Writing Oneself Out Of History

An edited version of the following was published in The Observer, London, in December 1997

A Chinese writer was visiting England in 1992 and interviewed in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper said, “Every thinking person has a choice of three different relationships with the society and politics of his or her country: to participate, to flee, or to transcend.”

I read the interview while in jail for a politically-related offence, serving eight years as an Irish republican. Much later, that particular quote spoke volumes for the dilemma I was to personally experience. I had devoted my entire adult life from 1972 until 1995 to the Republican Movement, been involved in its politics and development, yet deep down I had always wanted to be a writer, a sort of spokesperson for humanity, a vocation somewhat at odds with the precepts of armed struggle. I had been in the thick of things, in the the republican leadership, and had coined the phrase ‘the armalite and the ballot box’ to sum up IRA strategy when the debate over Sinn Fein taking part in electoral politics was being decided many years ago, a decision that was eventually to lead to the peace process and today’s all-party talks.

Given my long commitment much was expected from me on my release from prison which came in 1995 in the middle of the IRA’s ceasefire. But I knew deep down that no matter how difficult the choice would be it was now time for me to be true to myself, heart and soul.

I was born in a two-bedroomed house in Andersonstown, West Belfast, in 1953. My father, a quiet, undemonstrative, religious man (who gambles and drinks!), was a painter in the shipyard, before becoming a telephone operator after an accident at work, and never spoke of politics. I had three sisters and a brother. He is in jail serving 25 years.

My mother’s brother had been a major figure in the IRA in the ‘Forties and was once sentenced to death but reprieved. The husband of my mother’s eldest sister had been a Labour MP at Stormont. The course of my life was not influenced by either of these men but by the conditions and circumstances under which I grew up. My mother liked to read but hadn’t time to go to the library so she sent me. Thus, I fell in love with books at an early age. Despite an Irish Christian Brothers’ schooling it was mostly English authors – Graham Greene was my favourite – to which I was attracted, just as my coevals and I followed The Beatles and my friends’ mothers watched ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Crossroads’.

In 1963 when I was 10 we moved to the Falls Road which, because of its history, had a more ‘political’ reputation than Andersonstown. Here, in 1964, the Divis Street riots took place; the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was commemorated; I witnessed the pogroms of August 1969 and loyalists trying to invade my district four weeks later, and the first of over 3,000 funerals. I witnessed the Falls Curfew in 1970, internment in 1971; and so on.

In my O-Levels I did very well in English Language and Literature, but also in Pure and Applied Maths, Biology and Physics. When I transferred from my secondary school in September 1969 to take A-Levels at a grammar school my teachers recommended that I study Physics and Maths. But within months I felt disoriented and restless.

I was restless with a sore, sore heart because a girl I loved didn’t love me and I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Instead of studying Newton and Pythagoras I would spend my time in the school library pining over my fifteen-year-old angel and reading ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’: “…for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men, and women – my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!”

Even though I professed pacifism (‘flower power’ was still in the air, the Plastic Ono Band were singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’), the Troubles were slowly tugging at me and undermining my resolve. Friends were being beaten on the streets for very little reason and neighbours were being killed, and we – my family! – were having British soldiers to Sunday dinner, two of whom would later marry my sisters.

It took me over a year to realise that I should have been studying literature. I lost a year, transferred back to a secondary school in Ballymurphy (I had found the grammar school very snobbish), but by then the political situation was competing for my loyalty. I had been involved in republican fund-raising by selling ballot tickets and issues of Sinn Fein’s ‘Republican News’ from under my coat outside the chapel (and hiding when my father came to Mass), slowly moved towards justifying the qualified use of violence, later dropped out of a college I had enrolled in, took part in marches and riots, and began writing in the mosquito press which thrived after the introduction of internment in 1971.

At a dance one night the hall was surrounded by British soldiers. I was on my first date with a girl called Carmel McShane. All the males were separated from the females and we were brought outside one by one and put up against a wall. There was a searchlight trained on us from an armoured vehicle. A soldier within, obviously in the company of an informer, would shout, “Let go!’ or “Hold!” I was arrested with 70 others and was being put into the back of an army jeep when Carmel came up and protested. She shouted at me: “Hey! How am I supposed to get home?”

I was brought to a barracks, accused of being an intelligence officer in the IRA and having taking part in ambushes. After a few days I was interned in Long Kesh. I was19. Whilst in jail I sat and passed A-Level English – studying Hardy, Swift, Shakespeare and Chaucer during escapes, British army raids and searches. Shortly after my release I was back on the run, got married, became the editor of ‘Republican News’ when I was 22, became the national director of publicity for Sinn Fein, a spokesperson for Bobby Sands (at a time when Graham Greene, my Graham Greene, came to Belfast on an a British-government sponsored trip and attacked the hunger strikers in a subsequent, syndicated feature article), was elected to the Stormont Assembly (1982-86), was twice charged with and acquitted of IRA membership and various conspiracies, and was convicted and sentenced to eight years in connection with the kidnapping of a police informer in 1990.

Throughout my involvement in republican activism my chief hobby was reading, limited though it was. I would often wonder – particularly at times of low morale – how things would have turned out had the Troubles been averted. I felt that I might have become a journalist. I hadn’t the courage to believe that I could have been a writer – that was too fantastic. Besides, writers were angst-ridden, gifted individuals with a great command of language and literature, often great lovers and great drinkers, and led incredible lives – and who was I? Tainted and demonised how could I ever be accepted as a writer. “The laureate of violence – a mythmaker, an anthropologist of ritual killing, an apologist for ‘the situation’.” And that’s just Belfast poet Ciaran Carson describing Seamus Heaney!

In 1986 I decided to write a novel and began gathering notes and ideas. I wrote in my spare time and usually into the early hours of the morning. I told no one for fear of being ridiculed. But my motives for writing were two-fold. Firstly, I wanted to see if I could write, if I could people a long piece of prose with credible characters whose lives were interesting, and if my writing would be received meritoriously. Secondly, my subject matter was material with which I was intimately familiar: how a section of the nationalist community in the 1960s and early 1970s could move from a position of relative pacifism to one of support for IRA activity.

‘West Belfast’ (1989) was about the loss of innocence at both the individual and community level. It was popular with republicans, with those who felt alienated or marginalised, and with republican supporters.  Not surprisingly, the convictions which brought me into republicanism had formed an integral part of my everyday consciousness, my world view. Inevitably, the creative impulse was refracted through these convictions. However, writing to political prescription I now know to be usually the death knell of art. Yet art, which sublimates, illuminates, enriches and celebrates life, also protests against the wickedness of humankind and injustice, and rails with exasperation against a God who presides over senseless suffering.

A few weeks after the publication of ‘West Belfast’ I was arrested and was to spend the next five-and-a-half years in jail.

In Crumlin Road prison we were locked up twenty-two hours a day. Here, and later in the H-Blocks, I was an omnivorous reader and made up for the years of neglect. Every book I read I also reviewed for myself – and for my future, though I wasn’t really aware of that at the time. Outside, I had been an advocate of the politicisation of the Republican Movement and it was with great satisfaction that I observed the development of Sinn Fein’s peace strategy.

In Crumlin Road, loyalists and republican prisoners shared the same wings but operated a policy of self-segregation – so that we took turns about with the exercise yard and canteen. New remands who were charged with borderline ‘political’ offences (for example, rioting) or what was deemed a non-criminal offence (picketing, refusing to pay a fine, or squatting, say) had to apply to the governor and to the IRA or loyalist paramilitary leaders for acceptance on these wings instead of being placed with ordinary prisoners.

Among the loyalists was a long-haired young Protestant man, aged about twenty-three, who was charged with resisting arrest and wrecking a police car.  He was on A-Wing for several weeks, where I was held, until a warder informed the loyalists that he had actually been picked up for questioning about ‘gross indecency’ – that is, he had a fifteen-year-old boyfriend. The loyalists turned on him, beat him up, scalded him when he emerged from his cell and verbally abused him: “Bumboy!”, “Buck the Kids!”, “Bullroot!”  Incredibly, he fought back against the pack. During those weeks associating with the loyalist prisoners he had picked up much gossip about them and now he would shout their scandals out the door jamb – who had squealed on who, whose wives were rumoured being unfaithful. He even perfectly mimicked the voices of their leaders – putting comical words in their mouths. For some reason the governor refused to move this unfortunate prisoner and he was eventually overwhelmed by the abuse and hatred. One night he crushed up his light bulb and ate the glass and was rushed to hospital.

We never saw him again.

From this incident I got the idea of writing a novel about the legitimacy of such a relationship, about friendship and the miraculous power of love; about a man who painfully discovers he is gay, who falls in love with a fifteen-year-old boy, and about the wrathful, intolerant and hypocritical response of society. After all, were a 23-year-old man to be courting a promiscuous fifteen-year-old girl he would be a hero among his mates, and it would raise as little as an eyebrow elsewhere.

I considered this a challenge – I had wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a Troubles’ writer. I set the story in the 1990s in an unnamed city (which looks like Belfast – the east Belfast where I sometimes courted in my youth or explored whilst cycling)  and I assumed that the Troubles had been resolved way back in the ‘Twenties or the ‘Thirties or the ‘Forties, so that there was no political conflict, no IRA, no RUC, no religion, no discrimination or arguments over sovereignty. Postman Nicky Smith, my lonely hero, walks through his city, talking to himself, trying to make sense of the muddle of life, convinced that what we hold is all that we have – there is no God, no country, there is only ourselves, there is only himself. Or is there?!

Jail is a very grey and noisy place, so I rose at six each morning and the night guard would switch on my light. I would work for a few hours in the silence. Deprived of the stimuli that people on the outside take for granted I had to trawl my memory for colour and sound, to recreate streets, the bouquet of the countryside, the ozone of sea breeze. I finished ‘On the Back of the Swallow’ in eleven months and it received fairly favourable reviews, but in the quality press I was reviewed ad hominem.

Two weeks after the book’s publication in August 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire. I was now into the last nine months of my sentence and I dared wonder for the first time in twenty-two years if I could give up the commitments I had sworn myself to – now that there was a real chance of peace and the conflict being resolved – and become those magic words – a writer! I doubted if I could. My doubts increased as I watched the peace process flounder. I was in mental turmoil, torn in two directions.  I really wanted to write but I couldn’t write creatively and be a political activist. It wasn’t just a problem of needing time to write, to perfect, to read others and read widely. I required a radical change in my psychology and I knew I was going to disappoint friends and comrades. I was now middle-aged, divorced, a grandfather and homeless! In prison I had began another book, a modern treatment of Liam O’Flaherty’s ‘The Informer’. I applied to the Arts Council in Dublin for a grant to help me keep my head above water when I was released. They gave me £3,000 – but it was their expression of faith in me that was just as important.

The ceasefire and my growing sense of independence had allowed me to write much more freely. I felt an ability to be more objective. I wasn’t out to defend a cause. I didn’t feel the need to write an apologia. I was halfway through my third book and eight months out of prison when the IRA ended its ceasefire with the explosion at Canary Wharf in London.  I was shattered. I felt that we were in for another 25 years of conflict but believed that dialogue was the way forward, the only way forward. I discussed my dilemma with my partner and with my sons. I spoke to writer friends, Dermot Healy, Tim O’Grady and Ronan Bennet. I spoke to my editor and publicist at Mercier Press. And I spoke to Gerry Adams, a friend and confidant, about my divided self. All were sympathetic and very supportive.

So I took the plunge.
You are only on earth once.

I was going to become a writer! I did publicity work for the West Belfast Festival and started reviewing fiction for magazines and newspapers to help support me as I finished ‘The Wrong Man’ in late 1996. It dealt with themes of betrayal, infidelity, guilt, and the potential that violence has for corrupting the individual. It was published six months ago and I was pleased with many of the reviews. The ‘Sunday Times’ – no friend of mine – wrote: “… a fast-paced and gut-wrenching examination of the tensions between republican militarism and family life… a powerful and complex piece of storytelling.” The ‘Belfast Telegraph’ said; “The Wrong Man should come to be regarded as one of the most important books of the Troubles.”

We cannot wholly escape our roots, conditioning and upbringing. Hugo of St Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony, wrote: “The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.” That sets a huge, almost impossible challenge, given that we are precisely who we are because of parents and siblings, hearth and home, town and country, history, and that it is the tides of sweet and bitter memory that we unceasingly pan for our security and the meaning of our lives. There is nowhere else to look.

There is a dependent relationship between a writer and his or her society, be that society at war or divided against itself or even at peace. No artist functions in a psychological vacuum. But, at least, in time of peace, the pioneering artist who breaks with cultural convention and attempts to establish new bridgeheads only risks the wrath of the critics for being dissonant – and, perhaps, poor sales. Whereas, in a divided society, which demands that the sons remain true, the serious artist who attempts to transcend history, loyalty and communal solidarity in the search for fresh expressions of truth and beauty in life is in an impossible or almost impossible position, which explains why many artists simply flee – often only to enjoy illusory objectivity.

I have decided not to flee but to participate through transcending, that is, giving primacy to my sovereign soul and conscience.

Of course I will always be known for coining, in my other persona, the phrase ‘the armalite and the ballot box’, but I have other, superseding things to say about life, about love and people.  I’ve been an IRA sniper, a homosexual, an RUC informer, and I know I can be a woman next, or a man from Sandy Row, or a member of the Ku Klux Klan, my writing perhaps casting some light where before there was shadow, illuminating a truth here and there, scrutinising the human condition and forever speculating about the possibilities of redemption. And wondering, how did Carmel McShane  get home on the 26th November 1972!