“Hello. I hope you enjoy reading Blackwatertown.
Blackwatertown is fiction, but it draws on murky episodes from Ireland’s past and my own family history. I grew up and worked as a journalist in Belfast during “the Troubles” – and later in Dublin. Like many families, my own has been caught up in the run of history, politics and violence since before the creation of the border.
One particular family member springs to mind, my great uncle Mike. District Inspector Michael Murphy. He was a tall handsome man in his prime. And a swordsman.
There was no difficulty finding gunmen back in the day. Swordsmen were rarer. But blades are the style when you’re escorting a princess. There she is in the picture with great uncle Mike, the future Queen Elizabeth, looking very nicely turned out.
On this occasion Princess Elizabeth is inspecting a Royal Ulster Constabulary guard of honour at Belfast City Hall in June 1949. DI Murphy would be called in to lead RUC parades on royal visits, partly because he was one of the few officers versed in sword drill. That came from his Irish Guards days. And, obviously, for his good looks.
Michael Murphy stormed the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the western front in World War One – the Hohenzollerns the German royal family of the time. So he was used to hobnobbing with royalty of one flavour or another.
There always were Catholics like Michael Murphy in the RUC. Not many, most of the time. (I made a BBC Radio 4 documentary with Peter Taylor called Policing the Peace about post-ceasefire efforts to encourage more Catholics to join.) Some thrived, though they also faced suspicion and worse from Protestant colleagues, resentment from Catholic or nationalist neighbours and targeting by Republican paramilitaries. And in civil war, the frontline is your front door.
Here’s another picture of great uncle Mike, with King George VI. The King is on the left, in naval uniform. He looks a bit starstruck. No wonder, when you realise he’s walking beside the celebrated DI Murphy of B District. The photograph dates from 1946. He later led the Northern Ireland contingent at the King’s funeral in London.
Michael Murphy, OBE, KDM, MM, is just one inspirational example. Sadly gone, and therefore safe to talk about.
The main character in Blackwatertown is demoted police sergeant Jolly Macken. He finds it hard to tell friend from enemy. When he’s banished to the quiet Irish border village of Blackwatertown, Macken vows to find out who killed the man he’s replacing – even if it turns out to be another officer. Over the next seven days he falls in love with the bewitching Aoife, uncovers dark family secrets, accidentally starts a war and is hailed a hero and hounded as a traitor.
Macken has always had trouble fitting in. As a Catholic, he’s viewed with suspicion by the rest of the mainly Protestant police force. But he’s also isolated from his fellow Catholics because he serves the British Crown. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? Which side should he take? Are anyone’s hands clean – even his own? And is betrayal the only way to survive?
Blackwatertown sits in lush countryside on the centuries-old border between Elizabethan and Irish-controlled Ireland (east/west) and not far from today’s Irish border (north/south).
The action happens during a little-known insurgency in the 1950s. The intertwining of fact and fiction is based on murky episodes from Ireland’s past and my own family history. And is perhaps a reminder of how complacency during peacetime can foreshadow future eruptions of violence – pretty village, pretty flame (to steal Srđan Dragojević’s film title). Bad things happen in beautiful places.
But away from fighting over flags and frontiers, policing is also about fractured families. Sometimes helping to heal them. Blackwatertown is also inspired by personal tales of a family you may have encountered through Seamus Heaney’s poem Bye-Child. I was lucky enough to hear him read his work a few times. After you’ve read Blackwatertown, you may like to check out Bye-Child for yourself.
My Blackwatertown is fictional. You can visit the real Blackwatertown. Green fields, a river and a bridge. The bar – The Portmor – also does meals. And things are much calmer these days.
Readers describe Blackwatertown as “exciting”, “moving” and “funny”. Their responses range from “it made me cry” to “it made me want to punch you in the face!”
If you’ve enjoyed it, please give Blackwatertown a review online and tell others. Or it would be lovely to hear from you. But please… not the face.”