‘I know what is meant by a new level of horror’

Former BBC journalist Brian Rowan remembers the horror of the Troubles in his new book

I thought I was ready for the conversations and questions that would flow from the publication of my book Living With Ghosts — a personal reflection on reporting the conflict period in the North and, then, the evolving peace process.

The ghosts are many; ever present when I rewind back into the numerous conversations I had with the armed groups across the conflict frame.

Those contacts related to IRA and loyalist communications with the media — words that followed the bombs and bullets; words in actual time when we became lost in the blizzard of those years; dehumanised, numb, not uncaring, but, at times, not caring enough.

You can get used to war. Fall into its routine. Lose yourself in events. The abnormal becomes normal.

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I often talk about people being dead for a couple of hours. Someone dead on one news bulletin, replaced on a later news bulletin by the next person to lose their life.

It becomes too much. People switch off, news goes in one ear and out the other, and, in those circumstances, there is so much that we forget.

If we are to put our past to rest, then the forgotten dead must be properly remembered.

Many reporters covering the Northern Ireland conflict witnessed horrific scenes of death and destruction.

For a part of my reporting period at the BBC, I had to put myself beside the organisations responsible for those scenes, including at the time of the loyalist killing rage in the early 1990s.

I had hundreds of contacts with them — many of them face-to-face.

In such work, you walk the thinnest of lines on which ethics and principles become blurred and your mind becomes tortured.

Some of the ghosts exist within that moral maze; in my thinking about what I got right, what I got wrong and what I could have done better.

On that night, the dead became the next page in an impersonal, mechanical telling of the news

—  Brian Rowan

I never had, would never have wanted, pre-knowledge of what would happen next, but I was speaking with people who would have known.

I often describe the mind’s wardrobe as a place that doesn’t allow us to throw things out.

In the book, there is a chapter telling the story of a particular moment in July 1992, when the IRA “executed” three of its own men.

With a BBC camera and sound crew, I came across two of those bodies in different parts of south Armagh.

On that night, the dead became the next page in an impersonal, mechanical telling of the news.

Yet, I think so much more about it now; what I saw and what happened next — images and thinking that are ever-present. The next day, I was in the back of a car with my eyes taped and covered with dark glasses.

A journalist colleague, Eamonn Mallie, was sitting beside me. His eyes also covered.

We had only just met the two men in the front seats. There were no introductions. I write in the book that in these plays the actors do not have names.

We were on a road to somewhere behind the scenes of “war” — on our way to meet the IRA.

When we got to the house, I was brought in first, searched and told to take the glasses and the tape off. Then, Mallie was asked to do the same.

There were two men in an upstairs bedroom, both wearing balaclavas.

The IRA statement was written on a long sheet of toilet paper that would be quickly flushed if the house was raided by the security forces.

No one, at this time, was talking about ceasefires.

It took what felt like forever to write the statement down. Then we were told to put the tape across our eyes and the glasses back on, and we were dropped off where we had been picked up.

There are ghosts and fears in the developments across those 24 hours. In the company of my wife Val, I broke down at home, but this was not something I discussed with others at that time.

In a conversation at the BBC the following day, I was offered some counselling, which I refused — probably thinking that it would suggest some weakness; that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. Of course, there was something wrong.

News changes you, something not properly recognised then, but better understood now.

In my book, I revisited that moment with one of my editors at that time, Tom Kelly, who went on to be spokesman for Northern Ireland secretaries of state Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson, and, then, British prime minister Tony Blair.

I think I know what is meant by a ‘new level of horror’

—  Brian Rowan

Kelly told me it “wasn’t a formal offer” of counselling, but him “recognising the traumatic nature of the event”.

He also remembered that the late Paddy O’Flaherty, a veteran radio reporter, had been at that scene in south Armagh too and that the bodies that had been dumped were naked: “There was something in your face and something in Paddy’s face that made me recognise that even for experienced reporters this was qualitatively different. It was a new level of horror.”

I think I know what is meant by a “new level of horror”.

For me, that “new” was being so close to it all. Too close to it all — to the bodies on the Border, in that car with my eyes covered by tape, then that meeting with the IRA men in balaclavas, and hearing the words that knew exactly the story of these days; the interrogations and executions and the dumping of those bodies on the Border.

In all the detail, I could think inside this story — think about how those men were held and questioned by the IRA. Their answers and their fate. That there was no escape.

I told the story in its detail at a book reading at the Harbour Gallery in Ballycastle, in Co Antrim, on Friday, September 16th — told it in the company of an audience of a couple of dozen people and, then, I was asked a question.

Did I regret not taking that offer of counselling in 1992?

As I started to answer, I found my words were stuck. I was struggling to speak them and, for a minute or so, I became something of a mess.

In that small gallery, and with that audience before me, it felt like a lifetime. Too public.

It was not the question itself that threw me, but the tsunami of thoughts that rushed through my head - the ghosts, the experiences of reporting conflict, the doubts and dilemmas, the decisions I made, the pressures I brought home with me. The nights of fear. Those times when I looked under my wife’s car before she left for work and told the kids that I was looking for the cat.

At that moment in Ballycastle, I realised that I am not yet ready for the conversations that will flow from this book; not all of them, not yet ready to go as deep as some questions ask and demand.

You carry heavy weights when you report conflict and peace; especially when you are reporting it to your own people.

We were not foreign correspondents.

We are stitched into the fabric of this place. We live in its hell and peace, and with its many pressures and ghosts.

For me, it became too much.

I think it was more of a wearing down; a sense of feeling broken down — physically and mentally drained or wrecked

—  Brian Rowan

I started to hide from the news and, in 2005, left the BBC.

Only recently, a long-time friend and colleague, Mervyn Jess, so experienced in reporting those Troubles years, told me how he and others believed I was having something of a meltdown at that time.

I think it was more of a wearing down; a sense of feeling broken down — physically and mentally drained or wrecked.

I have not gone anywhere to have a label attached to all of this. Not asked for medication.

Instead, I locked it behind some combination deep within myself. Talking to Val, who has long experience in working in mental health. At times when I was afraid to talk in my sleep, I spoke with her.

Beyond conflict, so many of us live with ghosts.

I have opened the mind’s wardrobe. I needed somewhere to put these thoughts.

My book is not the whole story. I will leave that somewhere for some time further down the road.

  • Living with Ghosts: The Inside Story from a Troubles Mind is published by Merrion Press