Opinion: remembering the painful stories around violence, death and destruction in Northern Ireland is a terrain which is hard to navigate

By Aimée WalshLiverpool John Moores University

At a time of renewed divisions surrounding nationhood, identity and the border, heightened in particular by the Brexit debate, the release of documentaries on the Troubles serves to remind us to work towards a better future. There has been a deluge of commemorative documentaries, in the last couple of months, particularly from the BBC. Documentaries such as Lost Lives and Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History revisit the horrors of the human cost of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

The Spotlight series opens with the maxim that Northern Ireland, particularly Derry, is "a place where even the name is disputed". When the basics of language offer a hot bed for disagreement, what good can the remembering of often contentious, political violence, death, and destruction achieve? Commenting on Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, reporter and presenter Darragh McIntyre writes "their past shaped our present".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane show, journalist Eamonn Mallie discusses BBC's Spotlight On the Troubles: A Secret History 

Indeed, it is in the viewing and remembrance of the past, and how far Northern Ireland has progressed, and the further ways to go, that we must focus. The difficulty of confronting uncomfortable pasts has become heightened in the north, particularly due to the tensions around the issue of Brexit and a United Ireland border poll. The rise of the New IRA is reminiscent of the conflicted past, as well as the nature of threats on Sinn Fein for their support of the Police Service Northern Ireland. These dangerous new fractures should not be ignored, and it is to this that the documentaries of the Troubles speak.

However, the commemoration of difficult pasts, specifically during the Troubles, is a terrain which is hard to navigate. The balance between the nationalist and unionist voices, and those which do not fit into this binary, often complicate the narratives of the conflict. Without agenda nor bias, Lost Lives: The Stories of Men, Women and Children who died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (1999) documents every one of the 3,700 deaths during the conflict. Journalists David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton took seven years to document and write the stories of all the victims of the conflict, which was released in 1999. Political figures, such as then US president Bill Clinton and then Irish president Mary McAleese, read excerpts from the text on a RTÉ radio broadcast.

The RTÉ Lost Lives broadcast from 1999

The Lost Lives documentary is a visual monument to the horrors of the conflict and features noted Irish actors, including Liam Neeson and Bronagh Waugh, voicing the stories of a select number of the deaths recorded. The film splices images of still, empty sites of landscapes with that of archival footage of the violent events of the conflict: explosions, destruction, and human reactions to the devastation. The documentary overlays images of the natural world (birds preening their feathers, aerial shots of vast forest space and rivers trickling) with the untimely deaths of the conflict. Archival footage reminds us of that which we cannot forget. By this I mean, the north lives with the after effects of the conflict, though we are now arguably considering the events afresh by revisiting the visceral heart-ache, bodily pain and death. In this, we must be reminded that we cannot go back.

The documentary ends with a sequence of a mother in labour, who herself is a descendant of a ‘Lost Life’ of the conflict. The mother holds her new-born baby in a birthing pool, while the text reads "life begins – for the grandchild of one of the lost lives". The result of this documentary is that the commemoration of painful pasts can soothe turbulent present times in the north. It is in this way that the documentary reminds us that life can start anew, despite the trauma and conflict which people in the north personally, and collectively, have come through.

From RTÉ One's Nine News in April 2015, call for IRA members to be tried for war crimes over Jean McConville murder

All of this adds to the "boom'"of documentary texts which have received critical success. Patrick Radden O'Keefe's award-winning non-fiction book Say Nothing documents the micro-history surrounding the disappearance and murder by the IRA of mother-of-ten Jean McConville. Further interest has been seen in Netflix's release of the I, Dolours documentary in which ex-IRA member Dolours Price is interviewed with regards to her involvement in the death of McConville.

So what good can come of these retelling these painful stories? If we return to Lost Lives, the experience of Billy Giles, who served time in prison for the murder of his Catholic friend Michael Fay, is a pertinent note to end on. The documentary reads the words Giles wrote in his suicide note: "please let our next generation live normal lives. Tell them of our mistakes and admit to them our regrets".

There is an importance in commemoration through documentary texts which depict the conflicted past in the north. I do not think that there are many, if any, people who have lived in the north who can claim to be untouched and unaffected by the violence. But for those who forget and stoke the flames of tensions, the documentary form serves to remind us that it does not have to be this way. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Aimée Walsh is a PhD candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Science at Liverpool John Moores University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ