This week we’re meeting Bronagh McAtasney from Newry in Northern Ireland. For the last five years she’s been sharing the diary she kept in 1981 via the Twitter account @NrnIrnGirl1981.
Tell us how you got to a place where you wanted to share your diaries.
The Twitter account was just a fun thought I had after my sister found my old diary from 1981. We read through it and laughed at all the drama and old memories. I thought it would be something interesting to share in some way. I had noticed other diary accounts and it seemed like such a good way to share a diary in those little daily chunks. The 140 character limit is ideal for editing thoughts down to a concise form. I’ve had to edit the entries down quite a bit but I enjoy picking what I think makes for the best reading.
What made you start keeping a diary?
The diary from 1981 is the only one I kept for a year. I got the actual diary for Christmas 1980. It’s really small – a pocket diary with a page a day on that lovely, almost transparent paper you find in prayer books. I recorded everything in it. The Twitter entries are really such a small part of each day’s writing. And I kept it religiously for that year, only tiring a bit around November.
What was your life like at the time?
I was 13 when I started. And I suppose I was “lucky” in a way that it happened to be a tumultuous time in Northern Ireland. I had journalistic aspirations too so I recorded all kinds of news events. Northern Ireland was a dangerous place then, and my home town of Newry was one of the most volatile places to live. Something seemed to happen almost every day and the biggest event was the IRA Hunger Strikes of that year. Like most children in Northern Ireland, I wasn’t directly affected by the Troubles but I lived with it daily and thought little of it. In hindsight, it was a crazy place to live but then, it was just our lives.
Like many of us, you religiously wrote the chart down each week. What made you start doing this?
At 13, I was just getting into music. I was a huge fan of Madness and one day in Dublin, I found a “Pop Diary” in a shop. During my teenage years, I had quite bad OCD and lists and organising information was one of my compulsions. This leant itself perfectly to that and I started to record the Top 20. Like everyone else, I taped the charts but I then scribbled the chart listings down and copied them into my book.
You had an elaborate review system didn’t you?
There was a rating column so I had to think of a way to do that and the star system was perfect. My ratings were one to four stars although I varied it a bit with Madness getting dozens and anything heavy metal getting a minus rating!
When my little pop diary ran out of space, I drew up my own and kept them for another six years. Then my brother kept them for a bit longer after that.
The ratings always get the most comments. It’s so funny how upset people still get over Black Lace getting four stars when some classic or another only got two, but that was how I felt at the time and I love that it generates some fun conversations on Twitter. Music is so evocative of a time and place that people are immediately transported back to then and hearing those memories gives me a lot of pleasure.
How did you feel when you first began to read the diaries in adulthood?
I loved it. I was right back to there in an instant. They were funny and over-dramatic but I knew that they really captured me at the time. I never pitied myself although I did cringe quite a few times!
What approach have you taken to sharing your diaries?
Initially I just read each day and chose what I thought worked. As I went on, some narratives did appear (Valentine’s Day, the Hunger Strikes), so I transcribed everything and was then able to edit what I put in. The greatest challenge has been what to leave out and how to get it into 140 characters. I have overflowed into two or three tweets but only a couple of times, when the day’s events really needed to be shared as entirely as possible.
How did it feel when you first let someone else read your diaries?
I was fine about sharing. Although I know it’s me, it still feels like a different person and because I knew the “ending” was fine, I didn’t fret about it.
What kind of reception have you had?
The reception has been unreal! I can’t believe it. For some reason, it has really captured people’s hearts and that is a wonderful thing. For me, the best part has been hearing other stories, sharing diary entries and reliving memories that are so common to all of us no matter where we live. And people are so often most captured by the tiny details such as a type of clothing or the stories of teenage “romance”. I really love that.
I’ve done loads of things and met some amazing people thanks to the diary. I’ve spoken at lots of events, was the guest speaker at my school’s A Level Prizegiving. I’ve been awarded grants, worked with the BBC, spoke to a class in Belgium. All kinds of great opportunities that I could never have imagined when I started this.
What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?
It means different things to different people. Academics want to talk about the historical events, music people love the charts. People comment on every aspect and I still chat to someone every day about whatever has come up recently. It’s just been incredible and at times very moving.
Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?
No. The only thing I do is use initials for people. I’m very aware that other people did not ask to be included in this and deserve their privacy. That said, I’ve had old friends contact me when they recognise themselves and others remonstrating with me because they didn’t make it in!
Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?
So many! The entire Valentine’s Day saga is hilarious. I love the entries about me and my siblings – we fought and played as all do and they’re very touching now. I’ve really just repeated the diary on a loop for five years now and every time I think I should stop, someone new finds it and we have a little chat about something. So even the most boring entry – which I think it was important to have – evokes something for me or someone else.
What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?
Oh I cringe a lot! I was so dramatic – every illness meant imminent death, I would NEVER have a boyfriend! But I like 13 year old me still.
If you could return to 1981 and give your 13-year-old self any advice, what would it be?
I would definitely tell myself to keep more diaries! And that everything would be OK and even that there would be peace in Northern Ireland which I remember being something I thought we would never have.
I’ve published my diary in full in book form – is this something you would consider?
I’ve thought about this and talked myself in and out of it. I worry that because it doesn’t have a nice tidy arc, it wouldn’t read well. I was approached by publishers who wanted me to rewrite the story and add things that didn’t happen such as meeting Madness, but that didn’t sit well with me as I worried it would undermine the authenticity of the diary.
I would love to do something with it though. I am talking to a theatre group about it being a play which would be fun but really I think it would be great on radio – that would be brilliant.