Alix O’Neill: ‘It’s a lovely thing to be just very Northern Irish’

Author says Derry Girls gave her and others ‘license to tell the other side of the Troubles’

Back in January 2018, Derry Girls exploded onto television screens bringing into our homes a rarely glimpsed and hilarious slice of ordinary life in Northern Ireland. Millions of Channel 4 viewers were instantly charmed by the teenage kicks of Erin, Clare, Orla and Michelle. Creator Lisa McGee's decision to focus on the comedic school, family and cultural happenings in Derry against a backdrop of the more familiar and documented-to-death Troubles was truly groundbreaking.

There was clearly something in the air. Later that same year Anna Burns's Booker prize-winning Milkman was published. That remarkable novel told the story of one young woman's life growing up in Belfast and was, in voice and scope and ambition, like no other book to emerge from Northern Ireland. Since then the stories, most of them by women, have tumbled out, each one challenging the stereotypes and painting a broader, more nuanced picture of the lives lived on that part of this Island: Novels such as Michelle Gallen's Big Girl Small Town, Susannah Dickey's Tennis Lessons, Jan Carson's The Fire Starters, and more recently Kerri ní Dochartaigh's extraordinary memoir, Thin Places.

'When Derry Girls came out it felt like it was the first time I'd seen my experience of growing up in Northern Ireland reflected in popular culture. It changed everything'

Now comes The Troubles With Us, a very funny and moving memoir about one young woman's experience growing up in a Catholic republican heartland, the Andersonstown end of the Falls Road in West Belfast. Speaking from her home in France, its author Alix O'Neill immediately brings up Derry Girls when I mention the books and television that have been redefining Northern Ireland over the past few years. "You have to credit Lisa McGee with that," she says. "When Derry Girls came out it felt like it was the first time I'd seen my experience of growing up in Northern Ireland reflected in popular culture. It changed everything."

When O’Neill first started writing her book a few years ago, the manuscript could not have been more different to the one that eventually became the subject of a six-way auction between publishers. “My book, originally, was the story we’ve been exporting for years. It was about the tragedy of Ireland. It wasn’t my natural style and it wasn’t my experience of growing up with all the madness and hilarity. Not surprisingly it didn’t get picked up. It was just too worthy”.

A couple of months after she’d given up hope of her memoir ever being published, Derry Girls aired. “I immediately said ‘oh my God, that’s it’. It suddenly felt like I had permission to tell the stories from the other side of Northern Ireland. It wasn’t all just petrol bombs and balaclavas and all of that. There was a lot of tragedy, but life was also quite ordinary in so many ways. When I was a teenager, we were obsessed with the same things that teenagers all over the place are obsessed with. And we weren’t thinking about bomb scares, 24 /7. So I think there was license to tell the other side of the Troubles and the more human side of Northern Ireland as well because there’s great sense of humour, a nice, dark sense of humour, and it’s lovely that those stories can be told. I’m delighted. It feels like a real moment.”

How does she feel when she looks back at her original attempt? “I’m absolutely scundered,” she says using the Northern Irish word for embarrassed, the kind of joyous vernacular that is peppered through the book. “Like I said it was too worthy and I was just trying too hard. It didn’t actually feel truthful to my story or my reality. And it was nice, when I changed my approach, because I could write in my own voice. I could write about real characters … the funny, and sharp and witty people in my life.”

Before working on her book, Trinity College graduate O'Neill had already been writing for 12 years, building a successful career as a freelance journalist. She started out writing for Caravan Magazine and Shooting Times (a UK magazine about bloodsports) but eventually ended up appearing in "all the publications I always wanted to write for" doing major interviews and features for major newspapers and women's magazines such as Marie Claire and Red and Grazia.

“As a magazine journalist you have to tailor your style to match the voice of the publication. Writing the book was the first time I felt I could write in my natural voice and be quite colloquial. It’s a lovely thing to be just very Northern Irish. And early feedback is that it’s a very Northern Irish book. It’s a great compliment because you don’t really see it that much. You are always having to doctor the voice to make it more understandable but with this I said, no I want to speak the way Northern Irish people speak. And people seem to like it … it’s lovely to see”.

Without giving too much away, there are simmering animosities and family secrets revealed

She describes The Troubles With Us as a work of creative non-fiction. Her author’s note at the beginning includes this gem: “Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals (and to avoid my knees being capped).” At its heart the book is a family saga – O’Neill comes from a sprawling, complicated and in some ways eccentric family of misfits. Without giving too much away, there are simmering animosities and family secrets revealed some of which, if depicted in fiction, would appear way too far fetched to convince any publisher or, indeed, reader. A useful glossary of who is who is provided at the start of the book for readers who may lose track of the various grandparents, uncles, aunties, half-siblings, friends and teenage love interests.

But it's O'Neill's mother or "mummy" Anne O'Neill who emerges as the central compelling character. Her escapades and eccentricities are legion: When close to Easter two of the turkeys she was raising in their garden were stolen "Mummy called the Pamela Ballantine show on Downtown Radio." She told Ballantine the reason the birds were still alive after Christmas was because they were diseased with a rare form of dysentry. "Mummy says the arse fell clean out of the black market for turkeys that year," writes O'Neill. Family holidays were in Connemara, then a seven or eight hour drive from Belfast. One time her mother drove through the night arriving at 5am and coming back two days later for school. "For Mummy the inconvenience was a small price to pay for sea air and the absence of other people."

For various reasons, including the time she chased some errant children down the road with a hurl, Mummy was known as the “mad woman of Andytown”. She didn’t have much truck with convention or care about the expectations of others. She wore her dressing gown to drop her children off for school, obsessively entered radio competitions and was known to knit hamburgers. (“Because who doesn’t enjoy knitted fast food.”) The family were pub owners and this incomparable matriarch became the first and only woman to head the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade representing 1,500 publicans across Northern Ireland. A deeply affecting section of the books tells the story of her adoption, which she kept from her two daughters for years, and the subsequent reunification with her birth mother.

So how did her mother feel about O’Neill bringing all the family’s secrets out into the open? “She’s always been so private but when I told her what I wanted to do, she said ‘look the way I see it is, you are going to write about this when I’m dead and I won’t get to enjoy it’. So she’s just looking forward to seeing people’s reaction, she’s always liked going against the grain and I think she’s secretly delighted”.

“In many ways,” O’Neill says. “It was difficult growing up with a mum like that. She never played ball. I was often embarrassed when she dropped me off at school. But looking back I couldn’t be more proud of her. She’s at the heart of the book because she’s so strong and she represents so many Northern Irish women and how strong they had to be. I don’t think I really appreciated everything she went through, what the Troubles were like for her and my dad and their generation.” The madness and mundanity of the thirty year conflict is well drawn in the book as is the way O’Neill was sheltered, to some degree, from the realities of life in Northern Ireland by her fierce mother bear. There’s a funny moment, for example, when nine year old Alix arrives home from school asking whether her family were Catholics or Protestants.

O’Neill has a knack of distilling massive truths about the North into pithy sentences. “Northern Ireland is probably the only place where a mixed marriage is a union between two Christians.” Or this brilliant description of the difference between the rituals of Protestants and Catholics. “Catholics love a bit of confession. It’s essential free therapy that allows you to indulge in all kinds of bad behaviour …” Protestants on the other hand have no need for confession, she writes, “because they make sure they do nothing to feel guilty about in the first place”. She is insightful on how the “bombs and balaclavas” element of being brought up in a conflict society becomes normalised. “The casual dismissal of finding a bomb in your back garden as though it were perfectly normal – this is the result of spending your formative years in Belfast. It’s only now at the grand old age of 36, two children and three geographical moves later that I’m starting to get it. How my childhood was anything but normal”.

O'Neill effortlessly mixes teenage preoccupations of 'booze and boys and Boyzone' with her own family politics to sketch a more expansive picture of Northern Ireland's social and political history

She is thoughtful on inter-generational trauma and about how when she first went to therapy to deal some aspects of her Troubles childhood, her father rolled his eyes at the notion. “I think because my parents inherited their parents’ trauma we were just encouraged to get on with things, to brush our feelings under the carpet. I think it’s really sad especially for my parents generation. They have this sort of stoicism where you don’t dwell on things … but if you ignore things they just come back and bite you. I’m part of the generation that feels it’s good to get things out in the open.”

The inner turmoil within her extended family is another strong thread in the book. O’Neill effortlessly mixes teenage preoccupations of “booze and boys and Boyzone” with her own family politics to sketch a more expansive picture of Northern Ireland’s social and political history. “I think my family’s story helps illustrate the Northern Ireland story, and I wanted to make sense of it for myself too,” she says. “I wasn’t just writing something for the sake of it, to sell a few books.”

She says she finds the current situation in Northern Ireland “pretty depressing” but believes and hopes the younger generation coming up will be catalysts for change. She misses Belfast, sometimes, although she did not want to raise her two young sons there. What she misses most is “friends and pasty suppers and the craic. The craic is fantastic … I love it here in France but I don’t think anyone ever described the French as great craic.”

The Troubles With Us by Alix O’Neill is published by Fourth Estate and is out now