Martin Doyle told David Hennessy about his book Dirty Linen: The Troubles in my Home Place that examines the effect of the violence on his home place of Tullylish in Co. Down.
The BBC journalist Fergal Keane has described Martin Doyle’s Dirty Linen as ‘the finest memoir of the conflict I’ve ever read’.
Differing from other accounts of the troubles, Martin Doyle’s book- which has its UK launch at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this month- shines a light on Martin’s parish of Tullylish in Co. Down.
He looks at the 1989 murder of Pat Feeney, set up for the crime of being a Catholic by a Protestant colleague, while working as a nightwatchman.
There are the murders of brothers Gerard (22) and Rory Cairns (18) who were murdered on their sister Róisín’s eleventh birthday after gunmen entered the house in 1993.
Lorry driver Joe Fegan’s life came to end in August 1972 when he was killed in an IRA bomb at Newry Customs Clearance Centre.
Pat Campbell worked on the production line in Down Shoes and was murdered in 1973 apparently not for calling for work on the line to stop when some British soldiers were killed. It was apparently not apparent to his killers that Pat also took the same stance after Bloody Sunday believing political gestures not to belong in the work place.
There is also the Bleary Darts Club shooting when loyalist gunmen opened fire on a rural social gathering, the well known Miami Showband massacre and another attack on a minibus that perhaps isn’t so well known when a bus taking some people from bingo was attacked after leaving Banbridge.
The Central Bar Bombing in Gilford in 1975 claimed three lives- including Richard Beattie- and injured many more.
But it all started for Martin with the horror of the O’Dowd family. Barney O’Dowd was Martin’s milkman when he was a child but Martin would not see him for many, many years after gunmen burst into the family home in January 1976 killing three members of his family.
All these stories, and more, are told in Dirty Linen, a book with victims and their families at the heart of it.
By focusing on one parish, the book shows the true legacy of the troubles and that it is not just the one directly hit by the bullet or caught in the blast that is affected but whole families and a whole community.
The title comes from a traditional industry in the area and is a metaphor well used.
As Martin says in the book, while work did run out, the one thing the North of Ireland never ran out was dirty linen.
Martin told The Irish World: “I was drawing threads between the history of my parish.
“My grandfather had worked in the linen industry and was put out of work along with many other local Catholics.
“There were thousands who worked in the linen industry and after a murder of an employee of the local linen mill in Gilford, which is in the parish- It wasn’t a political murder. It was just an armed robbery that went wrong but it was used as an excuse to complete the work of putting Catholics out of the industry along the Bann if they didn’t denounce Sinn Féin, reject their identity and swear allegiance to the British King and country.
“I made a link between what happened to my grandfather and then what happened to a neighbour of mine called Pat Feeney who worked in another linen factory in the parish.
“He was shot dead in 1989 set up by a workmate.
“He was working as a nightwatchman.
“I just use the linen industry as a metaphor of dirty linen.
“You know the phrase, ‘You don’t wash your dirty linen in public’.
“I felt after decades of not talking about some of the things that I experienced myself or heard about this was me going public about it because despite all the books that have been written about the troubles, there is actually a lot that hasn’t been said.
“I was a Catholic who went to a state grammar school.
“I say in the book that it wasn’t integrated. It wasn’t mixed, it was diluted. It was diluted orange.
“Despite the fact that it was a state school, its ethos was exclusively Protestant and British, and Catholics were admitted but they weren’t accommodated.
“They didn’t make any effort to recognise or respect our different Irish Catholic identity.
“And if you didn’t conform, you were punished for it.
“I’d read a lot of books about the troubles myself but I kind of felt that there was probably something lacking and it was maybe just that kind of granular detail of people’s personal stories.
“I hope that’s what I’ve achieved in Dirty Linen, by zooming in on one parish, by talking at length with the families and friends of victims.
“Instead of just bald bare statistics, you get very detailed human stories that will stay with you and that will give you a deeper understanding of what it was like to live through the troubles.
“I think there’s some really powerful stories.
“Take the story of the Feeney family.
“Jimmy Feeney, 19 years old, wins an All- Ireland senior boxing title at the National Stadium in Dublin on a Friday night.
“Sunday evening his father and trainer John Michael takes Jimmy to a darts club in Bleary.
“His dad is basically bringing him to show him off.
“It’s basically a shebeen, it’s an old weaver’s cottage- Again you’ve got the linen industry as a background- And it’s basically a place where locals can meet and have a drink and just have the craic.
“It’s down a kind of a boreen, down an unlit laneway and deep in the countryside.
“Jimmy goes outside to the toilet and in the few seconds where he steps outside loyalist gunmen, including ‘the Jackal’ Robin Jackson, one of the most notorious serial killers in the troubles, kick open the door.
“They stand in the doorway, they spray it with a submachine gun, a shotgun and, I think, a pistol.
“They kill John Michael.
“Jimmy is coming back and he sees this.
“He’s able to tell the police the colour of the gunman’s trousers, the shoes that they were wearing, and he can see it by the only available light which is the muzzle flash from the machine gun that’s killing his father.
“And, as I say in the book, what light can be darker than the light from the gun that’s killing your dad?
“And that’s the light that he had to see by for the rest of his days.
“He ended up an alcoholic, was seduced into joining the official IRA, ended up in Long Kesh and ended up taking his own life many years later.
“Jimmy is one example of what I call the long tail of troubles trauma, the deaths and violence of the troubles isn’t something that happens once.
“It’s something that basically reverberates through the rest of people’s lives.
“If you’ve lost your father, if you’ve lost your child in violent circumstances, you never get over that. You learn to live with it, but you never get over it.”
The O’Dowd family were gathered to mark the end of the Christmas period 1976 when UVF gunmen burst in and shot dead Barry, 24, Declan, 19, and Joe, 61. Barney would be gravely injured but survive.
“Barney was my milkman.
“Barney used to stand on my doorstep every day so he was a big part of my childhood.
“After the killings, the family moved south and we never saw them again.
“Noel, one of the one of Barney’s sons, reads the piece (I wrote about the killings) in the Irish Times.
“Noel invited me to meet Barney who was still alive at 98. He’s still alive. He’s just turned 100.
“I met Barney and spoke to his family as well and they told me the story about what happened, the killings and then the aftermath.
“The detail that really struck me was that when their mother Kathleen died December 1999, they decided they wanted to rebury their brothers beside her in Co. Meath and the detail that really shook me was that they did it themselves.
“They got permission to exhume their brothers’ bodies and then they personally dug up six feet of earth and with their bare hands put their brothers’ bones into a new coffin, and then re-buried them in the south.
“That was such an act of love but also an act inspired by what I can only call trauma.
“To want to do that, to be prepared to do that, I think that comes out of so much hurt.
“It felt to me like something from a Greek myth, like something that Greek soldiers or warriors would have done.
“So I wrote that story and there was a definite profound reaction to it.
“I think, for a lot of people, that did capture the whole horror of the troubles.”
Like the attack on the darts club, attacking the O’Dowd family home was isolated.
“There’s the spectre of collusion.
“Noel brought me back to the family farm house where the three murders happened.
“Like the darts club, it’s down this long laneway.
“You can’t even see it from the road and even the road that it’s off is a back road.
“There’s this suspicion that these places are so remote, you would need somebody to kind of guide you to it.
“So there’s that implication of neighbourly treachery, of being set up by your neighbours.
“In the same way that Pat Feeney was set up by a colleague in the factory where he worked,
“This guy says to him, ‘Good night, Pat. I’ll see you tomorrow’, knowing that gunmen were coming at his behest a few hours later to murder Pat.
“Similarly, Pat Campbell, the shop steward in the shoe factory, was murdered by Robin Jackson, who was a former colleague in the shoe factory. He was also a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment when he murdered Pat.”
Robin Jackson, known as the jackal and a notorious loyalist paramilitary and killer, comes up again and again in the book.
“Jackson’s story is a scandal: The fact that he was able to kill so many people.
“I compare him to the Yorkshire Ripper.
“People in the street could point Jackson out.
“Everybody knew who he was and yet he was able to get away, literally get away with murder for decades.
“His first murder was Pat Campbell in 1973. His last one was possibly the Cairns brothers in 1993, he himself died in 1998.
“He was guilty of the Miami Showband massacre.
“He was guilty of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
“And yet he wasn’t convicted of a single murder.
“It all points to collusion.
“(You have to ask) what is the true story of the troubles and the conflict and who was responsible?
“The IRA were responsible for most of the murders, and I don’t go easy on the IRA in the book.”
The book covers the Miami Showband massacre and another attack on a minibus that did not make as many headlines.
“The two chapters both start with pretty much the same paragraph, ‘A bus leaves Banbridge after a good night’s entertainment. They never make it home’.
“I want to bring home this was a quiet country town.
“Wednesday night a showband play a gig, the showband’s minibus leaves Banbridge, never makes it home.
“Friday night there’s a bingo night of all things, the minibus picks them up, never makes it home.
“That just shows the relentless nature of the violence.
“This is a small town you’ve probably never heard of.
“Within two nights…
“The Miami Showband massacre is notorious.
“It was so dramatic: The bombers blowing themselves up and then the survivors shooting the showband.
“The bingo bus shooting. That was almost certainly the work of the IRA.
“There’s no doubt that the IRA were responsible for killing these innocent Catholics by mistake.
“’By mistake’, but these mistakes mount up.
“I also tell the story of Jennifer McNern and her friendship with Margaret Yeaman who were the victims of IRA bombs 10 years apart.”
Jennifer and her sister Rosaleen McNern both suffered life changing injuries in the Abercorn bomb of 1972.
Margaret Yeaman was blinded by an IRA bomb in Banbridge in 1982.
“Jennifer McNern, another Catholic young girl: Her legs blown off.
“Her sister’s legs are blown off, an arm blown off, loses an eye, just before she’s about to get married.
“The IRA did that to Irish Catholics who they’re supposedly trying to be the defenders of.
“Jennifer McNern tells me that even after what happened to her she thought, ‘Well, at least they’ll have learned their lesson, they’ll never do that again’.
“And yet, the day that she left hospital was what was known as Bloody Friday.
“She was being brought home in an ambulance and the ambulance had to make detour after detour because it kept running into the aftermaths of other IRA bombs being set off left, right and centre all over the city.
“A no warning bomb in the High Street in Banbridge killed an 11 year old school boy Alan McCrum.
“How do you square that with a legitimate campaign to free Ireland? You can’t. It just cannot be done.”
Dirty Linen conveys the horror of the troubles but what also comes through is the humanity of the victims and families Martin speaks to. In spite of the horror that has been inflicted on them, they want no revenge or retaliation.
“I think you have to acknowledge that the Christian faith of people on both sides stopped the conflict from spiralling into all out slaughter.
“For instance, Philip, his mum was paralysed after the bingo bus shooting.
“He was rubbing her legs to kind of try and relieve the pain and he says to her, ‘Mum if I ever find out who shot you, I would kill them’.
“And she said, ‘Son, I pray for them every night’.
“But the incredible humanity does come from a Christian belief in forgiveness, and opposing the Old Testament idea of an eye for an eye.
“I kind of came away with a fresh understanding that religion can be a force for bad, but it can also be a force for good.”
The book does something that Boris Johnson and his legacy bill didn’t, listen to victims and their families.
“I think the British government’s legacy bill is a disgrace and their only interest is in protecting British Army veterans from being held to account for actions for which they should have been prosecuted and convicted decades ago.
“On the one hand, you’ve got the legacy bill.
“On the other hand, you’ve got the inquiries into Kenova, the Stakeknife inquiry, but also the Barnard Review into the Glenanne Gang that was conducted by Jon Boutcher, who is now the new Chief Constable of the PSNI.”
This review is hoped for by next May.
“So either that happens and we get a greater understanding of the degree of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the British security forces, or, like so many previous inquiries, it bites the dust.
“Every time a former British senior British police officer goes over to the north trying to get to the truth of what happened, they meet huge resistance from another wing of the British security forces who don’t want the truth coming out.
“There’s so many files that are locked up for another 50 or 100 years because it is not in the interests of the British state for the truth to come out because so much of the truth about the dirty war in the north of Ireland is shameful, would bring discredit on the British state and would rewrite history in a way that would not be favourable to the British narrative of the British Army as peacekeepers keeping two warring factions apart.
“The British Army very obviously was not there to keep the peace, it was there to suppress the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries got a pass.
“Some were convicted, but many were not and there is ample evidence of collusion between loyalist paramilitary and the British security forces.
“And when that, if that comes out, it will sort of redraw the degree of responsibility of the different factions.
“So you’ve got Boutcher on the one hand doing his investigation trying to get to the truth and then on the other hand, you’ve got the legacy bill shutting down the opportunities for truth and justice.
“So it’s as if the British state is advancing with a magnifying glass in one hand and a shredder in the other.
“To me there’s a very two faced approach.
“It’s hard to be confident that justice will be done.
“And if it isn’t done, it’s a very difficult legacy for the new Chief Constable of the PSNI who’s supposed to be introducing a clean slate and a fresh start after a lot of controversies.
“If his reign starts with another report being swept under the carpet, it’s not a good look.”
Martin Doyle launches Dirty Linen in the UK at the Irish Cultural Centre on Friday 26 January.
Dirty Linen- The Troubles in my Home Place is out on Merrion Press.