The above quote by the American writer, William Faulkner, could have been crafted with Northern Ireland in mind. We need look no further than the murder of Lyra McKee a few weeks ago for evidence that Faulkner was right on the money. I thought my days of hearing news of the violent deaths of friends had long passed but seemingly not. I woke up to read of Lyra’s death in the news. Not only was her killing reckless and heartless, but it was a foul taste of the Troubles for a generation that had never experienced them.
About two years ago Lyra and I were discussing our respective writing ventures. I was trying to get a mainstream publisher for a Troubles novel that saw limited distribution in 1993 while Lyra was still researching and writing Angels with Blue Faces, an investigative work about the murder of the Reverent Robert Bradford in 1981, the era my novel Nights in Armour was set in. She was convinced there was about to be a revival in Troubles literature as a new generation was curious about what their parents lived through. I hoped she was right.
Literature and fiction can offer an insight into the past that the history books can’t. History must stick as far as possible to provable facts and the story of ordinary people tends to be secondary to great political and social upheavals. Emotion however, is one of the great forces of history. Resentment, fear and hate were the fuels that kept our conflict blazing for so long and even decades after the main fire was extinguished, its embers continue to smoulder, needing only more fuel to blaze again. Literature perhaps, can reflect these feelings more profoundly than any academic study. Although there is a plethora of histories of the Troubles and a fairly broad range of fiction, little of it is from the perspective of one of its main protagonists, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
I had always wanted to write and being in the RUC in the early 1980s gave me plenty of potential material. The book, I may add, is fiction, inspired by real events but not based on them. It is set during the Republican Hunger Strike of 1981 but the book is not about the hunger strike which serves as a dramatic backdrop for the story. In essence, the novel is about how people’s lives can be shaped by events over which they have little or no control. I therefore used the fictional town of Altnavellan, which could be any market town west of the Bann, to avoid any direct comparison with what actually happened. It also allowed me more freedom to create whatever I wanted.
The story is primarily, though not entirely, told through the eyes of a small group of uniformed police officers, but there are also the ordinary people caught up in it all as well as those who joined the IRA, INLA and UVF. Backstage, the intelligence war is being fought out with the stakes being the lives of the main characters. I tried to be as balanced as possible and examined why the people who wanted to kill me back in the day thought the way they did. I considered what life must have been like for those on the receiving end of the massive security operation being played out on their streets and country lanes.
The local media have made much of a positive review by former Sinn Féin publicity director, Danny Morrison, something that also raised a few eyebrows among former colleagues. I welcome the review as it may open the novel to people who may otherwise dismiss it out of hand. The book is not an attempt to rewrite history, history will look after itself, but rather an attempt to tell the story of those days from a neglected viewpoint. It is a time capsule. The book was mostly written in 1985 and the arguments and viewpoints were put down on paper while they were still fresh in the memory.
I have also been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of Republicans I have got to know over the past few years who are genuinely curious to know what things looked like from the ‘other side’ and why we thought the way we did (and in many cases still do). I can’t help thinking if some of the conversations I have had with what I call ‘former enemies’ had happened fifty years ago we might not have ended up in the morass we did.
Some have said that they found the violence in the book harrowing but I make no apology for that. The reality was harrowing and tens of thousands of our friends and neighbours still live with the trauma every day. Our dark past is not a joke, there is nothing funny about it, and it should not be used as a means of taunting one another.
Lyra’s murder was chilling reminder of what our future could be if we continue to make the same mistakes we made before. My message in the book is a simple, ‘no more’ and ‘never again’. We tried to bludgeon each other into submission for decades and it didn’t work.
Please read the book, use it as a way to travel back to our past and having spent some time there, make sure it stays in the past where it belongs.
Nights in Armour is written by Samuel Thompson and published by Mercier Press
The official launch will be in Waterstones, Fountain Street, Belfast on 9 May at 6:30pm.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam