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Growing up in divided Belfast my inspiration, reveals author Jack Higgins

By Claire McNeilly

Published 11/02/2016

Author Jack Higgins
Author Jack Higgins

Veteran author Jack Higgins has revealed that growing up on Belfast streets riddled with sectarian tension was the springboard for his phenomenal success.

Higgins, real name Harry Patterson, said his understanding of how people in Northern Ireland behaved before and during the Troubles inspired The Savage Day, a turning point in his career after a decade of relatively unsuccessful detective novels.

He went on to sell over 300 million books, including Second World War classic The Eagle Has Landed, which sold 50m.

"What really got me going as a writer was that originally I came from Northern Ireland," said the now Jersey-based Higgins.

"I have a reputation in my books for writing about the Irish problems. When things got particularly bad in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, a number of relatives had a pretty bad time there.

"I had two cousins killed by IRA bombs. Having been raised there, I felt I actually understood why people were behaving in the way they did. The real turning point for me was that I decided to write a book about it."

The author, now 86, spent his formative years on the Shankill Road after his mother returned there following a failed relationship with his father in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Higgins was born.

"After I wrote The Savage Day (about a man who attempts to recover gold stolen by the IRA in Belfast) I changed to using the name Jack Higgins," he told the Chichester Observer.

"I used Higgins as it was the name of my mother's family. It was the Higgins family that had raised me in Belfast. And I had an uncle Jack who was very much involved in Orange politics."

In an interview in The Guardian, Higgins recalled the obvious tension that existed between rival religions in Belfast when he was a boy.

"As a Protestant, I'd get beaten up by Catholics, and there was one occasion when shots were fired at the tram we were travelling in and my mother pushed me on the floor and lay on top of me," he said.

"On another, a Catholic priest patted me on the head and said: 'Poor wee boy, his black Orange soul will go straight to Hell'.

"Strangely, though, these experiences made me less, rather than more, sectarian.

"I came to see both religions as morally compromised and oppressed, and have written that ambiguity into two main characters, Liam Devlin and Sean Dillon, who have appeared in 17 novels.

"Many Catholics even assume that I am Catholic from the way I write."

Higgins returned to England after his mother remarried, and began writing novels in 1959.

After the commercial success of The Savage Day, Higgins wrote another IRA-influenced novel, A Prayer For The Dying, which would later form the basis of a Hollywood movie starring Mickey Rourke and Liam Neeson.

But it was The Eagle Has Landed, about a wartime German commando unit sent into England to kidnap Winston Churchill, which propelled Higgins to the top of the global best-sellers list in the mid-Seventies.

Belfast Telegraph

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