Once Upon a Hill

Glenn Patterson's new memoir delves into a history of violence in Lisburn

Lisburn, ‘a city by aggregation’, is, Glenn Patterson admits in the opening lines of his new book Once Upon a Hill, the kind of location a writer returns to only ‘having exhausted all the options’. Given this proviso, Patterson’s choice of historical Lisburn as the setting for this, his debut in full-length non-fiction, could be interpreted as a career novelist running out of steam.

On the contrary, Once Upon a Hill is a short but compelling, and often playful, account of a writer intimately connected with the subtleties of life in Northern Ireland struggling to locate and excavate a segment of his own contentious family history. Part-genealogy part-memoir, the book traces Patterson's paternal family line, the turbulent, conflagration filled history of Lisburn and the awkward, uncertain splicing together of these two narrative threads around the notorious sectarian riots of 1920.

Early in the book it becomes clear that the task facing Patterson is a difficult one, especially as the Irish civil war and partition precipitated the destruction of many public records.

Patterson adapts easily to the role of amateur sleuth, recounting details of exhaustive detective work in the archives with no little glee – commenting on one largely frustrating dig in the public records in Dublin he notes that ‘I did at least, though, find something to pique my interest’. Nevertheless, the historical traces of the antecedents of the book’s central characters, Patterson’s grandparents Jack and Kate, remain partial and clouded in documentary absences.

Understanding the riots that engulfed Lisburn in 1920 following the murder of the police officer Oswald Swanzy by Republicans from Cork, and which led to over 50 hours of continuous looting and fire-starting, proves to be more straightforward. The disturbances have been relegated to a footnote in the bloody history of Northern Ireland (Patterson suggests that, with only one fatality, they barely register beside the sectarian strife that broke out in Belfast later that same year). Nevertheless, Once Upon a Hill manages to show how, and why, the Lisburn riots were produced by much broader and far-reaching political developments across the island of Ireland.

In his novels, Patterson has provided many darkly comic insights into the physical and psychological state of 'Troubles' Northern Ireland. Once Upon a Hill’s historical scope allows the writer to go further, to delve into his own family history to illustrate ‘the agreeable fuckedupness of faith and politics on this part of the world’.

Once Upon a Hill really comes to life when Patterson is at his most chaotic, dashing from archive to archive, furiously digesting and regurgitating primary sources as diverse as the Cavan Observer and the minutes of the Lisburn Masonic Lodge. The secrets he stumbles on, his grandmother’s Catholicism, for example, or his great grandmother’s treatment of his infant grand-aunt, are rarely shocking, and to Patterson’s credit are not presented as such. Instead he succeeds in showing how violence, both symbolic and real, tears people apart long after the violent act has dissipated and, ostensibly, been forgotten.

Readers wanting a detailed historical account of the Lisburn riots should look elsewhere. Although the riots provide the dramatic centrepoint, their specifics are rather hastily brushed aside in 30 pages. Instead, Patterson’s book is a novelist’s take on history, seldom is an opportunity to tell a good story turned down and many of the historical and personal diversions are irreverent and engaging.

The entire book is written in a witty, garrulous authorial voice - in one passage Patterson even applauds a rioter's ‘command of grammar' when he shouts that 'they would 'continue the destruction until sympathisers of the murderers were ordered from the town.'' Throughout Once Upon a Hill the writer displays a diligent commitment to sources and referencing and footnotes are used to create an internal dialogue that chatters excitedly up and down the page.

One part ad-hoc history lesson delivered by an avuncular schoolmaster, another part knowingly post-modern account of a writer writing about writing about his family, Once Upon a Hill is a slight, disorderly slice of Northern Irish history at its most personal and universal. Though it does beg the question what Glenn Patterson can do next if he really has 'exhausted all the options' and Lisburn? 

Peter Geoghegan