Dr. Gareth Mulvenna needs no introduction to readers of this blog, but one thing they might not be aware of is that he has launched a new podcast with fellow researcher Sam McIlwaine. Titled Shrapnel, it is available on Apple Podcasts and describes its mission statement as a podcast looking “…at pieces of the past in Northern Ireland . . . bring you the voices and conversations that aren't given a platform by the mainstream media.”
Once again, I am grateful to Dr. Mulvenna for taking time to answer these questions.
CO: What was the impetus behind starting up the Shrapnel Podcast?
GM: Around five and a half years ago Sam contacted me on Twitter, and we started chatting about the current state of loyalism and some of the historical aspects of my research. We then met up in a KFC for a coffee and a solid friendship blossomed from there. We started going for regular walks and chatted about the topics above but also about our shared experiences of mental health and anxiety. We often talked about how brilliant it would be to invite other people into the conversation to get another dimension on what we were talking about. Sam comes from the Shankill and identifies as a loyalist and a socialist, I come from north Belfast and find it difficult to identify as anything. Sam is a few years older than me, and we come from very different backgrounds, but as adults we have shared concerns and interests, and these are what drove us to realise ‘we aren’t hearing these conversations reflected in the mainstream media’ so we need to take the challenge onboard ourselves and see where it goes.
Brian Smyth of the Green Party was on the Echo Chamber podcast around the time of the April 2021 riots, and he recommended me to Tony and Martin. I could talk about what was happening within loyalism at that time to a southern audience with a degree of expertise given my background in research and writing, but I felt that they could benefit from hearing from Sam. I think initially Sam was a bit reticent to raise his head above the parapet, but he soon realised that people need to understand that loyalists aren’t Neanderthals; that’s the public misconception, which I feel is driven by the media and commentators. Of course, there are some loyalists who play straight into that by acting to the stereotypes.
CO: What do you hope to achieve with it?
GM: We hope to look at how the past has shaped the current state of loyalism and unionism. Shrapnel was a name we decided on to reflect the idea that damage spreads out and inflicts pain on a large number of people; that painful events in the past can determine peoples’ feelings about the society they currently inhabit. It’s about giving a platform to people who speak a bit of sense and don’t just say what’s popular for likes and adulation. It doesn’t mean we are always going to speak to people who agree with either of us. Sam and I would disagree on many issues, and although I have written about loyalism, I’d certainly be no cheerleader for it. However, I have said before, I have empathy for people I’ve worked with on storytelling and oral history. These voices need to be heard. It always grinds my gears when the same commentators, with a few notable exceptions, are trotted out by the BBC and UTV to say the same meaningless thing every time. It’s easy to be there on the outside throwing brickbats and adopting an almost smug attitude toward communities that you have very little experience of, and it’s what I see happening quite a lot these days.
But Shrapnel isn’t just about loyalism and unionism; we want to talk about men’s mental health and addiction. We want to hear from people who are very often bypassed by the press and media. It’s easy to go on Twitter and inflame peoples’ feelings by typing out a few stanzas of bile; its less easy to go face to face with other human beings and explain yourself. We aren’t going to be adversarial, but we won’t let people off the hook if we think they need to be challenged.
CO: Is it a rebrand of Hidden Histories, or something separate?
GM: Something separate, totally. Myself and Sam collaborated on the penultimate episode of HH with the chat we had with Brian Allaway, but this is a very different beast. I’d still like to do something purely Troubles-focused, but I’m increasingly finding the subject emotionally exhausting. It’s taken its toll.
CO: In the climate, where podcasts are overtaking the mainstream media, what do you see as positive and negative aspects of the industry and are there issues that would solely apply to here?
GM: I think there is always a role for mainstream media, but I’m glad to see the playing field being levelled. When Lyra McKee started crowdfunding ten years ago, she came in for some criticism from a few journalists who were of the opinion ‘she hasn’t got her stripes yet’. Lyra knew the sands were shifting and she was a visionary in many respects. If you have a voice, if you have a story, if you have the abilities to write and talk to people then do it. Yes, having the background in journalism is nice, but some people don’t have the luxury of studying again. Ever since I was 11 or so I wanted to be a journalist. When I was sent to the Sunday World as a 17-year-old on a work experience placement it shattered my understanding of journalism and what I had anticipated it to be. I was lucky enough to work closely with Marty O’Hagan and I really liked him, and big Jim McDowell was personable enough, but the others were aloof, arrogant and disinterested. I’ve had a few minor scrapes with newspapers over the years – whether it be them misrepresenting me, or as in the case of the Belfast Telegraph, ignoring my pitches completely, and sadly those experiences just reinforced my feelings about local journalism.
Now, there are many journalists I hugely admire. People like Rodney Edwards, Henry McDonald, Malachi O’Doherty and Freya McClements, but I feel that too many journalists bring their prejudice and agenda into their writing, and that isn’t good for us as a society.
I suppose the big problem with podcasts is quality control, and that’s one of the downsides of the democratisation process. Anyone anywhere can get a podcasting kit and the next day their podcast will be on Spotify or iTunes. Some of the absolute shit I have listened to about Northern Ireland is incredible. There’s no quality control, no thought given to basics such as facts. But the important thing is that if you can do it right, and I think me and Sam are doing that with the guidance of Tony and Martin of the Tortoise Shack/Echo Chamber, then the world is your oyster. And if someone comes behind us and does it better, then that’s good for us.
CO: Are there other podcasts related to NI that you would recommend?
GM: I really like Stray Bullets by E.S. Haggan. He’s a former RUC officer who channels his PTSD and anxiety about what he experienced in service during the 1980s into fantastic pieces of writing and memory which translate evocatively to the podcast medium. To be honest Chris, I find that when I’m listening to podcasts – which is often – I like something a bit different to what I research and write about. My favourites are The Price of Football, The Adam Buxton Podcast and Faculty of Horror.
CO: In relation to men's mental health, you've written about how you are often contacted by men around the same age as us whose fathers has been in paramilitary organisations, but never discussed it with the family. Can you elaborate on why you think this is a potential time bomb not only in terms of legacy but mental health as well?
GM: I was contacted a few years ago by one young man around the same age as myself whose father had been in jail for a very long time. His father had never talked to him or opened up about why he had been in jail, but the young man knew that he had been involved in loyalist paramilitarism in the 1970s. I knew of the fella’s dad – the case – and was able to advise him that there was material in the public domain. He was adamant that he wanted to know more, even though I warned him of the potential ‘pandora’s box’ effect. I showed him the newspaper article relating to his dad’s conviction and directed him to other sources such as the Public Record Office. Some people aren’t aware that they can apply to access these records under FOIA. The fella was obviously very shocked when he read the article, but he thanked me, and it allowed him to broach friends of his dad in Scotland who gave him a bit more context about what life was like in 1970s Belfast. I gave him a copy of Tartan Gangs as well, and he found that useful. I think it’s difficult for fathers and sons to communicate in general. Guys from my generation and before are very rarely encouraged to hug our dads or show any affection to them. That makes it harder to be deep in terms of conversations as well, I think.
Imagine what it must be like, though, knowing that your dad had been in jail for something during the Troubles, but you didn’t know how to broach the subject, or your dad couldn’t articulate what he had been through. That’s what the uncomfortable reality is in our society; that often the victim-makers are among the most damaged people and that can bleed into their families – intergenerational trauma like victims and their families. Male suicide rates are through the roof, and I think this is a further challenge within loyalist communities where you have all these guys who can’t talk to their children about what they were involved in because the community saw them as pariahs when they were released from jail. On the republican side there is more of a community spirit and former prisoners are welcomed back into the community; into the political machine; into cultural and sporting pursuits. There’s little of equivalence on the loyalist side – they are given an arm’s length by people and politicians, and that leads to an unhealthy cycle where people feel invalidated and young men further bottle up their feelings about who they are and where they’ve come from. I honestly think there’s a huge study to be done on the subject. Maybe it’s something the mental health champion can look at?
CO: In terms of what you're saying re. loyalist alienation from the wider Unionist community, this is something that has been expressed since, at least, the 70's. Yet, the likes of John Taylor (when interviewed for Loyalists) will freely admit that there is a sneaking regard within Unionism. This attitude, to me, not only suggests a huge double standard, but also an abusive relationship. Do you find such views are held by former loyalist prisoners, which then furthers the alienation?
GM: I think John Taylor ultimately speaks for himself. If you ask other unionists, they certainly wouldn't have the sneaking regard that he mentioned. It's difficult to analyse the unionist community in those black and white terms. Where this attitude does exist, it speaks to a massive double standard. Former loyalist prisoners, in general, or those I've spoken to, to be precise, don't have much time for the politicians. However, the politicians have always been good at whipping up tensions and blinding people with constitutional anxieties. There was an entire generation of loyalist militants who went through the cages of Long Kesh and who came out as political thinkers and community advocates. Their opportunities were stymied from the off though as the constitutional politicians were afraid of losing their power base. The PUP for example were talking to their constituencies about the issues that are directly relevant to their day to day lives and trying to make a difference by bringing normal politics to the fore. This can and has been swept away by the politics of fear as espoused by the large unionist parties. It's a never-ending cycle.
CO: Over the summer, we've seen a lot of discussions (most of them bad faith) on (where else) Twitter around legacy issues which has seemingly descended into a mixture of whataboutery, trolling and deliberate antagonism, even from so called respectable commentators. With the level of vitriol on display, do you see any hope for this place?
GM: Increasingly, no.
As I’ve said before, Twitter exposes the two chauvinisms on offer in this small place. Instead of trying to understand each other, they constantly seek to belittle one another, poking the proverbial bear and shovelling poisonous bile down each other’s throats. This isn’t just the domain of trolls; it has become mainstream and normalised in many instances. Thankfully I know that there are a lot of good people out there who come from different backgrounds who are working together, but loyalists feel that the roles have been reversed from the pre-Trouble’s era. They see republicans in the ascendancy, as triumphalist. What I would ask those people – the loyalists – is, how do you react positively rather than in a knee-jerk fashion as you have always done? They feel that even the moderates are on the side of republicans now. It’s very difficult for a community to absorb that level of negativity, either real or perceived, and have anything positive to say or do. We need more honest conversations across the board. Republicans will always want a united Ireland while very few loyalists would entertain the transition into a united Ireland. Irish history unfortunately demonstrates that people resort to arms when things don’t go their way. In that respect it’s more important than ever to realise the harm of rhetoric and not to get caught up in emotions. It's sad Christopher.
I’ve never once thought about leaving Northern Ireland, but over the past couple of years I’ve considered it – for my family more than anything. Our petty differences will always define us to some extent, and I am sure a lot of people are exhausted by it all; particularly those of us who either remember the violence of the Troubles or the tail end of it all.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.
⏩ Gareth Mulvenna is an historian of loyalism. Follow on Twitter @gmulvenna1980.