Ordinary story of extraordinary times
An unusual memoir tells of the profound psychological impact of a childhood spent close to The Troubles, relates UNA BRADLEY
Eina McHugh sips a cappuccino in a Belfast cafe, musing on how external events can have an impact on one’s mental health. It’s the thread running through her first book – an unusual memoir that traces the intensely personal fallout of a childhood lived at the sharp end of The Troubles.
It’s not a straightforward narrative. The structure of her book is the thrice-weekly psychotherapy sessions she undertook in her 20s in an attempt to make sense of her past. In particular, how exposure to violent trauma – her family lived opposite an RUC station that was repeatedly targeted by republican paramilitaries in the 1970s – compounded dysfunctional family dynamics in such a way as to render the author terrified of sexual relationships.
The account is so honest it makes for painful reading. The young McHugh was deeply afraid of sex and barely attracted to men (lesbianism was ruled out). Instead, she threw her significant creative and intellectual energies into a hectic work and social life.
She spent nine years in therapy, and the book reads as much like a love letter to her therapist, referred to as “J”, as it does an account of her own dark night of the soul.
One of the most striking elements of her story is how The Troubles could profoundly affect an ordinary family. It’s the kind of low-key, but nevertheless powerful, story that is rarely told. “Yes, I really wanted to reflect that,” says McHugh, now 51 and director of the Ark, a cultural centre for children in Dublin’s Temple Bar.
“The violence that was an everyday, lived experience has got very little attention in all the narratives of the Troubles. My family was not directly involved. We were an ordinary, middle-class family living in a small, rural town close to the Border in Co Tyrone.”
As her therapy progresses in the book, memories tumble forth. Those of the repeated bomb attacks on the neighbouring police station form some of the most compelling – and shocking – passages:
“The first bomb. No warning. I’m reading an adventure book in my bedroom. Then, for some reason, I put my book on the bedside table and go into the lounge. Suddenly there’s a big bang and the lights come crashing down. After the chaos, I find the book destroyed by glass and someone is saying, ‘You’d have been cut to pieces’.”
This is one of many such passages – recollections of surprise blasts, shootings and car-bombs, right outside the front door. Her father’s attempts to secure compensation from the Northern Ireland Office led to a protracted and stressful legal battle, culminating in a court case in which he was accused of negligence for returning to the house with his family after each attack.
“It was such a painful experience for my parents,” McHugh says quietly. “They were both teachers in the local school and it was past pupils of theirs who were doing the bombings. But there’s a kind of shame to that sort of ordinary story – as if you’ve no right to feel distress about The Troubles if you weren’t some big player or you weren’t bereaved.”
Her father suffers from Alzheimer’s and is unaware of her book. Her mother gave her blessing to the project just before she died – something McHugh is clearly very grateful for.
“I wouldn’t have published without my mother’s permission and the permission of the therapist,” she says emphatically.
As well as addressing the lesser-known impact of paramilitary violence, it was equally important to McHugh to write about therapy. She believes Irish people, North and South, are increasingly seeking professional help, and could do with encouragement and solidarity.
“I wanted to write for the general reader. I was determined there would not be one technical term throughout.”
The book may be accessible, but it’s also beautifully written. It is slightly disappointing, however, that her published story ends when the therapy ended – when she was just 36 – and there’s no postscript to tell us how the rest of her life panned out. How much did therapy help? Were her thorniest issues truly resolved?
Certainly, her career has flourished. In matters of the heart, however, the story is sketchier. Asked if she was able to enjoy sustained, sexual relationships after therapy ended, she will only say that she has had “happy relationships” but is currently single. She has no children.
She has been “touched” by the early reaction to her book, not least from among the Irish arts community. Was she not terrified of revealing such intimate details?
“I was nervous, but what I have found is people responding with compassionate humanity.”