Colin Broderick’s ‘That’s That’: Book Review

While the phrase popularized by Seamus Heaney ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ endures as a code for Northern Irish character toughened by the Troubles, Colin Broderick’s 9780307716330_custom-5e0f75298dddd7bc5464a6b19a66fdebe8fbc712-s6-c30telling of his childhood reveals the language unspoken. He gives us a glimpse at those in the IRA who were never by necessity singled out by their supporters, but who carried themselves with an air of entitlement, entrusted as they were by the Catholic community with their protection and their idealism in a time when those with whom they shared a village’s main road or shops or those in a market town kept a distance, Protestant petrol stations and pubs for some, Catholic ones for others, and outside of a terse greeting, no acknowledgment or admission that could betray confidences to the occupying enemy and the long-settled watchful neighbor both.

Broderick, born in 1968, raised when virginity still was expected and when the Church still dominated, tells in many instances a familiar tale. He details cutting turf and picking potatoes memorably; he comes of age into sex and brawling the way many have in his rural circumstances in County Tyrone; he emigrates only to return to the hard choices that push him off the island for good.

While some of this for all his cautious balance of intimacy and tact moves his story along as expected in respectable but not astonishing form, he intersperses the device of having his family react to the BBC news reports of atrocities to convey the span of time and the intransigence of the war in his native land. This efficiently tells the reader when the chapters are occurring in a roundabout manner, freeing the narrative from chronology. However, a spirited first ten pages of Irish history in revisionist fashion surprises–Patrick comes full of ‘retribution’ for the humiliation endured as a slave, and overthrows the comparatively preferable Celtic way of life for what soon is suffered as ‘a good dose of Christian shame, humiliation, and fear’. (3) The collusion of the papacy with the English Crown weakens the native resistance long before the Reformation forces the natives to remain loyal to Catholicism as a badge of defiance against those who plunder, inflict, and subdue. Their own form of terror, by Broderick’s infancy, sparks a violent and determined reaction from his fellow friends and cousins.

The tension grows as the war surrounds him, and while he never overplays this, or pumps up his own attitude, he demonstrates convincingly his resentment of the British and the local people–often part-time paramilitaries–who collude to control the IRA in its burrowed-in, subversive rural heartland. He lets us witness how year by year, those who become victims in the attacks and reprisals circle closer to his hamlet. Finally, in Loughgall an ambush (or SAS set-up) kills among the eight IRA operatives the two youngest, whom he knew well. This will lead him to make a deeply moral choice.

Earlier, after a harrowing incident not unfamiliar to any farm lad, he reflects on the costs of death. ‘We lose our childhoods by degrees. Inch by inch, time and circumstance steal the last of our innocence. Some of it will fall away unnoticed; some will be ripped forcefully from our fingers, other morsels of it we will bury in shallow graves, until only the shadow of youth exists, drifting in our wake like an abandoned ghost.’ (114-115)

‘Perhaps that was the real mark of maturity, I thought, finally deciding which mask suits you best, and wearing it.’ (165) The beat between ‘best’ and the final phrase shows Broderick’s timing and pacing. He prefers to reflect, pause, and continue, sifting his memories to study and analyze them after he narrates a passage from his past.

‘You just acted and spoke accordingly, never betraying an iota of your interior dialogue, even in a whisper to your closest friend, and then you had nothing at all to worry about.’ (348) His sangfroid after a harrowing examination by British army at a border checkpoint, in the company of an IRA higher-up who takes into his own wary confidence the trusted local youth Broderick, remains his studied pose. After a well-described chapter detailing his selling hash, working as an apprentice electrician on construction sites in London, and squatting there along with the ‘Tyrone clan’, one prepares for his prequel-as-sequel, Orangutan, which details his stint indulging himself and working the similar trade in Manhattan, after he emigrates.

The reason he does ends his follow-up memoir, which he had to tell. ‘I was living in a society that demanded my silence, but I needed to talk this childhood through. I needed to scream it at the top of my lungs if I was ever going to get to the bottom of this noise. And if I survived long enough to get to the bottom of it all, to understand myself more clearly, perhaps I would not have to raise my voice at all.’ At nineteen, already drinking, already made the hard man by necessity in Tyrone among his McClean clan and on the sites and in the pubs of North London, Broderick leaves for America. I will certainly seek out the second half of his life, previously published, and I welcome this writer’s voice.

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  • Reader

    John L Murphy (or Colin Broderick) : Finally, the Loughgall ambush kills among the eight unarmed IRA operatives the two youngest, whom he knew well.
    “unarmed”. This is new stuff – is the author the only source for this claim?

  • michael-mcivor


    All of the IRA Volunteers were armed that night and their target-the RUC barracks was destroyed before all the Volunteers were killed-

  • Reader

    michael-mcivor: All of the IRA Volunteers were armed that night…
    I was wondering whether John was juicing up the story or whether it was done by Colin and John had simply failed to realise what he was up to.

  • Alanbrooke

    John Murphy approaches Ireland like John Ford.

  • CW

    While we’re on the subject of coming of age memoirs set during the 1980s in the Tyrone area, I came across a book called “In Complete Circles” by some fellow called Ward from Omagh. It’s quite different from Broderick’s book in that it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and the author is basically taking the piss out of himself and the characters he grew up with. There’s a lot of nostalgia in it with references to the terrible fashions of the era (black slip-ons and white socks anyone? Wafer thin leather ties!!), the popular culture of the time (Zammo and Grange Hill’s anti-drugs campaign, The A-Team, Dire Straits and the whole yuppie culture), which he places in the context of living in a small town surrounded by a large rural area. A good holiday read if you fancy something more light-hearted.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    michael – Do you think the people who tortured Denis Donaldson before they killed him got any info as to who gave the tip off about Loughgall?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    TS – or Strabane ’85, Carrickmore ’88, Clonoe ’92 etc. etc.

  • Reader

    Tochais Síoraí: Do you think the people who tortured Denis Donaldson before they killed him got any info as to who gave the tip off about Loughgall?
    No more info than the SF team that debriefed him before he set off into the wilderness. However; Donaldson operated in Belfast – and I doubt that the informer cell structure was more leaky than the ASU cells. After all, it’s not likely that Scap and DD swapped leaks over a couple of pints at the Felon’s Club.
    It’s starting to look as though the SF leadership are absolutely set on keeping some matters secret forever.

  • tacapall

    “However; Donaldson operated in Belfast ”

    Totally wrong Reader. But on the subject of Loughgall – I would venture a guess that it was a bit like the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash, in house cleaning, getting rid of the opposition.

  • michael-mcivor

    Tochais Siorai-

    ” Do you think the people who tortured Denis Donaldson before they killed him got any info ”

    Think Denis was shot dead for talking to the Sunday World-did not know that he was tortured-

    Tyrone IRA killed 8 british soldiers a few months after Loughgall and a month later the SAS killed 3 more IRA members in Tyrone and so it went on till the first large bombs started to explode in England in the middle of 1992-then the SAS killings stopped-

  • Reader

    michael-mcivor: did not know that he was tortured-
    I think we just encountered a creepy bit of wishful thinking there. In the old days people used to picture their adversaries in hell. Fantasising over a bad death is just a more modern version.

    michael-mcivor: so it went on till the first large bombs started to explode in England in the middle of 1992-then the SAS killings stopped-
    Well, yes: “Never mind a United Ireland – we’ll stop bombing London if you leave the volunteers alone.” Doesn’t this variant present the peace process as the military end-game instead of a political initiative?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    That’s right Michael, the SAS killings stopped because of the IRA bombs in Britain – nudge nudge, wink wink.

    Nothing to do with the fact that your leaders were talking directly to the Brits at the time, and were primarily engaged in targeting economic interests rather than mass killing of soldiers/RUC.

  • michael-mcivor

    Tir Chonaill Gael-

    Nope-the big bombs in England could be placed and a couple of hours warning given-the brit bomb disposal units could not touch those new device’s at that time-just move people away from the danger area-

    I am sure there were always talks being talked about or going on but it all intensified when the brits could not make the bombs safe-do you even know/read about what happened in public at that time in England-

  • Comrade Stalin

    Michael, if you’re going to argue that these methods were foolproof and delivered results, doesn’t it kind of beg the question as to why the IRA chose to call a ceasefire rather than bombing more targets and wringing more out of the British that way ?

  • michael-mcivor

    Comrade Stalin-

    Time will tell if the Good Friday Agreement delivered and was the foolproof way to go-i believe it was/is-

  • At Slugger by editorial policy I am allotted 600 words for review and as it is I was eighty over; suffice to say this like any memoir on this subject defies facile summation in a few paragraphs. Logging in late to this, and examining the book again, I see I conflated a pair of unarmed deaths of others Colin knew with those shot at Loughgall, so I have edited my review. Apologies for any confusion: the death toll adds up quickly in a few pages. Reading the book should disabuse any one of supposed resemblances by the author or reviewer to the naive vision or heroic poses manufactured by crafty John Ford.

  • CW

    John – if you’re interested in reviewing “In Complete Circles”, just drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy.