This is a tough read.Jayne Olorunda's mother, Gabrielle, is from Strabane, on the western fringe of Northern Ireland (incidentally where the great Flann O'Brien was born); she fell in love with a Nigerian accountant in Belfast, and married him around 1974 despite her parents' vociferous objections to his being not only black but Protestant. He was then killed in the 1980 Dunmurry train bombing, and she was left to bring up their three children - Jayne being the youngest - as a single parent, trying to keep her career as a nurse on track. Not surprisingly, her mental health collapsed.
A bit more than half of the book is Jayne's account of her mother's memories of growing up in the repressive Catholic Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, and the sudden outbreak of violence - she was one of the nurses summoned to Altnagelvin hospital to treat the victims of Bloody Sunday. For Gabrielle Olorunda, 1970s Belfast was a wonderful cosmopolitan horizon-broadening escape from Strabane, which perhaps says all you need to know about Strabane. The Olorunda family lived in the same part of Belfast where I grew up. I must have passed them now and then at the cluster of shops and other services (doctor, optician, dentist, library) around Finaghy crossroads.
Then Max Olorunda was killed by the premature explosion of an IRA firebomb on his commuter train, screaming as he died in agony, burnt to ashes along with a schoolboy and one of the bombers (the other escaped, though permanently disfigured). This struck, quite literally, close to home for me as I read. The bombing took place roughly 400 metres from where we lived. Gabrielle Olorunda heard it clearly, not knowing its significance, in her home in Erinvale three times further away. As it happened, my family was out of Northern Ireland in January 1980; if we had not been, I would certainly have heard the bang while laying the fire or watching the BBC news. (The biggest bang I can personally remember was the forensic labs bomb of September 1992.)
There was no adequate support for the victims of the Troubles then, or indeed now. Gabrielle Olorunda drove herself crazy, with PTSD from her bereavement and from her nursing of the more obvious victims of violence, slipping deeper and deeper into poverty and mental anguish, and confronted also at every turn with deep racism from her neighbours towards her three mixed-race daughters. And let's be clear - although hard-line Ulster Loyalists are visibly (and sometimes proudly) linked to racism, her fellow Catholics were every bit as bad on this score, ranging from the pub-goers in the Markets on the evening her husband died, cheering the fact that the 'RA had killed a nigger that day, to the teacher who humiliated one of the girls as a "Negro" in front of her class. Nobody in Northern Irish society has anything to be proud of in this story. It is rather telling that the media profiles of Jayne tend to describe her father as a "recent" immigrant to Northern Ireland; he must have been there for at least seven years, which is not exactly recent by my reckoning.
At a very young age, Jayne became the household manager in her mother's frequent mental absences, and tells frank stories of dealing with dodgy landlord after dodgy landlord, attempting to get non-pharmaceutical help for her mother, and treatment for her own eating disorders. She became a public figure after this book was published, and was a candidate for the abortive NI21 political party in the recent elections. She has now joined the Alliance Party. Her mother is now in permanent residential care.
There is, believe it or not, the occasional funny moment amid the awfulness. At one point the Olorundas were rehoused to a pretty hardline Catholic area, where almost everyone was an IRA supporter. Given the circumstances of her husband's death, Gabrielle was not exactly pro-IRA; and this meant that in the frequent raids on the estate by the security forces, the Olorundas were never targeted. Jayne takes up the story:
Often we would arrive home to find every front door in the street wide open, many having been kicked down; personal effects would be strewn across hallways that were on open view to all. All of this was evidence that frantic searching had went [sic] on; that another no warning raid had taken place.One imagines the bizarre tableau of a helmetted and body-suited RUC officer pausing in the Olorundas' front room to scribble them a quick message, before heading off to kick the neighbours' front door in. It's an extraordinary vignette of a sort of reverse security theatre in the midst of repression and the collapsed legitimacy of state authority.
The people we lived next to would eye us with distrust; suspicions were high in those days. They must have wondered why we were being excluded, if we [were] watching them or worse if we were we were [sic] some sort of informers. At this stage Mum was already running scared due to her previous stunts. She didn’t need any more reasons to be targeted.
Soon the other children began making comments, calling us “Brits” or what they took to be the ultimate insult “Protestants”. It got so bad that in the end Mum went to the police and explained our predicament , how she was quite possibly the only non-sympathiser in the town. They swiftly informed her that they knew exactly who she was. They too had heard of her one woman mission to rid the country of [the] IRA. An officer brought her into an interview room and told her that she had every reason to fear, these people were unscrupulous.
That day the police arranged for our house to be “included” in any further raids. This simply meant that when the army raided our street that they would also come into our house. In practice it meant that whilst everyone else had their front doors kicked down, their possessions scattered and often destroyed we had our front door carefully opened, never would we find an item out of place. Sometimes a little note was left stating they walked through as requested.
While I appreciate Jayne's authentic and occasionally breathless account of her life and her mother's, I wished that the publishers had exerted a slightly stronger editorial hand. The paragraphs I have copied above are entirely typical in their casual approach to proofreading. There's also a very odd slip where Gabrielle recalls a sinister vision, shortly before her husband's death, in the "Europa Train Station" in Belfast - but the Great Victoria Street station was closed from 1976 to 1995; it must have been the cavernous and antiseptic Belfast Central Station where this happened, or where she thinks it happened. Gabrielle's visions are an important part of the story; Jayne reports them as they have been recounted to her, and leaves us to make our own judgement. Whatever happened, it was very real for Gabrielle, and the story of the premonitions is clearly important for her and her family's attempts to make sense of how their world was shattered.
I have read a lot about Northern Ireland over the years. I did not think that there was much left for me to learn. But this story of a family falling through the cracks in the integrity of our ancient quarrel is heartbreaking and important. More power to Jayne Olorunda for picking herself up by her own shoelaces, and working for a better future.