It's Belfast, but not as we know it

IRISH FICTION: The Mill for Grinding Old People Young By Glenn Patterson, Faber and Faber, 260pp. £12.99

IRISH FICTION:The Mill for Grinding Old People Young By Glenn Patterson, Faber and Faber, 260pp. £12.99

THE MARK OF SUCCESSFUL historical fiction is that it has unforced resonances for the time it is being read in. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is such a novel. In the opening chapter, 85-year-old Gilbert Rice and his housekeeper are struggling with new technology. The newly installed telephone scarifies them; the electric light confuses. Only the magic-lantern slide show at the Reform Club seems to delight. It is 1897.

But the bulk of the novel’s action takes place in 1831, when young Gilbert secures his first position as a clerk in Belfast ballast office. Gilbert is a bit of a gallant. There are jaunts to taverns and race meetings, egg hunts and socials. The latest craze among his pals is working out at the gymnasium – plus ça change. But there’s a serious side to the 18-year-old. An orphan, he has been reared by his strict Presbyterian grandfather. His best friend from childhood is John Millar, a student architect, toiling away earnestly on designs for the city’s churches. But despite such sober and solid influences, Gilbert’s ambitions for greatness are ignited only when he falls in love with Maria, a Polish refugee fleeing from Russian persecution.

She has landed up in Belfast on the strength of a family association with Wolfe Tone, and it is her experience as a political exile that awakens Gilbert’s conscience. “What she had certainly not been expecting to find in Belfast was a town so consumed by the desire to make and spend money. Did no one ever talk of anything but yields and tariffs and returns on investment? Even the young people she overheard at the inn appeared to have room in their heads for nothing else, unless it was silk stockings and cravats.”

Gilbert decides to take the law into his own hands. The decision to act, however, is as much to prove his seriousness to her as it is to prove a political point. To make his mark, he chooses violence. More echoes.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that the novel’s arresting title comes from the name of a pub that features significantly in the plot, but it is also a nod to the reputation of beleaguered Belfast. For the star turn in this novel belongs to the city. It’s Belfast, Jim, but not as we know it, because Patterson has steeped his reader in the Georgian-era city in all its steaming, seedy, politically corrupt and booming glory. Sound familiar?

The other surprise for the reader is to see those place names familiar from news bulletins being restored to their pre-Troubles innocence – the Shankill, Cave Hill, Divis – while at the same time discovering new names of places that perhaps no longer exist. Is there still a Hercules Street, for example, or a Hudson’s Entry?

Patterson’s previous work has featured Belfast prominently, but with this novel he seems to have dismantled his own fictional territory and remapped it. Gilbert Rice describes “making a porthole in the condensation” to see through a fogged-up window, and it’s a fitting metaphor for the lens Patterson uses in this novel. The Belfast he creates feels like a thoroughly maritime melting pot. Thanks to Gilbert’s perch in the ballast office, Belfast Lough and the Lagan are viewed as both freshwater lungs, sites of pleasure and of war, and carriers of strange influences – and disease – from the outside world. Baltic traders plough up the deep-water channels, Chinese merchants hawk their wares on the quays, French soldiers taken in routs opt to stay and marry local girls.

Not that the Georgian city is free from more local divisions. There are Orange parades and masonic marches and monster meetings in 1830s Belfast too. The United Irishmen feature, as does the Muddlers’ Club. In a grisly reminder of more recent events, a brush salesman suspected of being an informer is found floating naked in the Mill Dam. Real characters jostle with the fictional. Henry Joy McCracken’s sister is a friend of Gilbert’s grandfather. The poet John Keats makes a fleeting appearance. This mix of the real and the imagined gives Patterson’s novel both depth and charge.

The short epilogue to the novel records the discovery of a slate buried in the portico of the Third Presbyterian Church, on Rosemary Street, after the church was bombed by the Germans in 1941. Fictionally, it suggests the continuity of the covert underlife of the city, even one so serially destroyed as Belfast. But the slate is also a historically authentic artefact, signed in 1831 by the church’s architect, one John Millar, Gilbert Rice’s childhood pal. Which, it would suggest, is where Patterson the novelist came in. This breadcrumb left at the end paradoxically seems like the very seed of the novel, the concrete cornerstone for the elegant fictional architecture Patterson has constructed.

In Gilbert Rice he has created a humane hero for his times as well as ours. The elder Rice is gracious and modest, the younger impetuous and self-important. Ferris and Bright, his fellow clerks at the ballast office, provide scampish humour, his grandfather gives moral ballast and the enigmatic Maria offers enduring love.

Mary Morrissy is a novelist, short-story writer and critic. She is currently writer in residence at University College Dublin