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Sat May 18, 2013
Author Interviews

'That's That': A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving Northern Ireland

Originally published on Sat May 18, 2013 9:28 pm

Colin Broderick's first book, Orangutan, told the story of the 20 years — at least, as he could remember it — of being drunk, drug addicted and often desperate struggling to make his way as an Irish immigrant to New York.

His latest book might have been even harder to write: It's about what got him here to America. That's That is his chronicle of life as the second-eldest in a family of six children in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, during the modern-day "Troubles": parochial rivalries, British rule, IRA bombings, and an almost weekly death toll, during which Broderick and his friends were trying to grow up.

"First of all, when you think about growing up in basically the middle of a war, you sort of, like the child of abuse, will accept what's happening as being normal," Broderick tells NPR's Scott Simon. "You don't walk around thinking, 'Oh my goodness, we're at war.' "


Interview Highlights

On seeing a "radiance" in the older kids who were beginning to be involved in the conflict

"Being known as a kid whose mother wouldn't let him — the kids called us, we were the 'mommy-won't-let-me's' for a little while, which I rebelled against — you know, you see these older guys in the community who really were a little bit more cocksure, and they carried themselves with an air of confidence that I didn't possess. ... As a teenager that's very appealing."

On the moment when those "radiant" boys apparently shoot a bus driver

"That's something I've tried to come to terms with over the years, is that I'm trying to discover in myself if I can actually make the decision to take another human life. When you grew up in a country where British Army checkpoints basically were a way of life, as a Catholic, you were accustomed to being stopped and humiliated at these British checkpoints on a daily basis. ... We would be very aware that another car carrying local Protestants would be waved through the checkpoint with a wave of the hand, and it was a very deliberate provocation, and when that goes on for years and years, that kind of repression, it's very easy to understand how people would want to fight against that because it was just wrong.

"What was happening to the Catholics in Northern Ireland, I felt it was fair game, that it was a war, and our side didn't have legitimate, you know, uniforms, and we ... didn't go out and stop people on the streets, but, you know, the IRA operated basically ... in secrecy, the best they could, trying to right a wrong. And it definitely felt like there was something very heroic about what they were doing."

On his anger at the British

"My uncle was lifted, taken from his home, taken from his bed and tortured for seven days. When they first started internment, my uncle was one of seven men, it's widely documented, who were picked up by the British and basically taken away from their families to an unknown location, and then beaten and tortured for seven days. ... Under internment, the suspicion of involvement was enough to pick you up and torture you to find out if you knew anything.

"And it's very hard to hear stories like that about people you care about and not feel some kind of rage, which I did, and you know, I don't condone violence. I don't think that the answer is to go out and shoot anybody. I think what happened in Northern Ireland, a part of the process that was missed was, Catholics especially didn't get an opportunity to go out and start screaming and shouting and saying, 'What you guys did to us was wrong, and we're angry about it.' And that hurt."

On the impact of constant fear in everyday life

"As a kid, I had this enormous curiosity, and there was just nothing to nurture that. There was no place at school or at home where that curiosity was really being met. ... I probably came across as being arrogant or a smart-aleck or whatever, and because of that I got punished. And that just sort of compounded my sense of alienation growing up in Northern Ireland, and I didn't have anywhere to go and say, 'Hey, I'm confused' — and really that silence of not being able to speak. ...

"In the north, you could talk to a person all day long and really never know what it is they're thinking or feeling. So when I talk about silence, I talk sort of the silence of truth. I think part of our heritage of being this nation of being incredibly great storytellers, or being funny, or being very entertaining, comes from this sort of need to create a facade to sort of stand behind. And it's very difficult — people say that Freud said that the Irish were impervious to psychoanalysis — but I think it sort of gets at the — Irish people are so hidden in many ways that I think when I talk about silence I talk about basically not being truthful emotionally."

On what he wants readers to take away from his story

"When I started writing That's That, I thought it was just a story about my childhood. And two years in, I realized — and I thought it was only going to take me two years — but two years in I realized it's not just my story that I'm telling. And I think the book itself, it's about personal narrative, it's the story of a family, it's the story of a son and a mother, but it's also a story of Northern Ireland."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Colin Broderick's first book, "Orangutan," told the story of the 20 years - at least, as he could remember it - of being drunk, drug addicted and often desperate as he struggled to make his way as an Irish immigrant to New York. His latest book might be even harder to write. It's about what got him here to America. "That's That" recounts growing up the second-eldest in a family of six children in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland during the modern-day troubles of parochial rivalries, British rule, IRA bombings and an almost weekly toll of death, during which Colin Broderick and his friends were trying to grow up. Colin Broderick joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

COLIN BRODERICK: Thanks very much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: A lot of chapters begin with you and your family watching the telly or hearing of some new bombing or act of violence nearby. How do you think that affected the way you grew up?

BRODERICK: I think, first of all, when you think about growing up in basically the middle of a war, you sort of - like the child of abuse - will accept what's happening as being normal. You don't walk around thinking, oh my goodness, we're at war.

SIMON: Growing up, you said you saw a - and this is the word you used - a radiance in those often somewhat older youngsters who beginning to even take arms against the British police. What was that radiance that you saw?

BRODERICK: Being known as a kid whose mother wouldn't let him - the kids called us, we were the mommy-won't-let-mes for a little while, which I rebelled against. You know, you see these older guys in the community who really were a little bit more cocksure and they carried themselves with an air of confidence that I didn't possess. And that was, you know, as a teenager that's very appealing.

SIMON: 'Cause speaking as a reader, I mean, you finish the section where you talk about the radiance you saw in them and then you insert the story about some of them, some of the young men you're describing, apparently shooting a bus driver. And you wonder what's so radiant about that.

BRODERICK: Yeah. And that's, you know, that's something I've tried to come to terms with over the years, is that I'm trying to discover in myself if I can actually make the decision to take another human life. When you grew up in a country where British Army checkpoints basically were a way of life, as a Catholic, you were accustomed to being stopped and humiliated at these British checkpoints on a daily basis. You could just be going to the local village to buy a loaf of bread. There'd be a British checkpoint. You might have to get out of the car in the middle of the pouring rain in front of your family. Men were humiliated in front of their wives. And this was a daily fact of life for Catholics in Northern Ireland. And we would be very aware that another car carrying local Protestants would be waved through the checkpoint with a wave of the hand, and it was a very deliberate provocation.

And when that goes on for years and years, that kind of repression, it's very easy to understand how people would want to fight against that because it was just wrong. What was happening to the Catholics in Northern Ireland, I felt it was fair game, that it was a war, and our side didn't have legitimate, you know, uniforms, and we weren't allowed - we didn't go out and stop people on the streets, but, you know, the IRA operated basically under - in secrecy, the best they could, trying to right a wrong. And it definitely felt like there was something very heroic about what they were doing.

SIMON: At the time, you were so supremely angry and thinking about joining the IRA. As I read the book, the only person who's ever actually beaten you is your father. So, why are you so mad at the British?

BRODERICK: My uncle was lifted and, you know, taken from his home, taken from his bed and tortured for seven days. When they first started internment, my uncle was one of seven men, it's widely documented, who were picked up by the British and basically taken away from their families to an unknown location and then beaten and tortured for seven days. If they thought you were involved, it was enough to, under internment, the suspicion of involvement was enough to pick you up and torture you to find out if you knew anything. And it's very hard to hear stories like that about, you know, people you care about and not feel some kind of rage...

(LAUGHTER)

BRODERICK: ...which I did and, you know, I don't condone violence. I don't think that the answer is to go out and shoot anybody. I think what happened in Northern Ireland, a part of the process that was missed was Catholics especially didn't get an opportunity to go out and start screaming and shouting and saying, what you guys did to us was wrong, and we're angry about it. And that hurt.

SIMON: What would you notice writing this memoir looking back about everyday life that not only was distinctive but maybe left a chill in your life?

BRODERICK: Fear as a kid. I had this enormous curiosity and there was just nothing to nurture that. There is no place at school or at home away were that curiosity was really being met. And that probably came across as a kid - I probably came across as being arrogant or a smart aleck or whatever, and because of that I got punished. And that does sort of compounded my sense of alienation growing up in Northern Ireland. And I didn't have anywhere to go and say, Hey, I'm confused, and really that silence of not being able to speak.

SIMON: You know, which is why it's interesting. Almost the most unexpected word that I found in your memoir is, when you talk about growing up in Northern Ireland, the silence you remember. Because if I might say this with the middle name Sullivan...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...and, as you know, I'm Northern Irish family on my mother's side, that's the word we put on the Irish here - silent.

BRODERICK: It's not even a word that you would put in the South of Ireland -in the Free State, as we call it very much. But in the north, in the north you could talk to a person all day long and really never know what it is they're thinking or feeling.

(LAUGHTER)

BRODERICK: So when I talk about silence, I talk sort of the silence of truth. I think part of our heritage of being this nation of being incredibly great storytellers, or being funny, or being very entertaining, comes from this sort of need to create a facade to sort of stand behind. And it's very difficult, you know, people say that Freud said that the Irish were impervious to psychoanalysis. But I think it sort of gets at the - Irish people are so hidden in many ways that I think when I talk about silence, I talk about basically not being truthful emotionally, but where they're at.

SIMON: When the reader turns the last page, what do you want them to take out of your story about your childhood and you? And Northern Ireland, I mean a country you love but say you can't live in.

BRODERICK: When I started writing "That's That," I thought it was just a story about my childhood. And two years in, I realized - and I thought it was only going to take me two years - but two years in, I realized it's not just my story that I'm telling. And I think the book itself, it's about personal narrative, it's the story of a family, it's the story of a son and a mother, but it's also a story of Northern Ireland.

SIMON: Colin Broderick, his new memoir "That's That." Thanks very much for being with us.

BRODERICK: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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