Who owns my story? Legally I’ve asserted my right to be identified as the author of Blackwatertown in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and patent Act 1988. Another way of looking at it is that as soon as a reader picks up a copy or opens it on their e-reader, the story belongs to them, to enjoy (or not) and interpret how and at a pace they choose. (Audiobooks may be a little different, as the voice in your head has to compete with that of the narrator – in my case, actor Patrick Moy.)
I’m thinking more of the moral right of ownership – the right to be the exclusive teller of a story.
My book, Blackwatertown, is fiction. I made it up. I wrote it. So no problem there, is there?
But Blackwatertown is set on the Irish border in the 1950s, so if you know me, you’ll know that I wasn’t around back then. It draws upon stories handed down within my family – dark, dangerous and funny events experienced by people who have gone before me.
The central character of Blackwatertown is Jolly Macken, a demoted Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the then overwhelmingly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland. As a Catholic, he’s automatically viewed with suspicion by fellow RUC men. As an RUC man, he’s distanced from the Catholic nationalist community in which he grew up. His loyalties are questioned by those around him and, in this case, he is not sure where his loyalties lie either. It makes for awkward and interesting situations and dilemmas.
Jolly Macken is a fictional character, but I was informed by the experiences of previous generations of my own family and their friends, who served as Catholic members of the mainly Protestant RUC. They did not have it easy. They put their lives on the line by wearing the uniform, but to some colleagues their Catholicism was an indelible stain – impossible to be washed out, even by blood. And being Catholics was no protection against bullets fired by those trying to overthrow the state. Long before the more well known “Troubles” of the late 1960s onwards, there were sporadic flare-ups of insurrection in Northern Ireland. Blackwatertown is set during the 1950’s IRA border campaign.
It wasn’t all mutual suspicion. There was camaraderie within the police too. Shared danger can cut through religious barriers. And there were opportunities to shine.
That’s my great uncle Mike in the old photograph – District Inspector Michael Murphy, escorting the then Princess Elizabeth in Belfast in 1949. There was no shortage of gunmen back in the day, but trained swordsmen were rarer. Michael Murphy learned his sword skills in the Irish Guards. He also escorted King George VI, in life and death, and was involved in all sorts of derring-do.
But it wasn’t all hobnobbing with royalty. What about the others whose experiences were on the dodgier side – unofficial invasions of the Irish Republic, faked ambushes, assassination attempts, cock ups, conspiracies and ordinary decent and unusual crime? Is it fair that I draw upon any of this in my own writing? They’re raw material or inspiration for me, but other people’s real lives.
You may be familiar with the Northern Ireland saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” Good advice in suspicious times or while under interrogation, but it doesn’t get you far as a writer. The advice I received was that it would be better not to write anything at all. Not to conserve the forests, but to avoid dredging up old enmities or activating old, sometimes very old, threats.
Do I have the right to appropriate these stories? Or the pain suffered by others? To ignore the warnings?
You’re reading this, so you know what decision I’ve taken. I’ve chosen to step into the grey area, but I try not to cross an invisible chronological line. I can’t say for sure that the 1950s is a safe distance away. I’ve been told it’s not. But there must come a point surely where you’re allowed to stop looking over your shoulder all the time.
And these stories from the past are what made me and set the parameters of my life into adulthood. I think that gives me a claim on them too.
The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland, before the noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve admired the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before The Troubles. I want to tell other stories from then that are too good to let be forgotten.