It is said that history is written by the winners, disputed by the losers, argued over by specialists and academics, revised by events and forgotten by almost everyone else.
But the best histories, I believe, are the unintended ones: written in diary form by those not thinking about publication, buried in a box in a garage or attic and then rediscovered 40 years later. These histories are usually raw and unvarnished –written as the events were happening and, consequently, far more reliable than third hand accounts and dimly recalled memories.
Belfast Days is one of those unintended histories, written by the 16-year-old Eimear O’Callaghan between January 1 and December 31, 1972. That year was one of the worst two or three of the Troubles, a year when it looked as though Northern Ireland could slip over the edge at any moment and into the abyss of civil war. This is a view of that year through the eyes of a teenage girl from west Belfast. What makes it particularly important is that she has a great ear and eye, tight phrasing and a nose for the stuff that actually matters.
Another extraordinary aspect of this diary is the contrast between the everyday lives of people (she writes about her family, school friends, social life and the daily rituals of her community with great affection) and the bizarre, often terrifying series of events that were going on all around them almost all of the time. These were the days when you did your homework to the sound of gunfire and woke to the thunder of an explosion. This was her life at this particular time and she manages to record it without bitterness and without resorting to an agenda or finger pointing. She writes it – and I don’t know if she’s aware of this – as if she were already the journalist she was to become.
Her background may be nationalist, but this isn’t the diary of a nationalist. It isn’t the diary of someone trying to explain the ‘politics’ of Northern Ireland. It isn’t the sort of teenage diary we get nowadays – courtesy of blogs and YouTube – where the content is dictated by instant feedback from your target audience. As O’Callaghan says, “It is the diary of a schoolgirl, woven through with her teenage hopes and fears. The savagery it evokes shocks and appals me, as does its evidence of how speedily and easily a society can violently implode.”
Here are the closing lines from December 31: “Went to bed and cried myself to sleep. The thought of another year, like the one which has just gone out, is too unbearable to contemplate…All I can do is dread 1973. White Paper due out in spring. This, plus assassinations plus freedom of UDA, doesn’t carry much hope of a happy New Year. Just hope that I and the rest of the family are still here this time next year!!”
I’m about the same age as Eimear, so we share space and history. I learned a lot about her, but I also learned a lot about myself, too.
Her diary is more than merely worth reading, it is essential reading. Her story, her history, is our story and our history.
It’s a sane voice in a babble of self-justifying ‘histories’ and narratives that have crammed the shelves since 1998. If you want to understand an important aspect of life in Northern Ireland at a critical moment in our collective history, then read this diary.