In Donegal, in the late 1950s, a girl who likes snogging boys but knows little of sex is hiding from nuns and priests by crouching in a car. To her, it was beyond conceiving what a nun or priest might think she was doing. Patricia Craig's memoir of a teenage "escapade with disproportionate consequences" tells how gossip returned to Belfast about the behaviour of girls at summer school in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht region. That gossip led to the expulsion of Craig and her friends from St Dominic's on the Falls Road.
This is a story of how things are judged at a remove and how people live in a kind of snug ignorance of one another. Indeed, Craig is complicit in drawing veils too. Her best friend then was Rita O'Hare, here renamed Olivia. Rita went on to get shot at the scene of an IRA ambush on British soldiers and to skip bail on a charge of attempted murder. She is one of the longest-running fugitives from justice in these islands.
Patricia, in Donegal, is scrambling out the window to snog boys behind turf stacks. She is wrapped in layers of jumpers to protect her flesh from grasping hands, because she has limits in mind. But Olivia tells her that in her house, boys are coming into their beds. Are they having full sex? We are prompted to wonder at what can actually be known. Down the years, Craig was confronted with the rumours of hers and Rita's expulsions, as imagined in retellings that portray her as precocious and voracious. She admits that she may have been sexually unnerving in ways she was unconscious of.
Craig has been accused of a failure to understand the nuns and the character of Catholic Ireland at that time. All of us who write from memory of that Catholic darkness find it vigorously defended. But nuns decided that Patricia as a teenager was a dangerous slut, a moral contamination of their school. For that attack, she has responded with bemusement and anger: "Kindness is not a quality I associate with nuns. My nuns didn't have it in them." Not everyone of that generation remembers the nuns as harshly as that, but then, not everyone was discarded by them as viciously as Patricia Craig was.
Malachi O'Doherty's latest book is 'The Telling Year: Belfast 1972' (Gill & Macmillan)
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