Jan Carson on Capturing the Failures of Northern Ireland in Fiction


I was eighteen in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The peace deal would end the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland. At least that’s what I was banking on, as I packed my cases and moved thirty miles south to study literature at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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Nearly thirty years earlier my father had made the same short journey. His university experience was radically different from mine: army patrols, nightly curfews, violence erupting sporadically. He got his engineering degree and quickly scuttled back to the country.

Not that the country was necessarily safe. There are several stories in my  collection Quickly, While They Still Have Horses that bear witness to a country so intrinsically divided, a matter of a mile or less might prove the difference between safe passage and coming home in a body bag.

By ’98, things felt different. I wasn’t afraid of moving to the city. I was, like every misunderstood, artistic kid, dying to shake my small-town shackles and meet some more like-minded folk. It’s hard to fully express the feeling of standing on the cusp of adulthood and, for the first time in several generations, facing a future characterized by hope, not fear.

The Northern Ireland of my childhood was a cultural backwater. Understandably enough, the North was not a tourist hot spot. Bands frequently bypassed Belfast, afraid that their gig might fall victim to a bomb scare or something worse. Budget airlines were only beginning to take off. It was slow and expensive to leave the country. Those who got out often didn’t return.

There are several stories in my  collection Quickly, While They Still Have Horses that bear witness to a country so intrinsically divided, a matter of a mile or less might prove the difference between safe passage and coming home in a body bag.

I remember watching footage of the agreement being signed, Derry-based band, D:Ream’s break out hit, “Things Can Only Get Better” was the soundtrack du jour. I felt giddy with hope and youthful naivety. Things were definitely going to get better and, as a brand new adult, I wasn’t just going to reap the benefits, I was going to be part of the change.

In my own small way, I was. From ’98 onwards, I became involved in community arts facilitation, bringing Catholic and Protestants together to share their stories, listen and slowly learn how to empathize. Later, I’d start to write about the fundamentalist Protestant community I grew up in. Readers may find some resonances with the conservative evangelical communities currently making their presence known in the political landscape of the U.S.

It’s never been easy to write about my own background. I still wrestle with misplaced guilt every time I talk about the flawed doctrines and prejudices I was raised with. But I’ve found that my writing has cast light upon a community many of my readers weren’t familiar with. I’ve been humbled by readers who’re quick to confess their ignorance and graciously open to learning more. They make me want to admit my own ignorance of the other. They make we want to learn.

There’s hope in this process, awkward and painful though it may be. Senator George Mitchell who did so much to broker the Northern Irish Peace Deal, spoke often about the crucial importance of listening. Reconciliation’s the final step in a peace process. First you have to listen to the other’s stories. You listen and listen, until you can set aside your own binary thinking and acknowledge the validity of experiences which are not your own.

All this to say, I am grateful that my adult life and writing practice has rolled out in a Northern Ireland radically different from the country I knew as a child. I no longer pass armed military every time I go shopping. There hasn’t been a major bomb in years. The nightly news is still grim—arguably, it is everywhere—but not the litany of horrors it was back in 1986.

In some ways I’m glad eighteen-year-old me can’t read this collection. I wouldn’t want her knowing that post-Good Friday, things only got sort of better, and some things feel like they’ve gotten worse.

As a writer, I’m free to write whatever I want. I can explore the complexities of political identity and the legacy of violence in stories like “Mostly People Just Throw Bricks,” knowing I won’t get a brick through my own window. I don’t take this privilege lightly. I’m old enough to know fellow Northern Irish artists who were threatened and intimidated, simply for giving voice to the truth.

Furthermore, we now have tourists. Whole cruise ships of visitors appear every week in Belfast Lough. They’re not visiting under duress. They actually want to be here. They believe the Troubles are over now.

The truth is, they are and they aren’t. Northern Ireland in 2024, is not the shiny, happy future the girls in Lisa McGee’s cult sitcom Derry Girls are anticipating when they vote in the final episode. Our schools are still ninety percent segregated. It costs an additional £600,000 per day to educate our children in this ignorant way.

The so-called Peace Wall dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods hasn’t disappeared in Belfast. There’s more Peace Wall than there was in ’98. Most worryingly of all, more people have died by suicide in Northern Ireland since the peace deal than the combined total of Troubles victims. We are facing a mental health crisis, testament to a legacy of ongoing trauma and poorly funded support services.

I love my country. I’m proud to call Northern Ireland home. But as a writer I feel compelled to wield a Joycean mirror. We need to see and acknowledge the state of the place.

Most of the stories in Quickly, While They Still Have Horses were written around the twenty fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. In 2023, like many Northern Irish artists, the greater part of my income came from writing reflective pieces about how far we’d come and what still needed to improve.

Consequently, the stories in this collection are chiefly concerned with disappointment. Here, you’ll meet mostly contemporary Northerners during small moments of muted epiphany. They’re realizing that their families are rubbish. They’re admitting they aren’t as successful as they’d hoped to be. They’ve just missed out on the last fruit scone in the cafe. The only horse left in the U. K. has turned out to be an awful letdown.

I’m interested in the little lives, being played out around me, the way these little lives tap into a larger theme. In these micro-disappointments there’s a hint of something bigger and deeper. It’s disappointing to be Northern Irish in 2024. We should have achieved so much more.

In some ways I’m glad eighteen-year-old me can’t read this collection. I wouldn’t want her knowing that post-Good Friday, things only got sort of better, and some things feel like they’ve gotten worse. In another sense, I’d like to thrust this book at my younger self. I’d like to say, here’s a testament to the brave, kind, resilient people who have held this place together.

It’s impossible not have hope for Northern Ireland. The best people in the world live here. I can’t imagine ever growing tired of telling their stories. There are so many which haven’t yet to be heard.

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Quickly, While They Still Have Horses: Stories - Carson, Jan

Quickly, While They Still Have Horses by Jen Carson is available via Scribner.



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