. People think they’re having an affair and start treating her differently, cautiously; the police snap her picture with hidden cameras.

She moves around in a fog; her consciousness doesn’t stream so much as it rushes and fumbles from one thing to another, dropping the reader into a torrent of dissociation and violence from the novel’s first sentences: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man.” It’s a voice that is never quite at ease, in which the syntax never quite fits together. It describes a world where appearances are more real than reality and where day-to-day life requires being in a state of constant denial and semi-fantasy. People like the milkman—a ruthless, predatory, and respected resistance fighter—thrive in this atmosphere.

Any statement or denial the narrator makes will trigger a new chain of rumors, so she finds that the only weapon she has to combat the gossip is blankness. No matter the question, she gives the same flat-faced reply: “I don’t know.” It’s a response that recalls an incident from 1972, in which the IRA leader Gerry Adams successfully deflected hours of police interrogation by refusing to acknowledge that he was Gerry Adams. The police were not in any doubt about his identity, but he outlasted his interrogators by simply denying the evident truth over and over. He used a similar tactic years later when he entered official politics and became a key figure in brokering the Good Friday deal. This time, he resolutely denied—and still denies—ever being a member of the IRA, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

But the narrator of Milkman, as a civilian and a woman, does not enjoy so much control over her own story. Her “I don’t know” starts as a protective cover but quickly becomes a parasite. She says, “Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing. And now this numbance from nowhere had come so far on in its development that along with others in the area finding me inaccessible, I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.”

The milkman’s campaign of harassment and gaslighting succeeds partly thanks to a society that is already alienated from reality. The story is set in the midst of or just after the peak of the violence in Northern Ireland, a time during which hundreds of civilians were killed. The narrator describes a city living under “some distorted quality of light” that has to do with “the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail.” In one surreal scene, a nonlocal teacher tries to convince her French class that the sky is not always blue, pointing out the window to a spectacular sunset of purples, pinks, yellows, greens—everything but blue. And still the students insist, “Le ciel est bleu!” “Of course we knew that the sky could be more than blue,” the narrator says, but to accept such deviation “would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?”

This question of what civilians see and what it implies about their responsibility to speak is crucial in any conflict. Moments of literal seeing—of photographs from the Vietnam War, for instance, or from Abu Ghraib—can become touchstones of political action. But the act of witness is not in itself empowering or enlightening. In Northern Ireland, the widespread knowledge of atrocities only served to restrict people’s ability to speak. Seamus Heaney, in his 1975 poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” (from which Keefe’s book takes its name), described his homeland as a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod . . . Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks.” Milkman portrays this culture of silence as radiating out from the center of the conflict, where those with the most to say are the ones who keep the quietest.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people least bound by the codes of conduct, people the narrator calls the “beyond-the-pales”—those who, through madness or stupidity or stubbornness, open up for themselves a space outside the confines of society, which in turn shuns them. Women, just by virtue of being women, and so being “viewed as harmless, as childlike, as objects of raillery,” sometimes have greater access to these spaces. Among the beyond-the-pales is a group of women who start a feminist reading group that meets in a garden shed. Other times, women, fed up with the elaborate rules foisted on them by the men’s fight, defy the curfew en masse, because they know that neither side will open fire on them. This dynamic can also be turned on its head: Dolours and Marian Price, as members of an elite IRA squad called the Unknowns, could run missions across the Northern Irish border more or less with impunity because they were pretty young women.

The Troubles seem almost incidental to the daily lives of the characters of Derry Girls. Set in the 1990s, the show follows four Catholic high school girls, Erin, Orla, Clare, and Michelle, and one boy, James, Michelle’s recently transplanted English cousin. Mostly, they deal with typical teen-comedy issues—pursuing crushes, sneaking away to concerts, trying to get out of tests. For them, the Troubles are often just an inconvenience, causing traffic jams and graffiti. Apart from some adolescent self-dramatizing (Erin proudly writes a poem that opens, “The bullets fired on the streets as I lie in my bed / are nothing to the bullets being fired in my head,” and her English teacher just rolls her eyes), the kids and their families seem casually inured to the extreme conditions that surround them. Life goes on, but in a carnivalesque kind of way; the show shares with The Ferryman and Milkman a running-on-tiptoes energy. The characters argue about whether to let an IRA fugitive stow away in the trunk of their car at about the same pitch that they argue, nonsensically, about whether to take a large wall clock with them on a road trip. Their rare encounters with outsiders—such as when a visiting student comes from Ukraine and shocks them all by not finding Derry vastly superior to her homeland and dismissing the religious divide at the heart of the Troubles as “stupid”—just confirm their insular lunacy.

Apart from the stowaway and a couple of crushes gazed at from afar, young men, as a demographic, are almost entirely missing from the show. There’s James, but he’s English, so he’s sent to the all-girls school for his own protection—a hint at what lies on the other side of the gender divide. Everyone struggles to place James—people he meets initially assume he’s a girl, though he clearly isn’t, or, if he protests loudly enough, they’ll concede that he’s gay, although he’s not that either. James spends much of the show with his mouth agape, struggling to function in his new home and baffled by the continual stream of small insanities that he encounters, which the girls treat as utterly unremarkable. Although there’s little direct engagement with the conflict, they have clearly been formed by it. In one episode, the girls stand around the open casket at Erin’s great-aunt’s funeral, feeling her cold face and arguing about whether Erin once called the deceased “a dick.” James is horrified; the girls, meanwhile, can’t believe he’s never seen a dead body. “Christ but the English are weird,” Michelle says.

The second season ends in 1995, with Bill Clinton’s visit to Northern Ireland. Clinton’s trip was a turning point in the peace process, marking the recognition of Sinn Féin, the Provisional IRA’s political arm, led by Gerry Adams, as a legitimate participant in negotiations and paving the way to the Good Friday Agreement. The compromises involved in making this deal, along with Adams’s disavowal of his involvement in the armed struggle, left many IRA members feeling betrayed (“For what Sinn Féin has achieved today, I would not have missed a good breakfast,” Dolours Price told one interviewer). The agreement, focused on securing peace in the present and future, lacked any formal mechanism for reckoning with the traumas of the past, and so the culture of silence folded in one more layer of not-speaking.

As Clinton takes the stage in Derry to make a speech, the girls abandon a hard-won spot at the front of the crowd to go greet James, who was about to return to England with his mother but decides at the last minute to stay. The episode closes with a celebratory finality that might make you think that this is the end of both the series and the peace negotiations—the violence has finally been put to bed, and the girls have returned to personal lives unencumbered by the extreme politics of their times. But it took three more years to reach a ceasefire that would stick, and Derry Girls has been renewed for another season.

Treaties and official junctures can’t account for the slow-simmering experiences of those affected by the traumatic effects of conflict. Dolours Price becomes one emblem of this in Say Nothing, but, more crucially, there is the story of the McConville family, which is the other central narrative thread of Keefe’s history.

Jean McConville was a widowed mother of ten who was disappeared by the IRA in 1972, on suspicion of being a police informant. In the months after McConville’s disappearance, her orphaned children fended for themselves by shoplifting food and lived in semi-squalor. The neighbors, perhaps not wanting to be tainted by association, either ignored them or complained about the noise—a particularly vicious instance of insisting that the sky is blue. The kids were convinced that their mother was coming back and, for a long time, resisted efforts to take them into state care. They insisted that they needed to be home when their mother returned.

They were eventually taken from their flat and sent to orphanages and then to different homes. They were reunited many years later, in 1999, when, following a provision of the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA disclosed that Jean’s body had been buried near a beach about fifty miles outside Belfast. The siblings gathered while the search was underway, but it was not the poignant reunion you might expect. They had fought fiercely to stay together, but after being separated they had largely fallen out of touch. Some had fallen into alcoholism; one had been in and out of prison. In losing their mother the way they did, they also lost one another. Coming together after all those years, they seemed “fractious and edgy” with each other, Keefe writes, as they waited for news from the search. Each of them referred to Jean as “my mother”—not “our mother.” Something had been broken that a ceasefire would never be able to fix.

Andrea DenHoed writes about books and culture. She is the web copy chief at The New Yorker.