‘More unites us than divides us’ claims writer whose father was murdered by IRA

‘More unites us than divides us’ claims writer whose father was murdered by IRA

WRITER Claire Shiells’ father was murdered by the IRA in 1977.

The Co. Tyrone native told The Irish Post why she felt compelled to draw on her personal tragedy in her debut novel After Dad…

What prompted you to write your debut novel, After Dad?

It’s been brewing for decades. I’ve been a journalist and editor all my working life and I always thought ‘one day’.

Finally, about five years ago, the itch got so strong I had to scratch it.

Writing about what you know will always shine through on the page and the Northern Irish story - past and present is intriguing.

Northern Ireland and Donegal feature heavily in the book – how did it feel to write about home?

It was such a treat for me to write about Ireland - both the old and the new. The North and particularly the north-west are still some of my favourite places on the planet. The beaches, the people and let’s not forget the pubs are all wonderful. And this is coming from an ex- travel magazine editor who literally circled the globe for a living.

When I started writing the novel, I couldn’t wait to escape to my desk and allow myself to be engulfed in memories of growing up in Dungannon and holidaying in Castlerock and Donegal. I believe there are locations and events many people will resonate with from the past – some good and some sadly, not so good. But the story is a contemporary tale – and there are many modern issues and themes tackled in the book which readers of all ages will recognise - and maybe, who knows, will look at through fresh eyes.

How does London life compare to life in Northern Ireland?

How long have you got? I sometimes think I live in a parallel universe. I live in Chelsea in London and spend most my holidays in Portstewart. The two vibes couldn’t be more different.

During term time my daughter goes to school with royalty and rock stars (the royals just left this term) and I have been doing pilates in a stadium-filling rock star’s kitchen for years.

In Portstewart, I paddle board and eat Fifteens and possibly spend too much time in B&M in Coleraine.

My daughter spends her life harbour jumping or painting stones and selling them to unsuspecting locals. But it all works. My London family now love coming to Portstewart and we have made good friends there now.

What do you miss when you’re away from home?

Tayto. Veda. My family. Not necessarily in that order.

I also really miss the humour. I think the Northern Irish humour is unique. It’s quite caustic and can be found in everything. I sometimes think a lot of people in London don’t always understand why I am laughing.

My car is from Dan Davidson in Dungannon, and it has a vintage Tyrone number plate – from the era of when I was a child. I love looking out the window in Chelsea and seeing the Dan Davidson sticker on the window. It immediately reminds me of home and puts a smile on my face.

I don’t miss the weather. Except maybe the big winter storms around the ‘Port’. Those waves. They are magnificent. After each trip home, and before I go back to London, I can often be found standing on the harbour wall, soaking in the spray, hoping to bring just a little bit of it back to London with me.

Born in Co. Tyrone, Claire Shiells is now based in London

In the book, the protagonist, Millie’s father was murdered by the IRA – how much did you draw from your own experience when writing this tale?

To be brutally honest, I drew from my own experience a lot. Sadly, my father [Eric Shiells] was killed by the IRA in the height of the Troubles and so I felt able to write about the effects such a tragedy had on a twelve-year-old child, and indeed, how it shadowed her life (and that of her family) going forward.

I found the experience strangely cathartic. I’d be sitting in my London house and bang, I’d suddenly be a child again, running out of Wellworths in Dungannon Square after it had blown up, finding glass in the hood of my sweatshirt as I walked home. Looking back, even I find it hard to believe what happened sometimes. But Dungannon was a bitterly divided town then - so bombs and shootings were regular occurrences.

After Dad is a novel, not an autobiography, however many of the incidents, both sad and funny, did happen to me in real life.

Can you share some memories of your dad?

My father had huge hands and a big smile. I remember that. He used to lift me onto his knee after tea every night. He would smoke his pipe and tell my mother all about his day as she cleared up after the eight of us. Domestic tasks were not my father’s strong point.

Rugby was a massive part of his life. He played for Ulster, and I think maybe even trialled for Ireland.

He spent a lot of time at Dungannon Rugby Club. Too much time, according to my mother. He was President the year Stuart McKinny was picked for the British and Irish Lions, and I remember the celebrations surrounding the event were powerful. He often took me and some of the other children to the club with him. I’d get a bottle of Fanta with a straw in it and a packet of Tayto. It was heaven.

Talk us through the events surrounding your father’s death?

It was a Friday. Lunchtime. April 1977. I was pulled out of boarding school by Matron who had packed a bag for me. I remember she couldn’t look me in the eye when I asked her if my father was dead. She didn’t know. Nor did my older cousins who drove me down the motorway home. There were no mobile phones in those days, and it was only when I got to my granny’s house and my mother ran to the car crying, I knew.

Later, I realised no-one was surprised my father had been killed. His name had been found on an IRA ‘List’. He was a prominent businessman and had recently joined the UDR - apparently because he couldn’t bear what was happening to the town around him. So many people – Catholic and Protestant – his friends and colleagues - were being killed and he wanted to try and stop it. When the ‘list’ was found, my mother had begged him to give up the UDR. But he wouldn’t. I think she was very sad about that for a long time. She was 42 years old and was left with six children to rear.

What do you remember about the aftermath of your father’s death?

When violence falls on you and your family in such a traumatic way – the shock itself is tremendous.

The house was suddenly full of people. Friends and family were arriving with food and whiskey was being drunk. Sleeping pills were being handed out. I remember being kept away from mummy – she was crying and I suppose everyone thought this would be too upsetting for a twelve year old to see.

Whereas in fact, all I wanted and needed was to be with her. I remember wandering around the house alone – not quite sure what to do with myself.

I slept with my mother that night, lying on my father’s side of the bed - where he had slept the night before. We slept little, hovering in that terrible space between sleep and wakefulness.

Where did the idea for the book title come from?

I never deviated from this title. After my father was killed, we as a family rarely used the phrase ‘After dad was killed’, or ‘After dad was shot’. It was just too shocking, I think. We simply referred to ‘After dad…’ and we all knew exactly what that meant.”

How has losing your father impacted you and your family?

I can only speak for myself, but looking back, I believe my life and the choices I made were hugely impacted by my father’s death. I’m not sure I recognised this until I started writing After Dad.

I suffered from crippling panic attacks (starting around the time my father was killed), which interestingly only stopped once I met my husband. I wonder what Freud would have to say about that?

On the positive side, I believe the tragedy taught me empathy. I really try not to judge people; you just never know what has happened in someone’s life to make them say and act the way that they do.

I believe my family developed tenacity after the killing. We are grafters and all six of us are still happily married (my two eldest brothers to their childhood sweethearts).

Sectarianism was never allowed into the house, and this, without doubt, was down to my mother.

She was, and still is, a very powerful personality who was determined her children would not be defined by their father’s death.

She would tell us how bitterness was such a destructive trait. That all it did was eat away at the host. She supported the Alliance party all her life and her friends were always from both sides of the community.

I strongly believe that when you have been touched by tragedy, you see life through a different lens. You have a choice; you can let the bitterness eat away at you, or you can use the experience to grow and appreciate just how precious life is.

There are political undercurrents throughout the book - what inspired these themes?

In London, I am now asked about a United Ireland more than I am about The Troubles. I decided this had to be addressed if I was going to write about modern Ireland.

I soon realised I knew very little about what a United Ireland would look like in practical terms for the people of the North.

Interestingly, I think this is true for many people on both sides of the community.

I discovered that a GP appointment is around €60 for the majority of the population in the south of Ireland, but I also discovered that Brexit and the issues around the Protocol have made many people, again from different communities, question why there even is a border. I find this flux in perception fascinating and complex. But that’s Ireland/Northern Ireland for you.

Having lived away for a while now, do you feel hopeful for the future of the North?

You have to have hope. Without it you wither.  I often daydream that someone – a Messiah - will appear and unite the younger people of the province.

My mother was a great supporter of the Alliance party all her life and I just wish we could see less division and more unity in politics in Northern Ireland.

There’s more that unites us than divides us and there are bigger issues facing people here now than religion that requires a working government.

It is easy to say all this from afar; when you don’t live in the thick of it all, day after day. But life is so short and so fleeting. The people of Northern Ireland have been through so much. Quite frankly, they deserve better.

Your book seems to be a story of optimism for a new Northern Ireland – was that important to you?

It was so important to me that this was ultimately an uplifting, hopeful story.

Even with everything my family and I went through, on balance I’d say my upbringing was more Derry Girls than doom and gloom and I wanted my novel to reflect this.

I dated a Catholic for years after dad, and we had such a great time – even amongst the bombs and the barricades.

Today, I think the people of Northern Ireland have moved on so much more than the politics has.

So many people are no longer defined by their beliefs; their religion; and this too is something I hope I reflected in the book.

Ultimately, After Dad is a story of forgiveness and hope. It’s about people trying to not let their past define their future. I like to think this is the way the majority of the people here are now living.

Any plans for a sequel?

I’m currently writing a play. I love dialogue and I am thoroughly enjoying the whole process/discipline. The story is once again set in Northern Ireland, based around a series of events rarely mentioned anymore – yet were so shocking at the time.  I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s a compelling tale. So, watch this space.”

After Dad by Claire Shiells, £9.99, published by The Book Guild, is available at all good bookshops and outlets. E-book is available from Apple and Amazon, £4.99