Category: Archive

A View North: Troubles fiction remains troubled by stereotype

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Undoubtedly, one of the most forgettable aspects of the Northern Ireland Troubles has been the fiction written about it. According to Patrick Magee’s recently published “Gangsters or Guerrilla’s? Representations of Irish Republicanism in Troubles Fiction,” some 700 works of fiction dealing with the conflict, or using it as background, have appeared since 1969. Magee has read 150 of them. But at least the author had plenty of spare time to do it. He served 14 years of a multiple life sentence for blowing up the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, an attack which cost five people their lives and almost killed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

To read that many (and mostly awful) novels is a Herculean labor indeed, that had it been inflicted on him by the judge would have amounted to unjust and unusual punishment, and thus in violation of the European Human Rights Convention.

Magee is in a unique position to evaluate the portrayal of the IRA as it appears in these books, both as a reader and as someone who has seen the organization from deep inside. He quite rightly finds it wanting in the overwhelming number of the novels. The IRA men and women we meet in these works are appalling caricatures for the most part, verbal Frankensteins tacked together from cliches, stereotypes and anti-Irish prejudices.

Magee cites an early effort, “The Extremist,” by Peter Leslie, which describes a Provisional IRA man in these terms: “He was almost the caricature of the conventional idea of an IRA man, with his pale face and his belted trenchcoat and his hat with the brim turned down all the way round.” Here we have the author recognizing the caricature and yet offering it unselfconsciously as an accurate portrait. As Magee notes, such a character might well have “auditioned for Carol Reed’s 1947 film ‘Odd Man Out’.” Trench coats and broad brimmed hats did disappear from the novelist’s props as the conflict wore on, but the caricatures did not.

It is a dreary list of narrow-eyed “hard men,” cynical godfathers sending young idealists out to die, bloodthirsty psychopaths, hate-filled sectarian bigots, most of whom have a propensity to look like ferrets. Many of the novels were written by English authors, who clearly never got beyond reading newspaper editorials in their “research” on the IRA. They can be forgiven their ignorance. But unfortunately, the same or similar caricatures are often found in novels that come from Irish pens.

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Magee sets out, after a fairly exhaustive review, to establish why it is that so many novelists have failed to represent republicans in what he regards as an accurate manner. Anyone who knows IRA members, or who has spent any time in their company, is aware that they are far from the “mindless bomber” or other stereotypes manufactured by the writers of thrillers. Many are highly political, intelligent, resourceful and committed, with a sincere belief in the goals of republicanism and a grasp of republican and Irish history. How could this have been so consistently missed over the years? Magee looks at various possibilities — censorship, the middle-class backgrounds of most novelists, reliance on secondary sources, and so forth — for explanations but finds none of them really satisfactory. He turns to Marx and Gramsci, and their argument that the ideas of the dominant class are also the ideas that dominate society: “Consent is manufactured. Every discourse has its agenda. Discourses are in contention: the goal is hegemony.” Popular fiction has played a role, Magee argues, in establishing the hegemony of the British political establishment’s consensus on contemporary Irish republicanism.

The view of the Provisional IRA that Magee himself espouses and that he would like to see represented is that of the army of the people, fighting a just war in pursuit of the traditional republican goal — a united socialist Ireland. Novelists almost never give that view unless, like Magee, they are members are former members of the Provisionals. Unfortunately, writers who fit this category, such as Danny Morrison, whose work Magee approves of, present another unrealistic and this time sentimental version the conflict. Morrison’s “West Belfast” describes an idyllic pre-Troubles’ world where young nationalists sport upon the mountain slopes until the evil serpent England enters and drives them out of paradise. He talks of the childhood of “young nationalists.” I grew up in the Falls Road area (in those days no one called it West Belfast), a rebellious youth, but I was not aware of myself as a young nationalist, nor where any of my friends. We were working-class Catholics, and fairly representative. But our rebellion was against the moral oppressiveness of our society, especially the Catholic church, which had more of an impact on our lives than the Special Powers Act. What Morrison and other Provisional writers such as Gerry Adams have done is in fact a kind of revisionism, which has politicized the past (in a slovenly romantic way) in order to justify the Provisional political agenda to portray the Northern conflict as merely the continuation of the 1919 War of Independence.

Of course, Magee is absolutely right to lament the lack of a realistic portrayal of the Provisionals. But the view of the Provisionals as an “army of the people” and of their campaign as a heroic struggle, is definitely that of a small minority. It is not one that is shared by the vast majority of the Irish people. It is also difficult to sustain on any objective assessment of the nature of their campaign.

One obvious reason that Magee does not consider as to why the Provisional IRA is portrayed so unfavorably is that most people found its methods repulsive. Its narrow social base meant too that it had no appeal to wider sections of the Irish people, unlike the original republican movement, which attracted sections of the middle class and intelligentsia. Magee claims that the image of republicans began to change when “the republican movement successfully challenged containment and exclusion and in so doing brought its discourse of inclusion and peace with justice to the fore.” But it did so only by abandoning traditional republicanism, its narrow obsessions and in particular its reliance on violence, which had kept it from expanding its support base in the first place.

However, Magee’s is a welcome and intelligent book. Though it lapses into academic jargon occasionally, it makes for a fascinating read.

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