Author Q & A: Tony Doherty | Bord Gáis Energy Book Club

Author Q & A: Tony Doherty

Tony Doherty was instrumental in setting up the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign in 1992, which led in 2010 to the exoneration of his father and the others killed and wounded on Bloody Sunday, and to a public apology from the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons. His book, ‘This Wee Man’s Boy, is out now and tells the inspiring story of life in a working class Catholic family in Derry during the troubles.

Q: What was your inspiration for ‘This Wee Man’s Boy’?

I suppose I always had a feeling I had a book in me, given the circumstances of my upbringing and the experiences I had as a child. Memories stuck with me and the senses that go along with memories have stayed with me as well. For instance, every time I smell burnt diesel in a garage or a breaker’s yard I become immediately transported back to the early 1970s and barricades in the Brandywell or Creggan which were often made up of old (or not so old!) lorries, buses and cars, and set alight.

The real spark though that led directly to me beginning to write was a casual conversation across the kitchen table with my wife one Saturday afternoon in September 2013 (during Derry’s tremendous year of Culture) about the fortunes of today’s generation of children and the vast differences of their experiences compared to our own upbringing and street experiences of a few decades ago.

I began telling her of my first experience of death when a wee boy in our Primary Four class died after being crushed under a British army truck and how my father contrived to break the news to me. For some reason I had never told the story to anyone before as it lay partially covered up in my mind since July 1971. After a while she said “You should write that down, it’s a really great story”. It was as simple as that.

From that point onwards I went and spoke to a few people who would know better than me about writing and the idea of a book began to form. By the Spring of 2014 I had most of my Ps and Qs together in my head and started to write.

Q: This is a very personal story, was it difficult to write?

In some ways, yes it was and in other ways there was great pleasure in the difficulty. I have really enjoyed rediscovering myself as a child, remembering how I felt about this or that and meeting up with my childhood friends as five and six-year olds. My thinking back and ramblings through the lónáns of my memory have also brought me closer to my father and my mother. I think it’s great that I have got to know him again from refreshed memory. This was aided by a collection of family photos that my Uncle Eugene gave me – mostly of my ma and da as a young couple in their 20s in the Brandywell and in my granny’s house in Creggan.

There was genuine difficulty too though. I remember I was bringing the first draft of the book to a close in December 2014 and told Stephanie, my wife, that I would shortly be writing about my father’s death and she said “You’re not going to be writing about it in the mouth of Christmas, are you?” – more of a statement than a question, mind you! So yes, I found that piece hard and even today when I read the chapter I have to hold it at a distance and tackle it a piece at a time. We all talk about moving on and so on and like to think it’s a good thing, which it is, but the memory stays the same and memory is made up of emotions. Suffice to say I don’t visit the place of this particular memory too often. It’s not good for you.

 Q: How did your family feel about you writing a memoir? 

They were very supportive and keen to help when I sought it. Karen, my eldest sister, was of great help as she had the benefit of a longer memory than mine. She was great on the Elvis poster chapter as I had forgotten a lot of the detail which she gladly filled in for me. My mother died in August 2014 and hadn’t been keeping great since the start of the year. I spent many a day in the Spring of that year going over her own memories of my father, her own childhood and us growing up in Moore Street.

My younger brother Paul was also very helpful and supportive and remembered things that I didn’t. My aunts and uncles, mostly of my mother’s side, were and still are intrigued about me writing. I suppose it’s not many a family that have a book written about them. On my father’s side my aunt Maureen, now in her 80s, was of immense help especially in keeping me on the straight and narrow of the Presbyterian grand-parentage on her side. In the midst of it all I found out from her that my great grandfather was killed while serving with the British army in Flanders Fields in August 1917. This revelation, while highly interesting given the year that’s in it, has got me thinking in a literary fashion about other project possibilities. I’m a slow thinker but tend to keep on the track until I get to wherever I’m going, so you never know what will come of it. So, in the writing and the want of finding out about myself I have gained a great-granda who was born Presbyterian and married Mary, a Catholic, who reared their seven children in number 4 Hamilton Street, the same street that I was brought up in.

 Q: You have been very involved in community regeneration in Derry. What kind of feedback have you received for the book locally?

I’ve worked in Derry for most of my career but am now working regionally throughout the north. There is great interest locally in what I’m doing and it’s safe to say that there is great anticipation of the book coming into print. It’s not many people that I told about what I was doing when I was doing it. To be honest, I was taking a stab in the dark with the book and, until Mercier were happy to give me a contract, I couldn’t be certain that it was going to be any good, so I kept it to a small band, or a chosen few. News of the book has grown especially in the last few months. When I tweeted the book cover very recently and when my other half posted it on Facebook there was phenomenal feedback. I just hope they like it when they read it! But seriously, my confidence over the book has grown in recent times and I am now confident that it will go down well locally and further afield.

My background, naturally enough, isn’t that well known outside Derry and the north west, but it’ll be interesting to see how people pick up on it given that I move and work in a range of settings.

 Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who have a personal story to tell?

One of the best pieces of advice that I received when I went in pursuit of it was to read, read and read more. You cannot write unless you read as many genres as you can. One of the first things I was advised to read was Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. This book will prove a revelation for young, or not so young (I’m 53) aspiring writers and is a must.

The other piece of advice is to believe in what you’re doing, which is rich for me as I wrote most of ‘This Man’s Wee Boy’ thinking “nobody’s going to want to read this”. So you have to deal with self-doubt. What you are writing has to be of interest to you: it has to put you to bed at night and get you up in the morning. If it keeps you motivated the chances are that others will like what they read and will want put themselves into your life or into your head.

One of the best books I read was Mary Karr’s ‘The Liar’s Club’. This is how it should be done in my book! Also at the top are Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ and Séamus Deane’s ‘Reading in the Dark’. Read them and see how the other half lived!

Q: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

‘On the Dangerous Edge of Things’ by Candida Lycett Green. I wish I had read this before I started writing about my own life. It evokes the world of her rural English childhood, nature, the unknown, the fanciful, life’s journey of discovery, family and characters and is a treasure. I’ll read it again in time and breathe into my lungs someone else’s life.

 Q: Who would be in your dream book club?

Ernest Hemingway would chair it and not let anyone else speak and he would get a clip on the ear from Brendan Behan for his trouble! The other members would be Kirsty Warke from BBC2, Miriam O’Callaghan from RTE and Cathy Newman from Channel 4. Finally, the lesser-known members would be Amanda Doherty, who is no relation of mine but could be anybody’s slightly eccentric aunt, and Mickey Dobbins who is literally a fellow traveler of mine.