When I was writing my second novel, For the Good Times, it never occurred to me that we might be approaching a kind of Troubles “moment” in literature, but I did wonder. Were we finally far enough away from the events of 1968-98 to start fictionalising them? Is it necessary for there to be a sort of cultural/historical gap before we can interrogate trauma? And then Anna Burns’s superb Milkman won the Booker, Michael Hughes published Country, his inspired Homeric reimagining of the Iliad set during the Troubles, and with exciting new voices such as Wendy Erskine emerging, Belfast suddenly seemed to be ground zero for radical literary fiction, with borders once more in the news.
My own interest in the Troubles stems from my family on my father’s side. My father grew up in the Ardoyne, the primarily Catholic area of north Belfast that was the epicentre of the strife. His father had been a member of the IRA, and although my dad left Belfast just as the Troubles were beginning, most of his family stayed, and throughout my youth the war in Ireland, as my father called it, dominated family discussions, especially when one of his brothers came from Belfast to stay with us.
It was the stories they told, and the way they told them, that first got me interested in writing about those times. My father and his brothers were semi-literate, but they had such faith in language. Tellings of their times in Ireland were entirely questionable, and inevitably self-mythologising, yet there was something true in the way they owned their stories, relayed them in their own language – a polyglot of jokes, songs, random diversions, verbal sleight of hand, straight-up misinformation and pure folk poetry – that made me think of the art of storytelling as performative.
And I began to think of Belfast, and how often it had been rebuilt, as a wild place, an autonomous zone – like cold war-era Berlin, or 1980s Airdrie, where I set my first book, This Is Memorial Device – and I wrote about it as if events there play out in their own time, which, for me, is the time in which all of the best Irish literature is fixed: eternity.
1. Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
The classic – groundbreaking – fictional account of The Troubles (and so much more) based on the reign of terror of Protestant paramilitaries the Shankhill Butchers and written in a high, hallucinatory style that works to transform the being of Belfast itself. Published in 1994 as events were still unravelling, it’s an evisceration of the self-perpetuating nature of violence, and how it can become a performance, almost, in both the communities that foster it and in the way the media reports it. A profoundly important book.
2. Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle 1976-1981
An incredible oral history of day-to-day life in the H Block and the definitive account of the hunger strikes, edited by Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O’Hagan. Horror, redemption, bravery, pointlessness, violence, faith, despair; this is high human drama that asks all of the big questions of young boys and men turned witness to extreme horrors.
3. Milkman by Anna Burns
The Irish have a faith in language beyond all proof or reason; Anna Burns writes like a working-class kabbalist. This fantastic novel is one of the most original navigations of Belfast’s heart of darkness and light. It generates its own kind of autonomous zone, somewhere between the demands of community paramilitaries and the forces of the state, and it asserts its independence from either in its grammar of how people talk and think, in the delight – and terror – of its telling, as we follow an independent 18-year-old as she is pursued by a married paramilitary known as the milkman.
4. Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul by Kevin Toolis
Still one of the most affectingly personal interrogations of armed insurrection, this book is the result of years of deep investigative journalism. Toolis is especially good at exposing the kind of contradictory logic that living in a war zone and running an armed rebellion necessitates, and his insights about the difference between revolution and rebellion, as manifested in Northern Ireland, were key when it came to writing For the Good Times.
5. Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh by Toby Harnden
One of my fascinations with Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s is how it became a place where different rules applied, where reality itself seemed up for grabs. Nowhere was this more the case than the “Provisional Republic” of South Armagh, AKA Bandit Country, with its handmade “sniper at work” signs and its community militias all surveyed by the watchtowers and helicopters of the British army. Toby Harnden’s book is a compulsively fascinating tour of this alternative universe.
6. Stone Cold by Martin Dillon
The sequence of events that ran from the killing of IRA members by the SAS in Gibraltar through the attack on Milltown cemetery by “freelance paramilitary” Michael Stone, to the murder of two plainclothes British corporals, David Howes and Derek Wood, by a Republican mob at a funeral a few days later, remains one of the most horrifying unravellings of state and community-engendered violence ever relayed on live TV, and one of the nightmare visions of my youth. This book, too; an incredible insight into the mind of Stone, by one of the most consistently challenging Troubles commentators. Stone talks about violence as a simple fact, as a power that possesses and that is inscrutable in its possession. “I didn’t choose killing as a career,” he wrote in his autobiography None Shall Divide Us. “Killing chose me.”
7. Country by Michael Hughes
Narratives in Northern Ireland are all about who is telling the story and what historical precedents they can muster in its defence: the Irish are born myth-makers. Country, then, is an inspired retelling of Homer’s Iliad set during the Troubles, and it fully engages with the performative tradition of Irish storytelling. This is Ireland as the eternal country.
8. Where They Were Missed by Lucy Caldwell
The Troubles, here, are a form of distant illumination that makes heartbreakingly sad the lives played out in their shadow. In her story of a tragic childhood and the ending of a Catholic/Protestant marriage, Caldwell is brilliant at imagining the interior voice of a young girl. The novel is an untangling of the fictions we live with, the stories we inherit from our parents, and the possibilities of reinventing our own. A powerful and original work.
9. Killing Rage by Eamon Collins
This is an eye-wateringly visceral – almost Dostoevskian – confession/interrogation of sectarian violence by an ex-IRA man. “I had become addicted to the struggle: operations became my fix. But I often asked myself: when will my final fix arrive? The one that will kill me, put me in prison or break me.” Collins left the IRA and turned his back on violence but he could not bear to leave Newry, where he was brutally killed in 1999.
10. Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
Technically a “post-Troubles” book, Erskine’s arrestingly original debut short-story collection bears the ghost of 68-98, as she writes about the magic, ferocity and surrealism of contemporary Protestant Belfast.
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