Patrick Magee: my Troubles with fiction

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee wrote his PhD thesis while in jail on the portrayal of republicans in fiction. As a novel about the bombing is published, he explains his views

When I mentioned having studied 'Troubles fiction' while in prison, typically, the novels of Jack Higgins and Gerald Seymour, I often meet with polite silence and a not quite imperceptible downcasting of the eyes.

Partly it’s a prejudice against popular culture as a serious subject, deemed unworthy of academic attention.

Many examples of the genre are indeed quite dishearteningly awful. There are more than 500 such novels. Much of the output may be accurately described as a hybrid of the thriller, romance and war novel genres.

Some of the terms used tend to disparage the works, stressing a garish sensationalism: ‘balaclava novels’, ‘Troubles trash’, while for one novelist they represented ‘a lucrative sub-genre for tourist Brits and Americans’.


One critic advised against any extensive reading: “only a desperate thesis writer – or a masochist – would attempt such a task”.

A wretched condition, or as another wag observed, “cruel and unnatural punishment”. I find myself having to justify the endeavour.

To the uninitiated, prison might seem an ideal environment in which to study. All that time for scholarly reflection. No worries about grants, nor the distractions of campus life. Certainly, many republicans successfully completed degrees in prison. That achievement is all the greater given the high rate of dropouts from Open University courses among the general prison population.

Prison has its own unique pressures, and many an essay deadline was missed because of a ‘bad’ visit or an ill-timed wing search. For republicans, however, study was an act of political resistance. To better understand our struggle, to prepare for leadership roles in our communities, to counter the ‘mindless terrorist’ slur. To that end, we tended to opt for courses in politics and sociology.

I chose, however, to do a more rounded, arts-based degree, possibly because I saw little prospect of release – the home secretary of the day signalled his intention to exceed the trial judge’s recommendation that I serve 35 years and to set my ‘tariff’ at 50 years – and study was an end rather than a means.

I gained a BA Honours (First) in 1994. Then in 1995 the University of Ulster, in conjunction with the Prison Education Department, offered the chance for two suitably qualified prisoners to do postgraduate research degrees. I don’t know how many applied but by a happy coincidence I and my co-defendant, Ella O’Dwyer, were the two eventually accepted.

I read my first Troubles novel while interned in Long Kesh. It was Jack Higgins’s The Savage Day (1972). Bradyites – the name (a reference to followers of Ruairi O Bradaigh) never stuck – were depicted as sectarian thugs. The two Provos, Lucas and Riley, have no redeeming features, and their actions are depicted as counterproductive to their supposed political ends.

I submitted a proposal to look at why the IRA were nastily portrayed in so many of the novels published since the late 1960s dealing with the contemporary Troubles.

Though the necessary academic discipline and detachment ultimately prevailed, I confess that I set out with an axe to grind, suspecting conspiracy on the part of writers and the book industry, and that the genre acted as a sort of paraliterary wing of Brit propaganda.

The IRA in the telling was the big, bad ‘other’ of a modern British morality tale.

What is most striking to me about the content generally of Troubles fiction is the remarkable uniformity of its underlying assumptions. With few exceptions, the common theme encountered ad nauseam is of Britain’s role as an honest broker in the North of Ireland; acting as a referee between warring factions, or contending atavisms.

Britain is rarely depicted as part of the problem; never mind, as republicans would argue, the problem.

The composite Irish republican to emerge from the fictional account is of a Mother Ireland-fixated psycho-killer, aka a Provo Godfather, readily discernible with recourse to an identikit indebted to Tenniel’s ‘Irish Frankenstein’ and other images from Punch redolent of Victorian racism.

Various permutations of the formula reveal a blarney-spouting thug with a ‘ferrety look’ and halitosis; or, as it is put in a recent novel, “the Fenian world of rotten teeth and puffy botched skin”. In this murky light, the violence attributed to republicans results from an ingrained bloodlust and is not the effect or symptom of profound political grievances.

To read these texts uncritically is to accept at face value many assumptions that continue to hinder a resolution of the conflict.

Gross negatives of the IRA gunman, like the Irish joke or the Cummings cartoon, offer non-explanations that have befogged the issues central to the struggle in Ireland and detract from the search for a just and lasting peace settlement.

It is important to counter and correct these misrepresentations to an audience largely starved of any adequate understanding of the republican perspective.

Only when opposing sides see each other clearly, and recognise each other’s humanity, will a resolution begin. Why? Because ignorance about any one of the protagonists in a conflict will hamper its resolution and will only contribute to its prolongation.

To allow the distortions prevalent in much of the prose fiction output to go unchallenged would be to collude with, as Franz Fanon observed, “the racist who creates the inferior”.

I can see that [High Dive, Jonathan Lee’s novel about the Brighton bombing] is well-written but in terms of its depiction of the actual operation it is way off the mark. I prefer not to comment further, other than to wish the author well.

Worst of the genre

The Whore Mother, Shaun Herron (1973)

Peddles the line that it was IRA policy to kill Protestants to foment civil war, and that nationalist civil rights grievances were exaggerated. “The killing would stop when the terrible warlike women of Ulster decided it must not; not before. They conceived hatred and vengefulness as they conceived children and passed the venom in their blood.”

Harry’s Game, Gerald Seymour (1975)

A former NIO minister is assassinated outside his Belgravia home by a lone IRA man. The British prime minister orders that in response an SAS man, Harry Brown, be sent to the North to kill the assassin. A Belfast IRA leader is described thus: “He was of the new school, and had come a long way since Long Kesh opened. He had pitiless eyes, wide apart above his ferret nose, and a thin, bloodless mouth.”

The Kaufman Snatch, Robin Moore (1976)

By the author of The French Connection, possibly the worst novel deadling with the Troubles. Unintentionally farcical story about an IRA kidnapping in the USA. Real people and events are crudely caricatured.

The Eye of the Tornado, Chapman Pincher (1976)

The IRA, with KGB help, hijack a shipload of nuclear weapons, intending to destabilise Britain. The leader of the operation, McNally, “turned to his second-in-command, a much shorter ferret-faced man, with a nose that made him look as though he had caught a chill when the priest christened him and had never shaken it off”.

The Confessions of Proinsias O’Toole, John Morrow (1977)

Less a novel than a string of topical gags and one-liners, showing no empathy with nationalists, treating their grievances as a source for questionable ribaldry. “Never in his life had he seen such a Hosting of the Gael, the flower of the National Freedom Movement: men with eyes that glowed in the dark; men with cobwebs in their hair and a strong stench of marzipan about their persons. Men with fingers missing, eye missing, balls gone; all with a pathological aversion to the clamouring of wrist-watches, all mad drunk and busting for charabanc ride to the briny with the chance of a bit of straightforward slaughter thrown in”.

Patriot Games, Tom Clancy (1987)

Breakaway republicans, the Ulster Liberation Army, target the Prince and Princess of Wales. “People like that don’t even understand why they get sent to prison; they don’t really understand,” he concluded. “Those are the scary ones.” “No,” Ryan said. “The scary ones are the ones with brains, the ones who believe in it” “I haven’t met one of those yet,” he admitted.

Best of the bunch

Give Them Stones, Mary Beckett (Bloomsbury, 1987)

Martha Murtagh’s struggle to gain a limited sense of autonomy while rearing a family in Belfast during the Stormont years and the present Troubles up till the mid-1980s.

Last Night Another Soldier, Aly Renwick (Information on Ireland, 1989)

Written from an anti-imperialist perspective, unapologetically a counter to the British view of the conflict.

A Goat’s Song, Dermot Healy (Harvill, 1994)

Hard-drinking Catholic playwright loves a Protestant actress whose father is in the RUC, with tragic consequences. In 1969 the father was filmed batoning civil rights marchers, an iconic image of supremacist brutality. A figure personifying the contempt of the Orange state for civil rights, which collective nationalist memory might have placed beyond the bounds of redemption, is shown to be all too humanly frail. Perhaps Healy’s message is that if we can begin to forgive or understand the character perhaps there is real hope for a new social and political dispensation in Ireland.

Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane (Jonathan Cape, 1996)

Wonderful evocation of the treachery of memory, and of the slow unteasing of the truth about the past from local processes of myth-making, denial and disempowerment.

The Wrong Man, Danny Morrison (Mercier, 1997)

An unsettling and thought-provoking read for a republican, marking the author’s return after a lapse of more than a decade, much of it spent in prison, to the territory of his first novel, West Belfast.

The Catatrophist, Ronan Bennett (Headline Review, 1998)

Although about the Belgian Congo, 1959, there are many allusions to Irish nationalism. As in his two previous novels, The Second Prison and Overthrown by Strangers, Bennett explores the nature of commitment to a political cause.