Today we’re meeting Shane McDonald a civil servant from Belfast who grew up in Armagh during the 80s and 90s. Since the start of this year he’s been sharing his 23 year old diary from 1995, the year he finished his A-Levels and went to Queen’s University in Belfast. He talks all things diaries, telling us why he’s going back to the 90s, the inspiration of ‘Derry Girls’ and what might happen next.
How old were you when you started keeping a diary and what made you start?
I was 12 when I first kept a diary for any substantial amount of time – for me that was about 2 weeks! I was a first year grammar school pupil. I was an unsporty, speccie nerd. I haven’t really changed. I’d watched the TV adaptations of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books a few years previous and I suppose I identified with the character, but also liked the idea of writing something to look back on – a recording of my life I could go to at any time. It’s always been in me to do this. The family didn’t have a video camera until later than a lot of folk, so I used to record things on a wee flat tape recorder my parents had. When I was 9 I made a half hour recording of me and my friend Chris one afternoon in April and made a conscious decision then to keep it as long as possible. I still have that tape and a lot of other tapes from that time. I haven’t listened to them in years but, like diaries, they’re always there for me.
How many years did you write your diaries for and how difficult was it to keep them going for that long?
I’ve kept a diary on and off for 28 years now – more off than on. My first proper diary was from March 1992 to August the same year. It wasn’t too difficult then because most nights I wanted to get to it to write down what happened and how I was feeling. A lot of things around then were happening for the first time for me and getting it all down on paper just seemed natural. It was the same for the 1995 diary which documents a full year. In fact, for me, any diary I keep for any length of time normally documents novel or exciting life events.
What about your diary keeping now?
I still try to keep a diary but find it difficult now as many of the entries would be of working days, one quite similar to the next. When I do write entries now it’s more thoughts than events of the day, and even that can be repetitive as one of my super-powers is procrastination, so what I wrote I was going to do 5 years ago is enragingly similar to what I still have to do!
However I do think if I made the effort to get into a habit of keeping a regular diary it would have a knock on effect to my life – that is, it would get me into other new habits. I mean, how many times can I write, “Didn’t go to the gym again like I said I would…again” before I decide, “Right, I have to have something different to write in that thing tonight. I’M GOING SKYDIVING!”?
How did you feel when you first began to re-read the diaries in adulthood?
The obvious answer to that would be I cringed a lot, and of course I did, but what reading an old diary for the first time in a while mainly does for me is take me back to how things were at the time of writing. It often serves as a reminder of what I really should be doing with my life, presently. A lot of people might read their old diary entries and think, “I was a silly wee idiot dreamer.” I know I do, but then I think, “Maybe I should be more of a silly wee idiot dreamer these days…”
I laughed at a lot of what I wrote too when I first re-read them, not just because of some of the embarrassingly twattish things I thought and said, but because sometimes I was actually funny. It’s as if some things were written by a different person. One of my favourite lines in the 1995 diary is something like, “I need to put on weight. I’m 5 foot 8 and built like a fork.” The first time I re-read that I laughed out loud. I didn’t remember writing it and thought, “Who is this boy?” The diary is full of things like that. Throwaway lines and comments, absurd train-of-thought scribblings, what my head, and I suppose my friends’ heads, were like at the time.
How did you get to a place where you wanted to share your diaries with the world?
When I was writing my diary in 1995, at the end of the year, I told my friend Paul I’d kept it. He thought it was pretty cool that I’d done that. I said to him I could re-write it and edit it into a book. He said, “Hmm. Dunno if there’d be much point. I mean, who would want to read ‘Memoirs of a Ginger’?” And of course he stared at me, smirking, waiting for my reaction, then I bust out laughing with him while giving him a dead arm – protocol at the time.
I forgot about the idea of making my diary in any way public until around March 2013 when I saw an account on Twitter, @NrnIrnGirl1981 – the 1981 diary of a Northern Irish schoolgirl Bronagh. I found her diary both amusing and interesting and thought it was pretty amazing of her to publish her diary in tweet form. Then I thought that maybe I should give it a go. But what diary? There was no WAY I was tweeting the March to August 1992 diary – too much cringe, not enough interesting. And it was already March and the 1995 one covered from January. And maybe 1995 wasn’t far enough back yet anyway – 18 years ago at that time. So I just left it at “Some day I’ll do it.”
Then at the start of this year a show called Derry Girls started on Channel 4. It was the best thing I’d seen on TV in a long time and it really spoke to me – not just because of where I live but because I was the same age as the characters are at the time it is set.
I was on Twitter reading comments about the show and, when I Twitter searched “Derry Girls” one of the accounts that popped up was Bronagh’s – @NrnIrnGirl1981 which reminded me of what I said I’d do “Some day”. It was the 6th of January and I thought, Derry Girls is real hit, it’s set in the mid 90s when I was their age, so is my diary, maybe I should start tweeting it! So I did.
And what approach did you take on Twitter?
With Twitter I’m limited to 280 characters so publishing a diary in this way is one of the best exercises in editing I’ve ever had. The easy part of editing is excluding content in the diary that there’s no point in sharing – the mundane or repetitive – and there is also a lot that I won’t share because it’s too private or it may hurt or offend specific people if they happen to read it.
What kind of challenges have you faced along the way?
The difficult part is taking what I feel to be noteworthy, typing it out, then hacking it into tweetable chunks. That is, I didn’t want to just ramble the main events of an entry onto a Word document then post them as they are using as many tweets as it took; I wanted to ramble it onto the Word document then chisel away until each tweet not only fits with the next one, but also sits well on its own, while staying faithful to the original diary. Sometimes I’d be sitting at 320 characters and think, How do you get this down to 280? Do you REALLY need to tell people you took a shit, Shane? It might fit nicely in “shower, shit and shave” but you’ve written that before. Repetitive. Take it out.
How did it feel when you first let someone else read your diaries?
I’ve never actually handed anyone one of my physical diaries to read – not even my wife – but when I first started tweeting the 1995 diary I felt kind of vulnerable, almost exposed. Then as time went on and people started commenting positively I felt more secure posting. People have tweeted and private messaged me saying how much they have been entertained by my diary, how it has brought back memories of places and people. Someone has suggested publishing it as a book. At the start I thought, Is there a point to all this? Will anyone give a shit? But getting positive feedback keeps me going.
Sometimes I’d get no feedback for a while and I’d think, Are people getting sick of this? Then someone would @ message me or private message positively and I’d be encouraged all over again.
What really encouraged me was discovering that other people are doing the same as me in some form or other, like @1980sDiaries, and when I read the associated blog about other public diarists I thought, Wow. I thought I was relatively alone in doing this, but there seems to be a bit of a movement happening here. Maybe it’s because people are living their lives more publicly now with the internet and social media, but there are people out there like me sharing their lives, past and present, and some of them with a lot of success, so no matter what feedback or response I’m getting, I should just keep going.
Who of the people in your 1995 world have read the tweets and what do they think?
It’s given a few people I know a good chuckle. My wee brother recently remarked, “How come everything in your diary about me is accusing me of shit?” I told him it was obvious – because he was always up to shit! People who weren’t even in my life at the time have @ messaged me, too. Things like, “I know them, they got married!” or, “I knew him, God rest him.” It’s nice to see wee connections like that happening.
There’s a girl I’m still friends with who is mentioned quite a bit in the 1995 diary. She says she read it all and found it “proper amusing!” That was a fucking relief – as soon as someone I’ve mentioned in it says they read it I think, “Oh, fuck, what trouble am I in?” But so far it’s been all good. That girl still follows my Twitter diary. I hope it still gives her a laugh.
What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
I was worried that some people may be offended by some of the things I’ve written or object to being mentioned or challenge what I’ve said about them, but I’ve encountered none of that. Recently I mentioned an actress called Tara Lynne O’Neill who plays a main character in Derry girls. I mentioned her because, in the summer of 1995, I went to see a production of Grease that my friend Neil was in where she played Sandy. She private messaged me wondering who I was. I explained, best I could, and got no reply, then a few days later she replied with “Geg!” (which is LOL in Belfast, by the way). A few days later I then messaged her that I was in a way inspired to tweet my 1995 diary by seeing Derry Girls and she replied with “Loving yer diary mate!” so she was either being polite or has actually started reading it.
And I’m not sure how many people do actually read it – the account currently has over 2000 followers but for all I know it could have about 4 actual readers! People do seem to like it, though.
What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?
Hopefully whoever reads the 1995 diary on Twitter will be entertained by what someone’s life was like in the pre-Internet days. Maybe they’ll even be taken back to their own lives at the time, or reminded of events, places and people from then. One post I did recently got retweeted with the response, “This just hit peak 90s.” That kind of thing makes me smile.
Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?
Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?
One that comes to mind is the REM concert at Slane in July that year. An amazing day and, if I hadn’t tried to get it down on paper the next day, I probably would now remember little to none of it. Let’s just say, there was drink taken.
“Saturday 22nd July, 1995 Slane. REM.
Me, Paul K & Cormac went down to the Mall for the bus. John Duffy & Bugs there, Duff’s beard BUSTLING. David Feeney & John Hughes there, too. Onto bus. Mixed half bottle vodka with lemonade & drank some on the way. Arrived, walked around a bit & found a spot to sit. Lovely sunny day. Went into a pub & met a wee stocky man who tried to sell us drugs. Paul’d taken this strong hayfever tablet so what he drank made him sick & he kinda vomited everywhere on the way to the pub toilet. Covered his mouth & the boke kinda went in a wee spray that he managed to stem with his other sleeve. Got outside & Dave Feeney was bokin all over the street, comin out of him like a waterfall. Quite funny to watch. He was fine. Just too much beer.
Got past security man w my drink, basically gulpin it in his face. Was so blatant with it the he musta thought, “That MUST just be lemonade. He wouldn’t be cheeky or stupid enough to drink it in front of me like that. Besides, he looks about 14.” Needed a piss. Give Paul my bag & headed behind a hedge. So many people pissing so I walked on round to get space to go. Went, then ended up out at different spot to where I came in. No Paul K or Cormac. Met Darren Campbell & talked to him for a bit, then walked on round to where I thought the other 2 mighta been. No sign. Paul had my bag – nothin but sandwiches & Fanta in it, but wasn’t fair on him cartin his own bag & mine about.
Bought paira sunglasses & cap. Cap taken off me durin Luka Bloom by a DICK. Looked round at him & he went “Wha?” He maybe wanted a row. I felt like punchin him right in the fuckin nose hard as I could. No one has a hard muscly ballsack or nose, so it woulda threw him til I ran away, maybe even with my cap! Plus the blood woulda had him shittin himself. That’d teach him. Plus he’d have a nice crooked nose to remind him not to steal wee ginger boys’ caps. Plus he woulda hunted me down & kicked the shit outta me &/or killed me. I just moved on into the crowd.
Drunkenness kicked in bit too much. Don’t remember much of Belly. Sat on the ground for a bit during Sharon Shannon. Think I dozed in the sun – like a lotta people there. Met Paul Fagan & Paddy Gallagher during Spearhead. Good to see them. Familiar, homely people in a sea of strangers. Still no sign of Paul K or Cormac. Oasis were brilliant. New song Roll With It is class. REM, AMAZIN. Michael stipe is a LUNE. I hear a sober John Hughes hit a policeman & was arrested. Mad… Finished with fireworks.
On my own at the end, it was when I was wonderin how I was gonna find my bus home when I heard someone callin me. It was Paul Fagan. Lucky. He knew where to go. On bus, Paul K said he was lookin out for me all day. Main thing was, we all enjoyed the day, regardless. Cormac got tore into more cans on the way home. I slept. Got lift from Mall to Woodford w Paul K’s mum. Dozed in her car, too. Great day. Too drunk, though…”
Other highlights of the year would be my 18th birthday, the last day of A-Levels, and results night. In fact, there’s plenty going on throughout to hopefully hold interest. It’s quite condensed – I’m fitting the (hopefully) interesting parts of page-long entries into tweet-sized chunks. I’ve tried to leave out the rubbish. Also, in 1995, my first term of first year in Uni is coming up, so there’s going to be quite a bit of capering from now until the end of the year on the Twitter diary.
What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?
I think I was a silly weirdo and am glad I stayed that way.
How long do you think you will keep sharing them?
After 1995 I didn’t start keeping a diary again until 1998-1999. I’m not sure I’ll share that one because it wasn’t regular and, to be fair, at that point, I was more up my own ass than I’ve ever been.
I started keeping a daily diary again in 2000 when I documented another full year. I could share that one but I’m wondering is the year 2000 still too recent. A lot has changed since then but maybe I haven’t – I’ve maybe become more settled. And I have diaries from then up until now, but more on and off, and less content-wise as time has gone on. I don’t know if they’d be worth sharing. With the 1995 diary, because of what was happening in my life, I think there’s enough variety to keep people entertained. And I am worried I might be boring people already with that one so maybe there’s no point risking tweeting later, less event filled years.
If you could return to the mid nineties and give yourself any advice, what would it be?
Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
I’ve delved into a few I’ve discovered through Twitter and the blog. I’ve found them interesting and amusing in their content but the ones I keep coming back to are @NrnIrnGirl1981 and @1980sDiaries There is something so appealing and humorous about the tone of a miffed teenager. Much of the time they come across as put upon and unfairly treated by parents, teachers and fellow school pupils alike, that the world is doing them an injustice and everything is “SO UNFAIR” a la Harry Enfield’s Kevin – no offense, Jamie; I can only relate too well! Uncomfortably well. As well as that, there is their music tastes at the time, their attention to fashion, which I still don’t have, and the innocence – a lot of the two diaries are so sweet to read, and sometimes when reading I think it’s a shame Bronagh and Jamie and me had to grow up – our naivety did us no harm, after all.
What’s next for you and Shane from 1995?
I’m compiling the tweets onto Word. I don’t know why I didn’t keep them like that as I went along, but it’s easy enough to do now. Once that’s done the diary will be there, pretty much already edited – thanks to Twitter’s limited posting space.
So a version of my 1995 diary that I’m happy for everyone to read will exist in one Word document. What I plan to do then is give it a once over, tidy it up, fill it out, elaborate a bit in places – without rambling. There’ll be nothing to add to it – everything I want to share will have already been tweeted, faithful to the diary – so it will really just be making the whole thing less piecemeal.
I’ve published my diaries in full in book form – is this something you would consider?
I really don’t know if that in itself could exist as a book, though it has been suggested. If I was going to push it as far as a book, I think I’d have to do something extra with it – an idea is to have the diary as one half of a book, and the second half would be about things within the diary.
Now, believe it or not, that could be less boring than it sounds. What I mean is, with(in) entries in the diary, I could have numbers or pointers to a corresponding page in a second half of the book. For example, if in an entry I mention something about someone, or an event, or a place, or whatever, if I have more to say on it – e.g., more about an event or place, historically at the time, before or since, there will be a pointer to a page in the second half of the book about it.
So instead of just a straightforward diary, I’ll have a second half to it that could be anecdotal, historical, factual – a wee bit of Belfast/Armagh history, folklore, whatever. I just need to make sure it’s not boring!
Maybe I’ll indulge my friend Paul with the title – ‘Memoirs of a Ginger’. Tagline, “5 feet 8 and built like a fork.”
You can follow Shane’s Twitter account here and, while we’re waiting for that memoir you can catch up with his artistry via his Facebook page here. Shane recently had an exhibition of his work in his hometown of Armagh.