How do you write a city that hasn’t decided what it’s going to be next? In the latest of our series of long reads, writer Róisín Lanigan explores the literary history of Belfast, and the new generation of writers chronicling the city’s post-Troubles era.
Other cities are more easily defined. They come with lazy cultural touchstones, ways of reading the people and the buildings and the history, things you can grasp to understand, if not the actual place itself, then at least its space within the collective imagination. What, then, is Belfast? For those old enough, Belfast is politicians with their voices dubbed over on the evening news; grainy footage of fire and rubble; emaciated, painfully young men, their eyes like saucers; red beret wearing teenagers from Warrington and Essex who could be their classmates alternately being spat at and handed cups of milky tea.
For a long time Belfast was defined by these images, by the Troubles, by violence. In fiction, writers from Joan Lingard to Bernard MacLaverty threaded a legacy of Troubles fiction that became a shorthand for the Belfast novel. Recently though, new additions to the Belfast canon, like Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses – which tells the story of an extramarital affair – and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies – in which one short story depicts a Belfast student buying pills online, illegally, to end an unwanted pregnancy – have begun to centre themselves more on watchfulness and anxiety than explicit political violence, bringing the conflict’s psychological legacy into focus.
Today in Belfast you’re more likely to be traumatised by a £7 pint or a two bedroom flat for £1200 pcm than you are by a coded warning. Buildings are still demolished by explosion, but only by developers. The crowds of young men landing at Belfast International Airport are stags, not soldiers, the vehicles rolling through Royal Avenue are party buses, not armoured Saracens. The city has re-defined itself in less than a generation. I was born in the early nineties, old enough to remember Omagh and decommissioning, young enough to feel like it’s ancient history now. It feels like the transformation from ‘red zone’ area to weekend party destination has happened at breakneck speed.
As a place Belfast feels both ancient and brand new; streets upon streets of sleek new hotels, a town that comes to a standstill during the Twelfth. That uncertainty and duality can be felt not just in tourism but in literature too – a new genre of Belfast novel is emerging, a new generation of writers from the North determined to create their own reality through literary fiction. But how, exactly, do you write a city that hasn’t decided what it’s going to be next just yet?
A wave of novels writing this new Belfast have emerged in the past few years. It’s tempting to define this genre of fiction as ‘millennial’ or ‘post-Troubles’, but it’s probably most accurate to simply call it ‘the new Belfast novel’, a form that is defining itself and the city in tandem with the city’s creation of itself. Susannah Dickey’s Common Decency is an examination of loneliness and obsession told through the lens of two young women, both living alone in the same block of flats. The block of flats happens to be in Belfast, but it’s easy to forget. Any importance the place might have had to either woman’s life is secondary. Political conflict is a low-level rumbling behind the more quotidian irritating conflicts of ordinary life. They mourn mothers, boyfriends, opportunities. When the overhang of the conflict infringes on their lives, they view it through the lens of these more universal losses; a journalist being murdered on the Falls Road is an impetus to wonder whether a man will text about it, an argument about the Twelfth of July is a conduit for fighting with your mother.
This year, Rachel Connolly’s Lazy City and Michael Magee’s Close to Home joined the new Belfast canon. Although the novels share a hometown and an experience common to millennial life in the north (going away, living in England, then inevitably returning, the old adage of the Irish boomerang), they ultimately paint distinct, separate pictures of Belfast, as though to illustrate the true, heterogeneous nature of the city for its young people. Although Magee’s book, set in the west, and Connolly’s, which unfolds mainly in the south, are separated geographically by only a few miles, their cities are in many ways unconnected, individual to each protagonist. The place is united by few facts, primarily that their prodigal returns are watched over by the mystical spectre of the Black Mountain. ‘Mountains everywhere,’ writes Connolly. ‘A landscape that won’t let you forget that there was a time when all the earth would do was pull itself apart and smash back together.’ That same prehistoric landscape looms over Close to Home. Magee writes that it’s ‘everywhere you go, every street and road in West Belfast, you can’t get away from it.’
You could draw a thread to either from Seamus Heaney’s North, published in one of the most violent years of the conflict. Although Heaney was not from Belfast (he was born on the family farm of Mossbawn near Castledawson), he lived in the city during his early career and studied at QUB and cemented himself as part of the larger Belfast Group. Heaney’s Ireland, as influenced by his pastoral childhood, is not just a place of violence and politics but also an ancient place of bog queens and fossils and hills. When he writes about the North he does so as confirmation that it’s both these places, both these things. Even the most violent acts of brutality are used by Heaney as a starting point to situate the violence of the Troubles in a historical, almost mythical context; in ‘Punishment’ a girl tarred and feathered for fraternising with soldiers is imagined as a bog body, a beautiful, ‘flaxen-haired’ ‘little adultress’ caught up in an act of ‘tribal, intimate revenge’. In other words, even faced with the reality of violence, there was an awareness in Heaney, as there is with Connolly and Magee, that the current place is not the always place. Although the impact of the Troubles was seismic, both Heaney and these new Belfast novels live with a more ancient awareness of the land and the city within it, an awareness that change is the only constant. Heaney wrote that he was tempted to ‘diagnose a rebirth in our plight’. That lineage has carried down to the new Belfast novel, to young writers who have their own viewpoints on change, on the modern pushing back against history.
‘Today’s Belfast protagonists find themselves in a city caught up in the business of rapidly transforming itself.’
Today’s Belfast protagonists find themselves in a city caught up in the business of rapidly transforming itself. In his seminal poem Belfast Confetti, Ciaran Carson described the city being blasted apart around him, leaving him unable to navigate or recognise it anymore. In Where Are We Now, Glenn Patterson’s characters don’t recognise their city anymore either, but it’s not because of bombs. It’s because tourists crowd the once empty streets desperate to see Titanic and Game of Thrones locations. In Common Decency, Susannah Dickey’s Cathedral Quarter and Botanic are depicted as spaces on the frontlines of gentrification in the North; the streets are filled with homeless people, but Siobhán’s boyfriend is mostly just pleasantly surprised to find the drinks are cheaper here than they are in Dublin.
The most obvious answer when the external has been revolutionised so quickly is to look to the internal instead. If previous decades of Belfast fiction told stories driven by place and circumstance, by violence that infringed on interiority, today’s fiction is a reversal and a rejection of that. What our parents’ generation might have called ‘notions’, but what others might call emotionality or interiority, pervades the new Belfast novel. Connolly, Magee and Dickey create interior worlds that rival the richness of the exterior, protagonists who frequently believe one thing and do another. When religion enters the universe of these novels, it’s atavistic and reflective; existing as acts of silent prayer and soul-searching rather than as a form of politics or community. In Lazy City, Erin retreats to an empty church to come to terms with her grief. Pregabalin is a post-Troubles scourge on modern Belfast, yet to fully reckon with the trauma and anxiety left behind from decades of living in a city liable to explode at any moment. In Close to Home, Sean gives up on prayer when he asks God to stop his friends dying of drug overdoses.
This is how the legacy of the Troubles truly exists in modern fiction from the North; in the form of ‘intergenerational trauma’, a phenomenon so well known to millennials in Belfast that it’s become a buzzword in itself. In Close to Home, Sean’s mother can’t shake the idea that paramilitaries might still burst in through her door and murder her. The people around him can’t deal with what they’ve seen, what they’ve experienced; they don’t have the support or the vocabulary to articulate it so it just hangs around, festering in place. ‘He had that deadened look you see in people who have been through some bad stuff in their lives, when it all just sort of sits there, in your head,’ he writes. In Connolly’s Lazy City, little has progressed; ‘Nobody here calls psychiatrists psychiatrists or psychologists psychologists or counsellors counsellors. Just like nobody says mental health or addiction or trauma. People say a doctor, or he always drank, or that someone is on the spectrum.’ This kind of diminution is typical of Belfast, so allergic to ideas of ‘notions’, so inured to enforced silence as a trauma response, that the mental health fallout from the Troubles will perhaps never be fully addressed.
As Heaney touches on in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, the idea of talking candidly and openly – either handing information to the authorities or talking about your own feelings – is considered anathema to Belfast culture – ‘The famous / Northern reticence, the tight gag of place / And times.’ It might be that the dominant stereotype of the Irish is a gregarious, chatty figure, but when it comes to discussing anything serious, that stereotype doesn’t hold. Addressing trauma, particularly across generations, is simply not the done thing. To do so would be having notions, a kind of pretension. If other people are able to deal with it, this attitude seems to say, why can’t you? It’s unsurprising given that repressive atmosphere that the current generation of Belfast novelists are those leaning into introspection.
‘The conflict’s fallout hangs around in a watchfulness, a claustrophobia that anyone who grew up in the North will be familiar with’
Instead of a conspicuous pain and violence, the conflict’s fallout hangs around in a watchfulness, a claustrophobia that anyone who grew up in the North will be familiar with; a culture of surveillance that persists in the personal long after it has left the political. The day-to-day danger of the Troubles passed, but the culture of paranoia remains. Close to Home’s Sean wonders if his taxi driver used to be a volunteer, but he daren’t ask; he resists new experiences because he ‘doesn’t want to make a dick of [himself]’. ‘Everywhere I looked, I saw people I didn’t want to be around, and it tired me out,’ Magee writes. ‘Being constantly on edge, constantly watchful.’ Watchfulness, rumour and gossip are pervasive in Lazy City and Common Decency too; Dickey’s characters break into each other’s apartments, in Lazy City, Erin’s mother appears to be tracking her running routes. The violence of those paranoid times may have abated in the decades since, but the paranoia didn’t. It lingered, and now it’s reflected back at us in fiction.
Given the inherent watchfulness of the culture, the self-checking of the individual, it’s no wonder that our fiction is so idiosyncratic. These books are as dissimilar as they are alike. Their duality, though, makes perfect sense in the context of the place they’re set. Duality is in-built to Belfast; many of its citizens hold two passports, the place itself has two names (Northern Ireland as opposed to ‘the North of Ireland’). For so long it was a city conceptualised as something torn in half, but in reality it’s better to imagine Belfast as a city within a city, a place of dichotomy and overlap; Protestant and Catholic, young and old, men and women, working class and middle class, and of all the grey areas within these categorisations, too. In reality, people don’t exist within these either/or categorisations. Some are neither. Some are both. Even the language of the place is rife with doubling and the uncanny, a secret dialect of Hiberno-English that you can only understand if you’re one of us. A place of ‘here he bes to me’ and ‘no matter what you say, say nothing’. All of the jokes come with a jag and none of the compliments are actually compliments. If you know you know.
But still, those from outside Belfast – and Ireland in general – those who you might not first expect to just know do appear to, well . . . know. Irish fiction has dominated in 2023 more than in recent memory. Almost a third of the Booker Prize-longlisted authors this year were Irish, with the organisation heralding in a ‘new age of Irish fiction’. These new entries to the canon choose not to foreground the Troubles, resisting the expectation for Irish writers, particularly Irish writers from Belfast, to write in a certain way, about certain things. They create a new city, for their generation, for their class, for their friends and families, for their lives. They reject ownership of a conflict they never chose to have a part in in life and appear to want little part in reflecting in fiction.
On Castle Street, a small road that leads out of Belfast’s town centre to the west of the city, a facade covering an empty retail unit has been decorated with the words of ‘Turn Again’, another poem from Ciaran Carson. ‘Today’s plan is yesterday’s’, it reads. ‘The streets that were there are gone.’ Castle Street, a rundown area on the edge of a rapidly gentrifying centre, is frequently full of empty units. When the poem came up once in a seminar I was in at Queen’s, I was bemused to find that many of the other students in my class found the poem to be tragic. I wondered how many of these people had an idea of what some of our streets used to look like before they were reimagined and reborn. I wondered if any of them had ever been to Castle Street. Belfast reimagines itself constantly. In years to come, we’ll look back at the Belfast novels of today and wonder, I think, what city they were depicting. Perhaps it’ll be as alien to readers in the future as the seventies Belfast of previous generations of the city’s fiction.
‘We hug our little destiny again,’ Heaney writes in North. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Belfast we create our little destiny, over and over again. A place with an outsized influence on literature and politics, a place where the only thing that remains static is the ancient, mystical landscape that surrounds a grey, changeling basin of a city. ‘This is not the end’ Ciaran Carson wrote. I hope he was right.