At the 20th John Hewitt International Summer School, which finished in Armagh at the end of July, the journalist Fintan O’Toole was introduced to the audience as being a “national treasure” for his writings. One wonders what description would best suit Malachi O’Doherty? Over the years, he has offered a forensic analysis of violence in Northern Ireland – The Trouble With Guns – and he is identified with this small corner of the world, a corner that bears the labels “the province”, “the six occupied counties”, “Northern Ireland”, “the North”, “the North of Ireland”, “Ulster” and, the most recent addition, “here”. So does that make O’Doherty a national or regional or provincial treasure? A treasure of some sort without doubt.
His latest book, The Telling Year: Belfast 1972, is a memoir, an examination, a meditation, a reflection and a story about the Belfast of his youth. He looks at journalism and its role in the Troubles; he looks at himself; he looks at those around him and he writes simply and honestly of what he thought about those events, how they moulded him and how he reacted to them. While no longer adhering to the Catholic faith, O’Doherty’s examination of conscience and subsequent ‘confession’ is one that any Catholic – lapsed or practising – will recognise.
On a personal level, he writes about the beginning of his career in journalism. Born and raised in west Belfast – subsequently a place that became West Belfast, the upper case “W” denoting not just a geographic entity but offering also an ideological statement – O’Doherty finds himself writing for a paper in the city centre, The Sunday News, with a mixed staff. The old certitudes of home are challenged simply by meeting people of a different persuasion. O’Doherty finds himself being pulled in different directions – a feeling that many nationalists will recognise.
However, the IRA members in his home of Riverdale are busy reducing issues of identity to a simpler level: “them or us”. It is a sentiment that attracts and repels O’Doherty. He wants to be part of the gang; he wants to be a hard man and even tries to warn locals at one stage that the British army are around by blowing a whistle. Yet, the price he pays for that simple and silly act is one which distresses him. He is roughed up by soldiers for his trouble and begins to question himself as to what made him do it in the first place.
It is this self-critique that makes O’Doherty’s book so interesting. While many republicans let their hearts rule their heads and allow anger to direct them, O’Doherty tries to balance the needs and emotions of both heart and head. Ironically, given his subsequent disavowal of Catholicism in I Was A Teenage Catholic, O’Doherty’s salvation lies in the Scholastic Philosophy of the Catholic Church. He grasps, intuitively, the Socratic principle of “Know thyself” while his contemporaries prefer not to.
The ‘why’ of things fascinate him. Why did he endanger everyone around him by blowing a whistle? Why do his contemporaries join the IRA and take pot-shots at helicopters and let themselves become little more than cannon fodder for their leaders? Why do the British army and police provoke nationalists with such glee? Why do unionists not understand nationalist anger?
Allied to that are other emotions. There is anger, frustration and passion. There is the hopelessness of being caught between competing armed factions – army, police, paramilitary – and the frustration of simply trying to make your way in the world, in a place where pronunciation and postcode mark you down as belonging to ‘the other side’. Then there is the passion, not the desiccated passion of bookworm, but the sort that O’Doherty feels for women; that deep, dark urge to rut the first woman available, any woman at all, an urge that is denied time and again. One ‘sure thing’ is scuppered by a petty official, determined to stop O’Doherty having sex even while Belfast burns.
That old Sixties slogan of “Make love, not war” seems most suitable for O’Doherty. There is love here, love of common man. He fashions his own morality. While IRA men fondle the cold metal of weapons, O’Doherty yearns to caress warm, welcoming female flesh. It is a telling commentary on the values of the time – Mass-going, Rosary-reciting republicans eschewing sex while happily mangling blood and bone with bullets and bombs.
A good book. Another good book.
Pól Ó Muirí is a journalist and writer. He is Irish-Language Editor of the Irish Times and writes a weekly column for the Belfast Telegraph.
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives