Archive for September, 2018

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


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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?

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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.




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