Imagine discovering the diary of your sixteenth year almost 40 years after you wrote it. No doubt, you would be curious to read it - expecting to laugh, cry, cringe and, perhaps, be reminded of teenage exploits and half-remembered family gatherings.
A new book, ‘Belfast Days: a 1972 Teenage Diary’, by Derry-based writer Eimear O’Callaghan, is all of this and much, much more.
Eimear’s absorbing and, at times, disturbing new book unlocks a door to our recent past in which bombs, bullets, death and despair were the common currency of everyday life in Northern Ireland - particularly in the urban settings of Belfast and Derry.
However, the book is also a fascinating insight into the life of an ordinary teenager coming of age in extraordinary times.
The immediacy of the diary entries are complemented by the author’s mature reflections on discovering her journal four decades later.
Eimear, a former news editor at BBC Radio Foyle in Derry, records her and her family’s experiences during the bloodiest year of the North’s ‘Troubles’ - 1972.
From the banality of buses not running, power cuts and check points, to the horror of shootings, bombings and almost 500 killings, Eimear’s teenage jottings transport the reader into a family and a community doing their best to function normally in a Belfast fast spiralling out of control.
Eimear, a mother of three who left the BBC in 2010 to set up a communications consultancy, says she has always dreamed of writing a book.
The “seed” for “Belfast Days”, she reveals in the book, was planted on June 15, 2010, as she stood in Guildhall Square reporting on the publication of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.
“With my newly rediscovered teenage diary in a bag at my feet, I joined in the rapturous applause which greeted the pronoucement by the Prime Minister David Cameron that the army killings on Bloody Sunday were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. I felt a sense of completeness - that life had turned full circle - as he brought the curtain down on the event I had recorded with shock, sadness and anger in the opening pages of my journal in 1972.
“In the days following the British government’s unprecedented apology, I read for the first time in nearly forty years my own account of my life during the worst year of the Troubles. The innocent 16 year old, who pasted paper butterflies on the cover of her brand new diary, could not have foreseen that, by the end of December that year, she would be consumed by dark thoughts of death. Nor could she have imagined that subsequent decades would claim another 3,000 lives and bring so much fear and grief.”
Eimear acknowledges that, by the time she worked her way through page after page of her new-found journal, the “desolation I felt on the last day of 1972 was as fresh in my memory as if it was yesterday: the black, silent streets; the miasma of despair; the sense that it could have been our last Christmas together as a family.
“I had set my diary down after reading it, emotionally spent, crushed and submerged by the bleakness of its final entries and the weight of violence and hopelessness in the preceding pages.
“Suddenly, though, a wave of gratitude engulfed me, disaplacing the sadness which had threatened to overwhelm me. Like a blind woman newly blessed with sight, I understood - for the first time - how incredibly lucky I was.
“Instead of being felled by the recollections of that awful year, I realised that I should have been down on my knees, giving thanks to God that all my immediate family had been spared, not only through the year after I completed my diary, but for decades afterwards.”
Her 1972 diary, says Eimear, threw new light on her teenage self, on life in a divided city during the most violent year of its history and “on the obligation bearing down on all of us to open ourselves to one another’s stories.”
Eimear says that, in writing her new book, she did not set out to produce the definitive history of 1972. Rather, it tells the story “of one year in the life of an unexceptional Catholic schoolgirl” and shows what conflict does to a community.
Harrowing, moving and, at times, almost incredible, Eimear O’Callaghan’s observations of a year that was unprecedented in its brutality and bloodshed are compelling and vivid.
Her unique and unadorned record also stands testament to the resilience, solidarity and decency of thousands of ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances.
‘Belfast Days: A 1972 Teenage Diary’, by Eimear O’Callaghan, is published by Merrion Press and is available from local bookshops and online.