The troubles are a very important aspect within Northern
Irish history as they highlight a time of great civil unrest that has not been
fully concluded to this day. Within this essay I will discuss how the troubles
effected what can be classed as the marginalised minority, or in other words the
women and children of Northern Ireland. The two main texts being discussed are Reading in the Dark and One by One in the Darkness, with the
slight inclusion of other contemporary literature.

The Literature produced during the
troubles presents readers with a more fantasised but potentially more honest,
version of Irish history. The troubles can be better understood when using background
knowledge of the history of the conflict, as well as taking into account the
views of the author and their personal background. Most writers are somewhat
influenced by major events unfolding around them and this is apparent in the
works I have studied. The troubles was a period of great conflict within Northern
Ireland from 1960-98. In general, political and social attitudes of the
Protestants and Catholics had created tension long before the outbreak of the
Troubles. The fiction and poetry created around this time period involving
writers who had been personally involved in the conflict, can overall present a
greater understanding of how the unrest effected the individual, in particular
the psychological effects.

‘Irish literature has
traditionally displayed an inordinate concern with questions of cultural
identity and nationalistic ideals… the urge to define oneself in relation to
nation, community, history and language has been complicated by the impact of
shifting social, economic and political realities.’Kenneally, 1998, p.38

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Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane is key when
presenting views of a confused identity and psychological damage due to the events
of the troubles. The novels protagonist and narrator being a young and unnamed
boy who experiences his coming of age surrounded by historical tension. Deane
presents transgenerational trauma through the narrator growing up, becoming
more mature and discovering secrets about his family history. Deane highlights
how the issues that effected the adults are passed down to the children. Within
the novel the secrets are so intense between certain characters, like the mother,
that they prove to have a deteriorating effect on her mental health causing her
to fall apart not only emotionally but psychologically: ‘Wives and girlfriends
have often had to shoulder the burden of holding entire families together.’ Coulter,

            One of the
main themes of the novel is family relationships and how they are under strain
due to the secrecy within families caused by the effect of the troubles.
Secrecy is a burden imposed on the family not only within present secrets like
the truth behind the murder of Eddie, but past secrets such as the knowledge
that other family members had committed murder. This presents difficulty for
the family when trying to maintain relationships, as they all seem to present
troubled consciences and are corrupted by the past, yet must learn to live with
the consequences.

‘Whether the passive victim of
colonist oppression or the active gent of decolonisation, the colonial subject
is forced to negotiate traumatic social, cultural and political developments,
and this trauma can eventually lead to crisis and breakdown of mental health.’Smyth,
1997, p49

This quote from The
Novel and the Nation perfectly sums up the psychological struggles Deane
presents within the novel. The subjects of this novel are seen to slowly
disintegrate mentally due to the secrets they have to keep. The main symbolic
issue being the demise of the mother and her mental health:

‘Where the personal and political
are so closely intertwined, the mother’s grief says Deane, ‘is, in some ways,
aligned to Irish history.’ Conditioned to let the coloniser speak for her, the
mother has no language for her guilt and grief.’ Kennedy-Andrews, 2003, p220

And as the previous quote from Coulter also suggests, wives
are the ones that often had to shoulder the burden of holding families together.
Yet the trauma facing the whole family means that instead of the burden being
shared and held between both mother and son, this burden now creates a sense of
alienation and isolation between the child and the mother. The mother is aware of
what he knows, ultimately causing him to retreat into himself as he is unable
to disclose any information of the truth to anyone, especially a family member.

parallels the political developments that are happening throughout the
community, with a personal story in order to create the symbolic effect that
the secrets dividing this particular family mirror the division and secrets
that were dividing communities on a whole within Northern Ireland at the time. ‘Deane
questions the possibility of a true narrative. There is no such thing as
History, only Histories. History, penetrated by myth and fiction, is a kind of
insubstantial shadow-play’ Kennedy-Andrews, 2003, p218 this quote is key when
trying to understand the concept of the shadow world, or hauntings, and the
effect that this has on the psyche and how the pressures of the troubles have
prompted the ghostly illusions. Ghost stories are woven into the novel from the
very beginning, the memories of dead family members in a ghostly form and the
strategic placing of fables and old stories add to the fictional aspect of the
novel. As mentioned, the mother seems to be the one with the most damaged
psyche which creates a distorted image of the concept of mother Ireland and
that Mother Ireland is no longer able to protect, due to the fact she is
haunted with the ghosts of her past just as the mother is within the novel. The
narrator starts to find it difficult to distinguish the difference between what
is true and what is untrue, as the burden of the many family secrets are vague
and always present themselves as hazy, highlighting how alike the memories are
similar to ghostly legends. This is symbolic of Ireland on a whole and

‘Brian Friel expresses the
complementary views that those who look only backwards become victims of
history, while those who abandon the past become victims of cultural collapse.’
Cairns and Richards, 1996, p146

As the boy grows up however, the distinguishing between legends
and the true past becomes clearer. At the end of the novel the narrator
highlights to the reader that things are not as vague as they seem, or as they
were when he was a child piecing together his family history:

‘Hauntings are, in their way,
very specific. Everything has to be exact, even the vagueness. My family’s
history was like that too. It came to me in bits, from people who rarely
recognised all they had told.’ Deane, 2002, p225

This highlights the extent to which the transgenerational
trauma has been passed down to the narrator from each family member that
revealed secrets of the past, ‘he learns the value of indirection and the
silent compromises forced upon a colonial people in the interests of survival.’
Kennedy-Andrews, 2003, p222

            One by One in the Darkness by Deidre Madden
is written in a similar style to Reading
in the Dark. Whereas Reading in the
Dark gives a working class perspective of The Troubles, One by One in the Darkness gives a
middle class perspective. These novels can be seen to form some sort of
parallel when concerning the Troubles as they both involve strong reference to
the family structure, and they represent traumatic events of murder of male
members of each family. Throughout history it is perceived that people from
deprived backgrounds such as that in Reading
in the Dark, generally reported greater experience of political violence
than the middle class sector of society. However, from close reading fiction
such as this and comparing the two texts, it highlights the extent to which
that thought can only be classed as stereotypical and overall a general
statement. Both families within both texts highlight the political violence
that they experience, and both are mainly focussed around political violence
experienced as a child or from the woman’s perspective. Although Reading in the Darks childhood
experience of political violence is depicted as more intense, due to the way
Deane structures and depicts the protagonist/narrator, the political violence
seeps into the lives of the middle class in more subtle ways throughout One by One in the Darkness. For example,
at the beginning of the narrative there is a flashback to the sisters’
childhood where they are sat outside watching kittens being born, although this
seems innocent there is promptly an interruption of an important news story
about the prime minister, highlighting the extent to which the political
violence was subliminally finding ways to enter the minds of children from very
young ages; ‘Children, in particular are made aware of their otherness through
their deliberate exposure to the history of the troubles.’,

            A core theme
of One by One in the Darkness is how
the deaths of innocent people were often rationalised throughout the troubles.
Madden demonstrates that within the circumstances of Northern Ireland and the
ongoing conflict presented within the novel, pure forgiveness is an
impossibility; ‘forgiveness is an act that exists entirely in an inaccessible
zone and that is perfect to the context that created it’ Derrida, 2001. The psychological
effects of the troubles are therefore partly depicted within the sisters’
refusal of forgiveness of individual acts such as the murder of their father,
despite the death being a case of mistaken identity. Similar to Deane’s novel,
Madden is preoccupied with the idea of the link between public and private
spheres. This novel also presents the reader with the idea that the
circumstance of Northern Ireland, revolves around the idea of the collapse of the
public and personal sphere. Madden represents the idea of impossibility of
forgiveness as being the circumstance of living in a world where lines are
often blurred, and it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

Another main theme which runs throughout both novels is the
struggle the main characters present in order to release themselves from the
burden of the past. The psychological life of the characters is depicted
through their reactions to the deaths of their kin, and how the memories
subsequently bring emptiness into their lives which they are unable look past
yet have to come to terms with. Both novels could be classed as trauma

‘trauma is described as the
response to an unexpected or overwhelming event or events that are not fully
grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and
other repetitive phenomena. Traumatic experience, beyond the psychological
dimension of suffering it involves, suggests a certain paradox: that the most
direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it;
that immediacy, paradoxically may take the form of belatedness.’  Caruth, 1995, p.91

The impact of their father’s death on the Quinn sisters is
very significant as this leads them to compare their carefree childhoods with
the present, which at the time was extremely unpredictable. This particular way
of expressing and dealing with trauma is based on a Freudian principle of
psychoanalysis. The way that the trauma is presented by the sisters means the
narrative becomes impersonal. This is due to the fact that the idea of the ‘trauma
narrative’, is subject to a psychological process of displacement ultimately
leading their feelings of things such as repression, which are applied solely
as a defence mechanism within this novel. Although this repression is applied
defensively, the sisters eventually must confront their suffering whether this
be in a conscious or subconscious way. Through means of repression and
displacement, the Quinn’s are able to avoid the directness of confrontation
with traumatic events therefore reaching a form of control. This control is not
full, there are still psychological limits to the amount of control a person
can have consciously and subconsciously, this is proven in the novel within
dream form. There appears to be psychological tension forming over the
experience that the Quinn’s, including the mother, have had. This is apparent
through one of the dreams the mother experiences and the reaction that she forms
from that dream being:

‘She couldn’t change the fact of
things but she could change how she saw them, and in that way she could
determine the effect they had on her’ Madden, 1996, p125

                It is clear that Madden is not as
concerned with the actual act of violence itself, yet more concerned with the psychological
consequences violence and destruction have on the character, hence why the
death of Charlie is not central to the novel. Family is a very important aspect
of this novel and Kate is shocked when she discovers how little family means to
the people she works with in London. Kate ‘wanted something real’ Madden,
1996, p93 and therefore having a baby would provide her with the proof that
life reproduces itself. Kate is ultimately replacing the life she lost when she
lost her father, the compensation for the loss she hopes will fill a void and
give her some sort of self-fulfilment:

‘The pressure
to have children and provide is an example of how ‘women in Ireland are
compelled into fragmenting themselves – to becoming either bodies for breeding,
feeding and martyrdom, or spirits with intellectual resources vocation but
bound by vows of chastity and obedience.’, 2018

In certain parts of the novel, despite the fact that it is
known throughout history how violent and brutal Belfast was, and ‘in a
narrative world where violence seems to be the “signature of all things”‘ Pelaschiar
and Crivelli, 1998 Madden makes Belfast look normal and unable to scare away
outsiders even when they are shown the most badly affected parts of Belfast.

It could be considered an Ironic
twist that Helen decides to find refuge in Belfast, especially because as a
child, living in the country was greatly preferred. Yet Helen is determined to
fight for her truth in a more professional manner, which highlights the ways
the death of her father has affected her psychologically. Helen depicts the
universe as being filled with ‘cold light and dead stars’ Madden, 1996, p81
highlighting how she believes the carelessness of childhood has been
deconstructed and transformed into cruelty. This highlights that Madden is
aiming to show how,

‘Women are not deterred by the potential risks
of entering the political arena in Northern Ireland; nor do they defer to the
belief that politics is men’s business.’ Power, Politics, Positioning’s, 1996


To conclude, ‘the difference in
identity and aspiration lies at the heart of the ‘problem’ of Northern Ireland;
it cannot be ignored or wished away.’ Whyte and FitzGerald, 1998, p98. Most
contemporary Northern Irish Literature written about the troubles and within
the time period surrounding the troubles, exercises the idea of the
psychological impact that the troubles had at the heart of a person’s life e.g.
through their childhood, their mother figure and their family structure. Reading in the Dark and One by One in the Darkness similar to
within the play Translations, can be
seen to ‘dramatise the moment of a cultures transition, or translation, from
one mode of time and experience to another’Cairns and Richards, 1996, p147. ‘Literature
has generally been regarded as an intense emotional response to experience, a
sort of licenced insanity with regard to ‘normal life and language’ Smyth,
1997, p53, both of the texts looked at focus on the experience’s faced by in
particular children and women who are facing challenges with selfhood, and both
authors can be seen to dramatise ways in which an individual locates themselves
in several different times at once throughout what should be seen as a normal
day. Psychologically, both authors present the ways in which every action and
thought possessed by the characters, is shaped due to the decades of conflict
during which time they have reached consciousness and eventually maturity.


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