Giving voice to the Troubles: How literature has told the North’s story

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

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

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

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

I have a vivid memory of walking the length of our street balancing on the edge of the kerb. When it was rebuilt after the bomb the street was pedestrianised. No more kerbs

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


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

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

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

Start of the Troubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaking and quaking

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

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

Described by Anne Enright as "the best book about the Troubles ever written", The International's significance is that it insists "Belfast existed before the Troubles and that it was owned by the people who walked its streets before those streets were taken away from them."

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

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

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

Explosions and gunfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implicit irony

There are riots aplenty in Devlin's The Price of My Soul, a first-hand account of her involvement in the first civil rights marches. Yet it is also a highly engaging account of her upbringing in the Tyrone market town of Cookstown and as such its articulation of the rural experience is an important counterbalance to the narrative of the Troubles which is often viewed as a predominantly urban one.

This is the implicit irony of Nothing Happens in Carmincross, by another Tyrone native, Benedict Kiely. Published in 1985, it might have been written about the bombing of Omagh some 13 years later, and the understated prose has all the power of first-hand accounts of the atrocity.

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

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

Creative excavation

It makes for fertile ground for the novelist. As David Peace writes about Eoin McNamee's The Ultras, "it is history; it is mystery; it is all our stories."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colonial context

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streets reclaimed

Novels such as Deirdre Madden's One by One in the Darkness explored the hitherto largely unspoken experience of women – in this case, the impact of their father's murder on three sisters; conversely, Colin Bateman's Divorcing Jack satirised characters such as Cow Pat Coogan – "branded a Republican, but he always seemed more interested in money than freeing Ireland".

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

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

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

New possibilities

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

Yet this is, to quote from Dave Duggan's touching novel of 1990s Derry, The Greening of Larry Mahon, "the life we are slowly building from scratch". It reveals itself in creative confidence, and in the new possibilities – literary and otherwise – which have emerged in the 20 years since the Belfast Agreement.

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

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

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

Breaking new ground

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

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

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

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

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

Freya McClements is a writer and journalist from Derry. The Children of the Troubles, by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements, will be published by Hachette Ireland in 2019