The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Bombs, Boyzone and naked parents running round the garden... a Belfast tale like no other
The Troubles With Us: One Belfast Girl On Boys, Bombs And Finding Her Way Alix O’Neill
Growing up in Belfast in the 1990s, Alix O’Neill was a slow learner. ‘I was never the kind of kid who figured stuff out. Mummy should have realised this the day I came home from school, aged nine, and asked whether we were Catholics or Protestants.’ She attended a convent school on the Falls Road, two clear indicators of Catholicism. Other signs were all around her, from the font of holy water her grandmother kept beside the front door to the nieces of Gerry Adams and Bobby Sands, who were both in her class.
The differences between Catholics and Protestants applied to almost everything, from the brand of whiskey they drank (Bushmills for Protestants, Powers for Catholics) to the football teams they supported (Catholics for Celtic, Protestants for Rangers).
Under the heading ‘Stuff we believed about Protestants’, O’Neill lists ‘Their eyes were closer together than ours’ and ‘They kept their eggs in the cupboard, not the fridge’.
To work out whether a stranger was friend or foe, you only needed to ask them to recite the alphabet. ‘Everyone knew Protestants dropped their h’s.’ Additionally, her mother always maintained that Protestants were much cleaner than Catholics. After a tidy-up, she would declare: ‘Now that’s more Protestant-looking.’
Tales of Catholic childhoods always strike me as funnier and more colourful than their Protestant equivalents, though that may be because I’m Catholic, and so more alert to those particular resonances. As a child, O’Neill’s mother went to see a local parish production of The Song Of Bernadette, about the sudden appearance of the Virgin Mary to a teenage girl in Lourdes. After her return home, her father found her standing on top of the sofa.
‘ “What are you doing up there?” he demanded.
‘“I’m afraid Our Lady is going to appear to me from under the sofa.” ’
It being Belfast during the Troubles, there were, of course, many more upsetting indications of the severity of the divide. A schoolfriend of her mother had been punished by the IRA for ‘fraternising with the enemy’. Her head was shaved and she was then tarred, feathered and tied to a lamppost. One day, the O’Neills found a coffee jar stuffed with Semtex and shrapnel in their garden: it had been left there by an IRA man as he was chased by the police.
And yet O’Neill maintains that, for a child, it still felt like the safest place on Earth. No one made a fuss: it all seemed very normal. ‘A bomb scare didn’t paralyse us with fear – it was an inconvenience, something that caused traffic jams and made you late for a hair appointment.’
She is honest enough to confess that, as a teenager, her preoccupation with ‘boys, booze and Boyzone’ shielded her from the worst of the Troubles. She knows that one of Belfast’s worst atrocities happened in late October 1993, with tit-for-tat murders of 24 people, including two children, but she can’t remember her reaction to it. ‘Perhaps it’s because we never talked about stuff like that at home. Whenever there was another bomb or a shooting on the news, Daddy would sigh and go back to reading the Mirror and Mummy would say it was “desperate” and continue to roll sticks of newspaper… My parents would have agreed that yes, it is messed up, but it’s life, get on with it. Because that’s what you did.’
At a family wedding a few years ago, her sister recalled the time bullets shattered the window of her classroom during an afterschool music lesson when she was eight or nine. The teacher told all her pupils to take cover under the desks.
‘ “I don’t remember that,” said Mummy. ‘ “How can you not? Mrs Heaney told you I was shaken up by the whole thing and you said I’d get over it.”
‘Mummy shrugged and took a sip of her pinot grigio. “It does sound like something I’d say. Sure that kind of thing happened all the time.”’
Keeping calm and carrying on was the only way to survive, even if it meant turning a blind eye to what was happening. ‘Secrecy was ingrained in our psyche in the North. I grew up in a culture of avoidance. When something was too sensitive or painful to discuss, it wasn’t discussed. We said nothing.’
Most of the time, O’Neill manages to pull off the difficult trick of being funny while still conveying an underlying unease. Northern Ireland has long had a deep-seated feel for comedy. Back in 1978, at the height of the Troubles, the travel writer Dervla Murphy, who went everywhere on a bicycle, wrote a brilliant book about it called A Place Apart. In one passage she wrote: ‘It is impossible to be gloomy for long in Belfast. I was feeling rather depressed one afternoon when I turned a corner and saw on a gableend the familiar NO POPE HERE. And underneath, in different coloured paint, LUCKY OLD POPE!’
O’Neill embraces this rich legacy of black humour. One of her friends once comforted a classmate who was upset she couldn’t be home for April Fool’s Day.
‘“It’s just that we have a tradition – every year, we hide my daddy’s prosthetic hand,”’ said the girl, holding back tears.
‘“God, what happened to him?”
‘“Ach, it was blown off making a wee bomb for the ’RA.”’
Other friends who grew up just over the border would play a game called ‘IRA’. It consisted of two teams, each with a code word of which each team member knew just one
letter. ‘The idea was to capture members of the opposing team and extract the letters from them by any means necessary. The worst beatings were reserved for a recovered teammate you suspected of having talked. They were an unhinged lot, those southerners.’
She was, it must be admitted, on the sidelines of the conflict rather than in the thick of it. Her family were to some extent protected by wealth from the horrors of the Troubles: her grandfather owned a chain of bookmakers, her father was successful in advertising. Her parents honeymooned in Barbados and holidayed in Italy. When O’Neill was seven, her grandparents bought a house with a tennis court, and her family moved into their old house, The Manse in smart South Belfast.
Her family life was, then, Belfast twinned with bohemia. She remembers her parents chasing each other around the garden, naked. It’s hard to imagine the Rev and Mrs Ian Paisley enjoying themselves in quite the same way. At one point they even bought a landmark pub and inaugurated a weekly gay night.
Like many a memoirist, O’Neill clearly regards her mother as delightfully eccentric. ‘Mummy does stuff like that – alfresco dining in winter, turf fires in the middle of August’ – but, more often than not, I found myself wishing she were a teensy bit more so.
The book takes Alix from childhood to adulthood: now aged 36, she lives with her
husband and their family in France. The years roll by with many cultural references: Zig and Zag, the Care Bears, Anthea Turner’s Tracy Island re-creation on Blue Peter, Robbie Williams, Steps and Carol Vorderman. At one
point she remembers ‘the exact date I felt Irish, and proud to be Irish’. On April 30, 1994, during the Dublin-hosted Eurovision Song
Contest interval, Michael Flatley comes on TV with his Riverdance team. ‘In that sevenminute interval, everything changed for Ireland. Michael Flatley’s magic legs put the country on the map, changing the narrative from poverty, bad food and shite weather to something cooler, more global.’
The Troubles With Us covers many aspects of Alix O’Neill’s life apart from the Troubles, not least her first kiss, with a boy who looked a little too like Céline Dion for comfort. Her contemporary, The Fall actor Jamie Dornan,
who was destined to become ‘an international sex god’ in Fifty Shades Of Grey, was the one who got away.
O’Neill has a talent for snappy characterisation: I particularly liked Kathleen, who owned a pub on the Shankill Road and ‘was into pencil skirts and not lighting her own
cigarettes’. This is a charming book, by turns caustic and funny, innocent and canny.