I didn’t have the foresight actually to be born in Northern Ireland, but I have had the good sense to come and live here: love and marriage can take a person to all sorts of unexpected places. In my own adopted scabby wee small town here in the north of Ireland I know a Turk, an Algerian, a Romanian, a Kiwi, several Canadians, and two Italians – there are rumours also of a New Yorker, although personally I doubt it – who have given up all of the good things that their own cultures have to offer in preference for the place that the poet Louis MacNeice once famously described as ‘a nation/Built upon violence and morose vendettas’, and which D. H. Lawrence less famously compared to ‘the bottom of an aquarium, with little people in crannies like prawns’.
When I was growing up in England, during the 1970s and 1980s, when you could switch on the television and radio news almost every night to hear about killings and bombings in faraway places like Belfast and Derry, people would sometimes joke that the two most boring words in the English language were ‘Northern’ and ‘Ireland’, but like anywhere else there are in fact a lot of interesting things to see and do here, and much to praise and recommend: there is the Giant’s Causeway, for example, and a lot of agricultural shows, and a fine tradition of home-baking. Growing up, I didn’t know much about these local wonders and delights, or about the excellent Tayto cheese and onion crisps, or about Presbyterianism, or the Fermanagh lakelands, or the Mourne Mountains, or the small but perfectly-formed Ulster Museum, but I would probably have been able to name at least one poet from the North (Seamus Heaney), at least one playwright (Brian Friel), and possibly one television pundit (Tom Paulin). It’s unlikely, though, that I’d have been able to name a Northern Irish novelist, with the exception perhaps of Brian Moore, who was born and educated in Belfast, but who lived most of his adult life in the USA and Canada. ‘Northern Irish poetry’ is routinely taught in schools, colleges and universities throughout Britain as if it were a subject and an entity unto itself: there are, to my knowledge, outside of Northern Ireland, no courses in ‘Northern Irish fiction.’
Yet the tradition is a noble one and there are generations of Northern Irish novelists whose work deserves to be read and celebrated outside of the Province, or of Ulster, or of Northern Ireland, or the North of Ireland, or whatever it is you want to call it – it’s easy for me now, because I can just call it ‘here’. There is the work of Joseph Tomelty, for example, the one-time house-painter and shipyard worker, who is probably more famous as an actor (he played Peter Coffin in John Huston’s 1956 screen version of Moby-Dick, which starred Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab), and for the fact that one of his daughters is married to the rather melodramatic pop musician Sting, than for his own rather melodramatic novels, such as Red is the Port Light, and The Apprentice. There is also Maurice Leitch, the author of a number of prize-winning novels, including Poor Lazarus, Stamping Ground and The Eggman’s Apprentice, whose first book, The Liberty, enjoys the fine distinction of featuring possibly the first gay bar in Irish literature. Thanks to the film of his novel Cal, and possibly because he lives in Scotland rather than here, the work of Bernard MacLaverty, a mighty short-story writer, has achieved a wider audience. Mention should also be made in this year of several important centenaries in Irish literature (Bloomsday, the Abbey Theatre, the birth of Patrick Kavanagh), that the North also has its own important centenary to celebrate, in the birth of another McLaverty (without the a), Michael McLaverty, author of both novels and some particularly fine-chiseled short-stories.
But what, as they say here, of the young ones? Judging by the books on the ‘Local Authors’ shelves in Eason’s (the Irish chain stationers-cum-newsagents-cum-bookshops which serve as the only source and provider of literature outside of the cities and the public libraries), genre fiction in the North certainly seems to be going strong. Colin Bateman has enjoyed great success with his comedy capers, from Divorcing Jack to his most recent, Driving Big Davie. Paula Clamp contributes to that popular, growing sub-genre, Northern Irish chick-lit – see, for example, her Beetlemania. Tara West’s Fodder is wilder. Magherafelt-born Paul Charles continues to publish his Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy series. And the US-based Adrian McKinty, last year published a good, noirish gangster novel, Dead I May Well Be.
Meanwhile, at Queen’s University of Belfast, Glenn Patterson teaches the next generation of young novelists on the MA in Creative Writing, while somehow managing to produce a book a year – this year’s That Which Was preceded by the tremendous Number 5 in 2003. One of the most prodigiously gifted of Northern Irish writers, Robert McLiam Wilson, on the other hand, author of Ripley Bogle and Manfred’s Pain and Eureka Street, hasn’t published a novel for some time, although his cat, ‘Catty Wilson, Owner of Irish Author Robert McLiam Wilson’, has its own website, and there is, apparently, a new novel, The Extremists due out soon.
There is much talk in Northern Ireland at the moment about Truth and Reconciliation commissions - the Troubles don’t just go away, and Northern Ireland’s recent history of conflict continues to provide both a subject and a backdrop to many, if not most Northern Irish novels, from David Park’s recent Swallowing the Sun, to Eoin McNamee’s painful explorations of violence in Resurrection Man and The Ultras. The character Bic, in Zane Radcliffe’s London Irish, remarks, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for the Troubles, Northern Irish novelists would have nothing to write about.’ Maybe. Maybe not. One of my own favourite forgotten Northern Irish novelists, Forrest Reid, merely glanced at his subjects, in odd, seemingly simple books such as The Kingdom of Twilight and The Garden God, which celebrate the innocent virtues of male friendship and the joys of boyhood, and which are clearly about something else entirely. E.M. Forster remarked of Reid, ‘His books have a tendency to make people feel better … I see this ethical tendency as the heritage he received from his Presbyterian forebears although he did not inherit their creed.’ There are ways, it seems, of being explicit.
Ian Sansom lives in Northern Ireland and regularly writes for the Guardian. He is the author of The Truth About Babies and Ring Road.