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  • The Trauma of the Troubles
  • Andrea DenHoed (bio)

In November 1973, the sisters Dolours and Marian Price, along with a handful of other members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, were convicted of carrying out a bombing in London that injured hundreds. The sisters immediately declared a hunger strike, arguing that they ought to be classified as political prisoners and allowed to serve their sentences back home, in Northern Ireland. The authorities started force-feeding them after two and a half weeks, and the strike ultimately lasted 203 days, after which they were transferred to Armagh Prison, outside Belfast.

Although the strike was over, the sisters didn't start eating normally again. They had developed anorexia so severe that they were ultimately released because they were on the brink of starvation. The hunger strike had "alienated us from the process of sustenance, the whole process of putting food into your body," Dolours Price said years later. Their detractors accused them of faking it, or of being motivated by vanity and a desire to lose weight. Dolours continued to struggle with food-related issues for years—as subsequent hunger strikers perished, as she withdrew from the armed struggle, as the Good Friday Agreement was reached.

Dolours Price, who died in 2013, is a central character in Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe's best-selling history of the Troubles—the period between 1968 and 1998, during which the long-standing strife over British rule of Northern Ireland broke into a protracted guerilla war. It's an expansive book, covering many intertwining lives, dramatic events, and intimate moments, but the detail about Dolours Price's lingering eating disorder stands out. The more famous Irish hunger strikers are the ones who died—particularly Bobby Sands and the nine men who followed him. In a way, those men and their legacies, as fighters and emblems, are easier to make sense of than Price's. Her story points to a more complicated experience, in which the traumas of war seep into people's emotional and mental fabric.

When Americans think of war, we usually imagine some sort of divide between the military and civilian worlds—a protective barrier, either geographic or conceptual, that preserves the idea that back home, where the women and children are, is a status quo worth protecting. During the Troubles, that boundary barely existed; the home front was also the battlefield. (When police came looking for IRA weapon stashes in one predominantly Catholic housing complex, the housewives who lived there would lean out their windows and pass guns down to their neighbors in a chain, staying just ahead of the search.) And, although the Good Friday Agreement officially ended the violence, the long tail of the conflict has been increasingly apparent in recent years: paramilitary activity has been on the rise; a journalist, Lyra McKee, was shot by an IRA faction in April 2019; Brexit threatens to topple the region's delicate political balance; and Northern Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world—a trend that researchers attribute to widespread PTSD from the Troubles.

In the past few years, there have been several depictions of the Troubles focused on examining not the blast sites of the conflict but the domestic spaces that absorbed the fallout. These treatments—which include Anna Burns's novel Milkman, Jez Butterworth's play The Ferryman, and the Channel 4 show Derry Girls—center [End Page 12]

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A still from Derry Girls. Left to right: James, Michelle, Erin, Orla, and Clare (Netflix)

on the experiences of women, children, and families. The bombings and battles become a backdrop to stories about the ways in which people mold their lives around conflict and learn to live within large-scale trauma.


In times of war, nations often take psychological refuge in the notion that the fighting is necessary to protect some stable normalcy at home. The Ferryman explores a counterpoint: how those supposedly protective and protected domestic structures can be co-opted by violence, becoming a medium for its dissemination. The play introduces us to the Carney family, whom we meet on the morning of their annual harvest feast...