Maeve O'Lynn

A Bloody Gun On My Shoulder

Maeve O'Lynn

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Personal memories of the past and inherited traditions weigh heavily, both upon the characters and the gothic imagining of the post-conflict city of Derry itself, in Sean O’Reilly’s first two novels, Love and Sleep (2001) and The Swing of Things (2004). In Love and Sleep, Lorna recounts a story to Niall, who has recently returned to Derry after many years away, about a traumatic incident from her childhood:

I was standing outside our house one day on Lecky Road. I was only about six. I had my face up into the sun with my eyes shut, feeling the warmth and…Then I felt this hand touching me. On my shoulder. Then this voice, a man’s voice. Just you stand still there, love, he says. Don’t move, all right; just keep your eyes closed there. I thought it was the sun talking to me. I felt this hard thing on my shoulder. He was kneeling down behind me and he keeps whispering to me not to move and everything’s all right. The sun’s getting hotter and hotter on my eyes and making me dizzy. That’s all I could feel…and then his breath on the back of my neck. He’d been eating bacon. He was touching my hip and I thought I was going to faint. Then I just couldn’t bear it any more and opened my eyes. Across the street there was this woman – why am I telling you this anyway? (p.40)

Lorna’s story is an unsettling and ultimately unsatisfying fragmented mixture of place, memory and the physical, which fails to reach its revelation as she breaks off mid-narrative and questions why she is even telling the story in the first place. Catharine A. MacKinnon comments of the act of storytelling that: ‘[e]ven when stories remain rooted in a critique of hierarchy, storytelling has real dangers, one of which is accepting a place at the margin...Avoid finger pointing. No offence; everyone can be right.’[1]  MacKinnon’s argument that the articulation of marginalised experiences as story tends to deliberately ‘avoid finger pointing’ is resoundingly the case in this instance.

Throughout the novel, Lorna criticises her ex-boyfriend and she is persistently negative about the society in which she lives, conceiving of that society as a hybrid of archaic British colonial policies in Northern Ireland and capitalism in general. Lorna does not, however, direct any real criticism towards the community that she comes from and the culture of shame and repression that, according to O’Reilly’s depiction of it, is part and parcel of life in the nationalist community in Derry. This obvious omission of any explicit discussion about or any criticism of her background necessarily entails Lorna’s disenfranchisement and marginalisation. She even questions why she should be telling Niall about her childhood encounter with this man, despite the fact it is clearly of immense significance to her, thereby depriving her voice of power, authority and conviction. This uncertainty about ownership of one’s narrative is echoed in Niall’s epilogue to the novel in which he reflect.

All this seems absurd to me now. I wish I could say that I am dreaming it up for my own amusement. There is nothing to stop me forgetting. But why then do I feel like I have made a deliberate shambles of telling it? Every word disgusts me, off-key and pretentious (p.197).

Yet it is Lorna’s marginalised status within her own narrative which becomes increasingly apparent when Niall takes from her story that Lorna was sexually assaulted in broad daylight, while a woman across the street ignored what was happening. 

Niall’s assumption is far from baseless, given the way in which Lorna has described the incident to him, but later in the novel when he mentions his interpretation of events to Lorna she reacts fiercely:

She looked at me oddly, with fear: What…are you talking about? …He had a bloody gun on my shoulder, she shouted at me. Are you stupid? … All you think about is sex, she screamed at me with unbridled ferocity… I didn’t even hear the shot. He used me as a…to lean on. This woman wheeling a pram. She just fell against the wall. I didn’t hear a sound – like she’d been pushed. Then a red stain. I just stood there…They bought me an ice cream and no one ever asked me if I was OK. It was never mentioned, in the house, or the street, nobody. (pp.133-134)

The pre-meditated murder of an unarmed woman in front of her child is horrific but it is Lorna’s reaction, however, to this buried childhood memory which is most striking. When Niall surmises from Lorna’s ambiguous retelling of the incident that she was sexually abused, she reacts strangely, screaming with 'unbridled ferocity' and looking at Niall ‘oddly, with fear’. What Lorna is afraid of is unclear: if she has not been abused and it is simply a misunderstanding on Niall’s part, then she may be bemused or irritated by the miscommunication but there is no real reason for her to be afraid of Niall's mistake. The reader is therefore left with unanswered questions pertaining to Lorna’s childhood and what else she might have experienced. MacKinnon makes the point that ‘stories can support accountability by telling a reality that dominant concepts have not accommodated.’[2] There is no doubt that the reality of what happened to Lorna during the shooting has never been accommodated in any real way, either by her family or the community she comes from. As a child Lorna is confused, shocked and upset by the experience, but no one asks her if she is alright. The whole incident, in fact, is never mentioned again and this is the case both within her family and within the larger community. This failure to address and process what has happened leaves Lorna tormented by nightmares and deeply uncomfortable in her own body: in the one short section in the novel narrated from Lorna’s perspective she is ‘preoccupied with the awkwardness and futility of her body…the whole pointless, sagging weight of herself’(p.178). As Love and Sleep progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Lorna’s engagement, or rather her inability to engage, with the physical, external world continues to be coloured by her troubled interior life and the repression of her childhood trauma.

Lorna’s body has been used in a sense as a weapon, or at the very least as instrumental to a woman’s death and as a result she feels uncomfortable in her own skin, weighed down by her perception that her body is awkward, useless and moribund. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews argues that:

history emerges out of the complex relation between knowing and not knowing. It is an interpretation of the past, a reconstruction that makes use of all kinds of fictive strategies, and is always subject to the distortions of memory and imagination.[3]

Lorna's personal history is distorted, traumatic and undeniably complex, haunted by a past that seems to be at odds with the new, relentlessly forward-looking Derry of O’Reilly’s novel. Lorna’s introspective depression and inability to fit in utterly alienates her from this world. O’Reilly seems to posit that this sense of alienation and a lack of belonging is inherent in those who have been victims of or participants in the north’s endemic violence, whether they have directly been injured or traumatised in some other way. This theory is further advanced in O’Reilly’s second novel, The Swing of Things.

The Swing of Things' main character, Noel Boyle, is regarded with a mixture of fear, pity, wariness and frustration by the other characters and his greatest flaw is his seeming failure to be able to make a decision and stick to it. He joins the IRA and then changes his mind about the organisation just as he is driving a bomb towards a security checkpoint. After his release from jail he moves in at first with his friend Dainty, into a new waterfront apartment in Derry, the first thing about which Boyle notices, perhaps unsurprisingly given his own recent experiences, is its ‘clear view down into the lighted car park of the Strand Road police station, an inhuman gloom of inscrutable and fastidious experiments’ (p.27). Boyle soon realises that he cannot shake the post-jail paranoia, understanding that ‘when [he] stepped through the gate into the cheering crowds…his sentence had only begun’ (p.27), so he eventually decides to move elsewhere in order to rebuild his life. He relocates to Dublin and enrols as a student, only to find that after eight months he is still having difficulties settling in and making friends, and he begins to think about dropping out of university: ‘Boyle had lost his way and he knew it’ (p.10).

Noel Boyle is usually referred to in the narrative by his surname and, in fact, often refers to himself in this way. The name Boyle has obvious connotations with the idea of things boiling over, which matches Boyle’s edgy temperament and his constant struggle to keep the violence and rage simmering within him under control. Boyle seems to recognise his own capacity for reckless destruction, telling himself:

He couldn’t lose control of himself in public. One thoughtless reaction and he would be back inside. He had to keep a grip, a focus, submerge himself in the books, and wait. That’s what he had come down here for. To take his life into his own hands and make something. (p.73)

The use of the word ‘submerge’ is ominous here: from the very beginning of the novel, when Boyle first discovers that the body of an unknown, ill-fated woman has been found in the Liffey he plunges into his own downward spiral. Boyle cannot articulate exactly what it is about the woman’s death that has so unsettled him, but she appears to have been an immigrant and this may explain his sense of empathy with her, since he too feels like an outsider. Boyle is incensed by attempts to commemorate her death, a process which he views as being necessarily exploitative. He first vents aggression on the girls who are selling copies of the drowned woman’s death mask on street stalls before eventually ending up in a fight with the artist who created the mask in the novel’s climax when Boyle kills this man by losing his temper and throwing him off a bridge. Boyle realises immediately what a mess he has made of things, cursing himself: ‘You stupid fucken wanker. Look at the fucken mess you’ve made of everything now. Your new happy life. You’re fucked, totally fucked’ (p.245). Even during this crisis Boyle is unable to own up to what he has done or even to stop ineffectually procrastinating about what his escape plan should be. He begins by going to his Russian neighbour who has some shady connections for help but then panics that he cannot trust the Russians and runs away from them to look up his old IRA comrades before again trying to change his mind and walk away from the house they have directed him to. They choose to solve the problem of the loose canon Boyle has become by murdering him and dumping his body in a ditch. So the notion of submersion applies to three important bodies in the novel: that of the unidentified woman found in the Liffey; that of the murdered artist thrown into the river by Boyle, and finally that of Boyle himself, who does not get into the swing of things in Dublin or submerse himself in his books but winds up submerged in a ditch, betrayed by the organisation he himself betrayed eight years before.

Boyle’s and Lorna's experiences of marginalisation are contrasted with that of Boyle's oldest friend, Dainty, who has wholeheartedly embraced post-conflict Derry, with his waterfront apartment and his new girlfriend. Dainty resolutely refuses to give credence to the idea that the Troubles and the country’s paramilitary organisations still exist, even residually, vehemently trying to convince the mistrustful Boyle that:

Nobody gives a fuck any more. It’s just gangland stuff now. Drugs and protection rackets. Everybody knows that. They can’t even remember what they fucken did last week never mind eight years ago. You’re fucken paranoid. The only person after you is yourself for being such a stupid wanker in the first place. (p.106)

Dainty is sent away to stay with American relatives for a while after his brother is murdered by the British army and his absence from Derry at this crucial juncture has made him unable to understand why Boyle became involved with paramilitaries. He reprimands Boyle for not being able to enjoy the party to celebrate his release from prison:

Jesus…just try and get into the fucken swing of it will you for fuck’s sake? Just for me. Just this once. There’s enough big faces in this town without you joining the ranks. And get rid of that beard for a start…Do you expect them all to get down on their knees in fucken thanks? Do you think they feel beholden to you or something? Catch yourself on Boylo (p.29).

Dainty indicates that in order to move on with one’s life, one must embrace the new physical realities of the city with its outward veneer of prosperity, epitomised by living in a fashionable new build apartment, having a groomed appearance and, most significantly, by refusing to brood about the past or to be in any way introspective. Boyle, however, has spent eight years of his life in jail and when he is released, having shunned all association with the IRA, he is left with no support network except for Dainty who blithely encourages him to just move on and a former prisoner called Doe Hoe who hosts a ‘pow-wow’ for ex-prisoners every month in a caravan in Donegal, where they all drink excessively and take any and all drugs they can get their hands on as their lives and marriages fall apart.

In O’Reilly’s disturbing vision of urban, postmodern Derry, with its complicated mixture of class, politics and alienation it appears to be impossible for anyone to ever truly move on from or even really address the causes of their trauma. Although the nature of the abuse that Lorna may have been exposed to is never fully articulated in Love and Sleep, what is clear is that Lorna has not only being forced as a child to witness the murder of an unarmed woman at close range but her body was actually used by the gunman to steady his weapon on while he carries out the deed. Lorna is continually reminded of the trauma she has suffered in nightmares but she is unable to process whatever it is that she experienced. Lorna lives in Belfast for a few years but is plagued by nightmares and depression and when she considers moving further away to London she finds that she is too paralysed by fear to even make it to the airport. Hardly surprisingly, the nightmares Lorna is plagued by centre on the theme of death, and, as the novel progresses and Lorna lapses further and further into a deep depression, her own death begins to seem inevitable. Niall’s friend Danny also attempts to break away from Derry to both London and Dublin, only to find ‘he couldn’t speak or breathe or hold his head up anywhere else’ (p.13). And in The Swing of Things, Boyle too fails to find the new life he is so eager to establish, either in Derry or Dublin, so affected has he been by his past.

During Niall’s extended stay in Derry, the city’s oppressive culture is something that he gradually becomes increasingly aware of. In a move that is in many ways seriously problematic, O’Reilly portrays the bodies of Derry women in Love and Sleep mutilated and grotesque. Undoubtedly, this reflects Niall’s own distorted sexuality as he constantly seeks out promiscuous physical encounters with women while repressing the possibility of emotional involvement. Niall’s fixation with various female body parts, along with his refusal or perhaps inability to see women holistically and as people, reflects Patricia Smart’s assessment that:

If the female body has been rendered absent by culture, its possession as an object has at the same time been assured by ‘pornographic’ strategies of representation that reduce it to fragments, the better to assure the solidity of the viewing I/eye.[4]

Niall’s pornographic gaze is at once overtly voyeuristic and dehumanising, as the women he knows are divided into the categories of asexual familial figure, such as his mother, sister-in-law and niece, or as collections of sexual attributes which are potential prey to his licentious appetites.  Women who are not related to Niall, become in his eyes, and therefore in the narrative, almost subhuman due to his inability to empathise with them. This is, undoubtedly, the most troubling aspect of the novel, as Niall’s private thoughts are revealed to be a distasteful and explicit showcase for what is, arguably, his underlying fear and hatred of the feminine. Soon after his return to the city, Niall gets involved in a sexual encounter with two girls, one of whom is so drunk that involving her in any sexual activity is tantamount to rape and the other of whom Niall coldly judges as having breasts ‘small and too far apart’. He is unable to get aroused by the experience and as a result complains: ‘my frustration was making me sick and filling my head with violent images’ (pp.59-60), creating an explicit link between sex and violence in Niall’s thoughts. Niall then attempts to seduce the younger sister of a friend of his best friend Danny, a girl described as having had ‘very little experience of men. Her parents had once taken her to see a priest because she was so quiet’ (p.81). The allusion to the priest draws the reader’s attention back to the culture of shame and guilt surrounding female sexuality within the Catholic Church, and to O’Reilly’s implied critique of the inadequate mechanisms in place in Derry society to deal with emotional and mental distress. This attitude is epitomised by no one discussing the shooting Lorna witnesses as a young girl and by Danny’s indignant yet defensive statement: ‘We don’t all have to blabber everything out to everybody’ (p.84). Niall’s attempt to seduce this painfully shy girl ends in a disturbing incident, as the girl locks herself in the toilets of a bar and repeatedly hits her head off the cistern until she has succeeded in seriously hurting herself and Danny warns Niall, ‘Do whatever the fuck you want, Niall…but you’re carrying on the right way to get your head punched in’ (p.83).

Niall meets Lorna soon after his return to Derry. Like Niall, Lorna is a native of the city, and apart from a few years at Art College in Belfast, she has spent her whole life there. She is an art teacher and a committed socialist, with a busy life and a wide network of friends in the city. However, Lorna is plagued by nightmares and a lingering depression that ostensibly began during her time in Belfast. Her deteriorating mental health makes her give up painting, because she is sick of painting her ‘own nightmares’ and full of self disgust that in her opinion her work is ‘mediocre, no more than that…Sheer utter stomach-turning self indulgence’ (p.70). Painting, however, is a significant means of self-expression, and once Lorna abandons it she is forced once again to lapse into the repression and unexpressed shame that have been fostered in her since her childhood trauma, trauma which she is unable to adequately articulate to Niall. Lorna is weighed down with anxiety, has a pronounced lack of self-confidence and seems, at least from Niall’s perspective, masochistically intent on having a relationship with him, despite Niall’s indifference and, at times, outright hostility to her. One of Niall’s first descriptions of Lorna in the narrative cruelly comments on her size, which she is incredibly self-conscious about: ‘Everything about her seemed big, overdone, excessive: the abundant hair, the shapeless clothes, the broad mouth, the hefty breasts’ (p.10).

The cruelty and callousness of Niall’s opinion of Lorna does not alter as their relationship becomes more intimate – if anything, his revulsion towards Lorna and her body becomes decidedly more marked. To take just a few examples from the text: Niall describes Lorna’s face as ‘pale and bloated’, her body as ‘deadweight…broad and cold and lonely’, her breast as ‘like the belly of a dead pup’, her scent as an ‘atrocious musk of gloom’ and the sexual relationship between them as ‘morbid and violent’. In a finally damning remark that is a slur upon both Lorna and Derry, and yet another negative example of the feminine being identified with the Irish nation, Niall describes Lorna as being ‘as ugly and graceless and virtuous as the city she was dying in’ (p.96). Much of the narrative is devoted to explaining just how indifferent to Lorna Niall initially is, and how repulsed, appalled and disgusted by her he eventually becomes. The last time Niall sees Lorna alive, she is walking away from him on a beach where two dogs jump on her and knock her over and he does nothing to help her. Niall even describes Lorna’s dead body lying on the street as ‘an affront to all eyes’ (p.195); to Niall, Lorna’s body remains embarrassingly ungainly even in death. If Lorna’s body is read as a critique of the rigid patriarchal system which forces women into such unyielding sexual self-censorship, bodily conformity and emotional repression then the message O’Reilly is ultimately trying to get across is a progressive, if depressing, one as it shows the horror that such a system can wreak on the individual.

I would argue, however, that O’Reilly’s treatment of Lorna aptly illustrates a point made by Elizabeth Butler Cullingford when she said of Yeats’ and Heaney’s depictions of women that they ‘demonstrate how easily a focus on the female as body can slide into disgust and contempt,’ especially within the context of Irish writing.[5] The sheer amount of description dedicated to the monstrosity of Lorna’s body and Niall’s utter distaste for it and for Lorna as a person make for uncomfortable reading, as Lorna is effectively reduced to subaltern status. The narrative is very rarely from Lorna’s perspective, and even at that it is for no more than a few paragraphs at the time, narrated in the third person. Further underlining Lorna's subaltern status and marginalisation from her own narrative, despite the fact that much of the novel is about Lorna's depression and her feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness, Lorna’s death is not, as the reader may have expected, suicide; she is deprived of agency even in this final act, incongruously murdered as she walks down the street alone, by an IRA sniper. It is, of course, arguable that the grotesque descriptions of Lorna’s body, her lack of narration and her inability to even cause her own death are all intended by the author to be a critique of the systems - both that of the patriarchal state and that of the tribal code of sexual shame and silence - that reduce women to the level of voiceless subaltern. The criticism, however, that may be levelled at O’Reilly is that in Love and Sleep he is guilty of exactly the same crime.

[1] Catharine A. MacKinnon. Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws.(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.61.

[2] MacKinnon (2007), p.61.

[3]Elmer Kennedy-Andrews. Fiction and the Northern Ireland troubles since 1969: (de-)constructing the north.(Dublin : Four Courts, 2002), p.153.

[4] Patricia Smart. ‘The Body Seen Through a Distorting Lense: Feminist Grotesque in the Art of Jana Sterbak and Louky Bersianik’. Literature and the Body. Ed. Anthony George Purdy.(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992), p.20.

[5] Elizabeth Butler Cullingford. ‘‘Thinking of her…as…Ireland:’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney’, Textual Practice, 4(1). 1990. 1-21. p.1.