Trou­bles abound

Freya McCle­ments on five decades of North­ern-Ir­ish writ­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY FREYA McCLE­MENTS

My ear­li­est un­der­stand­ing of the Trou­bles in lit­er­a­ture was that it was not a sub­ject for lit­er­a­ture.

As a teenager in Co Derry in the 1990s, all I knew about writ­ing was that I couldn’t write about North­ern Ire­land – at least, not if I wanted to be pub­lished.

On the shelves of our fam­ily’s book­shop in Col­eraine, the Trou­bles mainly meant IRA men with dodgy ac­cents who broke hearts as they blasted their way through the lat­est Jack Hig­gins or Ger­ald Sey­mour thriller.

Theirs were not land­scapes I knew; their land­marks not those of the red light in the dark­ness sig­nalling my fa­ther to stop at a check­point, not those of the bul­let holes in my friend’s front door, not those of the bomb which blew up our shop and the rest of the town cen­tre.

Sud­denly the Hig­gins books were on sale, heav­ily re­duced thanks to the ef­fects of smoke, wa­ter and the tiny frag­ments of glass em­bed­ded within their pages.

I have a vivid me­mory of walk­ing the length of our street – a ter­race of former houses con­verted into shops on the ground floor – balanc­ing on the edge of the kerb. When it was re­built af­ter the bomb the street was pedes­tri­anised. No more kerbs.

That street of my child­hood would have ap­peared, I imag­ine, much like Duke Street in 1968.

Start of the Trou­bles

I first read Ea­monn McCann’s War and an Ir­ish Town – re­pub­lished this month by Hay­mar­ket Books – as a his­tory stu­dent.

The town is, of course, Derry; Duke Street, the scene of the fa­mous civil rights march on Oc­to­ber 5th, 1968 – of­ten re­garded as the start of the Trou­bles – when the marchers were at­tacked by the po­lice and the pres­ence of an RTÉ cam­era­man meant the images were seen around the world.

Asked to an­a­lyse McCann’s first-hand ac­count in the rar­efied sur­round­ings of an Ox­ford col­lege, all I could think was that this was a place I knew, a street I knew, and peo­ple I knew.

Other stu­dents com­mented on its re­li­a­bil­ity, or its use­ful­ness to the his­to­rian; I was pic­tur­ing the Bog­side.

“Ours was a teem­ing, crum­bling area of ugly, tiny ter­race houses,” writes McCann, “mean streets where men stood in sullen groups at the corner while their wives went out to work and chil­dren skipped to songs of cheer­ful ha­tred.”

In Shad­ows on Our Skin, set in 1970s Derry, Jen­nifer John­ston at­tributes to those same rows of houses “the look of card­board cut-outs against the drain­ing sky”. As her teenage pro­tag­o­nist, Joe Lo­gan, walks home from school, “the street lamps were flow­er­ing and peo­ple had not yet drawn their cur­tains, so the dusk glit­tered”.

If the Trou­bles was not a sub­ject for lit­er­a­ture, its streets – and its peo­ple – cer­tainly were.

Danny Hamil­ton knows Belfast’s streets, and what he doesn’t know about them he hears be­hind the bar of The In­ter­na­tional.

Shak­ing and quak­ing

Glenn Pat­ter­son’s novel of the same name is set in Jan­uary 1967, the day be­fore the North­ern Ire­land Civil Rights As­so­ci­a­tion held its first meet­ing on the premises.

“I wish I could de­scribe for you Belfast as it was then,” says Danny, “be­fore it was brought shak­ing, quak­ing and lay­ing about it with ba­tons and stones onto the world’s small screens, but I’m afraid I was not in the habit of notic­ing it much my­self.”

De­scribed by Anne En­right as “the best book about the Trou­bles ever writ­ten”, The

In­ter­na­tional’s sig­nif­i­cance is that it in­sists “Belfast ex­isted be­fore the Trou­bles and that it was owned by the peo­ple who walked its streets be­fore those streets were taken away from them”.

In the 1960s, it was no coin­ci­dence that those same streets were the set­ting for the call for change. Many at the fore­front of the civil rights marches – McCann in­cluded – had be­gun as hous­ing pro­test­ers, cam­paign­ing for an end to dis­crim­i­na­tion against Catholics in the al­lo­ca­tion of hous­ing.

It is well doc­u­mented how, in the union­ist-dom­i­nated North­ern Ire­land of the time, vot­ing was linked to prop­erty own­er­ship, so that a house rep­re­sented not just a home, but ac­cess to elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tion and, ul­ti­mately, to power.

Writ­ing on his PhD stud­ies on repub­li­cans in ‘Trou­bles trash’, Pa­trick Magee ar­gues that fic­tion matters not merely be­cause ours is a con­tested story, but be­cause it cre­ates the pos­si­bil­ity for em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing

With­out a house, av­enues of so­cial change and so­cial ad­vance­ment were blocked off; hori­zons were, quite lit­er­ally, lim­ited to the end of the street, or the view be­yond the rooftops.

Ex­plo­sions and gun fire

To­day, one of Derry’s most fa­mous land­marks is the gable end of what was once 33 Lecky Road, bet­ter known as Free Derry Corner; be­hind it, row af­ter row of houses stretch from the Bog­side up the hill to Creg­gan.

Sea­mus Deane’s Read­ing in the Dark is set in these same streets. He de­scribes the change when, as he puts it, “the Trou­bles came”.

“We choked on CS gas fired by the army, saw or heard ex­plo­sions, the gun­fire, the ri­ots mov­ing in close with their scram­bled noises of glass breaking, petrol-bomb flash­ings, iso­lated shouts turn­ing to a pro­longed bay­ing and the drilled smash­ing of ba­tons on riot shields. Now the tele­vi­sion was on all the time.”

The claus­tro­pho­bia of Deane’s words, as in­ci­dent fol­lows in­ci­dent, threat fol­lows threat, is strik­ing. The own­er­ship of the streets has been lost.

Faced with this new re­al­ity, writ­ers re­sponded. The con­tri­bu­tion of po­ets and play­wrights, ar­guably more sig­nif­i­cant and cer­tainly more im­me­di­ate in the ini­tial Trou­bles pe­riod, is be­yond the scope of this ar­ti­cle; so too are the many ex­cel­lent short sto­ries it has spawned.

Among the first long-form at­tempts to ar­tic­u­late what was hap­pen­ing on the streets of the North came from McCann’s con­tem­po­rary, Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey), and from the young adult writer Joan Lin­gard.

In The Twelfth Day of July – the first of Lin­gard’s se­ries about the friend­ship, and then ro­mance, be­tween Catholic Kevin and Protes­tant Sadie – the frag­men­ta­tion of their world as the Trou­bles be­gin to en­croach is played out on the streets, the fo­cal point for not just the much-an­tic­i­pated Twelfth march, but the riot which fol­lows.

Im­plicit irony

There are ri­ots aplenty in Devlin’s The

Price of My Soul, a first-hand ac­count of her in­volve­ment in the first civil rights marches. Yet it is also a highly en­gag­ing ac­count of her up­bring­ing in the Ty­rone mar­ket town of Cook­stown and as such its ar­tic­u­la­tion of the ru­ral ex­pe­ri­ence is an im­por­tant coun­ter­bal­ance to the nar­ra­tive of the Trou­bles which is of­ten viewed as a pre­dom­i­nantly ur­ban one. This is the im­plicit irony of Noth­ing Hap­pens

in Carmin­cross, by an­other Ty­rone na­tive, Bene­dict Kiely. Pub­lished in 1985, it might have been writ­ten about the bomb­ing of Omagh some 13 years later, and the un­der­stated prose has all the power of first-hand ac­counts of the atroc­ity.

Carmin­cross would be eas­ily recog­nis­able to Cal, the epony­mous pro­tag­o­nist of the other great Trou­bles novel of the pe­riod. In the Magher­afelt of Bernard MacLaverty, the hedges and un­spo­ken sec­tar­ian mark­ers of Co Derry are as claus­tro­pho­bic as the streets of the city; and, for a Catholic in a pre­dom­i­nantly Protes­tant area, po­ten­tially more dan­ger­ous.

The com­plex­i­ties of Cal’s char­ac­ter – un­will­ingly in­volved with the IRA yet com­pro­mised through his in­volve­ment in the mur­der of a po­lice­man, un­der threat from loy­al­ists and, even­tu­ally, in love with the dead man’s widow – are as in­tri­cate and nu­anced as the North and its Trou­bles; here, it seems, land, towns, ter­ri­tory is owned – and so are peo­ple.

Cre­ative ex­ca­va­tion

It makes for fer­tile ground for the nov­el­ist. As David Peace writes about Eoin McNamee’s

The Ul­tras, “it is his­tory; it is mys­tery; it is all our sto­ries”.

In­creas­ingly, such sto­ries were be­ing given voice by au­thors such as Pat­ter­son and McNamee, whose works shed light on the present through the cre­ative ex­ca­va­tion of the past.

McNamee’s Res­ur­rec­tion Man – about the Shankill Butch­ers – and the Robert Nairac-in­spired The Ul­tras, ad­dress, re­spec­tively, loy­al­ist paramil­i­tarism and the un­der­cover war waged by the se­cu­rity ser­vices; along with the Blue Tril­ogy – an ex­tended ex­posé of pre-Trou­bles cor­rup­tion and in­jus­tice – they are a re­minder that this his­tory is part of a present which re­mains con­tentious and re­mains un­re­solved.

In this con­text, such nov­els hold a greater value – a point well made by Pa­trick Magee, the Brighton bomber, in this news­pa­per. Writ­ing on his PhD study of repub­li­cans por­trayed in “Trou­bles trash”, he ar­gues that fic­tion matters not merely be­cause ours is a con­tested story, but be­cause it cre­ates the pos­si­bil­ity for em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing.

“Only when op­pos­ing sides see each other clearly, and recog­nise each other’s hu­man­ity, will a res­o­lu­tion be­gin,” writes Magee.

Brian Moore’s Lies of Si­lence – a rare Trou­bles novel by the Belfast-born writer – is a multi-lay­ered story of a ho­tel man­ager and his wife held hostage by the IRA. The per­fect an­ti­dote to the “Mother Ire­land-fix­ated psy­cho killers” of the pulp nov­els stud­ied by Magee, it is thor­oughly de­serv­ing of its com­par­i­son to Gra­ham Greene.

Sim­i­larly, Ro­nan Ben­nett – who as an 18-year-old was con­victed and then cleared of the mur­der of an RUC of­fi­cer – has done much to ar­tic­u­late the com­plex­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary re­pub­li­can­ism, not least in The Se­cond Prison, in which IRA man Kane’s strug­gles to es­cape his past are re­flected in his at­tempts to evade his Spe­cial Branch pur­suer.

Colo­nial con­text

Per­haps Ben­nett’s best book, The Catas­trophist – set in the Congo dur­ing the fi­nal days of Bel­gian rule – places the North’s Trou­bles in their colo­nial con­text, though it is love rather than in­de­pen­dence which pre­oc­cu­pies Belfast man Gille­spie.

In A Goat’s Song by Der­mot Healy, Jack Fer­ris is also in love – with the daugh­ter of the RUC man fa­mously filmed at­tack­ing the marchers in Derry on Oc­to­ber 5th, 1968.

One day, on tele­vi­sion, the former sergeant catches sight of him­self: “a grey-haired po­lice­man, hat­less, chas­ing af­ter a youth . . . he turned and ba­toned a mid­dle-aged man who was al­ready pour­ing blood . . . Then, wild-eyed and wielding a ba­ton, he stared re­morse­lessly straight at the lens.”

If there is a les­son in the lit­er­a­ture of the Trou­bles, it is that its legacy is in­escapable.

First pub­lished in 1994, Healy’s work is in­dica­tive of the changes un­der way which pro­duced the first IRA cease­fire and, in 1998, the sign­ing of the Belfast Agree­ment. Though still an im­per­fect peace – as ev­i­denced by the deaths of 31 peo­ple in Omagh only a few months later – it am­pli­fied the pub­lic space avail­able to writ­ers and oth­ers who had al­ready be­gun ex­plor­ing, and re­flect­ing on, the legacy of the pre­ced­ing 30 years.

This post-Trou­bles North was new ter­ri­tory, its land­scape of bombed-out streets slowly re­placed by re­gen­er­a­tion pro­grammes just as the lan­guage of bomb and bul­let would be largely sup­planted by talk of power-shar­ing and pe­ti­tions of con­cern.

Streets re­claimed

Nov­els such as Deirdre Mad­den’s One by One

in the Dark­ness ex­plored the hith­erto largely un­spo­ken ex­pe­ri­ence of women – in this case, the im­pact of their fa­ther’s mur­der on three sis­ters; con­versely, Colin Bate­man’s Di­vorc­ing

Jack satirised char­ac­ters such as Cow Pat Coogan – “branded a Repub­li­can, but he al­ways seemed more in­ter­ested in money than free­ing Ire­land”.

When, in Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wil­son, the puz­zling ini­tials “OTG” be­gin ap­pear­ing on Belfast’s walls, it is a graphic at­tempt to take back the ter­ri­tory lost to the Trou­bles. The streets have been re­claimed.

In 1999 I spent my Christ­mas hol­i­days work­ing in Ea­son’s. Lost Lives – that land­mark vol­ume which lists the more than 3,500 men, women and chil­dren who died as a re­sult of the Trou­bles – had just been pub­lished. Ev­ery time a con­sign­ment ar­rived peo­ple queued the length of the shop, two or three copies in their hands. It is a re­minder of the ex­tent to which the blood­shed of the Trou­bles seeped through all our lives; our book of the dead which be­came an im­por­tant act of col­lec­tive ac­knowl­edge­ment and re­mem­brance.

It is no coin­ci­dence that re­cent years have seen a mul­ti­plic­ity of both Trou­bles-era me­moirs and oral his­tory projects. Among the best are This Man’s Wee Boy by Tony Do­herty, a child’s eye view of the early Trou­bles in Derry and the death of the au­thor’s fa­ther on Bloody Sun­day, and Be­yond the Si­lence, a col­lec­tion of women’s first-hand ac­counts of the Trou­bles edited by Julieann Camp­bell. In many in­stances, the women in­volved were sim­ply grate­ful that, for the first time, some­body had asked to hear their sto­ries.

New pos­si­bil­i­ties

Sim­i­larly, The Truth Com­mis­sioner by David Park tack­les head-on one of the big­gest is­sues in con­tem­po­rary North­ern Ire­land, the eu­phemisti­cally-termed “deal­ing with” the past. It is a sub­ject mat­ter that would once have seemed not just un­pub­lish­able, but in­con­ceiv­able.

Yet this is, to quote from Dave Dug­gan’s touch­ing novel of 1990s Derry, The Green­ing of

Larry Ma­hon, “the life we are slowly build­ing from scratch”. It re­veals it­self in cre­ative con­fi­dence, and in the new pos­si­bil­i­ties – literary and oth­er­wise – which have emerged in the 20 years since the Belfast Agree­ment.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a warm-hearted, funny novel about grow­ing up gay in Trou­bles Ar­doyne; con­versely, the emer­gence of Belfast – or North­ern – Noir is a well-charted phe­nom­e­non, mak­ing use of the city’s as­so­ci­a­tion with the Trou­bles but also its in­dus­trial past to cre­ate a literary genre where Brian McGil­loway’s Bor­der­lands, Claire McGowan’s Newry, or Adrian McKinty’s Car­rick­fer­gus can be as hard-boiled as the Los Angeles of Ray­mond Chan­dler or as gritty as the Ed­in­burgh of Ian Rankin.

The Cold Cold Ground, McKinty’s first Sean Duffy thriller, opens with a de­scrip­tion of the beauty of a riot. “Arcs of gaso­line fire un­der the cres­cent moon. Crim­son tracer in mys­ti­cal parabo­las . . . He­li­copters ev­ery­where: their spot­lights find­ing one an­other like lovers in the Af­ter­life.”

It could be any­where – un­til McKinty adds: “And all this through the lens of oleagi­nous Belfast rain.” Where once the Trou­bles were lo­cal, now they are uni­ver­sal.

Breaking new ground

This was con­firmed by the pub­li­ca­tion, this year, of two nov­els which yet again break new ground. Milk­man by Anna Burns – short­listed for the Man Booker Prize – reimag­ines the bro­ken world of Trou­bles Belfast in lan­guage as de­li­ciously frac­tured as the place and its peo­ple; Michael Hughes’ Coun­try rein­vents the Iliad on the Bor­der in 1996 with the broad­est of coun­try ac­cents. The North­ern Ire­land of the mind is re­cast; the lit­er­a­ture of the Trou­bles takes its place along­side that of An­cient Greece.

My teenage self would never have be­lieved it, but now I too find my­self writ­ing about the Trou­bles. The Chil­dren of the Trou­bles, writ­ten with my co-au­thor Joe Duffy, will re­mem­ber the chil­dren’s lives lost in the con­flict.

It feels fit­ting that it will be pub­lished next year, to mark the an­niver­sary of the first child to die in the Trou­bles, nine-year-old Pa­trick Rooney, killed in Au­gust 1969.

He is num­ber 7 of the en­tries in Lost Lives; be­fore him, at no 2, comes Peter Ward, an 18-year-old Catholic shot by the UVF, and a bar­man at The In­ter­na­tional.

“Guns do that, cre­ate holes which no amount of words can fill,” writes Pat­ter­son. “We’re pow­er­ful peo­ple for re­mem­ber­ing here, I hope that’s one thing we don’t for­get.”

PHO­TOGRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES; COL­ERAINE CHRON­I­CLE

Above: Vig­i­lantes in the Bog­side, Derry, Jan­uary 1969. Left: the af­ter­math of a bomb ex­plo­sion in Col­eraine, Co Derry. Freya McCle­ments’ par­ents’ book­shop is top right.

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