Belfast Telegraph

Norn Iron Girl's history a lesson worth learning

By Gail Walker

When the definitive history of this place is written (and who knows when that will be), our hypothetical historian could do worse than to junk all the position papers, Government documents, party manifestos and Press releases from our paramilitaries and their fellow travellers.

Sure, they tell a story. A story of the tragedies; of the foolhardy nature of our leaders. But they don't tell our story. Or, rather, the story of an awful lot of us who were trapped observers to our sad, but mercilessly savage and sordid little civil war.

No, our historian in the PRONI offices should switch on his Twitter account and pore over the tweets of NornIronGirl1981, aka Bronagh, who grew up in a small town here. In 140 characters or fewer, she tweets entries from her 1981 diary, when she was 13.

Truly compelling reading they make, too. The raw unvarnished details of people's lives – unfiltered by an editor, or even the very idea that they will be viewed by anyone but ourselves – demonstrate the very stuff of life. And NornIronGirl's teenage observations shock us with their minutiae of a world both long gone and instantly familiar the second you glimpse it in the rear-view mirror.

Standing outside Visionhire Shops (which sounds like standing outside a shop that sells buggy whips!), religiously recording the ups and downs of the Top 40 in a little jotter, forming a Madness fan group at school, arguing with siblings, falling out with friends, the first boys she fancied. The pang of recognition can take your breath away:

'We went down the town and to the Shelbourne but there was no-one there. We watched Dallas and now me and E are listening to Ant Music.'

'JR [friend] was in bad form all day today. She was really annoying me. Shaduppa Your Face is no 1. The actor who played Sandy in Crossroads died.'

'It snowed today. I want to go to the disco in the Parochial Hall but Mummy said I can go next week – in this house next week never comes.'

To which one can only say: "That's me! That's me!" Okay, the details aren't quite the same – I was a bit younger, was into Queen and David Bowie, was letting David Soul down gently for Bjorn Borg – but it's a life we all recognise. It's a bit like an Ulster version of Adrian Mole: funny and strangely profound at the same time.

With its naivety, prosaic quality and curiously dated, yet timeless adolescent obsessions, NornIronGirl's diary could be the story of any young girl. And yet ... this is not the normal life of a girl in Donegal, Derby, or Dunfermline.

No, this is Northern Ireland where we are all – involved or not – touched, or rather punched, by the hand of history. And so there are also many entries like these interrupting the programme like a police warning to keyholders:

'We went down the street. The punks came over. A bomb went off at the customs. Paisley was shot at. C Lloyd won the women's final 6-2, 6-2.'

'I'm still fallen out with Eileen. She said I was bad-mannered! There were 4 funerals – Francis Hughes's was huge, Mrs Guiney had to bury ... her husband after burying her son. An INLA gunman was buried & a 14 y/o girl who was shot w/ a rubber bullet. A really unpleasant day.'

Just one of thousands we experienced. But what's so moving is that this diary taps deep into the experience of everyone of a certain age. This, more than the speeches and the posturing, was the reality for most of us. Death, hatred and fear ever-present, but somehow held at bay by just, well, carrying on with our lives.

Trauma must lie deep within us as a community. Reading NornIronGirl's diary afresh, you can only ask yourself 'How could it not?' Each bomb scare, each explosion, each casual killing, each fatality – always there, always on the periphery of our experience. At once, the stuff of terror and taken for granted.

Ant Music and the hunger strike. Murdered policemen and ToTPs. Bombs and exams. Sectarian hatred and worrying about boyfriends.

'We listened to the Top 20 on Radio 1. To my disappointment, Madness are no 12. I'm very sad at that. There is a bomb out the Belfast Road.'

Which just about says it all: we survived. We ignored, confronted, slid past, allowed ourselves to be defined by, we bent, we stood up for stupid principle, kept our heads down.

In other words, whatever it took to get by. To carve out – however compromised, however inhibited – a life.

And that is why, in its ordinariness, NornIronGirl's diary is such an important document.

Belfast Telegraph

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