A monument that demands to be read

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Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton (Mainstream £25)

Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton (Mainstream £25)

John Patrick Scullion was the first. The 28-year-old storeman was shot after closing time on 10 June 1966, outside the house in the Falls district where he lived with his blind father and an elderly aunt. It happened as tensions were rising in the Province: the reforms of Captain Terence O'Neill, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, were too slow for nationalists and too fast for unionists. Alarmed, the Ulster Volunteer Force began a series of petrol bomb attacks and murders, one of which made John Scullion the first recorded casualty of the war we still coyly refer to as "The Troubles". And his crime? To be noisy from drink in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Weaving his way home after a night in a bar off the Falls Road, Scullion dropped a coin and fell over as he bent to pick it up. Somebody heard him sing "The Sash", a traditional loyalist song. Meanwhile, a UVF gang of three was patrolling the Falls Road looking for a man known to be a member of the IRA - but their intended victim stayed with a crowd outside a pub, which made it too dangerous to get at him. So they drove on, into the back streets, where the unfortunate Scullion crossed the road in front of their car. By now the drunken man had changed his tune, and was shouting "Up the Republic! Up the rebels!"

Two shots were fired. Scullion stumbled into his house, but collapsed at the top of the stairs, where he was found by his aunt. He died in hospital at six the next morning. The funeral was huge, and televised, but it was followed by so many more. Five years ago a cousin told the Irish News that although he was the first, "We feel that he has been forgotten. When the record or the story of the Troubles comes out he will never be mentioned."

Not so, it seems. The family will be comforted in some way, like so many others, by Lost Lives, a monumental book that has taken eight years to compile. Here is the story of the Troubles, told in painstaking, heartbreaking detail, from the perspective of the victims and their loved ones. Each of the 3,600 lives lost since the shooting of John Scullion is recorded and listed by date. First comes the name and place of birth: James Seymour of Tyrone, for example. Then the bare biographical facts - "civilian, Protestant, 55, married, two children" - followed by a sketch of how that person got caught up in the killing. The entries are dispassionate and non-judgemental, and read like an encyclopedia of death. James Seymour was an RUC man, shot in the head by the IRA in May 1973, and paralysed. Many of the stories have a twist, an unexpected outcome or a little quote from a relative that breaks down the formality, the layers of cynicism that we have grown for self-protection over the years. Sometimes it's like meeting the families face to face. "He could smile and he could cry, but those were the only emotions he had," said Seymour's sister-in-law. "He couldn't speak and he couldn't eat. There was never any hope of Jim making a recovery." He lay in a hospital bed, unable to move. Until merciful death came, his wife visited him every day. For 22 years.

For those of us who live away from Northern Ireland, who know it only as a name on the bulletins, a place that looks familiar but whose people seem so alien, so full of strange, murderous anger, Lost Lives is a revelation. It has been so easy to turn our eyes from all the killing, to dismiss it as what goes on "over there" (except for when the bombs reach the mainland, at which point the impetus for peace always seems to increase suddenly) but nobody who reads this book can turn away again.

Familiar names like Bobby Sands and Gusty Spence are here; but they and events such as Bloody Sunday are almost downplayed. This version of the Troubles is not about the rage of Paisley or the rise of Adams. It is not about internment, hunger strikes, or the fortunes of successive Northern Ireland ministers - although the cumulative effect of the stories, in chronological order, is to offer an alternative context for each of those. The genius of this book, the unique and precious insight it offers, is a way of seeing behind and beyond the headlines and into the lives and deaths of ordinary people, dying in circumstances that ought to be extraordinary.

This history has not been written by the victors - if there are any - but by those who have heard the voices of the victims. Inevitably, it is the sacrifice of children that tears most strongly at the reader's heart. Patrick Rooney, the first child to die, was lying in his bed at home in August 1969. The nine-year-old was hit by one of 13 tracer bullets fired into his block of flats by a machine-gun mounted on a Royal Ulster Constabulary armoured car. How would you react if the police did that to your child? A tribunal later found that the shooting was "not justified".

Neither, surely, was the death of 12-year-old Tim Parry at the hands of the IRA in 1993. He was going to buy a pair of football shorts when a bomb exploded at the Gold Square shopping centre in Warrington. No political gains justify such terrorism even in war. It is hard to imagine who will read this 1,600-page volume from cover to cover. It is hard to imagine who could do so without breaking down in sorrow and frustration. But, in whatever portions are bearable, it demands to be read. The authors have spent years quarrying newspapers and other reports, seeking details and clarification in a province that has no central record of murder cases, and where inquests are closed. Money from the Joseph Rowntree Trust and the Ireland Funds finally made the book possible, along with the bravery of Mainstream - after other publishing houses had declined the manuscript. The authors, all distinguished journalists and commentators with long experience of the Troubles (David McKittrick is the Northern Ireland correspondent of The Independent), admit to having shed tears while writing it.

"So many people have been treated unkindly by fate," they write. "At least two women have lost two life-partners, both killed years apart. One woman survived a shooting but lost her unborn child which was buried, in a tiny light-blue coffin, in unconsecrated ground next to a graveyard only yards from her home. Over and over again, the 'wrong' people died. A nine-year-old Londonderry boy, playing with his brother, upset a tripwire in his garden and set off a bomb which killed him. A man burst into a house in Belfast, shot dead the occupant and exclaimed, 'Christ, I'm in the wrong house'."

Published as the peace process seems yet again to be reaching end games, this may be the most important and significant book of the year. There has never been another which told the story of each individual life lost in a conflict, let alone one lasting a quarter of a century. The authors did it, they say, "as a lasting reminder that war is hell". The phrase is a cliché, almost laughable in its naivety when used in other contexts. But to read Lost Lives is to see into hell, and to long for the people of Northern Ireland to finally be delivered from its fires.

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