Writing, Poetry, My writing, NaPoWriMo

NaPoWriMo Day 13 – The Customers

The Customers

summer’s here,
we’re enjoying a
wee drink
in this bar.
A mix of us, from
sides of the fence.
Unusual for these
troubled times
but it works
for us.
The balmy moon glows
in our glasses,
when the
yellow headed
invade the bar and
call out for us to
by faith.
Our drinks stay
at our lips;
this will be
for some of us;
and for what crime?

Fifty-year-old Catholic civilian, forty-five-year-old Catholic civilian, forty-seven-year-old Protestant civilian, fifty-three-year-old Protestant civilian and fifty-nine-year-old Catholic civilian, shot dead during a gun attack on a bar in Belfast by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in retaliation for a Provisional IRA (PIRA) bomb attack on another bar on the same day, in which two Protestant civilians were killed. 

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 11 – Thomas


I was dumped at this church,
unable to get home;
back down the hill into town.
This city, this town is deathly sick;
my head stoved in with a brick
and barrels from the bar.
I watch a car
toil up Forthriver’s rise,
from this hill among the skies.
No hallowed stones or weathered blocks
for me, just an ugly brick box
like a clinic or youth club.
This isn’t the church I’d haunt
given the choice.
But when they bate my head
in the toilets of that bar:
falling barrels, aye
that’s what they said,
choice was taken from me
by a butcher in his cups.
Now I gaze towards Divis,
with its peaks and troughs
and over to the east,
Cave Hill and the lough.
There’s no bells here
to ring out my salvation,
no vengeance divine
will ever be mine.
A bullet in the leg’s no pay
for stolen lives
consigned to yesterday.

Twenty-two year old male civilian, beaten to death following a personal dispute by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)  members of the Shankill Butchers.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 9 – Paul


I’m republican first and foremost,
Irish unity for all;
why take up arms with Provos
while so many comrades fall?

We’re all in this together;
our bloody struggle’s real.
“Brits out” is our true war-cry;
do all heed that righteous goal?

All this talk of bloody pogroms;
our own pubs and clubs on fire:
what’s happened to our faction,
to “Up the rebels; Tiocfaidh ar la?”

Neighbours from the Falls
are not our natural foes,
but they’re crippling our own people,
local business forced to close.

I’ve lost friends and brilliant colleagues,
Brave republicans all.
Cut down, betrayed and bombed out
by men who shared church stalls.

Enemies of reunification
are our one true Irish foe;
we defend retaliation:
Provo with Provo.

I reject internal violence
but here goes another brawl.
“Our Day Will Come” forgotten
as our shared battle call.

Nineteen-year-old male Civilian Political Activist (CivPA), shot by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) during an ongoing (OIRA) / (IRA) feud.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 7 – Roy


Bells ringing on the radio,
Merry Christmas EverybodySilent Night;
my ma wants a record of carols;
I’ll pick one up tonight.

I had a wee dance in the kitchen,
and she laughed as I shuffled along;
the fits have left me limping,
and my arm hangs down all wrong.

But after all, I’m lucky,
holding down a job;
getting the crack with my mates,
earning a good few bob.

I can’t move very quickly,
but I’ll give most things a go.
People see my stiffened limbs and
no one blames me if I’m slow.

Disabled twenty-three-year-old male, shot dead by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) while trying to stall a bomb attack at his workplace in Belfast.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 6 – Brandy


Black and tan, contentious colours,
your panting flanks and eager eye.
A questing snout quivers to defend;
loyalty is your nature, not a means to an end.

Drunk, I named you for a drink,
But Fido, that tired  joke, is your ideal:
faithful, trustworthy,
except, perhaps, around a meal.

Your greed was your doom, or martyrdom.
To poison the bowl of a fellow-creature
eager to live, to take breath,
and eager too, for your faithless caress.

Three-year-old male German shepherd dog, poisoned after his owner was shot by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Belfast.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 3 -Brian


“Watch our Brian,” our ma shouted from the kitchen,
elbow deep in peelings.
“No bother” I called, plumping down my bag and coat.
But when I made a mug of tea, he’d slipped away
for a wee dander on the street.
I let him have his play,
Not wanting to bother our ma.

“Your Brian’s been shot!
A shrill wee voice burst into the house,
a pal, no doubt, playing a prank.
What a thing to say! But my heart leapt
to my mouth, and I went outside,
not wanting to scare our ma.

They’d taken him next door
and laid him on the sofa.
His arms and legs thrashed,
his blonde hair was soaked in red;
his head.
He’d brought up his food, and his eyes were blind.
I held him close,
not wanting our ma to see him like this.

“They dragged him by his ankles!” people around me cried:
“They tried to carry him off!”
We eyed the khaki-clad soldiers
as they shoved into the ambulance.
But I elbowed my way in
as they held back our screaming ma.

At the hospital, they tried to bring him back,
the doctors and nurses,
as they worked in a ring of military forces
holding closed the door.
They pushed at his heart and patched up his head,
but they didn’t let me hold him,
to stand in for his ma.

They put him on machines
to breathe for him, but my brother was gone,
blown out from his own head:
and six days later he was dead.
At the funeral, on his birthday
I carried the cards and balloons
she’d bought for him;
our prostrated ma.

13-year-old male, died six days after being hit by a plastic bullet fired by the British Army, near his home in Belfast.

My writing, NaPoWriMo, Poetry, Writing

NaPoWriMo Day 2 -Rosemary


It’s the thirteenth today;
touch wood.
So long I’ve waited, and it has to be this day?
Still, I’m doing what I longed for
this last three years.
But here’s me, crouched in a toilet,
fiddling with wires,
and I’m to be a teacher!
But the cause is right,
and casualties regrettable.
Touch wood.

18 year old female member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
One of four people killed in a premature explosion at a shop in North Street, Belfast, as she was assembling a bomb on the premises.

Helen's Bay, County Down, Northern Ireland
Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month -Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto, by John Hewitt

I’ve just discovered the poetry of Belfast-born writer John Hewitt, which is a shocking oversight for someone writing a novel based in Belfast during the Troubles.  But then his name is somewhat overshadowed by those other dazzling Northern Irish luminaries:  Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Frank Ormsby. I read the poem below and immediately ordered a copy of his Selected Poems, which I’ve been devouring ever since.

If I could put into so few words my sense of conflicted pride, identity, loyalty, pain and longing for Northern Ireland, they would read like this poem, which was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh car bombing on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity in 1998, where thirty-one people were murdered by the Real IRA splinter group, who opposed the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This poem also came to mind when I read of the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murder of civilians during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry

Very unusually for the period, my Northern Irish parents were “mixed”, that is, one was Protestant, the other Catholic. My relationship with my Northern Irish heritage and identity, my fellow countrymen and women and how they have affected my family, and the families of most people I know from the region can be read in Hewitt’s appeal to “bear in mind” the dead.

Remembrance, loyalty and justice are words that have been worn out on all sides by the spilling of so much blood, and by a willingness to turn away from deeds committed in a country of incredible natural beauty and otherwise welcoming inhabitants; a time, place and people that are still overlooked and misunderstood by many.

John Hewitt: Selected Poems



For the people of my province
and the rest of Ireland

Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using
that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies.

I cannot urge or beg you
to pray for anyone or anything,
for prayer in this green island
is tarnished with stale breath,
worn smooth and characterless
as an old flagstone, trafficked
with journeys no longer credible
to lost destinations.

The careful words of my injunction
are unrhetorical, as neutral
and unaligned as any I know:
they propose no more than thoughtful response;
they do not pound with drum-beats
of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

So I say only: bear in mind
those men and lads killed in the streets;
but do not differentiate between
those deliberately gunned down
and those caught by unaddressed bullets:
such distinctions are not relevant.

Bear in mind the skipping child hit
by the anonymous ricochet;
the man shot at his own fireside
with his staring family round him;
the elderly woman
making tea for the firemen
when the wall collapsed;
and the garrulous neighbours at the bar
when the bomb exploded near them;
the gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square;
and the policeman dismembered
by the booby-trap in the car.
I might have recited a pitiful litany
of the names of all the dead:
but these could effectively be presented
only in small batches,
like a lettered tablet in a village church,
valid while everyone knew everyone,
or longer, where a family name persists.

Accident, misfortune, disease, coincidence
of genetic factors or social circumstance,
may summon courage, resolution, sympathy,
to whatever level one is engaged.
Natural disasters of lava and hurricane,
famine or flood in far countries, will evoke
compassion for the thin-shanked 

Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.


And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Reading and Books, Writing

Begin at The Beginning -Does My Novel Need a Prologue?

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot, since, well, the beginning of this new year.  I’m currently reviewing my manuscript for And The Buntings Flew, having put it away for a few months; that distance allowed me to clean up what I’ve written to date, and forge on with the story. I’ve now got 35,000 words that have been through a couple of rigorous self-edits, and a further 15,000 words of raw dialogue and plot points to revise; that’s more than half of the planned novel length!

But one major issue remained unresolved –  how the novel would open. I’ve written three blocks of text that I couldn’t choose between, and they sat untethered to the main story at the start of the manuscript:

  1. A prologue
  2. Some historical background to the story, and
  3. The start of the action.

It seems obvious now that the story should start at the latest point in the action where the story proper begins, but I had such a lot of good historical background info that pertained to the current story; I had to get it in somewhere, and I also wanted to set the scene with a tableau from the story; where to start?

The Prologue

There’s lots of advice out there about prologues, but the only consensus is “proceed with caution”. When deciding whether to start with my prologue, I considered the following:

  • My prologue wasn’t overly long (about 500 words)
  • The prologue was from the POV of the main character and narrator
  • The prologue featured a vignette from the story, but wasn’t something that I couldn’t include in the main story; it did however set the scene.
  • The prologue wasn’t the scene of a violent or tumultuous event
  • I wasn’t using it as an information dump
  • I wasn’t trying to cram in relevant historical information.  I resisted the temptation to drop a lot of context in the prologue; it was simply the main character and a vignette from her day.

So was the prologue necessary? Was it boring? It was quite short (about three paragraphs and not much happens in it, although it gives a few clues to some other main character motivations and points of view.) Would this turn off readers before they even got to Chapter One, or would they just skip the prologue altogether?

The prologue was pertinent to the story that followed;  it was the perspective of the main character, but was it setting the scene for the main character’s arc? I wasn’t sure about that.  It wasn’t throwing the reader into the middle of any battles, betrayals, plot twists etc, which would be confusing. But, could I incorporate the details contained in the prologue into the main story?

Another point I considered was a quote from The Writer’s Digest’s Brian Klems:  When To Use a Prologue

“A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.

On reflection I decided that the scene and its implications in the prologue could be revealed organically through the action; the events were close to the start of the novels’ opening, they weren’t out of time sequence, and would naturally fit after the first main action scene.  So I deleted the prologue from the main manuscript (although I saved it in another file, just in case!), and turned my attention to the next chunk of text that was jostling for pole position in my novel:

(Historical) Background Information

If I’m not including a prologue, how will I share key historical background information with the reader fairly soon into the main story? And The Buntings Flew is set in Belfast during the mid-1970s when The Troubles were in full, devastating swing.

After living here for forty years, I’m still astonished at how few people on the British mainland understand the intricacies of The Troubles; many people assumed my father, with his broad “Norn Iron” accent, was from the Republic of Ireland, or was automatically a Nationalist supporter;  he was frequently asked if he supported the IRA.

With this in mind, I want to include a potted history of the Troubles and the sociopolitical history behind them fairly early on, as an understanding of the Troubles will help the reader follow the story and its themes. To do so, however, you could end up summarising events back to the 1600s!

The Northern Irish are a people with a long memory, and events such as the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the Home Rule Movement and Act of 1914, the 1921 Partition of Ireland and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s are part of the political landscape still, with events such as the annual 12th July parades celebrating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II.

Obviously, I don’t need to cover all of these events in detail, but it’s important to have a passing understanding of the historical events that led to the Troubles,  which are the background to my story. Although some events are fictionalized, my story is based on real events, so I want the novel to reflect as accurately as possible the landscape of 1970s’ Belfast.

But I also don’t want to scare off readers with huge chunks of historical text; originally, my plan was to incorporate some history via the narrator, as part of the first chapter, but that slowed the action down. If I just had a footnote to add, it might be fine, but as noted above, there’s quite a lot of historical context to understand the situation in 1970s (and current) Northern Ireland, and some readers may have little knowledge of the history behind the events that are central to my story.

The background history I wanted to include was a good two to three pages, a mix of family history intertwined with the history of NI. I thought of having a prologue dealing with the history, via family members, but  when I dropped the prologue,  I toyed with starting chapter one with a rundown on key events; I decided this was too much of an ask for the reader, who at that point would have no idea how long the history lesson would be, with no framework of the main story  visible yet.

In the end, I decided to jump straight into the action with the catalyst event at the start of chapter one,  and introduce most of the main characters and their situations.  Having given the reader a glimpse of the characters, I felt more comfortable dropping some history in chapter two, before resuming the main plot.

I now feel that the manuscript flows; it gets to the story immediately and introduces key characters, leaving a detailed look at the family (and province’s) history to the next chapter. As chapter one has some fairly high stakes events, a page or two of history gives the reader time to absorb what’s just happened before continuing with the story. It feels like a more cohesive read; the vignette from the prologue will be worked into the main story, so nothing is left, and much gained, by streamlining the start of the story.

I’d be interested to hear your views on using prologues and whether your story was well served by including one?

Postscript: A couple of people have asked me about the building in the header image above; it’s the Garrick Bar in Chichester Street, Belfast.

The Codsway Chip Shop, Bushmills, Northern Ireland
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Travel

For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

This is a post I wrote on my family history blog in July that I meant to crosspost sooner;  it’s a short musing on food and language in Northern Ireland, both important themes in much of my writing!

via For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops