Monday, September 21, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972": Book Review

Living next to an IRA arms dump, how'd you fare covering the Troubles for a Belfast newspaper allied with the Establishment? O'Doherty recalls his job at the Sunday News during Northern Ireland's deadliest escalation. His account blends his coming-of-age with journalistic challenges as he must balance discretion with honesty.

Marked by his name, a native of a West Belfast republican stronghold, O'Doherty explains how he survived 1972 professionally and personally. Fascinated but appalled by the dangers created by many of his Andersonstown neighbors, reporting "would suit my need to be part of the adventure of chaos without my having to be brutal or accept anyone's orders. Journalism would satisfy my detachment from the raw charge of enthusiasm for war which had overtaken so many people around me." (5)

The Sunday edition of the Belfast News Letter (by the way the oldest newspaper in existence, I believe) traditionally had hired Protestants, so O'Doherty, who finds his byline shortened to "Mal" at times, must tread warily. The paper strives for a readership "free to plan a holiday, to move house, to contemplate a changed diet, to ogle girls' bottoms or marvel at those lovely little animals in the zoo, while the city was bombed to meet [Saturday night for the Sunday edition] deadlines and no one knew why-- not even a Westminster MP for a local constituency, who thought we were being invaded by Russians." (30) Such municipal naivete doubtless would not last long in the enclaves where O'Doherty lived, but as he reminds us, much of his province then enjoyed peace and outside a few urban areas, one would not know of the war-torn strife that filled reliably so many front page headlines. Inside his paper, after the "bombs and bullets," it seemed like another British tabloid "unruffled in its petty concerns."

This leads to complications. "There was no etiquette established by which a Catholic might sympathize with a Protestant his neighbour had bombed." (64) Daily outrages, tit-for-tat sectarian shootings, finger-pointing and hypocritical "whataboutery" permeate conversations; often muttered among those at the paper, who awkwardly strive for objectivity despite their own inevitable loyalties and small rebellions.

The jittery nature of enduring everyday strain tells. The IRA wants to make occupied Ulster ungovernable. They claim a defensive campaign but attack not only their uniformed enemies but those they suspect of collaboration. Housewives around his Riverdale estate, he reports anonymously, dope themselves with tranquilizers while the E-Company of the IRA shoots at army patrols and runs into O'Doherty's garden, or a nearby safe house perhaps. He's roughed up by the troops and increasingly fears for his own safety, as he is torn between the British who suspect his allegiance and the IRA who often shoot first and ask no questions later of any they suspect of collaboration or even common decency towards those labelled the enemy.

Half the IRA men and women who'd die this telling year, he notes, were blown up by their own bombs. Often sent off to plant them without timers, they had to get them to their targets or become "own goals" themselves as they were detonated in their transport. It's difficult to measure the cynicism involved here. The tragic destruction from a bomb planted probably by IRA teenaged girls at the Abercorn restaurant of a party of women shopping for their weddings horrified many. Amputees survived. O'Doherty reveals how closely-knit he was with his "working-class" community, those whom the IRA claimed to be liberating. "I danced, drunk, at a party with one of those women 15 years later. She fell over but laughed." (112)

Laughter, unless gallows humor, may have been heard less often among those pressed by the IRA on one side, and the British and their Loyalist paramilitaries with murder squads colluding on the other. Victims could be found at random; left off a taxi on a certain street, dropped off by soldiers in the wrong neighborhood, walking away from a bus in a certain direction: this could mark one for torture and death. "There was no burden the campaign would not impose on the people who lived there." (123) As with his 1998 "The Trouble with Guns," which analyzed the failure of the republican "physical-force" strategy of the Provos, O'Doherty cooly casts a cold eye on all who claimed to free a people whom they bullied, whom some idealized as freedom fighters delighted in subjugating.

His narrative moves briskly. Those less familiar with republican and loyalist turf-battles and Irish history at this time may find themselves outpaced. O'Doherty writes for an Irish audience in the know, but for those sufficiently grounded in the standard studies and "I was there" tales, this should provide a very rare look into one who had to deploy or hide his local identification as he sought to extend his journalistic credentials to report on a very intimate form of combat and destruction.

In the end, he must flee Belfast; he takes the dole and moves to Britain. Readers curious about his life before his journalistic start and what followed in India under a Hindu guru and then back in the North working freelance for the BBC can find "I Was a Teenaged Catholic" (recently reviewed by me on Amazon and this blog).

Lofty justifications for IRA armed struggle fill many memoirs; O'Doherty's dissenting voice speaks for rarely heard West Belfast mindset. From one who could not follow his mates into thirty years of violence, no matter how noble the rhetoric. As a moderate on the paper, "Observer," opined after an infant was shredded by flying glass after a detonation: "Just think of the chat in some 'patriot's' home in 15 or 20 years hence. 'What did you do for the cause, Da?' -- 'I planted a bomb that blew a child into eternity'." (192) That's a boast no IRA first-person narrative that I've read dares to make; heady Fenian drams curdled into bitter dregs. The dram's a blend still peddled by certain defenders today.

(P.S. His forthcoming book's about his formidable father, Barney, a pub owner whose place was bombed by the IRA. This review posted to Amazon British & U.S. 9-20-09. I also reviewed on Amazon-- if British only-- and my blog his analysis "Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion" that investigates another dismantled icon of Irish life.)

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