| 7.1°C Belfast


Malachi O'Doherty

Why publishing and bookselling were agents for change... I am proud to have played my part

Malachi O'Doherty


There is a thesis to be written on the role of book launches in the peace process, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Close

Malachi O'Doherty's novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, will be launched on Tuesday at 6.30pm by Wendy Erskine at PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ

Malachi O'Doherty's novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, will be launched on Tuesday at 6.30pm by Wendy Erskine at PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ

Malachi O'Doherty's novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, will be launched on Tuesday at 6.30pm by Wendy Erskine at PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ

At last, I have a novel. A reporter asked me why I had suddenly decided to write a novel - in my late 60s. She saw it as a change of direction. And I remember, years ago, doing an interview with a new writer and remarking on the fact that she was 52. Imagine becoming a writer at 52!

Well, it has taken me a lot longer to produce a work of fiction. Spike Milligan bemoaned the fact that he had taken four years to write Puckoon. I have been writing short stories and novels all my life; I just haven't been good enough at it to get a whole book published until now. My first short stories were published in the Hindustan Times, so may have escaped your notice. Others appeared in the Erotic Review and, so, you might have passed over them as well.

I self-published a novel based on Jesus and Judas. I had thought myself to be really insightful and original in trying to explain a Jesus who was gentle and sensitive, but yet would curse a fig tree because it had no fruit for him. It's a great idea, but a lot of others had had it before me, including the Monty Python team.

I started my novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, 12 years ago. It was built around the idea that there might be a respected businessman who had been an IRA bomber in his youth, but got through his paramilitary career unscathed and unremarked on.

Was I thinking of a specific individual? Perhaps. And then only to set the idea free. I also imagined a disillusioned policeman, who had no expectation of the "peace processors" allowing him to nail a top Provo and thereby embarrass the political set-up.

And I made him like other police officers I have known, a born-again Christian. He has no faith in the state's idea of justice, but he trusts God to settle all scores in the end. At one point, he says, "I don't want him to go to jail; I want him to go to Hell."

And then I imagined the old bomber's wife. She had, of course, known that Terry, her husband, had been in the IRA. And Terry had a way of admitting his responsibility without giving details.

He told her that, since he was a member of the IRA for a time and endorsed the campaign and facilitated it, he was morally accountable for the hundreds of killings by the IRA in that time. He was really saying: I did and I didn't. But, still, it is more candid than others have been.

Two different IRA men, one in Derry and one in Belfast, have said to me that they are relieved now that they never actually killed anyone. One said, "Though it wasn't for the want of trying."

Terry Brankin's admission has more substance to it than theirs. If you even put money in a collection box for a paramilitary group, then you were part of the project and have blood, if not on your hands, then on your fingertips.

There are a couple of nasty loyalists in the story, too.

There's Benny Curtis, who thinks his men have a better chance of getting off if they are represented by a Catholic solicitor.

And there is Dinko Tatlock, a gunman who was out to get Terry, but happy to settle for any easy alternative.

But who ever heard of anyone called Dinko? Hopefully, nobody. The last thing you want when you write a novel is to put real names in it. But inventing names that sound real, but aren't, is a challenge. I have already had a couple of Brankins write to me to ask if anything about the family name is implied by my use of it.

Another character in the book is the city of Belfast itself. Take a wee tour though it and you will find yourself in Bookfinders, before it closed. There's the Bookshop at Queen's and Graffitti, my favourite cafe. And the Holyland.

There are two timelines, one in the 1980s and one in, roughly, the present day. So, the changing character of the city is, I think, similar to the changing character of Terry Brankin.

But, like Terry, who has kept a gun in case he might need it some day, the city also retains its violent impulses alongside its new, better manners.

We are launching this book on Tuesday in the Public Record Office on Titanic Boulevard.

One of the indicators of the degree of change in the city is the number of people who ask where that is. It's a beautiful building.

Belfast book-launch lovers have been getting shunted around a bit since the foolish closure of the Bookshop at Queen's, driven by the fear that people were going to stop buying books the way they had stopped buying CDs. It hasn't happened.

It usually falls to David Torrens at the No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue to organise events, either in his shop or at the Crescent Arts Centre.

I think there is a story to be told - or, perhaps, a thesis to be written - on the role of book launches in the peace process. Those were events at which people of contrasting passions would meet.

Another point of contact for people who would not normally go face-to-face was the green room in the BBC, now reduced to a partitioned corner of the newsroom. Martin Dillon, the first producer of Talkback, used to relish - I suspect - the encounters he facilitated, like John McMichael, a UDA brigadier, and Eamonn McCann.

In the Bookshop at Queen's, I saw an IRA lifer in intense conversation with William Deedes, then editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Going by the naivety of recent comment on Ireland in that paper, mistaking Leo Varadkar for a chauvinistic nationalist, its writers still need to get out more.

They'd be welcome at my launch on Tuesday.

The Bookshop at Queen's sold Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses when other shops were wary. One of the staff at the till was a Palestinian woman who was mortified at having to handle it, but that was the ethos of the place.

Denis Murphy, who ran the shop, also worked with John McMichael and others in the UDA to produce the Common Sense document, leading them into more considered political thinking.

So, publishing and bookselling have been catalysts for the meetings of minds in Belfast, and one of the joys of writing books here is the satisfaction of being part of that.

Malachi O'Doherty's novel, Terry Brankin Has A Gun, will be launched tomorrow (6.30pm) by Wendy Erskine at PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph