Herself Alone in 0range Rain, by Tracey Iceton, Cinnamon Press, 396 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1910836767
Herself Alone is a telling, not a retelling, for the simple reason that, seemingly, no one has before dared to tell this story.
Tracey Iceton, a Teesside-based novelist, is working on the completion of a trilogy of novels called Celtic Colours. The first is Green Dawn at St Enda’s (2016), featuring Finn Devoy, who fought for Irish independence. The second is Herself Alone in Orange Rain (2017), whose narrator is Devoy’s granddaughter, Caoilainn, a prominent IRA activist during the1980s. The third novel will be set in the ’90s.
The author has published two essays outlining her background research as well as her intentions and methods in the making of Herself Alone in Orange Rain: “Troubles Women” and “Researching the Facts, Writing the Fiction”. She claims to have achieved both originality and a strong ethical approach to her subject in two ways. She has attempted to write a “compelling novel” which gives a “credible account” of the experiences of a woman volunteer in the IRA, avoiding the stereotypes and various forms of demonisation or diminishment of previous fictional portrayals. She uses real events in her narrative, adhering closely to recorded facts. She also uses real people, including Mairéad Farrell, one of the three activists shot dead in Gibraltar in 1988; Brendan “Darkie” Hughes, operations officer for the IRA throughout the ’80s; and Patrick Magee, the so-called “Brighton Bomber”.
She has used the thriller genre, which hardly bodes well for an innovative perspective. The “Troubles thriller” became a dominant and maligned genre from the start of the conflict; Eve Patten called it one of the most profitable industries in Northern Ireland. In 1995, Bill Rolston complained about Northern Ireland being used as a poaching-ground for the fiction writer in search of a plot:
It’s got macho-men with guns, it’s got beautiful virgins running around, falling at the feet of macho-men with guns, it’s got chases, it’s got bombs, it’s got all you might want … Thriller writers are roaming the world trying to figure out somewhere they can pounce, parachute in, and Northern Ireland is perfect.
There is no doubt that Tracey Iceton is on to something important in her desire to render a portrayal of a female IRA volunteer in a way free from stereotyping and sexism. But has she been able to breathe new life into the Troubles thriller genre?
We first see Caoilainn Devoy as a four-year-old child in 1966, taken on a midnight outing into central Dublin by her grandfather, Finn, to hide and watch the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar. The bombers are a group of “the boys” who revere the veteran and have tipped him off about their planned toppling of the statue to commemorate the Easter Rising. Finn observes the girl’s reaction: “I felt the sharp snap of shock fired through her, a gun’s recoil, but not a peep of fear passed her lips. The street lit up in furious orange; her green eyes shone, eager and alive.”
Just a few pages in, and the tropes of Troubles fiction are already summoned: the rigid palette of orange and green with their readymade meanings; the sentimental veteran granddaddy, so gleefully relishing violent disruption, and keen to pass on the torch; more than a touch of prophecy in the description of the nerveless girl.
Finn’s grandparenting style is as hard to believe as the child’s cooperation, but he soon hands the orphaned girl over to the Ryans, a pair of hippie crusaders who bring her up in England as part of their ramshackle life of communes and campaigns. Although the novel mostly avoids deliberate humour, these foster parents resemble the caricatures in Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, devoted omnivores of every available left-wing cause. Caoilainn feels sidelined and this ripens her for the tug of her birth family when she gets a summons to quit her art college course to go and care for her dying grandfather. The futility of her foster parents’ style of protest also primes her for a belief in the rightness of armed struggle. Not that it takes much to convince her. When Aiden, her childhood friend, pops up unannounced in her flat in Plymouth with his loaded gun and his livid scars from an assault by two UVF “lads”, he tells her, “We’re Republican in our bones.” It’s not long before she is proclaiming that “In Belfast you have to take a side. But you don’t pick it; fate does that for you.” Later in the novel, this predestined tribalism takes on a creepy mystic tinge when she identifies herself with Mairéad Farrell: “So, like me, she was Republican before she was born.”
This choicelessness is used to justify Caoilainn’s swift conversion to the cause, which enables Iceton to crack on with her plot. But the promise of a new, untold story recedes fast with these notions of Irish essentialism and a “bred-in-the-bone” recourse to violence. It’s an old tale, one that usually features in antagonistic portrayals of republicanism. Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin (1977), for example, is set in 1970s Derry but shows one of her characters, Brendan, joining the IRA because he models himself on his elderly father. “I always saw myself carrying on where he left off.” He is inspired by proxy to join the IRA – by what happened in 1921 rather than in his own here-and-now of 1971.
This notion of militant republicanism as family tradition minimises the impact of the searing events from 1968 onwards that motivated young people to take up arms: the Battle of the Bogside, internment, torture, Bloody Sunday. It panders to the idea of congenitally violent “Paddies”.
Apart from the hand-me-down allegiance, Caoilainn’s induction into the IRA begins convincingly enough. Her first task is to place a bomb beneath the car of a prison officer known for his brutality. The details of the car ride to his home and the attaching of the bomb are queasily vivid. Caoilainn is keen to prove her mettle but things go awry when an elderly man suddenly appears while she is still busy underneath the car. Their startled eyes meet and she shoots him dead. It’s the wrong man, the target’s father-in-law. The anti-heroic fraughtness of this rings true although the man’s death weighs less with Caoilainn than the prospect of being punished by Kelly, her hostile OC, who ranted beforehand about the folly of sending “a wee girl” to carry out such a mission.
The story is consistently realistic about the routine vexations of this kind of sexism. Caoilainn is either the object of “wide-eyed awe” or “narrow-minded chauvinism” from her male counterparts.
Iceton explores other pressures and ordeals specific to women combatants, for example when Caoilainn becomes pregnant and opts immediately for an abortion, keeping it secret from her husband. She concludes that motherhood and active involvement in armed struggle are mutually exclusive. She accepts this as a sacrifice, one of many, but afterwards suffers almost unmanageable jealousy over her sister-in-law’s pregnancy.
Later in the story, when Caoilainn is jailed, she, along with other women prisoners, is subjected to a regime of regular strip-searching in Maghaberry prison. This was a systematic, gender-based humiliation and Iceton shows the sexual nature of such assaults and the zealous political retribution driving them.
So far, so good. However, the portrayal of Caoilainn gradually conforms to some of the kinds of stereotyping that Iceton has listed in her “Troubles Women” essay as what she aimed to avoid, including the female activist’s emotional instability and uncontrollability noted by critics such as Bill Rolston and Aaron Kelly. But Caoilainn is, in fact, shown as tempestuous and volatile; strong emotions derail her. When her sister-in-law, Briege, announces her pregnancy, Caoilainn walks out of the family home, steals a Honda motorbike and rides it dangerously up the east coast road, “screaming through Belfast”, “slitting Bangor up the middle” until she runs out of petrol and dumps the bike on the outskirts of Millisle. She sleeps on the beach on a freezing November night. She has no concern for the consternation of her family: Briege thinks she has done something wrong; the other members of Caoilainn’s unit are “mad with worrying” that she has been arrested.
She has a similarly intense reaction to news of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day service bombing, which appals her and which she cannot consider a legitimate target. She is so stricken that she vomits, then quickly gets home, grabs her helmet and revs up the Norton, forcing her young brother-in-law to accompany her to Enniskillen. Again, she rides a bike recklessly, tearing up the traffic, despite Danny clinging on to her in fear for his life. But she must get herself to the “epicentre, the stench of burnt death”. Incredibly, a “peeler” allows them to wander and wallow on the immediate site, where they see the bloodstains and the pathetic detritus of discarded belongings. They return home but Caoilainn vanishes again, spending four nights outdoors (it’s November again!), tramping the hills of Monaghan. She has no contact with Patrick, her new husband, and he is distraught, of course. Caoilainn’s ungovernable emotions, her impulsiveness and her self-absorption, can all eclipse her political and military self-discipline in ways that are familiar from previous fictions. Nothing new here.
Caoilainn also gradually conforms to sensationalist clichés as outlined by critics like Jayne Steel in Demons, Hamlets and Femme Fatales (2007). She suggested the collective noun “Vampira” to denote monstrous representations of female combatants. At first, Caoilainn holds to the principle that she will not act out of personal revenge, falling out with Aiden over her refusal to avenge the murder of her own aunt. She also does not use her sexual allure to entrap men, although we are left in no doubt about her attractiveness. She is small, “petite” even, and has long blonde hair. Two men fall passionately in love with her: Aiden and later Patrick Duffy, her lawyer, who endures rebuffs and privations for her sake.
After Aiden’s death, Caoilainn changes dramatically. She becomes pitiless and implacable, though never laments or even observes this abandonment of her initial moral position. On the first anniversary of Aiden’s death, she is summoned suddenly to deal with a British army “sniper” hiding in Divis Flats on the Falls Road. While Mrs Murphy, an Ortonesque figure in the flat opposite the soldier, eggs her on and gives her a “steadying” cup of tea mid-shoot, Caoilainn kills the soldier, experiencing “the hungry gnawing inside me that wants him dead and someone else aching with emptiness”. More than two years later, personal reprisal also fuels her killing of a young policeman, whose vulnerability is emphasised just before she explains why he has to die and who is really to blame:
The peeler turns, blinks at me, starts to stand … The glaring searchlight exposes his baby face; fresh pink skin, plump and downy.
His hands fly up in a gesture of surrender. Both of them are empty.
“Please. Don’t shoot. I …” he nods towards the road, “dropped it. I’m unarmed.”
So was Aiden.
“Yous are the ones who wanted big boy rules. That means no take backs.”
I pull the trigger. He falls forward. It’s war. I’m not sorry.
Jayne Steel’s Vampira include “the remorseless blonde”. Tick. “The ice-maiden killer.” Tick.
Iceton’s claim of daring innovation is also based on her mixing of fact and fiction. Her novel is an unusual hybrid of styles and structure, though not unknown. In its methods, the book most resembles Danny Morrison’s 1989 novel West Belfast. There is a similar framework of newspaper reports of incidents followed by a dramatisation of events, always with a salving undercurrent of exoneration of IRA actions as in the unlikely dialogue above.
In her essay outlining her approach, “Researching the Facts, Writing the Fiction”, Iceton contends that her decision to use real, undisguised events and people, bolstered by fiction to cover the “gaps”, is an ethical one, more ethical in fact than other writers’ strategies of veiling real sources. She asks wryly whether it would have been better to have a “Patrick Maguire bombing the Bridlington Hotel” as if the only choices are between documentary realism or near-verisimilitude. She has a strong faith in the effectiveness of realism, while other writers and critics question its power to convey the inward experience of trauma and violence. While reading this book, I often thought longingly of Anna Burns’s truly innovative, Ardoyne-set novel No Bones (2001), which uses savage wit and surrealism to capture the truth of the Troubles in the most achingly real way.
Inevitably, the use of real people’s lives and deaths increases hugely the ethical load for a writer. The novel follows a tight pattern, tracking major IRA actions throughout the eighties, always placing Caoilainn at the core of the action as protagonist or witness. In her replication of known incidents, Iceton frequently uses rumours of unidentified accomplices as an opportunity to insert her own characters into the scene.
For example, there was an inadequate warning time before the Harrods bombing in 1983, which resulted in more casualties. Iceton beefs up her dramatisation of Caoilainn’s unit’s failure to deliver a properly timed warning by making use of another real incident that happened days before the attack. The SAS had shot two IRA members at an arms dump. There was reportedly a third volunteer who fled the scene. In her fictional reworking, she makes this person Aiden, Caoilainn’s husband, who subsequently dies of his wounds. Another character arrives with news of Aiden’s death and this extreme shock delays the issuing of the warning in good time.
Iceton writes about this linkage of events as if it’s a neutral story-making activity. But it’s loaded, of course. She conflates two separate events in a way that rules out callousness as a possible reason for a delayed bomb warning, while implicitly shifting the blame to the SAS. This looks like a bogus connection in service of a partisan agenda. Readers don’t know where the boundary is between the authentic realities and the rearranged realities.
Iceton uses the same combination of meticulous research and creative licence in her portrayals of the prominent IRA members who appear in the novel as “themselves”. Mairéad Farrell has the most detailed characterisation: her clothes, her flamboyance, her fun side, her compassion and blazing sense of justice. When Caoilainn is jailed on a relatively minor charge, Mairéad arranges for her to share her cell. Upon her release, she appoints Caoilainn as her successor, OC to thirty-two women.
In his scenes, Brendan Hughes is full of foreboding about the betrayal of the armed struggle by the peacemakers. Despite his paranoia about informers, he trusts Caoilainn instantly and freely confides in her. She is always the trusted one, the anointed.
Patrick Magee is the most lightly sketched character, presumably because he is still alive. In her account of the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984, Iceton follows known facts. Patrick Magee booked into the hotel as Roy Walsh. Iceton adds “Mrs Walsh” to the bill. He and Caoilainn masquerade as a couple on holiday in order to deflect suspicion during the days of preparation for the attack on the Tory conference. Magee is like a courtly ghost and yet the depictions of him are voyeuristic. The pair share a bed, strictly for sleeping, but there is an inevitable sexual frisson in such an arrangement. Later, Magee is shown naked in a different, possibly more intrusive sense when Caoilainn watches him taking communion at Mass. “I have to watch the intimate moment when the bread is placed on his tongue. Pat returns, slipping into the pew, kneeling and clasping his hands, his private prayer naked.”
She has to watch it – and so do we. When it comes to placing the bomb, it is Caoilainn who flicks the lethal switch on the bomb’s timer. Later, when Magee is sentenced to eight life sentences with a minimum of thirty-five years, he is steadfastly loyal, refusing to name her, receiving a longer sentence by taking full blame. Caoilainn refers to “what they’re putting him through to get to me”. His reticence is an act of gallantry towards her rather than an act of resistance towards the British state.
Since Patrick Magee was released under the Good Friday Agreement amnesty, he has reinvented himself in certain ways. He has written Gangsters or Guerrillas? (2001), a well-researched and witty analysis of the hundreds of thrillers set in the Troubles, highlighting their reiterations of solacing stereotypes of republican volunteers. He has joined with Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of the five people killed in Brighton, in reconciliation and forgiveness projects. What he has never done is renounce his decision to try to kill the prime minister and her cabinet. Can it be ethical to produce a story that casts doubt on his ultimate agency in preparing and placing that bomb when he was willing to pay for his agency and still upholds it? Or if some people think he has forfeited the right to any consideration, what about the grieving relatives of the slain who might easily find this pass-the-parcel fictionalising crass or frivolous?
The repetitive nature of the plot is predictable: we know that Caoilainn will always steal the show. Caoilainn with her finger on the trigger, her finger on the timer switch. As the story approached the Gibraltar shootings and the terrible aftermath of bloodletting in Belfast, I began to dread it. Surely the writer would show some restraint when dealing with such a dark and distressing chain of events, one that still haunts the North?
Vanessa Engle’s BBC documentary The Funeral Murders was broadcast in March 2018, thirty years after the events. To summarise the background: Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage, and Daniel McCann were shot dead near an army base in Gibraltar in March 1988. They were unarmed, though a hired car containing a bomb was subsequently found. At their funerals in Belfast, loyalist gunman Michael Stone fired indiscriminately at the mourners, killing three, including one IRA member, Kevin Brady. At his funeral, two British army corporals, who had driven into the path of the cortege, were dragged from their car, mauled and beaten by a crowd, then taken away to be shot by the IRA.
Engle interviewed republicans, loyalists, RUC police officers, former soldiers, relatives and friends of the deceased, even passers-by. Many people were still visibly harrowed by what they had experienced or witnessed. Some of the bereaved struggled with a sense of shame, the feeling that their loss was eclipsed by an indelible stigma because of the cruelty of the soldiers’ deaths. The republican activists who spoke all defended the execution of the soldiers but none rejoiced in how they died. One said the killing was “grotesque” and the manner of it made him “uncomfortable”. Danny Morrison said it was “a disaster for all concerned”.
Compare that to Iceton’s gloating account. Of course, it is Caoilainn who carries out the execution. We know by now how this story works. “Mine weren’t the only bullets but they were the first, the fatal ones.” She describes the men’s suffering in three lingering, semi-erotic paragraphs. Their abject bodies, their piteous sounds, how “they whimper, lost kittens calling for the queen”. She hovers over them like some tender ghoul, one hand calming with “sweeping caresses”, the other placing the gun’s muzzle against the skull of each man in turn. Caoilainn’s transformation into one of the Vampira is complete. In the real world, the violation of those men is furthered.
There is a strange appendix at the end of the novel, a list of eighty-four names of the dead under the headline “Killed by the Troubles”, personifying the Troubles as some lethal entity, minimising the fact that slaughter is carried out by human hands and human wills. These dead include victims of the events dramatised in the novel: the hunger strikes, the bombings at Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Harrods, Brighton, Enniskillen; the Loughgall ambush; the Gibraltar shootings and their grisly aftermath in Belfast. Incredibly, Iceton has smuggled in the names of her fictional dead, according them the same status. She has also misspelt several surnames, including Farrell’s. What initially might look like some attempt to honour and lament lost lives could hardly be in poorer taste.
My conclusion is that Iceton’s claims of originality and ethical approach cannot withstand scrutiny. This whole novel is based on a misappropriation of people’s lives and deaths – people who are often still rawly and deeply mourned – all for the sake of the creation of a comically inflated warrior queen, Caoilainn, the new Cúchullain.
Linda Anderson is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island, 2017). Her novel Cuckoo has recently been reissued by Turnpike Books.