This is the first novel I have read about what are referred to in Belfast as “The Troubles”. The protagonist, Jimmy Fitzgerald,is a Catholic youth and a member of the IRA. Virtually all the young men in the Catholic (i.e., working class)neighborhood there belong. And in the opening scene, Jimmy is being tortured. He is being treated in ways that the Geneva Convention was created to prevent, yet it doesn’t. He is a “terrorist”, and so he can be treated any way they like, proof or no proof. The scene goes so far as to have him placed in a helicopter after the beating is over and he has regained consciousness. They drop him from the helicopter…and he goes only ten feet before he hits the ground. He is broken. After spitting in their faces, after beating after beating in which he will only swear at his interrogators or say “I love Ireland”, he is broken. He only wants to live, and to be gone, and we might hope that the information he gives them is false…but it isn’t. He gives up safe houses. He gives up friends. He does it with the condition that his closest friend since boyhood, Louis Duffy, will be spared.
When it’s over, he is assigned to be an informant.He must meet with Detective Ian McDonald, whose perspective we also gain later in the book. He is outwardly an ordinary man, a man who can look himself in the mirror and like what he sees every morning, one who is responsible for enforcing the law, upholding order, and stopping the Irish attacks on the British troops that make their lives hell. He has a wife and a little boy he loves, and he thinks that he is a good person. Some might see him as merely cynical. I went into this book with a bias, and I see a monster there. I hope that others who read this book will think so, too.
Catholics are considered a lower class, Finian dirt on the floor of Belfast. We learn early on of a job Jimmy and his “Da” were given cleaning out the coal cellar of a Protestant family. The family, clearly enjoying a much higher standard of living, is converting to gas central heat, but they warn Jimmy and his Da that they have inventoried and expect everything to be there when they are done. Jimmy and his father are horrified and seething at the suggestion that they might walk off with their one-day-employer’s coal in their pockets. This kind of rage beats in the hearts of most native Irish (as opposed to the Orangemen imported generations ago by the Brits to give some credence to the lie that Belfast is majority Protestant).
Later, much later in the story, after British cops have kicked in doors all over the neighborhood looking for IRA members, after the family furniture in one residence (and we can infer, many others) has been shredded, mirrors broken, the family’s only television set smashed, an Irish mother turns to her small son and asks, “Who was it put your Grandpa in prison?”
The lad replies,”The Brits”.
“Aye…Who wants to get your Da and lock him away?”
“Why did they do this to ye?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
“An’ who is it that hates the Irish, who is it robs the Irish, who is it murders the Irish?”
(first person, quoting author here)”She took his head in both her hands to whisper, “An’ who will protect yer mother from the Brits when he’s a strong young man?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
The mother calls her son a “wee man” and a “brave Belfast boy”.
This novel spoke to me deeply. I was a supporter of Sinn Fein during the hunger strikes of the 80’s, and I, along with many other Irish Americans of whatever generation, gave money for humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of the funds that paid for Irish independence came from Irish American pockets. The same has held true for the cause of making Ireland free and united once more.
Not everyone will appreciate this novel as I did. The IRA has had press that likens them to serial killers when “The Troubles” took place, and very few rejoinders sent to large newspapers ever saw the light of day.
But if your heart beats for one united Ireland, or if you enjoy one helluva ride and you are neutral or undecided on the Irish Question, then buy this book. Read it. You haven’t read anything like it lately, I promise.