Re-Writing Belfast

Caroline Magennis

In April 2012, the Northern Irish writer Glenn Patterson published his eighth novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, with Faber. The book is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s first ever selection for One City, One Book for Belfast. In this time of ‘post’-conflict civic regeneration, the Literary Belfast project has, in vacant storefronts and other city-wide locations, displayed quotations from Belfast authors. Patterson features prominently. If Patterson is Belfast’s novelist of choice, what does that say about how the contemporary city understands itself? What does this tell us about how culture interacts with conflict resolution and the debates over a conflictual past and a ‘shared future’? The dominant discourse around conflict resolution is that the past must somehow be ‘dealt with’ although, naturally, that relies on an agreement as to what the past actually constitutes. Organisations such Healing through Remembering, the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity, and the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster are engaged with this process. Writing specifically about the Northern Irish context, Stefanie Lehner terms this ‘the onerous ethical presence of the past that continues to haunt the Northern Irish peace process, impeding its prospects for positive and lasting peace and reconciliation’. Graham Dawson contends ‘there is never any single meaning, but rather a plurality constructed through the telling of different stories that make different interpretations and draw differing conclusions’ (13). It is the role fiction plays in the contestation of meaning in ‘post’-conflict Northern Ireland that this essay seeks to explore.

Belfast Culture Night

How does contemporary Belfast understand itself? The Northern Irish peace process continues to draw on a plurality of shared narrative constructions of the city [Image by PLACE Architecture Centre under a CC BY-NC ND license]

These debates over the role of history, symbolism and identity are current in the political climate of Northern Ireland, as the recent City Hall flag protests have shown. This decade will see a raft of centenary anniversaries of hugely important political events. Already we have seen the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, where just under half a million of Unionists promised to use ‘all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present calamity to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland’, commemorated by 30,000 marchers in September 2012. Joe Lee notes that, in 1966, ‘Raucous nationalist celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising offered  [Ian] Paisley further opportunities for high-profile protests’ (427). Academic conferences and state-sponsored events are being considered for the centenary in 2016. 1916 also saw the Battle of the Somme, where the 36th Ulster Division suffered particularly high casualties. This event has become particularly important to Unionist culture and heritage. But, one of the most important historical commemorations for this essay will be the maritime fever of 2012 when, it seemed, the world became re-obsessed with the tragedy of the Titanic, built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. As tour guides insist on informing tourists: ‘It was alright when it left here’. There was a lurid Titanic mini-series on ITV, while cinema audiences steeled themselves for a re-release of James Cameron’s Titanic, now in 3D. In Belfast’s landmark ‘Titanic Quarter’ development by the docklands, a prominent museum to the ill-fated ship has been opened.

However, Glenn Patterson’s 2012 novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, does not directly address the Titanic but engages with Belfast’s maritime past more generally. Patterson chooses to focus on the other ‘big boat’ (11), the RMS Oceanic which was, for three years, the largest ship the world and was commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1914. Exactly one month after the ship was commissioned, on 8th September, the boat ran aground on a hidden reef on Foula in the Shetland Islands. The protagonist, Gilbert Rice gains employment as a Clerk at the Ballast Board, at the Port and Harbour of Belfast. There has been, however, critical work on the sectarianism of Belfast’s nineteenth century industries including Alvin Jackson’s comment that ‘The shipyards and linen firms had been effectively Unionist preserves’ (361). However, this novel is doing something more interesting than white-washing a problematic industrial past, and this chimes with Patterson’s fictional project.

Belfast Titanic Quarter

White-washing a problematic industrial past? Belfast’s recent regeneration of the Titanic Quarter signals the significance of the centennary anniversaries of political events in the city’s history [Image by Titanic Belfast under a CC BY license]

Patterson is the author of eight novels and a collection of non-fiction, Lapsed Protestant (2006). He is also a regular contributor to the local and national press, a documentary maker for the BBC and he co-wrote the screenplay to the film Good Vibrations (2013). At the beginning of his writing career, Eve Patten labelled him, together with Robert McLiam Wilson, as one of Northern Ireland’s ‘prodigal novelists’: ‘a new generation of writers who have come of age since the beginning of the Troubles and whose reconstructions of childhood experience effectively undercut the moral baggage and creative paralysis of their predecessors’ (129). During the tumultuous 1990s, with the early stages of a ‘Peace Process’ occurring at the same time as continued violence, Patterson considers the state of the novel: ‘…the fictional representations of Northern Ireland got stuck [in] about 1972; and it doesn’t look like that anymore […] It’s never the same story; it’s changing. At any one time it’s not one story, it’s at least a million and a half. And these stories are changing all the time and you’ve got to keep up with that. It’s got to be updated’ (Patterson 1995: 50). These early fictions and, in particular, the important and recently reprinted Fat Lad (1988) are purposefully and distinctively anti-sectarian, showing characters who choose to engage with the outside world and alternative identity markers. A significant example of this is Danny in The International (1999), whose voracious bisexuality in the pre-Troubles era corresponds to an ambivalent relationship to religious and national identity. Peter Mahon has contended that ‘Patterson’s novels […] tend to deal with issues relating to the difficult interface between the Troubles and domesticity from a Unionist perspective’ (47), however, to align Patterson with a totalising viewpoint is a limiting analysis. In Lapsed Protestant Patterson has ironically referred to his background and middle-age with the sobriquet ‘Garden Centre Prod’ (24) but also, in the same collection, describes to his pride when his father refuses to contribute to Loyalist paramilitaries and refers to the ‘fucking foul murder’ (61) of the UVF. In interview, Patterson was more concerned with the redemptive power of romantic relationships (‘fumbly sex’, the anti-sectarian power of punk and Slaughterhouse 5 (Magennis 152-157).

The novel takes us back to 1897 and introduces us to Gilbert Rice, a Belfast manufacturer and philanthropist, and it consists of his recollections of his youth and young manhood in the 1830s. The title of mill of the novel comes from a lecture, ‘Belfast Sixty Years Ago,’ given by the Rev Narcissus G Batt in 1875, published by the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1896. The Proprietress, Peggy Barclay, also owned a tavern in which the United Irishmen met in the 1790s. The first chapter introduces us to some of the key historical contexts and ways of understanding the novel. The older Rice, in 1897, thinks on the popularity of Mr Wells’s “scientific romance” The Time Machine’ (5). The novel’s own historical trajectory will move from 1897 to the 1830s, with the consequences of the United Irish rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union of 1801 looming large. Secondly, Rice ‘was of the firm opinion that the city was on the brink of a new Golden Age. The genius of our manufacturers, the skill of our workforce, had made Belfast a byword for quality and innovation’ (9). This is somewhat ironic as the shipbuilding and linen industries at the heart of the Belfast’s relationship with the Victorian Empire went into steady decline in the 20th century. Thirdly, Rice engages with developments in psychoanalysis and, in particular, the method first cited in Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria in 1893: ‘The “talking cure”, the young woman called it. Perhaps one day the experiment will be extended, to men as well as women, old as well as young, and all will be enable to understand the inner logic of the stimuli that caused them to act as they did at any given moment in their lives. It has come too late for me’ (18). Shortly after this admission, Rice’s narration of his youth begins, suggesting Patterson values the cathartic power of re-telling certain Ulster stories (as advocated in Simpson 2009). Graham Dawson discusses the rhetoric surrounding the ambivalent relationship to the past in contemporary Northern Ireland: ‘We talk of reconciliation with the past and of healing it’s wounds; of coming to terms with it; of drawing a line in the sand in order to leave the past behind; of stepping out of its shadow, laying it to rest, letting it go; of moving on, or forward’ (6).

In interview Patterson said that, once one has decided to write historical fiction ‘certain things come towards you’, such as the parallel story of the architect John Millar, a historical figure who becomes a friend of Rice’s. He drew parallels between the transformation of the Cathedral Quarter and Waterfront districts of Belfast during Rice’s time and the debates about civic space in the city today, which focuses on these areas. The novel is meticulously researched, and Patterson relishes the descriptions of the city as his characters explore it on foot. The literary tradition of Belfast flanerie is visible most clearly in the novels of Robert McLiam Wilson and, through the politics of mapping, in the poetry and prose of Ciaran Carson. Rice meets a young Polish woman, Maria, who recalls her father’s meeting with Wolfe Tone. According to Maria, Tone had said of Belfast: ‘A town more committed to the cause of Liberty was not to be imagined. The Rights of Man was its holy book, its Qur’an. On one memorable occasion he had climbed, with a handful of the leading Qur’anites, to the summit of the Cave Hill, and there sworn a solemn oath never to rest until Ireland was free.’ (121) Henry Joy McCracken fulfils a similar role in Stewart Parker’s play, Northern Star (1984) to revive the idea of Belfast as the ‘Athens of the North’. For Patterson and Parker, the use of a Protestant yet Republican past offers a useful creative space to complicate and critique the sectarian binary. This allows these authors to align their heritage with Enlightenment and anti-imperialist thought, ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’. The novel represents a decadent aristocracy, in the guise of the cruel anti-Reform Lord Belfast, set against this proud traditional of liberal intellectualism in Belfast. The conflict between Rice and Lord Belfast is clearly Oedipal: he feels he cannot fulfil his destiny, whatever that is, until he has killed the bully patriarch of the city. He is inspired by his friend’s building, his love for the displaced daughter of a Polish aristocrat and Wolfe Tone’s act of resistance. He is, however, saved from this act of foolish heroism by his grandfather, the benign patriarch hiding an acquaintance with Belfast’s radical past. This mixture of idealism and pragmatism inspires him to become a benevolent and philanthropic industrialist, much like in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

Titanic Quarter

Glenn Patterson’s latest novel The Mill for Grinding Old People Young raises vital and difficult questions concerning the narrative of identity in contemporary Northern Ireland [Image by Titanic Belfast under a CC BY license]

This novel, despite being the Belfast City Council book for Belfast, opens up some vital and difficult questions around the narrative of identity in contemporary Northern Ireland. Through the continued interest in commemoration and historically focused fiction, it is clear the past is still present in Northern Irish culture. Lehner argues that, in the case of recent drama, an ‘intense and complicated engagement that sits in vexed opposition to the restorative conception of reconciliation and both a politics and a political context of ameliorative forgetting that dominates Northern Irish society’. Patterson’s in an attempt to reclaim a liberal, Euro-centric Protestant heritage, complicates the overly deterministic binaries on which the Good Friday Agreement was based. We are at a critical point in Northern Irish fiction in this ‘post’-conflict moment. Should novelists aim to participate in a homogenising vision that squares with the narrative of ‘post’-conflict peace-building? Or, as Patterson said in 1995, and this novel demonstrates, there may well be other stories to be told.

CITATION: Caroline Magennis, “Re-Writing Belfast,” Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2013): n. pag. Web. 25 March 2013,

Caroline Magennis teaches British literature, culture and history at Harlaxton College, a study abroad campus for US students. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast (BA, MA, PhD). She has held post-doctoral research fellowships at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s and University College Dublin. Caroline publishes in the area of modern and contemporary Irish literature and culture, and is the author of Sons of Ulster: Masculinities in the Contemporary Northern Irish Novel and co-editor of Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture.

Works Cited:

Dawson, Graham. Making Peace with the Past? Memory, Trauma and the Irish Troubles. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007

Jackson, Alvin. Ireland 1798-1998: Politics and War. Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Lee, Joe. Ireland 1912-1985: Politics. Cambridge: CUP, 1989.

Lehner, Stefanie. ‘Transformative Aesthetics? Between Remembrance and Reconciliation in Contemporary Northern Irish Theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review 23.4 (forthcoming 2013).

Magennis, Caroline. Sons of Ulster: Masculinities in the Contemporary Northern Irish Novel. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010.

Mahon, Peter. Violence, Politics and Textual Interventions in Northern Ireland. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010.

Patten, Eve. ‘Fiction in conflict: Northern Ireland’s prodigal novelists’. Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction. Ed. I. Bell. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995. 128-148

Patterson, Glenn.  ‘I am a Northern Irish Novelist’. Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction. Ed. I. Bell. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995. 149-152.

Patterson, Glenn. Fat Lad. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Patterson, Glenn. Lapsed Protestant. Lisburn: New Island, 2006.

Patterson, Glenn. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. ILondon: Faber, 2012.

Patterson, Glenn. In conversation with Marie-Louise Muir, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, May 2012.

Simpson, Kirk. Unionist Voices: The Politics of Remembering the Past in Northern Ireland. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2009.

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