June 4, 2009
Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
You wait years to read a book about Northern Ireland’s troubled past, and then gorge on three at once. After the fictional treatments in Proxopera (a fine little book which is going up in my estimation the more I think about it) and Swallowing the Sun, let’s get hardcore with Susan McKay’s report on thirty years of violent death in Ulster.
The title comes from lines by John Hewitt (the only Belfast poet with a pub named after him): “Bear in mind these dead: / I can find no plainer words. / I dare not risk using / that loaded word, Remember…” Yes: they have long memories, the Irish, the Northern Irish, but where remembrance is often used as a divider (Remember 1690?), McKay’s task here is to create a sort of informal truth and reconciliation document (Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, the acclaimed account of the South African truth and reconciliation commission, is referenced) so that remembrance – so that bearing in mind – can begin to heal. In doing so it risks re-opening the wounds.
The book was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, named after the British ambassador to Ireland, who was murdered by the IRA in 1976. The Prize (McKay was beaten to it by David Park for The Truth Commissioner) is aimed at promoting greater understanding between the people of Britain and Ireland. If Bear in Mind These Dead achieves that, it is through making readers in each country recognise the horrors carried out by people purporting to act in their name.
The first half of the book proceeds chronologically, from the civil rights marches of the 1960s to the frequently dashed hopes of the new millennium. McKay’s account is by necessity selective (for a literally full account of the deaths, you need to go to the landmark – the monolith – volume Lost Lives). It reminds us that if, as Martin Amis put it, the 3,000+ deaths in the Troubles were “the equivalent of one bad month in Iraq” (or one very bad day in New York), that the Irish conflict has a horror and hatred all its own.
“There was a [path] up through the garden and on either side of it there were … well, I’ll call them people. They spat at me and clapped their hands and cheered. My brother Thomas was lying there with blood all around him. He had left the RUC after twelve years. It was dark. I left. I had to go and tell my father and mother.
“It was the INLA shot my brother, and they said they’d attack the cortège. We had to go seven miles around the town to get to our family burial plot. We were advised not to put a green mat over the grave but to fill it in ourselves. The police had word they were going to do something to the body. The day after the burial, me and two of my brothers went to see everything was OK. The headstone, my grandmother’s, had ‘scum’ and ‘orange bastards’ scrawled on it. The wreaths had been thrown away. We could see them along the road.”
This account is representative rather than exceptional. Another victim, a killer himself, speaks of how he went to the grave of a policeman whom he had set up to be killed, and read the tribute cards in case any of his police colleagues had left useful personal details. McKay lets families of the dead speak – families of policemen, civilians, IRA men, and although they are not considered with moral equivalence, their loved ones are presented equally as victims, suffering unimaginable loss. “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.” Mostly this is highly effective and affecting, though there is occasionally a touch of sentimentality to the introductions. When a paragraph begins “Hundreds of miles away, in the south-west of the Republic, in Kerry, sixteen-year-old Michael Horan was having a ball…”, it’s hard not to think of the opening minutes of an episode of Casualty, or a public information film where a child plays Frisbee near an electrical pylon. (I’ve changed the name in the preceding sentence, as I’m commenting on the book’s presentation and not trying to belittle the event it describes.)
Bear in Mind These Dead is a depressing and gruelling read, but hard to put down – perhaps only from the desire to see some daylight break through as the chronological account takes us to the present day. The light does not quite come. After the last chapter of part one (“Corrupting a New Generation”), we move into ‘Aftermath’, and the chapter “The Damage Done,” which details how some of the victims’ loved ones reacted to their deaths. Illness, heart attacks, depression, suicide. God, but it’s hard to take. At times I wanted to give up on continuing – what was the point when all it did was make me alternately angry and tearful? – but quickly the book came to seem essential. It has force, and resonance.
McKay does excellent work in taking the bare and bloody accounts in part one and placing them in context in part two: according to themes such as confronting enemies, or the notion of hierarchies of victims, the difficulties which arise all over again in erecting memorials, or the horrifying details of collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. The book lacks an index, which would have been helpful in cross-referencing the accounts in parts one and two. It does however include a glossary, useful for those without detailed knowledge of the Troubles – and this is a book for all, with stories which pierce the reader and allow eloquence of people whose voices are rarely heard.
“The bullets that killed [my son] didn’t just travel in distance, they travelled in time,” says one man. “Some of those bullets never stop travelling.”