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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Personal Accounts from Northern Ireland's Troubles: Public Conflict, Private Loss
Marie Smyth and Marie-Therese Fay (eds.)

London, Pluto Press, 2000
208pp. Index. Pb.: 10.99; ISBN 0-7453-1618-2. Hb.: 35.00; ISBN 0-7453-1619-0.

This disturbing and moving volume is the sixth book from the research based organisation 'The Cost of the Troubles Study', established in 1994 to study and survey the effects of the Troubles on the Northern Irish population. The book is comprised of fourteen edited interviews, selected from a total of 85 in-depth interviews conducted as part of the group's general research over a number of years. In the very apt and reflective introduction, the editors give two reasons for the presentation of the interviews in book form. Firstly, to reveal the 'awful, gory and horrifying reality of the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people' (5) and also in the context of a divided society to 'afford the reader access to the accounts of people they might never have the opportunity to meet.' (5).

In what is often for the reader a very emotional and shocking encounter with the private and harrowing stories of ordinary (and real) people, this volume certainly does what the editors expect: it debunks any notions we might have that physical violence is an attractive way to deal with conflict. For many of the contributors to this volume, their recollection of past events is almost as physical as their first experience of them, the sights, sounds and smells of violence are there to remind us that wars of any status are evil; that bullets hurt, they kill, and the people they kill sadly never return. As one interviewee recounts 'I still have these dreams that he isn't dead, it wasn't his body that was found, it was just someone who looked like him and he's back'. (p 31).

Indeed, the stories of survival are as painful and disturbing to read as the first-hand accounts of the horrific violent acts and events that these people witnessed and experienced. It is pitiful to realise that for many, there were no (or too few) capable listeners. Even those who wanted and needed to talk were often silenced by family and friends unable to deal with their own grief - never mind that of others. Many well-meaning professionals were also unprepared and unskilled to handle the deep depressions and instances of drug and alcohol abuse that became a pattern for those unable to cope. One interviewee remarks during her interview, twenty years after bereavement and injury 'I think this is the longest I've ever talked about it to anybody??.?people were trying to cope with their own lives, they hadn't time to listen to you'. (19).

In inviting us - the readers - to listen, this collection invites us also to understand, and in this respect, the book's conclusions do not go as far as they might. Based more on the 'facts' of the interviews, on what people say, rather than how they say it, (or attempt not to), the conclusions are all too obvious. As human subjects we can only structure what we know and experience through the language our culture gives us so what this remarkable collection reveals as much as anything else, are the narrative strategies and limitations of a whole culture that has been damaged by violence. Beneath and between the lines of these personal accounts the careful reader will encounter also the silenced and repressed sub-texts of fear and suspicion - the untold stories that we might eventually get to hear with a few more bold and courageous volumes like this one.

Cathie McKimm; Director, An Crann The Tree

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