Many of my readers will know what the 1990s in Northern Ireland was like, I myself was only a nipper but I can recall memories and experiences that have stayed with me. The 90s kids in Northern Ireland were really straddled between a period of violence and another that wished for peace. Amongst the riots, bomb-scares, paramilitary activity and social deprivation, the 90s childhood in Northern Ireland was actually pretty good. We were the last generation of children that played outside, we were fearless and street-smart, we could name everyone who lived in our street, we had dogs in our gangs, we weren’t afraid of getting dirty and we had respect for our elders.
When I’m feeling nostalgic, I tend to think back on my childhood and to the things we got up to. I recall who my old friends were and to summer days spent building huts on the Black Mountain, or having snowball fights when it snowed. We rode our bikes up and down Moyard hill, thrill seeking at how fast we could go and we played two-man hunt at the weekends with at least 10 other kids. There were Friday night discos at Newhill Club raving away to Alice DJ and your £3 pay for the week would have gotten you a tin of coke, packet of crisps, a Fredo and you would have had change left to buy more sweets at the local houseshop the next day. We were very inventive as we made our own fun out of anything we could find, from making lamppost swings out of rope, building kites out of Spar bags and granny’s wool, and pea-shooter guns out of plastic bottles, rubber gloves and sellotape. It was also the era that seen the coco cola yo-yos, tamagotchis and gelly pens. I smile at how basic and joyous it all was.
However, when reflecting back as an adult to the social context of our childhood, 90s children, as well as those from previous generations in Northern Ireland, were a paradox. We were innocent but at the same time corrupt. Victims to our sectarian society but relishing in its chaos.
Young boys who were brave enough would go up to a ‘peeler’ and ask him “…can I see your gun Mr?” and for a moment, the boy and the peeler would be the best of mates. Alas, this friendship would be short-lived, as once the peeler and his squad get back into their jeep, the young boy and his friends would then ‘brick ’em’ with anything they could throw. This might sound strange to anyone who is not from Northern Ireland but think about it this way. Children copy their older peers, they want to join in on their activities and to feel validated. Children who grew up in a Nationalist/Republican area in those days knew there was a ‘war’ against the British. They heard their dads, brothers and uncles talk about these things at home. So as far as they were concerned, they were doing their bit to fight the British by throwing that stone. All is fair in love and war.
Despite this though, there were those around us who tried to preserve our innocence as much as possible. Community youth work was and still remains today, one of the strongest areas within Northern Ireland’s voluntary sector. During the 1990s, Belfast’s ‘joyriding’ scene had peaked, and residents in West-Belfast were subjected to nightly mayhem with screeching wheels and car chases. Community initiatives sought to provide alternative diversions to the youth through local club houses and resident schemes. In Moyard, where I grew up, community leaders would work along aside the public funded Matt Tablot Youth Club in organising events and activities, particularly during the summer months. Therefore, family-friendly street parties, sports days and trips to funfairs, parks and seaside towns were a common occurrence of the 90s childhood, and they make up some of my best memories.
One defining moment in the life of all of Northern Ireland’s 90s kids was the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Although we may not have known the significance of it all then, our grandparents and parents had provided us with the opportunity to be the first generation of children to grow-up in relative peace. From then, Northern Ireland has seen dramatic changes. Regeneration and social development has transformed the region, particularly the cities of Belfast and Derry, and local housing estates have been cleaned up. Northern Ireland’s transition from a conflicted society has brought some drawbacks though – communities are no longer what they once were. Like other societies, I guess the effects of globalisation and technological advancements had disintegrated the unique community spirit that could be found in Northern Ireland. The children of 1990s Northern Ireland were truly lucky to be one of the last generations to experience it.
Despite all the negative aspects of our society back then, I wouldn’t change a thing about our childhood. We’re unique in that we’ve had our ‘foot in two places’ – the past with all it’s lessons and the future, bringing with us positive and progressive perspectives to work towards a better society for the next generations.