Fondly remembered for her novels based in 1970s Northern Ireland, it’s somewhat prophetic that author Joan Lingard passed away on the date that gave a title to the first in her much-loved and widely read Kevin and Sadie series.
And her novels, starting with The Twelfth Day Of July and followed by Beyond The Barricades and three more, still hold a special place in the hearts of both those who read them on first release over half a century ago and those who still return to them today.
Joan passed away peacefully, aged 90, on July 12 after a literary career during which she released more than 60 novels.
But in Northern Ireland it’s the love story of young Catholic Kevin McCoy and Protestant Sadie Jackson that stand out — though they also put the issues facing NI at the time in the minds of a worldwide audience having been released across the globe by Puffin, the youth wing of publishing giant Penguin.
More than 1.3m copies sold shows the appeal of her works.
“They were totally immersed in the geography and culture of Belfast,” said Dr Kevin De Ornellas, a lecturer in English at Ulster University.
“They had the global appeal of the story of survival, forbidden love and growing up.
“In fact, they’re very useful for anyone teaching Shakespeare. It’s Romeo and Juliet, or Anthony and Cleopatra, set in a Belfast 1970s context. That parallel runs right through literature and for many people reading the series was the first lesson they had about Northern Ireland at the time.
“If you look at what followed, her novels set the benchmark for the Billy plays. On TV, Give My Head Peace has a similar story running through it — a Catholic girl and her relationship with an RUC officer.
“More recently, Derry Girls ran with the same format, of young Erin and her blossoming relationship with a young English lad — another show that gained global appeal due to the strength of the growing-up, falling-in-love story all immersed in the geography and culture of Derry.
“And Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning movie Belfast was another taking that central love story and placing it in a troubled city.
“The books had a big influence on young people at the time, but the appeal, even though they were published as young adult novels, attracted a huge adult readership too.
“It gave people a sense that they weren’t the only ones who were frustrated at the Troubles, fed up with life in Northern Ireland and the way communities put up those barricades you were forbidden to cross.
“They were also much more satirical than people realise,” he added.
“They poke fun at the ignorance of sectarianism and people read them without even realising that.
“There is one scene in Across The Barricades where young boys are out on the streets throwing stones at the Army and they don’t even know why they’re doing it.
“And from the soldiers, they joined up to see the world and don’t know why they’re being attacked. It summed up the situation so well while people were caught up on the love story.
“They are also a rare breed of book set in Northern Ireland and about the people who lived here in the 1970s, and no one looks at the author to see what religious background she comes from. Everyone could identify with them.”
Born in Edinburgh, documented as arriving into the world in the back of a taxi on the city’s Golden Mile, Joan Lingard moved to Belfast aged two, before returning to her native city aged 18.
Her family said the author had initially been urged not to write the series, due to the political turmoil of the early Troubles era.
“Her then literary agent believed that the sectarian Troubles, which resulted in such bloodshed and outrage, made the idea distasteful. She couldn’t envisage any publisher seeing any merit in the idea or imagine any young person being interested in such novels,” the family spokesperson said.
“But Joan Lingard was determined. She had a story that she wanted readers to share and a cast of characters that she loved. The novel could only be set in Northern Ireland. She was right., of course.”
The Twelfth Day Of July gave the author her first commercial success when released in 1970.
Across The Barricades followed in 1972 and three more novels — Into Exile (1973), A Proper Place (1975) and Hostages To Fortune (1976) — continued the series, which quickly became popular in classrooms around Northern Ireland. The story has resonated with readers for over half a century.
Tony Macaulay is author of the award-winning Paperboy and the follow-up Breadboy, the stage production of which is undergoing rehearsals at the Lyric Theatre this week, and both are set in and around Belfast.
“In so many ways her books provided a foundation for others to follow,” he said.
“There are so many people I speak to who reference them as the first books about Northern Ireland they ever read. It’s not just people who grew up reading them in the 1970s who speak about them, it’s people of all ages.
“Where they’re effective is that they don’t focus on the politics and headlines of the time. They’re rooted in people. They show the world how the people of Northern Ireland were thinking.
“They introduced issues in a gentle way, a storytelling way, and that was a real achievement,” he added.
“No one thinks about the books and wondered what side of the community the author was from, what perspective she approached it from. It’s just a story rooted in Belfast, rooted in the issues families were facing, stories about ordinary people, and that’s what makes them stand out. The characters we so easy to identify with.”
Ms Lingard was awarded an MBE for services to children’s literature in 1999.
She is survived by her husband, three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.