Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Dear diary... my teenage life in 1981

Newry woman Bronagh McAtasney's jottings, now posted online on Twitter, provide an intriguing snapshot of a single year recording chart-topping pop, Lady Di's engagement and the Troubles, as Kerry McKittrick finds out.

Bronagh McAtasney pictured today with her 1981 diary
Bronagh McTasney when she was 13

For Christmas in 1980 Bronagh McAtasney was given a pocket-sized 1981 diary with a page per day view. "I suppose I was a precocious child and a huge reader. I loved the idea of recording everything and keeping something written," explains Bronagh.

Starting the year aged 13, young Bronagh began recording her life in bite-sized chunks into the diary. The diary was never meant to be read by anyone -- although it often was by her brother John with whom she constantly fought. At the age of 13, it was simply a record of her thoughts and incidences of her daily life.

Bronagh continues: "It was a tiny thing, maybe four inches tall. The writing in it is crammed in, up the sides and in the margins. It was the first diary I ever kept and the only one. I only recorded my life that one year -- 1981."

However, Bronagh's 13-year-old self has been slowly gaining fame over the last year.

On January 1, 2013 Bronagh created @NrnIrnGirl1981, a Twitter account that she would use to Tweet a tiny, 140 character-long daily extract from her 1981 diary. At the time of writing she has 668 followers and because she has had so many requests Bronagh started tweeting the diary again on January 1 this year.

In 1981 Bronagh was living in Newry with her parents, brother John and sister Ethna. She attended school, mass and band practice and had the usual crushes and friendships that any teenager would have.

She talks about the boys she likes, the bands she follows and peppers in mentions of bigger incidents. The engagement and wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer pops up, John Lennon is mentioned and mourned and, almost as an afterthought in the entries the Troubles are mentioned.

Bronagh's family moved from Holywood, Co Down to Newry in 1978. Having been largely shielded from the Troubles in Holywood, the troubled-torn border town -- now a city -- was something of a shock.

"I wasn't in the thick of how Newry worked and the nuances of how politics worked but by the time I was 13 I think I was starting to figure it out," says Bronagh. "My dad was a weaver so we were never touched by it in a big way."

"You took the violence for granted back then. We used a bombed-out car showroom as a place to ride our bikes and we lived around the corner from Newry police station which was mortar-bombed in 1985 -- nine officers died. It was shocking but weird to see your town on the news."

As it was the year of the IRA hunger strikes, 1981 was a significant and eventful year in the history of Northern Ireland's Troubles. It's clear though from Bronagh's diary that those momentous days were merely the backdrop that ordinary life was lived against.

Now 46, Bronagh lives just outside Newry with her son Liam and works as office manager of the Southern Area Hospice. It was while chatting on an online music forum that she got the idea to tweet her diary.

"I keep everything from photos and school reports to diaries," said Bronagh. "I started to read the diary to my sister who couldn't stop laughing at it.

"An artist friend of mine had done a similar project on Twitter -- he had put up a drawing every day. I thought it was a great forum for something continuous like that, so I decided to put an extract from my diary up each day."

Although she only kept her personal diary for that one year, both Bronagh and her brother John kept intricate records of the Top 40 charts each week for six years.

"We lived in the same street as the school so I would come home at lunch each Tuesday and frantically scribble down everything that Gary Davies, a DJ said. Then I would rewrite it in my diary and add my own thoughts."

Bronagh wasn't the only member of the family to keep a diary. She still has the one her brother John also used in 1981.

"You can see in the entries that John and I fought like cat and dog. In his diary he refers to me as BTP -- that stands for Bronagh the pig! John also kept the chart diaries going long after I did."

Bronagh is now working on a project with the Northern Ireland Arts Council, which has yet to be fully developed. "I don't know what it's going to turn into. I would just like to keep my diary alive," says Bronagh.

EXTRACTS

JANUARY 1, 1981

Am watching Dr Zhivago. Today was v quiet... had dinner at 4 o'clock. This is my first diary. I like it

JANUARY 8, 1981

J Lennon is No 1, 2 & 5. Makes me sad. He was a great genius and they're exploiting him. Girls in school say they're fans — they never were

APRIL 29, 1981

I'm not allowed to go to the disco again. Mummy and Daddy's excuses are getting worse. Now it's that there may be trouble if Bobby Sands dies

MAY 19, 1981

Judith asked what records I like. I told her The Beat. We came 2nd in Feis. 5 soldiers died in a bomb near Newry

DECEMBER 31, 1981

I have one day of this diary left. I've liked filling it in. Goodbye 81

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