I didn’t know how much I loved – and hated – Northern Ireland till I left
Conflict, confusion, compromise: facing my fear of writing about Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland I waited to be stopped at security gates; I worried about people getting trapped inside turnstiles. But Manchester had no gates and no turnstiles and no soldiers, just people enjoying a night out. Manchester was weird. Photograph: Alex Bowie/Getty
When I grow up and become a writer, I thought to myself as a teenager, I’m never going to write about Northern Ireland. Not politics anyway. Or religion. Certainly not the Troubles. As for Irish history! I was mouthy and opinionated, like many of the young women I write about, but on that subject I kept my mouth shut.
But in 2015 I wrote a novel set in Easter 1916, and yes, it was challenging. The potential to offend someone was huge. I seemed to get away with it. Name upon Name was praised for “combin[ing] the big questions of nationalism, pacifism and early feminism in a way so subtle that you would barely notice”. (The Irish News, October 2015) Then I set Star by Star in winter 1918, and that was challenging too: end of the war, women voting, Sinn Féin landslide, influenza pandemic...
Then I set a novel in Ireland in 1921…
In 1978, visiting English cousins, we drove through the centre of Manchester after dark. There were no gates and no turnstiles and no soldiers, just people enjoying a night out. It was weird
It’s not a joke and there isn’t a punchline. But as I grappled with research about partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland and the 1921 election and the fighting and rioting and burnings, I did think, God be with the days of 1916 and 1918.
I write for young people, though many adults enjoy my books. All three of my historical novels explore young women coming of age in times of political and social upheaval. As did I, though with less consciousness of it than my heroines, Helen, Stella and the forthcoming Hope against Hope’s Polly.
Growing up in Belfast I accepted the day-to-day realities of the Troubles. Shopping in the city centre involved queuing at security gates and the chance of a bomb scare to enliven your experience. Rushing down the fire escape in British Home Stores one Saturday afternoon as the alarm wailed, I reassured my wee sister, “It’s okay, it’s like the fire drills in school. It’s not real.” I wasn’t being kind or sensible – I really thought it was a drill. It was a hoax. They happened all the time. Though so did the real thing.
In 1978, visiting English cousins, we drove through the centre of Manchester after dark. There were lights and people and a buzz, and it unsettled me. What were all these people doing? Why were they allowed out? How could we be driving right through the city centre? I waited to be stopped at security gates; I worried about people getting trapped inside turnstiles. But there were no gates and no turnstiles and no soldiers, just people enjoying a night out. Manchester was weird.
It took me a while to realise: it wasn’t them; it was us. We were the weirdos. I went to university in Durham in 1987 and on my first day’s shopping in the small, quaint city centre, I went into Marks and Spencer. A man stood in the doorway. Instinctively, I proffered my bag for his bemused inspection. He was not a security man; he was waiting for his wife. My new English friends found it almost as funny as the time I heard a banger go off in the street. Freaking out at loud noises was what they expected from someone from Belfast.
I didn’t know how much I loved Northern Ireland until I left. I loved the green drumlins of Co Down and the high bleak Mournes and the coast, and even the dour, stoical towns. I loved the craic. I loved playing my tin whistle and singing trad songs in country pubs with my dad and his friends, a mix of religions.
Despite my insistence that my homeplace was beautiful, there was the evidence of its ugliness every night on the college TV. A month after I arrived in England was the Enniskillen bombing
But my new pals didn’t want this version of Northern Ireland: this was too ordinary. Like me, they had enjoyed Joan Lingard’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired Sadie and Kevin books. Love across the barricades exactly fitted the orange-and-green binary narrative that everything about Northern Ireland was reduced to. They struggled with my insistence that, the product of a mixed marriage – just exactly that love-across-the-barricades scenario – I was neither Catholic nor Protestant, nationalist nor unionist. I voted Alliance, the cross-community party which most reflected my views, and they couldn’t get their heads round that either. They wanted binary simplicity.
And despite my insistence that my homeplace was beautiful, there was the evidence of its ugliness every night on the college TV. A month after I arrived in England was the Enniskillen bombing. I didn’t know how much I hated Northern Ireland until I left.
Well-meaning students asked me to explain the Troubles. I’d panic and fudge. “You’d need to go way back into history,” I’d say, “and it’s very complicated.” I hoped they would hear that as “You wouldn’t understand”, when what I really meant was, “I don’t understand”. But mostly they didn’t ask. For most people Northern and Ireland were, as Jonathan Freedland reports being told as a young journalist, “the two most boring words in the English language”. That’s when I resolved never to write about Northern Ireland. Or at least not about the conflict, which seemed to be the only permissible story.
“Do you have cars over there?” asked one wit, who clearly thought I’d trotted over the Irish Sea on the turf-cutter’s donkey. “Sure, where else could we plant our car bombs?” I retorted sweetly. Oh yes, I could joke about the Troubles. Probably because nobody I loved had been killed in them.
I was terrified writing Name upon Name. Years of having my background dismissed as boring, anomalous, not really a thing, had taken their toll
To be fair, that level of facetiousness was rare but I recognised it again after the Brexit referendum. People all over Ireland realised that the implications for us, on both sides of the Border, would be dramatic and potentially catastrophic. Why did so many of the British electorate fail to see that? Why was it not analysed widely in the lead-up to the referendum? Couldn’t people see the Border slashing across the island? I assumed that they just forgot. Or didn’t notice. Now that Northern Ireland isn’t bursting into flames on the TV every night, it can be dismissed.
In a way, in my first books, I dismissed it too. These contemporary novels, though they have a strong sense of place, are so decidedly post-conflict that they could have been set in almost any city. But that had to change with 2015’s Name upon Name, which explores the events of Easter 1916 from a perspective not merely northern, but also “mixed”, in the sense that the heroine’s mixed background was mine, as were her feelings of confusion about and exclusion from the prevailing cultures.
I was terrified writing that book. Years of having my background dismissed as boring, anomalous, not really a thing, had taken their toll. “If you’re a Catholic and Daddy’s a Protestant, what am I?” I asked Mummy when I was six and first heard these words. “You’re nothing,” she said. A response intended to protect me in the streets of our loyalist estate in the 1970s, but which hardly led to a robust sense of cultural worth and identity.
But writing Name upon Name and Star by Star laid the ghost of my fear of writing about Irish history. So many readers, teenagers and adults, said they loved the way the books brought history alive for them, and helped them understand the issues involved, and I realised how much I would have loved stories like that when I was growing up. At some level perhaps we always write for ourselves.
Hope against Hope is set partly in a Border town, but mainly in Belfast, because there was so much going on there in 1921 – rioting, intense political activity, and general unrest around Partition and the establishment of the new state.
Researching for the novel, I’d walk the streets where my grandparents grew up, searching for clues. My grandmother, Frances Duff, who would have been 13 when Northern Ireland was set up. Younger than the girls in the fictional cross-community hostel in the story but old enough to have a sense of what was happening. Maybe she joined the crowds to see the king open parliament; maybe she tried to understand why her Catholic neighbours were burnt out of their homes.
Born from conflict and compromise, Northern Ireland was not designed or expected to last, and I wonder, as we limp towards our century, exactly how or what we will be commemorating next year. But I’m glad that, like my characters, I’ve had my say about it. Eventually.
Hope against Hope will be published by Little Island Books on World Book Day, March 5th. It will be launched that evening at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast at 6pm