During the time I was writing my second novel, For the Good Times, I wondered if we might be in the midst of a literary “Troubles.” The events of 1968-1998 had been so long in the past, did we really need to start making up stories about them? Is there a need for a cultural/historical void before we can examine trauma??? Suddenly, Belfast appeared to be the epicenter of radical literary fiction with the Booker-winning Milkman by Anna Burns, Michael Hughes’s creative Iliad reinterpretation Country, and the emergence of promising new voices like Wendy Erskine.
My father’s side of the family has a long history of involvement in the Troubles, which piques my curiosity. During the Troubles, my father’s family lived in Ardoyne, a mostly Catholic neighborhood in north Belfast. Throughout my childhood, the conflict in Ireland, as my father referred to it, was a constant topic of conversation in our home, especially when one of his brothers came from Belfast to spend the holidays with us. His father had been an IRA member.
After listening to the stories they shared, I became interested in writing about those times because of their style of telling them. The men in my father’s family could read and write to a certain extent, but they had such faith in the power of language. There was something authentic in the way they owned their stories, transmitted them in their own language — a polyglot of jokes, melodies, odd diversions, linguistic sleight-of-hand, straight-up falsehoods and pure folk poetry – that made me think of storytelling as a performing art form in Ireland.
And I began to think of Belfast as a wild place, an autonomous zone – like Berlin during the cold war or Airdrie in the 1980s, where I set my first novel, This Is Memorial Device – and I wrote about it as if events there were playing out in their own time, which for me is the time in which all of the best Irish literature is fixed: eternity.
Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
The Shankhill Butchers, a Protestant paramilitary group that terrorized Belfast during the Troubles, are the focus of this novel, which is written in a high, hallucinogenic language that seeks to reshape the city itself. As events unfolded in 1994, it was an evisceration of the self-perpetuating nature of violence and how it can become a performance in both the communities that cultivate it and in the media’s reporting of it.. A must-read for everyone.
Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle 1976-1981
Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O’Hagan have edited an outstanding oral history of daily life in the H Block, as well as the canonical account of the hunger strikes. Young men and boys who have been turned witnesses to horrific events face a bevy of existential dilemmas in this high-concept thriller about human redemption and bravery.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Anna Burns writes like a working-class kabbalist because the Irish have a faith in language that defies logic and reason. In one of the most innovative explorations of Belfast’s dark and bright core, this remarkable novel provides a unique perspective on the city. You can feel the excitement and dread of the story unfolding as we follow an independent 18-year-old as she is hunted by a married paramilitary known as the milkman, as it creates its own autonomous zone in the middle of the conflict between community paramilitaries and the state’s forces.
Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul by Kevin Toolis
To this day, this book is regarded as the most moving and personal investigation into an armed revolt that has ever come to light. For the Good Times relied heavily on Toolis’ insights into the distinction between revolution and rebellion in Northern Ireland, and he is a master at highlighting the paradoxes that arise when one lives in a warzone and leads an armed insurrection.
Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh by Toby Harnden
Northern Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s fascinated me because it became a location where other norms applied and where reality itself was open to interpretation. Bandit Country, or the “Provisional Republic of South Armagh,” was a prime example of this, with its “sniper at work” signs and community militias all monitored by the British army’s watchtowers and chopper-mounted surveillance systems. It is impossible to put down Toby Harnden’s book once you start reading it.
Stone Cold by Martin Dillon
Michael Stone’s attack on Milltown cemetery, which killed two plainclothes British corporals at a funeral a few days later, is one of my most vivid memories of my youth. The events leading up to and following that attack are still some of the most horrifying unfolding of state and community-enforced violence ever shown on live television. One of the most constantly difficult Troubles commentators has written an amazing book about Stone, and this one is no exception. Stone discusses violence as a plain truth, as a power that has and is inexplicable in its possession. In his autobiography, None Shall Divide Us, he claimed, “I didn’t select murdering as a job. “Killing choose me,” says the victim.
Country by Michael Hughes
In Northern Ireland, narratives revolve around who is telling the story and what historical precedents they can use to support it: the Irish are born myth-makers. Consequently, Country retells Homer’s The Iliad in the midst of the Troubles in a way that completely interacts in the tradition of Irish storytelling. These are images of Ireland as a timeless land.
Where They Were Missed by Lucy Caldwell
The Troubles serve as a kind of hazy spotlight that casts a gloomy light on the lives of those caught in their crosshairs. Caldwell does an exceptional job of conveying the inner voice of a little girl in her account of a terrible upbringing and the dissolution of a Catholic/Protestant marriage. The novel is an exploration of how we construct our own stories and how we might learn from the ones we’ve been given. This is a very strong piece of work that is also very original.
Killing Rage by Eamon Collins
Ex-IRA member’s confession and interrogation about sectarian bloodshed is so visceral, it’s Dostoevskian in its realism. “Operations had become my drug of choice, and I was hooked.” However, I often pondered: When would I receive my final fix? ‘The one who will either murder me, imprison me, or shatter me.” To his detriment, in 1999 Collins was assassinated in his hometown of Newry for refusing to leave even after turning his back on violence.
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
For all that she writes about modern Protestant Belfast in her arrestingly creative debut short-story collection that technically is a “post-Trouble” book, Erskine’s hauntingly original debut collection bears the ghost of 1968-98.