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Writing a letter to the future: The new project chronicling the story of Troubles soldiers

For the thousands of soldiers, police and prison officers who served during the Troubles, just putting on the uniform meant risking their lives. Now, a unique literary project is chronicling their stories for posterity, explains its co-founder Philip Orr

Processing the past: Philip Orr speaks during the book launch at Decorum
Processing the past: Philip Orr speaks during the book launch at Decorum
1972 Bloody Friday bomb, Belfast
1993 Shankill Road bomb, Belfast

By Phillip Orr

On a cold, dark January night in 2018, I waited with Mitch to see who would turn up for the class. The tables and chairs had been set out and there was a plate laden with cake and buns for the half-time break. This was the first night of the experimental writing class that Mitch had asked me to lead.

Despite our preparations, we wondered if anyone would show. But they arrived all right, holding jotters and pens and looking at me to see if they could work out what exactly lay ahead.

It was a not untypical Decorum gathering. A former prisoner officer, a retired woman police officer, a UDR veteran with decades of service under his belt, a couple of nurses who had seen the worst of the Troubles, the widow of a man who had served with the Fire and Rescue Service, to name just a few. There are hundreds of others like them on Decorum's books, each one still bearing the impact of the Troubles on a day-to-day basis.

However, what the men and women gathered around our table were going to do was to write about their memories.

I wasn't a stranger to many people in the class, as I'd been around Decorum for a while, listening and chatting. Some folk around the table had seen a play I'd written, which told the true story of an RUC dog handler and his wife, who had fallen victim to a shooting in downtown Belfast. So, I hoped I had earned the right to be there with them as the class leader.

I explained to the gathering that over the weeks that lay ahead we weren't interested in creating a literary masterpiece, though if one was written, then well and good.

This was all about leaving something behind for future generations when we all had passed on. A letter to the future. A testimony that their great-grandchildren would be able to read in more peaceful times - and to understand better what they had experienced.

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I am conscious that many men and women who have been in traumatic situations end up keeping it all to themselves. My experience as a Great War historian told me that. Many men who returned from the trenches were reluctant to speak a word.

Already one man I'd met at Decorum had told me that his grandfather had come back after the Second World War, but that even his wife and children did not find out until after his funeral that he'd been a prisoner of the Japanese in Burma and had almost certainly experienced some terrible things.

And I knew of one woman who had been in the Ulster Defence Regiment for many years, but her son had never known anything about it at the time. Decades of silence had been her way of keeping anxiety at bay. There are several reasons for silence among former security force members and their families, of course. As well as being reluctant to relive bad memories, many still live in fear of an enemy that was always on the watch. Many men and women were on assassination lists. It is hard to let go of automatic habits of self-preserving secrecy and commit one's story to print.

Fortunately, Decorum drop-in centre has counselling facilities, and I knew that should the process of recollection prove to be distressing, help was at hand. Although there were several emotional occasions during class, this assistance was not needed. There is a strength in many of the 600 men and women who are on the books of the centre. There is a hard-pressed, but remarkable resilience.

As the weeks went by, I provided a number of stimuli, including photographs and newspaper accounts. At the centre there is a small museum of security force uniforms, regalia and equipment, but also, more disturbingly, an array of improvised weapons that were once used to kill and injure them. Pipe bombs and suchlike.

During one of the sessions, I asked for the cases to be unlocked - and then each individual could choose an object that 'spoke' very clearly to them. Later, we wrote about what had been triggered by making their own choice of object. As the writing course went on, class members brought in objects and photographs of their own, mementoes, old diaries, photos.

I will never forget a series of black-and-white images brought in by one man. The photos were taken back in the 1980s at a military installation high in the hills of the border country around south Armagh. The gorgeous countryside was revealed in all its glory as the sun rose, casting long winter shadows. Yet, as the ex-soldier explained, in that part of the world, behind every hedgerow and under every road, potential danger lurked.

At the end of each session, there was an opportunity for written material to be read out and commented on. Every week, homework was attempted.

I was conscious, as the classes came to an end, that we had only touched the surface of the subject matter. But, sure enough, a few months later, Mitch contacted me to say that the sessions had continued and now there was talk of a book coming out. I was overjoyed.

On Thursday of this week, at the Decorum premises in Bangor, that book was duly launched. There was cheese and wine, there were flowers on the tables, there was music and there were distinguished guests. I had the pleasure of saying a few words. And there was an opportunity to hear a number of writers perform some of their work. There was even talk of another book to match the current one.

It would be wrong to imagine that the event was a solemn one, although many of the stories, anecdotes and poems reflected powerfully on young lives which were mercilessly cut short, many years ago. There is a great deal of humour in the writing, some of it black, reflecting the way that men and women coped with the fear and the tension.

One man read out his story about a woman who presented him and his fellow officers with apple pie, beautifully made and with pastry neatly crimped around the edges. Enjoyment was cut short when a mischievous officer suggested that the old lady probably used her false teeth to achieve the effect.

However, it is understandable that there is a sombre quality to much of the writing — the reader learns about the awful facial scars of a boy who had been burned by his own petrol bomb, the brutal world of the Long Kesh prisons in the 1980s and the sheer burn-out experienced by the warders. The reader learns of narrow escapes from encounters with trip-wires when on patrol in the darkness of an unfamiliar countryside.

The reader hears the pipes playing in lament at yet another young man’s funeral. The reader learns of marriages damaged beyond repair and of disillusion with politicians and with politics, but also of courage, friendship, faith, generosity and the capacity to survive.

It has been a profoundly dispiriting thing for many who served in the security forces, and for their families, to witness the story of their lives and service being publicly told in ways that leave out the humanity of the men and women in uniform.

No one I have met at Decorum has argued that no wrong things were ever done by the security forces. However, they all sense that soldiers, police and prison officers get reduced all too often to cardboard cut-outs in films and in plays and — worse still — can sometimes be presented as inherently malignant individuals.

At the launch, one former policeman spoke about being passionately involved in community policing for several decades, another spoke openly about a charity he had been involved with. It sent thousands of young people from every religious and political background to America for a restorative holiday.

One former policewoman read a poem she had written during the worst of the Troubles, hoping desperately for peace on the entire island of Ireland. A former nurse read a poem expressing her compassion for a young lad that she was tending, even though he had been attempting to cause grievous harm to others when he sustained his injuries.

A former prison officer delivered a piece that articulated his anger at his employers and referred eloquently to his subsequent PTSD. A former police reservist read a piece that reflected on the role in her life of her father, a Second Word War veteran and a benign role model.

I think that a lot of personal strength can come from a project such as the one which Mitch and I were glad to initiate and which kept going, many months after I had gone.

If individuals have the chance to express their humanity, explain their motivations, reveal what it cost them to do what they did and proffer their hopes for the future of this place, then our society as a whole will certainly be a healthier and happier place.


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