Hilary Fannin: I’m ashamed and overwhelmed by the war

Conflict in Ukraine recalls memories of threat of nuclear fallout we feared in 1960s

The Bás Beatha booklet on how to survive nuclear fallout in the home and on the farm which the Irish government distributed to homes in 1965.

On the station platform three uniformed schoolgirls stood together in a small cluster. It was late afternoon. Above them the domed roof, tattooed by heavy rain, sounded like it might crack open. It had been raining for days; it felt like it had been raining for weeks.

The young women, maybe 15 or 16 years old, carried hockey sticks and heavy backpacks. One had a lollipop in her mouth, which she removed to declare, disappointedly and decisively, that she was “100 per cent Irish”.

“So am I,” said one of her friends, dejectedly. “Like just totally Irish.”

The schoolgirls paused to consider this humdrum state of affairs.


“You’re so lucky,” the lollipop sucker sighed, turning to the third teenager.

“Yes, I know,” her friend agreed, tucking her long, tawny hair behind her ears. “I’m one quarter Ukrainian, one quarter Armenian and 50 per cent Irish.”

“I wish I was one quarter something else, anything else, even, like, English. But I’m not.”

The Drogheda train pulled up alongside the platform, the deafening roar and hiss of the rolling stock temporarily obliterating the girls’ conversation. I watched tired commuters board the almost packed train. Those already seated surveyed the platform vacantly, pods in their ears, before returning to their phone screens. A baby, oblivious to the prevailing air of lassitude, stood bouncing up and down on his mother’s knees, palms to the misty glass, caught up in his own great adventure.

By the time the train had left the station, the young women’s discussion had moved on.

“If the war gets like totally worse,” the Irish-Armenian-Ukrainian was saying, “it won’t matter. We won’t even know, because we’ll all be dead. It’s so stupid. What can he win if the whole world is dead anyway? It’ll just be dust. What’s the actual point?”

I thought back to my early-1960s childhood, to the dozen or so cans of baked beans and of pineapples in syrup, lined up along the thin overhead shelf in the garage, our household’s meagre gesture of resistance to the threat of nuclear war.

I thought of the booklet Bás Beatha, a handy publication from the Irish government on how to survive nuclear fallout in the home and on the farm, 700,000 copies of of which were distributed, in 1965, to every household in the country.

I was three at the time. I remember the booklet well, presumably from years later when it was still lying around in the bottom of a kitchen drawer, shrouded in its ominous black cover with psychedelic green and pink graphics.

It was an enthralling read. With its startling and cartoonish advice about stockpiling dried raisins and tinned fish and staying home from school to eat them while crouched under the stairs, it was almost as much fun as my Twinkle comic.

I recall, too, its quaint illustrations of aproned housewives with slim ankles and dirndl skirts, sorting out provisions for their soon-to-be-beleaguered families. An unremarkable scene if the drawings hadn’t been pixelated with little red dots to indicate radiation.

I know that I have no right to feel overwhelmed in my soft life of quadrangles and coffee cups, of sleeping cats and cookbooks

In the exciting “On the Farm” section, the little piggies had lots of red dots inside of them, while the farmers’ cabbages, still rooted in the earth, were garnished with a scarlet sprinkling of something toxic and malign.

The drawings I returned to most were of the sanguine mistress of the house. She was a busy woman, her apron still tied neatly around her pretty waist. When she wasn’t packing away bags of flour, she was scooping up saucepans of water from the filled bath, over which she’d sensibly erected a crisp bedsheet to keep out the red pixels.

Maith an cailín! Why, in the face of such diligent domestic husbandry and well-laundered linens, even the most determined of nuclear winters would soon turn to spring.

The young women on the platform had fallen silent. Maybe they were hungry, maybe they had homework to think about, maybe they were contemplating Armageddon, maybe they were thinking about Harry Styles in a sarong.

I’m ashamed. I’ve been turning away from the images of war. I know that I have no right to feel overwhelmed in my soft life of quadrangles and coffee cups, of sleeping cats and cookbooks. I know I have no right to feel afraid when I have the luxury of being distracted by remembering to pick up wood for the stove, to buy yoghurt, to re-pot the indoor fern before her roots break through her cobalt-blue ceramic pot.

I’m ashamed and overwhelmed.

My train came in. I found a window seat, watched the now silent young women recede into oblivion, gratefully closed my eyes.