Danny Morrison’s “West Belfast”: a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of a city in conflict

West Belfast - Danny Morrison - book coverI grew up hearing Danny Morrison’s name on the radio at breakfast time as Sinn Féin’s Director of Publicity. More recently I’ve known him as chair of Féile an Phobail and spotted his attendance at many of the festival’s events in St Mary’s and the annual West Belfast Talks Back debate. But I’d never realised he was an author until his book (re)launch earlier this year at the end of January.

Spread over a decade, West Belfast is a coming of age story of John O’Neill growing up around the Falls against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, heightening tensions and the start of the Troubles. As well as watching John fall in love, move jobs, and explore the world, readers follow John as he deals with his inner tension, at first distancing himself from what was going on in his community before deciding to become involved.

A strange sort of a fella … I used to think he couldn’t open his mouth. Very quiet. But he’s grown up now … Good looking and kind. Maybe a bit too serious.

That’s how John’s girlfriend Angela described him early on in their relationship. It’s the age of Saturday night dances and cozying up to the sound of the Beatles.

After his first experiences of discrimination in a low wage job at an Ormeau Road engineering firm, John got work as a galley-boy on ships out of Belfast, before shifting to bigger trans-Atlantic vessels and becoming a trade union official. Returning to Belfast between crossings, John noticed the changes in his area:

They were no longer the British Army but were now called “the Brits”. Confrontations were regular and people complained that the soldiers were worse than the RUC, assaulting young people and firing tear gas into streets at any pretext.

John began smuggling weapons from Montreal back to Liverpool and onto Belfast, and quickly became more involved with the IRA.

While the story is told through a republican lens, the novel doesn’t overly glorify violence or set the IRA up as heroes. Instead the author finds humanity and dignity in unexpected places and allows for the complexity of characters’ motives adapting as the situation around them changes.

The book describes a familiar slip from innocence into activism, personal tragedy, and portrays the chaos of fast-moving events like the Divis Street riots. The chapter that relives the experience of “The Hooded Men”, tortured and thrown out of an army helicopter that the men didn’t know was hovering just above the ground, is a gruelling read.

Angela’s tale is gentler and provides a good counterbalance to John’s descent into violence. Yet her life too is affected by the changing vibe in Belfast and necessitates a rapid flit to England before eventually returning home to be reacquainted with old friends.

Early on the text is thick with landmarks and street names, nearly trying too hard to root the narrative in its real location. The storytelling adopts a mixture of styles and the plot switches between characters, even spending a chapter inside the mind of an IRA sniper at work.

It was a couple of years before Danny Morrison told anyone that he’d started to write a novel. Soon after West Belfast was published in 1989 he was arrested and imprisoned. (The conviction was overturned in 2008.) “He wasn’t around to do much publicity” novelist and playwright Ronan Bennett explained at the launch of the novel’s new 2015 edition.

Originally typed up on his 512k Amstrad computer, when Danny came back to republish his first novel it didn’t exist in digital format. So he scanned it in, fixed the spellings, and realised that back in the 1980s he had often used three words rather than one. So although this latest edition has the same story, same characters, the same beginning, middle and end, the text has been tightened up and apparently some of the more embarrassing sex scenes have been removed.

While not strictly history, Danny Morrison’s novel captures the spirit and some of the events of a time not long before I was born. At times an uncomfortable read, over two hundred pages it develops a sense of people and place that will long stick in my mind. If you’re looking for a book that clearly identifies the goodies and the baddies, move along the shelf. But if you’re keen to explore the complexity of conflict and how it shapes lives, West Belfast opens an insider’s window into Irish republicanism.

West Belfast is published by Elsinor Press, priced £10 and available from Amazon, Sinn Féin’s Falls Road bookshop or direct the author’s website.

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  • SDLP supporter

    Never read it first time around, although I may now. I do remember a savagely funny review at the time in the Irish Times about those now-excised embarrassing sex scenes by one Eugene McEldowney, then IT News editor, and himself a writer of detective novels and also a hard-chaw Ardoyne lad.

  • Thomas Girvan

    It could start a trend.
    Maybe Gerry Adams will write a fiction book, based upon an imagined past that no one could possibly believe.

  • hugh mccloy

    he wont be the only one cashing in with a book or 2

  • james

    I’m sure it’s the purest of fiction. Hardly a departure for him.

  • Joe Wark

    The poor downtrodden people of west Belfast, gain the most from a British state that they claim to despise! I read the novel, feel it tries to paint the grubby sectarian campaign of the provisional as some sort of romantic journey. Always amazed about how quick republicans like Danny are to talk on TV about attacks like the Brighton bomb but a lot quieter about the abduction of Joan McConville, La Mon, Abercorn, the list goes on.

  • Thomas Barber

    What exactly are the people of West Belfast gaining from the British state you claim they despise ?

  • Joe Wark

    DLA, hundreds of jobs as “community workers”, more leisure centres than average sized cities on the mainland or in the republic of Ireland.

  • Thomas Barber

    Are you another who hasn’t a clue that West Belfast also consists of parts of the Shankill. By the way they pay tax to the British exchequer too so that entitles them to claim the same benefits as anyone else regardless whether they agree or disagree with the British state that takes their taxes. Perhaps you could post some evidence of the hundreds of community jobs that only you know about ? The mainland ! What do you call that stretch of water that separates Britain from Ireland ?

  • Joe Wark

    The bit of sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland is called the North Channel according to my atlas. Who provide most of the funding for Feile an Phobail (Irelands largest community festival), Community Restorative Justice and for Tar Istach (support for ex prisoners)? The British State? The Provisional IRA murdered more catholic civilians than the UVF or the UDA/UFF or the security forces. They murdered more of their own members than any other organisation. Quite a few of their members were getting money off the British state too and I’m not just talking about housing benefit!

  • Thomas Barber

    I see and you’ve probably never heard of the Irish sea either, the funding for Feile an Phobail, Community Restorative Justice and for Tar Istach is paid for by the public purse which the same people contribute to, I know thats hard for people like yourself to understand but even English, Scotch and Welsh republicans get funding for their respective communities. And whats all the whataboutery got to do with some geezer writing a fictional book based in West Belfast anyway ?

  • Joe Wark

    Well, according to the review the book is about someone who gets involved with the IRA. Maybe Danny would rather write fiction about that organisation than analyse and account for all of its actions.
    I have heard of the Irish Sea, funny how many Irish Republicans sailed across it when they fell foul of their “comrades” during their murderous feuds.

  • barnshee

    Just a reminder
    Shankill = 15% at most of WB

    IF catholics in WB are on DLA they are hardly taxpayers ?
    “British state that takes their taxes. ”

    Any details of tax paid in WB?

  • barnshee

    ” paid for by the public purse which the same people contribute”

    I think you mean “some” people ( mostly not resident in WB)

  • submariner

    The Provisional IRA murdered more catholic civilians than the UVF or the UDA/UFF or the security forces.

    Yet another Unionist/Loyalist myth. According to CAIN there were 1099 Catholic Civilians murdered during the Troubles (almost twice the number of Protestant civilians killed). Of these Republicians killed 223,The British killed 161 and the loyalists killed 692

  • Thomas Barber

    Everybody pays taxes to the public purse in one form or another and the poor pay more than the rich unlike yer woman who is paid millions from the public purse who pays nothing and who tried to claim for a heating grant at Buckingham palace obviously scroungers from London are somehow different in your eyes.

  • Thomas Barber

    You sound bitter its almost funny yet tragic that you feel threatened by a work of fiction ah well someday, sometime, someone within the loyalist community will write a fictional story about life on the Shankill and being in the UVF and how proud he was of the part he played in the kidnapping of innocent Catholics then torturing them inside loyalist drinking clubs in front of large crowds before slicing their throats. Wasn’t it May Blood, Shankill community worker who said that the dogs in the street knew who was carrying out the ritualistic throat cutting, even unionist politicians were at the leader of the Shankill butchers Lenny Murphys funeral.

  • Joe Wark

    The Shankill Butchers were criminal animals full stop. Like the IRA, they killed a lot of their “own people” largely because a psychopath will always be a psychopath and the troubles were just a convenient excuse for these gangsters. Do you realise that the IRA and loyalists co-operated in the shooting of the main shankill butcher Lenny Murphy? Same way as they co-operated in the carve up of their protection racket empire. Why don’t you write a book about the “brave sons of Ireland” who broke poor patsy Gillespies legs, tied him to a bomb and made him drive at soldiers while his family were being held hostage.

  • Joe Wark

    All murders were wrong. According to the lost lives book, 57 % of murders were carried out by Republicans.

    would you distinguish between the murder of protestant civilians (eg Shankill Bomb, Bayardo, LaMon, Kingsmills, Enniskillen, Joan McConville, Darkley Church, etc) and the murder of “legiatmate targets” eg part time members of the security forces working on a bin round, part time members of the naval reserve working in shops, army cadets?

    Funny how most of these legitimate targets happened to be Protestants and if they owned land near the border, then they really became targets.

    Nearly as sickening as loyalist thugs who complained “there aren’t any catholics in uniform so we look sectarian”

    Submarier: would you consider the IRA to be motivated by sectarian aims?

    These paramilitary gangs had no hesitation in brutalising, bullying and sexually abusing their own communities.

  • barnshee

    Her Mag appears to enjoy the almost universal support of the British public who apparently don`t object to the (modest) costs incurred

    Repeats

    IF catholics in WB are on DLA they are hardly taxpayers ?
    “British state that takes their taxes. ”

    Any details of tax paid in WB?

  • submariner

    I do not distinguish between any murders. It was you who specifically introduced the Catholic civilian aspect in your widely inaccurate post i merely pointed out that your claim was bullshit,indeed you are not the first Unionist poster to claim this as fact.

  • Zeno

    You never get a reply when you mention stuff like that. Imagine tieing another human being to a bomb and then detonating it.
    Brave freedom fighters waging a war . sorry conflict, you can’t call it a war now because of the number of war crimes committed.

  • Joe Wark

    Correct, how someone can go on about the shankill butchers whilst supporting a movement who killed Robert McCartney is bizarre double standard. Psychos are psychos first and foremost.

  • Joe Wark

    It isn’t bullsh1t. You can try to split hairs in the face of defeat but the ra killed their own and corrupted a whole generation with their lack of respect for any laws. Year of robberies and encouraging young people to hijack cars etc during riots.Is it any surprise West Belfast has always had the worst car crime problem?

  • submariner

    Where have i split hairs Joe I have quoted the stats from CAIN which does indeed show your claim to be bullshit and wildly inaccurate.Now your off on another tangent about car crime do you have any sort of comment on the stats that I posted or am I wasting my time arguing with Flegger logic.

  • Joe Wark

    My claim isn’t bullshit. How many catholics (civilians and IRA members who were buried with catholic funerals) did IRA operations kill? How many did the UVF kill? how many did UDA/UFF kill? Which of these organisations killed the most catholics?
    The Republican movement killed far more catholics than the RUC too, never saw any “Disband the IRA posters though”!

  • Joe Wark

    Submariner: how much contempt for the catholic community did SF show when they stood and later promoted a member/ councillor who refused to co-operate with the police investigating the murder of catholic civilian Robert McCartney by IRA members in a small city centre bar?
    How much contempt for the catholic religion did they show when the secretly buried the bodies of catholic civillians who had fallen foul of their organisation for reasons we will never know?
    Still Gerry, Marty, Slab and Spike all got a few quid now so no pain no gain