The novel Troubles resonates 25 years later
Lately I’ve been thinking about Deirdre Madden’s 1996 novel, One by One in the Darkness. Madden wrote it in order to show “what it was like to go through the Troubles.” As fewer and fewer readers remember this moment for themselves, this book will become more and more relevant.
In Spring 2017, as an American Fulbright Fellow, I taught an advanced undergraduate seminar at Queen’s University Belfast on Literary Responses to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Although I had visited the North often for over a quarter of a century, I was nervous about teaching Northern Irish students on this subject. So I was surprised to find that I knew more about the Troubles of the late 20th century than they did.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been. They were just toddlers when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, and most of their elders didn’t bother discussing the bad days that had come before it. A Belfast without sidewalk cafes and shopping malls was as unimaginable to them as a Belfast with them would have been to me in 1989, when I first visited a city without tourists, left-luggage facilities or trash cans. I tried to describe to these young people what this depressed and depressing city looked like.
Some students believed that the unrest-related violence had been confined to urban ghettos, failing to understand that it could happen anywhere at any time and afflict people who saw themselves apolitical as well as activists on either side. Others imagined that the experience of spending time at a site of armed conflict must be terrifying or exciting, and I struggled to convey the more common mixture of boredom and anxiety.
If I had these conversations today, a contemporary comparison would easily come to mind. The Troubles, I would tell my students, was like the Covid-19 pandemic, but a pandemic that lasted for 30 years.
The people who have died from Covid-19 and their families and friends are the most obvious victims of the pandemic, but far from the only ones. More accurate recording of losses should also take into account those who fell ill and recovered (or not); medical personnel traumatized by the current emergency; the elderly isolated from their relatives; people working in businesses and professions devastated both by the pandemic and the efforts to contain it; children and adolescents whose education has been disrupted by school closures; and those who have been afraid since the start of the pandemic to venture far from home or visit places where crowds congregate.
Economically, culturally, physically and psychologically, the current health crisis has cast a shadow over entire societies, resulting in ever greater political polarization. It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, including coronavirus deniers, have been harmed in one way or another by the pandemic. How long, I wonder, will the stress of this particular time continue to be felt after the virus is removed?
Novelist Deirdre Madden had a similar question in mind while working on One by One in the Darkness. First published 25 years ago this spring, it was conceived in the run-up to another anniversary in 1994: 25 years after sectarian riots in Belfast and Derry sparked the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland. North. In Madden’s recollection of the time she wrote the book, it seemed that the Troubles had lasted forever and would continue indefinitely.
The novel’s current action takes place a few months before the IRA’s provisional ceasefire in August 1994, but the characters don’t know it. What they do know is that “well over three thousand people” have been killed in the conflict as of this date, “and each of them had parents or husbands and wives and children whose lives had been wiped out ”. This category of victims includes the family at the center of the novel, consisting of a mother and three adult daughters, whose husband and father were murdered by loyalist gunmen in a mistaken identity case.
One by One in the Darkness is generally described as the story of a family that suffered tragic loss. If this is true, it also portrays the representative experience of a family, whose relationship to the Troubles was typical rather than exceptional until the night of October 1991 when its patriarch was killed. Like any text that I know, the novel expresses the worldly reality of those years.
The three sisters are young children when conflict breaks out, and Madden documents how slowly they are deprived of their innocence as divisions in Northern Irish society begin to manifest in horrific acts of violence. Odd-numbered chapters describing the reactions of various family members in 1994 to the news that the younger sister is expecting an out-of-wedlock baby alternate in the book with chapters illustrating the local community’s responses to the volatile political situation of the late 1980s. 1960s.
These flashback chapters present a moving history of the Troubles from a rural, Catholic and nationalist perspective. Along with descriptions of historically significant events are stories illustrating their local effects. Each successive even chapter advances the historical narrative chronologically to the present of the novel. Cumulatively, they illustrate how the Troubles gradually encroached on daily life, and how, despite themselves, this life continued.
This historical tale is familiar to any Catholic who grew up in Northern Ireland outside the urban centers of Derry and Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s. Children who experience the events, however, acquire much of their awareness of the action that takes place through adult conversations heard and imperfectly understood. Because the adults in their lives are newly obsessed with listening to and discussing the news, “The sisters quickly learned not to interrupt these discussions, nor to make noise while the news was on the radio or on the phone. television ”. Their own lives, however, revolve even more around “a spell test at school, or a visit to the dentist, or the prospect of going to the movies in Magherafelt or Ballymena”.
For the older sister, 13 at the time, the line between innocence and a terrible deal was crossed shortly after Bloody Friday, July 21, 1972, when the IRA detonated at least 20 bombs across Belfast in just over an hour, killing 11 people, most of whom were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and injuring 130 others. Late at night, she hears her father come downstairs and finds him smoking alone in the kitchen. He calls her to his side and hugs her tightly:
“What if . . . ?” he said finally, and kissed her harder. “What if . . . ?” but he couldn’t finish what he was trying to say, and she realized he was crying. She knew now, all of a sudden, what he was thinking; and there in the darkness it was as if she had already lost him, as if her loved body had already been violently destroyed. They clung to each other like people rescued from a shipwreck or a burning building; but it was no use, the disaster had already happened. All over the country, people were experiencing the nightmare that she dreaded now more than anything. Who was she to think she deserved to be spared? He led her back to his room and hugged the blankets tightly around her in the bed; he stroked her face and told her he loved her; he told her to sleep. But she acquired a dark knowledge that night that will never leave her.
Knowledge of how quickly lives could be arbitrarily interrupted or wasted lurked behind the backs of all Northern Irish people of adult consciousness during the Troubles – a phenomenon that our own more recent experience may help us understand. a new way.
My QUB students didn’t have this pandemic experience, but they were still viscerally linked to Madden’s novel. It was a favorite dish for students of Protestant descent, who loved to encounter familiar Northern Irish landscapes, expressions and cultural practices with a Catholic perspective they were much less familiar with. The narration of the novel, mainly from the point of view of mature children, made this perspective accessible to them.
Several students commented that the book would also be “educational” for those outside Northern Ireland seeking to understand it better. At a time when Irish teenagers have no personal memories of the turmoil of the past century, I think Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness should be read in schools on both sides of the border.
Marilynn Richtarik, professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has published books on the Field Day Theater Company and playwright Stewart Parker. She is currently writing a book on literature and the peace process in Northern Ireland.