Julieann’s ‘Rewriting History’ with Ireland’s leading female authors

Julieann Campbell.
Julieann Campbell.
  • Derry writer’s work features in new anthology of women’s writing

Derry author Julieann Campbell is among notable contributors invited to take part in a new anthology of women’s writing that’s just hit the bookshelves.

‘Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland’, edited by Linda Anderson and Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, is described as ‘a mosaic of work by some of the best contemporary women writers in Northern Ireland.’

Award-winning Derry poet Colette Bryce and author Susan McKay have also contributed work to the collection which has just been published by New Island Books.

Campbell’s contribution reflects on the growing importance of oral history projects, focusing on Creggan Enterprises’ Unheard Voices’ project and the collection of stories from women that emerged from it.

The following is an extract from her essay, ‘Rewriting History’.

The work took its toll on me personally. At times, it was a very isolating experience, sitting up late and transcribing every word of somebody else’s tragedy. I felt weighed down by the task before me and by the importance of getting it right.

Sometimes, it felt all too real. I remember once working on an account of a woman whose sister, Ethel, who had joined the IRA, was preparing a bomb that exploded accidentally. It was around 3 am and I was busy transcribing the raw interview when, suddenly, Philomena mentioned how her sister always stayed at a certain friend’s house - just a few doors from mine.

I can’t explain the impact of suddenly feeling so close to history, so immersed in the words I was typing that it sent chills up my spine. In a way, I felt that Ethel’s spirit had been doing the typing.

Another time, I became so caught up and emotional at the story of a woman whose husband was shot dead through their living room window, I’m not ashamed to say I sought solace in a bottle of Shiraz and a bout of Cartoon Network at 2 am. I felt that I would do anything to rid my mind of those images.

There seems to be a prevalent idea that women played mostly domestic roles during the conflict, a fallacy often reinforced by historians and researchers. In reality, women were the backbone of society and, besides the so-called duties expected of them, many pursued careers and became police officers, entered politics or became combatants or reporters caught up in atrocities - a fact rarely acknowledged in accounts of the conflict or in proposals on how to deal with it.

The fact that so many women still feel ignored or marginalised in today’s post-conflict Northern Ireland is indicative of a wider discontent. If we can address even a fraction of this discontent through storytelling, then similar projects should continue to be implemented and nurtured.

‘It’s good that women are beginning to talk now - we have a lot to say,’ agrees Jane McMorris, a grandmother in her late seventies who lived on the front line of the conflict in one of Derry’s interface areas: the heavily barricaded Irish Street in the Waterside.

I’m not suggesting that women here have historically been weak or silent but, somewhere along the line, many women felt left behind and never caught up and these are the women I want to listen to. These are the stories I want to play a part in telling – words with a purpose.

Importantly, several accounts for ‘Unheard Voices’ are from those affected by state violence, highlighting the continuing failure of the British state in dealing with historical cases.

These include daughters of Sammy Devenny, the first person to die in the Troubles after a savage RUC beating. Colette O’Connor (née Devenny) says the family have never been able to grieve properly, having never been told the truth about Sammy’s death. She says: ‘It’s still too painful because nothing has ever been explained. It annoys me that people - politicians - think you can brush things under the carpet. You can’t. Too many people here need answers, and that should be made a priority.’

This frustration is visible elsewhere, too. When I organised the island-wide ‘In Their Footsteps’ campaign on behalf of the Bloody Sunday Trust and the Pat Finucane Centre for Human Rights, I met scores of families who shared similar feelings of hurt and abandonment - by history, by their community, and by the British government.

The campaign invited bereaved and affected families from across Ireland to contribute a pair of shoes representing their loved ones, creating a sea of shoes in cities like Derry, Dublin, Belfast and London.

The most powerful thing about the campaign was the collective remembering that took place between strangers.

Hundreds of families got involved and many I spoke to throughout the day spoke of their comfort in talking to others and realising they weren’t alone.

It gave families a rare opportunity to tell their stories to passers-by, press and other campaigners. This campaign continues today and invites all families and individuals to contribute to its growing, incredibly moving, exhibition.

Clearly, individual families want different things. Of primary importance is the need for an independent mechanism for dealing with the past, something that addresses the needs of families first and foremost.

Many cases in the North have never been properly investigated or had any official investigation whatsoever. An impartial, thorough investigation to establish facts is long overdue, particularly for family members and victims who are not getting any younger.

I include my own family in this category, having watched my aunts and uncles campaign tirelessly to clear the name of my seventeen-year- old uncle, Jackie Duddy - he first person to die on Bloody Sunday.

Those same campaigning aunts and uncles are now greying pensioners and it is only now - forty-five years later - that the police have conducted the first ever murder investigation into Bloody Sunday.

My family was fortunate in that we had an inquiry and we received some semblance of truth. Many more need answers.

There is a great need for transparency. People need clarification and the truth about their own injuries or the deaths of loved ones - much of which could be contained in classified Ministry of Defence files.