Peter Berresford Ellis reviews On A Green Island by John McMillan, Help4U Publishing, £7.95
IT IS always interesting to read fiction written by someone emerging from the Northern Ireland Protestant tradition and dealing with the reality of that situation.
John Kerr McMillan was born in Armagh in 1948 and was educated in Belfast. He came to England, married has two daughters and now his time is occupied writing and lecturing. Recently, he published his first novel and, as most writers do, chose a semi-autobiographical setting -- using the 1950s background of his childhood in the six counties.
Novel may not be a right description for it is actually a series of vignettes, snapshots, if you will, of incidents from the child’s life whom he calls Jim.
We have these pictures drawn from a child’s eye view but with a mature retrospection. The bullying teacher, the struggle of a childhood illness, a mother’s nervous breakdown due to the male dominated society (a woman’s place is in the home even if all else is falling to pieces), summer holidays on an uncle’s farm on the North Antrim coast, swimming in Belfast Lough, the beatnik older brother and the sister who is the original teenager from hell.
These are all drawn with a keen eye and an almost lyrical style of writing. But the ‘Eden’ of youth has its serpents.
Young Jim, as a Protestant, joins in the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ tradition of throwing stones at Catholic children. Violence against Catholic children is also systematic of the violence against him for Jim’s elders inflict corporal punishment, which is brutal and mindless. Violence breeds violence.
But for Jim there is a curious ‘awakening’. He has a series of encounters with the ‘other side’. There are the Gallagher children -- ‘railway children’ as Jim sees them; there is Mrs Duffy his piano teacher; Barry Doyle who has refused to have his hair cut until Ireland has been reunited -- a real character who appeared in Edward Toman’s trilogy starting with Shambles Corner. Then there is the learning curve of the Gaelic football match. Jim finds himself drawn to the ‘natural decency’ that he perceives in the Catholic children, the sense of warmth and fun and the vitality and inclusiveness of Irish culture. He begins to suspect that they might have justice on their side. Ultimately, like Paul on the road to Damascus, Jim finds solidarity with the dispossessed and persecuted.
This is a powerful story, a fascinating first novel from a talented writer of whom I suspect we shall hear more.
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