Swans Commentary » swans.com June 5, 2006  



Season Of Trouble
The Art of Ralph Lillford & Louise Dean


by Peter Byrne





Painting The Troubles, An Artist in Northern Ireland, Paintings and Drawings by Ralph Lillford, a special exhibition at the National Army Museum, London, 17 March-24 September 2006. The Human Season, a novel by Louise Dean, Scribner, London, 2005, Harcourt, New York, Feb. 2007.


(Swans - June 5, 2006)  Since partition in 1921, Irish nationalists in Ulster had worked to reunite the island, provoking hostility in Northern Protestants. By the 1950s revindications had shifted to the civil rights of Catholics. In 1967, following the American example, they began sit-ins, marches, and protests. The Northern Ireland administration couldn't cope with the ensuing disorder, and in 1969 the British government sent in troops. Catholics at first welcomed them, but before long the military presence inflamed their nationalist and republican sentiments. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, generally known simply as the IRA, came into being.

1969 and 1970 had been characterized by conflict between Catholics and Protestants. From 1971 the Provisional IRA waged war against the British Army. Violence peaked, but by no means ended, in 1972 when 468 people died. By the year 2000, between three and four thousand deaths had occurred.

The English artist, Ralph Lillford, visited Northern Ireland a number of times in the 1970s with the intention of depicting the civil conflict. Though he apparently traveled independently, he did spend a week with the army in an official artistic capacity in Belfast in 1974. A former army man himself, having served in Egypt in his youth, his contacts must have somewhat smoothed his path in Ulster.

The exhibition catches the contemporary gallery visitor off balance. The postmodern moment leaves him free to set aside temporarily the modernist viewpoint. Framed color and form, and the emotions generated by them, are no longer the exclusive object of his attention. He can look at Lillford's work in the way he does performance, body, video, or land art, in the way he would contemplate an installation, a happening, or even an illustration.

But there's a hitch. Lillford's way of painting -- painterly -- stays close to the modernist tradition. It asks us to relish its surface, its colors, volumes, and draftsmanship. Also in the modernist way, it winks at the viewer, suggesting he make light of narrative and figurative subject matter.

At the same time Lillford's choice of what and where to paint ties him to a specific point in history: the Troubles. We have a right to ask why he made the considerable effort of going to investigate Northern Ireland in turmoil if the actual conditions there weren't of prime importance to his project.

This makes his exhibition Painting the Troubles doubly ambiguous. The viewer first of all sees Lillford take up the traditional modernist position of neutrality in respect to subject matter. Then he watches the painter extend neutrality to what his chosen subjects are doing. His British soldiers are not engaged in war. They are strong, dull, dependable fellows uncommitted to either side: the workhorses of fair play.

That British power served simply as the honest broker in Northern Ireland was of course the government's view and that prevalent in public opinion in mainland Britain during these years. The Irish were up to their murderous antics again and their factions had to be held apart, for their own good. Outwardly Lillford never departs from this position over the whole course of the work exhibited, which dates from 1971 to 1976. We shall see that Louise Dean in her novel has an entirely different perception of these and subsequent years. She reports two Belfast boys, miffed at being searched, asking a soldier with heavy irony: "Please soldier would you be a good man and leave our country and go back to your own?" He replies as Lillford's paintings do: "There's nothing I'd like better than to leave you lot to sort out your own quarrels."

A painting like 221 Columbus Place (1973) shows two doorways side-by-side, one decked out in loyalist colors, the other in republican. The at-each-others'-throats theme is pushed farther in Seamus Dealer (Belfast 1975). Here IRA graffiti confronts a "God-Bless-the-Queen" pronouncement on adjoining stores. But there's an addition. A British soldier stands in the foreground behind a transparent shield. He's as uncommitted as a lamppost, suffering a situation not of his making. In case we have doubts about his evenhandedness, he holds a clipboard with a list of paramilitary groups -- the culprits -- both loyalist and republican. Off to one side, hooligans make a nuisance of themselves.

But not many months before the picture was conceived IRA bombs in England killed five at Guildford and twenty-one at Birmingham. Some months afterward the IRA murdered the British ambassador in Dublin. Britain had in fact been at war with the Provisional IRA since at least "Bloody Sunday" of 1972 when thirteen unarmed Catholics had been shot dead in Londonderry by these stalwarts of neutrality.

Lillford delights in picturing military equipment, guns, and armored vehicles. But the hardware remains at the ready, never really used, as would befit a peacekeeping force. He also likes to depict soldiers. Often they are relaxing in quarters, killing only time, like the rest of us. On duty they are just as detached. Stolid and bored, they seem incapable of pulling a trigger even when they hold a self-loading rifle up, taking aim.

But if Lillford, friend of the military, does a balancing act above the fray, on some instinctive level he can't avoid revealing hard truths. For instance, that the vicious Ferret Scout Car (1974), with a Browning machine gun on its turret, would have scared the daylights out of kids playing at rebellion in the streets. Or that a juggernaut like R.R.W. Saracen, Armored Command Vehicle (1974) would have produced screaming nightmares in the hardiest of them.

The artist's detachment fights hard with these truths in Doghandler Pte Pitman and Satan (Belfast 1974). Private Pitman's obtuse gaze makes him seem incapable of any action, good or bad -- he's as neutral as a man asleep. But Satan beside him, one of the army's ninety-one guard dogs, looks like a beast out of hell. The dog's black eyes seek nothing but prey, and its open jaws show pointed canines as long as Pitman's ears.

In these thirty-some works, the Irish population, green or orange, hardly merits a look in. Nor anywhere to be seen is the enemy or target that all the armament points at. It's as if Lillford had rushed to illustrate a catastrophic fire and only given us portraits of the firemen and their hook and ladder. Fortunately, his instinct for a higher fair play -- the one concerned with truth not neutrality -- helped him out again. Though excluded from the exhibition catalogue, vital testimony turned up on the walls of the National Army Museum in the form of six drawings by Belfast Catholic children. Lillford, wandering the city, had struck up an acquaintance with their art teacher, a republican. Later the man sent his pupils' drawings to the artist.

The first shows two sides of a street, one held by soldiers and the other by young men who taunt them. The soldiers, one wounded, are methodically moving equipment. A massive armored car and the fire the young men have lighted dominate the scene.

In the second, a barricade has been built across a street. Armored cars have got through it. On the near side are four soldiers with brutal, impassive faces. Two stand back, while a third beats a prone boy with his truncheon and a fourth points his rifle at another boy who lies on his stomach looking dead.

The third sketches a panorama of street warfare. Again there are two equal sides, despite the presence of threatening armored vehicles and helicopters. Men of both camps are flat on their bellies firing, but it's the army that's under siege. A bus full of passengers has burst into flame.

A barrier divides the fourth drawing. IRA men throw Molotov cocktails while the soldiers opposite shoot into their ranks. A ferocious looking scout car has arrived, and four more are on the way.

The fifth depicts an IRA man in heroic pose firing an automatic weapon while a conflagration rages. Another man shouts, "'74 freedom year" and on a flagpole an Irish republican flag flies above the Union Jack.

The sixth drawing repeats the recurring elements: Two opposing sides firing over a barrier, with scary military vehicles and helicopters in the background. Partisan they may be, but the children have seen no neutrality, only a war between two parties, equal in commitment if not in armament. Ralph Lillford and the National Army Museum should be congratulated on letting six anonymous kids who felt the Troubles in their heads and on their skin undermine the official view.


As a novelist, Louise Dean knew that detachment, in Northern Ireland or any place else, would get her nowhere. It's not that she takes sides, but that she had to identify with her characters in order to understand them. As human beings they have no choice but to be in specific situations, which of course rule out neutrality. Her main interest fixes on two of them. Their stories will proceed apace; separate but both unfolding in strife-torn Belfast, one narrative taking a step forward and then the other.

Kathleen Moran is a mother in her late thirties who lives with her family in the Catholic neighborhood of Ballymurphy, where floorboards of homes are torn up regularly as the army looks for guns. Her husband's a blowhard and a drinker, her older son a Provisional, her younger one aching to follow him, and her teenage daughter painfully at odds with her. John Dunn, in fact and in mentality, lives on the other side of town, in East Belfast. An Englishman, he did twenty-two years in the army, including stints in Ulster. Being something of a rolling stone, Dunn has decided to stay on there. He's taken a job as a warder in Long Kesh, the notorious local prison, also known as the Maze. He was briefed on arrival: "This place is a cesspit."

The deadly 1970s have run their course. The government policy of internment without trial accomplished nothing, except increasing violence. The Provisionals considered the suspension of the Ulster parliament and direct ruled from Britain a victory, making the real enemy clear. The loyalists, convinced they had been losing out politically, hastened their military build up and organized disruptive strikes. Various power-sharing schemes and truces failed. When the Provisionals seemed to be losing Catholic support, they reorganized in cells. Segments of both Irish communities had recourse to terrorism, and a de facto state of war continued between the IRA, plus associates, and the army whose methods did not always bear scrutiny.

Louise Dean begins her novel in November 1979 when the Maze prison became the microcosm of the Northern Irish crisis. Three years earlier, the government had decided to do away with special political status for republican prisoners. Henceforth they were to be treated as common criminals. They would have to don prison uniforms. The prisoners refused, and remained naked in their cells covered only with a blanket. By not wearing uniforms they were deprived of family visits and remission -- which could mean doubling their time in prison.

Now Kathleen Moran's son Sean has been arrested on an IRA operation and sent to the Maze. John Dunn, taking up his duties there, discovers a gruesome state of affairs. The "blanket" protest has escalated. First the prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash and empty their chamber pots. Then they began spreading their excrement and food on the cell walls. The prison staff didn't avoid brutality in handling the protesters. There was forced washing of the men and steam cleaning of their cells. Prisoners complained of beatings. For the IRA, the staff was guilty of enforcing "criminalisation." From 1976 to 1980, nineteen prison officers were murdered in the streets, ten dying in 1979 when Dunn reported for work and Sean Moran, age nineteen, had joined the protest.

Dunn begins, not unlike Ralph Lillford's soldiers, just doing his job. But the difficulties of neutrality will come home to him on his first night shift. The prisoners along a corridor he must pass down all urinate through their cell doors in synchrony, leaving him in a wading pool. The author will use Dunn, something of an outsider, to record the fraying of the prison staff's decency in the face of similar nightmarish goings-on.

The principal officer in charge of visits tells Dunn how things stand. Since the protest started, the rule of what he calls "jailcraft" comes down to three words "stay on top." Dunn's not to talk to either party in the visiting room, never to smile, only to listen and, when a word is said he doesn't like, to declare the visit over. When Dunn remarks off-hand that it must be hell to live in the stench of excrement, he realizes he's blundered. The officer judges him to be not completely on the right side. Ex-soldier Dunn reflects:

He had never put a foot wrong that way in the army. There was no personal point of view.... He'd never been caught out before. He'd always been able to close down all parts of himself he didn't need. He'd got himself to the point where he could even forget about killing people.

Dunn's inner journey in the novel will consist of a gradual opening of those closed-down parts of himself. Watching the body searches that humiliate the prisoners and demean the warders inflicting them, he finds himself admitting: "I never liked school, I never liked football, I never liked the army." Even while embracing his lover, he has to fight off what he's seen: "When he closed his eyes he saw a man with his head forced to the side, his eyes wide -- the image had come up on him from behind, like a knife to his neck."

Dunn's colleagues are not at all of a piece. For every dyed-in-the-wool sadist, there are others simply doing their job, not a little disgusted at what it entails. They take shelter in drink or womanizing, and dream of the little place in the country that their overtime pay will buy. Some of the staff are even genuine anti-republicans or able to justify their cruelty as revenge for murdered friends. Higher-ups are often simply bureaucrats that have been shunted into a department where they are deciding life and death matters instead of signing orders for typewriter ribbons or paperclips.

Nor are the republican terrorists, in jail or out, sterling exemplars of humanity. Their ideological armor can conceal the same cruelties and pettiness, and their hidden motives are surely as mixed as the jailers'. The conflict that the two groups have nurtured destroys what's best in each of them. In the same way, it made Dunn's pity for the inmates living in the stench of excrement a kind of treason.

A young Protestant woman shares Dunn's life. She loves and wants to marry him. Hers is another kind of detachment. She dislikes his work at the Maze, but only because of the danger he runs of retaliation. Though no fiery bigot, she does fear Catholic domination. There is something offensively naive in her feeling that Northern Irish life can simply go on as it always has, namely, with the Protestants in charge: "You see the difference is we're happy with our lot."

She has concerns about Dunn's blocked emotions He loves her, but his childhood as a castoff and stranger to affection has frozen his feelings. At the same time, "it was the caution of the man that thrilled her. How much he kept back."

The sudden appearance of a son he wasn't sure existed will aid to break up Dunn's inner congestion. The two men work enjoyably at getting to know one another. The young man, a college student, will make Dunn feel he ought to lead a worthier life. He senses his son judging him and discovers he wants that judgment and approval. He resolves to live differently and for a start to leave his job at the Maze. Maybe he came to feel that it was absurd for men who swilled milky tea whenever they could, some of them living in stench and the others bringing it home in their clothes, to spend their time torturing each other.

But before Dunn can take more than a few steps into a new life, the IRA shoots him through his kitchen window. A senior prison officer declares at his wake, "He was a quiet fellow, didn't know him long, but you knew where he stood. He was a decent man."

John Dunn was indeed a decent man. That's precisely why he changed where he stood and chose to withdraw from the conflict. He wanted nothing more to do with repression, no matter how much the maintenance of law and order seemed to demand it. It was lowering all around. He detached himself from it, not like the sleepwalker he had been, but with passion.

Kathleen Moran will not get free of the Maze so easily. For the present she only sees the "the house in the country" on half-hour visits to her son Sean once a month. Like all the women, she smuggles tobacco and IRA messages in her vagina. Her question to Sean is a mother's: "Why do you have to be the one to save the world?" And with Kathleen, the novel becomes a powerful story of motherhood. Her hollowed out marriage leaves her bitter on the surface: "Sometimes it's hard to remember what it's like to be young." Her solicitude for her children has little to do with duty. It's visceral, total.

The social crosscurrents cut Kathleen up and make a simple for-or-against attitude impossible. She's at the heart of the republican community, and there's no doubt about her allegiance. But she sees her younger son romantically ready to throw himself into the lethal struggle like his jailed brother. She senses the death wish that can hide beneath nationalist rhetoric. Her teenage daughter wants an ordinary life far from politics and violence, and blames her mother for not providing it. Kathleen's has-been of a husband forever cranks out yarns of his militant past.

Kathleen becomes active in the social side of the republican movement. But it's more to get out of the house, be informed about Sean and, also, guiltily, because of her liking for a young political organizer. The IRA man is the contrary of her husband: efficient, chary of words, totally dedicated, hard. Kathleen, sick of her life, would like to ask him to take her away. "But he couldn't. There was no one who could rescue her from what she loved."

Eventually she will come together in a compromise arrangement with her husband who dries out, and drops his pretensions of being "a big man." The couple, buoyed up by their children, will reach a tolerable modus vivendi. Kathleen says of her imprisoned son to her husband: "...I was thinking maybe I should love our Sean less or others more. Other people I mean. But I can't love Sean less. So I've got to love the others more."

The novel ends on New Year's Day, 1980. Kathleen's son Sean has already asked her to stop visiting him so he can feel free to throw himself fully into the protest. He will take part in the Maze fasts soon to begin.

Because their "dirty" protest had been absorbed into the routines of the Maze, the prisoners felt they had to go farther. In October 1980, seven of them went on a hunger strike. The IRA in the city stopped killing prison officers and cut short other protests. The prisoners made five demands: to wear their own clothes, to do no prison work, to be allowed to associate, to receive weekly visits and parcels, and to gain back their lost remission.

It was a miscalculation. The British government under Margaret Thatcher, still reeling from IRA inflicted deaths, would not give in. Only a few hints came that some concessions could follow if the fast were abandoned. As it happened the strike finished in confusion and nothing was gained. The republican prisoners then had to react strongly or be annihilated by defeat. They organized another hunger strike.

The March 1981 fast would not be called off till October, after ten strikers had died and the prisoners' families had intervened. Louise Dean has made it easy for us to imagine that Kathleen's spell of family tranquility would soon have turned to anguish. Her fictional world meshed with history. Sean would have been a diehard among the hunger strikers.

The second fast failed only in the sense that the government never yielded. As propaganda on the world stage it registered a huge success. The IRA was seen as not merely perpetrators of violence, but men willing to make the ultimate personal sacrifice for their cause. One hundred thousand people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands, the first striker to die.

The depth to which Louise Dean, a middleclass English woman, has penetrated Belfast's two communities can only astonish. No summary description of The Human Season can do justice to her rendering of the language and texture of everyday life. The reach of this her second novel surprises all the more when we look again at the first. Becoming Strangers (UK 2004, US Jan. 2006) was a lively comedy of manners struggling not to drown in Euro-tourism. When a young writer can amaze us as Dean has done, it's hard not to hope for more shocks of excellence in the future.

Only at one point do the stories of Kathleen Moran and John Dunn touch vividly. Dunn has just begun work at the Maze. An angry young prisoner who is also new to the place singles him out. Sean Moran says, "What the fuck have I done to you?" Dunn, who notices that the young man is the age of his son, replies, "It's not personal." Sean says, "How is this not personal? Here I am standing here and there's you standing there."

Ralph Lillford thought best not to get personal about the Troubles. The Belfast kids knew better. So did Louise Dean.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published June 5, 2006