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An oral history

This book is an oral history of the punk scene in Belfast between 1977 and 1986. Interrogating the idea that punk was a non-sectarian subculture, it argues that the accounts of my interviewees suggest a more nuanced and complex relationship between the punk scene and Northern Irish society. Drawing on post-positivist oral history, the work of the Popular Memory Group and the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams, it considers how people’s memories of the punk scene have been shaped in the years since its zenith in the city and how they were shaped in the moment of the interview. Thinking of punk as a structure of feeling that is present in the oral history interview, the book suggests, is a way to draw out its relationship to structures of class, gender and sectarianism in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and its continuing affective and political legacies in the present.

Fearghus Roulston

This chapter opens on the blue plaque in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast commemorating Terri Hooley’s role in making the punk scene possible. Taking the complex memory politics of this plaque (unveiled, ironically, by a DUP politician) as a starting point, it considers the various ways in which punk has been remembered since the mid-1980s and the relationship of these commemorations to the wider, contested memory politics of the north of Ireland. This is developed via a reading of various key memory texts, including the community history of punk It Makes You Want to Spit, the film Shellshock Rock by John T. Davis, and the later film Good Vibrations. The chapter then turns to the built environment of the city and in particular its redevelopment in the years following the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, before concluding with a summary of the ways in which punk has been represented in popular memory from the mid-1980s through to the present day and a quick theoretical account of how these representations relate to the oral histories gathered in the following four chapters.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Fearghus Roulston

The final analysis chapter of the book engages with one interview, with Graeme Mullan, to consider the unravelling role of punk throughout his narrative. The composure in this interview, it suggests, is bifurcated, in that it initially comes from Graeme’s adolescent encounter with the scene, and then later from his status as a storyteller, collector and historian of punk in Belfast. The chapter pursues this bifurcation through, first, an account of Graeme’s early experiences of childhood and punk, and secondly through a more reflexive section in which he considers the importance of punk to his life now. Drawing on Henry Glassie’s work on storytelling and Catherine Nash’s work on local history in Northern Ireland, it suggests that this second stage has a public relevance to the conflict in the North as well as a subjective relevance for Graeme himself. It concludes by describing how Graeme’s stories about punk work to resolve or dampen down aspects of discomposure or dislocation in his overall narrative.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Fearghus Roulston

This chapter engages with two interviews, with Petesy Burns and Damien McCorry. Both Petesy and Damien come from working-class, majority-Catholic parts of Belfast, and both offer a reading of the punk scene that stresses its capacity to intervene in the segregated and class-stratified urban landscape of the city. Beginning with Petesy’s interview, the chapter follows his trajectory from playing in punk bands to setting up an anarchist social centre and collective in Belfast, the Warzone Collective and Giro’s. It also highlights the affective and epiphanic importance of key moments, such as seeing Crass play, in his narrative. Moving to Damien’s interview, the chapter draws out the nuanced sense of possibilities and constraints he evokes in relation to playing in a band in the 1970s and 1980s, before analysing the specific political connections Damien makes between punk and issues like racism and unemployment. It concludes by suggesting some of the connections between the two interviews.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Fearghus Roulston

This chapter again works with two interviews, in this instance with Hector Heathwood and Claire Shannon, to consider the importance of gender in the punk scene. Beginning with Hector’s interview, it suggests that punk allowed Hector to express a critique of some of the edicts of hegemonic masculinity in Belfast, while also leaving some elements of this masculinity intact. It also highlights punk’s role in opening Hector’s eyes to alternative possibilities and modes of living, even while material and social conditions made some of these possibilities impossible. Turning to Claire, it suggests that punk, again, functioned as a means for her to transgress certain boundaries of respectability; but it also highlights Claire’s critical sense of the limits of this transgression, and of the reproduction of certain regressive or reactionary politics within the punk scene. In conclusion, the chapter proposes that the specific trajectory of both Hector and Claire (as people who no longer live in Northern Ireland) may explain some of the particularities of their narratives.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Fearghus Roulston

Chapter 3 begins the interview analysis with an account of conversations with Alison Farrell and John Callaghan. It proposes that we understand Alison’s early encounters with punk as epiphanic, that is, as marking a transition from one kind of subjectivity to another. Beginning with her account of growing up in Dungannon, it also proposes that we do not think too narrowly about ‘Belfast punk’ and instead consider the multiple movements and spaces that this name includes, a multiplicity that is reinforced by some of John Callaghan’s memories of the scene. As well as introducing the notion of epiphany that will be used throughout the analysis, the chapter moves on to introduce anecdote and the anecdotal as important forms of narration which will be analysed across the book. It does this by discussing three anecdotes about movement and mobility offered by Alison in her narrative of taking part in the punk scene. In conclusion, it returns to the question of structure of feeling and popular memory to consider the continued relevance of punk in Alison’s life, and how she makes this relevance apparent within intergenerational memory.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
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Fearghus Roulston

The conclusion returns to the question of sectarianism to argue that seeing punk in a more expansive way is important if we are to avoid a reading of Northern Irish history that dehistoricises and dematerialises sectarianism. Turning briefly to the work of the black feminist historian Tina Campt, it proposes that we read the punk scene both for its account of structural problems in Northern Ireland, for its inability to circumvent those problems, and for its refusal of sectarian identity categories.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Fearghus Roulston

Framed by a reading of an editorial piece by ‘Ziggy’ from the Alternative Ulster zine, this chapter situates punk in the historical context of Northern Ireland. This initially entails a brief account of the colonial formation of the state and the particular valence religious identification was given within that formation, especially in terms of discrimination against Catholics. It then entails an account of segregation in Belfast, especially after the outbreak of the war in 1969, and the ways in which that segregation would have been experienced by young people. The chapter concludes with an account of punk as a structure of feeling, borrowing the concept from Raymond Williams, and an argument as to why this framing helps to think about punk’s relationship to the various structures and histories described in the rest of the chapter.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles
Abstract only
Fearghus Roulston

The introduction sets up the argument and structure of the book, firstly through a brief narrative history of the emergence of the punk scene in Belfast from the mid-1970s through to the mid-1980s, then through an account of the specific oral history method used throughout the text to narrate that history. It stresses the importance of everyday life, of the complexities of sectarianism and of subjective composure to the project, and concludes by outlining the structure of the book.

in Belfast punk and the Troubles