Having read through Gareth Ennis and John McCrea’s Troubled Souls it brings back somewhat distant memories for me, a young lad, growing up in those days. They aren’t times I think about now, Northern Ireland is a vastly different place these days, a Hell of a lot brighter, the communities on this small piece of land closer together. It’s a brighter future for everyone here and it’s a place I deeply, deeply love.
This is a brave story to tell, it’s a twisting narrative which leads the reader through the streets of a divided Belfast, a peaceful Rathlin Island and touching on the mainland of Britain. This is a story which focuses on two young lads who live in Belfast, Tom Boyd, a Protestant and Damien McWilliams who comes from a Catholic, Republican community. Their lives intersect when Damien drops a package onto Tom’s lap in a busy pub, just before he is taken away to be interrogated by the police.
Before this event, we see Northern Ireland through Tom’s eyes, the soldiers on the streets, a nightly curfew, being questioned by the security forces. This was a routine, this was everyday life. Each frame reminded me of walking through those streets, skillfully drawn I can attest to the authenticity of each pencil stroke.
Tom is scared, he’s terrified right down to his bones, he should inform, tell the police, tell anybody. But he sits there with the cold gun on his lap, partially wrapped in brown paper while his friends, oblivious to the dangerous situation unfolding not a couple of feet away. It is this fear which attracts the further attention of Damien, who is revealed to be a member of the IRA. He realises that Tom is so afraid that he would do anything to keep himself and his family safe.
Damien has chosen Tom to plant a bomb to destroy an army landrover as it passes an open rubbish bin on Belfast streets. Tom becomes a nervous wreck, a puppet and a pawn of Damien’s, disturbed by some of the statements that Damien has made about the British involvement in Ireland, he researches the history of Ireland at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
As the story progresses, these real world locations bleed through the pages into my consciousness, all these familiar settings hammering home the historical accuracy of these painful times. There’s such an awful sadness in my heart as I read each page and as I progressed towards it’s conclusion I felt such joy at the progress that we have made in this country.
There’s an attempt by Ennis, like so many of us to try and make sense of the violence by looking at history, going as far back as he can, finding out some revelations regarding venerated historical figures. At the end of this process however, the same conclusion is made – nothing can excuse or justify the violence and hatred that is displayed by some members of both communities in this beautiful country of mine.
Tom does the deed, soldiers die at his hand and Damien’s planning – McCrea doesn’t shirk away from showing the bloody tragedy which painted Belfast’s streets during the 30 years of the conflict. He’s wracked with guilt and shame and he runs, leaving to Rathlin Island, a peaceful place filled with warm people, calm seas and seals who chose to come there to give birth – a place untouched by the troubles.
In the midst of this narrative, ordinary things are also happening, Tom has fallen in love with Liz, they had gone to school together, we see that Tom has a loving aunt, a bigoted father that he struggles against. Damien is a little less filled out, we see that he is also a victim of fear – being threatened by the hierarchy of the IRA into killing Tom. An action which Damien feels deep regret and resentment about.
Damien kidnaps Tom and takes him to an IRA safehouse, they spend an evening talking and drinking, getting to know each other. It’s a form of ‘peace talks’ and it foreshadowed the process which happened 10 years later in the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, where each side sat down and agreed to make a go of sharing political power, of listening to the other’s voice and respecting opinion.
This is as I have said before, a hard hitting story and deeply personal to me. The stories of these darker days still need to be told, but I’m glad they are of the past and not reflective of the future days to come.
There’s a panel at the very end, I think it’s Ennis coming out of the shadows and expressing how he felt about having to leave Northern Ireland. I can understand this panel and again…the overwhelming feeling I have finishing this book is sadness mixed with the thankful knowledge that no one will ever force another of my countrymen to leave this Island due to the hopelessness felt of bigotry, violence and intolerance