Killing fields

Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland

Lost Lives records, so far as possible, every person who has died as a result of the violence in Northern Ireland since the 1960s. This is an achievement unmatched for any other modern conflict, and it is the most detailed and accurate chronicle of the 30 years of Troubles. Yet it is almost impossible to imagine anyone actually reading the entire book - and not only because of its great length. No, extended exposure is simply too distressing.

I read Lost Lives over many days in small, controlled doses. But nonetheless, certain phrases and passages have haunted my dreams ever since. At times, the casual banality of language collides with the monstrosity of actions - as with Kenneth Newell's killers asking him, before they shot him in the head, "if he minded if they finished off his sandwiches"; or the seven year old who told how "the gunman asked his father if he was called Derek. When his father confirmed this, one of the gunmen said 'Bye bye, Derek' and shot him". This is a quotidian terror still awaiting transmutation into an art equal to its depth. A few poems - by Seamus Heaney and the undervalued Michael Longley - have captured a little of it, as have even fewer novels, notably Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man.

Through Lost Lives, patterns can be followed among the deaths. Some are already half-familiar, though often occluded by propaganda: for example, the large number of sectarian killings for which republicans have been responsible, contrary to their supporters' self-righteous claims that these have been solely a loyalist preserve; or the many deaths at army or police hands for which the standard, shameful rubric has been "under disputed circumstances". Others may startle. Who now recalls that the victims of the "British-Irish" and/or "Protestant-Catholic" conflict have included Australians, Germans, Mormons, Jews and Baha'ists, several British Hindus and Muslims, or indeed a Nigerian accountant, Abayonni Olurende, who was burned to death when the IRA bombed a train travelling from Ballymena to Belfast in 1980?

Other kinds of patterns can be followed, too, of a distinctly more sinister kind: the long trails of revenge by which one murder has led to another, and then another, sometimes stretching across decades. The authors are keenly aware that the book itself, in detailing such links, could be used "as a handbook for vengeance". Where they do not name names, it is often for that reason.

In any case, a very high proportion of the worst murderers whose crimes can be traced through these pages are themselves dead. Their names - and the grotesque, perversely admiring nicknames that the conflict spawned for its leading villains - form a terrible roll-call of dishonour: nightmare figures such as Robin "the Jackal" Jackson (involved in an estimated 50 or more murders), Edward "Psycho" McCreery, Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, "Shankill Butchers" Lenny Murphy and Robert Bates, Gerard "Dr Death" Steenson, Billy "King Rat" Wright. All these, as it happens, were loyalist or INLA rather than IRA killers: so it's worth also recalling that more than half of all the deaths of the conflict have been the responsibility of the IRA. Some of the monsters remain heroes to their communities. Billy Wright, for instance, has his own memorial website, complete with full-screen colour photos and commemorative verse, both maudlin and menacing.

It is startling, by contrast, to discover how many of the leading actors in Bandit Country, a superb piece of reportage, are still alive and potentially active as gunmen and bombers. The South Armagh IRA has been the most fearsomely effective paramilitary unit of the Troubles. It has killed not only dozens of soldiers, policemen and innocent Protestants on its own patch, but has launched some of the most devastating bomb attacks on England. It has suffered very few casualties of its own, even to the guns of the SAS. Its leaders with their grotesque nicknames - Slab, the Undertaker, the Surgeon - have grown rich on the conflict and its by-product, cross-border smuggling. These fanatics are sustained less by the grand abstractions of Irish nationalism and republican ideology than by an intense, localised, centuries-old culture of resistance to all authority, except that which runs in the family. Since 1994, this tiny area has spawned much of the most resolute opposition to the IRA ceasefires. If a new, bigger edition of Lost Lives is needed in the future, it is a fair bet that South Armagh's republicans will be a major cause.

Stephen Howe's "Ireland and Empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture" is published in March (OUP, £25)