Fragments of Conflict: a sensory history of the ‘Troubles’

By Roisín Higgins

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.

To participate in the project or learn more about it, please visit www.sensingthetroubles.com

(Image: ‘British Army Helicopter’, Image bh010463, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives (MS2001-039), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.)

Roisín Higgins is an Associate Professor in Modern History at Teesside University. She is currently a Leverhulme Fellow with funding for her project ‘Sensing the Troubles: A critical reimagining of Life in Northern Ireland’.


[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.

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