“He’s only 17, how can he be dead?”
For once, Big Gay Mick wasn’t saying much. “I don’t know. We just seen his stepdad getting out of a taxi at the top of the street and he told us.”
There was no getting any other details out of him; he was in shock. Big Gay Mick was not normally lost for words. Stick-thin, with a baseball cap permanently pulled down over his eyes and a gold chain around his neck, you might have mistaken him for one of the neighbourhood hard men until you heard his voice: shrill, camp and a fair bit higher than what it should have been post puberty. In our little teenage gang, he was the only one brave enough to be openly gay. It wasn’t easy.
We grew up just off Murder Mile, a stretch of the Antrim Road so called because of the number of casualties there during the Troubles (the wider area was known as the Murder Triangle for the same reason). On the street where Big Gay Mick lived, beside a “peace wall” that separated us from the Protestants, loyalist paramilitaries would drive down, single out a target and pull the trigger. Even though Mick lived just two streets away from me, I wasn’t allowed to go to his until I was 10 years old, two years after the Good Friday Agreement – a key part of the peace process – was signed. In an area where murder and mayhem created hardened men, it was not easy to be as camp as Christmas. He managed, though, all the while smirking at a member of the local paramilitary who would shout homophobic abuse at us as we walked by.
The swagger was gone today. I was grilling him and he didn’t have the answers I wanted.
“How can he be dead?”
“He killed himself. Apparently he escaped from the hospital. They found him in the grounds.”
I don’t remember much of what happened after that, other than walking upstairs, kicking something in the bathroom, and cursing Jonny for dying.
The Ceasefire Babies was what they called us. Those too young to remember the worst of the terror because we were either in nappies or just out of them when the Provisional IRA ceasefire was called. I was four, Jonny was three. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.
The first time Jonny tried to kill himself, the ambulance was parked just beyond his front door, as if the paramedics were mindful of drawing attention to the house. Despite the fact that the local papers brought news of suicides every week – for some reason the numbers had rocketed – there was still an element of Catholic shame about it all. When they carted him off to hospital to pump the tablets out of his stomach, his mother didn’t go with him.
That night, he was released. We’d formed a ‘suicide watch’ in preparation: “You go in for your dinner and I’ll stay with him, and then I’ll go in for my dinner when you come back.” When he joined us, little was said. We didn’t ask him why he’d done it. He was only 16, the rest of us a year or two older. To our teenage brains, suicide was like cancer, an accident of fate. Sometimes people survived it, and sometimes they didn’t. The newspapers, bringing reports of more deaths every week, spoke of it like a disease, using words like “epidemic”. It never occurred to us, as we took turns to keep an eye on Jonny that night, that it didn’t matter what we did. He would just keep trying until he managed it.
Jonny was my best mate. We’d met three years before when his family had moved into the street. My house was at one end of the road; his, the other. We matched in several ways: dark hair, dark eyes and glasses. People mistook us for siblings. But one thing that didn’t match was our ability to sing. While I could be outdone on a harmony by a choir of alley cats, Jonny had a voice like velvet. Every day, he’d rehearse in front of the mirror, singing along to CDs, trying to reach higher and higher notes. With a tough home life, the thought of being onstage was what got him out of bed every day. When his mother left the house for the pub, sometimes not returning until the next day, he’d bring us up to his room and practise. Sometimes, you couldn’t walk down the street without him bursting into song.
One day we were standing at his end of the street. I had a secret to tell him.
“I’m gay,” I said.
“Guess what? I am too!” he replied.
It was a relief, to find someone else ‘not normal’. We were the neighbourhood’s resident freaks – or so we thought. Walking through the area, day or night, was a bit like running over hot coals, except instead of trying to avoid being burned, you were trying to avoid the local hoods, hoping they wouldn’t spot you.
There were five of us: me, Jonny, Jonny’s brother Jimmy, Big Gay Mick and Tanya, a sweet-natured English girl with long fair hair and blue eyes. But, as childhood friends do, we grew apart. Maybe we’d have grown together again if another ambulance hadn’t come and taken Jonny away. His brother told me about it afterwards. It happened at a house party. With a few drinks in him, he’d got upset, disappeared and taken another lot of tablets. By this time, his mother had been taken ill and was recovering in a home. Jimmy had been sent to live with his dad. The last I’d heard of Jonny, until Big Gay Mick knocked on my door, was that he was in a mental health hospital. Now he was dead.
I lived in the street for three more years. When I left, Jonny’s house had been boarded up, the windows barricaded with sheets of rusted metal. The only window left untouched was the one at the top, the one through which the neighbours used to hear him sing.
When someone dies by suicide, they leave behind questions. Attend a wake or a funeral in such circumstances and you’ll hear them, posed by family members tortured by the big ‘Why?’. Why did she do it? Why didn’t he talk to me? Why didn’t she say goodbye?
Those were not the sort of questions that Mike Tomlinson, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, could answer. What he could do, though, was talk about the broader picture. “Essentially, the story since 1998, which just so happens to be the [year of the] peace agreement, is that our suicide rate almost doubles in the space of 10 years.” From the beginning of the Troubles in 1969 to the historic peace agreement in 1998, over 3,600 people were killed. In the 16 years after that, until the end of 2014, 3,709 people died by suicide. Contrast this with the 32-year gap from 1965 to 1997, when 3,983 deaths by suicide were recorded. Over the last few years, Tomlinson’s research has mainly focused on one question – why?
“Now, that trend [the almost doubling of the suicide rate since 1998] is wholly out of line with what happens everywhere else,” says Tomlinson. He describes a presentation he gave at Stormont, the parliament buildings of Northern Ireland, that includes graphs of the trends in suicide in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. “Of all the presentations I’ve done in my career,” he says, “there’s an audible gasp from the audience every time I’ve done that [one].”
It’s not that suicide didn’t happen before 1998; it did, although researchers caution that it may not have always been recorded as such due to religious norms and relatives’ shame. Yet during his research, Tomlinson discovered that of all suicides registered in Northern Ireland between 1965 and 2012 (7,271 in total), 45% were recorded from 1998 onwards. It’s the oddest of anomalies: if the official statistics can be taken at face value, more people are killing themselves in peacetime than in war.
In a paper published in 2013, Tomlinson wrote: “Since 1998 the suicide rate in Northern Ireland has almost doubled, following a decade during which the rate declined from a low level of 10 per 100,000 of the population to 8.6.” The overall rate is now 16.25 per 100,000: 25.24 per 100,000 men and 7.58 per 100,000 women (2012 figures based on three-year rolling averages). In global terms, this places Northern Ireland in the top quarter of the international league table of suicide rates.
Tomlinson identified adults who as children had lived through the worst period of Troubles-related violence (from 1970 to 1977) as the age group that experienced the most rapid rise in suicides in the decade after 1998. It seems obvious that this group, the middle-aged who’d seen the worst of the Troubles, would be affected. But what about teenagers, people like Jonny? We were the Ceasefire Babies.
No matter whether we were old or young, war added new habits to our lives – everyday rituals that wouldn’t be so everyday in most countries without war, like not taking your toy gun outside in case a passing army patrol or police jeep mistook it for a real one and fired. Or watching your feet as you walked to school because the police were searching the area for a suspect device. Or getting hit by rocks that came flying over the ‘peace wall’ that separated us from the “other side”. Yet those things were minor compared to seeing someone shot in front of you, as people older than us had done.
The Troubles’ survivors would taunt us: how much had we really seen, compared to them, even if we had grown up near an “interface” where Catholic and Protestant areas met? Yet of the 3,709 people who lost their lives to suicide between 1999 and 2014, 676 of them – nearly a fifth – were aged under 25.
31 July 1972. The day three bombs went off in Claudy, a small village in the Faughan Valley, six miles south-east of Derry City. That day, Siobhan O’Neill’s mother left her shop in the village, turning left to walk down the street. If she’d turned right, O’Neill may never have been born.
O’Neill never witnessed the carnage of the Troubles directly. But she saw its effects on people’s everyday lives: in the fear of her parents when she told them, aged 11, that she wanted to attend secondary school in Derry, not the village. Derry, like Belfast, was a hotspot for murder and bombings.
Today, her job largely involves examining the legacy of that violence. O’Neill is a professor of mental health sciences at the University of Ulster’s School of Psychology. Last year, she led a team of researchers who established that there is a direct link between suicidal behaviour and having experienced a traumatic event, including those related to conflict.
It was confirmation of what many had long suspected. Of the sample interviewed for the study, just 3.8% of those who’d never experienced a traumatic event had seriously considered suicide. If they’d experienced a non-conflict-related traumatic event (like a car crash, for example, or a loved one dying from cancer), that number jumped to 10.5%. And for those who’d experienced conflict-related traumatic events? The number increased further still – to 14.2%.
What shocked O’Neill even more was her discovery that, out of the 28 countries that participated in the World Mental Health Survey Initiative – including Israel and Lebanon, places with ongoing, bloody conflicts – Northern Ireland was the one whose population had the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some 39% of Northern Ireland’s population, she says, have experienced a traumatic event related to the conflict. While suicide rates among the middle-aged could, in part, be explained by the trauma of the Troubles, how could the death of young people who’d never seen the war be accounted for?
There is no single common factor in suicides among young people, according to O’Neill. Many things can be involved: educational underachievement, poverty, poor parenting. But the Ceasefire Babies are also dealing with the added stress of the conflict – even though most of them never witnessed it directly. “When one person sees something awful, when one person is traumatised, it will affect how they relate to everybody else, including how they relate to their children, their grandchildren,” says O’Neill.
“People who’ve been affected by the Troubles live in areas where there’s high rates of crime and poverty. When you’re a child growing up in poverty, being parented by people who’ve been traumatised and everyone around you has been traumatised, you are going to be affected by that, even if you’ve never seen anything. Even if they never tell you the stories.”
At the University of Haifa in Israel, students can take a course called Memory of the Holocaust: Psychological aspects. Taught by Professor Hadas Wiseman, it outlines how the traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors have been passed down to their children and grandchildren, a phenomenon known as “intergenerational transmission of trauma”.
Much research has been published on the subject. In 1980, a husband-and-wife team, Stuart and Perihan Aral Rosenthal, presented their research in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. Titled ‘Holocaust effect in the third generation: child of another time’, it examined how the trauma of Holocaust survivors had travelled down the generations. It should have been a red flag to governments and policy makers across the globe: the effects of war did not stop with the murdered, the injured and the traumatised.
In 2012, another study that looked at the Holocaust, published by researchers at the University of Haifa, confirmed what many academics had argued for years: that trauma survivors pass their behaviours down to their children. A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said: “Survivor parents were perceived by some second-generation children as being inaccessible, cold and distant. And even though these second-generation participants described their parents’ inaccessibility as being problematic, some of them were perceived by their own children as being remote and cold.”
Researchers, including Professor Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, are exploring how the effects of trauma and stress could be passed down to offspring biologically. Epigenetic changes – alteration of genes in terms of their activity, rather than their DNA sequence – can be inherited, and it’s thought these may explain how intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs. In August 2015, Yehuda and colleagues published a study of Holocaust survivors that showed, for the first time in humans, that parental trauma experienced before conception can cause epigenetic changes in both parent and child.
These findings are among the latest in an increasing body of research showing that intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one. Could this heritable aspect of trauma explain why so many young people in Northern Ireland, like Jonny, are taking their lives? As the sociologist Mike Tomlinson pointed out to me during an interview, the problem with answering that question is a lack of data. Who are these young people? What are their backgrounds? Where are they from?
Tomlinson recounted a time he was interviewed on the BBC World Service about his research. At the end of the interview, a fellow interviewee from the USA asked him, “Where is the evidence from other countries?” The problem is, there’s very little. In war, the ruling government usually collapses – and with it any form of meaningful record keeping. Northern Ireland was unique: the Troubles was an internal conflict throughout which the state remained strong, even when the mainland was being bombed. To borrow a scientific term, it’s the best dataset we have to prove that the problems faced in a war-torn country do not end with the arrival of peace.
Yet the experiences of Northern Irish families in the post-conflict era are playing out in other countries, even if the patterns aren’t being recognised. After one presentation at an international conference where he talked about Northern Ireland’s soaring suicide rates, Tomlinson was surrounded by people from different countries affected by conflict. “This is exactly what we see,” they told him. “But again,” he says, “it was anecdotal, it wasn’t well-documented.”
The Sunflower is a tiny little pub perched on a corner in the alleyways that sit between the edge of north Belfast and the city centre. With bright green paintwork, it’s known for attracting a genteel crowd of writers, journalists, poets and musicians, a smattering of post-conflict hipsters who wear tight jeans and tweed jackets and Converse. There are poetry readings and concerts by local indie bands in a smallish room upstairs. A sign outside on the wall says: “No Topless Sunbathing – Ulster Has Suffered Enough.” For tourists, it’s an introduction to the natives’ quirky black humour, our way of dealing with all that’s happened.
For those of us who grew up in north Belfast and know the area, the sign calls to mind the suffering experienced on those very streets when a loyalist murder gang, the Shankill Butchers, drove around looking for Catholic victims to torture and kill. Yet one night, I end up there, drinking, at a table with my Protestant best friend, at least two republicans and a group of Corbynite socialists. Times have changed. If I’d been born a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have dared to venture down those streets, never mind drink there. Now, it’s safe.
It was there that I went, one Thursday afternoon, to meet Jonny.
We never figured out why Jonny’s stepdad told Big Gay Mick that Jonny was dead. We found out within a day that he was still alive. Now he was sitting in front of me, toned and muscular, with his dark hair swept over his eyes, the glasses replaced by contact lenses. While I’d never really shaken off the unkempt geeky look, he looked like he could have been an extra in a Baywatch beach scene.
We’d all grown up together – me, him, Big Gay Mick, Tanya, Little Jimmy – but there was so much he’d kept hidden from us. While we were hanging out, he told me, he would disappear to his room and take a swig of vodka. Drink was easy to get where we lived, even without ID. Between arguments with his stepfather and mother, things had been getting tougher at home. The first time he’d tried to kill himself, he’d walked down to his mum’s, picked up a box of pills, swallowed a load and passed out while vomiting.
He’d had depression for a while. “All I understand it being was sheer despair. It was a despair that you couldn’t lift – it stayed with you all day, when you slept, and you woke up and you felt the same way, and you felt the same way when you went to sleep – if you did sleep,” he says. “It’s just a constant… I call it ‘the black dog’. It’s a constant sort of feeling hanging over you, of just pure ‘anti-ness’, hopelessness.”
After a second suicide attempt, he was taken to a mental health facility. Several more attempts followed. “I was always very opportunistic – it was never planned out,” he says. “If I saw an opportunity I took it, so I was quite impulsive, so it was quite frightening, I think I was under observation for a while.” Since then, though, his life has changed. With the help of medication to keep him stabilised, he has his own flat and is going back to school. He still sings. Next year, he plans to try out for a televised singing competition.
I was grateful to be there, in that weird hipster bar, drinking with Jonny instead of visiting his grave. Then I thought of all those who should have been sat there with us – friends and acquaintances who never made it into adulthood. We could have filled The Sunflower with them and still had people spilling out onto the streets. The problem hasn’t gone away. On Christmas night in 2015 in Ardoyne – an area in north Belfast that saw 13 young people kill themselves over a six-week period in 2004 – a young woman called Colleen Lagan died from suicide. She was the third member of her family to take their own life in the past 10 months.
Those who survived the Troubles called us the Ceasefire Babies, as if resentful that we’d grown up unaccustomed to the sound of gunfire, assuming that we didn’t have dead to mourn like they did. Yet we did. Sometimes, I count their names on my fingers, quickly running out of digits. Friends, friends of friends, neighbours’ relatives, the kids whose faces I knew but whose names I learned only from the obituary column. The tragic irony of life in Northern Ireland today is that peace seems to have claimed more lives than war ever did.
Some names have been changed.
This article was first published on Mosaic.