I bring you a book that although a fictionalisation, brings to life a true historical event from a new perspective.
The Ghosts of Riots Past: The Troubled Conflict in Derry Through The Eyes of a Volunteer First Aider by Jude Morrow
Set against a backdrop of the late 1960s Bogside, Martha Bradley is inspired to join the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps at the age of fifteen, following a family tragedy that changes her life forever. This prompted her family to move to the legendary Rossville Flats that dominated the skyline of the Bogside.
The teenage first-aiders begin their service by attending sports fixtures, fairs, and religious services, to suddenly administering first aid in a most forbidding active war zone with live ammunition. Martha’s journey with the Order of Malta places her at The Battle of The Bogside, the daily clashes between the Free Derry residents and the security forces, Bloody Sunday, and Operation Motorman, whilst guarding a secret of her own from her unit and her family.
“Even though we all wore the same thing, white coats and kit bags, everybody wore them and carried themselves a wee bit differently. I would learn everybody’s mannerisms, walks, and small details. I became so close to my unit that I could tell them all apart, even when wearing my gas mask during a riot, outside, and in the dark. I feel it quite symbolic that we wore white coats, almost like we were ghosts. We were the ghosts of riots past, the ghosts of riots present, and the ghosts of riots yet to come”.
The Ghosts of Riots Past captures the nostalgic perspective of the troubles in Free Derry (1969-1972), the togetherness of the first-aiders, and the spirit of Christian charity and courage of the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps.
Also included at the back as appendices are the authentic stories of the Order of Malta First Aiders from the Free Derry era detailing their personal experiences of The Battle of The Bogside, Bloody Sunday, Operation Motorman, and the daily disturbances they heroically dealt with during that time.
About the author:
Born on the 7th of August 1990 in Derry, Jude Morrow is an autistic best-selling author, TEDx Speaker, and the founder of Neurodiversity Training International. Jude’s debut memoir, Why Does Daddy Always Look So Sad?, won the gold medal at the Living Now Book Awards in 2021. Jude is a touring motivational speaker, demonstrating how autistic people can grow to live happy and successful lives. Learn more at www.judemorrow.com and www.neurodiversity-training.net
I thank NetGalley and BooksGoSocial for providing me an ARC copy of this novel/fictionalised story, set in Derry in the times of the “troubles” and highlighting the role played by the Order of Malta First Aiders, all volunteers and many very young.
As the author explains in the introduction, he became intrigued by the role played by the first aiders of the Order of Malta in Derry during Bloody Sunday, after seeing them appear in many of the pictures, and he was surprised to find out that nobody had written about them, and none of them had written a personal account of their experiences either. His research lead him to talk to many of them, to collect plenty of material and information, and he decided their story should be told, and people should become aware of the heroic role they played. To do so, he created a character, because, as he explains, he wanted to write about many of the events and locations and it was easier to do by using a fictional character than by jumping through different perspectives and points of view. It would also have the advantage of allowing readers to become familiar with Martha and follow her personal story, without intruding into any of the protagonists’ personal lives and causing even more disruption and upset than they had already gone through.
Despite the book being classed as historical fiction, it does include the true accounts of several of the first aiders, written in their own words, at the end of the book, and also poems and other testimonies as an homage to some of the protagonists no longer with us, as well as a glossary detailing some of the most commonly used Northern Irish words and expressions. The book is divided up into 5 parts, and it also contains a section of acknowledgments. The author further clarifies any deviations from the facts appearing in the narrative, and, being born and bred in Derry, his inside knowledge of the locations where the story takes place makes it all the more immediate and realistic. Although I’ve never been to Derry, I had the feeling that I knew the place and its people by the end of the book.
Does one need to know a lot about the situation in Northern Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies to enjoy this book? I don’t think so. I imagine most readers will have heard about it, watched some movies or series, and some even done some reading and research. Unfortunately, there have been debates and different versions of what really happened on that Sunday, the 30th January 1972, and the most recent inquiry only saw the light in 2010, so it is far from gone and forgotten. The book goes beyond Bloody Sunday, and it also talks about The Battle of the Bogside, and Operation Motorman among other episodes, but it goes well beyond that, as it creates a picture of what life was like in Derry at the time, of how people lived, on what a strong sense of community they shared in the Rossville flats, and of the conflicts and difficulties they had to face in their everyday lives.
Martha Bradley, who narrates the story in the first person, and who is known as mouthy Martha for very good reasons, is writing the story because she has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s (as she was a heavy drinker as well, one wonders if her dementia might not be due to a combination of things), and her mother suggests she should write her story, especially her time with the Order of Malta. Martha’s voice is pitch-perfect, as is the tone of nostalgia because this is not a young girl telling the story as it happens, but an older woman looking back at her young self, being fully aware of how things would turn up. Martha goes through major trauma from a very young age, and the Order of Malta and becoming a First Aider give her a reason to live and a self-confidence she is sorely in need of. She is not particularly interested in politics or religion, at least when she is young, but she joins in with her community, and there are plenty of amusing episodes and vivid descriptions of life in Derry, as well as the tougher moments when the riots, the violence, and the repression escalate, destroying so many lives. The story of Martha and the story of those years in Derry are both moving, compelling, and horrifying. There are light and funny episodes aplenty, but there are also terrifying moments and others where it is almost impossible to keep reading without feeling angry and upset. Everybody involved experienced a nightmare, and the first aiders were incredibly brave to have kept helping the injured from both sides, despite the impossible circumstances. They truly deserved an homage, and this book is no mean contribution to it.
I like Martha, and even though some of her behaviours result frustrating (but realistic), what I found most endearing about her was the fact that she didn’t blame others or the situation for her problems. If anything, the opposite was true. She goes to pains to tell everyone that her problem with alcohol started well before the riots, and she does not complain for her own sake, although she is very vocal in her defence of others.
This is not an easy read, and the author suggests that people who prefer to avoid the most graphic depictions of violence and the deaths can move on and not read the chapter about Bloody Sunday, as there are sufficient references to what happened in later chapters to ensure that the narrative is not broken, but there are other incidents in other chapters that might upset readers as well, so people need to carefully consider if they are prepared for what they might find in these pages.
On the other hand, I cannot recommend it enough. The fictionalisation works very well in helping us learn about the events and also become acquainted with a city and its people, and that makes what happened to them even more shocking. There are so many happy moments and such joy and community spirit that you wish you had been there until you remember what is coming next. With the caveat mentioned (and I would also recommend caution to people who find it difficult to read about people with serious alcohol problems), if you want to learn about the troubles in Derry, the role of the First Aiders of the Order of Malta, and about a community changed forever by a historical event, do read it. And read all the extra materials as well. They provide a comprehensive picture and make us feel what being there must have been like.
Here is a video about the book launch, in case you want to find out more.
Thanks to the author, NetGalley, and BooksGoSocial for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and let’s make sure we never forget all these volunteers, their work, and what happened that day. Stay safe.