On June 8, 2008, the Reverend Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s Big Man, stepped down as First Minister of Northern Ireland, the ministate he fought long and hard to preserve as a province of the United Kingdom. It was the end of an era.

For most of his life, Paisley embodied the doggedness of the Ulster Protestant, that European Boer who views with suspicion most of the world outside of his tiny laager of Ulster, especially the neighboring, mostly Catholic—and, until the 1990s, poorer—Irish Republic, which comprises three-quarters of the island of Ireland. Like the “North,” the “South” is the result of an arbitrary British-administered divvying-up that occurred in 1921, when Northern Protestants, most of whom are descended from Lowland Scots and English colonizers imported by the Crown during the seventeenth century, went overnight from being a minority in all of Ireland to a majority in customized loyalist Northern Ireland. In the hearts of Paisley and his followers, Ulster is, was, and ever will be as integral a part of the United Kingdom as Hertfordshire or Devon.

Northern Irish Catholics, rendered a minority by the same gerrymander that made the Protestants a majority, have taken a different view. Most have traditionally desired political unification with the Republic of Ireland and the abolition of the Northern Ireland state. Known as “nationalists,” in opposition to the pro-British Protestant “unionists,” they were oppressed right from the state’s inception, as they had been under the British-imposed Penal Laws a century before. “We are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State,” declared James Craig, a hardline Unionist Prime Minister of the 1930s (admittedly in reaction to his Southern counterpart Éamon de Valera’s declaration that Ireland was a “Catholic nation”). “Catholics are out to destroy Ulster,” said Basil Brooke, another true-blue hard-ass of the day. “If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster. . . . I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.”

The call was heeded. Harland and Wolff, the giant Belfast shipbuilder (of, among others, Titanic) and one of the major employers in the province, maintained a virtually all-Protestant workforce. The local civil service was almost entirely Protestant, as were the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Catholic employees were paid less than were Protestants in similar jobs. “Northern Catholics in Belfast,” the American journalist John Conroy writes in Belfast Diary, his excellent personal account of the violent period that became known as the Troubles, “had a position in society equivalent to blacks in the United States at that time—they were subject to the same discrimination and put down with the same stereotypes.”

Small wonder, then, that a civil rights movement inspired by the American one caught on in the 1960s. Peaceful at first, the movement turned militant in January, 1969, after a Selma-like incident at a place called Burntollet Bridge, during which the police stood by and did nothing while a group of Catholic civil rights marchers were attacked by Protestant mobs consisting largely of off-duty policemen. Riots followed; discourse ended; the burning and bombing began. It was the end of “civil rights” and the beginning of “no surrender,” compounded in late 1969 by the arrival of the British Army.

The apparent suddenness of it all was a shock, but the eruption had been a long time coming—at least since the founding of Northern Ireland, if not long before. By 1972 a low-level civil war was under way. Militias—the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army, and the Protestant Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force—did battle with each other and with the British Army as civilians were caught in the crossfire, or deliberately targeted, not only on both sides of the border in Ireland but also in Britain itself. Bombs went off in London and Manchester, and in 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped being blown up in a Brighton hotel. (A call of nature saved the Iron Lady.) Finally, after 3,500 deaths and nearly thirty years, the violence came to an end with the signing in 1998 of what Catholics call the Good Friday Agreement and Protestants the Belfast Agreement. Either way, it was derided at first by Ian Paisley as a “surrender process,” but in 2007 the selfsame Paisley sat down with Martin McGuinness, churchgoing Catholic and former IRA chief, and the two old enemies began working together as Protestant and Catholic co-administrators, presiding over the greatest peace and social equality the province has ever seen.

* * *

“The long memory lives on. With riots and ructions and bombs,” says the Northern Catholic writer Benedict Kiely in his 1977 novella, Proxopera, one of the most intimate and powerful works of fiction to emerge from the Troubles. Like the best of recent Northern Irish fiction inspired by the conflict, Proxopera gives us an unblinking look at what goes wrong when an effort to redress injustice by legal means turns violent; a sadly predictable process, whether in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or Southern Africa. In Ulster, the Catholic civil rights movement was soon shunted aside by the “hard men” of the IRA, who had links to Libya, the PLO, and the Soviet bloc. In Proxopera, Kiely lays bare the anguish of a community that feels itself to be twice betrayed, once by the ruling elite, and once by its self-anointed defenders.

What right have these brainless bastards with their half-baked ideas to crash in on the lives of better people, to bind and gag old women . . . Ireland? What Ireland? Ulster? What Ulster? Multiplying like body-lice . . . in the hairy undergrowth, one madman produces another.

These are the seething thoughts of the protagonist, Mr. Binchey, retired Latin teacher, father, and grandfather. Proxopera means a proxy operation, and this is what Mr. Binchey—“Binchey One,” his son being “Binchey Two”—is forced to carry out on the orders of three IRA gunmen who take over his home and family, including his grandchildren and aged housekeeper. Binchey One is told that the only way he can avoid seeing his family mutilated or worse is by transporting a time bomb into town in his car and leaving it next to the house of a respected local judge. Binchey Two, who, with a wife and two children on the premises, is at greatest risk, mocks the gunmen’s pretensions of civilization and their alleged devotion to the cause of Ireland:

‘Fight the Brits,’ says Binchey Two, ‘to the last Catholic shop in the village of Belleek or the town of Strabane. Man, you love the Brits, you couldn’t exist without them. . . . They give you the chance to be Irish heroes. They give you targets you can easily see.’

Then Binchey One recognizes one of his captors beneath the mask. The lad’s feet are the giveaway, great clodhoppers just like those of his father, who is an old friend of Binchey One’s. “I’d know them anywhere,” says Binchey One. The boy half-heartedly tries to justify his actions:

‘It’s the cause, Mr. Bee. We must get the Brits out of Ireland. They want our oil.’
      ‘Our hairoil. I never knew we had oil.’
      ‘We will have offshore oil.’
      ‘You won’t see much of it, Bertie boy, where you’re going.’

In scenes such as this, Kiely captures the awkwardness of relationships in a small place where almost everyone is related or acquainted. The bullies are forced to interact with their victims; except for the odd outsider, like the gunmen’s leader, who has a Cork accent, they are all locals, and therefore lack the anonymity necessary to impose authority. It gives such encounters an odd familial touch. Binchey One gets entangled in a kind of pseudo-family squabble with his captors, lecturing them as if they were cousins. “More of you should kill each other,” he snaps at them. “Go to the Greenland Cap and settle whatever it is between ye and leave normal people alone.” But finally he jolts himself back to the reality of the danger, and when the time comes, he gets into his car and drives the bomb to town. Eventually, things fall apart, but not in the way the gunmen are hoping; it is not the happiest of endings, but it is better than the alternative. “When they go out to harm other people it’s always to me a happy sight to see the harm come back to their own doors,” sums up old Minnie, the housekeeper.

As an undergraduate at the University of Ulster during the bloody years of 1971 and 1972, I had some experience of the Troubles and the troubled art they gave birth to. My debut at college coincided with the civil war’s in the streets. Over 500 people lost their lives in 1972 alone. It was a world away from Geneva, where I had been living previously, and where no one inquired or cared about religion or affiliations. By contrast, Ulster was barbaric and tribal—and, on one level, exhilarating, because opinions and politics had real meaning. Neighborhoods inhabited by one of two supposedly Christian sects were divided by “peace lines” and political graffiti; Belfast then was Baghdad now. “How do you stop working-class Protestants and Catholics from fearing each other,” wonders Conroy in Belfast Diary, “[and from] acting on those fears?” Answer: You don’t, or you didn’t then.

So on quite another level, the consequences of one’s opinions in such a feverish, provincial place could make everyday life risky. As an Irish-American—even, or especially, one formerly resident on the Continent—I was suspect from the start. Americans were rare birds in Northern Ireland in those days, except for those who had ties to the IRA—which, it was naturally assumed, I had. In my naïveté I was only too happy to reinforce this assumption, and managed to make it a reality by acquiring ties to the organization in the nationalist-leaning pubs of Coleraine and environs. Such places were rare in that heartland of staunch Paisleyite loyalists, but there were a few.

One was the Harbour Bar in Portrush, County Antrim, just along the coast from Coleraine, although it tended to attract a more Bohemian than militant crowd, versifiers rather than bomb-throwers. The Harbour was then known for its flexible approach to licensing hours—the legally mandated time period in which a pub can remain open—and late-night poetry readings, at one of which in the winter of 1971 I heard a promising young chap named Seamus Heaney read from a collection of his poetry. He read in a strong, steady voice, then made a couple of good-humored comments, bought a round, and retired to a corner table to drink quietly with a couple of friends.

Heaney has never been a roaring two-fisted bard of the clichéd drunken-Irish school, and he is far from a vocal supporter of any cause, in spite of being a Northerner born and bred. He has the detachment of the true artist, and boasts of having both Protestant and Catholic friends. Likewise, as in such small masterpieces as “Digging” and “Bogland,” he was always far more oblique about the Troubles than his fellow Northern Catholic, Benedict Kiely. Heaney writes about Ireland’s ancient past more often than about her present, or recent past. This very obliqueness renders all the more powerful the broadside when it comes, as it does in the poem “Punishment,” in which he draws a startling parallel between the bog-preserved body of a ritually sacrificed Iron Age adulteress and the local Catholic women tarred and feathered and chained to their front porches in the 1970s for dating British soldiers:

Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Would you, too, have cast the stones of silence? For the tribes will have their revenge; and “intimate” it will be, with all the implications in that word of a quarrel among relatives, a family feud, the Hatfields and McCoys writ large. I learned this the hard way, after making loud and particularly ill-advised comments one night in another local pub patronized by rougher specimens than the Harbour’s poets. When I got home later I was set upon by three of those specimens, who had somehow found out where I lived and let themselves in. One of them, I realized with disbelief, was a classmate of mine, from an English Literature class, to whom I’d recently lent a textbook. (I never got it back.) They were coarse but matey, like the gunmen in Proxopera. “Welcome to Ulster, lad,” said one. “You should be used to muggings, as a Yank,” said another.

After that, bruised and battered but, unlike many others, still in one piece, I learned that you kept your head down and your mouth shut, and you followed certain common-sense guidelines. Not to express your opinions in public. Not to wear badges of the faith—any faith. Not to drink in militant pubs; drinking at home was better. And there were multitudinous corollary no-nos. Not to order Jameson’s whiskey in a Protestant pub or Bass (English) ale in a Catholic one. Not to walk past a row of parked cars because there were more and more bombs in cars. (Twenty-two in downtown Belfast on one especially violent July day in 1972.) Not to drive a car with a “Southern” number plate in Northern Protestant areas. And so on. It was safe to assume that someone with a grudge was around every corner, brandishing a grenade or aiming an ArmaLite, and of course they always had their reasons—or claimed to, whether they were fighting for “Ireland” (Catholics) or “Ulster” (Protestants).

The Troubles I experienced firsthand among classmates, the intramural brutalities that inspired Kiely’s portrait of the Bincheys and Heaney’s elegy on vengeance, were officially laid to rest in 1998. But that desperate era continues to animate the work of two generations of writers, both Protestant and Catholic, some eminent far beyond Ulster’s shores: Seamus Heaney, of course, but also 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the playwrights Gary Mitchell (In A Little World of Our Own at the Peacock) and Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come); the novelists Brian Moore (Catholics), Michael McLaverty (The Brightening Day), and Bernard MacLaverty (Cal and Lamb). Non-Irish too, are among them, like the American James Hynes (The Wild Colonial Boy) and the Australian Thomas Keneally (The Great Shame). Today’s younger literary luminaries include Ronan Bennett, Ian Sansom, Robert McLiam Wilson, and a host of young (or youngish) women writers, including Sinead Morrissey, Lucy Caldwell, Maureen Boyle, and Anna Burns.

Of these it is Anna Burns—with her searing, jaunty style, and the way in which she uses family life as a microcosm of Ulster—who is at the forefront of the modern Northern writers of either sex or sect. Her 2001 debut novel No Bones presents life under the Troubles whole and unadorned, and manages, like the North itself, to be ghastly and delightful at the same time.

Amelia Lovett, the central character, is a Catholic girl growing up in the midst of the agony in West Belfast. Right from the start we are at home, like it or not, with Amelia and her working-class family—a type it would be generous to call dysfunctional, and made more so by the political situation that, seemingly overnight, is changed utterly. But there is precious little beauty of any kind in what ensues: balkanization, indoctrination, tribal hatreds, murder . . . in short: Ulster in the ’70s, as I remember it all too well.

The Troubles started on a Thursday. At six o’clock at night. And seven whole days later, for Amelia was counting, she could hardly believe it, for here they were, still going on.

The tumbling, breathless style rushes the reader through; it’s like being on your third pint in a Belfast pub with another round on the way. Like Kiely in Proxopera, Burns shows Northern Ireland as a squabbling extended family, but she also convincingly uses the person of her main character as a microcosm of her country. Both Ulster and Amelia endure disasters: in her case, anorexia, alcoholism, rape, the collapse of her family, and a nervous breakdown; in Ulster’s, the end of civility, the sanctioned oppression of a minority, the inevitable civil war. Both Amelia and her society teeter on the edge and pull back just in time. This personification of the place brings home the intimacies of the Troubles. Like Kiely, Burns highlights the links, tribal and cultural, among the combatants and their victims:

‘The truth of the matter is,’ cried Billy, ‘you should always love your family. Never blame your relatives, no matter what it is they once did.’ . . . The family was good, he shrieked, the extended family was even better but best of all was the holy community—provided it was only of one specific kind.

(As it happens, Billy keeps getting sent to mental institutions for attacking his relatives.)

Burns grew up, like her characters, in the midst of just such family turmoil and tribal boundaries in the run-down Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood of West Belfast. Like Amelia, she later moved to England, where she still lives; but she is of Belfast, and it is of Belfast that she writes. She takes us there through a canny combination of childish disingenuousness, humor, and descriptive power. Her skill makes the place and her protagonist’s zany, slightly deranged voice entirely real, with a lucid sense of what she must do to survive. I could have used her advice, back in the day:

Rule Number One: (a) Don’t start fights. (b) If someone else starts them, get stuck in, for you’ve got to save face no matter what. (c) If you’re not in safe territory, fight in unsafe territory, for you’ve got to save face no matter what. (d) If one person alone starts the fight, use bare hands and feet unless the other person has a weapon in which case—(e)—use as many weapons as you like. . . .
      Rule Number Two: Never run away.

Like Dubliner Roddy Doyle, Burns wears the mantle of the dinnseanchas, in Celtic lore the namer of places, the reader of landscapes, in which a place is more than just a setting or backdrop, almost a character in itself. I have not been back to Belfast for many years, but when I read No Bones, there I was: I smelled the yeast and the smoke and the fried-cod-and-chips carried on the damp wind. I heard the distant sirens and drums and felt the crunch of broken glass underfoot. I remembered my first venture down the Shankill Road, a working-class Protestant enclave in Belfast; remembered how, as I attempted a casual saunter (mistake: only the hard men had the confidence to saunter), I became aware of sidelong glances that, I was convinced, could interpret my features as unmistakably Catholic, or alien in some way, although everyone I saw on the Shankill looked like me, and they were indistinguishable from the Catholics across the way on Falls Road: pasty, doughy, hard-bitten, hungover.

“Ey, where ya goin’?” inquired a boy, confirming my fears that, in a neighborhood where everyone was known, the news of a stranger’s arrival would spread like infection. “To the bus,” I replied, I knew not why, but hoped I sounded like a native—a Protestant native. As Amelia knows, camouflage is vital:

Amelia meanwhile tried to act like everything was normal, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do when everything is anything but.

But I fooled no one. “There’s no bus here,” said the boy, who shouted for others to take notice. Praise God at that moment there was a taxi. It was a Protestant taxi, of course (you could tell by the driver’s name on the door: Protestant “Sammy Wilson,” for example, instead of Catholic “Sean Kelly”), but the driver made no objection to driving me to the Europa Hotel, where I had a drink before taking the train back to Coleraine, with some relief. It was with even greater relief, mingled with horror, that I learned from that night’s TV news that a bomb had gone off in the Europa lobby about half an hour after I had left.

Burns has a second novel, Little Constructions, also inspired by the Troubles (and deeply indebted to Flann O’Brien). In her work she satisfies both of Dr. Johnson’s requirements: that a good read enable us to enjoy life more, or better endure it. No Bones is a poignant, bitter, unforgiving tale of a girl’s loss of innocence and the near-destitution of her country; like the country, Amelia survives and is healed, or at least pretends to be. One is apprehensive, at the end, about what may come, but no more than about most things in life. Therein lies a kind of progress.

And, speaking of progress: just before stepping down as First Minister, Ian Paisley, accompanied by Martin McGuinness, paid a visit to President Bush at the White House. Sitting next to the American President, across from his Catholic co-administrator, the old Protestant firebrand was in a genial mood. “We have had our political squabbles and fights,” he said, invoking those family analogies. “I think we have come to the end of that. I think that peace has come.” If Ian Paisley, the man who once accused Pope John Paul II to his face of being the Antichrist, now speaks in these dulcet tones, are the killings finally over? Can the chroniclers finally put away their pens and write of dramas less heroic, less shameful? We can hope, for hope’s eternal springing is something not even Northern Irish realities can quell. But the burden of history is a strong caution. At the end of Belfast Diary, John Conroy describes his reluctance, even after the Good Friday accords and the supposed arrival of peace, to revisit Clonard, the West Belfast neighborhood where he lived during the dark years:

My old neighborhood feels like some untended grave I am obliged to visit, but a good part of me does not want to look that life in the face again. It awakens things in me I am not certain I want to reawaken—an excitement, brought on by the potential for violence that floats in the air; a feeling of hopelessness, brought on by my own notion that suffering does not change and that it keeps visiting the same families over and over again . . .

Notwithstanding the ebullience of Ian Paisley—quite naturally desirous of happy thoughts in the evening of his life—Conroy’s pessimism strikes me as a realistic perspective. Things may be calm enough now, when times are good. But come the first economic downturn and Catholics start competing with Protestants again in the dole line, will the old hatreds resurface? As Winston Churchill said after World War I: “The integrity of [Ulster’s] quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

In the Irish soul, yesterday is tomorrow, and it will be no surprise to me if the wild men return—and with them, more lovely laments, more bitter books, more art from war.

Image: The signing of the joint agreement of Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wikimedia commons.