• Email
  • Print

An Ulster Fable

World Without End, Amen

by Jimmy Breslin
Viking, 329 pp., $5.95

The point is that a New York cop, Dermot Davey, visits Northern Ireland, and finds that there the Irish Catholics are the niggers. The cops are the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He identifies with these niggers, against these cops, and goes back to New York a better man. We see him, in an epilogue, performing an act of kindness for a black man.

The equation of Catholics and niggers is repeatedly brought home. Dermot sees it for himself:

The soldier held the boy by the hair. Dermot had seen it all his life. The gun in a nigger’s ear.

He is also told about it by his left-wing Catholic girl-friend-to-be in Northern Ireland:

She gave him another cigarette. “Do you not go around doing this to people in America?” she said.

The hell I do.”

Ah, Jesus now, come on. The whole fookin’ police force in America gets medals for shootin’ blacks.”

What are you talking about?”

Are not the blacks on the bottom in America?”

I don’t know what you mean by the bottom.”

The fookin’ blacks are on the fookin’ bottom and the fookin’ police beat them bloody, the same as we’re on the bottom here and the fookin’ police and the fookin’ soldiers beat us and shoot us like animals.”

Dermot resists this imputation, then remembers a brutality he had himself inflicted on a black boy in Knicker-bocker Avenue:

He sat on the floor and thought about it for a moment. No, Dermot told himself, that was different from this. That was a nigger kid who stole something.

He goes on drinking with the Catholic left: a tribe whose males, it seems, are a pretty cowardly lot, but whose women are charming, spirited, and intelligent. Back home in Queens, Dermot had been a bit of a slob, whose gun had to be taken off him at intervals, but here he does various brave acts on behalf of the oppressed Catholics (blacks) without even thinking about it. He even sees how to see cops as pigs:

A cop, pink cheeks sticking out from under his black hat—Christ, Dermot said to himself, the cops in Northern Ireland do look like pigs—had come up behind the bench.

Dermot’s regeneration proceeds apace. He administers a sound thrashing to an unworthy swain—though left-wing, yet of British origin—and gets the girl:

Ronald slouched into the bar, his head hanging. Dermot stepped out of the way to let him go through. Then he came in after him. Dermot kept his head down and didn’t look up. He looked at Ronald’s rear end and kept looking at it. He didn’t bring the head up, and he kicked him. It was a hard kick, a real hard kick, and Ronald went across the empty lounge to the back of it. He was half paralyzed for a moment and Dermot came right up and gave him another, this one a hell of a kick. It drove Ronald right to the door leading to the alley. He stumbled out the door and Dermot was all over him, shoving him so he would go down toward the office. Deirdre would see him. Ronald started down the alley. Dermot kept his head down. Ronald ran and Dermot ran after him and kicked him again. He didn’t look at him. He turned around at the finish of the kick and went out and waited by the car. Deirdre came around from the courthouse running. He held the car door for her.

Deirdre, with Dermot, campaigns for Bernadette Devlin:

The girl talking on the truck really was just a little girl. Long straight hair down the sides of an oval face and a teen-age bad tooth. But her blue eyes were old. She was in a red dress that was as short as you could get it. She finished to loud cheering and clapping from the ones on her side of the street. The ones across the street were shaking their fists.

At the election meeting Deirdre gets shot dead. Who shot her is not made clear, except that it was someone who was aiming at Bernadette: “they was aiming at herself and they got the goddamned poor wrong one.” The careless reader, who will enjoy the book most, will assume that the British army did it: what is implied in fact is that Protestant extremists did it, but the distinction between the two elements has been lost in the general rhetoric of the book. Ironically, Bernadette herself leaves under army guard:

The candidate, a cigarette in her mouth, eyes straight ahead, walked past the soldiers and slipped into a car. As the car started off, somebody pulled the guitar in through the window. A jeep rocked to a halt in the middle of the street. The driver shouted. The two soldiers, keeping Dermot in the alley, left him. The soldiers ran out to the jeep and swung onto the back. The jeep jumped forward and started after the car with the candidate in it.

It is perhaps necessary to remind the reader that though the candidate is identifiable, and the election campaign real—the elections for the United Kingdom parliament in the summer of 1970—the incident itself is fictitious, and so also is the behavior of the candidate. Even those in Ireland who—like the reviewer—are not political admirers of Miss Devlin’s will also think this behavior out of character. In fact, the author of World Without End, Amen seems to have a love-hate relationship with Miss Devlin. The heroine Deirdre is lovably Bernadettesque, beautiful, and a martyr to boot: “the candidate,” depicted with the physical characteristics and political circumstances of Bernadette herself, is “a cold little turkey” according to Dermot, and is given an appropriate exit.

According to the jacket of World Without End, Amen, “With his characteristic no-nonsense approach to reporting, Mr. Breslin has created a fiction which is far more revealing than mere facts can ever be, even at their most unadorned.”

I understand that in the United States World Without End, Amen is rather widely taken to be a revelation of the nature and origin of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There are reasons for being skeptical about this revelation. Certainly anyone who tries to understand the situation in Northern Ireland today with the aid of Mr. Breslin’s book will find himself or herself far out at sea. This novel is set in Northern Ireland in a particular very short period—the summer of 1970—before the Provisional IRA started killing. (There were twenty dead through political violence by the end of 1970: today there are nearly 1,000.)

The revelation of World Without End, Amen consists of naturalistic, though not altogether unadorned, descriptions of riots and other incidents, interspersed with dialogue and speeches almost all of which reflect the interpretation of the situation offered by the left-wing “Official” IRA and its propagandists, including Miss Devlin. The reason why this account strikes so many unfamiliar with the scene as revealing is that both the riot descriptions and the rhetoric are in fact familiar: the language of the Official IRA is the language of the international left. The elements in the Northern Ireland political situation which are peculiar to it, and therefore essential to an understanding of it, are either left out (both in “Official” rhetoric and in the book) or shrunken into meaninglessness. The peculiarities of Northern Ireland surface, in the book, only in the apolitical and acceptable form of local color, which Mr. Breslin lays on with gusto and some skill. Under this formula the reader can feel he understands everything without really having to think about it.

In fact no element in Northern Ireland is treated at all adequately in World Without End, Amen except the left-wing Catholics: that is to say a tiny minority out of a sizable minority—and these are treated adequately only in the sense that their rhetoric is lavishly reproduced. The Protestants, who are the majority of the population of Northern Ireland, are seen as through the wrong end of a telescope: small, nasty figures, easily identifiable with “Southern Whites.” The sort of Catholics who form the whole of the elected representation of the Catholics of Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Assembly—and who are denounced by both wings of the IRA—do not appear at all. The Provisionals, the larger and more deadly end of the IRA, make only the sketchiest and most uncertain of appearances, and are the object of ambiguous utterances by the “Official” heroine. The British army’s role is grossly oversimplified. No reader of this book would be likely to realize that that army had been deployed to protect the Catholics—and was warmly welcomed by them—in August, 1969, and that, if it had been withdrawn in the period Mr. Breslin describes, large numbers of Catholics in Belfast would have been massacred, as they would also now.

The picture of that army’s role as one of simple support for the class status quo is, again, Official IRA rhetoric; the Protestant loyalist rhetoric, according to which the army was misused to overthrow Protestant ascendancy in Ulster, is considerably nearer the mark. Analogies illuminate only to mislead, but if any American analogy to the role of the British army in Ulster in 1969-1970 is to be found, the use of federal troops at Little Rock, Arkansas, by President Eisenhower in 1957 is much closer than Mr. Breslin’s white cops in Harlem. But for subsequent developments—notably the deliberate and successful efforts by both wings of the IRA to provoke hostilities between the British army and the Catholic population generally—there is no American analogy. (Incidentally, Mr. Breslin at one point in his book describes such IRA efforts which he must have witnessed in Derry and the use of children in them: in the rhetorical context, however, few readers are likely to understand exactly what is being described.)

As a political guide to the Northern Ireland situation, either in 1970, 1974, or at any other time, World Without End, Amen is worse than useless, since it is plausibly and persistently misleading. Considering it as a work of fiction, I do not find it any more satisfactory. I cannot believe in Dermot Davey, either as the brutal moronic racist stock cop in Queens in the first part of the book or as the brave and resourceful Yankee at the Court of Queen Bernie in the second. Nor can I see any connection between the two characters. The idea that suddenly seeing Catholics as niggers produces spiritual regeneration in racist Irish cops strikes me as not the least among the book’s flutters in silly fantasy. I have met not a few Irish Americans, with the ordinary Athletic Club racist outlooks, who had been to Northern Ireland, and who sincerely sympathized with the oppressed Catholics there. And they saw the analogy all right. They saw Irishmen being treated as niggers and they objected to them being treated as niggers, because they were not niggers. That was what was wrong.

I do not believe that the Dermot Davey depicted in the first part of this book could have seen the situation in any other light. Nor do I believe he would have spent all that time among all those left-wing intellectuals (unless of course he was working for the CIA). Left to himself, Dermot, if he had got there at all, which is not likely, would have gravitated to the Provos: straightforward no-nonsense patriotic Catholic killers. It is Jimmy Breslin, not any possible Dermot Davey, who finds the Officials and semi-Officials interesting and convincing. And Dermot, as the vehicle for Jimmy Breslin’s impressions in Northern Ireland, turns into something very like Jimmy’s impression of Breslin.

The pity of it is that Mr. Breslin could have written quite a good book about Northern Ireland; vestiges of it are embedded in World Without End, Amen. He is a reporter who describes very well what he actually sees: his descriptions of riots, of the outward appearance of people and their clothes, of houses, rooms, bars, and streets are accurate and telling. (His ear is much less good, most of his Irish dialogue is unspeakable, in every sense of the word.) If he had put his meager ideological equipment on the shelf, had put cotton wool in his ears, and had described what he actually saw in Northern Ireland that summer, day by day, the result would have had to be much nearer to the truth, and also more interesting, than World Without End, Amen.

Letters

Who Began the Killing? May 30, 1974

  • Email
  • Print