Desert Island Discs

My parents are not musical and not really interested in music. My Mum once bought a Pat Boone record only to have it smashed on the way home from the shop by some trouble-causing Teds. My Dad was once asked for directions by The Searchers and was disgusted when, unable to help them, they called him a, “Stupid fucking Paddy”. Those aren’t great formative musical experiences by any stretch – I mean, Pat Boone?!

My Dad did love American Country & Western, particularly Johnny Cash and Don Williams. Our record collection was some of that, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite… and the soundtrack to Hair, The Musical which must have be a very unwanted present.

Somehow, out of all of that, I did manage to have a love of music from almost the very start. My first musical memory is hearing, “Red Sails in the Sunset” on the radio but the soundtrack of my childhood is ABBA. There was loads of other stuff going on of course – I toyed with affection for The Bay City Rollers but that was only cos older girls did and I was aware of Bowie (ha ha! He has funny hair! And a funny eye!) and Slade (loud and very English) but it was ABBA that captured my heart. The girls were beautiful, the songs were emotional and it sparked in me a love of harmonies in singing that I have carried every since.

So my first song is the first record I bought with my own money. I went to the record shop in Holywood, handed over 75p and came home with this…

I practised the words and all the harmonies. I wanted to be Agnetha and Frieda. I loved them then and I love them now.

And I stuck with them to the end although other things began to creep in. Specifically, I can remember now exactly where I was when I heard this next song and this band have stuck with me through it all. Madness are the backbone to my teenage years. Even when I dabbled with Paul Young and The Police and other stuff, Madness, Two Tone and ska were my first teenage love and first love never dies, right?

So I was coming out of my bedroom at the top of our tall terraced house and this came on the radio. I hear it and I’m right back there. It absolutely changed everything about me. After this, I wasn’t just a teenager who liked some music, I became totally addicted to music and infatuated with Madness in particular. There is nothing greater than that first musical passion. All the rest pale into shadows of that first true love. When Madness came on the radio, I couldn’t move until the song was over. I cut out the word, “Madness” from everywhere I seen it and stuck them all to the front of my Madness scrapbooks. I learnt off all their autographs and I still have all the singles, lots of 12″ singles, picture discs, remixes and flexidiscs. I cried when I heard Suggs got married (curse you, Betty Bright!). Aaah, happy days.

I started going to teenage discos, the soundtrack to which were Two Tone tunes, AC/DC, Stiff Little Fingers and the like. No more girly pop for me! But this song – this song – is my favourite tune of all time. You can fall in love with a song at any time but there’s something about actually being there at its release, about hearing it on the radio when it was still totally new and fresh. That doesn’t leave you. I adore this song, love it with all my heart. It was us at that time. All the fellas wore what they wore and looked like they looked (except Fergal, who looked weird, even to us). Plus they were from here. They were our boys. The greatest pop single of all time…

I’ve just brought it up on YouTube and had to listen to the whole thing yet again. Yes, everyone loves, “Teenage Kicks” but it’s this one we chanted along to, pogoed to and shouted, “AND BIONICS!!!!” at the tops of our voices to.

But I grew up. Started to work in a bank. Moved back to Belfast. Drank heavily. In a good way! It was 1987. We all went to the one local disco. It was called The Crescent and located in a really dodgy loyalist part of south Belfast but it was for the ones who didn’t go to university or didn’t want to spend their time in the Students’ Union – the cool kids. It had sticky carpet, rubbish drink and UDA men on the door but it was the best night out.

The end of the 80s was absolutely rubbish for music. It was all power ballads, Stock Aiken and Waterman and terrible, badly-produced rubbish. I had stopped buying Smash Hits when Jason Donovan appeared on the cover twice in a row. I almost stopped buying singles.

Finally, I gave up being grown up and went to university. And it changed everything about my life. I thought it only right to completely throw myself into student life and it was the best thing I ever did. As I graduated in 1992, dance music started to creep into my life. I had the best bunch of friends and had a fabulous time. My soundtrack was dance music, our film was Trainspotting and this was the song. Actually, I could pick any Underworld song from this time and I still love them all but this was the one, obvious though it is. I spent some of the best times of my life “shouting, ‘Lager! Lager! Lager!'”

In 1994, I moved to Cincinnati Ohio. Apparently dance music didn’t exist there so instead I began to go to local bands (and British ones trying to crack the US scene through the college circuit – Spiritualized, Blur and others). I was suddenly the cool foreigner, introducing my friends to cool sounds from across the water. It is my fault Oasis had a little following in Ohio in 1995. And I got into music I hadn’t really known about: Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Nirvana (a bit late but “Unplugged” is still a favourite album). I tried to keep in touch with stuff from home though. I heard this and it blew me away. It’s an amazing song from an album that was really like nothing else at the time.

I moved back to Belfast for one year in 1995/96. All my friends were still around, we fell back into the scene and went to clubs, shows, anything on offer. And we went to see Pulp. And although this song is somewhat played to death now, seeing Jarvis live – legs flailing everywhere, arms most elastic than Andrew Marr. Beautiful man. Wonderful lyrics – everyone knows them but they bear proper listening.

Once I moved back to the States, somehow it was harder to keep up with music stuff as I worked, had a relationship with a man who loved Simply Red (what was I thinking?!) and then had my child. But around this time, I found an online music forum and again, my life changed. No really. Without it, I wouldn’t own any Nick Drake, I wouldn’t know who John Martyn was, Teenage Fan Club, The Stooges – any amount of stuff. I wouldn’t have been able to really explore the world of ska or to learn about 60s psychedelic. I’ll never like The Fall though. :-D

I have a song that combines that forum with the love of my life, my child. When he was born, I started a thread to ask for a baby soundtrack and from it, came this which I still just love and sing to him.

How many songs as I at now? Seven. I want one more for my life. No, I want two! Bah! Oh ok… I can’t fit this in anywhere in my life but I have to go with this. It makes me want to sing it out loud. I love everything about it. No other reason than that.

My book is Shakespeare. Do I get to take one more book? I’d like the collected writings of Brian O’Nolan in all his guises (Flann O’Brien, Myles NaGopaleen etc). A never-ending source of surreal humour and Irishness. My luxury item… limitless pens and paper so I can write that novel that I am so sure is inside me ;-)

And my one song… “My Perfect Cousin”.

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1982

A Child of the Troubles? Part Two

In which many bread vans are hijacked

 Newry, Northern Ireland is known for many things. It would be a cliché to say “not all of them good” but it would be true. One of the major sites of civil rights marches and disturbances in the late 60s, during the 70s and 80s it was the most bombed town in Europe. It has seen terrible atrocities, major loss of life and sectarian acts that still cause hatreds to run deep.

Let me see if I can drag something up to recommend it… nowadays it’s a major shopping town but in the so-called “land of a thousand shopping centres” that doesn’t exactly mark it out. No, sorry, that’s it.

Everyone complains about their home town, don’t they? Thing is though, Newry is not my home town and it’s the kind of place that you can live in for 20 years and still be an outsider. Everyone knows everyone else, their family, their genealogy and their dirty laundry. You can’t break in and so I only stayed as long as I had to and left when I was 18.

But what was it like there during the Troubles? We moved to Newry in 1978. It was already well-established as a Republican stronghold with 90% of the town Catholic and its close proximity to the border with the Republic of Ireland and the “bandit country” of south Armagh. A long way from the nice middle-class Holywood we had lived in.

And my family was almost immediately plunged into The Troubles for real. Where it had previously only been fires across the lough and blood on roses, now it was shooting at night, burnt-out shops and a heavy military presence.

What was that like for a child? Like all children, we adapted. At 11, I was still a child really so we made friends and played up the road, where we could cycle on the flat space left by a bombed petrol station. We used the searchlights of the helicopters to pretend we were on stage. We stepped over the soldier crouched in our doorway and got on with life.

All paramilitary groups rely on propaganda for recruitment and the myth of a united Ireland has a lot of glamour. As Catholics we were inherently sympathetic to the “cause” although we were not a political family. War spares no-one though – everyone has to take a side. My father and mother had experienced prejudice, there were family stories that reflected the treatment many Catholics had from the army and the police. We were on that side and that was it. And so, images of Republican murals, protest slogans and portraits of Irish heroes made their way onto my walls alongside the pop and film stars with no distinction between the two for me.

In 1980, a knock on the door plunged our family into the war in an irreversible way.

Saturday night… the snooker was on the TV and we were all watching (this being the 80s). When the knock came, I went to the door and when I didn’t recognise the man through the spyhole, I went to get my Daddy. Daddy went out, stayed there for a minute and came back into the sitting room with the man. And the man’s gun. The IRA had arrived and they wanted our home.

The man looked normal. You wouldn’t look at him in the street. He explained what he was and that they needed our house. He just asked that we all stay calm and that we would be safe. He looked around the room and noticed that my sister was not there – she was having a bath. He knew every member of our family. He knew.

The doorbell went and the rest of them came into the house. Maybe six or seven in total. They used scarves to cover their faces – why they did that when the first one didn’t, I don’t know. The leader explained that they needed our house to launch an attack on the police. He talked to my Dad about some young fellas that had recently been shot by the army near Lurgan. He knew my Dad was from that area. He knew.

They got busy, running up and down our stairs. A couple stayed with us in the living room – one of them chatted to my brother about school – they went to the same school although it was hard to tell how old he was, I would say he wasn’t out of there long. We made some of them, that wanted it, a cup of tea. A cup of tea! Pretty hard to drink through a scarf.

Our house was a three storey house on a corner. My bedroom was at the top. As the night went on, the leader explained to my Dad that we would all have to sleep in the same room but they let us collect what we needed from our rooms so up I went to get my nightie. There in my room, a huge tripod holding a massive gun and rounds of ammo on my bed. I got out of there fast!

Before we were all moved into a lower bedroom, the leader said to my sister and me that he had noticed the posters and political quotes on the walls of our bedrooms and told us that there were plenty of people we could talk to if we were ever interested in taking our thoughts any further. I was 13 and my sister was 11.

We spent the night in my brother’s bedroom. My Dad snored all night and we were all in sleeping bags so I can’t say it was the best night’s sleep ever. In the early morning we heard movement. We all knew that a police patrol sat in their car outside our house most Sunday mornings and it seemed certain that was the target but as the morning passed nothing happened. Finally, someone opened the door and told us they were going. Nothing had happened. The police car hadn’t turned up that morning. Nobody died (you know how people say that? Well, nobody died). And they left. And they told us to not tell anyone and we didn’t.

The following year, 1981, was the year of the major hunger strike in the Maze prison. 10 men starved themselves to death, most famous being Bobby Sands who was elected to the British parliament while on hunger strike. When one prisoner, Raymond McCreesh from our area died, anarchy erupted. I remember my Mum telling us that from the hospital she worked in, they watched people hijack bread vans, delivery trucks, anything and run into the local estates loaded with goodies. Girls came into school wearing black arm bands. On the day of his funeral, it took seven hours for the cortège to get from the prison to his home, an hour’s journey normally. School was empty. The whole thing was a major propaganda coup for the IRA – as martyrs usually are for any cause and quite a few of my friends or people I knew signed up as a result.

In 1985, as I sat in our house one evening, the police station around the corner came under mortar attack. Nine police officers died. The streets all around our house were sealed off. Being Newry, we didn’t talk to the police – they weren’t served in shops and anyone working in a police station was considered a “legitimate target” all over Northern Ireland. But I remember looking out at the police officers standing guard at the corner of our house that night. And I remember one was older and one was young. And my sister and I made them a cup of tea and some toast and although we checked the street before to make sure nobody spotted us, we brought it over. The older man was really nice, the younger one was terrified and in shock. That event did more to humanize the police and army for me than anything else. Somebody’s son, indeed.

I left Newry in 1986. By that stage, I figure, three or four friends had died, another three or four were in prison – lives effectively destroyed. My Dad had lost the job we moved to Newry for and the place was a mess. I hated it and what it represented – the destruction of normal life and of life itself for many people. The bitterness, the anger and the bigotry. I’m sure there are places just like it in Croatia, Palestine, South Africa, Iraq.

A Child of the Troubles? Part One

In which Bronagh sees some fires and a man bleeds on some roses.

On some kind of official level, I may be classified as a “Child of the Troubles”. “The Troubles” of course, being that sweet, sorry-to-bother-you-with-this, term for what would – in other places – be a civil war. That is, the period from about 1965 to 1995/2006 (whatever your allegiance lets you believe), when Northern Ireland was defined by running battles between all kinds of paramilitaries vs., the British Army or other paramilitaries.

I’m not here to tell anyone what The Troubles were about, who was right and who was wrong. I can certainly point you in the direction of some people with very strong opinions on this matter but I am a Politics graduate and therefore fall into the category of “the more you know, the less you understand”. If you want to know all about it, ask a Belfast taxi driver.

This is more a view into a corner of life in Northern Ireland at this time – my life (well, it is my blog). Born in 1967, my life has been fairly defined by what went out during this period. Before I delve into it anymore, I have to say that my family and I have been relatively unscathed by what went on. Many, many others were nowhere near as lucky. I’m not going to claim post-traumatic stress or anything like it. It was my life at the time and I didn’t know any different. With hindsight, it wasn’t normal or anything but, well, normal – very over-rated as a state, isn’t it?

Part one, then…

From 1969 to 1978, I grew up in Holywood, about six miles outside Belfast. On Belfast Lough, very pretty and a nice place. We walked to school, cycled our bikes, lost dogs and generally did what children do. My father was – and still is – a weaver at the Folk Museum. My mother was at that time, a nurse. We saw little or nothing of the violence sweeping Northern Ireland at that time although I remember seeing fires across the water on the north side of Belfast – these were the houses on fire in Bombay Street as entire streets underwent ethnic cleansing (of course it wasn’t called that then – but it’s a lovely, cathartic phrase, don’t you think?).

This was the peak of the most randomly-violent times of The Troubles but we saw little or none. We went into Belfast to buy my brother a Bionic Man for his birthday once. I remember walking through the plastic tunnels that surrounded the city centre, being searched before being allowed in. We had to come home early because my brother needed to pee and there were no public toilets in town. Public toilets were too easy a place to leave an explosive device and shops and restaurants wouldn’t let you use theirs in case you did just that.

The Troubles then – to this time – had done nothing more than add some inconvenience to our lives.

We lived in a little mixed area. That is, Catholics and Protestants lived together. It’s a tiny fact that wouldn’t even cause me to comment if I lived in Southampton or Iowa. Two of our neighbours were policemen although it became obvious to even kids that we weren’t supposed to know that or tell anyone. Policemen were “legitimate targets”, who pretended to be civil servants and whose wives had to dry their distinctive work shirts indoors in case the wrong person saw them.

So slowly, insidiously, what went on outside our street began to creep in.

A bomb scare on a train stopped opposite our house and we all had to leave. All except my Dad who refused to go in case anyone (he meant the army but didn’t say so) stole anything from the house.

My mother visited prisoners in Long Kesh and some of our ornaments were things like Celtic crosses carved from turf.

A man was shot in the knees in a tunnel under the railtracks and crawled into the garden of a house at the end of our street. The lady had to wash his blood off her roses the next day.

My mum cleaned her ornaments on a newspaper that had a picture of two girls tied to a lamp-post, tarred and feathered. They had dated soldiers, which I learnt was a bad thing.

We travelled to Dublin to see our relatives on the day of a ferocious bombing in the city centre. As the train pulled into Connolly Street station, spirals of smoke rose up from the middle of town. Dozens died. We had to get a bus the rest of the way to my Granny’s house.

Most of the time, we just played Charlie’s Angels, Letters in Your Name and 1-2-3 Red Lights. Once in a while, we ran up the hill to watch convoys of army tear down the motorway. My first football team were Sunderland because they won the FA Cup and there was a free picture of them in the Sunday paper. My mother wasn’t allowed to vote as she was born in the Republic of Ireland.

In 1978, we moved to Newry.

News: Arts Council NI ACES award

Arts-Council-NI11

NornIronGirl1981 has received a ACES (Artist Career Enhancement Programme) award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. This prestigious award will allow me to explore narrative possibilities for the diary, including digital platforms and story-telling in a number of formats.

I’m very honoured to have received this award, especially in light of the many unjustifiable cuts made in the area of arts in Northern Ireland. I work in an office. I am an ordinary person – without support from the Arts Council, I wouldn’t be able to work on the diary.