Finding Finaghy Memoir Reveals Bygone Belfast

Artist David Gepp embraces prose in this intensely visual memoir of life growing up in post-Second World War Belfast

David Gepp (pronounced ‘Jepp’) remembers a time when trams and red trolleybuses plied the streets of Belfast, where gaslight still illuminated the smoke-fugged bars, and ‘the odd horse and cart’ were part and parcel of the city traffic.

These memories, and many others, throng the pages of Finding Finaghy, Gepp’s new book about growing up in post-Second World War Northern Ireland, published by Lagan Press.

It’s a narrative packed with strong visual imagery, which is hardly surprising – after all, Gepp is an artist and photographer by profession, with a distinguished back catalogue of projects and exhibitions to his name stretching back over a creative lifetime.

Finding Finaghy is Gepp’s debut as a prose writer, and the story of how it came to be published will have aspiring authors everywhere tearing their hair out with envy and frustration.

Tentatively testing out the water as a first-time author, Gepp turned – 'as you do', he says – to the internet. ‘I googled anybody in Ireland who might be interested in work about the North.’

Lagan Press, now based in Derry~Londonderry, came up as closest to the Donegal area Gepp now lives in. So he sent the manuscript to them speculatively, and – hey presto! – it was immediately accepted. ‘They were the only ones I sent the work out to,’ he adds, semi-apologetically.

Beginner’s luck? Possibly, though when you read Finding Finaghy you will quickly understand why Lagan Press were so interested. It is a limpidly evocative piece of writing, dotted with moments of Proustian lucidity, bringing to life again the sights and sounds of the Belfast where Gepp spent his boyhood.

By no means were all the memories and recollections that eventually found their way into the memoir already there, pre-formed, in Gepp’s conscious mind before he started writing. ‘I think very few of them were,’ he comments.

Others, as he puts it, simply ‘popped out’ as the narrative developed. ‘The pace of writing something like that seems to slow the mind down,’ Gepp adds. ‘I wonder if hypnotism’s a wee bit similar. You open the door on your memory into a hallway, and off the hallway are lots of other doors…’

This process of slowing normal rates of mental activity and processing – allowing what’s stored in the subconscious to peep above the parapet – is accentuated in Gepp’s case by the way he actually records the words that come to him.

‘I write longhand,' he explains. 'The rate that your mind goes to, to write things down, gives the time to go round flinging all those other doors open, always surprisingly.’

Among the surprises disinterred by the writing of Finding Finaghy, many were again visual. ‘The coat my mother wore at that time, the hat she wore,’ Gepp muses.

‘My first memory of looking out of the pram when I was still a baby, the garden where my father grew gooseberries, and seeing those streets with the blocks of blue, featureless sky, red brick houses, and the grey of the old roads. That was the Belfast I grew into.’

Although Gepp started writing the book at a low point of his life – when he was recuperating from illness –he rejects the notion that writing it was primarily therapeutic. ‘That misses it by a mile,’ he says emphatically, describing the creative process as for him ‘more of a compulsion'.

What that compulsion was, says Gepp, is difficult to define exactly. He describes it in terms of a ‘long ache’ for his hometown of Belfast, gestated over a period of three decades living in Wales, where he had gone to ‘make a living’, having been unable to do so in Ireland.

‘I just sat down at a wee table facing the back window in the town I was living in, where I was very unhappy, and started to write, in an attempt I suppose to take me back there. That’s why it’s called Finding Finaghy, in a way.’

What Gepp found in his childhood was, in his own words, ‘idyllic’, a ‘Garden of Eden’ where the young Gepp played carefree street games, perused old books discovered in attics, and watched transfixed as his father hand-cranked a 9.5 mm projector, ‘laughing at the images thrown on a sheet pinned to the wall'.

Gradually, however, darker elements began to surface. 'Monstrous concepts that came in and overwhelmed me’, Gepp remarks, spoiling the beauty and ‘timeless innocence’ of that early period. Chief among these was what he views as the stultifying religious attitudes prevailing in the Northern Ireland that he grew up in.

Gepp was, he writes in the book, ‘repelled and revolted’ by the repressive negativity of the messages he regularly heard in church and Sunday School, ‘forever trying to frighten children'. The result was ‘a disastrous psychological and philosophical struggle’ for the growing boy, and a distrust of religious dogmatism, which persisted into adulthood and continues to shape Gepp’s outlook and thinking.

It’s clear that Gepp also views entrenched religious positions as being at least partially responsible for the many years of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, when it became, he argues, ‘a tortured and twisted place'.

‘Nothing keeps people further from God than religion and certitude,’ he says, quoting from Finding Finaghy. ‘We’ve lost sight of a wonderful Jewish philosopher, Jesus, his thought and concepts. I think that would be a good starting point to get back to.’

With Finding Finaghy now published, Gepp, far from resting on his laurels, is already itching to start a second volume, having temporarily abandoned his younger self at the age of 11. ‘I want to carry on with the writing. The next bit starts at age 12, when I go to the big school, from the time of getting my first bicycle to psychedelics, that sort of span.’

There will, no doubt, be more epiphanies, more discoveries, more spangled memories, as Gepp surveys his years as a teenager growing up in Belfast, the city he was born in – ‘the place’, as Robert Bridges puts it in the lines of poetry concluding Finding Finaghy, ‘whence he sets forth to meet strange things, whither returns to find his own, himself.’

Finding Finaghy is out now, published by Lagan Press.