Q&A with Rivers Run Free Press Author Paddy McMenamin
- Why did you write this book?
Well, you know, there comes a time in life when you realise that the years are starting to count down, the hair has long changed colour and is thinning on top, your golf handicap is 21 and counting, several serious medical episodes in recent years, my football playing days are long over and jogging and cycling have gone by the wayside with the last of the summer wine. I’ve always had a grá for the written word and am simultaneously an avid reader. Writing is the most therapeutic thing that I do. Two thousand words every Sunday evening for my weekly article in a local paper back in County Donegal washed down with a few glasses of Merlot make for a great laxative during lockdown, so when all is said and done, why not ‘write the book’!
I’ve been writing all my life, from the old 11+ exam to get me to Grammar school in Belfast in the North of Ireland, typing up and editing a Cage newspaper in Long Kesh in the 1970s, a monthly golf news sheet for our ‘Works Society’ in the 1990s, assignments and dissertations at University when I returned as a mature student aged 50, contributing a weekly article to the Tirconaill Tribune in Donegal and a monthly article for a football fanzine, ‘More Than 90 Minutes’ in the last three years, embracing social media, podcasts and blogs, the writing flows before the memory goes.
After three open-heart surgeries and a brain haemorrhage in the past four years and then a year of virtual lockdown, it just appeared to be the perfect time to write ‘the book’. Six months of typing up maybe 1000 words a night during recuperation from ill health and then six months of ‘lockdown’ set aside for reviewing, editing, proof reading and cutting have brought me to this stage where it is time for the publishers to have their say and for me to pray that the public have their way and buy the finished product for a rainy day, and hope they see merit in ‘Armed Struggle & Academia’ much more so than the antics of ‘Mr. Grey’!
Leaving aside my facetious way for the moment, my gut feeling for writing the book is to have it for my children and grandchildren and my partner, Mary. If it sells 500 copies after that, then so be it. If it sells 1000, then all the better. I see my book as a story about life and Belfast, beginning in a partitioned society then morphing into ‘armed struggle’ in my teenage years, Donegal, marriage, children, work, football, separation, golf, redundancy, University and academia, Teacherman, Examiner, Writer, Galway, perfect bliss! I want to bring a true story about the conflict on the streets of Belfast in the 1970s, seen through the eyes of a cohort of young urban working class youth. Life then was about gaol and death, it wasn’t pretty but it’s the truth and a primary source to assist in an accurate and factual account of the conflict, with the hope that it is utilised in assisting perusal of the archives by future scholars in academic research. I want to inform a new generation as to what it was really like back then so that, in the future, the gun will never again make an appearance in our land!
What surprised you the most as you researched or wrote it?
It has been the most therapeutic thing I have ever done. I started at the end of January and completed the book in mid August, 135,000 words. It just flowed. I didn’t need to research because I lived through it. I did, of course, check dates etc. but that was a given. The bulk of the story was from memory and while they say memory is unreliable I can honestly say that I have perfect memory even of the minutest detail from 50 years ago. It also helps that it is not hyperbole, fictitious or just plain untruths; everything from beginning to end is a factual look at a period in my life!
I’m older, more comfortable in my own skin, more experienced and confident. Back ‘in the day’, you couldn’t even contemplate writing a book when an attitude existed that working class people shouldn’t do things like that with advice from on high, “don’t get above your station, leave writing to Doctors, Teachers, Politicians and Generals. Sure, they were the sort of people who wrote books”, anyway “what would I be writing about?” I have the confidence now that allows me to write the book and talk about it freely; there is nothing left to surprise me in 2020 after the roller coaster year we are all experiencing.
- What do you think will surprise readers the most?
The major content in the book regarding the conflict in the 1970s in Belfast will be a major surprise to many people, especially my golfing friends in Galway! The opening chapter about the week in March 1988 will make for difficult reading to many people living in the Republic, many of whom were very detached from the situation in the 6 counties at the time. To be honest, for a long time we didn’t talk much about it. The situation in the 1980s was difficult in Donegal as people despaired of the continuing conflict and, as the county closest to the situation; it was a particular problem for them. But, as time moved on into the 1990s and the ceasefires and GFA there was more of an opening up about the situation and people felt at ease debating the problems that still existed. Also, for republicans, they had moved forward from the demonisation of the ‘bad days in the 80s’ and became a significant part of mainstream society. Many people in Donegal, of course, would know of my political background and had no problem, not so many here in Galway. We have, of course, moved on quite a bit but there are still those who refuse to step forward and harp back to things that were done. Unfortunately, that is the nature of conflict, all conflict. I believe there is no ‘hierarchy of victims’, no differences; it’s always someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, wife or husband. We have to try to accept the past and that is my reason for writing the book so that people will understand, but to use the cliche, ‘to those who understand no explanation is necessary, to those who don’t, no explanation is possible’. I’ll have to take the chance that those who are surprised and may be shocked will still play golf with me the day after the book launch.
- What is the most important lesson or message readers will get from it?
Hopefully, that readers will gain a greater understanding as to why a young person born into a divided society with an undercurrent of unfinished business from the Treaty of 1921, could become involved in ‘armed struggle’ despite not coming from a republican background. In fact, it was really just a quirk of fate being born in that city from parents who left Donegal and Tyrone to seek a better life, that I was aged 16 when the 6 counties imploded and ripe for recruitment into one of the various armed groups. If I had been born in Donegal or Galway I would have joined the local GAA team, but being born in Belfast, as a catholic, left me joining the IRA. Also, to realise that if the conditions for conflict are not addressed then the potential is always there to be born into Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul or Belfast. Ironically, there hadn’t been any trouble for 50 years in the North of Ireland since partition and then within a year we were embracing full scale urban guerrilla war and armed struggle which took 30 years to come to a certain form of peace through negotiation with everyone eventually at the table. The lessons are that peace has to be really worked at in a divided society, also that we study the past so that our grandchildren never face conflict in the future.
- Did writing this book change your life in any way?
The book wasn’t put together to change my life although if it sells 50,000 and I become a paper millionaire overnight after 66 years it just might do!
- What do you hope will come from others reading it?
I have no great expectations that anything will come from reading my book only that people might have a greater understanding about events in 1970s Belfast from someone that was there! I hope readers embrace it and put it on their book club list for next winter, that they find my story from armed struggle to academia an interesting one and encourage their children and grandchildren that it is never too late to learn and become the person you always wanted to be, that never let anyone put you down or discredit your efforts to become a better person, to cherish life and make the most of it, to care for your ageing parents and give support to your children and encourage the grandchildren to reach for the stars, to always throw a few bob to a homeless person on the streets because ‘there but for the grace of God’ we go, and no matter what age, you are, there are always more pars and birdies to chase after at Galway Bay and pints of the black stuff or a drop of vino in the 19th Hole après golf. Life is too short to drink cheap wine; it’s also too short not to live life to its absolute premium. Don’t have any regrets. Don’t entertain negative people. Always be positive, see the glass half full and you’ll never be disappointed. And, ‘always look on the bright side of life’.