‘Children of the Revolution’, a new book from Derry publishing house Guildhall Press, tells the stories of twenty
people who had a parent politically active in the North’s recent conflict. The sons and daughters of republicans and
loyalists recount their experiences of childhood and how the activities of their mums or dads impacted on their lives.
Many of the names in Bill Rolston’s ‘Children of the Revolution’ will be familiar to those conversant with the traumatic events and politics of the Troubles; names such as Adams, Ervine, Bunting, Lyttle, Nelis, McMaster, Meehan, McQuiston and McCann. Others are less well known.
The contributors tell of police and army raids, prison visits, absent or deceased parents with honesty and emotion.
Some reject the parent and the events that led to their own suffering, while others are completely supportive of the parent and his or her politics; many are ambivalent.
In the end, the people interviewed were not passive victims, but survivors who managed to ride the crest of the conflicts they experienced. Ultimately, despite the trauma, and despite their feelings of ambivalence, resilience won out.
Among those interviewed for the book are local women Cathy Nelis whose mother, Mary, was politically active all her life, representing Sinn Fein on both Derry City Council and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Ciarraí Harkin whose father, Richard, is a Derry-based republican ex-prisoner and Sinn Fein activist.
Cathy Nelis, who was born in 1969, recalls that, in the mid-1970s, she had two brothers arrested and jailed.
“By 1977, my mammy ended up with two boys in jail,” she recounts. “I remember on Saturdays she used to be away. She used to go to Belfast to visit the jail. They were on remand in the Crum at first. Then I remember a lot more activity around the house, a lot of meetings taking place.
“I remember Father [Denis] Faul coming to the house, for example. That brought us onto the street protests around the no-wash, blanket campaign. My ma just dragged us to protests, although I don’t think, to be honest, she had to drag us; it was just something to do and it was exciting.
“There was at least one day a week when we used to go to a protest down in the centre of the town. Those few years for me were filled with riots on the streets, protests, a lot of activity around the house.”
Cathy also recalls the turbulent era of the Long Kesh hunger strikes of the early 1980s.
“My abiding memories of that are a lot of street activity, a lot of riots. And that time for me was the first time I had a sense of death; I had a sense of the seriousness of war.
“Up to then, it was exciting and you didn’t really sense any danger, no fear around it, but the hunger strike was the turning point for me.
“And I know it was for a lot of other people that age, because people were dying and you got your first sense of ‘hold on a minute, this is actually very serious’.”
Cathy Nelis believes her mother was forced into circumstances “that weren’t her doing.”
“She had little choice in her own life,” she says. “Did she do her best? There were times I would say to her, ‘Why didn’t you let my da go out and do the activism? Because you loved it. You were getting out of the house.’ And she probably did. She’d just given birth to nine weans. You can understand that. I would probably crack after three.”
“The anguish that she must have felt about what the two boys were being put through in jail. That would have been enough to drive a lot of mothers to drink or other unhealthy coping strategies.
“Her way of dealing with that was to get out and be active, and that’s what kept her going. So I would say, alongside all that anguish, she enjoyed the activism as well.”
In her story, Ciarraí Harkin - born in 1983 - says her father, Richard, a member of the IRA, was jailed for explosives offences.
“For the first year or two or three, we were too young to question,” she says. “I think it just became normality.
“Then, once I did get a bit older, you do start to ask questions and you do realise that you are a bit different, that things in your life are a bit different from other people’s. I remember hating it. I remember saying to my mammy, ‘I don’t want to go up on a visit [to jail].’
“It was rotten. It was always awkward. Sometimes, when you went up after four or six weeks, you didn’t know where to start.
You didn’t want to sit telling him what you had done for the last six weeks. And, looking back on it, I don’t think we ever asked my daddy what he’d got up to in the last six weeks.
“Later, they were allowed phone calls and that was a lot better. My daddy would phone every night and we had to make sure everyone was in the house to speak to him. That brought us closer. Once the phone calls came, it was every day, you know, ‘What did you do today?’ and you would have chatted. You didn’t get that much time on the phone, because there were five of us. And my mammy would want to speak to him.”
Ciarraí also recalls the awkwardness when her father was released from prison.
“Whenever he came out, it did feel like he was a stranger, even though we had seen him and we had spoken to him. For the last two or three years he was inside, we could speak to him every day.
“I used to feel very guilty if I had to go somewhere and leave him. If everybody was leaving the house and my daddy was sitting there by himself, I felt I needed to entertain him as if he was a guest. It was strange.
“And I remember talking to my mammy about it. And she was saying, ‘Ciarraí, it’s your daddy’s house, too, and you’ll just have to adjust.’”
“Now, looking back, I wouldn’t say it really affected my life as such. If anything, I’ve just kinda blocked out any politics. I wouldn’t have an interest.
“People just assume because of my father that my beliefs and his are the same.”
‘Children of the Revolution’, by Bill Rolston, is supported by the Community Relations Council and is available from all good bookshops and www.ghpress.com priced £8.95.