Author of Titanic Town
Born in Belfast in 1955, Mary Costello is best known for her novel Titanic Town, based on her experiences of life as a teenager in west Belfast. The novel, published in 1992, was subsequently produced as a feature film starring Julie Walters.
After graduating from Queen’s University of Belfast with a degree in English, French and Spanish, Costello trained as an actress and set up the children’s theatre company Albatross with playwright Martin Lynch. She later worked with TEAM theatre, an offshoot of the Young Abbey company, which was linked to the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Costello emigrated to Australia in 1981, where she still lives in the city of Melbourne. It was here that she conceived and wrote Titanic Town, a semi-autobiographical fictional memoir set in the Belfast of her youth. Explaining the title, Costello stated that she views the Titanic as an apt symbol for the city of Belfast, ‘seductive yet doomed’.
The novel’s central character is Annie McPhelimy, whose coming of age is juxtaposed with Northern Ireland’s slide into conflict. At the beginning of the novel, Annie and her family move from a cramped terraced house into a new home on a housing executive estate in Andersonstown, west Belfast. From this location they observe events of national import, including the rise of militant loyalism, the birth of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement, the outbreak of the Troubles, and the formation of the Provisional IRA.
Such narratives are characteristic of much Troubles fiction. However, Titanic Town is unusual in that the story is told from a young woman’s perspective, and as Annie grows from girl to teenager, the bizarre normality of her existence is contrasted with the events of the Troubles.
The portrayal of the McPhelimy family also testifies to the impact of a dysfunctional society upon the lives of the individuals within it. Annie’s mother is addicted to Valium—Northern Ireland had the highest rate of tranquilliser prescription in western Europe during the Troubles—while her father suffers from ulcers and unemployment. The novel gives insight into the insular, fragmented nature of Northern Irish society and, ending bleakly, offers no solutions to our problems.
While the novel was written and set during a period of conflict, by the time it was filmed in 1998, Northern Ireland had embarked on an uneasy peace process. In the feature film, also entitled Titanic Town, Annie’s mother Bernie is the central character, focusing on her fictional campaign for peace, which mirrors the real efforts of the Peace People movement. The film was well received, although some reviewers criticised its uneasy mix of political drama and comedy.
The release of the film brought Costello’s novel fresh attention, but she has published no further work to date.