Everyday life in the Troubles

The conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century is known as the Troubles. Over 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

Although the numbers of active participants in the conflict were few, its effects were felt across society. People tried to live normal lives against the backdrop of community tensions, vigilantism, intimidation, security alerts and the constant threat of violence.

Photo: The aftermath of a bomb blast in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Getty Images)

Features in:

The Troubles
The Troubles

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (5)

More information about: Everyday life in the Troubles

Denis Murray: Ireland Correspondent, BBC (1988-2008)

As someone who grew up in Belfast before the so-called Troubles, and who has spent most of his life here, this is probably going to be one of the least dispassionate articles in this series. Although my life as a reporter took me to many of the worst events during those terrible years, it was also clear to me how people spent their lives in the shadow of those events.

Life before the Troubles

I grew up in a mixed area of Catholics and Protestants. The only difference between my friends and I was that we went to different schools; although I really didn't understand why.

In this period, Andy Tyrie, who would become a senior figure in the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was growing up in a housing estate called Turf Lodge, in west Belfast. It was an area that would become entirely Catholic and notoriously republican. Bobby Sands, the first Provisional IRA (PIRA) man to die on hunger strike in 1981, grew up in Rathcoole, a religiously mixed estate that would become a fiercely loyalist area. One of Northern Ireland's most famous sons, footballer George Best, grew up on a housing estate in east Belfast called Cregagh. When he was a lad it was religiously mixed. Within two years of the Troubles starting, it was entirely Protestant. Georgie himself had no sectarian hang-ups.

There didn't seem to be any particular tensions between the two communities in the years preceding the Troubles, or at least none that thrust themselves into daily life. But it was all simmering away.

Underlying tensions

The unionist population felt itself to be in a secure position of dominance in Northern Ireland society. Even the most deprived working class Protestants reckoned they were superior to Catholics. The Catholic population, by and large, accepted this and didn't really take part in a society from which they were excluded.

This all changed with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Catholic-nationalist minority had decided it would no longer accept second-class citizenship. There are elements of the Protestant population which find this "uppity" aspiration of Catholics too much to bear to this day. It finds its expression in spurious claims of "the erosion of Protestant culture", by which they really mean the end of unionist-Protestant supremacy.

You will occasionally hear people say: "This was a great wee country before the Troubles". No, it wasn't. Besides the abuses uncovered by the civil rights movement, many terraced houses in supposedly superior Protestant areas didn't even have inside toilets. One of Northern Ireland's enduring problems is that Protestant working class males in particular will not even entertain the idea that they have more in common with their working class Catholic counterparts than with the middle class unionist politicians who represent them.


Once the Troubles got going, Northern Ireland saw the biggest population movement in Europe since the Second World War as the two communities separated. It became evident that working class Protestants and Catholics simply could not co-exist as previously mixed areas became exclusively one or the other. Many people's political opinions were set in stone from this time on - a "them and us" mindset.

In many of these communities, law and order ceased to exist. The police were largely distrusted. Justice, such as it was, was dished out by the paramilitaries. This vigilantism was often extremely brutal, with victims being kneecapped (shot in the knees), beaten or tarred and feathered.

One of the great unspoken truths of the Troubles is that it was a working class war. The leafy middle class suburbs of Belfast and other cities remained untouched by the worst of it all.

Extraordinary normality

In Belfast, security gates were erected around the shopping area in the city centre to try and prevent the planting of bombs. Many people accustomed to life in Northern Ireland found themselves opening their bags or standing, arms outstretched, ready to be frisked when visiting places like London, Dublin or New York. Force of habit.

What was totally abnormal elsewhere in the western world became normal in Northern Ireland. Our lives were circumscribed by the extraordinary, which became just ordinary. People adapt very quickly. Ask anyone who survived the Blitz in London, or who endured the first few Berlin winters after the Second World War. The extraordinary becomes humdrum in no time at all.

Helicopters, for instance. Everyone who led in every other respect conventional lives in Belfast through the Troubles had the sound of hovering army helicopters as the quiet soundtrack of their existence. We simply stopped noticing the noise.

Leisure and leaving the country

In the 1970s, areas that once were buzzing became deserted in the dark hours; people thought they were too dangerous. In Belfast for instance, the permanent steel gates around the city centre were closed not long after 6pm and very few pubs and cinemas stayed open. Hotels on the outskirts of the city became the venues for dancing, cabaret and a meal, although these too were to become terrorist targets. At the weekend, many headed to Dublin or to seaside resorts over the border in County Donegal. It was quite astonishing how different life was in the Republic of Ireland during this time.

These were the darkest days, though things would begin to ease. The Belfast Festival at Queen's was influential in bringing artists of world renown to perform for large (and very grateful) audiences when many big acts were reluctant to visit Northern Ireland. The re-opening of Belfast's main theatre, the Grand Opera House, after eight years of closure helped to spark a regeneration of the surrounding area to the point where it became known as "the strip" in the 1980s.

The triumphs of local sporting heroes gave us all a lift, be it Olympic gold for Mary Peters, boxing world titles for Barry McGuigan or World Championship wins for Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor in the snooker. Yet in Northern Ireland, sport had the ability to divide as well as unite.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was seen by many as a wholly Catholic and actually downright anti-British organisation. Catholics found it difficult to find an Irish League football club to follow, until population movement brought it to Cliftonville in the late 1970s. Security concerns had forced Derry City to leave the league in 1972, while Northern Ireland's home soccer internationals were played in England between 1971 and 1975 with their opponents reluctant to travel to Belfast.

Throughout the Troubles, people went on getting married and being born. The number of marriages was largely unchanged through the worst of the violence, but there was a sharp decline in the number of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants.

In short, people who couldn't get out, or didn't want to, tried to live just the same as anyone else.

Many others, of course, did get out, either over the border to the Republic of Ireland or other parts of the UK. There was a joke at one time about the "NIPPLE" (Northern Ireland Professional Person Living in England), but the so-called brain drain was a serious side-effect of the Troubles. Nonetheless, the population still grew from 1.4m in 1961 to 1.8m in 2011. This was a greater rate of increase in population growth than in England and Wales over the same period.

Living with the legacy

One of the great untold stories of the Troubles was the fair employment legislation brought in by Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King during the 1980s, when the government of Margaret Thatcher was in power. In the 1960s, it was common for a job advertisement to state "only Protestants need apply". Now, that sort of thing is illegal and more Catholics and Protestants work together than ever before.

The two communities have moved closer together in some respects. More leisure venues are mixed and more sports are mixed. Yet the veneer of normality is thin. We might want to live together, but most still wish to live in areas "of our own". The Belfast working classes in particular prefer the safety behind the peace walls to the uncertainties of mixed living.

It is impossible to shake off the fears of at least twenty generations in the short time since the ceasefires. And so the Troubles, while no longer perhaps the dominant factor of everyday life in Northern Ireland, continue to exert a considerable influence.

Denis Murray was writing in February 2013