A new collaboration between a cathartic theatre project in Londonderry and a Belfast trauma centre has resulted in a moving new work entitled, ‘Everyone is my People,’ which boldly illustrates the psychological toll the Troubles has taken from some.
Teya Sepinuck, artistic director of The Playhouse Theatre of Witness Programme, teamed up with the WAVE Trauma Centre to tell the stories of seven men who have been deeply impacted by the Troubles.
Teya talked to the men and laid their words in scripts, which each man then recorded with journalists, Padriag Coyle and Jane Coyle. The men share stories about what they witnessed and endured and how the echoes of those memories and injuries have haunted them for decades.
The first speaker says: “Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been very unlucky, but at the same time, I think I’m very lucky. I’m still here. I could look back at what I’ve been through and say, ‘Why me?’ Or I could say, ‘Why not me?’
“Why should I have come out of the extreme years of the Troubles unscathed? So many of us are scarred for life. But at least I’m still alive. The bomb went off without warning. The physical effects were that it badly damaged my legs.
“I had multiple broken bones and a gaping wound and it left me with severe and profound deafness in both ears. I spent five to six weeks in hospital. Mentally it gave me a terrible fear of dying.
“Even on a cold winter’s night my shirt would be soaked with sweat. I became afraid to live, afraid to leave the house. I’d like people to know the pain doesn’t end with the event. It still goes on. People will tell you that you have to move on but how?
“So many of us still suffer pain and trauma. People don’t know how hard we work just to get here, to get up in the morning, just to keep going.
“I’d like to say that no-one can have a happy life but we can have a nice life with happy moments. You can think back to happy times.”
The second man says: “I wouldn’t want others to go through what I’ve went through. I’ve been carrying dark light for the past 35 years.
“I had dreams, whenever I was young, of being a baker, getting married and having a family, but life, it took a different course. I was shot whenever I was sixteen. It was the seventies. I was standing on a corner at 7pm on a Sunday night. I was celebrating because I’d just got my first weekly wages that Friday.
“I was listening to the top twenty on the radio when I heard a car backfiring. It pulled over and someone started shooting at eight of us. I ended up spending 12 weeks in hospital.”
The third man, who was caught up in the aftermath of the Shankill bomb, says the trauma didn’t kick in until much later.
He says: “After the Shankill bomb I helped dig out some of the bodies from the rubble. I was young then. I thought I was alright but then I got on with work and family.
“It was only two years ago that it all hit back. The flashbacks can come at any time. Sometimes it feels like it all happened yesterday.
“You were living in the middle of a war zone.
“On TV there’s an ad where a man takes a mask off his face. No-one knows what’s going on inside my mask. I want to forget. Even for one hour. Even for one minute. I just want to forget.”
Another man, believes his brother was killed by MI5 agents.
He says: “I lost my brother in the eighties. Even though it was many years ago, it still hasn’t gone away. He was murdered by what I thought at the time was paramilitaries. I thought at the beginning that my brother’s murder was a one off, a mistake.
“In the last year, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has been investigating. They found out, contrary to what I thought, that it now appears he was murdered by MI5 agents. It’s now being investigated by the Ombudsman.
“My brother was missing for three days. A paramilitary organisation had planned to kill both him and two other policemen. The police knew about it and did nothing to protect him or their own colleagues. The more you find out, the more upset you get.
“My brother’s murder split the families up. I was too angry to grieve. I was angry at the paramilitaries and how it happened. I was very angry with my brother.
“I’ve come a long distance but somewhere along the way I lost my happy-go-lucky self. I smile and laugh a lot less than I did when I was young. I live my life, a bit apart, a bit silent, a bit alone.”
The fifth man claims his Troubles continue psychologically.
“There’s a war in my bedroom every night. It happens as soon as my dreams start, absolute war. Helicopters flying through my window. Shootings. One night I could see the lines of bullets up the radiator. Sometimes I think I’m shooting back but I don’t know what I’m shooting at. It’s like a feeling in my chest, like someone turning my insides out.
“People don’t understand. They can’t understand unless they’ve gone through it themselves. My wounds are in my mind. No-one can see them. My mind’s messed up.
“It started way back in the seventies. I was driving round Belfast one day during the Troubles and I stopped as some soldiers walked in front of the car and there was a loud bang and one of the soldiers went down in the middle of the road. He lay there screaming until he died. I could do nothing but watch.
“People think since the peace agreement that the war is over but there’s a war in my bedroom every night.”
The sixth man is the brother of a man who was believed to have been a member of the UDA and was shot by the same organisation in 1974.
The dead man’s brother denies he was a UDA man and has vowed to clear his name.
He says: “In 1974, on August 6, I was waiting on my brother Terry getting out but on the Thursday night he was shot dead on the streets of Belfast. Something must have happened in jail for them to shoot him after only two days getting out. Why was he murdered? He wasn’t a paramilitary.
“My wife begged me to go with them but I had to find out the truth about my brother. This search has taken 39 years and during it I’ve lost everything, my wife, my kids, my work, my self and my sanity.
“The HET accused my brother or being a paramilitary. It was all a lie. And it just made me fight harder to prove the truth. They tried to ruin his character and blacken his name. I will never let that happen. I will have to fight for him.
“I want to tell my story to help people. To tell them the dark days will hopefully go. I still suffer but those darkest days have passed. Terry is at peace, no-one can hurt him no more, but I miss him. I’ve missed him all my life. When he died, I died. The person who [I] was, wasn’t there anymore, and I still haven’t found him.
“Maybe one day I’ll go to bed without fear. Maybe I can be a voice of strength and reassurance for someone else, maybe I can finally come out of the shadows.
“I still see Terry all the time. He comes as a vision. I have a photograph of him at home. Before I came to WAVE I had the photo in a drawer and wouldn’t look at it. I just burst into tears.
“After I was here a few years I took out the photo and put it into a frame. It’s in my living room now. Many a conversation I’ve had with that photograph. I tell him I’ve done everything I can to fight to clear his name.
“It’s coming up to the 40th anniversary of his death and even with all this I would do it all again.”
The final man was shot by the UFF in West Belfast on January 4, 1994. He was only 21 and was later told he’d never walk again.
He says: “Twenty years ago, in January 1994, I was a normal 21 year old. I was working in the civil service, I was happy-go-lucky with a big circle of friends.
“I had just come home for dinner that night when our house was taken over by gunmen in masks and my family was held hostage. We thought it was the IRA but it ended up it was the UFF.
“Just before the gunmen left, they shot me six times. You don’t realise you’re dying when you’re dying. You’re just floating away. I woke up in intensive care lying flat out, full of morphine with a tube down my throat, but I was alive.
“One day the doctors came and told me that I’d never walk again. This revelation was so hard to take. I found it hard to understand. I found it hard to believe. I was a 21 year old man, lying in intensive care with a tube down my throat, unable to talk or ask questions except with an alphabet board.
“That was more traumatic for me than getting shot. I don’t think retribution or revenge works. Even if someone does do time. Will it ever do me justice? No. I’m trying to break the vicious circle of an eye for an eye.
“It’s a thirst that can never be quenched. I set up a meeting with Alan McBride who lost his wife in the Shankill bomb. I’d seen in him someone who had really been hurt and was now on a journey of healing both for himself and for others. I asked him if I could get involved at WAVE.
“I stand for everyone. Even the people who don’t want to listen. I still try to get behind their thinking. To understand them. To empathise with them.
“To recognise the accident of their birth. I stand for those yet to be born into our country.
“Everyone is my people. Even the so-called perpetrators, the unfortunates, and the ones who stood by and did nothing. I stand for everyone. Everyone is my people.”
The latest work from Theatre of Witness is typical of the programme, which has previously produced moving testimonials in ‘Release,’ ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘I Once Knew A Girl.’
‘Everyone is my People’ will be launched at Duncairn Cultural Arts Centre on Thursday, May 15.