A Troubles childhood: Fifty years on, I think of how I am victim and ‘perpetrator’ at the same time

I think about how I desired suffering for me, even when it cost me dearly, so long as I could lay the blame for it at the doors of the Protestant community or the British

I am lying on my living room floor, beneath my front window, amid a gun battle between the IRA and the British army. My Daddy is on one side of me, on the floor, my Mummy on the other. “We’re being crucified,” my Mummy says as she always does when gunmen open up. Daddy takes my hand and squeezes it. “Don’t worry, Adrian,” he says, “if you hear the bullet, it doesn’t have your name on it.”

It’s March 30th, 1972, but it could be any one of dozens of days of my childhood.

It’s rent day.

I am the 13-year-old “rent-collector” to a Japanese man and his French wife who have landed from France into troubled Belfast like extra-terrestrial beings. My aunt owns the house, and she has tasked me with collecting the rent each month as she lives out of town. The couple is the perfect escape for me from the horrors of my everyday life – bombings, riots and shootings, which I am busy documenting in the form of newspaper clippings that I keep in a plastic bag at home. My childish dream is to become famous someday, for my bag. I wish nothing more than to “bag” more and more dead bodies, especially those of British soldiers.


Daddy lets go of my hand.

Mummy’s cheek is pinned to the floor.

“If that doesn’t let up, Adrian, I’m telling you,” Mummy says, “you’re not going anywhere this day!”

Mummy is stupid and mean. Like, it’s not like it’s raining. It’s only a wee bit of shooting. It’s not like I’m going to get drenched, and she is going to have to change my clothes. Plus, the couple needs me. I’m their “expert” on the dos and don’ts of everyday life in Belfast – explaining to them who “Protestants” are, where they can and cannot go, who they can and can’t talk to, when the buses are off, and the complexities of Irish history. In return, they teach me bits of their languages and give me clippings from Paris Match for my bag.

“But Mummy…”

I, eventually, go collect the rent in a lull in the shooting. Soon after I return home, however, a close family friend is shot dead at the top of my street. I fall apart. Up till then, I have managed to keep the Troubles at arm’s length – in my bag – but now the world comes tumbling down around me. I go to church and beg the priest for forgiveness in Confession – it’s all my fault, I’m causing the Troubles because of my bag – people are dying just to get into my bag; I will stop collecting newspaper clippings. I beg the priest for forgiveness.

The priest refuses me Absolution.

Even the priests are political in Belfast. Mummy goes on national television to plead for a cessation of IRA violence, in the wake of her friend’s death, a mother of 10. She gathers hundreds of signatures for peace. She organises a peace meeting, but we will have to wait another 25 years for peace.

By then, the murdered woman’s son, my friend, has also been shot dead. I am at the home of the French-Japanese couple, in France, on holidays, when I learn of his death on BBC Radio 2. He’s 15. By the time I return home to Belfast, he is already buried.

I will not speak about him for another 40-odd years.

I think about people’s hatred and prejudice – in my case, my hatred of British soldiers and my prejudice against members of the Protestant community

Then, one day, my 12-year-old daughter asks me why I speak Japanese and French, and I explain about the Japanese-French couple and the influence they had on my life – how I had studied Japanese and French and how I had lived in Japan and France and got a PhD in Japanese and a degree in French and taught both languages at university. Amazed, she goes looking for the couple online. Forty-five years have passed; they’re probably dead, I think. While she is searching, she says, “Daddy, you should write a book about your life, not your life as an adult, Daddy, but your life as a child. Your life as an adult is boring. All you do is sit around in coffee shops all day chatting with friends coz you’re a stay-at-home dad. That’s boring. But your life as a child – everybody would want to read about that coz you grew up in a war.”

I begin to write. But my daughter doesn’t like what I write. In fact, she is horrified: she doesn’t understand why I am still full of hatred and anger – and sadness – 50 years on.

“Throw away your bag!” she says, “It’s poisoning you.”

I still have the bag.

Then I sit down and watch the BBC documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.

I cry a lot – at the faces I know and at the faces I don’t know.

And I think.

I think of how we victims of violence, often children, carry anger and sadness and hatred and prejudice well into adulthood.

I think about the effects of childhood trauma resulting from prolonged exposure to violence, and how I am victim and “perpetrator” at one and the same time.

I think about people’s identification with violence – in my case, my identification with IRA violence as a child.

I think about people’s hatred and prejudice – in my case, my hatred of British soldiers and my prejudice against members of the Protestant community.

I think about how I desired suffering for me, even when it cost me dearly, so long as I could lay the blame for this suffering at the doors of the Protestant community or ‘the Brits’.

I think about the pleasure I found in my rationalisations of the Catholic community’s violence against the Protestant community and Britain.

I think about the irrational desire I have for suffering for members of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, and for members of the British army – the “enemy”. Still.

I think of the (peace) walls in Belfast that are there still because – not the people of my time, I’m 64, I’m too old now – the people of the next generation, and the current generation could, potentially, take up violence again at any moment.

What was normal were the bombs, the massacres, the atrocities, stepping over pools of blood that dogs happily licked

And I think about the cups of tea and the chair, and the biscuit, and the chats, and smiles, and sometimes jokes of the interviewees on Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland, and how they are presented as so ‘normal’, which they are, and then, little by little, we, the viewers, see them reveal their horrific stories – be these horrific stories of loss or of pain, or of anger, or of regrets or no regrets, or in some cases a desire for justice for past hurts, and in others, rationalisations of violence and, in still others, even a desire to do it all over again.

And then I think that’s not normal! All those things – the cups of tea, the biscuits, the chats, the jokes – in my case, going to school as a child amid gun battles, dancing at the local disco to ABBA’s Fernando of a Sunday night, my mother’s daily dinner at the kitchen table, watching Belfast blow up on a daily basis from my Latin class window in school, following Wimbledon on the BBC, year in, year out, dating, going to Mass of a Sunday – these were not normal, they were ABNORMAL.

What was normal then were the bombs, the massacres, the atrocities, stepping over pools of blood that dogs happily licked, hearing the laughter of a British soldier moments before he is shot dead, throwing yourself to the ground in a hail of bullets.

That was our normal.

And this is what the problem is – worldwide: we normalise violence. We minimise it. We accept it. We relativise it. We put up with it. We support it. We reproduce it. We use it.

It’s like it’s second nature.

Take the USA, for example. Shootouts are common in an environment where the ownership of guns is a political right, thanks to the Second Amendment. People say goodbye to their children going into school – creche even – wondering if they will ever see them again.

We are addicted to violence, or, at least, dependent on it. It’s our go-to “solution”. We rationalise its usage worldwide.

Daddy, please! I never want to have to lie on the floor with you avoiding bullets. I am just a child

The How Death Outlives War report by cultural anthropologist Stephanie Savell, a publication of the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, as part of their Costs of War Project, reported earlier this year that indirect deaths alone as a result of violent conflicts worldwide have reached almost six million in the past 20 years. These are people who died as a result of the effect of war on economies, the environment, disease, their mental health and infrastructure. And, of course, all too many of these deaths are of children, many of whom die from poverty, displacement, starvation and diseases resulting from war. Children in rural areas are particularly vulnerable. Children under the age of five are especially vulnerable. Today, almost seven million children are suffering from acute malnutrition as a result of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia alone. Then you add in direct deaths from violence.

Violence is here to stay, forever.

Or is it?

My daughter pleads with me. “Please, Daddy, tell the story of your 15-year-old friend’s murder.”

I tell her that it’s too painful, but she persists.

“Please, Daddy, please tell it so that children never have to die in war again!”

I tell her that she is being naive, that wars will never end.

“Daddy, please! I never want to have to lie on the floor with you avoiding bullets. I am just a child.”

She insists.

I tell her that I identify with violence too much. I am not worthy to write his story.

But she pushes and pushes and pushes.

And then I tell it.

My daughter is right: it doesn’t have to be this way.

Perhaps one day, it really will be once upon a time.

Is that too much like wishful thinking?

Can we wean ourselves off violence?

For the sake of our children?

By the way, my children found the Japanese-French couple online, and their child who was already an adult himself by then.

But that’s another story. One for my memoir.

The good news is I no longer lie on the floor avoiding bullets.

The bad news is many children do.

Adrian Millar is the author of Socio-ideological Fantasy and the Northern Ireland Conflict, (New Approaches to Conflict Analysis, Manchester University Press, 2007)