If I dream, it invariably takes the form of being hunted by men with guns—in a house, in a forest, on a street. Sometimes these dreams end with me being shot, sometimes with me stabbing someone. I only ever stab someone, even though, growing up, we had a gun, illegally, in the house—a double-barreled shotgun that my father kept beneath his bed and that we’d use occasionally for shooting rabbits. In my dreams I never see the face of the man I’m stabbing. I’ve had these dreams all my adult life. Maybe they’re common among people like me, maybe they’re not. By “people like me,” I mean people who grew up in Ulster, who from our earliest moments were wary, were used to watching everything for some sign, however small, that things were not quite right.
We lived in Tyrone in Mid Ulster during the spate of tit-for-tat killings, as they were called. We remember all the bombs and evacuations and fear. We remember all the shootings. We remember being turned back from going to school at a checkpoint by masked men with baseball bats. We remember driving around a hijacked burning car we were terrified would explode. Each evening the new scores of dead and injured were reported on the news. The hijackings, the evacuations, the bomb scares. Relatives shot or forced to flee their homes at night. We took an hour to travel the two miles to school every day so the squaddies could stop each car at the sangers—concrete bunkers at either end of town, manned by British soldiers—and check the trunk and look in our schoolbags. The usual checklist of Ulster strife, catalogs of close scrapes and witnessings and griefs. When men tried to break into the house one evening I took and loaded the shotgun, and propped it up on cushions and aimed it at the living room door, sitting terrified in the dark until my parents came home.
In 2018 with the director Brian Hill I made a BBC documentary, The Life After, which simply allowed a few of those who had suffered the loss of loved ones in the Troubles—partners or children or siblings—to speak about their experiences (we got funding for it by making it into an arts show, so I wrote some linking lyrics and little poems based on their testimonies for them to read to the camera). No one ever recovers from the kinds of losses these people have suffered: a daughter going out dancing and never coming home, a brother abducted in a pub and tortured and murdered and dumped on a hillside, a son stabbed on his way home.
According to a 2012 study, Northern Ireland has the highest levels of mental illness in the UK. In 2008 39…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.