Fifty Years On is my eighth published book and I have a few others that need a bit more work on them and might never be published.
All of my books so far are non-fiction. My first novel comes out with Merrion next spring.
I have written a few other novels, really as exercise pieces to build my competence. And I have published several short stories in newspapers, small mags and the Erotic Review, which was fun.
My book-writing emerges from my journalism but is, in some ways, in contradiction of it. I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a journalist, and being a journalist seemed to be a good starting point. It was. It provided experience. I have exercised my writing muscle in the brain to a degree of fitness that gets me past one of the first obstacles, the struggle to begin. I often write a thousand-word article in an hour, and I write about a thousand words a day, between journalism and my books.
Fifty Years On took about a year to write, and of my books it is the one most like journalism. It is a mix of memoir and reportage and a bit of theorising. This is a mix that suits me.
My first news editor tried to drill into me an understanding that journalism is not literature. A reporter who is defensive of phrasing and wants every piece published intact, with a sense of the inviolability of inspiration, will only be a problem in a newsroom.
‘Get that nonsense out of your head’, he said.
Yet clearly there were writers who produced great journalism, beautifully written journalism.
Fifty years ago, that seemed truer of American journalism, as far as I could see. Tom Wolfe was arguing for the New Journalism, and I aspired to being part of that. It isn’t ‘new’ anymore, but it’s what I do. And that is abandoning the myth of objectivity, acknowledging that the writer brings a perspective to a story and being candid about what it is. An old journalism teacher, Andrew Boyd, who taught me a lot, disagreed with me on this. He said, Journalism has no room for the first person, the ‘I’. Clear that out of your writing. That sounded like good advice when it was about getting over myself, putting the ego aside. But the ‘I’ wasn’t just there to show off. Removing the ‘I’ created a false air of authority, an impression that a perspective that wasn’t owned might be truer than one that was.
One of the motivations in my writing has been to challenge propaganda about the Northern Ireland troubles. In my first book, The Trouble With Guns, which made a case against the legitimacy of the IRA campaign, I felt that I had to declare my own position, relate my argument to my experience. So the first part of that book is memoir. The mix of memoir and analysis didn’t really work. Some people liked the memoir and said, ‘but why did you go all boring and analytical then? Others liked the analysis but said something like: ‘Who cares what your personal story is?’ Knitting these elements of memoir and reportage and analysis has been the challenge of all of my books and I think I have been getting better at it, but it has not been easy. My editor at Atlantic tells me I have achieved it in this book. This approach, and some of the perspectives I stand over, does bring me criticism and abuse.
One of the original motives for writing in this way was to counter party political accounts of events. I had stood in Divis Street Belfast on August 14 1969 and watched a riot that was being written out of history. That riot developed into chaos with an awful lot of gunfire and with three parties involved, the IRA, the RUC and protestant loyalists. The violence of that night went into much of the record as an attack on the Catholic community. That was a big part of it, a massive over reaction to quell a riot. But the riot was part of the story too and the over reaction would not have followed if it hadn’t been.
I researched this book by attending all the street protests I could in the fiftieth anniversary year of the Civil Rights movement and I discovered something simple and obvious but previously unstated; that there has been a huge social and cultural revolution in Northern Ireland and it was not the violent paramilitary groups which had brought it about. In fact, they distracted us from it, with the help of people of my own profession.
In the 1970s when gay men were being imprisoned, one took a case to the Court of Human Rights and had the law changed. At the time people sneered, as if this was entirely unimportant in the context of the bigger constitutional deadlock. Actually, that man Jeff Dudgeon did more for freedom in Northern Ireland than all the bombers and killers put together. And this is true of the women of Women’s Aid who created a refuge for those fleeing violent partners. It is true of reformers in the churches and even of the many who managed to insist on normality and love and life.
My book seeks to be a corrective to our history which gives too much significance to people who did harm and ignored those who made such a difference that now even the political offsprings of the paramilitaries have had to adopt the agendas of gay rights and abortion law reform.
(c) Malachi O’Doherty
About Fifty Years On:
Fifty years ago, an eruption of armed violence traumatized Northern Ireland and transformed a period of street protest over civil rights into decades of paramilitary warfare by republicans and loyalists.
In this evocative memoir, Malachi O’Doherty not only recounts his experiences of living through the Troubles, but also recalls a revolution in his lifetime. However, it wasn’t the bloody revolution that was shown on TV but rather the slow reshaping of the culture of Northern Ireland – a real revolution that was entirely overshadowed by the conflict.
Incorporating interviews with political, professional and paramilitary figures, O’Doherty draws a profile of an era that produced real social change, comparing and contrasting it with today, and asks how frail is the current peace as Brexit approaches, protest is back on the streets and violence is simmering in both republican and loyalist camps.
Order your copy online here.