War Zone

“…there’s a legacy around the capacity to stand one’s own ground and say, ‘No, this is who we are. And this is what we stand for. And this is what we can do.'”

This interview was recorded using Zoom.

Transcript for War Zone

I grew up in a small town called Newry, County Down, in Northern Ireland. And I grew up in the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and it was a very charged and difficult time and a very difficult place to grow up. It was a war zone, effectively. Newry, my town is a Nationalist town so in the conflict it’s on the Catholic side, not the Protestant side. And so we, the town, was occupied by the British Army. And that meant that there was a checkpoint at every entrance and exit point from the town. There were various army checkpoints within the town and that the streets and the pavements were lined with British Army soldiers in their full fatigues with sniper guns leaning behind sandbags. Of course this became completely normal. We went to school and just walked past the military, leaning on the sandbags, and slightly stepped over them on our way to school. It was a matter of course we would have to wait in a traffic line for half an hour, forty minutes while the military asked us to get out of our cars.

And I remember all five of us being in the car and my mum challenging the soldiers and basically saying, “You think I’ve got nothing better to do than—I’ve got five kids in the back, and my boot’s full of shopping. I’ve got to get them home. I’ve got to make their tea. Do you think I’ve got nothing better to do than answer your questions about where I’m going and where I’m coming from?” She’d be, like, “Where do you think I’m going? Where do you think I’m coming from?” And sometimes my mum would engage the soldiers in a conversation about the conflict. And when I think of it now it was really quite bold, but often the soldiers were very, very young. They were, like, seventeen, eighteen. And of course they had no concept of where they were and why they were there. And so my mum would engage them with…she would say, “What age are you?” And, “Where are you from?” And, “What do you know about here?” And it was just mortifying for them and mortifying for us, that pathetic thing of the child wanting to conform and not feeling the same as everyone else, not feeling like your mum or your parents are sticking their head above the parapet or being different or difficult.

Of course I don’t think that now. I look back with tremendous pride at the fearlessness of my parents in that situation because my dad was a greengrocer and a fishmonger. He delivered vegetables to people’s houses. So we often had to go into areas that were very strongly pro-IRA areas – the Irish Republican Army, which were the military wing of Sinn Féin and who were fighting for independence and were fighting for the retreat of the British Army. And so my dad was often driving into those areas and he sometimes was apprehended. There were often hijackings where they would try to take shopkeepers’ vans or goods to help them in their cause, if you like. And my dad has told several stories over the years about challenging people or standing up. And standing up also to the British Army because often they would want to buy things directly from him and he would say, “I cannot serve you. I will be seen as someone who’s in cahoots with the British Army and it puts myself, my family, my livelihood at risk.” Often the British Army would try to exert their will over that and not really accept it and my dad often challenged them on that. Of course in retrospect I have a sense of their integrity, their political standpoint. They weren’t pro-violence, they weren’t pro-IRA in any way, but they were Nationalists, my family, and they did not believe in the occupation of the British in our town and in Northern Ireland.

I think one thing to say about Northern Ireland and my town is that it is incredibly rich culturally. People working at a very high level as musicians, as dancers, as performance-makers. And so I feel I really grew up in this small town that actually was a hub of creativity. There was something about the vitality and the engagement in that that, I guess, was a profound antidote to the external situation that we were in. Irish dance absolutely defined my childhood. I was very serious about it. I competed. I was like an Irish dance gymnast, really, doing competitions every month. And of course it’s part of the fabric of society there, of coming together, and listening to music, and doing ceili dances and that’s part of a social way of being. I suppose that’s the legacy for me of growing up in Northern Ireland fighting for my own sense of identity that isn’t a cliche or isn’t one that’s imposed on me from the outside. With the presence of the British military or the occupation, there’s a kind of sense that we were always defining ourselves in relation to something else that we didn’t want, or someone else’s view of ourselves. I feel there’s a legacy around the capacity to stand on one’s own ground and say, “No, this is who we are. And this is what we stand for. And this is what we can do.”

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