The 1980s were a difficult and disturbing decade, with The Troubles seemingly entrenched and cultural life practically non-existent, overshadowed by a constant stream of political crises and shocking atrocities.
One of the best writers to interpret these times was the playwright Stewart Parker, with his 1980s plays, in particular the trilogy of Northern Star (1984), Heavenly Bodies (1986) and Pentecost (1987).
Parker’s plays are known for the seriousness of their themes – death, violence, frustration – but are leavened by a humour, life and a unique theatricality.
Northern Star is set in Belfast in 1798 on the night before one of the city’s most famous sons, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken, is to hang. The ‘young McCracken’ speaks of his native Belfast in a speech that could well sum up the tortured relationship between artists and the city:
‘Why would one place break your heart, more than another? A place the like of that? Brain-damaged and dangerous, continuously violating itself, a place of perpetual breakdown, incompatible voices, screeching away through the smoky dark wet. Burnt out and still burning … And yet what wouldn’t this poor fool give not to be able to walk freely again from Stranmillis to Ann Street … cut through Pottinger’s Entry and across the road for a drink in Peggy’s … We can’t love it for what it is, only for what it might have been, if we’d got it right, if we’d made it whole.’
Novels also came to the fore. Bernard MacLaverty, who had decamped to Glasgow via Jura, wrote two of the most important novels of the time, Cal (1983) and Lamb (1987). These novels were included on school syllabuses and were made into successful feature films.
Cal is an updated love-across-the-barricades story that is primarily concerned with the relationships between people trapped in a situation not of their making. It displays the best of Belfast writing at this time, by managing to rescue some humanity from our situation.
Writers such as Anne Devlin, Deirdre Madden and Frances Molloy began to stake a place for women novelists and short story writers. And towards the end of the 1980s a new dynamic was entering Belfast literature, with new voices such as Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson publishing their first novels.
These, as the critic Eamon Hughes has pointed out, were not stories of the suburban middle-class or the dark rainy city that Brian Moore had written about, but rather the ‘contemporary urban experience’.
Hughes sees an enormous influence on the writing of this time from Ciaran Carson. A poet by trade and now director of the Seamus Heaney Centre, Carson has written of Belfast in the context of it being a city like any other, changing, shifting and mysterious.
His twinkling prose style, encapsulated in The Star Factory, captures something of the strangeness of a city in which, for example, there was once a series of streets simply known by the numbers 1-9.
This mysterious attitude has much in common with other writers of this time. The certainties that many had found stifling in the 1950s were now being replaced with new possibilities.