Award-winning journalist turned novelist Paul Waters told David Hennessy how he fears the seeds of hate that led to the troubles can always be resown. Paul has just released his debut novel Blackwatertown which is about a Catholic RUC man in Northern Ireland who fears being shot by either side.
Paul Waters takes his readers to 1950s Northern Ireland in his debut novel, Blackwatertown.
The novel follows police officer Jolly Macken through a hectic week in his life that sees him fighting Republicans while worrying he could also get a bullet in the back from his own side, being a Catholic unlike his colleagues.
Jolly has good reason to be paranoid as he is sent to Blackwatertown to replace Danny, an officer who accidentally shot himself. Jolly is not sure it was an accident or that Danny pulled the trigger himself. What he is also telling nobody is that Danny was his brother.
Paul told The Irish World that the character of Jolly was somewhat inspired by members of his own family and the stories he heard from them.
“I have relations who were in the RUC back then in the ‘50s and since. I have to say I was surprised that that was how they did feel talking about various occasions when they felt morally conflicted about what they were doing and also thinking, ‘Which side should I be on in this particular situation?’
“And they were very honest talking about it and they were thinking, ‘Am I going to get a bullet in the back here or should I be switching sides?’
“I suppose some of the colleagues were for sure doubting their loyalty but they had kind of turned their back on the community, they had put on a uniform, they were risking their lives and that still wasn’t good enough because of their religion.”
Paul chose to set his tale in the less obvious period of the 1950s thinking there was more of an untold story in the politics of that era while the troubles have been well documented.
“But at the same time there is a camaraderie within an organisation no matter where you come from, the ‘them and us’ is more likely to be ‘us’, the police, and ‘them’ everyone else regardless of their religion.
“I suppose the thing that struck me was people used to think, people outside Ireland or maybe in the south as well, that Northern Ireland was all fine and peaceful until ‘the Troubles’ started whereas in fact there was systemic, massive problems with the place and there were eruptions of trouble over the years repeatedly.
“It’s partly because the problems were not addressed, the warning signs of those earlier eruptions weren’t addressed, that the troubles happened and it made me think a bit about the peace process that we have now and the uneasy peace we have now.
“People can take it for granted and think, ‘That’s fine now’ and be complacent but without making the effort to know their neighbours and actually work actively with people from different communities it slips and slides.
“Segregation there in terms of where people live and where they go to school increased after the ceasefires rather than decreased as you might have expected.
“You can easily enter a truce rather than a proper peace and a few years down the line everyone will be clutching their smelling salts and thinking, ‘Oh my Gosh, why did this happen?’
“Well don’t squander the opportunity. People can too easily think, ‘Right, that’s settled. We can go back to shunning people even if we’re not shooting them.
“And there’s Brexit now that adds extra pressure on it.”
Paul grew up in Belfast during ‘the Troubles’ and he references the author Brian McGilloway whose crime novels are set either side of the border.
“One of the themes of Brian McGilloway’s series is cross border co-operation between the police. They get to know each other and the border becomes less and less significant. You can detect that happening, that’s the direction of travel.
“Brexit comes and I know he was scratching his head thinking, ‘What do I do now? What’s the future? All the nonsense that I had to put up with when I was young but my children don’t, is it just coming back? Where are we going? What’s the direction of travel here?’
“If you don’t work to build links with people, don’t be surprised if society gets in difficulties when bad times or difficult times come.”
When Jolly and other officers say they were attacked by Republicans to cover for the fact that one of them accidentally shot a hole in the police car, the IRA that had been dormant are all of a sudden very much awake while the other side looks for revenge for an event that never took place.
“I suppose that is what things can really be like once you start the cover-ups.
“You want to be fair to people. I didn’t necessarily want to paint one group in an unfair light or fall into the trap of bigotry myself. I did a fair bit of research on people’s attitudes and what people said back then so I didn’t accidentally go too extreme.
“If anything the reality is more extreme but sometimes you think, ‘Nah, people will think I’m just gone too crazy here. I have to tone down the reality to make it seem more real’.
“There’s not a lot written about that era. It’s a bit like life stopped when the border was drawn and then suddenly started again in the 70s. All sorts of stuff happened, good or bad, over the years.
“People talk about Protestants and Catholics but I suppose there’s a third group of people who aren’t that bothered about either of those sides. And that has grown and that’s very encouraging.
“Of course, some people do great work in ecumenical stuff and reconciliation and reaching out, to people in East Belfast doing great stuff with the Irish language. There’s all sorts of great stuff but unfortunately it does stand out a bit because it’s not as common as you would hope when people are still, ‘If we give something away, it counts as surrender’. Or, ‘If they get something, we’ve lost out’.
“That kind of attitude is still problematic and that feeds into the tensions. If the adults are not being constructive, don’t surprised if the children start fighting each other in the background.
“I’m not being all doom and gloom. Just saying, ‘Don’t take things for granted basically’.”
Is it much better than the Belfast Paul when he was growing up? “Oh God, yeah. It’s far better than that. I’ve lived in various different places and Belfast has always had creative stuff going on and people with ideas and imagination. Sometimes when I’ve been in other towns and cities, I think, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. You don’t have all the problems and violence of Belfast and you’re just sitting around not really doing anything’. Whereas at least over there people have a lot of get up and go.
“Now it’s far better. Of course, it’s fantastic. John Hume comes to mind, just died the other week and I suppose people like him who sacrificed a lot not for their own personal advancement or party political advantage in his case for sure. I guess people have given enough for us to have the opportunity we have now. Let’s embrace it.”
The province may be more associated with the sitcom Derry Girls now but Paul remembers when Northern Ireland was only covered in the media for the conflict taking place there and as a result those coming from Northern Ireland were viewed with some suspicion.
“When I first left, I went to live in Dublin and to be fair people were very friendly and positive there. Even the police were friendly.
“Then in England, it was a bit different especially if you had a Northern Irish registration on your car. The police would come and chat to me every now and then just to see how I was doing. Presumably neighbours had heard my accent or had heard that I had moved in or something like that so they came in to check me out or talk to my landlady. I was used to a lot of questioning at airports and that sort of thing. I didn’t like it but I suppose they were doing their job.
“I lived in Stoke-on-Trent for a while. I worked on a newspaper there, I used to get a lot of attention from the police. Even if I was ringing up about a story, they would be checking out if I actually did work for the newspaper or if I was part of a criminal gang trying to get information, just because of my accent.
“But on the other hand, people were friendly, the normal people who lived there. It’s quite a parochial place so they didn’t necessarily like people from other neighbourhoods but because I was from Ireland they all liked me because everybody has some relation from Ireland. It was like a passport, I could move around the city and all the different areas and be welcome everywhere.”
One incident in the book came straight from one of Paul’s experience as a journalist. In the book, Jolly is providing security for an event attended by various politicians and Protestant clergy only to realise he is himself being mentioned in the prayers.
Paul remembers when he heard a group of unionists taking his name in vain.
“When I was working for the BBC, I was always keen to get the Orange Order on to talk about stuff. They were very suspicious of the BBC because they thought we were traitors to Britain and that kind of thing. Republicans would condescend to us but loyalists were a lot crosser. You really had to watch yourself.
“On one occasion I was in Portadown trying to get the Orange Order to talk and they said, ‘Well, we’re not sure, we’re going to have a think about this but come and join our service’.
“And I thought, ‘Okay, that kind of shows an interest. I should at least show this much interest in them’.
“I was sitting at the back as they did their service. They were doing different prayers and gradually I realised that they were actually talking about me through the medium of prayer.
“And they were arguing. There were two sides and one was saying, ‘Oh, the media are awful, dear God’.
“Someone else would say, ‘Of course, lord God, people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances’. And then somebody would come up with a prayer from the other side basically anti-me. I gradually realised they were arguing about whether or not they would talk to me.
“I was like, ‘This is terrible, this is crazy. Just have a talk about it. You don’t have to have a pray about it or bring God into it’.
“Anyway, at the end of it, I had gotten through this long thing and I said, ‘Well here I am, shall we do it?’
“They said, ‘We’ve decided we will let you record something’. And I thought, ‘Great’. And what they had decided they would let me record was somebody reading out from the scriptures. I said, ‘No interview or actual conversation then?’
“’No but you can record us reading’.
“’Oh well, don’t worry about it, thanks for nothing’. At least it gave me a bit of material for the book.”
The book also reflects on how far Northern Ireland has come in terms of civil rights. You have to ask yourself if Jolly finds it difficult being a Catholic in the police service of the North, what if he was gay in addition?
“It’s great that it seems odd now. It’s great that we are as a British society and an Irish society, most of us anyway, think almost how quaint, how backward and in the past those attitudes are. But it’s not that long ago there used to be posters around Belfast for the main party in government now, ‘Save Ulster from sodomy’. That’s what I grew up with and we still have politicians in power who have extremely old testament views. Thankfully we’ve moved on but I suppose there’s a risk sometimes that people think, ‘Okay, that’s all sorted now’. I suppose with gay people in particular, ‘They’ve nothing to complain about. It’s all sorted, the law’s changed, what are they complaining about?’
“But you have to acknowledge the years and decades of hurt and struggle and terrible stigma that they’ve gone through to get to this happier place.
“You don’t just shrug that off overnight. It’s fabulous how things have changed for the better and I guess it’s a reminder there’s all sorts of different conflicts going on and tensions going on. It’s not all to do with waving a flag.”
The casual sectarian language of Blackwatertown’s locals may shock readers who could be unfamiliar with the bad old days of Northern Ireland under Protestant majority rule. Jolly is often spoken about as another creature altogether rather than a human being of a different religion.
However, it was a minor detail that some readers were indignant about.
“The main challenge I had about it being accurate or not is whether there is beans in an Ulster fry.
“People say, ‘The book was great, loved everything about it except where did the beans come from? There’s no beans in an Ulster fry’.
“I’ve been looking on Instagram with #ulsterfry. I don’t know whether I’ve let myself down there or not. The jury’s still out on that one.”
Who would Paul like to see in a TV programme or film of his novel? “I suppose I would like to have Vincent Regan in it because he can play someone who is a hapless person caught up in the flood of events but also, he’s hard. He’s got a great sense of menace. It would be great if he appeared in it somehow.
“Vincent Regan, Liam Neeson and whoever else anyone fancies, that will work fine.”
And there is only one name mentioned for the love interest character of Aoife: “Jessie Buckley, she’s brilliant.
“There has been some interest. Who knows if it will even turn into early days but we’ll see anyway. Sure, they’ll read you and that will get the interest going.”
Paul lives in Buckinghamshire and works as a producer for BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service and Times Radio when not co-hosting his literature-orientated podcast We’d Like A Word.
However, his claim to fame is that he had the honour of cooking dinner for Pele, one of the greatest soccer players of all time.
“Like many Irish people, I was working illegally in the states and it used to be that we got better treatment than everyone else who was working illegally. I think everyone else complained, ‘This is a bit racist really, why aren’t you applying the laws against white Irish people?’ So my bad luck the year I was there working they cracked down on us as well as everyone else. I was working in a nightclub as a cook. It was behind the scenes so the public or immigration people wouldn’t see me.
“It was a real celeb place. Paul Simon and Kathleen Turner would go into the grocery store next door, the Rolling Stones drank in the pub down the road a wee bit, this was in the Hamptons in New York state.
“I was cooking and Pele and there were a couple of El Salvadorian guys working there as well and one of them spotted him and told me, ‘You won’t believe it, it’s Pele in the dining room’.
“The El Salvadorians and the Irish illegals were all beside themselves so that was the first time we went out in the front of the house, the club to meet him and say hello. Lovely guy, really friendly and all the other people were looking at us, ‘What’s going on?’ They didn’t want anything to do with him whatsoever but we were getting photographs with him.
“He meant nothing to them (Americans). In fact, I think he was one of the only two black people I ever saw in this nightclub so he meant less than nothing to the Americans. They didn’t recognise him, didn’t care, had no interest in him.
“I think to my memory, he had a seafood chowder.
“He was one of the people I have always wanted to meet: George Best and Pele so I’ve met the best football player ever and Pele, the second best football player ever.”
Back to Blackwatertown, will Jolly be getting another outing? “There will be more and I’m looking forward to that coming out. The reaction to this has been so encouraging, how could I not?”
Blackwatertown is out now on Unbound and also available on audiobook.
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