Murals are a common sight in Belfast, and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. I’ve mention them a few times in A Tiger in Eden and here’s an example of a Loyalist one that appears in different guises on gable walls around the city. This depicts King William III of Orange, the Dutch Stadtholder who successfully invaded England in 1688, deposing King James II, the last Catholic monarch to rule the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. King Billy, as he is commonly known, was a Dutch Protestant who personally led his Army to defeat a resurgent James at the Battle of the Boyne, near Drogheda on 1st July 1690 (11th July in the Gregorian calendar).
If you were wondering about the origin of the Orange Order, or Orangemen – this is where it comes from. The Orange Institution was founded in 1796 and is named in tribute to King Billy. Catholics are banned from becoming members. The Orange Order hold traditional marches throughout Northern Ireland on 12th July, to commemorate King Billy’s victory, and huge bonfires are lit the night before (more on those in another post).
The red hand symbol used by Loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland has a long history, steeped in Irish myth and legend. Whilst it’s very much associated with Loyalists in the modern era, it’s actually an old pagan Gaelic symbol associated with the mythical figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg (Labraid of the Red Hand).
Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, and not limited to the six counties of Northern Ireland as many probably think. In addition to Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone (which make up Northern Ireland), Ulster also incorporates Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, located in the Republic of Ireland. According to the story, the kingdom of Ulster was at one point without an heir and so a boat race was organised (possibly in Strangford Lough). Whoever’s hand touched the shore of Ulster first would become its new king.
With O’Neill losing the race, the only way to triumph was to chop off his own hand and chuck it ashore, hence the bloody hand that has been associated with the O’Neill clan ever since. A tad extreme perhaps, but that’s Northern Ireland for ye! The symbol has been used by Gaelic football clubs, Unions and Republican groups down the centuries but the Loyalists made it their own in the 20th Century. If you’ve got front row seats for the 100m dash at this year’s Olympics and there are any Loyalist sprinters competing, give them a big hand when they cross the finish line. They might be short one.
As a little teaser, here’s a photo of Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, former UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) leader, now exiled from Northern Ireland. When he faced trial on terrorism charges in 1995, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) believed his unit had killed up to 40 Catholics in a three year period. Upon discovering that a journalist he was giving a lift to was Catholic, he blithely told her that Catholics usually travelled in the boot of his car. He has survived 13 assassination attempts, mostly by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and INLA (Irish National Liberation Army). He was sentenced and convicted to 16 years in The Maze prison, where he allegedly earned up to 5000 pounds a week selling drugs to other Loyalist prisoners. He was released from custody in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement, as a political prisoner. Internal feuding in the UFF/UDA and additional assassination attempts forced him to flee Northern Ireland.
The main character in A Tiger in Eden, Billy Montgomery, is loosely based on a young Johnny Adair.
A Tiger in Eden went to print today, which means we’ll have physical copies in 2 weeks. In the meantime, here’s what Nick Earls had to say about it:
“A brilliant mix of hilarious and confronting that keeps refusing to be like any other book you’ve ever read. Dropping a Belfast hard man in paradise is an act of storytelling genius, and every word of the writing backs it to the hilt.”
Nick’s most recent book, The Fix, is superb, and I ain’t just sayin’ that to kiss his arse. I said so in The Australian last year, and I didn’t know him from Adam then. We’ve since met, once, at MWF, and I’m suitably humbled that a legend with his experience liked my first effort.
Another insanely talented writer who has spoken on my behalf is James Bradley, who said the following:
“A Tiger in Eden is the business: brutal, funny and surprisingly uplifting. You won’t read a better debut novel this year.”
And I’ve only ever admired that guy from afar. Pick any one of his three books, Wrack, The Deep Field or The Resurrectionist to be stunned. James is one of the main critics at The Australian, so that’s high praise indeed. Gulp.
Beautiful beaches, sexy young backpackers, cheap drinks: Thailand in the mid-nineties is the perfect place for Billy Montgomery—Loyalist street fighter on the run from the Northern Ireland police—to lie low. He’s turning away from a life of crime, but isn’t sure where to go.
A series of brawls and one-night stands helps put his troubles out of mind for a while. But in the aftermath of a drug-fuelled full-moon party Billy come face to face with his terrible past.