‘This was not our war’: Life as a punk in 1980s Derry
New book on music, drugs and growing up in troubled times
Geraldine Quigley and her friends coming from The Cave – the pub that features in the novel – in 1984.
I live five minutes from the Derry City Cemetery. It’s important to know this, otherwise, taking a stroll among the headstones could be considered a sombre sort of entertainment.
The cemetery is a busy place, particularly on a Sunday. The graves are well tended.
There is a spectacular view of the city’s west bank and a grand sweep down to a glittering River Foyle and up again to the green rise of hills on the other side. Because it’s close to home, my husband and I will take a walk, on a Sunday morning, to visit family graves, to clear our heads. So often, on these walks, he will point out names he recognises, the names of young men killed in the violence of the previous 40 years.
What disturbs me, more than their presence on this hill above the river, is how often that story continues, to a younger brother who later became involved himself, who did prison time, or was killed in some paramilitary action or other. This churn of revengeful loyalty has torn many a family apart, as it moved between generations.
I was searching for a story that would reflect the experience of being a teenager in 1981, one that was still about growing up, going out and getting into trouble but a word kept popping up in my head; that word was “radicalised”. I began to explore the idea of us, as teenagers, pulled along in the wake of political unrest and injustice. We were all radicalised to a certain extent; part of being different, being a punk, standing out, meant standing up and rejecting that radicalisation. This was not our war.
Any fiction I had read about the war in the north of Ireland has either been sentimental, “love across the barricades” nonsense, or hyper-violent novels with psychopathic protagonists. I am sure these existed, somewhere, but for the rest of us, the reality was a more mundane affair. I wanted to write about this life as it really was, where an undercurrent of threat wound, like a thread, through our daily routines, occasionally over-spilling into full-blown rage.
In 1981, to take a stand against the war and yet be pulled into it anyway, as some were when confronted by an overwhelming impotence that left them feeling they had no other option, was the obvious story to tell.
I am sitting at the computer in the back bedroom of my home. The room was once my daughter’s. Before that it was my parents’, and before that, my four brothers shared the room. Outside, there are the back gardens of other houses and a long street that travels through to the heart of Creggan.
It is a view I studied throughout my childhood; I remember seeing the bright blue sky, the blazing sunlight and the desert-sand coloured armoured cars at the top of that road, during Operation Motorman in 1971.
As children, we lived in fear of soldiers and tear gas, but we also watched with excitement the running battles between rioting youths and the army outside our house. We were careful not to get too close to the windows, and there was a bucket filled with water on the ground at our feet in case a stray canister should break the glass and land in the livingroom. I suppose this could be called normalisation, and, as we grew up, it did all become normal.
By 1981, I was part of the small but enthusiastic alternative scene in Derry. Here, there existed that core value of punk, its rejection of sectarianism. We chose our music with care and experimented with drugs. We were a mixed cohort and our politics were left-leaning, if we were political at all. Far more important was the need to stand outside of the norms of our society.
But it was a violent, shattering year. I was 17 and the hunger strike confused me because I didn’t know how to feel about it. This act of martyrdom seemed archaic, all so Easter 1916. At the same time, here was the British establishment, revealing the truth of their cold-hearted colonialism for the world to see, and the lack of basic humanity cast a long shadow, as people began dying inside the prison and outside. All of this was mixed up with normal, teenage-girl angst about boys, body image, friendships and exams.
It is true that, in that over-heated atmosphere, it became harder to stand outside and look in. When the Undertones (my brother Michael among them) played Top of the Pops, on the day that Bobby Sands died, and Damian O’Neill appeared on the set wearing a black armband, I remember wondering, does this mean that we are in this now?
Northern Ireland is a dangerous subject to write about, but I wasn’t interested in writing the cliche. These are the days of the hunger strike as I saw them. For that reason, my teenagers have a solid grounding in the big Derry families so common at the time.
No judgements are made on their decisions or actions. The boys fight over girls and the girls see no contradiction in enjoying the royal wedding, all in the middle of the desperate events of that summer. There is no exaggeration here – and no underplaying – the dark is balanced by the craic and the joy of being with your friends. Music Love Drugs War reflects that messy, uncomfortable, war – not easy, not black and white – where there are no clear boundaries or resolutions.
Having written what is, for me, essentially a story about Derry, I do believe it wouldn’t be hard to find similar stories coming from Gaza or the inner cities of London, Manchester or Dublin, where armies are replaced by gangs.
The original tagline for Music Love Drugs War was, “You can take all the drugs in the world, but it’s hard to ignore a war when you’re in the middle of one”.
I still think this is true, but, when you’re 17, the best thing you can do is try.
Music Love Drugs War by Geraldine Quigley is published by Fig Tree, €14.99