Belfast Girls Take Centre Stage

Searching for 'the good things in life', the heroines in Gerry McCullough's novel reflect new Belfast

Confession time. It’s not often you hear God being invoked in a mainstream Northern Irish novel – at least as a positive force. And to be honest, for the cynical among us, it can be a little unsettling.

But this reader’s fears that religion – and, more terrifyingly again, religious preaching – might become a dominant theme in Gerry McCullough’s debut novel Belfast Girls prove completely unfounded.

Instead the Belfast writer – not unlike Malraux – allows her characters many diverse ways of exploring the human condition in search of their own personal meaning. Not all of the chosen paths provide their holder with the redemption, or escape, they are seeking.

The heroine, Sheila Doherty, allows herself to buy into a world of venality and celebrity as she becomes Ireland’s top model. Her best friend, Philomena, tries to conquer low self-esteem by falling for an endless string of bad boys.

Another friend, Mary, becomes a drug addict; Mary’s brother John – a BBC reporter – wraps himself so tightly in morality he becomes a sore-headed hypocrite; while Davy, a high-flying student, can eventually only get his buzz from dealing drugs and violent crime.

Mix these characters together – and throw in a plot that encompasses mega-rich racing drivers, lecherous TV presenters and renegade republicans – and you wind up with an engaging and occasionally acerbic rendering of post-ceasefire Belfast.

The author, however, is quick to point out that the book is a work of complete fiction and that there is no spill-over from the real world, however inadvertent.

‘I should begin with a disclaimer,’ McCullough says. ‘Except when I’ve used real names in conversation, I haven’t deliberately copied characters from life.

'On the other hand, if you’re not picking up characters from life, where are you getting them? Outer space? Or other books? So I’m aware that my “celebrities” have some resemblance to people I’ve met, heard of, or seen on TV.

‘I wanted the social scene to be clearly Belfast, with the sort of people who would get into Sunday Life, the Ulster Tatler, TV chat shows or the news.’

McCullough does acknowledge, however, that the main characters - the eponymous Belfast girls, Sheila, Phil and Mary - do have something of herself in them.

‘I suppose this is inevitable. You can’t write about someone unless you relate to them. Sheila’s feeling, as a child, that she isn’t attractive, stems from my own feelings at that age. Like her, I got over it - though unlike Sheila I didn’t win a beauty contest or become a fashion model.

‘Mary’s spiritual awakening is very much based on my own life. I think all writers take parts of their own experience and build on that. But other people’s experiences are useful too. I knew a lot of people who were part of the drug scene, and I used some of the things they told me in writing about what happened to Mary and Sheila.

‘The two main male characters are similarly based on some of my own characteristics, but to a lesser extent. With John and Davy, people I’ve met would have been more important in the creative process.’

The Belfast of McCullough’s book may have buried large chunks of its strife-ridden past, but it is troubled in a new way. ‘Belfast, and the rest of the country, went through some very hard times during the Troubles. It’s understandable that people are now desperate to see the things they’ve missed out on: wealth, luxury, the “good things in life”.

‘But whatever you may say about the terrorists, on both sides, they were, at least in the beginning, fighting for things they fervently believed in. The spiritual vacuum left by the end of the conflict has resulted in us snatching greedily for anything that’s going. I wanted to draw a clear picture of this.’

An MA graduate from Queen's University, McCullough has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. Her ‘lighter’ short-stories, which centre around the seanchaí ‘Old Seamus’, have featured regularly in Ireland’s Own for many years. But she can also tap a more serious vein and won the Cúirt Award for New International Writing in 2005.

‘I was bouncing off the ceiling. I really thought I’d made it,' she beams. 'No looking back, no more rejections, everyone would want to publish everything I wrote from now on. But I found out before long that there was still a long way to go. Rejections still came. But so did acceptance, and encouragement, and I realized I just needed to plough on.’

HarperCollins, for example, were keen on Belfast Girls but wanted McCullough to decide if it was a romance or a thriller. In her opinion, it is neither: ‘It’s about life – parts of it are funny too.’

It has now been published by Night Publishing, who were happy to accept it without trying to ‘push it into a mould’. Next on the agenda for McCullough is a short story collection, currently with an editor, after which she aims to have some of her other completed books published.

‘I’m planning to finish the book which I was halfway through when things started to happen for Belfast Girls. I’m still halfway through it. Some day soon I may get back to actual writing!’

Read an extract from Belfast Girls here.