A Journey to the Underworld

Thomas Paul Burgess

An interview with Thomas Paul Burgess,

author of Through Hollow Lands by  – Urbane Press.

Paul Burgess, punk star, academic and novelist, was back home in the Shankill this week for a dander round old haunts and an interview about his latest novel, Through Hollow Lands.

This book is a study in evil. It is one of the best novels I have read for years.

What I want to know is how a Belfast working-class background leads to this, a book set around the 9/11 attacks on the US. From where does he derive such plausible studies of evil and redemption. Is it because you are a Protestant?

Well, sort of.

One might as well ask, however, how such a start in life, in a two-bedroom house in Jersey Street, to parents who had had minimal education, led to him being a drummer and songwriter for the punk band Ruefrex and what would take a man on from there to doing his Masters degree in Oxford and now being a lecturer at Cork University.

It all seems so unlikely.

As for why the book is set around the 9/11 attacks, Burgess says that he had a near miss. He had made a last-minute dash to board a plane to Las Vegas, while on a fly-and-drive holiday with his wife, torn between that option and Flight 93 to San Francisco.

The lightness with which they made that decision saved their lives. They woke up in their Las Vegas Hotel room to a call from home to check that they were safe. Then he turned on the television.

They saw the Towers fall and learned that they were to be stuck in Las Vegas. No flights were taking to the air at all.

And that sets the basis of the story in his book.

“It was surreal.”


Through Hollow Lands

My well thumbed copy

The twist that unfolds, however, is that Las Vegas, for lead character George Bailey is not what it seems.

Bailey is the sort of man it is easier to describe with expletives. He is a worthless liar and a cheat.

Good women have loved him and suffered for it.

We meet them in the book too.

But as George’s journey takes him deeper into Hell we see that he is by not the worst that a human being can be.

And there are angels who even now seek to redeem him.

There are people — and he has crossed them — for whom the depths of evil are the only redemption they can conceive of, for whom wisdom comes with loss of innocence.

But George Bailey has been given a second chance. His Las Vegas is a sort of purgatory, in which the sins of his past revisit him and he has a second chance.

The echo here, of course, is with that other George Bailey, played by James Stewart in A Wonderful Life, who is given a vision of how much worse off the world would be without him. In Through Hollow Lands, George is shown how much worse the world is because of him.

I put it to Paul Burgess, this is religious thinking.

“I have often wondered if human beings are fundamentally good, but capable of great evil, or fundamentally evil, but capable of great good,” he says. “As I grow older, I begin to think it’s the latter.”

Original sin. The fallen state.


But he also says the book can be read as a comment on modern America.

“It’s ultimately about the redemption of the United States, because the main political premiss that runs through it is how America has fallen from grace, fallen away from the American dream. And my belief is that the catalyst for that was 9/11.

“And so, while the rest of the novel is about a wrestling match for the soul of George Bailey, it is also for the soul of what the American dream is supposed to be about.”

Burgess failed his 11-Plus and went to the Boys’ Model in Ballysillan. He demonstrated an interest in reading and a teacher encouraged him to do exams.He took a job as a clerk in Shorts and finished A-levels at night classes.

One consolation in this struggle was his love of drumming.

“The first time I played drums was in the Pride of Ardoyne Flute band, when I was 16. It was a genuine community thing. A lot of my buddies were in the band. It was a good way to meet girls.”

But the fit was not a good one, between his growing political awareness and the wider culture of loyalism.

“After about a year, it was plain that a lot of the associated culture was inconsistent with my emerging political analysis, which is that there are aspects of this triumphalism that I can’t sanction and don’t want to be part of. So I walked from that.”

He formed Ruefrex with other local boys. With Tom Coulter, a bass player, they made a single with Terry Hooley. It got played on Radio 1 by John Peel.

“And you couldn’t put a price on that at the time. Write-ups in NME.”

Playing one night at the University of Ulster he saw the attractions in being a student, so caught up again with education, only to find himself behind again.

His peers had moved on before he got in.

But he enjoyed his studies of literature and graduated, only to find himself back in the Boys’ Model and other Shankill schools as a supply teacher. This was going to be rough.

He had one boy tell him he would get his da’ up to shoot him and even had to put on a bit of swagger to counter threats like that.

“Then word went round that Burgess is connected and I enjoyed that for a time and then got sick of it.”

He faced a tension between being part of a working-class Protestant community but not a monarchist, or a loyalist.

“I variously went through stages of being apologetic and, as I moved into bourgeois, middle-class circles and then flipping and saying my community is as entitled to a cultural expression as anybody else’s and just because it doesn’t tick a lot of the boxes that are currently politically correct, I’m not sure that that’s enough.”

A chance came to go to London, sleep on floors, revive the band, make albums.

In a very short time he was successful beyond his dreams, being played on daytime radio.

For a time in London, the music Press liked the idea that he was from the Shankill and made him out to be an extremist, often contrasting Ruefrex with a band from Derry, That Petrol Emotion.

You can still see him looking stiff and formal in his white shirt and moustache on old videos, hammering out the beat to the Wild Colonial Boy, not the traditional version, but a sneering parody on the attitude of the Irish American who supports the IRA. The song ends with the words: “It really gives me such a thrill/to kill from far away.”

But success wasn’t going to last, forever. He saw himself being a teacher again and decided to get properly qualified, applied to Oxford, since there was nothing to lose, and to his surprise got in.

Then he taught a year in Chipping Norton and went back to Oxford to do a Masters degree by research on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland.

He has great stories about that time and later that are not in the books.

A hate figure for him — perhaps a study in evil — is a former headmaster who suspended him and made him bring his parents into school and humiliated them.

He believes in class-based politics, a perspective drawn from his mother’s work in a clothing factory owned by Brian Faulkner, the former Northern Ireland prime minister, and his brother.

He recalls the deference shown to the Faulkners. Years later, after Oxford, he was working on the Opsahl Commission, a project to assess the prospects of peace in Northern Ireland, when he received a message that Lady Lucy Faulkner wanted him to call on her.

Intrigued, he visited her at home.

She had a job for him. She wanted him to move some boxes.

“I told Davy Ervine that story, God rest him, and he got a great laugh out of it.”


This article was first published in The Belfast Telegraph, September 15, 2018


This is the text of a speech I made at QUB last week, launching The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics.


book coverI have already saved myself a bit of work and possible embarrassment with this book. For John Coakley and Tony Gallagher have done the research for me into demographic shift, political attitudes and the evolution of catholic education.

What we have here is a collection of perspectives on what we call the catholic community. It is diverse enough to be of value to thinkers and writers in a wide range of fields, from memoir and biography – from Connal Parr and Stephen Hopkins –  to the breast beating of republicans from Niall Gilmartin an Anthony McIntyre – to the analyses of where we are and where we have come from – from Claire Pearson on Abortion rights to Brian Hanley’s accounts of how the expectations of refugees from west Belfast clashed with the good intentions of those who made haste to help them in 1971.

The first thing to be said about this book is that it belongs on the shelf of every serious writer and commentator on Northern Ireland, the academic, the journalist or the blogger.

And the conception itself seems to recognise the diverse appetite out there for sound research by drawing together writers from different fields.

My main point is this: The Catholic community will decide the future of the Union and therefore has to be understood and engaged with by anyone interested in preserving the Union or dispensing with it.

Some people have not caught onto this yet. Theresa May has.

In a conversation she was reported to have had with Jacob Rees Mogg last year, she is said to have expressed a fear that the ‘moderate nationalists’ – her phrase – would react to a hard Brexit by opting for a united Ireland.

More recently, Newsnight reported that the Secretary of State – who should perhaps read this book too and a few others I could suggest – had decided not to call an election to the Assembly because a nationalist majority would leave her with no argument against a border poll.

On the other hand we have David Trimble and others arguing that the fear of a growing demand for a united Ireland is being whipped up by Sinn Fein and that it has no substance.

Unionism, it strikes me, is being uncommonly blithe about the changing context, having arguably over-reacted in the past when it thought that the IRA was a real threat to the integrity of the UK, an estimation of the clout of republicans which was shared only by republicans themselves.

So the people who panicked in the past say there is no need to panic now, though the circumstances are radically different. But it is good they are not panicking. It’s not so good that they are not noticing the breadth of change.

The first big change is that the unionist majority has gone. The proportionate rise in the catholic population that was the bogey of much unionism throughout the history of Northern Ireland, has arrived.

Coakley tells us it is expected that the 2021 census will reflect a catholic majority.

This means that the Protestant Ulster that Ian Paisley senior sought to defend has gone.

The argument that the Union must be preserved to prevent protestant Ulster being absorbed into its Romish neighbour is obsolete. It is dead, an ex-argument.

So one of the traditional props of the Union, the call to arms in defence of the faith is now only of historic interest, as irrelevant to our current politics as the prestige of Catholic bishops, who used to be received on the Falls Road and in Andersonstown or Creggan with bunting and cheering crowds. My mother, if she had ever been allowed close enough proximity to a bishop would have been expected to kneel before him and kiss his ring.

Now, at best, their eminences can hope for a bit of normal civility, and they mightn’t even get that.

It may indeed be a sign of a new generosity in the unionist community that it has not reacted with alarm to this new circumstance, that the Union requires catholic support to continue, and trusts so lightly that that support is there.

There can be no Union now other than one endorsed cross community.

Yet there is a sectarian assumption at work there too, that Identity matters more to protestants than it does to catholics.

Indeed, Dr McIntyre alludes to this as a reality in his chapter where he says that unionists are much more concerned to defend the union than nationalists are to get rid of it.

The implication is that unionists preserve the Union out of love for it, a passionate sense that their identity relies on it. Catholics are different – they are more concerned about what side their bread is buttered on.

But this diagnosis is tested by Brexit and the insult that our Irishness is of no consequence when an English nationalist majority makes a decision, without our support, to overhaul all our relationships, The presumption is made – wrongly, I think – that a few practical concerns about trade across a frictionless border – if they can be met – go to the heart of the problem.

We will see. I don’t know. We may be discovering, through this experiment, aspects of the character of the Northern catholic community that we hadn’t weighed up before, like a possible preference among many – enough to make a difference – for mending relations in the North over uniting the island into a single jurisdiction. Who of us doesn’t feel more at home in Ballymena than in Ballinasloe?

But that is not the only question before us.

A conjunction of phenomena has emerged like a startling planetary alignment.

Catholic Ireland is being dissolved. Even if there still was a protestant majority, and if Paisley was at his thunderous best, he could no longer claim that the Republic is a catholic state being manipulated by the Papacy.

In fact, the idea is so laughable that some of you may need reminded that this was a powerful conviction in play during the Troubles period.  The Rev Martin Smyth, later Grand Master of the Orange Order and an Ulster Unionist MP, told a Vanguard rally in the Ormeau Park in 1972 that the killing would stop immediately if the Bishop of Rome would put his house in order.

At the same time as we have a loosening of the grip of the church over Irish catholics, appalled by abuse scandals and entering into the general European trend towards secularisation, we have a counter force in the North in the form of the DUP, determined to resist same sex marriage and abortion law reform.

So, at a  time when we might have seen chauvinistic rages settle down, we have a new dividing line.

And this has led to disaffection with devolution in the North among catholics and nationalists.

We can trace the collapse of Stormont to the RHI scandal and the denial of a stand alone Irish language act, but if we look to why so many people don’t seem to care if it comes back or not, among catholics and nationalists, distaste of the DUP and a lack of enthusiasm for restoring to them the power to block social reform is, I think, primary.

I suspect even Sinn Fein has been taken by surprise by this.

So forces are in play that were not in play during the Troubles, the demographic shift, secularisation North and South and an aversion to the social conservatism of the DUP.

And Brexit.

Which might turn out fine.

A DUP adviser tells me that they expect that everything will be OK after next March, people will realise it was all a fuss over very little and then we can settle back into routine politics.

Implied in this is a confidence that the catholic community can be relied on, in sufficient numbers, to endorse the Union – though never calling themselves Unionists – and we’ll put Stormont back up and either make a new bigger deal to secure it, or hobble on to the next breakdown.

But crucially, if the protestant majority was the prop that secured the Union for a century, cross community support is the only prop that can sustain it further, and that means that the de facto unionists in the catholic community have to be kept onside.

Recognising that Catholic community support from now on must be a cornerstone of the Union, or there will be no Union,  requires an appeal to the northern catholic sense of identity in a future that may not include a British economy that is stronger than an Irish one.

Who can say our butter won’t be on the other side of the piece in a decade from now?

The Worst a Man Can Be

Three powerful new novels by Northern Irish male writers this year all have something in common. All draw on previous stories and find a freedom in that device to explore evil.

Thomas Paul Burgess takes an idea from the James Stewart film A Wonderful Life and reverses it. This idea is that a man might, in his despondency, meet an angel who will show him the best that he has done with his life and revive his will to go on.

Thomas Paul Burgess

In Through Hollow Lands, another George Bailey, who is a complete shit, is shown the worst that he has done and given a prospect of redemption. The result is bleak, hilarious and quite awesome in its embrace of a truly daunting idea, that with real badness comes insight.

Richard O’Rawe touches on the same idea when he creates criminal geniuses and pits them against each other in his novel, Northern Heist, based on the 2004 Northern  Bank robbery. O’Rawe takes the known and familiar elements of the story, the tiger kidnappings in their brutality, and weaves a new story. What we are left with is a sense, similar to that in Burgess’s book, that we have come close enough to touch people we would never want to meet, and found them fascinating.

Richard O'Rawe

Then Michael Hughes in Country, tells the story of the Iliad through IRA rivalries in South Armagh, starting of course, with the taking of a woman. The raw dialogue of low and vicious people becomes epic and Hughes shows how insights into war are timeless and universal. (I didn’t get a pic of Michael.)

None of these writers know each other, yet.  All are at early stages in their careers as fiction writers. All have found the similar devices of modelling their story on someone else’s; in O’Rawe’s case on the news coverage of a robbery. And all have done this to explore the worst brutality a person might be capable of.




Victory on abortion does not necessarily remove it as a contentious issue. It will be hard for political parties now to take up pro life positions. Any that argue for tighter legislation than proposed will be viewed as ultra conservative. But the abortion question did not die in US politics after Roe v Wade. So what happens next in Ireland? We may presume that those who passionately believe that abortion is murder will continue to oppose it. They will see themselves as meeting a moral responsibility with courage. The may see Northern Ireland as the last defensible bastion of human decency and organise to preserve it as such.
Already I have seen Catholics campaigning for the DUP because of their abortion position.
Yet I foresee abortion rights in Northern Ireland becoming a focus for reform, much more important than an Irish Language Act. Now the secular liberal minded young will be more averse to seeing the return of devolution if it involves the DUP having its continued veto on social reform.

There will inevitably be some payback for the dismissal of the NI vote to Remain. At the extreme end of what that might be is the possibility of a border poll and a united Ireland resulting from that. At the other end is just a lingering dissatisfaction at England having made a decision for us over our heads.
The understanding of our position enshrined in the GFA is that we are not as British as Finchley, we have Irish and therefore EU citizenship, should we chose to exercise that ‘birthright’, and that we have the right to vote ourselves out of the UK – Nixit? Norxit?
The presumption then that our vote just goes into the bigger pool and has negligible meaning is a reversal of that trend and is wounding.
But how might we respond to that?
Many of us are likely to want to change the terms on which we relate to GB, much as Scotland wanted to drive ahead for Devo Max after the failed referendum on independence. Of course this was promised and reneged of, but two countries of the UK being treated like vassals brings the same question into sharper focus.
We would have been saved this insult if we had been members of the UK on similar terms to those in which the UK is a member of the EU, that is with a veto. Germany and France can act jointly as the big beast in the EU, overshadowing the others, yet even Lithuania has a veto on major decisions.
I suggest that after Brexit we seek to renegotiate the terms of the Union, holding out the threat of scuppering it altogether – Nixit/Norxit – if this demand is ignored. Simply, it is wrong that we would leave ourselves vulnerable to having decisions made for us, against our interests, by English nationalists.
Of course we would be in a much stronger position if we could be self sustaining, and we can’t.
But I foresee the possibility that if Brexit goes badly and Britain is humiliated, it is England that will take the blame. The Remain factions in Scotland, NI and London will be in a position to say to England, We told you so!
That won’t be much good, however morally satisfying, yet England too will feel the need of a political leadership untainted by Brexit if it turns out to be a disaster.
Another possibility is that English Nationalism will then blame Ireland for its problems and that the demand for Nixit/Norxit will come from them.

Power-sharing was devised as a system to ensure representation of a minority community in the governing of Northern Ireland. It was needed by the ‘catholic/nationalist’ community which was otherwise put upon and disadvantaged. The system did not work for most of the time between its being devised and the time at which ‘catholics/nationalists’ ceased to be a minority, but that was because the context of political violence made government here impossible. Essentially the IRA vetoed power-sharing through its campaign and its demand for full Irish unity.
Power-sharing may also become necessary in the future to protect a ‘protestant/unionist’ community. But it may be no coincidence that the period in which it fails to function is when these communities are almost equally balanced.
In circumstances in which competing ideologies approach balance, as in GB through most of my life, the system which works best, or at least well enough to avert the threat of revolution, is majority rule. The competing forces battle it out in debate and the result is decided by the vacillating minority or middle ground.
But for us being locked into a power-sharing system now, this might work here better than it ever has before. Neither SF nor the DUP would be able to govern alone and would have to form coalitions with each other or with other parties. This would force both to compromise on hard principle – which would be a good thing. A system of majority rule, which produced conflict when it was ossified for fifty years, might now be the system that would work for the erosion of sectarian blocs.
Yet both of these blocs would have to agree to it and neither, it seems would be able to consent to being governed, if only for periods, by the other. However much Labour and the Tories hate each other in England and Wales, they do consent to being governed by each other, do agree to that being better than not being governed at all.
We, unfortunately, are free to exercise that option of not being governed at all.

A Civic Unionism?

In the 1990s there were several people who advanced the idea of a ‘civic unionism’. Norman Porter, Stephen King and Robert McCartney and others developed these ideas. They had a strong influence over David Trimble. Their argument was that Unionism could be a link into a multi cultural Britain that was far more interesting a context to be part of than a narrow Catholic Ireland.
And this is a potentially appealing idea.
But where was the Unionist with a multicultural perspective, who was British in that way?
Unionists knew they had to enlarge their conception of what they were about because the world was looking in and thought a united Ireland was obviously a decent aspiration to work for; that it would even be better for unionists.
And demography was working against the unionist majority, so nationalists had to be given a sense of belonging here. There were hundreds of thousands of people from the catholic community who were not especially interested in a united Ireland but they weren’t voting for unionist parties. If unionism could present itself as culturally inclusive it could win these people over and rely on their support for the Union through the coming years in which the Protestant community would be in a minority.
But no one made the move. And the GFA prompted the consolidation of communal blocs – not their intermingling.
Arlene helped bring Trimble down and went with the DUP, though perhaps liberalising the DUP at the same time as destroying the Ulster Unionist Party which was exploring the civic unionism idea.
At the same time, Ireland became more liberal and less Catholic and the ‘better off with us even though we don’t like you very much’ argument of Unionism lost appeal.
This is a big problem for the DUP.
If they take the view that they are safe within the Union because catholics who don’t vote for them, and who they don’t seek to include, will not dump them out of the Union – because that’s what the polls say – then they are taking a big risk.
If Catholics only stay within the Union while they expect to be economically better off there – that can change with the next recession; it offers unionists no guarantee.
I was on Nolan yesterday with Jim Wells who smugly assumes that the ‘moderate nationalists’ are in the bag – Unionism having done nothing to cultivate their interest in the Union. The man’s a geg!
So Arlene wants us to see her as culturally inclusive while she is leader of an almost totally white and Protestant political party. [Thanks to Davy Crockett for correction.]
She is certainly not culturally inclusive in any sense that would be understood in the rest of Britain, where her party’s traditional distaste for gays makes it contemptible.
But if she is signalling that she wants to be inclusive and to change the character or her party, let her get on with it.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have the same problem – all white, monocultural parties – though both have tried to seek a broader international context, through Europe and America, through links to the Palestinians (and Colombians!!) for SF, through celebration of the EU for the SDLP.
Neither has done enough to absorb people from the Protestant community who might be tempted by some of their thinking. SF continues to celebrate murder. The SDLP is coming late to the idea of supporting abortion in limited circumstances, SF having just squeezed themselves into that growing consensus ahead of them.
And each doubts that its dependable support base would let it move anyway.

How Brexit Offends.

People continue to frame the problem of Ireland and Brexit around the potential for a hard border triggering violence. That may happen but it is not the bigger picture as I see it.
The offensive part of Brexit for many is the presumption that the NI majority for Remain has no meaning, that our votes simply pool in with the UK’s as a whole. This ignores the fact that NI is already a semi detached part of the UK, that unlike in other parts, the entire population is entitled to EU citizenship and passports; that NI is not as British as Finchley, indeed that international treaties like the GFA have been created to acknowledge the Irishness of all in NI who choose to identify as Irish.
It follows from this that people so affronted by the disregard for their vote and for their special status within the UK might react. The greater likelihood is not that they would be violent but that they would insist in other ways on their EU membership being acknowledged. They have at their disposal something which no other grouping in the UK has, the option of voting themselves back into the EU through a Border Poll.
Theresa May says she fears that ‘moderate nationalists’ may break up the UK. And she is right to identify ‘moderate nationalists as a greater problem now – a greater imponderable – than militant republicans.
But there is another problem within NI and that is the veto which Evangelical Christians exercise over social reform through the DUP. This prevents Northern Ireland modernising alongside the rest of Britain, Ireland and Europe. It condemns us to being a redneck backwater.
This also has, potentially, the same remedy as Brexit, a border poll that would merge us with the Republic inside the EU where social progress could continue according to the will of the majority and free of the drag of religion.
Until recently it would have seemed absurd to seek social reform on issues like abortion and same sex marriage through joining the Irish Republic, but now the republic is liberalising faster than we are and many here want to be part of that change too.
That creates the possibility of a border poll being seen as a solution not just by ‘moderate nationalists’ but by secular minded, liberal thinking people in the ‘Protestant community’, people who loved their Britishness for the sake of its secular character in preference to ‘Catholic Ireland’ and will be held back in NI now in a way that they would not be in the Republic – or in GB if it ultimately made more sense to them to move there.

The biggest challenge for the DUP is not to save Stormont but to save the Union.
You save Stormont by appealing to Sinn Fein.
You save the Union by appealing to ‘moderate nationalists’ who vote for Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance, the Greens or others or not at all.
The border poll vote, when it comes will fail or win on the decisions of those softer nationalists who might swing either way depending on the economy or the extent to which they feel NI is made in their image.

So how is the DUP to win these people over to the Union?
In the past they were, effectively, small ‘u’ unionists, for they were content with NI, worked its public services, paid their taxes and didn’t support the IRA. So it should be easy. Right?
No one expects them to vote for the DUP, of course, but how do you secure the Union in the long term if you have ‘moderate nationalists’ vacillating in their endorsement of it, because of Brexit, socially conservative politics and unionism being defined as essentially Orange?
You need a huge civic unionist party here that does not set shibboleths for taigs. And there isn’t one. Unionism’s moment for readjusting its trajectory to include catholics – if that was ever possible – may have passed.
If they ever saw that need, and most of them didn’t, they were hampered by a sense of siege (understandable enough) by association with a theology that said Catholics weren’t even christian, and by a chauvinistic attachment to a way of being British that, in England, actually makes them look like rednecks.