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Growing up in the Troubles: 'I remember showing a plastic bullet to my Mum to excuse my lateness'

Shauneen Armstrong writes how Derry Girls shows what it was like for her and her friends growing up in Northern Ireland.

Shauneen Armstrong Digital marketing professional

AS SOMEONE WHO grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, Channel 4’s Derry Girls has struck a huge chord with me, as I always noticed how the life I knew was rarely reflected in the media.

There would be many reports on news and current affairs on the Troubles but there was so much more going on that was never shown or celebrated.

The television we watched as children showed kids in Birmingham, London and Manchester getting the chance to exchange toys on Swap Shop or dance on Top of the Pops. When we all got RTE aerials, this continued, as the shows we watched there also didn’t depict our lives.

There are few exceptions, such as Graham Reid’s ‘Billy’ plays with Kenneth Branagh, which everyone watched, and everyone knew someone who knew someone who was in it. It was so refreshing to watch a story about people’s lives that weren’t centred around the Troubles.

‘We never knew the wonderful Belfast before the troubles’

Life happened, a normal life, until at times, as shown so powerfully succinct in the last episode of Derry Girls, something happened and you were hit with how it’s not normal and how people, not so far away, didn’t live with this.

Once while in school we heard a bomb go off and the teacher stopped the class and asked us to pray that no one would be hurt. As we were praying we realised the teacher was crying and being 11 or 12 years old, we were shocked, embarrassed and did not know what to do.

She told us how she was so sad for us because being born in the early 1970s, we never knew the wonderful Belfast before the Troubles. That was something we heard a lot growing up.

When in town, it was normal to go into a security cabin to be searched. How, after that, you’d be searched going in and out of every shop. When talking about this on Twitter, someone remembered going into a shopping mall while on a holiday in America and stopping at the security guard to hold up their arms and be searched. The security guard thought she wanted a hug. It was an habitual routine you did without thinking.

‘Mostly an inconvenience’

I went to school in Andytown and then secondary school on the Falls Road. It was easy to get caught up in things beyond your control.

Sometimes when there was trouble, like riots on the road, we would be kept in late or released early. I remember a particularly tense time in the mid 1980s when this happened a lot.

Like the time our deputy head, wearing one of those old-fashioned black teacher capes, stood at our school gates, hands waving about trying in vain to stop people running into the school to escape the riot. His losing game of Bulldog was hilarious to us.

Often when we’d be let out early from school, many of us would walk home into the trouble, and there were many, many walks home because the buses were taken off the roads. This was all mostly an inconvenience. It would be you and your friends walking home having the craic, I remember that mostly.

‘Grabbed a plastic bullet as evidence’

One time a gang of us were going home on the bus, only for it to be hijacked. I remember the hijacker got on the bus, and politely said something like excuse me, I’m going to be taking control of this bus, if you’d care to get off now please, that’d be great.

So we did, and as we were near a pal’s house, we went there and drank tea. After a while we went back out on the road, the buses were back, and we got the next bus and continued up the road, only get as far as the next stop when the same hijacker got on and took that bus.

After a second cup of tea in another friend’s house, we decided against waiting on the buses again and walked the rest of the way home. This washed over us, like water off a duck’s back, it was normal.

Another time I got caught up in a riot on the way home one evening. It was already a lot later than I had agreed with my Mum and she was going to kill me, as being a teenager I had previous broken her curfew, well, a couple of times.

I rarely remember being afraid growing up, but this time, I was frightened. Someone flung me into a doorway and the riot started and finished quickly with the lads running back off into the nearby estate.

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Meanwhile, I’m still in the doorway with other bystanders for what seemed like an age. Three unlit petrol bombs were abandoned a few feet from us and plastic bullets were flying by them and bouncing off the ground. For a time, I was terrified the petrol bombs would get hit.

Once it was over and I was safe, I then had to contend with the fact that I was late, again. I now had to face my Mum which felt worse than any riot. It was a relief I could grab a plastic bullet and use it as evidence to my lateness.

‘We made our own tribes’

The perception, from the media, that bombs and riots were an everyday occurrence wasn’t the case, but, they did happen and there was a mostly blasé attitude to it. When you did hear a bomb, you’d try to work out how near you thought it was.

I had an Australian visitor staying and a bomb went off as we were sitting in a friend’s flat. No one batted an eyelid and we all agreed the bomb was close. I realised the Australian was shook by the bomb but I think we probably laughed at him.

The next evening we were going out and walking through the city centre when a car backfired. He hit the deck and I belly laughed about that for years.

When we came of age to go out we started going back into the city centre which had previously been a no-go for those a little older than us. There was a lively and fantastic live-music scene with bands made up of people you knew, or knew of, in places like the Orpheus, Abercorn, Giros, the Crescent, or dancing in the Delta and the Plaza. And, as someone remarked on the Twitter thread, we made our own tribes.

It was a really fun time to be a teenager, in so many ways. For the first time I’ve seen this reflected in Derry Girls and I’ve loved that. I would’ve loved to have it then, but I am so thrilled to have it now.

Shauneen Armstrong is a freelance digital marketing professional, who loves telling stories. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @redmum


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Shauneen Armstrong  / Digital marketing professional

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