Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness: Troubles novel resonates 25 years on

An emotional history of the Troubles from a rural, Catholic and nationalist point of view

Lately I’ve been thinking about Deirdre Madden’s 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness. Madden wrote it with the aim of showing “what it was like to live through the Troubles”. As fewer and fewer readers remember that time for themselves, this book will only become more and more relevant.

In the spring of 2017, as a US Fulbright Scholar, I taught an advanced undergraduate seminar at Queen’s University Belfast on literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Despite visiting the North often over more than a quarter-century, I felt nervous about the prospect of instructing Northern Irish students on this subject. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that I knew more about the late-20th-century Troubles than they did.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. They were only toddlers when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, and most of their elders didn’t care to discuss the bad old days that preceded it. A Belfast without sidewalk cafes and plate-glass shopping centres was as unimaginable to them as a Belfast with them would have been to me in 1989, when I first visited a city without tourists, left luggage facilities or rubbish bins. I tried to describe to these young people what that depressed and depressing city had been like.

Some students believed that Troubles-related violence had been confined to urban ghettos, not understanding that it could happen anywhere at any time and afflict people who considered themselves apolitical as well as activists on either side. Others imagined that the experience of spending time at a site of armed conflict must be either terrifying or exciting, and I struggled to convey the more common mixture of boredom and anxiety.


If I were having these conversations today, a contemporary comparison would come readily to mind. The Troubles, I would tell my students, were like the Covid-19 pandemic-but a pandemic lasting 30 years.

The people who have died of Covid-19 and their families and friends are the pandemic’s most obvious victims, but far from the only ones. A more accurate accounting of loss would also have to consider those who have fallen ill and recovered (or not); the medical personnel traumatised by the ongoing emergency; the elderly isolated from their loved ones; the people working in businesses and professions devastated both by the pandemic and by efforts to contain it; the children and adolescents whose education has been disrupted by school closures; and those who have been afraid since the start of the pandemic to venture far from home or visit places where crowds gather.

Economically, culturally, physically, and psychologically, the present health crisis has cast a shadow over entire societies, resulting in ever-greater political polarisation. It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, including coronavirus deniers, have been harmed in one way or another by the pandemic. How long, I wonder, will the stress of this peculiar time continue to be felt after the virus finally recedes?

Novelist Deirdre Madden had a similar question in mind as she worked on One by One in the Darkness. First published 25 years ago this spring, it was conceived during the run-up to another anniversary in 1994: 25 years since sectarian riots in Belfast and Derry prompted the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland. In Madden’s recollection of the period in which she wrote the book, it seemed like the Troubles had been going on forever and would continue indefinitely.

The novel’s present-day action takes place a couple of months before the Provisional IRA ceasefire of August 1994, but the characters don’t know that. What they do know is that “well over three thousand people” have been killed in the conflict to that date, “and every single one of them had parents or husbands and wives and children whose lives had been wrecked” by it. This category of victims includes the family at the novel’s centre, consisting of a mother and three grown daughters, whose husband and father was murdered by loyalist gunmen in a case of mistaken identity.

One by One in the Darkness is usually described as the story of a family that has suffered a tragic loss. While this is true, it also depicts the representative experience of one family, whose relationship to the Troubles is typical rather than exceptional right up to the night in October 1991 when its patriarch is killed. As well as any text I know, the novel conveys the mundane reality of those years.

The three sisters are young children when the conflict ignites, and Madden documents the slow degrees by which they are robbed of their innocence as the divisions in Northern Irish society begin to manifest themselves in acts of horrific violence. Odd-numbered chapters describing various family members’ reactions in 1994 to the news that the middle sister is expecting a baby out of wedlock alternate in the book with chapters illustrating the responses of the local community to the volatile political situation from the late 1960s on.

These flashback chapters present an emotional history of the Troubles from a rural, Catholic, and nationalist point of view. Alongside descriptions of historically significant events are stories illustrating their local effects. Each successive even-numbered chapter advances the historical narrative chronologically towards the novel’s present. Cumulatively, they illustrate the ways in which the Troubles gradually encroached on daily life, and how, despite them, that life went on.

This historical narrative is familiar to any Catholic who grew up in Northern Ireland outside the urban centres of Derry and Belfast during the 1960s and 1970s. The children living through the events, though, acquire much of their awareness of the unfolding action via overheard and imperfectly understood adult conversations. Because the grown-ups in their lives are newly obsessed with hearing and talking about current events, “The sisters quickly learnt not to interrupt any of these discussions, nor to make a noise while the news was on the radio or television”. Their own lives, however, still revolve more around “a spelling test at school, or a trip to the dentist’s, or the prospect of an outing to the cinema in Magherafelt or Ballymena”.

For the eldest sister, 13 at the time, the line between innocence and a dreadful understanding is crossed shortly after Bloody Friday, July 21st, 1972, when the IRA detonated at least 20 bombs across Belfast in just over an hour, killing 11 people, most of whom simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and injuring 130 others. Late one night, she hears her father go downstairs and finds him smoking alone in the kitchen. He calls her to his side and hugs her tightly:

“What if . . . ?” he said eventually, and he embraced her harder. “What if . . . ?” but he couldn’t finish what he was trying to say, and she realised that he was crying. She knew now, all in a rush, what he was thinking; and there, in the darkness, it was as if she had already lost him, as if his loved body had already been violently destroyed. They clung to each other like people who had been saved from a shipwreck, or a burning building; but it was no use, the disaster had already happened. All over the country, people were living out the nightmare which she now dreaded more than anything else. Who was she to think she deserved to be spared? He took her back up to her room and tucked the blankets tightly around her in the bed; he stroked her face and told her he loved her; he told her to sleep. But she gained a dark knowledge that night which would never leave her.

The knowledge of how quickly and arbitrarily lives could be ended or blighted lurked in the backs of the minds of all Northern Irish people of adult awareness during the Troubles – a phenomenon that our own more recent experience can help us to comprehend in a new way.

My QUB students lacked this pandemic experience, but they still connected viscerally with Madden’s novel. It was a particular favourite of the students from Protestant backgrounds, who loved encountering familiar Northern Irish landscapes, expressions, and cultural practices together with a Catholic perspective they knew much less about. The novel’s narration, mainly from the point of view of maturing children, made this perspective approachable for them.

Several students remarked that the book would also be “educational” for people from outside Northern Ireland seeking to understand it better. At a time when Ireland’s teenagers have no personal memory of last century’s Troubles, I think Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness should be assigned reading in schools on both sides of the border.

Marilynn Richtarik, a Professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has published books on the Field Day Theatre Company and playwright Stewart Parker. She is currently writing a book about literature and the peace process in Northern Ireland.