Unrest in Derry in 1981 Credit: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

Derry boy—growing up during the Troubles

Darran Anderson's memoir shows a child navigating a gruesome conflict
March 31, 2020
“A childhood, however abnormal to others, is always normal to those living it,” Darran Anderson writes in Inventory, his memoir of growing up in a poor Catholic family through the Troubles in the 1980s. The conflict, one that gripped Northern Ireland for 40 years, permeates the narrative. At times it is a focal point; at others a quieter backdrop to Anderson’s childhood jaunts through Derry, before he moved to Belfast as a young man. 

Anderson does not shy away from describing the terrible violence. He recounts stories of children “who had their brains blown out, often for nothing except being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He notes in a matter-of-fact way that “kids were shot in the crossfire when the IRA opened up on the army.” The reality of what his community faced didn’t reveal itself fully to Anderson until his family bought a television set. Only then, he recalls, “the lesson sank in” that “people were shot in their own homes.”  

The violence was so normalised it led to surreal exchanges. Anderson and his cousins warned each other of the dangers posed by big cities: “You’d never catch me going to London,” one said. “I heard muggers come up and threaten you with infected needles.” In the midst of their conversation a tank trundled through their housing estate.  

Anderson recounts with levity and humour his explorations of Derry—burnt-out cars, wastelands on the city’s outskirts, the roof of a church and abandoned houses, all while evading the looming presence of British troops and sectarian conflict. For the most part, short, lucid chapters carry the narrative at a comfortable pace.  

But Anderson gets bogged down in family history: his father who joined the IRA, and a grandfather who fought in the British Army. Their lives are interesting, but Inventory shines most when we see a child navigate a gruesome conflict.  

Inventory: a River, a City, a Family by Darran Anderson (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)