Writing the Troubles

Finding regret, compassion and humour in dark times

‘We are trying to make ourselves heard
Like the lover who mouths obscenities
In his passion, like the condemned man
Who makes a last-minute confession
Like the child who cries out in the dark.’

Michael Longley, from the dedication of An Exploded View

The Troubles in Belfast destroyed any notions of a vibrant inner city culture. The period has been well-documented elsewhere, but the effect on the city was drastic and malign.

As the early Troubles morphed into the dark days of the 1970s, the city centre fractured and any cultural life that was still standing moved to the outlying districts of the city. This was a dark hour in Belfast’s history and writers responded to it.

The effect on many writers was to locate their careers elsewhere, with many of the stellar lights of the 1960s generation, such as Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Seamus Heaney, leaving. The situation at home was never far from their thoughts, and some of the best poetry and prose of this era was produced by exiles.

In Mahon’s poem ‘Afterlives’ there is a regret in leaving, again using the surrounding hills as an image of home:

‘But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.’

Those who stayed, however, made a fist of attempting to both describe the actions of their people and also to cry out, ‘to make themselves heard’. New writers came to the fore, such as Paul Muldoon, the Moy-born poet who lived and worked in Belfast as a producer for the BBC.

Muldoon incorporated new forms into his poetry and built a reputation as one of the country’s most important poets. In keeping with The Honest Ulsterman’s ‘revolution in the head’, Muldoon brought new ideas into being whilst still writing about the realities of Belfast life.

In a later poem, ‘Gathering Mushrooms’, Edna Longley sees Muldoon recall earlier more feminine days before the Troubles and the disorientating reality of the streets of Belfast.

Talking of Malone House, a Georgian residence set in rolling countryside at the edge of the city, Muldoon writes:

‘...The pair of us
tripping through Barnett’s fair demesne
like girls in long dresses
after a hail-storm.
We might have been thinking of the fire-bomb
that sent Malone House sky-high
and its priceless collection of linen

Padraic FiaccAlthough perhaps a lesser-known poet, Padraic Fiacc was enormously influential on both the poetry scene of the 70s and on later poets. His work is dark and difficult, with John Hewitt writing of one of Fiacc’s volumes in the Belfast Telegraph:

‘For me the poet is saying that our troubles are complicated, confused and that their only possible solution calls for the hard disciplines of tolerance and the supreme courage of compassion.’

One writer who attempted to use humour to understand the Troubles was John Morrow. His novel The Confessions of Proinsias O’Toole, published in 1977, is a tremendous burlesque that heightens the absurdities of the Troubles to peaks of comic vigour, such as this passage situated at a security checkpoint:

‘Before winding down his window he had a leisurely sort through the contents of his wallet. A kneeling marksman on the pavement sighted his SLR at the windscreen on my side. The sergeant bent down and glared through the window on Burton’s side, the muzzle of his sterling automatic tapping impatiently on the glass. I felt myself slipping into one of my Celtic slack-lower-lip turns and, looking straight ahead and smiling weakly, hissed: “For frigsake hurry! I’m touching cloth!”’