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Opinion: Behind the headlines and political bickering is a profound grief that is hard to define

My father was just 39 when he was killed by an IRA bomb. The fate that befell him has been like a virus in my family’s bloodstream; we can never forget.

Jayne Olorunda

“PLEASE GOD HELP ME,” were the last words spoken by my father before he died. His name was Max Olorunda. He was 39 years old.

I was just two, and his youngest daughter.

My father was killed by a bomb which exploded prematurely whilst he was travelling on board a train bound for Belfast in January 1980. My father died alongside a young schoolboy and the member of the IRA who was carrying the bomb.

I am told he was a kind and handsome man with a big smile. I don’t remember him, though, and for this I am glad. My mother kept his memory alive, however.

She never allowed us to forget what happened to him. The IRA became a word synonymous with everything that was wrong in this world. The fate that befell my father has been like a virus in my family’s bloodstream; we could never purge it from our collective memories. It was always there. My mother could never let it go. She was haunted by her loss. In fact, my entire life has been shaped and affected by the legacy he left behind.

The pain behind the headlines

My book, Legacy, was difficult to write because I chose to confront my past with a view to explaining the trauma of those who were bereaved in the Troubles. You might say I wanted people to see that behind the political bickering, behind the headlines, the pain endured by the families of those who perished is very real. Those left behind, the families of those who died, usually found themselves overwhelmed by a profound type of grief that was hard to define.

My family never visited my father’s grave, not because we didn’t care, but because I was always told that his grave was empty. You see nothing remained of my father when he died. The bomb which killed him didn’t just end his life; it destroyed his body. He disappeared.

In the absence of any state memorial for the victims of the Northern Ireland conflict, I chose to write this book as a memorial to him.

Racism in Northern Ireland

But Legacy isn’t just about the Troubles, or indeed Max Olorunda’s life, nor is it solely concerned with documenting the violence that engulfed Northern Ireland for 30 years; it is also about racism.

You see my father was a Nigerian. My mother came from the West of Ireland, and so my two sisters and I are of mixed race. The colour of our skin, our facial features and hair had a dramatic impact on our lives. We were oddities back then. We were treated with suspicion and, on many occasions, contempt.

People used to ask if we were adopted, or worse, didn’t ask anything, but simply shouted some choice words at us. My mother was treated as someone who had lowered herself in everyone’s standing by falling in love with the wrong person.

Outcasts in a bitterly divided society

This attitude became a catalyst for an all-consuming depression which in time gripped her. No amount of prescription pills, tablets and therapy could cure this and so her life, and those of her three daughters, fell apart. We lived in poverty. We became poor outcasts in a bitterly divided society.

Legacy is our story. It’s the story of a family who had to cope with circumstances beyond our control. My book deals with many issues. It’s about loss, grief, depression and poverty, but it’s also about racism and bigotry.

Racism has always flourished in Northern Ireland but it’s become more prevalent in recent times as we have got more cosmopolitan, ironic as it sounds.

I wrote Legacy to record my father’s existence, but I also needed to record my mother’s illness and, most of all, I needed to record what Northern Ireland did to us and, by default, all the other innocent victims. I hope that someday the issues raised in Legacy will be a thing of the past.

Jayne Olorunda is a Belfast woman whose Nigerian father, Max Olorunda, was killed by the IRA in a bombing in 1980. Her book, Legacy, outlines how his death caused her mother’s breakdown, but the title is primarily about the racism that Jayne and her sisters suffered in Northern Ireland. Legacy is available as a download on Kindle, iTunes, kobo and Nook. 

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