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Writing the North - The Contemporary Novel in Northern Ireland, by Laura Pelaschiar



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Text: Laura Pelaschiar ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

Urban narratives

The city of the North

Sometimes the city is an exploded diagram of itself, along the lines of a vastly complicated interactive model aircraft kit whose components are connected by sprued plastic latitudes and longitudes.
At the same time it mutates like a virus, its programme undergoing daily shifts of emphasis and detail. Its parallels are bent by interior temperatures; engine nacelles become gun pods: sometimes a whole wing takes on a different slant. Everything is redolent of glue — scorpion-tailed tubes of it are scattered everywhere — and I almost drowsed in its unguent aroma, till I felt my vision being clarified and heightened. Now that I can see the city’s microscopic bits transfixed by my attention. I wonder how I might assemble them, for there is no instruction leaflet; I must write it

(from The Star Factory by Ciaran Carson)

In the past two decades the role of the city in the Northern Irish novel has consolidated itself as the creative centre. Traditionally seen as the container of all that is wrong with the modern world in its nineteenth or early twentieth century versions, in the seventies and eighties Northern novels the city became an even darker place, a labyrinth containing all of the North of Ireland’s problems. a place of sectarianism, threats, crime. murder — the very antithesis of home. It is only in very recent years that the role of the city has begun to undergo a dramatic re-evaluation at the hands of a few young northern Irish novelists, who have begun first to decode and then to recode in their texts Belfast’s post-modern identity and to draw attention to its European normalcy rather than to its insular and historical "dark side."

Whatever the approaches, the imaginative potency of the city — Belfast in the first place — is a constant and plays a crucial role in Northern Irish writing, where it is never an anonymous location for characters to act and events to take place but is always a textual element around which a whole range of meanings are organized. "Belfast", as Edna Longley put it, "confronts the writer with a spiritual, political and social complexity that is capable of testing the imagination to its limits" (Harmon, 1984: 69). This is a vital challenge which Northern writers have not shirked.

In Ulster, cities and towns were initially born as British settlements. slowly developing into industrial centres in the course of the nineteenth century. For a very long time Derry was Ulster’s most important urban centre: the transformation of Belfast into a big industrial city, in fact, did not take place until the latter half of the nineteenth century with the opening of the cotton and linen factories, and later the establishment of the ship-building industry. Between 1861 and 181 the population of Belfast doubled, and as the city — which up to then had, like Deny, been almost exclusively Protestant — grew, so too did the percentage of Catholics living there. For this reason, in addition to the traditionally harsh conditions of city-life in the era of the industrial revolution. Belfast had a further problem to absorb: that of the sectarian tensions between the two communities, which often spilled over into violence. The religious conflicts which had up till then disturbed life in the country in a more limited way now’ began to be concentrated in the city. where they became more powerful and insidious. They even dictated the physical layout of Belfast. which expanded into a knot of divided ghettoes, still today separated by walls and barriers. The urban centres in this already ethnically polarized society inevitably developed into what Frederick W. Boal calls "urban ethnic mosaics" (Boal, 1987: 38).

But the segregated realities of Northern Ireland, which ensured that only one part of the population had access to the financial means which made modern enterprise possible, also meant that the process of industrialisation was in the main a Protestant event, planned, financed and managed by the Protestant population. This in turn meant that for a very long time Belfast remained at its core a Protestant/Presbyterian reality, alien to the Catholic minority coming from the surrounding countryside. not only as an urban centre, but also as a Protestant stronghold. Consequently, Belfast is perceived and represented in a very different way by its Catholic and Protestant inhabitants. Protestants consider it as their own creation, both in what is good and in what is bad about it: the tie they have to it is often tinged with pride in the achievements of its founding fathers, who are their ancestors, men who "invented" and created Belfast through hard work, labour, patience and endurance, reclaiming land from the sea and from the bog, building industries and shipyards, creating civilisation and progress where there was nothing but unproductive land. The relationship that Catholics have with Belfast, on the other hand, is complicated by these very origins, by the Protestant ethos that generated it and which made it for a long time Ireland’s only major industrial centre. a world from which they were excluded for a very long time.

These facts have found their way into Northern Irish writing and have left their mark in the artistic perceptions and fictional representations of the city itself. Wilson Foster, in his Forces and Themes of Ulster Fiction, has reflected upon the importance of Belfast as a primary topos of Ulster fiction and has remarked upon the different views that Catholic and Protestant writers have of it (Wilson Foster, 1978: 121). Edna Longley explains these divergent perceptions in her essay "The Writer and Belfast", pointing out that while Protestant writers (she especially has the poets Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon in mind) regard Belfast not only as their achievement, but also as their responsibility and their fault. Catholic writers, or characters in fiction written by Catholics, tend to regard it as their fate (Harmon. 69). Two antithetical narratives — Catholic and Protestant of the Irish past are inscribed in these two different views of the city. and more importantly of its origins. Two passages taken from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) by Brian Moore and Fat Lad (1992) by Glenn Patterson, may help to illustrate and explain this. Although the two books are very different and, chronologically speaking, very distant, they still furnish a very useful contrast.

As Patricia Craig rightly observes, it is in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the outstanding debut novel by the Catholic Belfast writer Brian Moore, that we find the first proper, modern description of Belfast itself. Moore. Craig claims, was the first writer to give Belfast "a realistic representation in fiction, something that might bring it into line with the dour provincial settings favoured by a good many of the "Movement" writers in Britain,, (Craig, 1988: 13). But surely Nloore’s more important inspiration is Joyce and his rendering of Dublin. Like Dublin for Joyce. Belfast is for Moore the centre of paralysis, a sad, bleak, boring, passionless, unattractive place where narrow-mindedness and mediocrity thrive undisturbed. It is a city which can only induce its inhabitants to a spiritual and mental torpor. inspire exasperation and be home to chronic unhappiness, loneliness and personal failure. The following short passage, taken from Judith Hearne, summarises all of this but, more importantly. reveals much more:

(...) And so, they walked slowly down Wellington Place and reached the designated centre of the city. the staring white ugliness of the City Hall. There, under the great dome of the building, ringed around by forgotten memorials, bordered by the garrison neatness of a Garden of Remembrance, everything that was Belfast came into focus. The newsvendors calling out the great events of the world in flat, uninterested Ulster voices: the drab facades of the buildings grouped around the Square, proclaiming the virtues of trade. hard dealing and Presbyterian righteousness. The order, the neatness, the floodlit cenotaph, a white respectable phallus planted in sinking Irish bog. The Protestant dearth of gaiety, the Protestant surfeit of order, the dour Ulster mediocrity (90).

The tone here is one of scorn and contempt on the part of the observer who feels alienated in what should be his city, his home but is, in reality, an alien landscape, dominated by signs of British imperialism, such as Wellington Place, and the Garden of Remembrance. But the discontent is not so much caused by the British, or by the difficult material conditions of Belfast life, by poverty or sectarian strife (the novel does not explore these issues at all) as by the fact that Belfast’s streets and buildings speak so clearly of "trade, hard dealing, righteousness", those most celebrated of Protestant virtues, well-synthetised in the near-oxymoron "white ugliness". Belfast’s Protestant soul and essence emerge clearly from every word, and yet the crucial image here is that of the city as a "respectable phallus planted in sinking Irish bog". The sexual metaphor represents once again the well-established idea of Britain as male or masculine: mature, industrious, rational, respectable and reliable (the City), and of Ireland as female or feminine: wild, irrational, emotional, sinking rather than rising, potentially fertile (the Bog/Wild Nature) and yet still unproductive. Ireland remains a chaotic and primitive land of barbarians until the superior British civilization comes to tame the wilderness, impregnate the land and give life to a new civilation. of course again strictly British. Protestant or Presbyterian. modern, rational and productive. The offspring of this sexual encounter is Belfast itself an(l the ugliness of the fruit makes it clear that the intercourse was unnatural, an imposition rather than a sign of love, an act of violence closer to a rape than to a normal sexual relationship: in other words an overt symbol of British colonization of Irish soil.

In Fat Lad by Glenn Patterson, the same image of a city built "on a sinking Irish bog’ takes on a completely different meaning andi becomes a symbol of triumph, of hard work and energy winning over "unpromising slobland". a metonym of [Protestant] strength and energy moulding the [Catholic] nothingness into a miracle of industry and modernity. In the book, Drew Linden. the young protagonist, and his lover Kay Morris are showing their city to Drew’s English boss James (the visiting outsider. usually English or American, has become a widely adopted device in recent Northern Irish novels), who has just arrived from England on business and wants to see "a few of the sights". Kay, determined to reveal to him a city which he certainly does not expect to find, proceeds in her mission with pride and stubbornness. Through the history of the origins of Belfast itself, a strong. powerful and likeable female character voices her (new) version of Irish history, a history which she (and Glenn Patterson through her voice) describes with almost biblical tones and rhythms:

The battle between destruction and construction. Kay told him, warming to her guides role, was the oldest battle in Belfast. The congenital predisposition of various of its inhabitants of periodically dismantling the city had been matched at every turn by the efforts of those who, against this and other, even more elemental enemies, had struggled throughout its history to build it up. Men (for men, in the past they invariably were) who had looked at mudflats and seen shipping channels, had looked at water and seen land. Belfast as a city was a triumph over mud and water, the dream of successive generations of merchants, engineers, and entrepreneurs willed into being. They had had to build the land before they could work it. Dredging .scouring. banking. consolidating, they fashioned a city in their own image: dry docks, graving docks, ships, cranes, kilns, silos: industry from their industry, solidity from morass, leaving an indelible imprint on the unpromising slobland. and their names driven like screwpiles into the city’s sense of itself. Dargan, Dunbar, Workman, Wolff, Harland...

These were Kay’s ancestors. Their struggle was her struggle, and it was a struggle. moreover, which she had internalised and ritualised: a struggle she re-enacted in miniature several times a week in her own life, hurling herself on dissolution in the bar-dark hours, piecing herself together again the next morning (as Drew had seen her do many times), then increasing in vitality as the day progressed, as though energised rather than sapped by prolongued exposure to the city. so that now she set pounding pace up Tomb Street for the two men to follow. (...)

‘You'll hear a lot of talk about stolen land" she said.
James already had.
"Well, it’s all true. Where we are standing now...
They had arrived in Corporation Square, facing the L.iverpool ferry terminal.
"Where we are standing now is stolen land. And all that over there — (Queens Island. the shipyard) — is stolen land: stolen from the sea."
I’d never thought of it like that" said James.
"You and fifty million others" she said, in that way that was impossible to take exception to ( 204-205).

Patterson's character speaks the proud language of the planter who asserts his claim to a land which his most Protestant virtues — hard work and endurance — transformed from "slobland" into civilisation. What’s more, the planters have not simply stolen land from the barbarians, but reclaimed it from the sea: thus they have followed the Book of Genesis and its version of the creation of the world and have created their own world from nothing.

The language adopted by Patterson here is similar to that used by the Belfast poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) in his famous poem Once Alien Here, where he writes "Once alien here my father built their house,’ claimed, drained, and gave the land the shapes of use", or in his equally famous The Colony: "We took their kindlier soils (...) We took it from them. We laboured hard and stubborn, draining, planting! till half the country took its shape from us." Brian Moore, on the other hand, as we have seen in the passage quoted above, voices the [Catholic] dislike for those very virtues — "trade, hard dealing and Presbyterian righteousness" — which made Belfast into an important and prosperous port city. It is as if these different visions of Belfast were urban filiations of what Foster describes as the opposite versions of the Paradise myth: for the planters this is an Eden perfected "out of the rough paradise which already existed before their advent and which has ever since been imperilled by the Catholics, fallen angels from their own paradise". while for the Catholics paradise is "that of the green land before the English occupations and the Ulster Plantations." (Foster, 9-10).

In the fourteenth chapter of Resurrection Man (1994), Eoin McNamee presents us with yet another version of Belfast. Jim Curran, a minor Catholic character who is going to be Victor Kelly’s next victim, after leaving his snooker hall on the night in which he is going to be killed, is walking down Cliftonville Road, a street in the Catholic part of town. He is looking at the city and thinking about it: being a working class Catholic, his reading of Belfast’s industrial grandeur is very different in tone to that given by Kay Morris in Fat Lad, and her complacent Protestant upper middle-class pride is supplanted by Curran’s awareness that the so-called achievements of the past hide a story of speculation and ambition, that yesterday’s triumphs are today’s failures, and that Belfast as a "modern city" is but a paradigm of the many "gaunt" industrial ports, home to poverty and desolation, scattered around the world.

It seemed that he could see the city clearly on nights like this and it was a place of age and memory. He thought about the Titanic built in the shipyard, the closed linen mills, the derelict shirt factories, the street of houses built for workers and other edifices constructed by speculators who seemed to have this modern city in mind, their designs weathered down to create a setting for injured lives: this city like gaunt others they created on shallow, muddy deltas or desolate coasts guided by infallible principles of abandonment (117-118).

Contradictory though these tableaux of Belfast’s industrial and mercantile achievements may be. they nonetheless share a common characteristic: they do not portray a violently sectarian metropolis. But while in McNamee’s novel this passage is not representative of the image of Belfast dominant in the book, and Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne takes place in 1941. Patterson’s description is indeed a conscious and deliberate reaction to this more common, and by now almost-clichéd, portrait of his city as a place utterly overrun with sectarian strife. In Patterson’s novel, Drew purposefully picks Kay as a tourist guide for his boss because of the suspicion he feels when James expresses his desire "to see a few of the sights": tourists often come to Belfast only to look at those streets where the traces of twenty years of sectarian violence are most evident; theirs is a sort of voyeristic and vulgar guerrila safari (Colin Bateman calls it "the terror tour") the final aim of which is a "ghoulish fairground ride up the Shankill and down the Falls, gawping at murals and fortified bars, having the potentially life-saving nuances of the rival black taxi services explained and a murderous significance ascribed to every street corner, public house and patch of waste land. The this was where and the over there of twenty years of violence" (203). That Belfast, Patterson asserts, belongs to the past and its passing is not to be mourned. Now, in the nineties, things are different, and this is such an important fact that Patterson has his protagonist reflect on this at the very beginning of the novel.

The Belfast he left, the Belfast the Ex-Pats forswore, was a city dying on its feet: cratered sites and hunger strikes: atrophied, self-abased. But the Belfast he had heard reports of this past while, the Belfast he had seen with his own eyes last month, was a city in the process of recasting itself entirely. The army had long since departed from the Grand Central Hotel, on whose levelled remains an even grander shopping complex was now nearing completion. Restaurants, bars and takeaways proliferated along the lately coined Golden Mile, running south from the refurbished Opera House, and new names had appeared in the shopping streets: Next, Body Shop, Tie Rack, Principles. And his own firm, of course, Bookstore (4).

Glenn Patterson is certainly the most determined in his reaction against the traditional fictional representation of Belfast and of Northern Ireland in general as a place of suffering, strife, and bombsites. This vision, as he stated in an interview with Niall McGrath in the Edinburgh Review in 1995, was caught in a time-warp which more truly represented the realities of Northern Ireland in 1972 than those of the nineties (McGrath, 1995: 50). The fact that he is a Protestant writer portraying Protestant people and their Ireland might incline the reader to agree with journalist Tony Parker, who, in his extraordinary book of interviews with the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast (1993). claims that "someone pressing you to convey the ‘positive side of life in Northern Ireland is in all probability Protestant middle-class" (14).

But Patterson is not the only writer to have become aware of this fictional time-warp. Indeed it may be said that one of the major new features of recent Northern Irish texts is this new sense of Northern Ireland, this new feeling of its life and especially of its cityscapes as normal and modern, places which are no longer "apart" but rather a part of 1990s Europe. In this new Northern Ireland all the pros and cons of modern life can be found, from Mc Donald’s restaurants to salubrious shopping arcades.

Deirdre Madden’s treatment of Belfast in her most recent novel One by One in the Darkness (1996) is also interesting. In a sense Madden goes beyond Patterson’s defence of Belfast normalcy and, adopting the same device (a visitor from London), she makes 1994 Belfast so normal that even a good "second look" at its most discouraging sectarian "monuments" are not enough to frighten away the outsider. The irony here is all the more striking since irony is not one of Madden’s most common techniques.

Like all of Madden’s stories, One by One in the Darkness is centered around three female characters, Cate, Helen and Sally Quinn. It narrates the story of Cate’s trip home (she is an unmarried journalist in London) to tell her two sisters and her very Catholic mother that she is pregnant. The real subject of the book, however, is the reconstruction of the three sister’s lives through their memories. Childhood, family life, a strong sense of attachment to place, Northern Irish history and especially the beginning of the Troubles are the shaping elements of their identities. The narrative moves back and forth between the present and the past, and it is only towards the end that the reader finds out about the tragic death of Charlie Quinn, the girls’ father, killed by a Protestant bullet intended for his brother Brian, an IRA sympathizer. This tragedy rests at the core of the three womens’ sensibilities and is the main event of their otherwise uneventful lives.

The novel also explores the relationship between home and away, place and self. Home for the three sisters is not the city but the little country town in County Antrim where they were born (and its fictional representation presumably owes much to Deidre Madden’s own childhood in the small town of Toomebridge, also in Country Antrim). Although two of the girls have moved away. (Cate to London and Helen to Belfast). and only Sally, the youngest, has stayed to work as a teacher in the local school, the book belongs more to the rural tradition of Northern Irish narrative in so far as it establishes a sort of primacy of country life and its culture over urban life. This primacy. however, is not asserted with the strong moral overtones employed by older writers such as McLaverty and Kiely (although Helen. who is a solicitor and sometimes defends IRA terrorists, finds Belfast terrorists "too streetwise. too boisterous" and gets on more easily with those from a rural background). Rather this primacy comes across through the loving and derailed descriptions of Northern Irish countryside, which is one of the most fascinating elements of Maddens restrained, lucid and realistic style.

The relationship which the two older ‘urbanized" sisters retain with their homeplace is deep. indelible and city-proof. While Cate is on the plane which is bringing her back to Ireland. she stares out of the window and glimpses at Belfast Lough, "the gantries of the shipyard, the city itself and the dark mountains that rose behind it. She wouldn't have been happy in Belfast either’ (4): but then the next thing she sees are "the fields and farms’ and this time she stares "intently at the land, as if trying to wring some knowledge from it. as if she were seeing it from the first time, although in fact it couldn't have been more familiar to her, the type of landscape against which she still judged all others’ (5). The deep bond with the "solid stone house where the silence was uncanny" (the novel both opens and closes with these lines), and with the surrounding countryside makes it impossible for her and for her sister Helen to establish a durable relationship with any other place or location. Madden often shows Cate in her home place in the novel, and is in these passages that the writing is at its most lyrical, justly capturing the rich relationship Gate has developed with the country’ she grew up in:

She went out across the fields, wading through the long grass as one might wade in the sea. After a day of showers the sun was hidden now in white clouds which it split and veined with light: pink and blue like the opal Gate wore on her right hand. Drops of rain rolled off the heavy grass as she moved slowly through the field (9).

Gate has no similar attachment to London. while Helen, who feels the need to drive back home from Belfast every week-end, buys a house in the city which she purposefully keeps sterile. She does not feel any emotional attachment to it nor does she wants to develop one. The bare, chilly atmosphere of "clinical neatness" of the place is often remarked upon, and ‘it always struck her particularly after she had been home for the weekend" (45). Keeping the umbilical cord, the link with home safe is part of what the anonymity of Helen’s city house is about.

Yet Belfast, which in this novel plays a minor role, does not come across at all as the dull urban nightmare which was, albeit vaguely, present in Madden’s first novel Hidden Symptoms (1986). Although the city is described as "ugly" more than once in the book, it is its 1990s prosperity which is most forcefully communicated. Again the vehicle to convey this unexpected wealth is an outsider. Steve, Helen’s gay friend David’s English boyfriend. He overcomes his natural aversion to Belfast and decides to come there to visit his partner. In spite of David’s fears ("seeing soldiers all over the place; and the barracks all fortified and stuff: that’s going to frighten the life out of him"), Steve. fed up with London. likes Belfast and suddenly decides to move there. Since this is not exactly what David had in mind, he decides, following Helen's suggestion, to show Steve the ‘scary" Belfast, the of the Republican and Loyalist ghettoes, with their threatening language of murals and banners out on display to intimidate visitors.

This time, when David collected him at the airport, he didn’t drive into Belfast by the motorway hut went over the Div is mountain, through Turf Lodge and then down on to the Falls Road. pointing out the fortified barracks and all the other things which, before, he would have been at pains to conceal. He parked outside the off-licence above which Helen had her office. ‘Won't be a minute.’ he said, locking Steve in the car. ‘Don’t go away.’ An army foot patrol obligingly ambled past at that moment, and when David returned, Steve looked suitably anxious (57).

He then takes Steve to West Belfast, shows him the Republican murals, drives him over to the Shankill to have a look at the Loyalist equivalents, brings him to the cemetery to see the IRA hunger strikers’s graves; in short tries to expose him to as much sectarian shock as possible. Yet, in spite of his efforts, David fails to discourage Steve, who keeps declaring his desire to stay in Belfast because "London is filthy and dangerous now" (58), while Belfast has a "high standard of living" (58) and low property prices. Belfast has changed to the point of exchanging roles with London as the "Evil Everytown" which it traditionally had become to represent, and in the ironic shift of roles between the two capitals. the centre (London) becomes a the "filthy and dangerous" place to escape from, and the periphery (Belfast) the high-quality city to escape to. Six months is all that Steve lasts, but it is his own boredom and a frustration with Belfast’s provincialism more than with its sectarian ugliness that sends him back to London.

The text which more than any other offers a new image of the Northern Irish urban world is McLiam Wilson’s most recent novel. Eureka Street (1996). Even compared to Fat Lad, this book marks a radical departure from the traditional claustrophobic perception and representation of Northern Ireland — via Belfast — which had become a dominant trope in Northern Irish fiction.

In Ripley Bogle, the widely acclaimed debut novel, which won McLiam Wilson the Hughes and the Rooney Prizes for literature, the author presented the reader with an Irish ensemble whose moral, spiritual and material abasement was rendered even more shocking by the angry satirical voice of the first person narrator, the 22 year old Irish tramp Ripley Bogle. The novel covers four days in the life of the hero, who while aimlessly wandering the streets of London tells the story of his life, addressing himself directly to the reader. The story begins ab ovo with Ripley’s conception and birth — both brutally described in the opening pages in a rough. unforgiving way which leaves no space for the imagination — and continues with his childhood in Turf Lodge, one of the poorest areas of Catholic working-class Belfast during the Troubles. It then recounts his love-story with a Protestant girl, an unforgiveable sin, this, in Catholic Belfast, which brings about his banishment from home and marks the beginning of his life as a homeless tramp, first in Belfast and then, after an interlude in Cambridge as a college student, in London.

The intertextuality of McLiam Wilson’s prose is certainly the most striking quality of his elaborate style and has already been remarked upon. The echoes of Laurence Sterne in the digressively-progressive, conversational, ego-centered and flamboyant first person narration, of Samuel Beckett in the figure of the funny, caustic, desperate tramp who, as he walks, incessantly broods about his own life, and of James Joyce in the trangressive and irreverent use of language and in the subversion of traditional narrative methods (the nightmarish recreation of a drunken night in an Irish London pub in the eighth chapter of the "Friday" section is highly reminiscent of the Circe episode in Ulysses) — are clearly audible. McLiam Wilson’s achievement is considerable even if the young writer’s anger, dictated (as he stated in an interview with Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times of 18 July 1992) by what "he sees going on around him; all the poverty and violence and mindless hate" (5). sometimes verges on being overwhelming.

In Ripley Bogle part of this anger is directed against Belfast and its violence. The city is not as carefully recreated as it will be in Eureka Street (rather it is London streets which vividly come to life as Bogle wanders through them), yet the bleakness and hopelessness of the place is conveyed to the reader through the thoroughly repulsive nature of the people who inhabit it. Ripley himself, his parents and family, his neighbours, his schoolmates and his teachers are a very unattractive bunch of people. too busy trying to survive that brutal urban jungle which is the Falls Road of the seventies to be bothered with anything or anyone else.

At some point Bogle recounts a particularly gruesome incident which occured in his street during the internment campaign in which Catholics could be arrested without warrant, detained for long periods in jail and interned without reason or appeal. One night, during an army raid, Muire, a little girl who lives nearby and who likes showing off her ability’ to walk on a tightrope of barbed wire, is mistaken in the darkness for a fugitive by’ the soldiers. Although young Ripley stops Wilson, the soldier who is about to shoot her, in time, Muire gets a fright and slips "dropping straight down, her open legs straddling the barbed wire" (30). The awfulness of the episode expresses Ripley Bogle’s anger towards the city with an explicitness which is unprecedented:

Who do we blame for that? Young Wilson? Me? Anyone? No, I don’t think any of those fit this bill. I prefer to blame Belfast. It’s all Belfast’s fault. Something should be done. Belfast shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this kind of thing. Belfast has to be stopped. Its time will come. I hope (31 ).

In Eureka Street (1996) Mc Liam Wilson’s anger with Belfast seems to have exhausted itself and been replaced instead by’ an intense feeling for the place, by an admiration for its beauties and by a deeply humane sympathy for its people and their suffering. The inversion of mood from the fictional city of his first novel could not be more evident. Of course Belfast has not suddenly ceased to be what history has made it into:

Under the circumstances. Belfast was a pretty famous place. When you consider that it was the underpopulated capital of a minor province, the world seemed to know it excessively well. Nobody needed to be told the reasons for this needless fame. I didn’t know much about Beirut until the artillery moved in. Who’d heard of Saigon before it blew its lid? Was Anzio a town, a village or a stretch of beach? Where was Agincourt exactly?
Belfast shared the status of the battlefield. The place-names of the city and country had taken on the resonance and hard beauty of all history’s slaughter venues. The Bogside, Crossmaglen, The Falls. The Shankill and Andersonstown. In the mental maps of those who had never been in Ireland, these places had tiny crossed swords after their names. People thought them deathfields - — remote, televised knackers’ yards. Belfast was only big because Belfast was bad (13-14).

Nor has it stopped emanating that claustrophobic and repellent aura of death which drives its people away day after day.

Suddenly I longed to leave Belfast. Because of an inadvertently heard news story, the city felt like a necropolis. When the bad things happened, I always wanted to leave and let Belfast rot. That was what living in this place was all about. I got this feeling twice a week every week of the year. Like everyone here. I lived in Belfast from day to day. It was never firm. I always stayed but I never really wanted to (61).

Yet of the very many characters which populate this novel, there is no doubt that Belfast is the central one and McLiam Wilson’s most successful creation. In spite of its dangerous narratives of violence and death, Belfast comes across less like a death-giving "necropolis" and more like a life-affirming metropolis.

Eureka Street is a very long and ambitious text which in some respect aims at putting together many genres and styles and is almost Dickensian in its scope. As it states at the very beginning ("All stories are love stories") it is a romance narrating two parallel love stories, that of Catholic Jake Jackson and that of his Protestant friend Chuckie Largan. It is a twentieth century picaresque novel with Chuckie Largan playing the role of Tom Jones, his American girlfirend Max as Sophie and contemporary America substituting eighteenth century’ England. It is at once a satire of sometimes Swiftian overtones, a burlesque with Northern Ireland and its political foibles and hobby horses as its target and a version of pulp-fiction Quentin Tarantino style. It is also an honest attempt at writing about the tragic North from the refreshing Sternian perspective that human life is a comedy and that it is not, in spite of its slings and arrows, such a bad thing after all, not even in contemporary’ Belfast. And it is, first of all, a crafted lyric and a moving love-song for the city of Belfast and its people.

The events narrated take place in the months immediately before and after the 1994 IRA ceasefire but the readier has little sense that Jake Jackson and Chukie Largan are living in a city divided along sectarian lines which is home to danger, violence andi unhappiness: their pub friends all belong to that very’ recently’ developed species of young Irishmen who, after spending a few’ years abroad. have come back to Ireland.

They’d gone away, the'd come back. It used to be that Northern Ireland’s diaspora was permanent. poor denuded Ireland. But everyone had started coming back. Everyone was returning. (141).

Their lives are pretty much the same as those of their counterparts anywhere else in Europe and they do not seem to be particularly affected by the politics of the North. The same may’ be said of all the other characters (with one remarkable exception, as we shall see.)

Jake Jackson has his roots in West Belfast, one of the dangerous Catholic areas of the city, but he seems to have left that particular part of his life behind, although of course he has not forgotten about it. He has had a rough life, he was separated from his family by social workers and brought up by two wonderful foster parents. He is well-educated, lives in Poetry Street (a romantic-sounding street in what McLiam Wilson calls leafy Belfast) and thanks to his girlfriend Sarah, an English correspondent covering the Troubles for a London newspaper, he has even managed to give up his life-long career as "bouncer, bodyguard, general frightener, all-purpose yob" (61) which his innate gifts as a fighter make him so perfect for. By the time the book begins Jake has already been abandoned by her: "She didn’t want to live in Belfast anymore. She was English. She didn’t need it any more. There had been a lot of killings back then and she decided she’d had enough. She wanted to go back to somewhere where politics meant physical arguments. health debates, local taxation, not bombs, not maiming not murders not fear" (5). Without Sarah and her nice, bourgeois normality to "iron him smooth" (62) Jake is inevitably’ drawn back to his rough life-style of "punching heads and baring teeth" (63).

Politically speaking Jake is fiercly a-political ("Politics are basically antibiotic, i.e., an agent capable of killing or injuring living organisms. I have a big problem with that". 96) and he has a particularly deep dislike for nationalist hardliners, a dislike which is reinforced by the fact that his West Belfast origins make him interesting to them. Yet he expresses feelings about visitors who expect to find derelict houses and bomb-sites everywhere in Belfast which are very similar to those voiced by Drew Linden in Fat Lad.

This was bourgeois Belfast, leafier and more prosperous than you might imagine. Sarah had found this place and moved us in to lead our leafy kind of life in our leafy kind of area. When her English friends or family had visited us there they had always been disappointed by the lack of burnt-out cars or foot patrols on our wide, tree-lined avenue. From my downstairs window, Belfast looked like Oxford or Cheltenham. The houses, the streets and the people were plump with disposable income.
From my upstairs window how ever, I could see the West: the famous, hushed West. That’s where I’d been born: West Belfast. the bold, the true, the extremely rough. I used to send Sarah’s visitors up there. There were plenty of those local details up West (13).

Jake's love hatred relationship with Aoirghe, a girl who is as politically committed to the cause of a united Ireland as Jake is dismissively cynical about it. Chuckie Largan’s relationship with Max, and Chuckie’s mother’s lovestory with her best girlfriend, all have very happy and satisfactory endings. unlike most love stories in Northern Irish narrative. For the first time ever, Belfast streets are "love-friendly", so much so that even a love story between a Muslim man and a Jewish girl is possible. Again irony’ is present but it is neither corrosive nor sarcastic, on the contrary, it is rather soft and affectionate.

What with Belfast being such a small town. I bumped into about forty people I knew. I chatted long each time. I encountered Rajinder with his new girlfriend. Rachel. It was good to see him but after a few minutes I was uneasy. I drew him aside and whispered. ‘Is she Jewish?’
‘Yeah.’ he said.
‘Aren’t you a Muslim?’
‘Yeah, but I’m Sunni.’
I smiled kindly. ‘Yeah, Rajinder. your disposition is very pleasant but you are still a Muslim.’
‘No, no. I mean I’m a Sunni Muslim. We’re moderate.’
I knew that,’ I muttered quickly.
There’d been a couple of ceasefires and suddenly Belfast was the city of love. Muslim and Jew at it like rabbits. By all accounts Rachel’s and Rajinder’s parents had vet to call their own ceasefire but Rachel and Rajinder didn’t care (345-6).

Yet, no matter how much these writers represent Northern Ireland as a normal and modern place with much in common with other European cities, they still retain an awareness of the constant possibility of violence. Thus, in Fat Lad James’s idyllic immersion in Belfast’s romantic-sounding streets is brutally interrupted by’ the sound of distant shooting. Belfast’s harmonious postmodern reality, interrupted by a shocking and totally unexpected eruption of violence, is brilliantly portrayed by Patterson in musical terms.

Suddenly it was as though a thousand windows had been thrown open. The street filled with music. Fifties pop, acid house, a shriek of jazz trumpet from somewhere, a crash of metal from a jukebox somewhere else. Indian restaurant. Discrete vet oddly harmonious: a symphony for any city, summer 1990.
Then a single discordant note was introduced. A distant percussion, like a heel being brought down smartly on an empty Coke can. Crumpcrack (207)

In the same way, in spite of its reasurring beauty and normality, McLiam Wilson never lets us forget that we are indeed in Belfast Although none of the characters is directly involved in any sectarian scheme, they are still "tender, murderable" Belfast people. They’ are part of a world that. in spite of its blissfully normal appearance. has still to come to terms with the fact that the odd bomb does go off from time to time. The indirect way in which McLiam Wilson chooses to deal with Belfast violence is strikingly effective.

As we read, we hear a few bombs placidly exploding in the distance and their meaning, cause and effect are kept faint. Just when we are either beginning to forget about them or more likely’ starting to become a little impatient with McLiam Wilson’s smart nonchalance with regard to this violent reality, we are gently taken away from the main events of the book and led into chapters ten and eleven. Chapter ten consists of six pages of poetry in prose (the effect is reinforced by’ the fact that the right-hand margins are uneven), in which McLiam Wilson sings his beautiful, nocturnal love-song for sleeping Belfast:

The city rises and falls like music, like breathing.(...)
Under street-lamps by all the city’s walls, writing gleams: IRA, INLA, UVF, UFF, OTG. The city keeps its walls like a diary. In this staccato shorthand, the walls tell of histories and hatred, shrivelled and blenched with age. Qui a terre a guerre. the walls say. (...)
Belfast is Rome with more hills: it is Atlantis raised from the sea. And from anywhere you stand, from anywhere you look, the streets glitter like jewels, like small strings of stars...
However many, whatever size, it is magical. This night, the streets smell stale and tired, the air is full of regret and desire. Time seems passing and passed. The city feels how it feels to grow old.
But at night. in so many ways, complex and simple, the city is a proof of God. This place often feels like the belly of the universe. It is a place much filmed but little seen. Each street. Hope, Chapel, Chichester and Chief, is busy with the moving marks of the dead thousands who have stepped their lengths. They leave their vivid smell on the pavements, bricks, door-ways and in the gardens. In this city, the natives live in a broken world — broken but beautiful.
You should stand some night on Cable Street, letting the little wind pluck your flesh and listen, rigid and ecstatic, while the unfamous past talks to you. If you do that, the city will stick to your fingers like Sellotape (…)
But most of all, cities are the meeting places of stories. The men and women there are narratives, endlessly complex and intriguing (…) The merest hour of the merest day of the merest of Belfast’s citizens would be impossible to render in all its grandeur and all its beauty. In cities the stories are jumbled and jangled. The narratives meet. They clash. they converge or convert. They are a Babel of prose (...)
And the sleepy murmurings of half a million people combine to make an influential form of noise, a consensual music. Hear it and weep. There is little more to learn on the earth than that which a deserted city at four in the morning can show and tell. Those nights. those cities are the centre, the fulcrum, the very wheel upon which you turn (…)
In Belfast, in all cities, it is always present tense and all the streets are Poetry Streets (212-17).

Nowhere else in Irish literature, not even in Ulysses, had a city been celebrated and recreated with such deep intensity’ and loving lyricism.

Chapter eleven presents the morning after, when the reader encounters a certain Rosemary Dave. a young woman never seen before in the book. We pleasantly stroll with her through the sunny Belfast streets, enjoy’ her happiness at the thought of Sean’s love for her, blush with her at the memory of what he said about her hips the night before. buy an expensive green-linen knee-length skirt in a chic shopping Arcade. anxiously’ check her hair in a dark window, phone Sean and listen to his still love-inebriated voice, emerge with her from Arcade Street. head for lunch into a small sandwich shop, turn to murmur some thanks to the young man who is keeping the door open with a flirtatious smile on his face and then, as McLiam Wilson puts it. with Rosemary we ‘stop existing’. After this, the author proceeds in a very matter-of-fact, almost scientific way to describe the effect of the bomb on Rosemary’s body.

The largest part of one of the glass display cases blasted in her direction. Though fragmented before it reached her, the pieces of shrapnel and glass were still large enough to kill her instantly. Her left arm was torn off by sheet glass and most of her head and face destroyed by the twisted mass of metal tray. The rim of the display case, which was in three large sections. sliced through or embedded in her recently praised hips. and some heavy glass jars impacted on her chest and stomach, pulverising her major organs. Indeed, one substantial chunk of glass whipped through her midriff, taking her inner stuff half-way through the large hole in her back (222).

He does the same for the young man with the flirtatious smile and for all the dead customers of the shop, for some of the passers-by and some of the witnesses, and concludes:

They all had stories. But they weren’t short stories. They shouldn’t have been short stories. They should each have been novels, profound. delightful novels, eight hundred pages or more. (...) What great complexity. What richness, What had happened? A simple event, The traffic of history and politics had bottlenecked. An individual or individuals had decided that reaction was necessary. Some stories had been shortened. Some stories had been ended. A confident editorial decision had been made.
It had been easy.
The pages that follow are light with their loss. The text is less dense, the city is smaller (231).

McLiam Wilson’s novel is not about the Troubles, and yet few bombs in the many pages written on the Troubles have had such a devastating effect on the reader. With the exception of Peggy Largan, Chuckie’s mother, who, although she remained unhurt, was one of the closest witnesses to the slaughter (an event which will completely change her life), none of the main characters in the book has been directly involved in the explosion, and the reader, in an experience that mirrors that of the people of Belfast. may rapidly forget the victims’ names and proceed. slightly numbed, with the rest of the book. We are led through the short power.

In stating this so powerfully. Eureka Street follows a well-established tradition in Northern Irish narrative, which very often has its Troubles victims killed by accident or chance. In Jennifer Johnston’s The Railway Station Man. Roger and Jack, respectively Helen’s lover and son, are blown up in a freak accident, while her first husband was also shot by mistake by the IRA. In Maurice Power’s Lonely the Man without Heroes, Brigadier Brazier, the army’s secret agent, shoots harmless Tim Pat Duffy instead of his son Fergal. an IRA sympathizer. because he was wearing his son’s coat. The same happens. as we have seen, to Charlie Quinn in Madden’s One by One in the Darkness, while the only person to die in Daniel Mornin’s All Our Fault is shot by mistake. In McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle Muire, the little neighbour girl, gets horribly maimed again "by mistake" and in Patterson’s Fat Lad the absurdity of random death is pushed to its extreme in the story of Con, who dies while driving his car when a lamp post hit by the "monstrous" back wheel of a Saracen which came off its axle after the soldier driving it took his hands off the wheel to protect himself from a flying bottle falls onto it. In Colin Bateman’s Cycle of Violence the sequence of people who get killed by mistake or by accident is endless. Yet of all of these novels, McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street makes this point with particular care, with compelling force and deep humanity, and the bomb chapter, which like the explosion it describes blows the reader off his/her feet. is certainly one of the most forceful pages ever written in Northern Irish writing.

Publication Contents


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.


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