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

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
[Literature and the Conflict]

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


The Political Discourse in
Northern Irish fiction

Whenever a writer writes about Northern Ireland, not only is he giving shape to a literary vision of the North, but he is also, albeit indirectly. unavoidably expressing a political standpoint. The writing of a novel in and of Northern Ireland, no matter what the motives, will inevitably be read in itself also as a political act, an adoption of a political viewpoint in a world which is a minefield of economic, religious, and political sectarian divisions. By saying that the act of writing is at least in part a political act, we are approaching the nub of the Northern Ireland writers task and of his dilemma. Of course it is not a simple question of taking sides or of writing for one’s tribe, but it is in the first place a far more demanding call to respond adequately to the violence in the North. to step above it in an attempt to penetrate its social and historical origins, to understand its power and sometimes its attraction, to focus on its effects and to register its omnipresence in a reality where people’s lives and relationships are ineluctably affected by it.

In attempting to deal with the issues relating to the Troubles the Northern Irish writers are also filling an almost embarrassing gap. since artistic responses to the political tension and the civil unrest of the province, and indeed to other social issues, have been strangely slow to come from authors born in the Republic. In his recent Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd ascribes this failure to come to terms with social problems in general and the Northern problem in particular to that "remorseless privatization of experience" of "an art which located its interest in the pathology of the alienated individual", which Kiberd states was so typical of Irish literature before and during what he terms "the Charlie Haughey era’. "This may explain", he continues, "why so many Irish poets in the period fought shy of politics and of social issues. The decade after the foundation of Aosdana[1] saw hunger strikes in the north, vast unemployment in the south, the wrongful imprisonment of suspects in British jails, and the divisive divorce and abortion referenda, yet these events passed without finding their laureate. It would be difficult to imagine a Yeats or an O’Casey failing to use such material" (584).

Although this continued reluctance on the part of Southern writers to tackle the dark and intractable matter of the North is somewhat understandable, since the peaceful and vibrant reality of the 1990s Celtic Tiger is indeed a world apart from the brooding turmoil of the northern counties, it is also symptomatic of that process of self-distancing, which at times borders on indifference, clearly at work among the majority of middle-class Dubliners and Irish people alike, a detachment which is all the more striking since the North and its tragic events figure every night as the top items on the Irish national news and appear in the home-news pages of the main Irish daily newspapers.

Northern writers are, with varying degrees of success, giving voice therefore to an experience which even within the rich and varied reality of contemporary Irish literature has never been explored or articulated before. Their task is an extremely onerous one, since they have to attempt to maintain a difficult balance between purely artistic claims and the demands of politics. For many of them it is of fundamental importance to resist direct political statement and defend their right to avoid political commitment: "Commitment", Seamus Deane wrote in the heated early seventies in his article "The Writer of the Troubles", "is too early a demand. It would merely lead to the kind of poetry politicians would quote when they needed it. As far as poetry is concerned, nothing in the world is intransitive; (...) But the poet must define the connection in terms of his art in order to save it from the kinds of claim a public world as ominous as ours would make upon him" (Deane, 1974: 17).

Yet, in spite of all the difficulties involved, many Northern Irish writers, beginning with the poets of the so-called Northern Renaissance, have taken up the challenge. Since the mid-sixties they have been writing verse of the highest literary quality and, in different ways and through different styles and registers, have been attempting to express a poetic response to the situation. As Dillon Johnston explained in his Irish Poetry after Joyce: "The issue registers at some level as a compelling theme which challenges them to weigh the value of political poetry and to examine the distinction between private and tribal emotion" (Johnston, 1990: 49).

In the work of the Northern Irish poets, the reality of sectarian violence and racial hatred is sometimes directly addressed and represented, more often it is dealt with by way of analogies, allegorized or metaphorised in other historical or geographical situations and contexts which are endowed with the same type of impulses and motives and function as an objective-correlative for the Northern Irish situation. Thus we encounter John Hewitt giving voice to the Protestant planter’s claim to Irish land through the voice of a Roman colonist in his famous poem The colony; Seamus Heaney finding a continuum in his ‘bog poems’ in North between the sacrificial Iron Age rites to the earth goddess in Jutland and the victims of sectarianism in Northern Ireland; Paul Muldoon intersecting of Irish history and myth with the traditions of the Native Americans.

In trying to find a way of dealing with the Troubles from a distance. writers have also followed Joyce and sought to draw on and mould the classics to suit their own attempts to write about their local realities. Some of them have engaged their poetic talents in translations and versions of classic masterpieces. which they embroidered with local detail and freshened with the rhythms and idioms of the north. Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act echoes with a clear Northern Ireland resonance while being at the same time a faithful rendering of Sophocloes’ Antigone. Paulin has also written a version of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in Seize the Fire (1990), while Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (1990) is a translation of Sophocle’s Philoctetes. Ciaran Carson has translated some episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

This transposition of actuality into another time and space and into myth makes it possible for Northern writers to contemplate the reality of the North from a distance, while re-establishing that somewhat reassuring principle by which the violence and horror looming over the North are but a manifestation of the violence and horror running throughout the metatext of human history. The danger of such distancing is that it risks being interpreted as an integration or rather an elevation of the atrocities of civil war into dignified categories of human behaviour[2], while it also reinforces the traditional idea of Irish history as essentially cyclical and repetitive, its inescapability reasserted by its being part of a wider. universal historical cycle.

As Neil Corcoran rightly suggests in his recent After Yeats and Joyce, Reading Modern Irish Literature, differently from what happens in the poetry, the treatment of violence and sectarianism has been much more direct and straightforward in the novels about the Troubles (154). Although it may come across as a paradox, given the premises offered so far, the matter of the North, an intractable and thorny beast for those seeking to submit it to poetic purposes, seems to constitute an excellent source of inspiration for at least one particular type of novel, the thriller. To date. over four hundred and fifty novels to do with the North have been published; a lot of them are badly crafted, simplistic and inflammatory. and rather than attempt to understand and participate in the human tragedy of the part of the world they are writing about, they exploit it for authorial fame and financial gain.

Yet, in a sense, it is hardly surprising that the climate of Northern Ireland should be a thriller writer’s dream. It provides the perfect setting for a thriller and all the necessary ingredients are available in abundance. Northern Ireland is, after all, a place of "dangerous passion". A backdrop of palpable tension feeds prejudice and racial hatred and creates feelings of mistrust and suspicion; a civil war is being fought by illegal terrorist organisations which are financed by criminal activities and obtain weapons through the illegal arms trade; a tenuous order of sorts is held over this reality by a combination of a local police force, the British army, the secret services and special corps which obey no rules and are involved in mysterious episodes which are never fully explained. If one adds to these ready-to-use elements a nationalism which is easily romanticised in the figure of the macho Irish terrorist cum urban guerrila. it is not difficult to come up with a mixture which might be appreciated by part of the huge reserve of Irish-American readers and by many Irish living abroad, as well as by that general readership which enjoys the bold and brash strokes of the thriller writer.

The citation of a few titles or a few piquant details can give a clear picture of the sensationalized nature of these novels. Take, for instance, Donald Seaman’s The Bomb that Could Lip-read, the cover of which shows two bombs covered by a set of rosary beads, or Shaun Herron’s The Whore Mother, from which the following passage is typical: "It’s in the temperament of the Irish, of people like Powers, a vicious killer who seeks sex and death with the hunger of a madman…", or Walter Nelson’s Ministrel Code, which is about two IRA killers and a Japanese psychopath who together kidnap the Queen.

Bill Robton, a lecturer in Criminology at the Ulster University in Coleraine, has expressed his worries about the proliferation of the "Troubles thriller" in a cogent yet cynically amusing way:

It’s got macho-men with guns. its got beautiful red-haired virgins running around, falling at the feet of the macho-men with guns, it’s got chases, it’s got bombs, it’s got all that you might want. (...) For factual writers of this place, the length of the Troubles is a problem, because there is no new angle they can find. But for fictional writers it’s absolutely perfect. The Soviet Union has gone. the Evil Empire, the PLO are talking to the Israeli government... throughout the world it seems that all the great spots for thrillers don’t exist anymore. And so thriller-writers are sort of roaming the world trying to figure out somewhere where they can pounce, parachute in, and Northern Ireland is perfect. (...) These things are out there in the world saying: Look, this is an account of what’s going on here, this all genre is saying very’ awful things about Northern Ireland. It’s saying that we are all congenitally violent, or that people that might ever get involved in politics here are people who are pathologically deranged, or something ..."[3]

Eamonn Hughes goes beyond Robton’s sociological criticism and cites the Troubles thriller as the main obstacle impeding a more mature development of the Northern Irish novel tout court. The thriller, with its stereotyped generic mechanisms ("goodies" against "baddies") does not allow for any open interplay between characters and circumstances and leaves very little space for an articulated contextualisation of the Northern Irish reality. In such a scheme, Hughes maintains, Northern Ireland is but another place where things can never change: "At its most mechanical the thriller moves to a closure which projects its locale as a closed but always unresolved system: the Cold War can never end, the forces of corruption can never be defeated, and the problems of Northern Ireland will inevitably endure" (Hughes, 1991: 6).

Although it is true that many of the Troubles thrillers convey an unreal, clichéd and sometimes even ludicrous idea of life in Northern Ireland, Hughes is perhaps slightly overstating his case. In certain skilful Northern Irish hands. the troubles thrillers have risen above the expected functions of their form and been transformed into penetrating studies of a complex reality Coming from the North they cannot but have their fair share of what is standard thriller fare - violence, death, intrigue - but occasionally at least they deal with this material in an insightful wax’ and might be said to constitute something of a "moral history" of the Troubles, a useful means with which to attempt to penetrate the realities of politics and terrorism in the six counties.

In a narrative world where violence seems to be the "signature of all things". it is highly revealing to concentrate on how the political discourse is articulated and how the worlds of political struggle and civil division - the world directly responsible for that violence - are seen and represented. How are the people on the ground - the political leaders, politicians, terrorists, sympathisers, soldiers and policemen - contextualized and explained? How are those "countrymen" who - to use one of Louis MacNeice’s lines from his 1939 Autumn Journal —"shoot to kill and never/ See the victim’s face become their own" first perceived and then portrayed in these texts?[4]

MacNeice’s lines describe a killer’s first essential requirement: the capacity not to identify with and therefore not to empathize with his victim. But while for MacNeice this coldness of the soul and of the heart is a necessary component of the admired figure of the man of action, in the contemporary novels of the Troubles any such admiration has completely disappeared.

As seen in this narrative tradition, the capacity to kill, whenever it is presented, is very rarely flanked by a belief in ideas and ideologies or by a painfully gained awareness of the necessity for violence, by a willingness to sacrifice one’s conscience and sometimes one’s life for one’s country - elements that traditionally transform a killer into a hero. Far from being heroes, killers here remain just that - killers; so much so that their creators’ fascination with them seems to originate in their being almost allegorical representations of evil, deeply flawed and compromised characters. emblems of the dark side of humanity.

In Northern Irish narrative, the world of political commitment - with its adjacent terrain of terrorism - is populated by a singularly unattractive group of figures, who seem to fall mainly into two categories: the failed or corrupt leader and the violent killer This negative characterization, responsible though it may be for some gross and dangerous stereotyping[5], must nevertheless be reckoned with more seriously than it has been so far and cannot be dismissed simply as a sign of the immaturity of Northern Irish narrative in general (Hughes) or as a lack of imagination or of "willing knowledge" on the part of its writers (McMinn). This fictional negativity’ is not so much a failure in itself. but rather it is an expression of a deep and persistent sense of disenchantment with and of distrust for the world of politics in general and of political activism and terrorism in particular; a disenchantment which is widespread and, to date, still very much alive even in recent novels which do not belong to the genre of the Trouble thriller. With the passing of the years. and especially with the coming of the slightly more optimistic nineties, there has been a switch to satire and ridicule, but the sense of disappointment has stayed on. to the point that one of the images of national identity to emerge more powerfully from Northern Irish fiction is that of a place where distrust in political devotion to the national cause (be it Loyalist or Republican) is deeply felt and very common.

Publication Contents


A novel which states this distrust very openly is Eureka Street (1996) by Robert McLiam Wilson, one of Northern Ireland’s most promising new’ talents. Born in 1964 in Belfast. McLiain Wilson published his widely acclaimed first novel Ripley Bogle in 1989 and won the Rooney Prize for it.

As it transpires from an interview he gave to Eileen Battersby for the Irish Times - where he asserted rather polemically: "I’m not going to ignore the political questions. I am not Seamus Heaney" (Battersby 1992: 5) - McLiam Wilson believes that politics cannot be ignored by Northern Irish artists. Interestingly enough, the interview was given when Wilson was writing Eureka Street, which is. among other things, one of the most overtly political novels ever written in or about the North.

Described by its author in the same interview as "a big 19th-century novel in terms of size. with lots of characters and it’s about Belfast, finally" Eureka Street is indeed a very long, important and ambitious text which will be more thoroughly analyzed in chapter III of this book and which brings together an impressive collection of genres and styles. Perhaps because of this, because it tries to be so many different things, it is not always wholly successful in all of them, and the overt political satire which runs through its narrative is not one of its most convincing features.

McLiam Wilson chooses a very direct way to express his opinions about the political struggle in the North: in his novel, Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein make very thinly disguised appearances under the names of "Jimmy Eve" and the (much despised by the narrator Jake Jackson) "Just Us" movement. Since the events narrated take place in the months immediately before and after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Jimmy Eve’s political career is portrayed at one of its peaks, that is during his 1994 American tour. This tour intersects with Chuckie Largan’s journey (one of the two protagonists of the book) to the United States in pursuit of his American girlfriend Max, who has left him for no apparent reason. At a certain point in the story Chuckie Largan and Jimmy Eve’s itineraries overlap. and the two men, through a very unlikely and fortuitous turn of events. end up as guests on the same television programme. Chuckie, who has no interest in politics whatsoever but who was given some amphetamine to sniff by a cameraman immediately before the beginning of the programme, launches into a tirade which stuns Jimmy Eve into silence and seriously threatens his so far triumphantly successful political mission.

Although such an explicit and merciless attack on a real political movement such as Sinn Fein may well be regarded as a brave attempt to give voice for the first time in a literary context to a political criticism often heard among Irishmen and women north and south of the border. the narrative modes employed by McLiam Wilson - satire and parody - do not quite fit into the structure of the novel, and the reader is left with the feeling that caricatures of real-life politicians such as that of Jimmy Eve, although they may perhaps amuse for a while and certainly deliver a carefully constructed message, do not find their natural environment and collocation in the overall structure of a novel such as Eureka Street. McLiam Wilson’s political discourse is much more effective when the horror of random sectarian violence is exposed through the creation of characters the reader can identify with and through the narration of events. The eleventh chapter of his book, which is one of the best descriptions of the horror of a bomb explosion ever to appear in a Northern Irish novel, is (as will be demonstrated in chapter three of this work) a clear demonstration of this.

Politics, politicians and terrorists alike are more successfully ridiculed by Colin Bateman in his comic thrillers, although Bateman does not engage in overt political satire and does not have real-life targets for his irony paradox, sarcasm and wit. With his debut comic thriller, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, Divorcing Jack (1995) (for which he won the Betty Trask Prize) Bateman brought back to literature that black sense of humour for which Northern Irish people are well known.

Like his creator (born in 1962) the hero-narrator of his first and third novel. Divorcing Jack and Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men (1996), Dan Starkey is a Belfast journalist well-known throughout Northern Ireland for his satirical column (nearly all the characters sooner or later comment upon it.) Starkey (and, given the overt parallels, we also presume the author) openly declares himself to be a moderate Unionist, and although the character does not seem to be very bothered with his Protestant legacy, the reader is never allowed to forget that Starkey/Bateman is indeed a Protestant. Irony and wit here play a major role, and yet the message is carefully delivered. Thus, for example. on the opening page of Divorcing Jack, the narrator’s inability to cope with Chinese chopsticks is related to the fact that he was "brought up with Protestant tastes. Plain and simple" (3). A few pages on Starkey defines himself as a "Unionist with a sense of humour" (9). This albeit ironical insistence on the protagonist’s belonging to the Protestant tribe is extremely important if one keeps in mind what Edna Longely, one of the most prominent representatives of the Northern Irish Protestant critical consciousness, stated in 1989 at a conference on Ulster identities organised in Belfast by the Conway Education Centre:

The northern Protestant writer is perceived as deviant from his own group because (1) the Calvinistic spirit, as in Scotland. remains hostile to artistic expression: (2) literature has indeed historically played a role in nationalist eloquence about its political demands (This contrast with a curious unionist belief that you should only talk within your own laager.) Thus, by default. literature becomes assimilated into nationalism. (...) We need to banish the lingering sense, which feeds unionist paranoia, that if Protestants lift a pen or take an interest in local culture they will insensibly be drawn into the nationalist orbit (Laundy & Mac Poilin. 1992: 15).

Colin Bateman’s narrative reminds one more of Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino than of the Calvinistic spirit which Longley still sees as central to contemporary Northern Irish Protestant culture. Not only has Bateman’s ironic, irreverent and highly entertaining writing voiced a new perception of Northern Irish reality from a moderately’ unionist point of view, but in voicing it in such an unorthodox way it has also contributed to destabilizing the conventional vision of Northern Irish Protestants as reactionary, bigoted, unimaginative and narrow-minded. And even if his characters are a bit too witty to be wholly credible and if their drinking bouts tend to pall a little towards the end, Bateman has certainly injected a much needed dose of cathartic irony and laughter into Northern Irish writing.

A fast-paced and breathtaking narration, a complex and utterly surreal plot where chance and accident play a major role, coupled with lively, sharp and extremely funny dialogues are the main ingredients of Bateman’s stylistic recipe. In his novels all the most typical elements of the thriller are amply employed: crooked politicians, prying journalists wicked paramilitaries, CIA agents in disguise, the Secret Services, fat private detectives, ruthless killers: kidnappings, blackmailings, fights, chases, shootings, disguises, and topsy-turvy love-stories. Yet Bateman’s irreverent irony plays down the cliché of the situations, while his brilliant use of parody makes his novels stand out as something new, fresh and original. His irreverent attitude is mainly’ directed towards serious political and cultural issues such as, for example. that intricate nexus of contrasting elements which is Northern Irish Protestant identity, a sign that Bateman is obviously not as detached from the "Irish question" as he would have us believe. Yet Ireland and its troublesome issues do not intrude on the main plot and always appear - when they do - as casual "asides."

Starkey himself, a hard-drinking, rock-obsessed, Coke-dependent rogue who keeps getting involved in unlikely adrenaline-consuming chains of events, is the most important vehicle of all this. His sceptical. confused, and yet affectionate views about Northern Ireland surface sporadically in the course of the narration. In Divorcing Jack he is employed by the Government press office as an ‘official guide’ for the foreign journalists who are swarming around Belfast to cover the elections which will give Northern Ireland a new political status (one which is peculiarly similar to the combination of remedies proposed and adopted in April 1998): "power sharing, a largely autonomous state. freeport status, British but not British. Irish but not Irish. A Northern Irish Hong Kong. Ideas that seem to be generally popular" (88). Starkey is assigned to Charles Parker. a black reporter from the Boston Globe who will later turn out to be a CIA agent. On their first meeting, Starkey proceeds to give Parker some advice on how’ to act in Belfast. Bypassing the tortuous and convoluted analyses which always accompany the issue. Starkey gives the problematic Northern Irish identity a definition which is as clear as it is simple.

And stick it to calling it Northern Ireland, although you’ll hear variations. If you're a Loyalist you’ll call it Ulster, if you’re a Nationalist you call it the North of Ireland or the Six Counties, if you’re the British Government you call it the Province.’
‘And what do you call it, Mr Starkey.’
‘Home’ (46).

In Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men Starkey is in New York. Feeling rather sorry for himself (his wife Patricia, w’hom he "accidentally" betrayed in the first novel, is now expecting a baby from another man) he gets drunk and ends up in a peep-show club. Since he is not really in the humour for peeping, he ends up chatting with the girl the other side of the cubicle.

‘Are you on vacation?’
I nodded. ‘Sort of.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Ireland. No. Sorry’. That’s too much of a simplification. The United Kingdom. No. Sorry. Northern Ireland. The six counties of Ireland that will always be British.’
She nodded in a detached kind of a way’. The smile slipped a little. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m not a nut. I’m just a bit drunk. I miss my wife’ (89).

Later on in the same novel, during a midnight conversation with Bobby McMaster, the Irish heavyweight champion of Europe who is about to fight Mike Tyson in Madison Square Garden for the World title and whose enterprises Starkey is to immortalize in a book, the same thorny issue is faced over a can of Harp.

‘Do you think much about Irish politics. Starkey?’
I took a drink. ‘As little as possible.’
‘What would you describe yourself as, British?’
I shrugged. One of my better ones, the kind of thoroughbred shrug I reserved for genuinely perplexing situations. ‘On hijacked aeroplanes they always shoot the British third, just after the Americans and the Jews. No. not British.’
But not Irish?’
‘No. Not unless I’m in trouble abroad. I have an Irish passport. but I wouldn’t produce it in public at home.’
‘So would you say you were mostly ambivalent about the whole British/Irish thing?’
‘Ambivalent? No. I’m from Northern Ireland. Bobby. same as you, not England, not Ireland. it’s home. I couldn’t much be bothered fighting to make it one or the other, but if someone walked in and forced me into one thing or another. then I might get more protective about it. And by the way, you haven’t been taking any mind-altering drugs lately, have you?’ (161)

Earlier on Bateman’s liberating irreverence had given the same issue of Northern Protestant identity an unforgettable comic blow. In the scene McMaster is attacked by four hooded thugs while he is jogging in the park (Starkey is following him on a bike in an attempt to interview’ him). With Starkey’s help. McMaster manages to send the thugs packing. As the last attacker runs for cover and McMaster roars after him. Starkey/Bateman gets in a most effective linguistic blow’.

Then he (McMaster) opened his mouth and guldered: ‘Away ya go, ya fuckin’ wee fuckin’ fucker!’
Three hundred years of Protestant culture distilled in one man (51).

The snarled question of Northern Irish identity, thus, becomes Bateman’s most thoroughly constructed discourse, and that the writer is obviously drawing upon his own cultural background becomes obvious when his consistent Protestant characters are pitched against his flimsier Catholic ones.

Bateman’s narratives are dotted with situations or casual aphoristic observations - which are as strangely illuminating as they are funny - on a whole range of Northern Irish issues, such as the English shortsightedness in matters Irish (Belfast in particular):

I stood by the window. It had started to rain. Most of the city was laid out before me, but the little rivulets on the glass made it look all distorted, like I was looking at it through English eyes (63).

Or the Northern Irish inferiority complex:

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped. Spilt my Coke. A heavily built bloke in a trench coat raised his hands in apology. ‘Easy there, bubba,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ I replied, wiping at the Coke as it dribbled down my coat, apologizing as we British Irish do for things we haven’t done. It comes from an inferiority’ complex caused by’ being inferior (214).

Or the Northern Irish accent:

"We showed the tape to our employee in the lingerie department. She remembered him vaguely’. Remembered he was talkative, without ever really saying any-thing. Know’ the type? Had an accent. but she couldn’t really’ place it. Thought it was maybe Irish or Scottish. Said it was harsh, grating on the ears, sounded like he was complaining, when he wasn't.' Northern Irish," I said (211-2 ).

Traditional Irish tropes are irreverently turned upside-down. like the by now trite metaphor representing the British (male) colonization of female) Ireland in sexual terms, which in Divorcing Jack is ironically employed to justify the protagonist’s inability’ to control his sexual enthusiasm with his lover Margaret (a young girl he meets while lying in a state of drunken stupor in the Botanic Gardens and who will bring upon him a lot of trouble, marital as well as political).

We made love on the floor. It was nice. We had a bit of an argument about the lack of a condom. I volunteered to use my sock. She thought the idea was: a) disgusting; b) stupid. Socks weren’t watertight, or whatever. She said. You wear a sock, not only will I have a baby. but it’ll come out wearing a bloody jumper.’ We compromised on my withdrawal.
I didn't. We British don't withdraw from Ireland (27).

Terrorists are one of Bateman’s favourite butts, and in all of his three novels they come across as gangsters interested only in money when they’ are intelligent, and complete idiots when they are not. Protestant paramilitaries in particular are treated with dark comic scorn. In Divorcing Jack, Starkey and Parker, after leaving the office of Mr Brinn, the candidate of the Alliance Party’ who is about to become Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, realize they are being followed by the four occupants of a Fiat Panda "souped up for rallying". Since Parker and Starkey are driving a Saab, and since Parker is a New’ Yorker with some experience in street-chases, they easily’ manage to flee.

‘You think they were the police?’
I shook my head. ‘They were Protestant paramilitaries.’
‘Protestant? How’ can you tell?’
‘Two ways, really. One: they fucked up. Proddies have a habit of fucking up operations like this. They outnumber the IRA ten to one but couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery’. Correction. They usually do organize a piss-up in a brewery before they try anything and that’s why they fuck up.
‘And two?’
‘The skinhead who shot at us. He had FTP written on his head.’
‘FTP. Tattooed? What’s it mean?’
'No, just written. Like with a felt pen. It stands for Fuck the Pope. It’s a dead giveaway. Actually, they’re improving. Usually they can’t spell FTP’ (99)

In Cycle of Violence (1995). Bateman’s second thriller and by far the blackest of his books, the two UVF bombers chosen to deliver the explosive which is to kill the local IRA leader (named Curly’ Bap. after the hairdresser’s that he runs by day) are thus described:

Unfortunately. after such meticulous planning. they’ chose two potatoes to carry out the mission. Two potatoes.
One potato was Davie Morrow, the thug with the threat and the ma with the jaws wired up. Davie had plagued the UVF for so long over getting something decent to do for them that they finally overcame their well-rooted reluctance to give him his big chance.
The other potato was Tom O'Hanlon. They all felt sorry for Tom because his heart was in the right place and he was fairly intelligent, but he was as shy as they come and had a worrying tendency to go red under pressure. He was, in fact, a roast potato. He was also saddled with a Catholic surname, although that was constructed as being a bit of a plus when it came to alibis (151).

Of course everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. and after flooding the engine, losing their way in the half mile that they need to cover to deliver the bomb, and after getting stuck in the only pothole along the road, Davie and Tom go overtime and get blown up "to a thousand pieces."

A similarly dismissive vision of Catholic terrorists emerges in Divorcing Jack where the reader encounters Cow Pat Coogan, a prominent ex-IRA paramilitary who has become a local mafia boss. Not that his days of political commitment were much more honorable, since he has always been much more interested in collecting protection money than in liberating Ireland from the foreign oppressor. Now’ Cow Pat is busy’ blackmailing Mr Brinn who, unbeknownst to his electors, was an important and active member of the IRA before converting to peaceful politics. Cow Pat Coogan is the only survivor from Brinn’s former terrorist unit, as the other four were quickly eliminated by Brinn himself. At the end of the book, in their common attempt to outsmart one another, the crooked politician and the ex-IRA gangster will only succeed in blowing each-other up A few hours after his very’ unheroic death, Mr Brinn is elected Prime Minister: needless to say that the truth will never emerge.

Bateman’s bleakest critique of Northern Irish society takes place in his second novel, Cycle of Violence. The events are set in a dark town called Crossmaheart which had already appeared in Divorcing Jack (where it was referred to by the security forces as "the heart of the Congo") and which is thus described:

Once a quaint picture postcard village, it had been swamped in a couple of years by the dregs of the city, guinea pigs in a scheme to alleviate the urban decay and religious mayhem of Belfast by’ shifting it to an idyllic existence in the country, with its own industries, its modern leisure facilities and enlightened infrastructure. The planners had taken everything into account, except human nature. They transferred scum from slums into scum with immersion heaters (Cycle of Violence. 26).

It is here that the hero of the book, disgraced journalist Miller, is transferred after insulting his editor in Belfast. Miller gets involved with a local girl. Marie, and almost by accident finds himself investigating the mysterious death of her ex-boyfriend, and his predecessor at the newspaper. In the course of his investigations he discovers that the local Presbyterian minister the Rev. Rainey, the newspaper editor Martin O’Hagan and Curly Bap, the local IRA commander, have been involved in the horrible rape of a young girl which leadis to her suicide. Since Rainey. O'Hagan and Curly’ Bap should all in one way or another be leadership figures. Bateman's ruthless criticism of the "leaders" of Northern Irish society is quite open. Not that the rest of the characters are portrayed any more sympathetically.

Miller hated Crossmaheart. He hated the people for their narrow minds and streets. for the violence which exuded from every crossed eye. every bricked-up house. for the malevolence which swept the cold, uniformly broken estates day and night. The constant burr of watchful helicopters assaulted and insulted him like an incurable tinnitus (36).

Crossmaheart is indeed a dark, modern jungle where society, despite being utterly divided into sectarian ghettoes, is also made discouragingly uniform by the poverty that afflicts both communities. Here most people seem to pass the time "fighting and rowing and collecting their unemployment cheques" (26). The Catholic and Protestant pubs The Ulster Arms and Pearse Riley’s respectively — are terribly similar, both utterly depressing places:

The Ulster Arms was only up the street a few yards. It was half empty. Or was it half full? Miller could hardly tell the difference between it and Rileys, the same aura of barely suppressed violence, the same w’hiff of desperation brought on by poverty’ laced with alcoholism (115).

A scene every bit as dismal is to be found in McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street where again Protestant and Catholic communities are seen to suffer in equal measure. Here Jake Jackson, one of the two protagonists, works as a "repo man" (the man who comes to repossess unpaid-for goods) in North Belfast. The territory he covers is similar to Bateman’s Crossmaheart, and the conclusions he comes to about it are very close to those we have heard Miller express.

Crab, Hally and I worked North Belfast. It was mostly poor up there so we had a lot of ground to cover. We were thrillingly ecumenical and we raided Protestant estates with all the élan with which we raided Catholic ones. I could never see the difference. There were grim estates and their multiple greys. There were pale, flabby people and their crucial lack. There was the damp, moneyless smell. Both types of places were simply deep cores of poverty. They could paint their walls any colour they wanted, they could fly a hundred flags and they still wouldn’t pay the rent and we would still come and take their stuff away for them (63).

Yet this tribal interchangeability is typical not only of grim working-class estates, indeed it is seen by McLiam Wilson as the element which makes Northern Ireland’s present history such a tragi-comic narrative.

The tragedy was that Northern Ireland (Scottish) Protestants thought themselves like the British. Northern Ireland (Irish) Catholics thought themselves like Eireans (Proper Irish ). The comedy was that any once-strong difference had long melted away and they resembled no one now as much as they resembled each other. The world saw this and mostly wondered, but round these parts folk were blind (163)

Tragi-comedy, thus, becomes the natural modus narrandi both for Robert McLiam Wilson and for Colin Bateman, and this marks a revolutionary change of mood and attitude, as we shall see, in Northern Irish fiction. Yet both writers still depict politicians as cynical. untrustworthy and shamelessly ambitious, while they portray paramilitary activists and their sympathizers as calculating and often irremediably stupid. Even in Bateman’s novels, which are only apparently less openly political than McLiam Wilson’s (and this mainly because initially the plot and the humour overwhelmingly engage the reader’s attention) the political agenda is very serious: Bateman’s skepticism and sarcastic disenchantment with Northern Irish politics and culture is a significant feature of all his books.

Northern Ireland may be a place full of wit and humour, it may be able to laugh in the face of death and destruction, but honest politics, decent moral leadership Bateman and McLiam Wilson seem to be saying — if such things exist, certainly reside elsewhere.



Aosdana was the brainchild of Irish prime-minister Charles Haughey, and more particularly, of his arts and culture advisor, the poet and writer. Anthony Cronin. It is composed of a limited number of established Irish artists who, as a result of their membership. receive a small annual income from the state to assist them in their creative pursuits.


In Inventing Ireland Kiberd is concerned about the aestheticiation. "sanitization’ and ‘prettification’ of violence into poetic choices of this type.


Interview with Bill Robton, in Telling the Troubles, a programme on BBC, 23 September. 1993.


Quoted in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. III. p. 160.


Joseph McMinn. in his article Contemporary Novels on the "Troubles’ writes about "the fatalism about the incurability of the Irish disease of fanaticism" which "goes hand in hand with the insinuation that, ultimately. the ‘Troubles’ are those of the Irish ‘character’ or ‘temperament’. This insinuation is shared by so many of the novelists on the ‘Troubles’ it begins to assume the status of a literary convention. sometimes handled well, sometimes crudely" (McMinn, 1980: 119).

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

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