Belfast – archive all The Troubles voices

Kenneth Branagh’s last semi-autobiographical film, Belfast, is set in Northern Ireland in 1969 and explores the “social and political turmoil” in the rising Troubles. The “loving portrait” of nine-year-old Buddy is at the center of this film, reviewer Robbie Meredith noted. Yet as violence begins to escalate between Belfast’s communities, Buddy’s little world begins to break apart and his family is forced to make tough decisions.

The film’s release provides a timely prompt to examine the experience of those who lived through such a turbulent time in Northern Ireland. A period highlighted by new debates on the borders of the island.

The Troubles (1969–1998) was primarily fought between three parties: Republican paramilitaries who sought the unity of Northern Ireland with the Irish Free State; the loyalist paramilitaries who strove to defend the union of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom; and British state forces. Despite the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (which set the terms of peace in 1998), many aspects of Northern Ireland’s past remain disputed, including the historical roots and causes of the division that led to the escalation of violence in 1969.

Peacebuilding approaches in Northern Ireland have been underpinned by widespread attempts to deal with the legacy of conflict and its ongoing effects on people’s lives. One approach undertaken by grassroots communities and NGOs in the peace process has been to reflect on the past through narration. Community oral history emerged as a means of empowerment for recognize and preserve people’s experiences. One of these initiatives is the Duchas Oral History Archive located in Falls Community Council, West Belfast – one of the worst affected areas.

Complex relationships

Documenting a diverse social and cultural history of Belfast from around the 1910s to the present day, Dúchas has helped people from a variety of backgrounds tell their stories of the conflict since 2000. The stories include Nationalist/Catholic, Unionist /Protestant and British Soldiers Perspectives. The collection contains over 300 life history interviews, with some excerpts published.

At times, as the interviews were often conducted between people who knew each other, the flashback process evoked antagonistic memories of the conflict that reflected the ongoing tensions in the peace process. But Dúchas also preserved the memories of those whose experiences evoked connections to neighbors across religious and political divides, as one interviewee described:

…the first time I knew there was a difference [was] because I heard my mum saying that Mrs Shannon had decided to move to Cushendall, with all that was going on, and my mum was saying, ‘I’m losing a very good neighbour, and it’s ridiculous, just because she is Catholic. You know, she’s better for me than those who come and say, ‘Oh, I’ll take care of you if you put up a flag’, you know, kind of what they’re saying is we’ll identify that you are a Protestant”. But my mom was, you know, “I don’t care what you are. Take off.

Many interviews also reveal how broader structural forms of violence have overshadowed daily routine activities, such as this example:

When I was working in Boots there were five of us… three catholics and two protestants… so we were all out during our lunch hour driving around the town, gagging like we did… and the next thing these soldiers just kicked us pulled to the side. ” Where are you going ? And I said, “We’re out on our lunch hour, we’re in our uniforms, can’t you see?” We work in Boots.

We were so embarrassed that everyone was staring at us on the street, and he went through our purses and everything, and then he said, “Name? Where do you come from?” [interviewee recites names] …he just looked at all of us. And he said, “Well, how come you all together from Catholic places and Protestant places?” And I said, “Well, we work together, and we’ve worked together for years, and we’re good friends, and we’re at lunchtime.” And he couldn’t get over it, and then he let us go.

As these examples show, amid the sectarian division of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a range of complex relationships existed, and Dúchas’ records played a part in documenting them.

Stories of emotion

Yet Dúchas also retains difficult stories of emotion before, during and after the conflict.

Talking about the past evoked a range of complex responses, including memories of pain and grief inflicted by different groups in the conflict, including the British armed forces. Similarly, some interviews draw attention to the burdens of internal division within and between communities, and the fears and anxieties this conflict has generated. Other interviews highlight the emotions of anger, resentment and injustice felt towards those who have harmed them or their families.

A series of conditions helped shape Dúchas. Post-conflict archive in Northern Ireland are partly shaped by external funding bodies and the policies that enable them. These factors need to be placed at the center of thinking about the critical role of archives in community peacebuilding.

But, as a lens to “look back”, the potential of local projects like Dúchas should not be underestimated. The complexity of experiences and motivations that have shaped Dúchas are timely reminders of the importance of hearing nuanced perspectives on the conflict that otherwise might not have been expressed.

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