The idea that we might be nearing a literary “Troubles moment” when I was working on my second novel, For the Good Times, never occurred to me while I was writing it, although I did wonder. Is it finally time to start making up stories about the events of 1968-98? Is there a cultural or historical divide that must exist before trauma may be examined? For a brief moment, it seemed as if Belfast was once again the literary capital of the world, thanks to Anna Burns’s Milkman, Michael Hughes’s reinvention of the Iliad in Country, and promising new voices like Wendy Erskine rising.
As a result of my father’s side of the family, I’m particularly interested in the Troubles. During the Troubles, my father’s family lived in Ardoyne, a mostly Catholic neighborhood in north Belfast. Most of his family remained in Belfast after my father fled Belfast during the beginning of the Troubles, so we talked a lot about the “war in Ireland” as my father called it when one of his brothers visited from Belfast and stayed with us for a while. 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 a strong belief in language. Stories about Ireland’s past were often shaky and full of inaccuracies, but there was something about the way they told their own tales, in their own language – a polyglot of jokes, songs, diversions, and other verbal gimmicks, as well as some outright lies and pure folk poetry – that made me think of storytelling as a performance. It was then that I began to think of Belfast as a wild place and an autonomous zone like Berlin or Airdrie, where my first novel, This Is Memorial Device, was set. I wrote about it as if events there occurred in their own time, which, for me, is the time in which all of the best Irish literature is fixed: eternality.
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. With publication in 1994, it was an evisceration of violence’s self-perpetuating nature and how it can become a performance, virtually, in both societies that promote it and media coverage on it. One of the most essential books ever written.
Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle 1976-1981
The canonical account of the hunger strikes, edited by Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown, and Felim O’Hagan, tells the tale of daily life in the H Block. It’s a high-human drama that raises all of the great concerns of young men and boys who have witnessed tremendous horrors and have been forced to confront their own mortality.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Anna Burns writes like a working-class kabbalist; the Irish have a confidence in language that goes beyond proof or reason. It’s one of the most creative explorations of Belfast’s dark and light heart. This story tells of an 18-year-old woman who is pursued by a married paramilitary known as the milkman, and it creates an autonomous zone somewhere between the demands of community paramilitaries and the forces of the state. It asserts its independence from either in its grammar of how people talk and think, and in the delight (and terror) of its telling.
Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul by Kevin Toolis
Even after all these years, this book remains one of the most affectingly intimate investigations of the armed revolt. Writing For the Good Times was made possible in large part by Toolis’ insights on the differences between revolution and rebellion as they expressed in Northern Ireland. His views were crucial when it came time to write For the Good Times.
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 laws applied and where reality itself was open to question. In no place was this more evident than in the “Provisional Republic” of South Armagh, better known as Bandit Country, where sniper at work signs and community militias were all surveyed by the British army’s watchtowers and helicopters. In Toby Harnden’s book, you’ll be taken on a fascinating journey through an alternate universe.
Stone Cold by Martin Dillon
It’s hard to imagine a more horrific depiction of state-instigated violence than the chain of events that led from the SAS’s killing of IRA members in Gibraltar to “freelance paramilitary” Michael Stone’s attack on Milltown cemetery and the murders of David Howes and Derek Wood by a Republican mob at a funeral a few days later. One of the most constantly difficult Troubles commentators has written an amazing book about Stone, and this one is no exception. Rather than describing violence as an abstract concept, Stone views it as something we can’t understand until we have it in our hands. His book, “None Shall Divide Us,” stated that he had no intention of becoming a professional killer. KILLING Chose ME.
Country by Michael Hughes
It’s all about who’s presenting the story and what historical precedents they can point to to support it in Northern Ireland: the Irish are born mythmakers. Consequently, the story of Homer’s Iliad as told in the Troubles is a creative retelling in Country, which is also deeply rooted in the oral storytelling heritage of Ireland. These are images of Ireland as a timeless land.
Where They Were Missed by Lucy Caldwell
In the shadow of the Troubles, the lives of those who lived them are made heartbreakingly sad. 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. An eloquent and innovative piece.
Killing Rage by Eamon Collins
An ex-IRA member’s confession and interrogation about sectarian bloodshed are both eye-wateringly visceral and almost Dostoevskian in their brutality. “Operations had become my fix for my addiction to the struggle. However, I frequently pondered the question, “When will I finally get my fix?” One who will kill me, imprison me, or break me. Despite abandoning the IRA, Collins was unable to leave Newry, where he was murdered in 1999.
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
Erskine’s debut short-story collection retains the ghost of 68-98, as she writes about the magic, savagery, and surrealism of Protestant Belfast in the post-Troubles period.