Reviewer John O’Donoghue
Like many second generation Irish people whose parents came over to England in the decades after the Second World War I would go ‘home’ every summer to stay with my relatives. My mother and I – my father remained in London – would go to Ballinode, a small village a few miles outside of Monaghan Town, and we’d stay for far longer than the English school holidays allowed with my mother’s brother Tommy, his wife, Auntie Lizzie, and my six cousins.
Ballinode in the Sixties was really two villages. There was the old village with its little cottages, shop, garage, and Protestant Church at the far end of it, and Cappog Ballinode, where my relatives lived, a new settlement over the bridge and past the creamery of new bungalows, all with front gardens, back gardens that were effectively small fields that ran down to the river, and ranges where my aunt cooked scones and two types of bread and told us what was going to happen in the latest episode of Crossroads. Auntie Lizzie was invariably correct.
My uncle worked as a postman, driving his van on a sixty-mile round trip across the county to drop off parcels at farmsteads, where he’d get to stop for a cup of tea and a chat and sometimes a piece of barmbrack. For us kids it was a treat to go with him, and although I wasn’t so aware of it at the time, the Sixties was a golden era for that part of the world.
Martin Doyle was raised in Banbridge, thirty-eight miles as the crow flies from Ballinode, in County Down, across the border in Northern Ireland. I stopped going to Monaghan in the summer of 1973 when my father died when I was 14, and my life took a very different turn. By then of course the Troubles had started, with the burning of the Bogside in Derry in 1969. I wasn’t too aware of what was going on to begin with but over successive summers I gradually became aware of what was happening as the conflict escalated.
Many people have the impression that the Troubles was an urban war waged by urban guerillas, who set off bombs in Belfast, Derry, London, Birmingham, and Manchester, and who shot members of the security forces patrolling the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. Dirty Linen paints a very different picture.
The book is a harrowing account of fourteen atrocities that took place in the largely rural parish of Tullylish, and Doyle writes as historian, investigative reporter, and memoirist. Much of the story he tells – of young people helping out with extra work for their families, of going to dances, of showbands and flute bands, following English football teams, going to church on Sunday – I was very familiar with from my experience in and around Ballinode. His interviews catch the linguistic particularities of that part of world, and bring back the voices I heard then, and nowadays, when I return to Monaghan. Doyle is a sensitive interlocutor, who doesn’t seek to speak for the people he has talked to. Instead, this is very much their book, and Dirty Linen is a work of witness, the voices of survivors, the maimed, the bereaved, and the traumatised heard clearly as Doyle links one murder to the next like beads on a Rosary or numbered items in a government inquiry.
The book starts with the history of the area, the so-called ‘Linen Triangle’. The culture of sectarianism that resurfaced with deadly consequences during the Troubles goes back a long way, all the way back to the Plantation of the north of Ireland in the 1600s. Doyle chronicles this historical context with even-handed impartiality, detailing the conflicts that beset the ‘Linen Triangle’ over the centuries as a prelude to his own upbringing in the Sixties and Seventies, and the murders, maimings, and trauma that was visited upon his ‘home place’.
One recent historical event also acts as a context for the book: Brexit. Doyle quotes Professor Brendan O’Leary, author of numerous influential studies of the Troubles, on the DUP’s Brexit strategy:
The truth that should be spoken is that their Westminster team wanted to restore a harder land border to render reunification more difficult: no other explanation makes sense of their conduct.
The murder of the young journalist and writer Lyra McKee has also spurred Doyle into writing this book. In article written in 2019, Doyle wrote:
The senseless shooting dead of journalist and author Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Derry last night feels like the worst of our past reaching out its cold, dead hand to rob us of the best of our future.
To paraphrase L.P. Hartley, for violent extremists of whatever shade, bitter orange or bile green, the past is not a foreign country. It is the only country they know and love and they are seemingly incapable of doing things differently, i.e., living and letting live in peace. All we can do as a society is protect ourselves from them and provide a better example. Lyra McKee represented the future, another country, a better one.
Doyle’s anxiety about the Troubles returning, then, forms the background to Dirty Linen. At a time when the devolved power sharing government in Northern Ireland has not sat since the summer of 2022, a hard border – due to exigencies of Brexit – seeming likely to be reintroduced, and paramilitaries once again making their presence felt, it might seem that we are back to the old days of ‘Ulster Says No’.
What that might be like, what effect the resumption of sectarian violence would have on people’s lives in the North, what devastation might lie in wait, Doyle considers by looking at the fourteen atrocities that took place in the parish of Tullylish from 1972 to 1997.
He starts with the deaths of three British soldiers, Sergeant Major Arthur McMillan (37), Sergeant Ian Mutch (31), and Lance Corporal Colin Leslie (26), on 18 June 1972. They were part of a patrol searching an abandoned house when a booby-trap bomb went off. This led to threats against Catholics living nearby – their houses would be burnt out, which of course is what started the Troubles in the first place in the Bogside. Doyle traces a kind of deadly domino effect over the course of the book, as retaliations and reprisals devastated his parish. The bereaved would often publicly call for an end to further bloodshed, but in vain, as paramilitaries and security forces working hand in glove with them wreaked deadly vengeance on a people who wanted none of this.
The story that moved me the most was Donna Campbell’s, remembering her father, Pat Campbell. He was murdered at home in October 1973, killed on the path outside his house, dragged away to be shot by a Sterling sub-machine gun at least nine times in the chest and trunk, bullets shattering the glass in the doorway of the family home. She tells Doyle that in 2007 the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was reinvestigating her father’s murder. She’d become depressed, a recurring consequence of her father’s killing, and the HET investigation and the memories it was bringing back.
She recalled her father working on the production line in Down Shoes, the biggest employer in Banbridge, when she was a little girl, and the white coat she would help him off with every night after work. One day, she put her hand into the pocket and found a scrap of fur, clipped from a pair of slippers he’d absent-mindedly put in his pocket. ‘It was only a wee tiny piece of fur,’ she told Doyle:
but I got so excited… I just loved the feel of it and so every so often then, he would have took home only a wee tiny piece. And I used to keep them in a shoebox and when I was going to bed at night, Mummy says I had the fur all out … and they would have waited till I was sleeping and then took the fur and put it in the box under the bed. And that was the ritual every night.
She recalls her husband Paddy saying to her when she was depressed, ‘Donna, you’re going to have to pull together or you’re going to end up in the ETU [Emergency Treatment Unit]. And them three children is depending on you.’ The rest of the story is best told in Donna Campbell’s own words:
…I took the huff and I went up to bed and I pulled the quilt over me, and I says, think of something else, think of something else. I got a photograph of my dad and me lodged in my head but I couldn’t find it. All I could think about was I must leave that coat into the cleaners because I can’t wash it in the machine with the fur on it. And the fur! This come into my head and such a feeling I got. I could feel my daddy’s arms round me and I could see this box of fur and the comfort that I got from that box of fur and before this Mummy had been telling me, “Donna, talk to your daddy and he’ll answer you. Talk to your daddy and you’ll get peace.”
‘I phoned Mummy the next morning and I didn’t even get the words out. She says, “Your daddy spoke to you last night,” and I said, “It’s not that he spoke to me, Mummy, he was with me.” And she asked me about it and she says to me, “Do you remember the box of fur?” And I says, “No, Mummy, but the feeling I got from this box of fur,” I says, “I never, ever had such a feeling of peace …” so she told me about it.’
Doyle describes Donna’s reaction as she is recalling this memory: ‘Donna’s mascara is running and as she dabs her eyes with a hanky her tears are black.’
Doyle’s scrupulous chronicling of the fourteen atrocities that devastated the friends, acquaintances neighbours, and – for want of a better word – visitors to his ‘Home Place’, taking in his secondary schooling at a supposedly non-denominational – but in practice largely Protestant – local school – is not an easy book to read. It is painful, it is raw, it is awful. What had been a largely relaxed and tolerant community, respecting traditions on both sides, with neighbours willing to be sociable to all regardless of background, was shattered. For the people left behind, on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant, nationalist/loyalist divide, the terrible life changing experience of these murders and their awful legacy is a terrible indictment of sectarian violence.
This book should be on the desk of every politician in Britain, Ireland, and beyond. One can only hope that Doyle, in writing Dirty Linen, will prick the consciences of those who have so blithely dismantled power-sharing, and of those who believe the Troubles was some romantic ‘armed struggle’ for liberation. There has been scant ‘liberation’ for those who continue to mourn their dead, hungry for answers – often the killers of their loved ones never faced justice – hungry for the peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement to continue. This is a very necessary book, and we look away from the history it recounts at our peril.
John O’Donoghue is the author of the memoir Sectioned: A Life Interrupted (John Murray, 2009); the short story collection The King From Over The Water (The Wild Geese Press, 2019); and two collections of poetry.