Jake Mac Siacais* reviews Greenisland Press’s recently-published novel, McCoubrey, set in Portadown just before and after the introduction of internment in 1971.

WHEN asked by my good friend Danny Morrison to review Mark B McCaffery’s debut novel, McCoubrey, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. Anything for an old and trusted friend after all. ‘It’s a coming-of-age novel,’ said Danny, with a clear hint of his understated mischievousness. Not another, I thought. They’re a dime a dozen, these days.

That’s true, of course, and you’d be forgiven for thinking just that, but in McCoubrey Greenisland Press has presented us with a little gem of the genre.

Our eponymous, disgruntled hero, Barry Joe McCoubrey’s patois may present some difficulties for readers from beyond our shores but it is the authentic idiomatic Irish of the north-eastern working class of Ireland. It is Gaelic to its core, overlain with English words. The droll delivery and observations of this twelve-year-old, looking with a rightly jaundiced eye on a society which relegates him and his kind to second-class status, are raw, funny and wry in equal measure.

The casual and habitual cruelty meted out to young boys and girls by teachers and religious is an early theme of the book and on a visit to his sister’s class McCoubrey notes: ‘A bespectacled, grey-haired nun is addressing one of the pupils, who I recognise as Kevin Darry. “Try again, Darry. I want you to spell bicycle.” A small red-faced boy in the back row starts to tremble.’ The ensuing humiliation of young Darry which ends with the nun placing a dunce’s hat on his head is typical of the manner in which these ‘guardians’ of the young discharged their duty of care. McCoubrey makes his feelings clear: ‘That nun is a bitch, and the other children sicken my guts. I despise the lot of them.’

The book is dedicated to ‘those people who don’t look back fondly at aspects of their childhood experience.’ From there we get a sense that Portadown was anything but an idyll for Catholics in the Seventies. Poverty, hunger and know-your-place were the lot of McCoubrey and his kind. On hunger young McCoubs, as he is affectionately known to his friends, encapsulates it beautifully as he describes walking past the town bakery: ‘We pass by Tommy Brownley’s and eat the smell of the newly-baked soda bread.’

Only those who have known real and habitual hunger can even conceive of eating a smell.

Poverty is also one of his recurring themes. Speaking of the Catholic enclave of the Tunnel a young McCoubrey, hiding a packet of broken biscuits up his jumper, observes: ‘The common denominator down here is poverty. If you don’t look too prosperous or too Protestant you can pass through in one piece.’ Knowing their place was very much the lot of Catholics in McCoubrey’s Protestant Portadown and when they dared raise their heads the consequences were immediate and dire.

Following an incident where a Catholic youth attacks a well-known Protestant thug McCoubrey arrives home to find his mother in a panic: ‘We’ve been threatened …  All the Catholic families have been warned that they’ve three hours to get out of their houses or they’ll be burnt out.’

It is a threat that ultimately brings the community together, out onto the streets, to defend hearth and home.

All-in-all this was an enjoyable and entertaining read—a tale of a young man’s coming-of-age albeit in very challenging circumstances. Its grim message of what happens when one group in any society is allowed to reign supreme over an underclass is very much the spine of this tale. Nor is it a tale of bygone days. In January former RUC officer, Robert Cecil Atkinson, was found guilty for conspiring to pervert the course of justice in the case of Portadown Catholic, Robert Hamill. Young Hamill was brutally stamped and kicked to death in April 1997 by a loyalist mob, within yards and in full view of four RUC men, including Atkinson, who sat in their armoured vehicle and watched the entire gruesome murder.

The casual but increasingly ominous sectarianism in Mark B. McCaffrey’s novel presages all that would subsequently be unleashed by unionism’s violent attempts to keep the lid on the demand for civil rights. However, the wry, philosophical, brilliant humour of young Barry Joe is also indicative of the irrepressible community and class of which he is a reticent part.

It may be a bit early in the year to be thinking of stocking-fillers but I heartily suggest McCoubrey would fit the bill nicely.

McCoubrey is available in most mainstream bookshops but can also be purchased directly from the following outlets: An Fhuiseog, Falls Road, Belfast : the Sinn Fein Bookshop, Dublin and Colourpoint Books, Newtownards


Jake MacSiacais

*Jake MacSiacais is a native of Belfast, a former republican political prisoner and director of Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter. He has served on the All-Island Irish language body, Foras na Gaeilge, on Dublin Minister Eamon O Cuiv’s Irish Language Advisory Body and Belfast Minister Deirdre Hargey’s Expert Advisory panel on Irish. Jake is a keen local historian and former deputy editor of both An Phoblacht and the Andersonstown News. He is author of Ón Taobh Istigh, an autobiography, three Irish language novels, Tearmann na Mara, Marbháin Thíos Fúm and Damascus as well as an Irish language collection of short stories, Raahima agus Scéalta Eile. All Irish titles are published by www.cosceim.ie and are available from An Ceathrú Póili bookshop in Cultúrlann Belfast www.anceathrupoili.ie  His autobiography in English translation is entitled Surfing into Life on a Bathboard and is published by BTP Books www.beyondthepalebooks.com