‘The metal door of Cell 5 clanged heavily behind me. I realised I was in someone else’s space as I eyed the resident prisoner for the first time. In effect, I had just moved into his bedsit. It was 1 March 1981’
– The Skelper and Me
[ About the Book ]
From a young age, Tony Doherty has lived in the shadow of his father’s execution on Bloody Sunday. At 18 he found himself facing long-term imprisonment, yet the soldier who shot his father was a free man.
The Skelper and Me is no ordinary memoir. It is a triumph of working class resolve and resilience over the last bastion of Empire. Epitomising the old adage that ‘if you didn’t laugh you’d cry,’ it sallies forth as a fascinating and compelling story of prison life, making a willing inmate of the reader, weaving a tapestry of the lives of his young cellmates, who never deserved such a life, but whose very existence played out, often hilariously, sometimes painfully, and at close quarter behind the steel door of Cell 5, Crumlin Road.
Upon returning to a war-torn Derry in 1985, freedom had a more liberating effect on him and others than he had anticipated. As his family saw qualities in him that he hadn’t realised, he began to pick up the pieces of his battered but unbroken home town, locked in bitter stalemate. At his father’s cross on Creggan Hill, he promised to make right out of the wrong. The epic struggle that followed changed the course of history.
[ My Thoughts ]
The Skelper and Me: A memoir of making history in Derry by Tony Doherty was published with Mercier Press October 2019. Having read and reviewed The Dead Beside Us : A Memoir of Growing up in Derry, Book 2 in this trilogy, I was delighted to get the opportunity to read more about Tony Doherty’s life in Derry during those very challenging years.
Bloody Sunday was the day that changed the course of a young boy’s life forever. In January 1972, Paddy ‘The Skelper’ Doherty, Tony Doherty’s father, was one of 14 who lost their lives on the streets of Derry. The after-effects of that tragic day was to have a huge impact on the lives of many families but for Tony Doherty it was a catalyst for him to join up, to take an oath to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) eight years later.
“As I faced the Irish tricolour I was duly warned that my prospects were imprisonment, life on the run or death”
For Tony, his time with the IRA was short-lived, as he was arrested a few months later for an attempted bombing of a furniture shop in Derry. His time spent in Long Kesh prison affected him in many ways and in this memoir he recounts the characters he encountered, loyalist and nationalist. He explains in great details how his days were spent in his cell and the banter that was the norm between the prisoners at the time. Humour was the saving grace of many in those days as they all attempted to survive as best they could the confinement and the distance from their families. Tony Doherty regales some hilarious tales from those days but there is also an underlying sadness evident in his words.
When Tony left prison he returned to Derry in 1985 a changed man. On visiting his father’s grave he made a promise that he would clear his father’s name, leading him to set up a campaign for an inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Tony Doherty is the chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust and his sustained campaign in searching for the truth, alongside the other relatives of the victims, is now well documented. The Saville Inquiry was set up in 1998 and was to become the longest inquiry in British legal history. It is now widely accepted that the actions taken that day against a group of unarmed civil rights marchers were unjustified.
“Are we marked forever by our history? As I grew older I often asked myself whether history had made me who I was, and would I, in turn, make history with that?”
Reading Tony Doherty’s memoir is fascinating. As a young boy his mother did her best to cope, to protect him from the troubles gathering momentum, following that tragic day in 1972 but the seed was planted..
“In the weeks after me da was suddenly taken from us, I believed even more that this whole life thing just had to be a weird experiment beyond my knowing or control, and that, someday soon, someone would bring him safely home, letting me in on the conspiracy… I felt his loss each morning for long afterwards, in the gap between blissful sleep and awakening to the new dawn, knowing that he was gone forever”
The Skelper and Me is a memoir but it is also an education, an informative read with first hand experiences well documented. No one could come through such an experience unscathed and it really is a testament to Tony Doherty’s strength of character that he managed to redirect his path and travel the road of peace instead of the alternative. At the back of the book there is a postscript that Tony Doherty added during the editing process, as he felt it important to refer to three events, one being the murder of Lyra McKee, where Tony Doherty makes a very poignant statement.
“It truly is time to stop. The young people of Derry deserve a better future“
I am from the South of Ireland, a child of the 70s who really hadn’t a care in the world. My life was very different to many of the kids my own age who grew up in the North. I have no political affiliation. Reading these books, as well as been educational, has been disturbing, shocking and very sad. Tony Doherty’s writing is very perceptive and concise, an intelligent portrait of the transformation of a young innocent boy into a powerhouse of a man with a wish for peace. The Skelper And Me is a book I highly recommended to all with an interest in social and political history. A very affecting and courageous memoir.
“You cannot go far in Derry without walking into your own history”
[ About The Author ]
Tony Doherty grew up in the Brandywell area of Derry, a small, Catholic, working-class community that both his mother and father were from. He was instrumental in setting up a grass-roots campaign in 1992 which led, in 2010, to the exoneration of his father’s name and all those killed and wounded on Bloody Sunday, and to a public apology from British Prime Minister David Cameron. Tony works as the Regional Coordinator of the Healthy Living Centre Alliance and is involved in reform of the health service.
Twitter ~ @tonydutchdoc