Northern Irish Literature 4

Fiction since partition

Fiction in Northern Ireland is, unsurprisingly given the recent history of the region, dominated by themes drawn from history, politics and sectarian division.

Other recurring topics include the restrictiveness of provincial life, sexual repression, gender relations and religious intolerance, the effects of violence, town versus country, and ‘the big house’.

The dominant stylistic mode is naturalistic, often tinged with self-consciously ‘poetic’ manipulation of symbolism, especially in the descriptions of landscape and setting.

Indeed, in the work of Sam Hanna Bell (December Bride, A Man Flourishing, Across the Narrow Sea) this combination has been identified as ‘Hardyesque.’

Scots-born Bell was a broadcaster and editor who did much to build the self-confidence of writers from the north of Ireland, and to establish what cultural self-confidence Northern Ireland developed in the second half of the 20th century.

Another tutelary figure was Michael McLaverty (born in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, but brought up in Belfast) who made the experience of displacement and the tension between city and country his major subject.

McLaverty’s novel Call My Brother Back (1939) describes the uprooting of 15-year-old Colm MacNeill from Rathlin to a Belfast in the grip of the Troubles of the early 1920s.

Between The Three Brothers (1948) and The Brightening Day (1965), McLaverty grew increasingly committed to a moral and explicitly Catholic idea of the novel’s purpose. Having largely abandoned the short story by the 1940s, he returned to the form in retirement and published The Road to the Shore in 1976 and Collected Stories in 1978.

Brian Moore, one of the few Northern Irish born prose writers with a large international reputation, was a prolific literary and genre novelist, dealing with Irish matters in novels such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Emperor of Ice Cream, but also ranging widely in subject matter and theme in works like Black Robe (17th century missionaries among native Canadians), The Colour of Blood (repression in the Soviet bloc) and The Magician’s Wife (set in the court of Napoleon III). A successful screenwriter, Moore wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942 and now lives in Scotland. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s political and cultural conflicts are central to his early novels Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), and to his short story collections Secrets and Other Stories (1977), A Time to Dance (1982), The Great Profundo (1987) and Walking the Dog (1994). Both Lamb and Cal were successfully adapted for the cinema.

Jennifer Johnston has lived in Derry since the late 1970s. Her novels (including The Captains and the Kings, The Gates, How Many Miles to Babylon? and The Old Jest) typically explore conflicts between men and women, Protestants and Catholics, revolutionaries and supporters of a status quo, in settings reminiscent of or directly alluding to ‘the big house’ of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. 

It is possible to see the fiction produced by novelists born in the 1960s and later as constituting a form of ‘post-Troubles’ fiction. Writers like Glenn Patterson, Robert McLiam Wilson and Eoin McNamee are distinguished from their predecessors by their varying departures from established thematic organisation of Irish subject matter, their openness to narrative experiment, their acceptance of urban settings rather than stress on urban-rural tension, and, generally, their scepticism regarding the binary ‘grand narratives’ of Irish history.

Glenn Patterson’s perspective as a writer with a Protestant background informs his novels’ questioning of nationalist cultural stereotypes. In his fiction, journalism and interviews, he has also rejected ‘the traditional nationalist/unionist, loyalist/republican dichotomy.’ Patterson’s writings—especially the novels Burning Your Own (1988), Fat Lad (1992) and The International (1999)—study the friction between fluid private struggles and social forces that demand allegiance to a rigid identity.

The work of Robert McLiam Wilson casts a fervently satirical eye on the conflicts and allegiances of the citizens of Belfast.

He was raised in west Belfast, and the city’s sectarian conflicts, as well as gender and generational issues, inform novels like Ripley Bogle (1989) and Eureka Street (1996), although both of these, and Manfred’s Pain (1992), range more widely in culture and geography. Wilson’s concern with existential extremes and outsiders is accompanied by deviation from naturalistic storytelling.

Eoin McNamee was born in Kilkeel, County Down, in 1961. A novella, The Last of Deeds, was shortlisted for the 1989 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Award for Irish Literature. In his novels Resurrection Man (1994) and The Blue Tango (2001) the conventions of Northern Irish fiction—the big house, class and sectarian tensions, inter-religious relationships—seem to be both exploded and renewed by the violence of their subject matter.