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Confronting the past so all of us can look to the future

Published 23/12/2015

James Reid who died in a bomb at Sherridans pub in Belfast in January 1976
James Reid who died in a bomb at Sherridans pub in Belfast in January 1976
The late Vera McVeigh in her Donaghmore home with photo of her son Columba
Gusty Spence in the Maze prison in the 1970s

A new book collects the forgotten voices of the Troubles. Here, three women from different backgrounds share their experiences of the conflict with author Brian Rowan.

Eimear McVeigh is the niece of Columba McVeigh, one of the Disappeared. She says:

As a child, I watched my grandmother cry every day, calling out his name; a sight that haunts me now.

His photograph hung on her kitchen wall and meant nothing to me.

As kids, we knew something wasn’t right but could never pinpoint it; deep down, we knew it was something to do with the young man in the photograph.

My parents sheltered me for as long as they could. However, after my grandmother’s death, I felt a deep obligation to support my father in finding his older brother, and so I began to find out what had actually happened to Columba. Suddenly, everything made sense.

I try my best not to dwell on the past, as hard as it is sometimes; I hope to one day make peace with it.

But when I look back and see my grandmother’s face as she cried out for her lost son, a part of me can’t help but feel angry.

As well as having grieved her death, I now grieve for her all over again, but in a different way.

When I have kids of my own some day, I fear the grief will only deepen further.

Why was my grandmother allowed to live in limbo like that for so long? Why was her son not returned to her?

What kind of society lets their citizens painfully wilt away like that?

And why, after 40 years, does the torment still continue for Columba’s siblings?

Maybe if our political leaders had been subjected to my grandmother’s suffering every day like we were, Columba’s case, like many others, would have been taken more seriously instead of just being tossed around every now and again for political gain.

I find our political landscape frustrating; I find most of our politicians’ behaviour in their work embarrassing.

If we all treated our work colleagues with such disdain, chaos would ensue: nothing would get done. Negativity and lack of empathy are easy options.

Thankfully, from my own experiences, the people of Northern Ireland aren’t taking this easy option: we make a genuine effort to get along, be amicable towards one another and even become friends, despite what our backgrounds may dictate.

At present, I feel we are leaps and bounds ahead of our political leaders, who I fear will only continue to hold us back from making any more real progress.

Alice Reid’s father, James, was killed in a UVF pub bombing in 1976. Her mother, Maureen, brought up the couple’s 10 children. She says:

Mum was a very simple, down-to-earth person. She was also a proud and modest woman, who rarely asked anyone for anything. She was much more content helping and giving.

Pleasing people pleased her. She loved a laugh and had a smile for everyone she met.

Work was her middle name and she had great inner strength. She thought of herself as unintelligent (“a dunce”), but her own life lessons taught her to be strong and, in her own words, “a fighter”.

Yes, she was a victim, but she was also a victor. Equally, in war and life, there are many soldiers. Mum was a soldier of life who took up her own arms every day to nurture and protect. She fought her own struggle every day to survive and succeed, and she did so remarkably well for 40 years since our father’s death.

She was a light in the darkness. Thank you, mum, for shining so bright. You were and shall remain our beautiful hero.

I heard her say: “I was a victim of the Troubles”. I now wonder, what about the Troubles of the victims? Pain, trauma, loss, grief, torment, devastation, injury, depression.

Mum was a true inspiration and I hope the world gets to hear about her.

Louise Little is the grand-daughter of the late Gusty Spence. She says:

As a result of my faith, my upbringing and my experience, I believe that the suffering of those from all sections of society — who lost their lives, their loved ones, their limbs and the lives they once had or dreamt of — cannot be justified.

Some difficult experiences continue to teach me about the layers of people, and that it can be unhelpful to define people as a single layer of their experience, or role or as simply innocent or guilty.

As a mother is not only a mother, so a victim is not only a victim, nor a perpetrator of violence only a perpetrator of violence.

Who a person is is more than a single layer of experience or action. I believe that, at the core, at the beginning of a person, before understanding, experience of life or conflict, there is an innocence. Simple and pure.

This core of a person always exists, but the layers of life, the experiences and understanding that are added to it, shape what each person becomes, how they are perceived and understood and what they do.

Often, we select the layer of the person we want to focus on and magnify it — this becomes the definition of who they are: a victim, an ex-prisoner, a police officer and so on.

But it doesn’t reflect the experiences that went before, or those that came after.

Nor does it allow for the possibility that people can and do change. While the layers of their lives — their actions, deeds or inactions — do not dissolve away, they are more than that single layer or experience.

To seek to understand the person and to learn from the past is to create a new layer of understanding in oneself — to dare to dig deeply and carefully into the layers of life.

  • Adapted from Unfinished Peace: Thoughts on Northern Ireland’s Unanswered Past by Brian Rowan (Colourpoint Books, £9.99)

Belfast Telegraph

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