Teenage angst, boys and hunger strikes – “NornIronGirl1981” provides snapshot of life during the Troubles

November 17, 2014

A Newry woman has been thrown unexpectedly into the spotlight after her teenage musings, recorded in a diary she kept throughout 1981, and which she recreated on Twitter recently, struck a special chord with people, generating over 2000 twitter followers who avidly await the next day’s entry from “NornIronGirl1981.”

Bronagh McAtasney could never have predicted that the one and only diary she ever kept would spark so much interest 33 years later or that the year 1981 would prove to have such important and far-reaching consequences for Northern Ireland.

Indeed, it is the childlike innocence of her entries set against the dark backdrop of the 1981 hunger strikes which seems to have resonated with readers and has led to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland taking a keen interest in the diary.

Speaking to The Examiner, Bronagh revealed that the unforeseen success of “NornIronGirl1981” has resulted in a grant from the Arts Council to develop the diary and the possibility of a further grant from the Arts body to potentially develop it into an app.

“I’m amazed at the reaction I’ve had to the diary and I think I’m lucky that the only year I ever chose to keep a diary happened to be 1981 – such a big year in Northern Ireland’s history.”

Apart from the teenage angst and schoolgirl crushes, Bronagh was also a huge music fan and meticulously kept a log of the top 20 charts each week and her star ratings for each song. She also posts these on her twitter account and finds that people really connect to the musical references

“The music is of big interest along with the diary and I get people asking how I could only give certain songs two stars etc. I have to remind them I was only 13 when I rated them!

“I find the music really anchors people to NornIronGirl as they feel connected to the time and what was going on through the music as well.”

The unassuming reproduction of a 13 year old’s diary is full of entries which capture all the normal things in life juxtaposed with the terrible events of the hunger strike and the troubles which were raging that year.

One entry tells of the death of Bobby Sands that morning and describes the news as “very sad and the whole day has been filled with trouble and news about it,” before going on to note that she “made pasties in Domestic Science and they turned out gorgeous.” The mix of the normal day to day life of a thirteen year old girl and the completely abnormal situation that was going on around her growing up in a troubled town and a country at war is captured perfectly in such entries and Bronagh herself also remarks on how much current affairs and the political landscape featured in her life even at the tender age of thirteen.

“I think back then children and teenagers were all much more aware of what was happening around us. The news was a huge part of life so we knew what was going on even if we didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of things that were happening. ‘Child of the Troubles’ is definitely an apt term to use for growing up in that era.”

With the Hunger Strikes impacting on everything, many of her classmates wore black armbands.and hunger strike badges which 13 year old Bronagh was keen to have too.

“’Cool’ girls had hunger strike badges,” says Bronagh.

“It wasn’t intentionally ever political, it was more that I saw them as cool but when I made one my mother nearly killed me” she laughs.

“Apart from the music and the nostalgia, it’s the connection to that troubled time in Northern Ireland’s history we all remember but it’s also that life went on and, to a 13 year old, what’s going on in your day-to- day life is as big and as important as what’s going on in the outside world.

“NornIronGirl1981 has no narrative, there’s nothing happens at the end of the year or anything and maybe that’s part of the charm – that it’s just simply a snapshot of one year in a 13 year old’s life.”

“I feel very lucky to have come across it because it really has brought back a lot of happy, funny memories for me. The first time I found it myself and my sister laughed so much at the different references to boys and family stuff in it and I really treasure having it because it’s just recaptured vivid memories of that time for me.”

Bronagh, who works at the Southern Area Hospice has no idea what lies ahead for NornIronGirl1981 but hopes it will be something that encapsulates not only the teenage emotions but also the history and the music of the time – possibly a play or a radio series.

Meanwhile, NornIronGurl1981 is the special guest at an 80s night this Friday (21st November) hosted by Our Lady’s Past Pupils’ Union in the Sheepbridge Inn at 8.30pm. Bronagh will read some excerpts from the diary on the night, followed by an 80s disco.

You can check out Bronagh’s daily entries in her Twitter Account at @nrnirngirl1981