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The Troubles with Us: Funny, profound tales of growing up in Belfast

Alix O’Neill captures the paradoxes of her milieu brilliantly in her ‘creative non-fiction’

The Troubles with Us
The Troubles with Us
Author: Alix O'Neill
ISBN-13: 978-0008393700
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

The Troubles with Us is the first published book by Alix O’Neill, a freelance journalist who until recently had a regular column with Red magazine about living in France. O’Neill grew up in Belfast, and The Troubles with Us, she says, is a “creative non-fiction” account of this time.

The book opens with a wonderful prologue set in Belfast in 1994, when she learns at the age of 12 that Santa does not exist, and that she has been deceived by all the adults in her life. It’s a great metaphor for the state of being from Northern Ireland; the contrived innocence; the need to look away.

The reader is also introduced to O’Neill’s remarkable extended family, the Devlins, an entrepreneurial working-class clan from the Falls Road who acquire betting shops and pubs over the years and somehow prosper in a city hostile to Catholic ambition.

At the centre of this family is Anne, O’Neill’s mother, an exceptional and fascinating character. It is through “Mummy Devlin” that we best glimpse the stoicism necessary to survive, and its cost. She wipes away blood in her pub after a shooting and then takes her daughters to school without a word. She forces the family to hide behind the sofa when the doorbell rings. No matter what happens, she just wants to watch her crime shows. She is performative and private, jokey and profound.


“Nobody’s perfect,” Mummy Devlin says. “Sure look at Bill Clinton. Can’t keep his trousers up. Brought peace to Northern Ireland.”

The Troubles with Us has been likened to a book version of Derry Girls. It’s an ironic yet perhaps inevitable feature of the publishing world that the most pitchable aspect of a book is often not its most compelling. The scenes with O’Neill and her friends growing up are fun, but it is the unravelling of the Devlin family roots that lingers afterwards.

O’Neill captures the paradoxes of her milieu well. It is both privileged and utterly dysfunctional. Bombings and shootings are a regular occurrence. Her friend’s part-time job in Debenhams involves searching for incendiary devices in the homeware section. They go on ski trips and socialise with well-to-do Protestants at a bar called The Crescent in Sandy Row, which is then raided by masked men who tell the Catholics to leave.

Genuine and funny

The writing is full of energy and originality. One can only imagine what good company O’Neill is in person. Her obsession with a boy called Ryan is consistently hilarious; the poem she writes and performs in his honour is a highlight.

At times the pacing is just too frenetic and some events read more like a treatment. I would have liked to have stayed longer in nearly every scene depicted because, at its best, this book is genuine and funny with insights into Northern Ireland’s evolution through the 1980s and 1990s into something like peace.

That pace may reveal something in itself, the paradoxical desire in the North to both downplay and dramatise, a symptom, sometimes, of trauma. Towards the end O’Neill reflects that she has shied away from “difficult conversations”. There is a well-earned beauty to her realisation that her path has been cleared for her by the heroic efforts of her mother.

This book has the potential to reach a broad audience in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, where there are such chasms in general knowledge about life in Northern Ireland. O’Neill has made a career for herself in the UK but she clearly feels ambivalent about the discretion this has required of her. There is an especially interesting moment when she registers her indignation as a colleague in London is freaked out by the explosion of a device at a Tube station. It hasn’t caused any injuries and such a reaction would be indulgent in Belfast, O’Neill observes, but she says nothing, as ever, and stays amiable.

Northern Ireland is a place that excels in ambiguities. Conflict is often unresolved; its people express darkness and humour concurrently. They say a lot and nothing at all. It makes for brilliant art if uncomfortable living. In recent years such tensions have inspired a wave of outstanding work from Northern Irish women including Wendy Erskine, Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell, Louise Kennedy and Booker Prize winner Anna Burns. Though less literary in its scope, The Troubles with Us speaks eloquently to this world.

There are many untold stories still of life in Northern Ireland. Ideally this book will inspire people from different backgrounds to say more.

Sinéad O'Shea's films include A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot