“If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in the International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before teatime,” writes Daniel Hamilton, an 18-year-old Belfast bartender and narrator of Glenn Patterson’s novel The International. The history he refers to is the meeting to launch the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organization formed to focus attention on discrimination against Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalist minority. We call the succeeding three decades of violence and despair The Troubles, and The International “is the best book about the Troubles ever written,” according to Irish author and Booker-Prize-winner Anne Enright.
Funny thing is, there’s almost no overt violence in this book, apart from the fact it’s set in a busy bar with lots of coming and going and football on the telly and political shenanigans where money changes hands and gay men and straight women hoping to meet someone and people who should have stopped drinking hours before ordering another and weddings upstairs in the hotel, at one of which the clergyman plays an accordion. In other words, enough latent violence in reserve to keep the average semi-sober person on his toes.
The principal action of the novel takes place during on Saturday evening, January 28, 1967, the night before the big meeting, larded with Danny Hamilton’s memories of other times and barroom encounters. His minutely observed portrayal of everyday life as seen from behind the bar is heartbreaking when, with the lens of hindsight, the reader knows how soon it will all be gone, sucked into a slowly unwinding catastrophe of bombs and gunfire.
Patterson’s writing style reflects the unadorned—and often wryly humorous—worldview of his young narrator, yet see how precisely he captures the sense of a departing wedding guest:
“You look like you enjoyed yourself,” I said.
He sucked air through his pursed lips and held a hand to his heart as though to say that any more enjoyment would have killed him.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I said.
“Great people,” he said and the hand on his heart became his word of honour. “Not a bit of side to a one of them.”
The novel’s only violence of the kind that would become all-too-familiar happened somewhat before the book begins, when four Catholic barmen from The International were shot leaving another bar, late at night. One died, creating the opening that Daniel filled.
The quote at the top of this piece opens the book, and these words about the barmen who died, Peter Ward, also age 18, help close it:
I can’t tell you much else about him, except that those who knew him thought the world of him. He is, I realise, an absence in this story. I wish it were not so, but guns do that, create holes which no amount of words can fill.
Princeton University, through the Fund for Irish Studies, brought Belfast author Glenn Patterson to campus last week. He talked about how his writing emphasizes history and politics and his deep sense of place. And, he said that “when history looks back at our present, it will see that what we thought we were at and what we were at, really, were entirely different.” This theme is borne out in a postscript to The International, where Patterson recounts going back to newspaper archives from 1967 to see what they’d made of the NICRA’s formation, and the answer was “scarcely nothing.” In that gap, the novel grew.
Charming, disarming, Patterson told stories and read from several works, include four of the five short literary interludes he was commissioned to write for Philip Hammond’s “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic,” which premiered April 14, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship—built in Belfast—sank. I regret I couldn’t find them online to share with you; they were extraordinary.
It still being (barely) March, the month of St. Patrick’s Day, also see: Glenn Patterson’s top 10 books about Belfast.