Representations of Belfast in Fiction

CultureNorthernIreland’s guide to the representation of Belfast in fiction

Founding fathers
For a long period of time Belfast only appeared in print in the factual accounts of writers and social historians. Although both William Makepeace Thackeray and George Benn wrote elegant descriptions, it took some time before Belfast began appearing in fiction. FL Green’s 1945 novel Odd Man Out provides an early glimpse of the city as a grim series of disconnected streets, through which wounded gunman Johnny McQueen is pursued. Belfast is portrayed as gritty and decaying, the scene of a conflict that would outlast all expectations.

For Michael McLaverty in Call My Brother Back (1939), and Lost Fields (1941), Belfast is the setting for complex family struggles and a violent backdrop to the men and women attempting to lead decent lives in an increasingly urbanised environment. McLaverty was pioneering in his examination of the inner life of the city, the struggles of urban living often contrasted with the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Perhaps the most evocative moment in Call My Brother Back comes when the central character Colm and his brother climb Cave Hill, where they ‘gaze at Belfast spread out in the flat hollow below them, its lean mill chimneys stretched above the haze of smoke. Rows of red-bricked houses radiated on all sides and above them rose blocks of factories with many of their windows catching the sunlight.’

Green and McLaverty, along with writers like Sam Hanna Bell, Janet McNeill and Forrest Reid, used Belfast as the setting for their highly charged and emotional novels, exploring how its unique blend of faith, class and geography affected the lives of its growing population.

Brian Moore
Brian Moore described Belfast with an insider’s clarity mixed with a stern and unsentimental eye. His was a Belfast suffering ugly social problems and peopled by all too human characters trying to lead better lives in the face of economic and cultural disorder. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1945) follows an ordinary woman’s bid to keep her religious faith in a divided and alienating city. The descriptions of Camden Street and Royal Avenue provide vivid glimpses of how the city appeared at that time, the writer scrutinising: ‘…the drab facades of the buildings grouped around the square proclaiming the virtues of trade, hard dealing and Presbyterian righteousness.’

Moore went on to revisit Belfast throughout his career, describing the damage caused by the second world war air raids in The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965) and Lies of Silence (1990). Though dismayed by religious bigotry and the physical and emotional scarring of Belfast, Moore always found in the city vivid stories that touched on enduring human issues, providing a rich backdrop for his powerful novels.

Reacting to the conflict
The escalating Troubles saw the city exploited in a succession of forgettable, ill-conceived thrillers, which avoided richer human drama. In response, indigenous writers sought to represent the city’s deeper complexity. In Maurice Leitch’s Silver’s City (1981) we find a more believable and authentic Belfast, volatile, angry, the prose filled with an edgy black humour. Eoin McNamee entered even darker realms with his novel Resurrection Man (1991), where Belfast becomes a city of mythic intensity, riven with conflict and shot through with forbidden territory.

Writers in possession of more compassionate and forgiving eyes include Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson. Patterson’s Fat Lad (1992) explores the city’s transition from wasteland to industrial centre, formed by a single community and the preventable fall into conflict, before charting the first signals of rebirth. In The International (1999), Patterson explored the city prior to the troubles with a delicacy and quiet anger reminiscent of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

Wilson takes a more scabrous view, sending a diverse and motley cast of comic creations into a beautiful but harsh Belfast for Eureka Street (1996). Throughout the book, the streets are described with a bruised tenderness, finding beauty in the darkest corners, and holding on to the possibility of Belfast moving towards existence as a multi-cultural and harmonious place.

In The Anatomy School (2001), Bernard MacLaverty lovingly evokes the city with a childhood tale describing the mood of optimism and rebirth following the second world war, before contrasting it with the devastation 20 years later. Mary Costello’s Titanic Town (1992) uses the legendary ship that was built in the city as a metaphor for decline, but always with the possibility of rebirth. These writers provide stern descriptions of Belfast, direct and unforgiving, yet with an affection for the city, and sorrow for its suffering.

A 21st century Belfast
It is clear that the city lends itself to myriad interpretations. It can provide a backdrop to the gritty thrillers of Eugene McEldowney and Gerald Seymour, and for the emotional dramas of Moore; it acts as an existential cityscape in constant and unreliable flux for McNamee, and as a city filled with human souls striving to live decently and peaceably for Patterson and Wilson. All these writers are committed to providing an accurate reflection of the mood and texture of the city, distant from cliche and sentimentality. The city is filled with many voices, slips loose from easy definition, and evades those who wish to see Belfast as possessing a single identity, as opposed to the variety that actually exists.

Gavin Carville

Further reading
The Anatomy School (2001) by Bernard MacLaverty; The International (1999) by Glenn Patterson; EurekaStreet (1996) by Robert McLiam Wilson; Fat Lad (1992) by Glenn Patterson; Titanic Town (1992) Mary Costello; Resurrection Man (1991) by Eoin McNamee; Lies of Silence (1990) by Brian Moore; The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965) by Brian Moore; The Hollow Ball (1961) by Sam Hanna Bell; The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1959) by Brian Moore; Odd Man Out (1946) by FL Green Lost Fields (1942) by Michael McLaverty; Call My Brother Back (1939) by Michael McLaverty; Silver’s City (1981) by Maurice Leitch.