Why is Northern Irish literature feasting on the dead corpse of the Troubles more than ever? We writers seem to have no more ability than our politicians to move on from the past. From novels like Jenny McCartney’s The Ghost Factory to the raft of new Troubles-based memoir and TV crime shows, Troubles-mania is rampant. Are we pandering to some insatiable demand or are we just jumping on the bandwagon, wearing the Trash my Father Wore?
One of the main reasons why our gaze is so retrogressive is the Decade of the Centenaries commemorative programme. Artists have been commissioned to look at the past instead of the present. We are also subject to the Anna Burns effect where the success of Milkman has engendered imitators. By writing obliquely, Burns gave Milkman an international dystopian patina, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it was a Troubles novel. Lisa McGee’s sitcom Derry Girls has had its own cultural impact through humorous nostalgia for kidnappings, sectarianism and bombs – Michelle Gallen’s novel Big Girl, Small Town immediately springs to mind.
Many writers feel pressurized into writing work that fulfils external expectations. The press actively encourages retrospective fiction through articles such as this from the Guardian: ‘Top 10 Books about the Troubles’ or this year’s LA Times article: ‘How the moral muddle of the Irish Troubles spawned a potent new genre Belfast Noir’. There has been a huge explosion of Belfast Noir over the years and its chief exponents include Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty, Kelly Creighton, Sharon Dempsey, Gerard Brennan and Eoin McNamee. Journalists who worked during the Troubles have recently joined their ranks: Malachi O’Doherty’s Terry Brankin Has a Gun has an ex-IRA protagonist and Henry McDonald’s Two Souls spans the seventies and eighties. Ex-combatant, Richard O’Rawe, has joined the party with Northern Heist while young American writers like Flynn Berry with her IRA-focused Northern Spy are also hijacking the genre. The Troubles are lurking in all of these novels, whether directly or implicitly.
It’s not only the novel peddling this narrow-visioned Belfast Noir for all its worth, but television too. In 2021, yet another BBC show Bloodlands delved into ‘Disappeared’ cases from the nineties. Interestingly, Anne Devlin was told by a BBC executive in 2018 that her script about the Troubles couldn’t be produced in spite of its quality. The executive explained that the only way for Devlin to get a Troubles story greenlit by the BBC was ‘to find a Trojan horse’ which was crime drama. It’s infuriating that writers are being restricted and pushed into genre-writing.
Meanwhile, memoirs are being pumped out about Troubles childhoods faster than Ulster fries flipped off a café stove. Recent examples are Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, The Troubles With Us by Alix O’Neill, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly and A Belfast Child by John Chambers. Northern Irish memoirists are now exporting their trauma worldwide, converting PTSD into GBP.
When I started writing for theatre in the mid-2000s, there was a strong kickback against work inspired by the Troubles. Luminaries of the Lyric Theatre like Dan Gordon said that there was no more public interest in Troubles plays. While no one should dictate subject matter, as a great play is a great play regardless of topic, there was a real fatigue at that time with the relentless diet of Gary Mitchell plays. The truth is that when plays and novels deal with paramilitaries, there is little distinction between Troubles or post-Troubles narratives as the war is never fully over for ex-combatants; either their former actions haunt them or the families of their victims pursue them. In spite of efforts to diversify, the Lyric has returned to the old fodder with Good Vibrations, Cyprus Avenue and Sadie, the last of which includes Troubles flashbacks. The ghosts keep sidling back, the blood continues to bubble up from under the floorboards and it isn’t a manifestation solely confined to Belfast. One of the biggest West End shows of the past five years is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, set during the hunger strikes. Butterworth is entitled to write what he wants, but it is somewhat galling that an English writer gets to have his cloying notions of us performed on a huge stage, perpetuating the idea that the ultimate Northern Irish story is Troubles-based.
To be fair to Northern Irish novelists, many do write about other subjects. Bernie McGill’s The Watch House is about the arrival of the modern world at the turn of the twentieth century and Lucy Caldwell’s forthcoming novel These Days is about the Belfast Blitz. However, there is still a lack of contemporary novels and it’s not surprising that These Days is set in those days.
Some well-known novelists who write within a modern landscape still find it hard to resist the temptation of the past. Where Are We Now?, the title of Glenn Patterson’s latest novel, suggests we don’t have a clue where we’re politically going. David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land takes the first opportunity it can to ditch Northern Ireland for snowy England, but the narrator looks back at ‘the still-smouldering hatreds’. Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters also yields to the allure of the bad old days in featuring Sammy Agnew whose prior sectarian acts have been imparted to his son, Mark. It is as though Mark is now waging his own surreal version of the Troubles. Wendy Erskine’s short story collection Sweet Home does well to avoid the usual traps. While one story contains the threatening presence of the paramilitary Kyle, most deal with an up-to-date Belfast of immigrants and architects.
Sometimes I think post-Troubles fiction is just a means for writers to ponder whether this country will return to war. We writers should band together and be proactive in eliminating the Troubles from contemporary plays and novels in the same way we have tried to eliminate sexism. The Bechdel test is a measure of the representation of women in fiction and asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s high time we implemented a similar test to measure the representation of post-Troubles fiction by asking how often a work alludes to the Troubles.
The fundamental problem is that Northern Irish writers are cannibalizing each other. We feed off one another like Hannibal Lecter, only in our case, we’re cannibal lectors! Northern Ireland’s paucity of publishers means our literary output is Lilliputian and leads to a lack of diversity. We need to stop reading each other’s work and look to the rest of the world for inspiration. We should be reading writers from Russia, France, Latin America – anything to stop this ceaseless navel-gazing.
Instead of plundering the old treasures of the Troubles and the drama of division, we need to move on. The question is: what should we be writing? Naturally, as a writer, I have to protect my ideas, but I will say that I’m focusing on contemporary politics. With Brexit, the Protocol and the centenary, this country is more in the news than it has been for decades and it’s up to writers to reflect that. I want to be modern. I’m not here to take part in Northern Irish literature; I’m here to take Northern Irish literature apart. I call on all writers to join me.