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Invoking Ulster

Ulster’s myths are bloody ones. Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, took the place of a guard dog and defended Ulster at the age of seventeen. He was known to have battle frenzies, and was one of the key legends of the Red Branch Cycle, one of four key Irish folklore cycles. Finn McCool fought the Scottish giant and won using guile and might. Even our flag shows the red hand, from a legend that tells of a race for the land. The losing combatant cut his hand off and threw it onto the land to claim it for himself. The Ulster I know – the North coast facing Scotland, and Belfast – has a harsh accent to go with the legacy of divisions that run as deep as the land its people share.

Belfast Lough

When I had the idea of a novel about Earth resisting an alien invasion, I decided to set it in my Ulster. This was no political undertaking, but instead a wish to show something of the people I knew. The people who, despite all the violence of my youth, maintained a sense of humour – black though it undoubtedly is – and have an ability to carry on with life when all around hell has broken loose. I wanted to capture an analogy of Ulster maintaining itself in adversity through the determination to survive and resist the alien invasion. But I also wanted, in a quiet way, to pay homage to some of those who moved our understanding past the hatred of my seventies birth, into the hope of my generation who voted for peace, and onto the next generation, who, please God, will have the capacity to carry that peace on.

The Troubles aren’t mythology. They’re not celebrating our earliest folklore. When  Michael Longley, in the Ice-cream Man recalls:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road [1]

he confirms the Troubles as our legacy, to be remembered.

I was born at the height of the Troubles, not at the local hospital, some fifteen miles from Belfast, as planned, but in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, right in centre of west Belfast. At this time, ambulances had been hijacked, and my mum spent time planning what to do with me if it happened to her. Whilst my childhood was spent sheltered from the main trouble spots, the Troubles were everywhere – in the news, in evacuating shops during bomb scares, in knowing, albeit at a distance, the denting sound of a bomb as it takes the air around it – and defined a part of me. None of this is mythology, yet, but in generations’ time it might be.

I want to take some of the imagery that touched on my understanding of my childhood Ulster and pay homage to it. In Joan Lingard’s series of iconic young adult books, the Belfast of the Troubles is described thusly:

Sadie and Kevin sat on the top of Cave Hill with the city spread out below them. They looked down at the great sprawl of factories, offices and houses that were gradually eating further and further into the green countryside beyond. Into the midst of the town came Belfast Lough. It was blue this evening, under a blue, nearly cloudless sky, speckled with ships and spiked by the shipyard gantries. [2]

In science fiction we strive to ask questions, to impel ourselves and our world forwards and not back. It seemed an interesting medium to use inspiration from a history that is far from myth, that is too raw to be anything other than our present to overcome, and reach into the future beyond it. I hope to show the land and people of Ulster in a way that both celebrated their strength, passion and drive, but also sought to ring the changes. I hope to do so in a way accessible to those who don’t know the province, because our people and land shouldn’t be insular, but far-reaching and generous. I look forward to seeing where that takes me.



[1] Longley, Michael, Gorse Fires.

[2] Lingard, Joan, Across the Barricades

 

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