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REVIEW: Malachi O’Doherty’s ‘The Telling Year’

July 11, 2012

WHEN I was a wee a fella I had a recurring dream, rather a nightmare, that hit just before I would drift off to sleep – it was the fear that a gunman would come through the window. It was Northern Ireland in the 1970s & 80s, and it was the centre of what was briefly called the Murder Triangle, but I was lucky, we lived in a mixed and quiet working class area where the bitter sectarian demarcations that never took deep hold.

West Belfast-born Malachi O’Doherty was not quite so lucky  and his book THE TELLING YEAR is the best about the reality of the Northern Irish Troubles ever committed to print. It’s out on Kindle for less than £2, please get it and read about the realities of life during 1972 the worst year of the Troubles.

O’Doherty is a cub reporter on the Sunday News, a strange wee tabloid newspaper with a penchant for slightly racy or odd stories. It was a paper not prepared for the horrors going on around it.  It may be a dark book, but it’s also uproariously funny in places, with the conversations among the journalists a beautiful encapsulation of life in a news room.

At no point does it fail to juxtapose the difficulties of normal life as all around you has exploded into a war zone. It is also a telling study of the difficulties of a young man trying to make his way in life and do the things he should be doing: drinking, trying to have sex with girls and yet having to deal with dread depressions induced by the daily horrors of  murder and the fear that stalks with it.

There is a terrifying claustrophobia about life in Belfast, with indiscriminate murder all over the city. IRA men ruling West Belfast’s streets, children politicised and murdered throwing missiles on a front line that extended everywhere. Army treating the streets like other areas of insurgency, like Aden. Bombings killing 10, 12 and 13 people at a time and sectarian murder gangs of all hues and identities waging terror on the vast majority of people who were always against any armed campaign.

Amid the terror, O’Doherty captures the human unseen tragedies of the time – those with no real political tendencies prior to the outbreak of hostilities being forced to take sides. The housewives living in fear of security forces raids and the ever present chance of riots and burnings affecting them, hopped up on valium and addictive sedatives.

Much like Seamus Heaney’s anthology North, and in particular the poem ‘Punishment’, O’Doherty highlights how even the most benign of nationalists became politicised by this time. He describes the raids in Belfast in the wake of Bloody Sunday, and fantasising about shooting paratroopers, he uses the work of another writer to illustrate his point,

Another journalist who remembers that time was the poet Brian Lynch. In his Pity For The Wicked, he recalls the mood in the newsroom he worked in when reports of the bombing of Aldershot came in.

The day this news began to break

Our Foreign Sub banged down his fist

And roared: ‘the Paratroops have got Their answer now!

The roof’s come down on their canteen!’

The newsroom rang with howls of joy.

They’d murdered us. We’d murdered them.

And I joined in, a roaring boy

Who cheered the Butcher’s requiem.

It’s a time when no-one can make sense of what’s going on, and the routine, throbbing tension of life is eating away at one and all. O’Doherty spares none of the key protagonists his ire – after the IRA kill the best man at wedding in Derry he says,

The couple getting married that day were Dennis Patton from Eastway in Creggan and Tina Kelly from the Bogside. Well at least the IRA wasn’t being sectarian — it was ruining the lives of people from the housing estates from which it claimed allegiance.

O’Doherty has forged a career as a brilliant memoirist, and it is the rawness of the emotion on display here that sets it apart from the many academic tomes on the early years of the Troubles. Jesus, for £1.96, you Kindle users will get their money’s worth, several times over.

@mickfealty from @sluggerotoole wrote about it here.

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