Belfast Girls: Three girls, from different backgrounds, growing up in post-conflict Northern Ireland

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Lyra McKee: Lost Girl of the Troubles

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Top 10 books about the Troubles

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Follow comments Enter your email to follow new comments on this article. Thanks for subscribing! Vote Are you sure you want to submit this vote? Child stone-throwers and petrol bombers in the front line attracted a great deal of front-page coverage and shocked comment. Reporters made sense of children in battle by comparing them to an idealised normal child:. The street was a perilous carpet of stones, broken bottles and jagged metal.

Northern Ireland's Troubles - Walls of Shame

The soldiers The half brick fell harmlessly at the feet of a battle weary corporal. The kid retreated picking up another rock He trotted back to his pals. Nine-year-olds, year-olds, year-olds. The little ones are assembling the piles of ammunition. The big ones are hurling it. It can also be argued that such narratives about children implicitly serve to illustrate a perceived lack of control or desperation, when in actual fact the use of children is illustrative of the depth of social involvement in the conflict, not societal demise.

Psychologist observers such as Ed Cairns believe that children such as these are participating in violence and 'acts of destruction that impact on power relations in society'. They too may comprehend the political value of this violence. Of the children who have attracted the attention of researchers in medical science, especially as agents of physical violence, research has shown that from the age of five they can explain the difference between violent crime and political violence.

They condone political violence, recognising it as self defence of their community, but condemn on moral grounds violence or crime for any other purpose. Psychiatrists have sought solace in the fact that children are able to make a distinction of any kind, believing that this rationalising is a healthier response to violence than delinquency or confusion.

But the greater lesson is perhaps that children know they are capable of participating in political conflict. Children engaged in, and prepared for such acts of destruction may be desired to do so however, not because of their political understanding but because their qualities and capabilities are different from those held by adults. A directive to IRA members makes this clear:. Youngsters and older children are ideal material for the work of planting bombs and rigging booby-traps They attract less attention and suspicion than adults, are sensitive to rewards, and ask no questions.

If captured by the British army or security officers they are unable to give any information about their employer More gelignite nail-bombs and petrol bombs must be readily available. This in turn enables them to be used as a human shield to cover the political actions of others nearby.

Interestingly what was seen was also what was not being seen. Children who have been killed in the fighting are publicly described by paramilitary organisations as heroes rather than victims. Their participation in the cause colours the local death notices. For example, the death of a year-old member of the Junior IRA, shot by the British Army, was marked by the following words pinned up on walls:.

In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called Dear Ireland, take him to thy breast this soldier who died for thee; within thy bosom let him rest among the martyrs sanctified. The final section of the chapter will look further at the construction of a passive maternal and child sphere that accompanies such military tactics and targets. Constructs of protected children and their associated familial sphere are evident in discourse of nationalisation in Northern Ireland and have become a rationale for paramilitary practices, particularly for nationalists.

Inclusive in this terrorist appropriation of the construct of softness, is both its valuation and denigration - what is to be targeted and what should be most protected. This is also explored later on in the section. The image of the subordinate or helpless mother provides an inherent moral argument for male, armed aggression or protection of the mother from state domination. The familiar sphere is particularly invoked in Irish identity within Catholic communities through Eire the historic Irish female and mother figure.

Begona Aretzaga has observed in particular the display of maternal and protective images, in public and highly militarised localities and contexts. Many murals show the suffering of mothers and sons and imply martyrdom. Street images about the conflict are also polarised between violent men and their anguished statements, and passive mothers who sacrifice their sons. This passive representation says Aretzaga is inaccurate.

Women and mothers have played a part almost inversely proportional to their recognition. Their politics is seen as irrelevant or marginal. Studies have suggested that despite the sectarian divide, families at the height of the troubles differed very little with regard to roles of family members. With high male unemployment and women as providers it is argued that men have allowed paramilitary involvement to fulfil their need for protective and strong behaviour, thus further equating protection with machismo and masculinity.

Popular resistance is by contrast regarded as a gendered feminised inside - the community base of homes and families, women and children. Men may be largely absent from the familial sphere, as military targets and targeters involved in particularly masculine experience of nationalism. The perception of a sphere of popular resistance in the home merely serves to give more cuedos to nationalist paramilitary activity — the equal of the British Army or RUC presence. Older Protestants have however exhibited a fear of Catholic families swallowing up their sons and breeding uncontrollably: the higher Catholic birth-rate having at times incited Protestant riots in Catholic areas.

For some Catholic young girls and women their sense of belonging in the community is fulfilled by having a baby as early as practicable. Women who have children are thus soon socialised into the strong maternal role of keeping the family together and as the role is so demanding they have little opportunity to think critically about the situation.

Lynda Egerton observes how it is often the mother who has the heavy responsibility of trying to bring up a family in a situation similar to a war environment. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that husbands are the main victims of death, imprisonment, maiming and disabling. It is notable that the majority of children in Northern Ireland, who have undergone counselling have proved themselves to be seemingly unaffected by the troubles, provided that their family is able to provide information, emotional support and justification for their circumstances.

Despite this, mothers and children are identified within the nationalist cause rather than as agents of it. McLoughlin points out that though it is a sphere to which attention is drawn and valued, it remains distinctly subordinate to the male sphere. Women have been accepted as guardians of the family, transmitters of cultural values to the next generation and the eternal sufferers for Mother Ireland. In particular it is assumed that mothers will rear sons who will devote themselves to the cause.

Mothers can be actively involved in transmitting and preserving nationalist aims and may also resort to violence themselves. Family loyalty and family paramilitary connections influence children from an early age. Minds may be influenced by more subtle political identities presented in the familial sphere. Though the family and home may be revered as a site and reproducer of violence, yet it is also perceived as non-political. Women and children through their embodyment of protection, are thus further ramified as non-political and non-threatening.

Growing up in the Troubles: 'I remember showing a plastic bullet to my Mum to excuse my lateness'

Importantly, bestowed childlike qualities have enabled children, women and the female elderly to associate with or act as perpetrators in terrorist activity, and remain above suspicion. In this case what is seen also determines what is not seen. During a family shopping trip in Northern Ireland, children may be left behind in the parked car, not for their own safety but as a visual demonstration that the car itself is not a threat and does not contain a bomb. The concept of child as innocent is retained is this example of peaceful signalling.

By comparison the young street fighter necessarily loses this construction of childhood, through his political participation. Reversing traditional etiquette, young girls have been known to walk their boyfriends home because on their own, boys risk being lifted by the army. Suspicion is averted by the presence of the young female and a familial relationship between them may also indicate pacifity or diverted attention. The troubles can be seen then to take place in, and create, a highly gendered environment in which children have both active masculine roles and a perceived passive presence, may fight along side men, and yet conceptually remain in the sphere of mother and family.

Mark Urban, however has noted the power to intimidate through the assassination of women in the home.

Lyra McKee: Lost Girl of the Troubles

Mothers can be shot in bed, in front of the children. In , 62 per cent of casualties were civilian non-combatants, and the majority of these injuries and deaths occurred in Belfast or Derry Londonderry. Between and , over 15, families moved from their homes. The killing of children can be a significant indicator of aggression, as in the petrol bombing of the three boys under ten in July Many thousands of children are still attacked and maimed each year. The charity Childline , for example, receives calls each week from the Province. However the balance between victimisation and overkill is a fine one.

The killing of children may be tactically avoided to avoid allegations of barbarity. An INLA terrorist describes the potential disruptive power of the family or children in the context of an assassination attempt:. But then you have to see does he drive the kids to school and allow for that. That would scrub a car bomb right there and then. If you hurt any of them you count the operation as a loss. The political impact is just wiped out because now its just "criminals terrorising families," never mind what or who your man is. Home or the family is one of the key sites of political intimidation, resistance and socialisation.

For many terrorists family commitment and loyalty may play an important force in the continuation of the armed struggle. The deaths of three children including a baby of four weeks prompted the biggest popular peace movement in It is noticeable that attempts to find peace in Northern Ireland have often begun with reference to children. The role of the mother as a provider of stability and safety has increased, with the disappearance of men into covert operations which place home and family under attack.

Street battles and terrorism within communities also confuse the categorisation of protector and protected. In one notable example in , despite a strict curfew imposed by the army on the Lower Falls Road, women pushed prams with food to those who could not feed their children. They were able to force the British Army to turn a blind eye in confusion and embarrassment. Mothers and children together created a powerful yet infantilised and feminised construct. The connotations assigned to this advancing civilian sphere of mothers and babies also overrode the capacity of the army to act.

Its founders Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel peace prize, and achieved a great deal of publicity. Recently women activists have been able to make space for peace by identifying their potential roles and challenging their limited control at home. Bringing up children has a lot to do with it. Through such talks for peace, by women and mothers, the distinction between formal and informal politics has been further broken down.

One of the difficulties in promoting peace has been this delineation between political and non-political spheres which are thought of as separable, though they are mutually inclusive. To avoid talking politics at home as many families claim, is an example of a political strategy itself. Despite the present condition of peace, Childline has recently had to move into costly city centre premises in Belfast to avoid accusations of sectarianism.

As Monica McWilliams noted, the millions of pounds put into community relations projects has had to exclude all services with sectarian provision such as playgroups. In their place the Department of Education in Northern Ireland assumed responsibility for grant-aided community relations holidays, for large groups of children preferably of both communities. In for example, children took part. The contact requirement of such schemes is not always made clear in the arrangements and guidelines.

The description of the holiday as available to both communities may be the only indicator that children may be closely integrated. The accompanying literature to be read by host and child families states firmly that there is to be no political agenda although they hope to help each child to have some impact on the way people relate to one another in Northern Ireland. Reports of one of the largest programmes Project Children suggest that slightly secretive methods were used to attract sectarian communities with little reference to the reconciliation theme.

Protestant children for example did not know that they were staying with an American Catholic family. Post-holiday reports show that both Protestant and Catholic children were extremely surprised when they did meet at how similar they were. They may have to appear to have gone back to more traditional thinking on returning home. In addition these encounters are often taking place outside the contentious environment and only for a short time.

It is interesting that there has been no substantial report into the success of the holidays. This could illustrate the difficulty in following political values back into the home amidst the fear of sectarian reprisals or it could suggest that there is not much change anticipated in their schemes. These schemes which operate in many communities, youth clubs and schools, also fulfil a role for adults who want to improve the lives of children or be seen to be doing so. Small beginnings towards peace it seems are more easily gestured with small children.

With regard to the s peace process it seems that when change did occur it was through adults, not through children or generational change. In the present political system only adults have the capacity to make peace although recourse to children, as was shown in Chapter One, is perhaps a part of the symbolism of conciliatory gestures.


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She seems a little apologetic, even embarrassed, about that, but she shouldn't be. That's how it was. When members of one's own community, those to whom a name and face could be put, were being brutally killed, it did desensitise one to suffering on the "other" side. Exploring those feelings, teasing them out, as the narrative went along, rather than partitioning them off into a cursory afterword, would have made for a deeper book.

For all that, Belfast Days remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what it was like for ordinary families as they struggled to get through a nightmare not of their making. Existing in self-imposed exile back on the family estate in the Irish countryside, Luke has turned his back on bright lights and big city, not to mention West Belfast diary of a Teenager in the Troubles Eilis O'Hanlon, who was also there at the time, on the diary of a West Belfast girl who grew up during the worst of the violence Rescue workers deal with the aftermath of Bloody Friday in Belfast Days by Eimear O'Callaghan Eimear O'Callaghan, who has written a diary of life as a Belfast girl during the Troubles in Ellis O'hanlon October 19 AM.

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