Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition
In Ireland, an observer once remarked, a pessimist is rarely obliged to confess the error of his ways. Here is an exception. On August 31, 1994, while I was completing the manuscript of this book, the IRA announced its first ceasefire in almost twenty years. When its loyalist counterparts followed suit, a sort-of peace settled over the North. By any news measure, this was a development requiring consideration and response. I, however, was nonplussed. Not only was I writing a proper book, with its view to the horizon and appeal to the ages, but it wouldn’t be published until the following spring. By then, I was sure, things would return to the somewhat normal sort-of non-peace, better known as the Troubles. How could I be so certain? Because in bloody Ireland, I explained to any who asked, there were always more Taigs and Prods and Up the Rahs and Remember the Boynes. There were always more hard men.
That epilogue, first composed in the fall of 1994, can still be found at the back of this reissue of The Last House of Ulster. As penance, its reluctant, nearly begrudging tone also stands intact.
Curiously, my hesitation before the door of optimism didn’t keep me from stumbling upon one of the significant reasons why now, a decade later, hostilities have been so reduced and contained in Northern Ireland that the society is, in effect, at peace with itself. The final sentences in the added pages note the steady rise of a “secular, materialist, almost flashy Belfast,” especially in the city centre. By the early 1990s people were beginning to open fancy restaurants and fashionable nightclubs, to park sleek cars outside exposed-brick condos carved out of derelict linen mills. I liked the impulse among residents to proclaim their town safe for such lifestyles and pleasures. The more widely based the affluence, especially if it could be extended into the sectarian enclaves—where the paramilitary groups yet nestled, snug as bullets in a barrel—the less likely that citizens would tolerate those elements determined to fire off their weapons at all hours and for any cause. In short, if hard times bred hard-liners, might the opposite not prove equally true?
I had, it turns out, no idea. Most of the astonishing economic news from Ireland in the past decade has hailed, of course, from the Republic, suddenly a land of milk and honey. While Northern Ireland hasn’t witnessed quite so spectacular a transformation, it has fared well for a place still mopping up after decades of simmering civil war. The ceasefire I wrote about was eventually extended into a cessation of hostilities codified as the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. The agreement holds two truths to be self-evident, if not entirely pleasing. First, a semi-independent Northern Ireland is here to stay. Second, as sectarian divides are an intrinsic part of the makeup of that statelet, and none of the principals seem inclined to give an inch, everyone had better learn to live with what they can’t rise above.
The accord has its critics. But a full seven years after Good Friday was signed, all but a handful of pathetic thugs (that is, the detritus of the paramilitary cultures) are learning to live with those truths. Meanwhile, Belfast boasts more clubs and restaurants, condos and cars than ever before, with economic immigrants—immigrants!—arriving in the city to brighten its notorious drabness with the colours of the world. Ten years down the road, life in that dirty old town is by almost any measure improved.
Time moves on everywhere. Except, that is, where it doesn’t. My impulse to account for the time that has passed between the original publication of The Last House of Ulster and this edition isn’t matched by any desire to update the lives of the McNally family, or revisit their house, or remap their neighbourhood. On looking at the manuscript again after many years I experienced several reactions, none of them original. Least original of all was dismay at the prose I once allowed into print. Equally mundane was mild regret over my younger author self. What a callow guy. How richly he deserved the mischief I made with him.
Only one of my responses had any real potential, and it concerned the obsessive detail that crams the text. I was, frankly, touched by the fierceness of my impulse to record, with what precision and finesse I could muster, every sight, smell and sound I encountered inside that North Belfast home. I wanted all of it—the teacups and door curtains, the aromas of coal fire and hearth-warmed dog—duly noted. Back then I likely thought I was just trying to write vividly. Now I suspect I was in love and, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, loved most ardently that which vanishes.
The Belfast that I wandered is gone. The McNallys whom I so adored are gone as well. Even the author who did the wandering and adoring is no longer around. External time has won another bullying victory. But inside a book or film, a painting or photograph or any other such gesture, there is sanctuary. The interior of this book, for sure, is a safe house. Here are the vanished conversations, still vibrant. Here are the disappeared faces, yet compelling. The Ulster residence, too, and the streets surrounding it, has evaded oblivion. Everything I once loved of Ireland, in fact, is eternally present in these pages, and my own ardour, I am discovering, is undiminished. I did not expect still to feel so strongly after so long.