Oh and we used to play Mass as well. My sister was the priest. We had this gold mesh lantern and you could put water inside it and we cut up slices of bread that was the Communion. My sister’s still into Mass – I’m an aetheist now – but she goes to Latin Mass.Roisin McLaughlin, 2019
Roisin: I was born 30 May 1969 just as the Troubles were started. My dad was a teacher in the Bogside. My mum mostly worked in shops – she was always quite a troubled person with her own anxieties. She worked in Austins – I remember going to Austins as a kid. I remember coming into town through the turnstiles, the Army in Waterloo Square – they’d search your handbag, the noise they made, I used to worry what if I got my finger stuck in the mechanism? I didn’t like it, I felt trapped. Me and my sister were in town on our own one day, we were quite young, and a bomb went off – it was where Littlewoods was, it’s a Poundshop now. And I just remember being at home afterwards, I don’t know how we got out. There was a massive bang, the lights went out, it was really loud and scary.
We lived in Pennyburn, St Brigids Avenue, a semi-detached house, the end house – it backed onto shops, chip shop, Post Office, greengrocers. Classic community atmosphere – everybody knew everybody. My dad used to do the football pools and I had to take the form round to my godfather’s house. I got there and it was strange, really quiet, I’m knocking on the door and there was no answer, nobody there but there was this massive RUC man saying, “You have to go home.” He was really aggressive and I ran back the other way and I came panting in the door and I was all panicky and upset – my mum and my dad were sitting there – and I’m going “There’s a bomb at the Post Office!” And they said, “Yes dear just sit down, it’s not a big deal.” We did get evacuated to the Youth Club a few times but really there was nothing major for us.
Philip: Did you actually quite like all that stuff? As a kid did you find it exciting?
R: It mostly wasn’t a huge deal, you just thought it was normal. All the bombs going off, people getting hurt, it was just everyday life. I didn’t like being in the back of the car when we were following an Army vehicle, and the soldiers were pointing their guns at you. What if the gun went off? But it was strange – everyone was kind of accepting, we’d go to funerals and stuff but it was kind of like, “Oh well, it’s your turn now”. Now I think it would be a different reaction.
P: …Did you have tension or anxiety or were you floating through it in a different way?
R: It was mainly within my house with the way my mum was and stuff. And those tense journeys to school but my dad kind of made it fun – playing games, he used to try to teach us Irish, even though we knew something might go off, we might get stopped or there might be a checkpoint. He made it not tense. My dad taught right in the heart of where all the trouble was. And one day my dad was reading with the kids and there was gunfire outside the school. One of the kids who was reading to the class was so engrossed in his book he didn’t notice and my dad had to go up to him and gently say, “You need to get down”. He had to go out in the playground to talk to the soldiers with a white hanky to say, “There’s kids here, we’re bringing them out.” It made you tense, on the alert.
P: You were talking about the little run of shops around you. Did you have a favourite shop?
R: The sweet shop of course! There were shelves and a big counter in the middle and all the sweets were down in the left hand corner. Mr Norby who owned it had the same birthday as me and he’d always give me free sweets on my birthday. And on Hallowe’en you had to go to their house first because they had loads of sweets but everybody knew that so you had to get there first! And the greengrocer was great – the smell of apples. And the chip shop – it’s funny the memories you have, now it’s all so tiny, but then the garden was huge.
When you think about growing up with all that violence – but you just lived through it. It was normal. “Ah well it’s your turn now” – I think so many families were affected in that immediate way, everyone had something that was going on – killed, shot or someone joined the IRA or … when I think of Bloody Sunday. That was just massive for Derry. It was a small place. I was only 3. It probably sounds quite silly but I think I really became aware of it, when I went to the museum – I felt so sad, like crying, it was so awful.
My ex-husband’s brother was shot in the Troubles. Their family’s oldest son shot dead when he was 16 – he was in the IRA and they didn’t know. It was such a shock, the impact it had on his parents for the rest of their lives. My ex-husband was 5 when his brother was shot, he had no real relationship with him but thought it was so romantic, him being in the IRA. I think he learned a lot of behaviours from his father.
P: I was telling you about my little rituals. When you’re a kid the world is kind of magic… Did you have imaginary things going on?
R: In the garage at the back of the house, we’d play like schools and shop. Me and my two sisters but it was mostly with my friends. So an old chair would become something. Nothing really mad but playing … we’d play Post Offices and schools.
Oh and we used to play Mass as well. My sister was the priest. We had this gold mesh lantern and you could put water inside it and we cut up slices of bread that was the Communion. My sister’s still into Mass – I’m an aetheist now – but she goes to Latin Mass.
P: I have memory sensations – they’re very specific to the Troubles – those big bangs that go through your body, you don’t forget those. Do you remember a fire?
R: My Dad was involved in setting up the Credit Union and still volunteers for them today. We were sitting outside the Credit Union and someone set fire to a bus parked beside us – orange flames and the heat and the smoke – you could see the air kind of ripple. I also remember, we used to live in London and someone had set light to the nursery school on the ground floor below where we lived. We woke up and I knew it was downstairs. My ex-husband said, “It’s somewhere else, it’s alright.” But I knew. We had to get out – luckily no one was really hurt – I remember the heat, the orange glow, and just how quick it spread, so quick. Awful.
P: You say there weren’t any crazy imaginings. But how about superstitions? Ghosts?
R: My dad would’ve told ghost stories. He was from a family of all boys, he grew up in Donegal, Buncrana – they were really superstitious but I can’t remember the ghost stories. From the word go I just didn’t believe it. And even now I’m like, ‘No’. There’s no such thing, it’s just a figment of your imagination. Maybe there are some people that can connect with people who’ve passed away. I’m not sure though.
P: More positively, did you feel that there was a change in the air as the Troubles came to an end? Obviously you make good things happen, so …
R: I was in London and then Manchester, I wasn’t here to experience all the peace process. I got something on the phone from my mum and my dad. I remember watching it and thinking this is a good thing. But I was quite far away. So I didn’t tap into the build-up, the hope that people probably had. I was doing a job with Holywell around civic activism helping people get their voice heard, asking people how would they like to see the city transform? They’re so proud of the city, they have such a passion for it, they really want progress and better things for this city. It was so heartwarming, people were so hopeful even though they were talking about such awful things from the past.
And now, at the minute, we’ve still got no proper government so it’s hard to get things done, we’re just stuck or something, lots of decisions not being made – but on the other hand I can see we’re doing things within the communities, without politicians and leadership. We’re not expecting anything, we’re coming together more to take the lead.
I do think there’s a hope around the Troubles being over. Young people today aren’t bothered about any of that – none of them care about Catholic, Protestant – it’s more about their identity, sexual orientation, who they’re at school with, its nothing to do with Green or Orange anymore. They’re saying: “Move on!” So I do think that it’s a hopeful time and that we will start to see better things. The timing is good, it’s not just the community sector, all the sectors are coming together. We all want the same things – a better life, safety, opportunities for the young people. So yeah. Good. Good.
Roisin McLaughlin was interviewed by Philip Davenport at the Holywell Centre, Derry 2019.