GeminiMAGAZINE
_____________
BBC ARTS EXTRA

Interview with Seamus Scanlon,
winner of the 2011 Gemini Magazine
Short Story Prize for
"My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast"
               
"A fascinating story"

Marie-Louise Muir
July 26, 2011
MUIR: Irish short story writers have always punched
above their weight on a global level as a recent short
listing of both Edna O’Brien and Colm Tóibín for the
Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize
testifies. Their inclusion in a short list of just six shows
that Irish writers are at the forefront of ensuring this
literary form stays in rude health. So it was with
great interest we read about Galway man, Seamus
Scanlon who has just won a prize for his short story
“My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast” in a short story
competition run by Gemini Magazine, an international
online journal of fiction, poetry and creative non-
fiction. The story follows the politicization of a young
West Belfast boy after his twelve-year-old sister is
killed by a British soldier in front of him. Scanlon, who
now works as a librarian in New York, is back home in
his native Galway, where he joins me now on the
line. Good evening to you, Seamus.

SCANLON: Hello. Thank you.

MUIR: There’s a real sense of historical events
blurring with the fiction in this short story. Is this boy
based on anyone or any series of events that
happened in Northern Ireland?

SCANLON: Well, I suppose, it’s an amalgam really. I
was very influenced I think by the execution of three
off-duty Scottish soldiers in Ligoniel in the early
seventies and two of them were brothers. One was
seventeen and one was eighteen, and I felt that was
kind of a vile act and there was vile acts on both
sides. So, I was just trying to make a narrative that
would blend them together and maybe try to explain
why people got sucked in on both sides.

MUIR: Because it starts with the young girl being
shot and then it ends with the brother shooting
soldiers dead in a house. So, there is that sense of
the split narrative of seeing both sides. You write
about the R.U.C. coming. It’s not the P.S.N.I. so it’s
very much dated before the Northern Ireland Police
Service changed which was in 2001. Is it an historical
work of fiction? Is it set in the 1970s?

SCANLON: Yeah, it would be set in the seventies,
when it was probably at its most lethal in Belfast and
Northern Ireland, in general. And I felt it’s an era that’
s not really covered that widely in fiction or in
narratives that try to explain what might have
happened and I feel, especially in Ireland, people
tend to shy away from it. So, when I was in America,
I found it easier to write it and for it to be acceptable,
I suppose. There is a danger, I think, in Ireland that
writing about the Troubles, so-called, can be viewed
as exploitative. So, I was trying to make sure that
didn’t happen.

MUIR: But the danger is equally there in, say, the
appetite in American readers as well, for this sense of
the extremity of life that was happening here in
Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Many writers,
contemporary Northern Irish writers, now have
turned their back on that and write more about
contemporary social and political issues. How did you
feel about going back into that world?

SCANLON: Well, I wanted to explore it for a long
time and it was always in the back of my mind. I had
met various people on both sides and I actually met a
therapist once who told me that not only do the
victims’ families suffer immensely but often the so-
called gun man had very serious fallout, as well, and
that they were carried away in the moment but later
regretted it, immensely. So, I think there was
damage done, on both sides, maybe not physically
but certainly psychologically.

MUIR: It feels like you know the place, as well. I
mean, you obviously refer to landmarks within
Belfast; you’ve got the streets of the Holy Land—
Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Cairo Street—and
you refer later on to the Ormeau Bridge and the
Ormeau Road. How well do you know here?

SCANLON: Well, I lived there for five years. I lived
adjacent to the Holy Land in Rugby Parade. So, I
have a good sense of the locality. And the first time I
ever went to Belfast, I was really taken by the beauty
of it. So, that’s why that is in the title and kind of to
contrast it with the mayhem that was going on.

MUIR: You’re based in the States now and living and
working in New York and, you know, you’re writing,
in a way, to an American audience because would
they be your first readers? I just wonder what they
expect from somebody writing about the Troubles.

SCANLON: They seem to have a very naïve view of
it. So, in my mind, it wasn’t the American audience I
was aiming for. It was more or less, you know, self-
therapy, I suppose. I just wanted to write it and get it
out there and write it down. The Americans are
interested in, kind of a general sense. They have no
concept really of any of the subtleties or ambiguities
and you did mention that they like, you know, the
extremity. I suppose that is one way to hook them,
you know? They do tend to focus on that.

MUIR: Well, it is a fascinating story and a pen pic of
life that was here. You can
read Seamus’s winning
story in the July edition of Gemini at www.gemini-
magazine.com.