"Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary," by Eimear O’Callaghan
"Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary" presents a unique look into the bloodiest year of the Northern Irish conflict known colloquially as The Troubles. The centralisation of violence within the city of Belfast would rock the world. In 1972, the death toll since the start of The Troubles in 1969 would more than double and Northern Ireland would enter headlong into the most visually recorded conflict in its troubled history.
Taken from actual diary entries of the 16-year-old Eimear and elaborated by the present day Eimear, this book offers a never before seen, provocative insight into the height of a conflict that lasted decades. The diary entries begin on January 1st, 1972 as the teenage Eimear swears to diligently keep an account of the coming year after two years of bloodshed. She had no idea what the coming twelve months would bring and set in this turbulent year her diary is a remarkable and unsettling look into the unfolding "Troubles."
Told through the eyes of this young Catholic Belfast woman on the precipice of adulthood, the account is at once naïve and worldly. Her understanding and description of the conflict is tempered by her "normal" teenage concerns: Clothes, hair, and academics. Her ability to compartmentalise and self-soothe illuminates the changing landscape of her physical and emotional fragility. Relatively safe at the beginning of 1972 in Anderstontown, approximately 4.5 miles from the centre of Belfast, Eimear is witness to the tightening grip of conflict. In the heart of conflict speaks a young woman, her desperation shown through her fervent prayers for peace, the divergent venting of her frustrations, and her escapism as she sits sewing for hours and dreams of travel.
Her daily entries begin with "Happy New Year!," the clinking of glasses and a pathetic hopefulness. Only one explosion that night meant "a quiet night" in Belfast. Within days, she notices her nails growing and vows to abstain from biting them. The tension of the first few months of 1972 grows exponentially and pulls the reader into the plight of this family trying to stay sane amongst heartbreak and encroaching danger. Indeed, I started to bite my own nails. This average Catholic family and their community’s plight to retain some normality in the midst of war is heartbreaking and, at once, inspiring. As the month of January comes to a close, Eimear bears witness to Bloody Sunday:
“I’ve never been so heartbroken and hopeless in my whole life before.
Everyone full of hatred for army. Sure there will be serious trouble.”
These prophetic words come into their truth as the death toll rises day by day, and eventually the war is literally on her family’s doorstep. Eimear’s parents instil hope by encouraging her to aim for university and through an organised trip to France in August. It wasn’t unusual for parents to send their children away for safety during "The Troubles" and relatives in peaceful parts of the country often opened their homes to relieve the stress for families living in the growing violence of Belfast.
There is a beautiful symmetry in this account of 1972 as the latter part of July presents as the Aristotelian golden mean. The "mean," as the desirable middle between extremes, is conjured as Eimear dreams of her impending sojourn to the "City of Love" amongst the realities of west Belfast. This holiday to France in August is a welcome relief as we wonder what will become of her family and dream of how she would survive and become the accomplished woman writing the book. That August also marked the anniversary of the beginning of internment, which started with 342 arrests during the British Army’s "Operation Demetrius."
The tension is tangible in both what 16-year-old Eimear writes and what she doesn’t. The matter-of-fact reporting on the daily assaults magnifies the moments of despair. The elaborations by present-day Eimear deepens understanding through retrospective as she gazes on her teenage self through the objectivity of life experience and motherhood. There is a stark humility in her voice that is beautiful and painful as she digs up the past and bares her soul through this book. As the diary entries come to the close of 1972, the reality of this young woman, her family, and the greater community are violently changed forever -- and she is biting her nails again.
Born out of centuries of unrest due to colonisation, this period know as "The Troubles" seemed intensified as the modern world witnessed it unfolding through television screens and radio broadcasts. I connected to this book on personal levels and found my heart twinging, empathising with this young woman and reflecting on my own family. In 1971, my mother received news that her cousin's wife was killed by British troops on the Falls Road in Belfast. When mum eventually told me the story, her emotions bubbled up: Sadness, anger, and confusion at the whole situation and the pointless death of Maura. The year before Maura’s death, Mum had refused to go to Belfast whilst visiting Scotland and a falling out between her and Maura had occurred. "It was just too dangerous." In the book, this avoidance of Belfast by friends and family presents as a growing trend, but a painful one in the desperate attempt to retain normality and in the search for some pleasant diversion. To my astonishment, at the end of the book a personal 20-year-old puzzle had the final piece fall into place. From my own journal:
December, 1994, Farnborough, UK.
Tonight I served an English army officer. I was explaining why I was visiting England. Staying with aunt. Parents are Scottish but the bloods all Irish. “What’s your last name?” he asked. When I told him he turned his back and walked away. I told my cousin what happened. He look at me bewildered. “Don’t you know who you are?”
Only in 1994 when I was visiting family in the UK did "The Troubles" come to an ultimate end with the Provisional IRA announcing "complete cessation of military operations." As I read these words on page 312, I sat stunned.
To understand the political machinations and complexity of the conflict described in this biographical account requires knowledge of the factional divisions and groups and their role or involvement in "The Troubles." "Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary" is a story of historical and political complexity written through the eyes of youth. It’s a story of struggle and resilience familiar to many peoples around the globe. For we of Irish descent, it may shed light and garner deeper understanding of the aftermath of a war that perhaps saw our families divided by oceans, borders or partitions.
For those reading the book not familiar with "The Troubles," I have put together a wee glossary to help.