Cullybackey Gothic: Remembering Ian Cochrane

Twelve years after his death, James Greer pays tribute to the oft-overlooked Antrim novelist known for his 'beguiling storytelling'

This week marks the twelfth anniversary of the death of novelist Ian Cochrane. In the 1970s and early 1980s Cochrane authored a quick succession of dark, funny and highly original representations of Ulster village life. His later work also depicted those slipping off the margins of society in London.

All six of Cochrane’s novels received widespread acclaim. His second book Gone in the Head was awarded runner-up spot in the prestigious Guardian Fiction Prize, and is cited by Professor George O’Brien as the definitive Irish novel of 1974. The critical consensus was even stronger in response to his supremely unsettling and comic F For Ferg (1980).

Titles such as A Streak of Madness, Jesus on a Stick and Ladybird in a Loony-Bin, convey the bible-black humour and rich language Cochrane crafted. In style and content much of his writing subtly echoes and adapts classic American literary representations of the Ulster Scots. Sadly these important landmarks in Irish fiction are currently out of print. A Cochrane revival is long overdue.

The making of the writer

Born in 1941, Ian Cochrane’s childhood home was a remote three-room cottage in Dromona outside of Cullybackey, alongside four siblings. This was an upbringing marked by poverty, but the young Cochrane was lucky to fall into the orbit of inspirational teacher RL Russell - headmaster at Tullygrawley Public Elementary School and author of the celebrated ode to progressive education The Child and His Pencil.

Visiting Tullygrawley the playwright St John Ervine discovered 'little boys and girls, most of whom have come from very poor homes', who Russell empowered 'to use their eyes and their ears and their hands and their minds.' Russell’s approach encouraged pupils in this small rural school to create art and poetry rooted in their own experiences – leaving a lasting legacy in the district.

Out of school at 14 Cochrane first found work at a linen mill. Soon serious illness dramatically altered his life. Suffering undiagnosed from the hereditary condition Leber’s optic atrophy, he began to lose his eyesight. Over time his health stabilised and, recuperating after intrusive, and traumatic, surgery, he learnt braille. He adapted to life with limited sight with remarkable perseverance and independence.

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Tullygrawley School. RL Russell standing left. Ian Cochrane second row, standing on far right (with dark jumper). Raymond Cochrane, front row fourth from right. Drew Cochrane, front row sixth from right

At the age of 19 Cochrane moved to London where he worked as a piano-tuner. Later he had spells as a lift attendant, a cleaner, a drugs counsellor and a civil servant. He recalled his childhood and early adventures in London as 'rich source material' for an aspiring writer. In his late twenties he began to publish short stories and debut novel A Streak of Madness soon followed.

Alongside Ian’s achievements the Cochrane family are an extraordinary collective example of talent and determination. After losing his sight at the age of 38 Ian’s brother Drew became one of the UK’s most accomplished blind golfers. 'Ian gave me the strength to get through,' he recalls. 'He fought my battles.'

Oldest brother Raymond is a successful artist, painting the landscapes and local characters he and Ian learnt to take inspiration from at Tullygrawley School. Ian’s astonishing attention to detail comes to mind when he recollects people and places.

Cochrane’s Ulster

Cochrane was deeply influenced by the cultural resonance he found in American Southern Gothic writing. As author and close friend Maurice Leitch notes, for Cochrane the worlds of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were 'a mere ocean and a generation or so away from the same Ulster-Scots characters all three wrote about.'

Cochrane’s four novels set in fictional one-street Ulster villages have clear Southern Gothic sensibilities. Religious fervour co-exists with a deep strain of fatalism. Boundaries between sanity and madness are questioned and blurred. Violence and its scars bubble under the surface, along with destructive sexuality.

These novels display a reverence for the macabre, but also intense empathy for the young and the marginalised. Protagonists’ lives are defined by unemployment or dead-end jobs, and by the suffocating mores of the time. You can imagine Carson McCullers feeling at home here.

Cochrane’s originality is to add comic absurdity and playfulness with language to this territory – and to successfully locate these themes in his own environment. We understand characters such as Frank, the 14 year-old narrator of Gone in the Head, through his unique, yet accessible, blend of mid-Antrim vernacular. Frank, with no experience of life outside his immediate surroundings, is our sole guide through the dysfunctions of his family and community.

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Painting of the Cochrane family home by Raymond Cochrane

Cochrane’s Northern Irish novels provide sparse yet intriguing social and political context. These are stories of post-1945, poor, rural, Protestant Ulster - a world rarely represented in literature or on screen. The Troubles occur either off-stage or on a neighbour’s television set, reflecting how the conflict was experienced by many, but there is subtle political and social commentary within Cochrane’s writing.

From 1946-1969 Cochrane’s home district was represented at Stormont by Prime Minister Terence O’Neill. The impact of O’Neill and his nemesis Ian Paisley often feels like an unnamed presence in Cochrane’s fictions. After all, elements of the young Paisley would not look out of place in a preacher penned by Flannery O’Connor.

O’Neill’s Bannside consistency possessed some of the worst housing and public amenities in Northern Ireland - a fact utilised by Paisley in their 1969 election battle. Symbolising the hopes and failures of the O’Neill era, Gone in the Head starts with the Brodie family moving from the countryside to a new housing estate. Craving the possibility of respectability the family instead encounter suspicion and snobbery from new neighbours, and find the estate badly planned and incomplete.

Frank catches his first glimpse of Paisley on the TV of a liberal couple who live next door. He understands the programme is about 'people fighting about Jasus in Belfast' and reflects on the little he knows about Paisley – his Da is suspicious of the preacher due to his refusal to join the Orange Order - before the woman of the house demands 'Turn them eejits off'.

The dapper wee man of letters

Cochrane’s last novel Slipstream was published in 1983. It displays how his astute ear for dialogue applied equally to inept London petty criminals as to Cullybackey ne’er-do-wells.

In 1987 the author suffered a vicious assault. He had intervened to halt an attack on a stranger in the underground, before the gang brutally turned on him. Subsequent health difficulties and the changing publishing world combined to halt his writing career. But they did not defeat the spirit of the 'Little Big Man', remembered by friends and family for his fierce resilience, generosity, style, and beguiling storytelling.

Ian Cochrane died suddenly of a heart-attack on September 9 2004, aged 62. Engraved on his headstone is a verse from Faulkner:

But I shall sleep, for where is any death

While in these blue hills slumberous overhead

I’m rooted like a tree? Though I be dead

This earth that holds me fast will find me breath