Dalarna University, Sweden | Published: 15 March, 2014
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 54-66 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2014-4143
2014 by Billy Gray | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The Shankill Butchers, a small group of UVF members based in the Shankill Road during the 1970s, acquired a reputation for indulging in pathological violence to a degree hitherto unparalleled in the annals of “Troubles”-related murders. Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man has been accorded a great degree of critical attention regarding the contentious manner in which it has attempted to investigate the Shankill Butchers’ legacy. My article attempts to suggest that the novel’s metafictive universe and innovative generic hybridity represent an attempt to transcend the spatial borders of Northern Ireland in order to present the conflict as an allegory of existential, postmodern alienation. The violent psychopathology of the Shankill Butchers is, in McNamee’s text, of universal as opposed to local significance, and violence is controversially portrayed as a search for intimacy and transcendence in a world defined by virtual reality.
Los Shankill Butchers, o carniceros de Shankill, eran un grupo reducido de miembros de la Fuerza Voluntaria del Ulster que, en la década de los setenta y con base en Shankill Road, adquirieron la reputación de regocijarse en una violencia patológica alcanzando un grado de crueldad sin parangón en los anales de asesinatos relacionados con el conflicto norirlandés. La novela Resurrection Man de Eoin McNamee ha recibido la atención especial de la crítica por el polémico modo de abordar el legado de los carniceros de Shankill. Mi artículo pretende sugerir que el universo metaficticio de la novela, así como su innovadora hibridación de géneros, representan un intento de transcender las barreras espaciales de Irlanda del Norte con el fin de presentar el conflicto como una alegoría de la alienación existencial posmoderna. En el texto de McNamee, la psicopatología violenta de los carniceros de Shankill adquiere una relevancia universal, en lugar de local, y la violencia se representa, no exenta de polémica, como una búsqueda de intimidad y trascendencia en un mundo definido por la realidad virtual.
Resurrection Man; carniceros de Shankill; violencia; trascendencia; alienación.
The burden which the writer’s conscience must bear is that the horror might become that hideously outrageous thing, a cliché. This is the nightmare, the really blasphemous thing. (Geoffrey Hill, quoted in Governing the Tongue in Northern Ireland)
On the 9th of December 2011 a 4.7 metre high stainless steel triptych, created by artist Lesley Cherry, was unveiled by Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, on the Shankill Road, Belfast.1 The sculpture, which replaced a contentious, military style mural originally painted by loyalist paramilitaries, had the words “Remember, Respect, Resolution”, prominently inscribed onto its plain stone surface. The design, construction and erection of the sculpture represented the most recent initiative of the “Re-imagining Communities” programme launched in 2006 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and its unveiling represented the latest attempt at transforming the reputation of a district that had become synonymous with social deprivation, irredentist loyalism and endemic paramilitary violence. Although such attitudes became, if anything, even more entrenched post-Peace Process, when the area subsequently became engulfed in murderous internecine feuding between the two most prominent Protestant paramilitary groups, the UVF (the Ulster Volunteer Force)2 and the UDA (the Ulster Defence Association),3 it was ostensibly the actions of a small group of UVF members active in the 1970s – who subsequently became known as the Shankill Butchers – that made the Shankill Road a byword for senseless sectarian slaughter.
Although the UVF and their political representatives, the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party), have their headquarters on the Shankill Road, their membership is spread over virtually all Protestant, working class areas of Belfast and it is in Mersey Street, which resides in the East of the city, that a UVF mural carries the inscription: “We are the pilgrims, Master; we shall go always a little further”.4) Although the message has an almost Biblical or Bunyanesque ring to it, the phrase “we shall go always a little further” could undoubtedly be applied to the actions of the Shankill Butchers, who acquired a reputation for indulging in pathological violence to a degree hitherto unparalleled in the annals of “Troubles” related murders. Led by a prominent UVF member called Lenny Murphy, the Shankill Butchers became notorious for the kidnapping, torture and murder of randomly selected Catholic civilians. Believed to have been acting independently of the UVF leadership, Murphy used the Browne Bear pub, situated at the corner of Mountjoy Street on the Shankill Road, as a frequent meeting place for his “unit”, and proved adept at exploiting his intimate knowledge of the city’s sectarian geography when planning the ritual murder of at least thirty individuals. When eventually arrested and brought before the courts, eleven members of the gang – excluding Lenny Murphy himself5 were convicted of a total of nineteen murders and the forty-two life sentences they received were the largest combined prison sentences in the legal history of the United Kingdom. The judge who presided over the 1979 trial described their crimes as “a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry” (Dillon 1989: 12).
It was to be the appalling manner and nature of the Shankill Butchers’ killings, as opposed to their actual number, which left an indelible mark on the public consciousness. The unfortunate victims were invariably subjected to an almost unimaginable degree of violence, enacted principally through the extensive use of sharpened butcher’s knives, and death frequently resulted from multiple stab wounds. As Conor Cruise O’Brien has noted, the Shankill Butchers “remain unique in the sadistic ferocity of their modus operandi” (O’Brien 1989: xi), and as Dillon’s text contends “there is something particularly chilling about the close quarters butchering which was involved in so many of the Shankill murders” (in Dillon 1989: 279).6
For Allen Feldman, the extremity of such actions pushes all conventional notions of violence in Northern Ireland to the background and marks an “outer limit” in relation to what he terms “the symbolic of sectarian space and the radical reduction of the Other to that space” (1991: 59). Describing the relation of the executioner of violence and the body of his victim as symbolizing a “mythic representation”, Feldman writes how
In the oral culture of Belfast’s war zones, symbolic genocide impregnates particular violent incidents and emerges from particular personae that function as condensed symbols of historical possibility. These acts and figures mark an outer limit. This limit was invoked by the Shankill Butchers (1991: 59).
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, as one commentator has put it, “Lenny Murphy and his gang of fellow killers were the ultimate bogey men for a generation” (in Shirlow 2012: 15).
Equally, the overtly sectarian nature of the Shankill Butchers’ killings seemed merely to confirm the then dominant view of Loyalism as being deeply dysfunctional, a kind of ethno-sectarian abnormality devoid of meaningful content. The actions of Lenny Murphy and his cohorts seemingly conferred legitimacy on the view that Loyalism, at least in ideological terms, is “hermetically sealed by its own criminal and violent enclosure” (Shirlow 2012: 2). The Butchers’ killings were often perceived as simply the most overt manifestation of an ideology that seemingly reveres antagonism and atavistic aggression over political engagement and dialogue. In its most extreme expression, it is, according to Fintan O’Toole, “an idiocy that comes from a fragmented culture that has lost both memory and meaning” (in Howe 2005: 4). At the very least it could be argued, as Peter Shirlow has, that “the sheer brutality of the Shankill Butchers narrowed the terrain upon which a positivist account of Loyalists could be centered” (Shirlow 2012: 1).
A great deal of the factual information relating to the Butchers’ gang entered the public domain through the publication of Martin Dillon’s journalistic account, entitled The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study of Mass Murder, originally released in 1989. It is this canonical account of the events surrounding the murders that has invariably served as the source material for those literary texts that have sought to engage with, and reflect upon, the phenomenon of the Shankill Butchers. Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, while unable to lay claim to being the first literary investigation into the atrocities carried out by Murphy and his associates – the novel was preceded by the publication of two poems entitled “The Butchers” and “Crucifixus”, written by Michael Longley and Padraic Fiacc respectively7 – is nevertheless the text that has been accorded the greatest degree of critical attention in relation to the controversial manner in which it has attempted to remediate the Shankill Butchers’ legacy. The novel relates the story of Victor Kelly, the leader of a UVF unit on the Shankill Road, and the refracted narrative is relayed through the situated viewpoints of both Kelly and a Catholic journalist called Ryan. Victor is seen to have a psychopathic personality that leads him to indulge in extreme homicidal behaviour and he kills casually, frequently and without the slightest suggestion of remorse. His pathological behaviour is intimately linked to complexes concerning his own heritage – his father is commonly believed to be “a Fenian” (Catholic) – and, as a consequence, he strives to escape his overwhelming sense of “lack” by committing heinous acts of extreme violence against a religiously defined Other. His predisposition for violence eventually isolates him from leading figures from within his own terrorist group and he is subsequently viewed as an unpredictable and, indeed, undesirable element by his own community. He is eventually assassinated by paramilitary rivals working in collusion with prominent members of his own organization.
Both McNamee’s fictional remediation of the Shankill Butcher’s story and the subsequent cinematic adaptation of the novel – scripted by McNamee himself – initially received a somewhat mixed critical response.8 Admirers of the novel praised the manner in which it avoided the undesirable designation of “Troubles Trash”, thereby destabilizing the crass stereotyping that has frequently bedevilled fictional representations of the Northern Irish conflict (Magennis 2010: 66). Others have commented positively on the text’s use of metafictionality and admire the way it attempts to problematize the crisis of novelistic representation through the use of a self-conscious reflexivity, overt stylization and innovative generic hybridity. Dermot McCarthy, for example, has praised McNamee’s attempt to examine the world of sectarian violence through poststructuralist tropes such as the “decentered self” and the crisis of signification (2000: 134). Dissenting voices were heard, however; Richard Haslam, for instance, expressed distaste for the manner in which the text displaces concrete atrocities with what he terms “sublime abstractions” and he argues that “By refracting the actions and beliefs of the Shankill Butchers through the lens of a ‘dark thrilling beauty’ the novel does further violence to the real life victims” (2000: 199).9 The result of such an aesthetic approach is, according to Harlam, that “the pose obscures the corpse”. This is just one example of a more widespread, general unease concerning McNamee’s alleged exploitation of the Shankill Butchers’ murders as a means to create a self-conscious and mannered fictional landscape in which a sensual and poetic prose style supposedly “beautifies” violence. The comments of Northern Irish novelist Glenn Patterson are particularly instructive in this regard: “I don’t like Resurrection Man…. What I didn’t like about the book was stylistic … . What I get is Eoin McNamee writing very florid descriptions of murders. There is something of the strange beauty of violence. Violence is not strangely beautiful” (Alcobia-Murphy 2008: 32).
McNamee has, on occasion, directly addressed such criticisms, defending not only Resurrection Man, but also the so-called “faction” literary genre of which his novel constitutes such a conspicuous example and within which he foregrounds so much of his writing. In an article entitled “Hand-Held Narrative”, published in The Guardian newspaper, he reviewed a recently published novel by David Peace – a fellow faction writer with whom McNamee shares many literary affinities – and both acknowledges and rejects the somewhat moralizing tone that constitutes such an essential component of the critical condemnation directed at novels such as Resurrection Man:
There are dangers. A suggestion that there is something almost immoral about the enterprise. Playing with people’s lives, that kind of thing. The taking of real lives and setting them down in a landscape of invention. But a writer isn’t there to create morality tales or to give a good example. All that matters is that the work is good (McNamee 2004).
Given contentious and, at times, polemical responses to McNamee’s novel, it is surprising that so little critical attention has been paid to the manner in which it extensively appropriates source material from Martin Dillon’s account of the Shankill Butchers’ phenomenon. Margaret Scanlan has noted how the novel “sticks surprisingly close to the public record” (2001: 38), and R.B. Tobin claims that “so similar are most of the characters and actions in the novel to those described by Dillon that one suspects that McNamee used his account as a source text” (1999: 132). As we shall see, both critics seriously underestimate how much material from Dillon’s text has been incorporated into Resurrection Man. The following list of extensive “borrowings” is far from exhaustive and confines itself to the more immediately identifiable features relating to specific details of characterization and events reproduced in McNamee’s novel. For example, in terms of Lenny Murphy serving as a prototype for Victor Kelly in Resurrection Man, there are numerous and significant similarities: both Murphy and Victor’s families are commonly perceived as being Catholics, a misperception which causes them to relocate their place of residence on a regular basis in order to avoid such suspicions; both are ashamed of the pathologically shy and retiring nature of their respective fathers, who are employed as dock labourers; both Murphy and Kelly come to the attention of the police at the age of twelve and for identical crimes (larceny and theft); both attend the Crumlin Road Magistrates Court as a means of extending their intricate knowledge of the criminal justice system; both are said to work in the prison pharmacy and subsequently exploit their occupation as a means of expediting an escape attempt; both men participate in a scheme to poison a fellow inmate with substances they have procured from the prison hospital; before they form their own paramilitary units, they are both said to “sit in” on several ritualized killings; their first murders are described in an almost identical manner and involve stabbings, strangulation and torture in a lock-up garage; both deliberately draw attention to themselves in an identification parade as a means of pre-empting a possible murder charge; finally, both men are requested by their paramilitary superiors to investigate the robbery and assault of an elderly woman on the Shankill Road, and both subsequently murder the perpetrator of the attack.10
Other prominent characters in Resurrection Man are similarly based upon real individuals depicted in Dillon’s text. Willie Lamb, Victor Kelly’s fellow terrorist, is immediately identifiable as the Shankill Butcher Willie Moore, and shares the latter’s singular love for his mother; Artie Shaw is a literary representation of Edward Paris in The Shankill Butchers, who was rumoured to have sold a shotgun to a Catholic priest and was subsequently murdered as a consequence. In Resurrection Man, Constable McMinn and Francis McCrea are based on real life RUC man Malcolm McConaghy and UVF member Stewartie Robinson respectively. Other noticeable “liftings” or borrowings from Dillon’s text include McNamee’s first detailed pathologist’s report, which reproduces almost exactly the pathologist’s findings in relation to the injuries suffered by one of the original victims of the Butcher gang, and the manner in which the investigative journalists in the novel duplicate the detective work carried out by senior Police Officer Nesbitt and his team, who spent several years gathering sufficient evidence to incriminate the real life Shankill Butchers.
McNamee has defended such extensive borrowing of material by pointing out how “the overlapping of fact and fiction is an essential part of the public discourse”, and argues that “the traditional novel, which purports to be wholly fictional, is really the stranger form compared to what I’m doing” (in McGlynn 2008: 180). This latter comment, when sufficiently contextualized, alerts us to the fact that Resurrection Man embodies, as one of its central thematic concerns, a desire to interrogate the frequently unproblematized question of what constitutes “truth”. Indeed, it is the avowedly self-conscious manner in which the novel attempts to remediate the apparent veracity of the recorded history of the Shankill Butchers, in order to investigate other, more essential truths about the human condition, that makes Resurrection Man such a noteworthy text. It is therefore instructive at this junction to examine McNamee’s and Dillon’s differing approaches to the source material that comprises such an essential component of their respective texts in order to understand the literary impulse which lies behind McNamee’s desire to remediate Dillon’s primary text and extend its parameters beyond the purely factual.
In The Shankill Butchers, Martin Dillon states that, while his text should be seen as “an attempt to understand how and why terrible crimes have been committed”, at no point did he believe it was his responsibility to “go beyond the existing evidence or to indulge in fantasy or speculation” (Dillon 1989: 266). This explains why the evidence he presents in his book is based primarily on journalistic investigation, hearsay, police and medical records, contacts within the loyalist paramilitary world, and extensive testimony from individuals involved in the case. When presenting such material, he adopts the stance of an impartial investigator who discovers and subsequently “reveals” the truth of the events surrounding the Shankill Butchers’ killings; there is no acknowledgement that a great deal of the evidence he uncovers could, or indeed should, be perceived as simply one version of a story that invites a multiplicity of interpretations. Unlike Dillon, McNamee openly foregrounds his lack of omniscience, stating in an interview that, in terms of his writing, “I’m trying to create the atmosphere of the event and examine it, but I can never reveal the whole thing” (“Interview”). In this respect, Resurrection Man is not simply a fictionalized investigation into recorded events, nor does it merely re-present such events and embody an artistic response to them; rather, it draws attention to the actual manner of their presentation and interrogates the contentious relationship that exists between “fact” and “fiction”. McNamee has suggested on numerous occasions that faction literature offers an opportunity to redefine the fraught and often murky distinctions between the two genres. He compares contemporary faction writers as being “akin to the first visual artists who put down their paintbrushes and picked up the real material of the world and started to wonder what they could do with it” (McNamee 2004). To McNamee, a novelist who situates his narrative within the public sphere, thereby taking real people and real events and placing them within a fictional landscape, can come closer to the “truth” of events than a more conventional, wholly fictional text or indeed, a work of journalism. He writes: “In fiction of this kind, you get a sense of a kind of truth being displayed. And you’re not going to get it any other way” (McNamee 2004). In relation to Resurrection Man, the “truth” McNamee is referring to here is that extreme, personalized violence nullifies our sense of personal alienation and acts as a portal to transcendence, and it is to this central thematic concern that we must now turn our attention.
When asked about his thoughts regarding the real-life Shankill Butchers, and the effects of the disturbing research material he collated as a necessary preparation for the writing of Resurrection Man, McNamee’s response is a revealing one: “If anything, the players anger you less … than the refusal to admit that the discourse of that time is able to bear the kind of complexity that I’m working to identify” (Russell 2007). The “complexity” referred to here is related, not only to McNamee’s intention to use the Shankill Butchers’ story as a conduit to the covert and psychic infrastructure of the period, but equally points to a conviction that the surface traumas of the “Troubles” are primarily a visible manifestation of a more elemental psychological and societal fissure; that of postmodern, existential, alienation. The central characters in the novel exude not only an overwhelming sense of territorial insecurity, but also an ontological confusion, born out of the sensibilities of the postmodern condition. Although Resurrection Man is suffused with a distinctive materiality, it is formally, stylistically and thematically categorically postmodern, a metafiction which through self-reflexivity and the intertextual use of disparate genres, such as film noir, the crime thriller, and the Gothic novel,11 draws attention to the inadequacies of conventional fictional representations of violence. As Dermot McCarthy has noted, Resurrection Man “attempts to insinuate at a formal level the problem of alienation which would appear to be the text’s major theme” (McCarthy 2000: 139), and it deliberately displays its stylishness in ways that illustrate the vacuity of contemporary culture. The novel consciously replaces the ubiquitous perception of a specific Northern Irish identity based on the twin polarities of tribal warfare and historical obsession, with a cutting edge, postmodern dysfunctionalism. McNamee studiously ignores issues relating to the social deprivation common to the working-class ghettoes from which the paramilitaries draw their support, in order to depict a psychopathology that has universal, as opposed to local, significance. In such a world to be human is to be inauthentic, to lack will or agency and Victor Kelly, with his fragmented personality and love of cinematic icons such as James Cagney and John Dillinger, appears to be an allegorical figure for the postmodern, decentred self.12
Given the centrality of the novel’s postmodern concerns, it is particularly apt that the narrative focuses exclusively on prominent figures within the loyalist paramilitary subcultures as opposed to Republican activists; a strong case could be made for claiming that in contrast to Republicans, who perceive themselves as embodying an inherited, deeply woven tradition, loyalism, at least in its modern manifestation(s), represents what Stephen Howe (2005) has termed an “untheorised postmodernism”. Noting how contemporary loyalist visual displays utilize “heterogeneities” and “incongruities”, Howe mentions how the fragmentary and discontinuous evocations of the past visible in loyalist cultural representations reflect what he terms “contemporary truths and images”. He claims that loyalism is defined by “fragmentation, multiple unstable identities, pastiche, bricolage [and] promiscuous borrowings of all kinds” (Howe 2005: 9). Arguing that it currently expresses an “antifoundationist ethos”, he suggests that “while few would wish to argue that militant loyalism is consciously inspired by postmodern theory, the instability of identity claims and the internal incongruities are often, in other contexts, thought characteristically postmodern” (Howe 2005: 9). Fintan O’Toole has also noted the hybrid mélange of loyalism’s historical experience and adds that “the cultural influences at work … are not Britishness and Protestantism, but Hollywood … , the flotsam and jetsam of movies, pop songs, brand names and tabloid TV … a jumble of commercial clichés and meaningless slogans” (in Howe 2005: 4). Indeed, the “untheorised postmodernism” implicit in the contemporary loyalist experience points to perhaps the most ostensible reason for McNamee’s desire to interrogate the whole Shankill Butchers’ phenomenon; that is, to posit the hypothesis that extreme and overtly personalized violence can be viewed as an expression, not of socio-economic inequities, sectarian hatred or ideological conviction, but of a search for transformation in a postmodern world defined by the collapse of grand narratives and loss of meaning.