It is not easy to make the Northern Irish conflict seem comprehensible and immediate to people who did not grow up in the province. This story of the friendship of four children in Belfast in 1969, as the troubles start, does an excellent job. Maeve is Catholic, Sammy is Protestant, and they are brought together by a Jewish brother and sister, Dylan and Emma, who are in Belfast with their reporter father and artist mother. Maeve and Sammy should not, by the lights of their respective communities, even know each other, let alone become friends. The presence of the ‘outsiders’ – Dylan and Emma and English journalist father – not only makes this possible, but also allows the author, Brian Gallagher, to drop in much of the background historical detail – the fight for ‘one man one vote’, the resignation of Terence O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, the marching season – without clogging up the plot.
I was struck by how well Gallagher captures the visceral hatred of the sectarian divide, which is (rightly) very difficult to convey to those who have not seen it. Equally, the reality of violence and its aftermath is well done. The book also shows both the working-class Protestant and working-class Catholic standpoints, which is not always what happens when the troubles are discussed.
The book would make a very good introduction to the history of the Northern Ireland conflict for children in their early teens. My one quibble with it would be that, though it references the poverty that was common in the late Sixties, and which fired much of the civil rights struggle, the children enjoy treats and a level of parental oversight that would have been unusual then. It is a minor complaint, however.