Garbhan Downey on why Northern Ireland crime fiction is so funny — and so serious
"`Those dirty Fenian bastards,' said Harry, shaking his head sadly.""Harry" is Harry "the Hurler" Hurley, a Catholic paramilitary leader gone (mostly) legitimate, here enraged because his Protestant counterpart, "Switchblade Vic" McCormick, has schemed to sign a squad of players from the traditionally Catholic soccer team Glasgow Celtic to play for Vic's team in an all-Ireland soccer tournament on which Harry and Vic have a sizeable wager. (Harry had previously pulled a similar stunt for his own team, signing players from Manchester United), and he's outraged to have been outfoxed by his rival, particularly with a team of Catholic players.
Harry's use of the anti-Catholic slur did a number of things for me. It exposed Harry's venality and self-interest. It showed me a Catholic writer confident enough to write words he might not have dared set to paper a few years ago — and a belief that readers in Northern Ireland were ready to accept fun being poked at words they may have heard or uttered in hatred not so long ago. And it was damn funny.
Then Downey surprised me with an e-mail about my first post, which I'd called "Garbhan Downey, humor, and (the specter of) violence." So, instead of my speculations, I reprint, with his permission, Garbhan Downey on humor and violence in Northern Ireland and the relationship between the two.
As I might have said to you before, I have no complete answer, though you've set me thinking again as to why I do it myself.
There are those who often misconstrue our levity as callousness. They believe we've become inured because of prolonged tragedy. Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart, as Yeats would have it.
But I'd contend it's not quite that simple, and we're certainly not heartless. A large part of our humour, I figure, is a defence mechanism to prove to ourselves (and others) that we're not scared of what is often truly terrifying. I say prove to, but I actually mean convince — because the gallows humour is often little more than a thin veil.
For example, in my next book I have included a character called Clack-Clack, who has two artificial knees as the result of a double kneecapping. It's funny because it's the noise he now makes when he walks.
But I can still remember the chill of fear that shot through me when, as a teenager, myself and a pal took a late-night shortcut and inadvertently walked in on a youth being kneecapped by a gang of men wielding hurleys.
I'm not a psychologist of any ilk, but I imagine that to survive in any conflicted society (as ours was until about twenty years ago), it doesn't do any harm to live in an advanced state of denial.
My own experience is that levity can deflect attention from the macabre and puncture the seriousness that violence so often demands. The humour stops us from staring for too long into the abyss. It forces us back to the superficial.
The black humour in my writing reflects a real response, apparent among survivors (by which I mean the entire island of Ireland and many of our neighbours besides).
But, it's also important to note that there has been considerable softening in this humour as the years wear on and peace beds in. People are much kinder now and much less frightened — if at all. Our jokes are more inclined to be about what politician got caught swiping money from the Peace Fund than the gunman who tried to blow his own brains out but missed his ass by three feet.
Not that we're finished with the darkness by any means. There is still a major job to be done satirising the simplistic brutality which went before. And ridiculing it is perhaps one way of ensuring that it never happens again.