Growing up in Northern Ireland's Bible belt
In Ian Cochrane's F for Ferg, the struggle is not with the moral dangers of Ian Paisley’s imagination but with poverty, domestic violence and mental illness
Ian Cochrane: There is a “kitchen-sink” atmosphere to his fictional world, working-class lives and families.
This new edition of Ian Cochrane’s F for Ferg was launched with a panel discussion of Cochrane’s work at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace. Though Cochrane grew up in the Antrim village of Cullybackey, only 12 miles from Seamus Heaney’s home village of Bellaghy, his representation of the area is very different to that of Heaney’s farm and bogs.
Maurice Leitch, Ian Cochrane’s friend and fellow novelist, explains the difference when he pointed out that in their youth he and Ian would have worked for farmers such as the Heaneys. Cochrane’s characters live among the factories, mills and housing estates of small Ulster villages.
They live on the edge of Heaney’s rural landscape and belong to an industrial working class that is more common in novels based in northern England than Northern Ireland.
Ian Cochrane was born in 1941 and grew up with four siblings in a small cottage where, he remembered, “I don’t think I realised we were living in poverty.” The family eventually moved to a newly built housing estate and Cochrane began his working life at the age of 14 in a local linen mill. By then he had started to lose his sight and would spend long periods in hospital. After adapting to life with limited vision, Cochrane moved to London in 1959 where he worked initially as a piano tuner.
His early novels depict the world of this childhood. They are set in the 1950s and portray “a world set apart” (as the academic Eamon Hughes described it) where village life is self-contained and isolated from the wider politics of Northern Ireland. Yet, as James Greer commented, “the Paisleyite revolution was happening in the background”. If Cochrane’s work describes a pre-Troubles world, where political violence is “a roar in the distance” (said Maurice Leitch), it is not apolitical.
There is a “kitchen-sink” atmosphere to his fictional world, working-class lives and families, the boredom of factory jobs (the similar tedium of unemployment) and the scramble to put food on the table. Though unlike a novel such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe (a friend of Cochrane’s), F for Ferg combines realism with a comic anarchism. Cochrane’s humour is dark, the apparent innocence of his narrators feeds the satire. Cochrane’s characters do not overlook the absurd conformity around them nor, above all, do they accept the hypocrisies of Ulster’s religion.
Cochrane’s fictional villages are in Ulster’s Bible belt and he was most influenced by writers of another Bible belt, the American south. He shares the gothic atmosphere, comic grotesque and sexual violence that is found in the work of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. After all Faulkner was writing about characters descended from Ulster-Scots migrants, while Cochrane’s first novel, A Streak of Madness, describes the same religious fervour and belief in faith-healing to be found in O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The nearest town to Cullybackey is Ballymena, where Ian Paisley was brought up and yet the clamour of this religion barely impinges on the daily life Cochrane describes. His characters do not struggle with the moral dangers of Ian Paisley’s imagination but with poverty, domestic violence and mental illness.
F for Ferg depicts feckless teenage boys who hang around on their village’s street corner where the only fun open to them are unsuccessful attempts to seduce the local girls. When Fergus, the son of the local factory’s manager, returns from boarding school his initiation into village life unleashes a wave of violence. Its viewpoint, of a teenage boy, is universal; this small Ulster village could be the New York of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or that of a Patrick Kavanagh poem. Like Kavanagh, Cochrane depicts the parochial, a particular place and time, and such authenticity still attracts the attention of younger writers (and readers).
Jan Carson, a writer who was not born when F for Ferg was first published in 1980, discovered it as “a book that reflected the kind of way that I grew up”. Village life, and unhappy families, are Cochrane’s subjects; not only universal, but timeless, topics for a writer. Like Patrick Kavanagh and Homer, Ian Cochrane creates something new “from such/A local row”.
Cochrane spent most of his life in London. He moved there as a teenager in 1959 and stayed until his death in 2004. Like Maurice Leitch, who wrote the classic novel Silver’s City about the Troubles while living in London,
Cochrane’s fiction has an enduring honesty because of his distance, geographical and emotional, from the Northern Ireland he portrays.
Leitch admits that, in their writing, he and Cochrane “owe a debt to where we came from”, they looked backwards “to our little tribe”, Ulster Protestants. In Northern Ireland they had felt like outsiders, had little in common with those around them but in London they thrived on feeling that the world was against their tribe and the need to make their writing come from inside the tribe. Leitch points out that even if many of Ireland’s greatest writers (WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett among them) are Protestant, the Catholic perspective dominates Irish literature (he was speaking, after all, in a museum dedicated to Seamus Heaney). Leitch remembers arguments in London pubs during the 1970s as their friends tried to understand the violence in Northern Ireland where he and Cochrane felt that “they will never understand us anyway. Which is a reason why writers write.”
Publishing a new edition of F for Ferg in 2018 seemed necessary because Cochrane’s humanism adds a new dimension to the familiar topics of Northern Irish writing. He consciously wrote about Protestant characters but they are not absolutely defined by any religious or political identity. Michael Longley once wrote in Tuppenny Stung (an autobiographical piece that has been recently reprinted in Sidelines): “Reconstructing the past or constructing identities has too frequently been a purely propagandist activity in Northern Ireland.” Cochrane’s novels use comedy and realism to undermine such simplicity.
F for Ferg’s contemporary resonance is perhaps more striking at a moment when Northern Irish politics is in limbo because of its inability to reconcile those Northern Irish people who feel British with those who feel Irish. Cochrane puts it simply: “if you don’t think the same as other people they get angry”. In his novels there are no such problems with cultural identity, that is left to the world outside the village: the world his characters watch on television of “people fighting about Jasus in Belfast”.
In his final novel, The Slipstream, one of Cochrane’s characters says: “I was fed up with all this religion thing and I thought it was time people came to their senses.”