Sensing the Troubles as Everyday History by Katherine McKee

At the beginning of 2022, Katherine McKee joined the project as an intern, part of her coursework for a History MA at Queens University Belfast. It was absolutely wonderful having Katherine on board. She made brilliant suggestions and was really great to work with. Katherine has written about what she learned from the experience.

Sensing The Troubles explores the everyday lives of the “ordinary” people who lived through the Troubles. This uses facets of ‘Alltagsgeschichte’, which translates to history of everyday life. This approach highlights that history is a human product, made up of human beings actions and decisions.[1] In the context of Sensing the Troubles, this focus on the every day is to enable us to understand what it was like to live in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Everyday history can allow us to make causal connections between the micro-historical context, and the metanarratives of macro-history.[2] Thus, the everyday can help us to answer ‘big picture’ questions. However, the focus is always on the micro-historical because it is in these actions and behaviours that history is made. In this way, everyday history helps to break down faceless big actors, such as “the state”, showing that “the state” is made up of numerous human actors choosing to act. For example, “the state” barricaded Belfast and had people be searched upon entering the city. In fact, it was numerous human actors who chose to erect the barricades, and to do the searching. Of course, there are many factors which influenced these actors’ decisions, such as the desire for employment.

When working with everyday history it will become clear that it is fragmentary.[3] In people’s everyday lives there are often conflicting, complex, or unfinished narratives at play. Human life is complex. In a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland it is perhaps best to explore history through a fragmentary approach, rather than seeking to reconcile conflicting ideas. Everyday history also encourages a reflexive look at how historians are also agents in everyday life, who are making history as much as they are writing it.[4]

What did my involvement teach me as a historian?

I attended two group interviews. Both were with women’s groups, one at Barron Hall in Glengormley, and one on the Shankill Road. From assisting Roisín at these interviews, I learnt that her style of interviewing, where you let the interviewees take control of where the interview will go, can work very well. Before this, I had little confidence in my ability as an oral historian to ask the right questions. However, I learnt that an interviewer doesn’t have to ask follow-up questions to every story. Instead, letting the interviewee continue to speak, and have them fill in the silences, can lead to stories with greater depth and originality.

I learnt from conversations which I had with the women after the interviews, and from meetings I have had with Roisín, that the process of being interviewed can be therapeutic. Some of the women remarked on how it was nice to have an opportunity to sit and reflect on the abnormality of life during a conflict, that they had always regarded as “normal”. Others welcomed the opportunity to tell their stories, as they felt that they had been written out of history. One woman remarked on this during an interview saying that; “I kind of think that women have been written out of the Troubles. So the Troubles were just paramilitaries. And I think that one of the hard bits is, it’s as if women didn’t exist during that period of time.”.[5] As mentioned previously, it is a strength of oral history that it gives a voice to the voiceless.[6] An archive of all the interviews will be made. This will ensure that the histories shared will be immortalised, and the often marginalised groups who share their stories can be written back into history.

Actors participating in Drawing the Ring of Steel.

Sensing the Troubles also conducted interviews on the spot in Belfast city centre for a day. Sensing the Troubles collaborated with the Drawing the Ring of Steel project,[7] conducting interviews with passers-by on the streets of Belfast on 24th March. This event, staged by Kabosh Theatre Company, aimed to illuminate the reality of living through conflict. They had local artists and interviewers set up at the four access points to the city, where people would have been searched during the Troubles.[8] Many people stopped and took part in these interviews and were enthusiastic to do so. This helped to show me that as an oral historian it is important to have the confidence to approach people and discuss your project, as this can lead to very interesting interviews. This event also helped to demonstrate how oral history does not have to be highly academic or controlled. If the right consent process is followed, oral history can be as accessible to the public as a conversation on the street.

All in all

I greatly enjoyed my role in the project. I have learnt a lot about oral history processes and techniques and have spent time reflecting on how to encourage public engagement. The project is incredibly interesting and rewarding. Some strengths of the project  include Roisín’s skills as a historian, the idea of combining oral, sensory and everyday history, and how the project gives marginalised groups an avenue in which to tell their histories. All in all, the project helps to involve the public in the making of their own history, and I am glad to have been a part of it.

[1] Paul Steege, Andrew Stuart Bergerson, Maureen Healy, and Pamela E. Swett, ‘The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter’, in The Journal of Modern History, Vol.LXXX, No.2 (June 2008), pp.358-378, p.362

[2] Ibid, p.362

[3] Ibid, p.375

[4] Ibid, p.368

[5] Sensing the Troubles interview at Barron Hall, Glengormley (28/02/22)

[6] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (London, 2010), p.5.

[7] Drawing the Ring of Steel project website ( (28th April 2022)

[8] Ibid.

Actors interviewing passers-by on Royal Avenue, Belfast, as part of the Ring of Steel project.

A piece in the Irish Times on the project

31 May 2022

I speak to Kieran online, long distance. He talks about his childhood during the Troubles and throughout the conversation there is a push-pull between the narrative of normality wrapped around evidence of things far from ordinary. About an hour into the conversation Kieran talks about going to see Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast and how, for a moment, he thought he might have to leave the cinema such was the discomfort of watching what he described as ‘a style of memory’ he may have ‘hidden a bit’. But then, he says, ‘you just pull that Kevlar shield back up again and just get on with things because I think to some extent that’s how people managed to condition themselves’.

Belfast creates an evocative sensory world from the point of view of a child. Its resonance is derived from this important shift in perspective. The unexpected power of childhood sensory memories momentarily breached Kieran’s defences, and it is the potential of the senses to disrupt settled narratives that underpins my own research. I grew up during the Troubles and am writing a different kind of history of those years. One that illuminates everyday experiences through a sensory lens.

As part of my research I am talking to people about their memories of the sights, sounds and sensations of the conflict. Asking people to get out of their minds and into their bodies is a really interesting way to begin a conversation. No one yet has been overwhelmed by the experience. But when I leave Elizabeth’s house I go home and eat as though I will never be full, trying to quell the sadness of what I have heard.

What emerges are glimpses of lives lived against a background of persistent, often low-level, tension. Fintan grew up just outside an idyllic coastal village. He could hear British soldiers (dropped from helicopters) in the bushes as he walked home in the deep dark of a country night, ‘noises…that weren’t there before…, the wee bit of metal slapping against the rifle…Every now and again you’d hear a bit of breathing or a footstep’.  Marian remembers walking to a nightshift at the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road in Belfast, the soldiers on the street were camouflaged, ‘…you wouldn’t have seen them [in the dark]…but yet you would have seen a movement and you knew there was something there…’

Members of the security forces also anticipated the eyes of invisible forces. Jean, who arrived in Belfast as an eighteen-year-old, worked as a ‘searcher’ on the security gates going into the city. She wore a red hat as part of the uniform of the military police and felt like a target who could be easily identified by snipers, ‘that was there all the time. [That] I was in somebody else’s sight, that I couldn’t see [them] myself’.

Roger, who was in the RUC, says ‘there was almost a taste from [a] riot… You would feel that maybe your mouth got a little bit drier’. He identifies it as a sign of stress. I ask Fiona what comes up for her if I say ‘taste’, and she thinks for a moment. ‘Bitterness’ she says quietly, ‘Bitterness’. I ask if it’s literal, can she feel it in her mouth. ‘When I think about it, yeh’, she says, ‘my mouth dries…’

I speak to a group of women in a community centre north of Belfast. They talk about working in offices and shops in and around the city centre when they were young, and the sensations associated with nearby bombs and almost daily bomb scares; of bargains legitimately and illegitimately obtained. One woman had a Saturday job in a department store and says, ‘the number of people that went flying out through [the] door [with unpaid items] as soon as the fire alarm went off was unbelievable. You couldn’t have caught them all. They were running from every aisle’. The conversation moves effortlessly from the shocking to the hilarious and this is not the only time someone says that humour was how many people coped.

One woman says, ‘It’s only when you look back now, when you know what normal should be… What bit of normal … did we have?’ You know, and I kind of think… it’s not that it’s easy to forget, it’s easy to forget how bad the things actually were. Because we lived through it on a daily basis, without any thought. Because you had to get on. You had to go to school. You had to’. I nod because this is exactly why I am writing this history. I want to capture something of the abnormality of daily life and the impact that had on people.

It has now been 50 years since the worst year of the Troubles. In 1972, 497 people were killed in the north of Ireland and a series of grim anniversaries are currently unfolding. I find myself captivated and moved by the stories of younger lives now carried within older bodies. My heart aches at the thought of seventeen-year-old Marian, beginning her life as a student nurse fifty years ago in that awful year. 

She tells me about the hospital running out of clean gowns and sheets the weekend of the Abercorn bomb in March 1972. A little girl was lying in bed, on white paper sheets and in a white paper hospital gown. She caught hold of Marian’s hand and said, ‘Have I died? Am I in heaven? I was in an explosion’. ‘And’, Marian says to me, ‘she just held on to me like a wee grip and I said “No pet, you’re not in heaven. You’re in the hospital”’.

Working on this project I have often had an image of myself walking through the wreckage of conflict, collecting debris. I have also come to realise however, that by starting with the senses, what I am salvaging are the pieces that make us human.

Some names have been changed.

See the original piece:

Fragments of Conflict

Image bh010460, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives (MS2001-039), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

It was Christmas 1973 and a little girl drew a picture of the nativity. When her teacher asked ‘if the spiky shape above the stable was a star’, the girl replied, ‘Oh no, Miss – that’s the helicopter’. The child lived in the Creggan in Derry and her school was beside a well-known flashpoint so, her teacher explained to a visiting journalist, most of the windows of the school overlooking this area were covered up because, ‘when anything began to happen, the children went to the window to see what was going on’. [i] These details – of a little Christmas drawing, the shadow of darkness within a classroom, and the world that could not be blocked out – tell an important story, yet it is one that often gets missed in general histories of the ‘Troubles’.

I want to write a history that reflects the experience of living within conflict, one that conveys the everydayness of it. My focus is a sensory history because it is through the senses that we meet with and make meaning of the world around us. This allows me to include flashes of heightened awareness amidst the almost imperceptible, routine sensations of daily life. This, I hope, will provide something of the mixed texture of lived experience during the ‘Troubles’.

A sensory approach is particularly poignant for a society in which members of the population veered between intense encounters and desensitization. Suffering from the unpredictability of outbreaks of violence some took refuge in self and/or prescription medication.[ii] Oral histories are replete with stories of individuals who were tranquillised in the midst of their trauma. From Alice Nocher whose memory of the aftermath of her brother’s death in a bomb explosion in 1975 was of ‘all sorts of doctors and nurses who just grabbed me and brought me into the working kitchen and gave me tablets’, to a young man in North Belfast who told an interviewer that, after his father was shot, his mother was on nerve tablets and ‘got electric treatment, just to shut out part of her brain’.[iii] Throughout the conflict, many were anaesthetised against its impact and it seems important, therefore, to begin to rebuild a landscape of sensory experience.

The growing body of work on remembering the ‘Troubles’ acknowledges the complicated legacy of traumatic memory.[iv] Trauma disrupts narrative coherence and, Marilyn Charles has written, ‘is often spoken through gaps, the ellipses, through what is missing rather than what is present’.[v] The challenge for the historian, therefore, is to linger in the spaces of semantic interruption and search for that which falls outside articulate language. It is to undertake work on memory that seems to be, to echo the observation of Luisa Passerini, ‘fleeing from those who would investigate it’.[vi] My research draws on oral history interviews, online public engagement and vivid memory vignettes offered in everyday conversation. It also requires reading textual sources differently, alert to touch and searching for smells. In the Linenhall Library’s political collection there is a box of scripts for BBC NI news summaries from August 1974 to March 1975. For this project they represent, not a record of events, but the low hum of sound in living rooms and kitchens across Northern Ireland.

This work, therefore, is not an attempt to write a comprehensive narrative of the ‘Troubles’. Rather it takes its form from what we know about traumatic memory: it is a collection of fragments. The aim of the research is to allow meaning to emerge from moments, traces and sensations, and through this to provide sightings of a society in conflict. And, of course, sensory perception is at times deceptive: it is important always to remember that what looks like a star may, in fact, be a helicopter.

This post was first published on the Writing the ‘Troubles’ website in January 2022:

[i] Michael Blakstad, ‘Children in Crossfire’, The Listener 91, No. 2346 (14 March 1974) 323.

[ii] In comparisons between Northern Ireland and other European countries, it was shown that Northern Ireland ranked third (behind Iceland and Denmark) in 1980 in the prescribing of benzodiazepine tranquilizers in terms of a defined daily dose per 1,000 population. See E. Cairns and R. Wilson, ‘Mental Health Aspects of Political Violence in Northern Ireland’, International Journal of Mental Health 18, No.1 (Spring 1989): 48. A Report into mental health repercussions of the Troubles found that 39% of the study sample had experienced a conflict-related trauma. See B. Bunting et al., ‘Troubled Consequences: A report on the mental health impact of the civil conflict in Northern Ireland’ (Belfast: Commission for Victims and Survivors, 2011): 6

[iii] Marie Smyth and Marie-Therese Fay, Personal Accounts From Northern Ireland’s Troubles: Public Conflict Private Loss (London: Pluto Press, 2000): 7, ProQuest Elibrary; Do you see what I see?: Young People’s experience of the Troubles in their own words and photographs (Derry/Londonderry: INCORE, 1998):16.

[iv] G. Dawson, Making Peace with the Past?: Memory, trauma and the Irish Troubles (2007); C. Hackett and B. Rolston, ‘The Burden of Memory: Victims, storytelling and resistance in Northern Ireland’, Memory Studies, 2:3, p. 359; O. Frawley (ed.), Memory Ireland: Volume III: The Famine and the Troubles (2014). J. Smyth (ed.), Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland (2017).

[v] Marilyn Charles, ‘Trauma, Fragmentation, Memory and identity’, in Michael O’Loughlin and Marilyn Charles, Fragments of Trauma and the Social Production of Suffering (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014):25, ProQuest Elibrary.

[vi] Luisa Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation, Italy 1968 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004): 9.