Saturday, August 06, 2011

Turas, by Colin Neill - a story of strangers in a strange land

Colin Neill’s first novel Turas peeks into a world in which many Ulster Protestants feel uncomfortable. It’s 2020 and the Irish unification that unionists and loyalists confidently predicted would never happen has become a reality. President Adams is ensconced in Phoenix Park.

The newsreader reported that … a short ceremony at Stormont had confirmed the passing of Northern Ireland, and had officially confirmed the birth of a now 32 county Republic of Ireland. The Union Jack had been lowered and the tricolour raised. The Secretary of State had made a short speech, shaken hands, and in the most dignified manner that he could, ‘got out’.

A group of men from a Lurgan church meet regularly for Bible study. The societal events around them are shaking their faith and challenging their identity. Irish for ‘journey’, Turas explores these men’s spiritual journey as they adapt to new norms. They pray that God …

“… would touch our land powerfully, that even yet justice would be done.”

As they study the book of Jeremiah, they somewhat arrogantly wonder:

Are we as Protestants from Ulster to be an instrument of judgment upon Roman Catholic people? Or is there going to be some judgment of God upon this land but the pot will tilt away from the North because of our faithfulness and we will be spared?

Suddenly, they are in a minority, with the protection a nation state offers minorities: “education preserved; peace money for public housing and business incubation; funding for their community and youth workers” and even the suggestion of a “Protestant Ombudsman” (or ‘Ombudsprod’).

Their anxiety is interrupted by a visiting South African who challenges their prejudices, pushes their buttons, and demands answers to the questions they fear addressing. Like many evangelicals, their understanding of Catholic theology is simply that it is the Reformed Church’s enemy. Slowly they get to grips with their own shortcomings.

“Maybe the grand lie we told ourselves was judging ourselves against crooked plumb lines rather than the real holiness we read about in the Bible. I once heard someone say that the problem with evangelicals is that they ought to be the most radical people in society yet we’re probably amongst the least radical. What about big houses and expensive cars? What about fancy clothes even if we are virtuous and don’t drink or smoke or do the lottery? What about all the petty nonsense we get caught up in within churches, instead of going out there and engaging with people and getting our hands dirty?”

Some of the men start to rethink their old opinions of “those lefty-woolly people at Corrymeela and ECONI and the like – the beards and Moses sandals brigade”. Some notice that their minister’s Easter Sunday sermon “blatantly ignored the wider events around him that Easter”. Cross cultural romance and cross community meetings widen perspectives and sometimes reinforce stereotypes and insecurities. Truth recovery catches up with a retired RUC officer. The group ponder the Drumcree parade and the eternal resting place of Gerry Adams.

Turas is likely to be an uncomfortable read for some, but I’d strongly recommend it. Even without the prospect of a United Ireland on the horizon, it is a wake up call for Christians attending Protestant churches who steer clear of politics or who subtly assume a unionist bent on life – never expecting that there could be nationalists (protestant or otherwise) sitting in the pews.

Nobody met them at the top of a birth canal and asked them to tick a box to say that they wanted to be Ulster Protestants or Irish Catholics. They simply came out and were placed in their mother’s arms and took what they were given … Yet those mother’s arms and those father’s influences – as well as the churches and the schools and the politics and the shibboleths and the history and the versions of the history – all of that was what formed them.

Still, that’s no excuse for not “relating, understanding and loving” our neighbours, no matter their culture or identity.

Available at

I asked author Colin Neill why he had wanted to write a book that challenges the way many Protestants view nationalist/republican politics and the idea of a United Ireland?

I'd been toying with the idea of writing a novel for some time, and can only say that the idea for Turas came to me in what felt like a moment of epiphany. I was walking up a mountain in Donegal and it suddenly came to me: 'why not take a set of Ulster Protestant friends and put them in a United Ireland and see how they get on?' For many years I've felt incredibly frustrated with the 'local church', where the fact that we live in a terribly divided society is the 'elephant in the room' that nobody addresses. Turas tries to tackle Protestant attitudes to Catholicism and Nationalism in a way that is fresh and accessible.

Is it healthy for faith and politics to be often held together in such a tight and emotional way in Northern Ireland?

It's not unhealthy to tie together faith and politics, but the way we've done it in Northern Ireland doesn't seem to have - in large part - worked. On matters like poverty and exploitation of the poor, faith and politics have got to be intertwined. But look at Northern Ireland, which is arguably the most Christianised region in all of Western Europe, and look at the fractured society within which that Christian faith is practiced. Scratch all the churchgoers hard enough and they're all either orange or green, but how many of us hear that mentioned when we're sitting in church?

The book's title 'turas' is Irish for 'journey'. Do you hope that readers of the book will go on their own journey - much like the seven main characters - after reading it?

Absolutely. The book has been written to create disturbance in the minds and hearts of readers. I want people to be unsettled in the course of reading it and go 'on their own journey.' Not my journey, but theirs. I'd love to deconstruct something of the way that people from my community see their country, but the constructing and where they go with questions is clearly down to them.

What kind of reaction has the book got?

The reaction from those who have read the book has generally been very positive: both the radicalism of the content, and also the language and attitudes of the book's characters. Ulster Evangelicalism is the most incredibly fascinating sub-culture: it can be narrow and frustrating, and yet I love this place and these people, and the feedback has been that the essence of this community has been well captured in Turas.

Turas was your first book. Are you tempted to write again?

I'm tempted but undecided. There's a romantic sub-plot in the book, and whilst I've no aspirations to Maeve Binchey's crown, what surprised me was that the story of Alan and Nadia's relationship was the part of the book I enjoyed writing most. Some people have asked me: 'whatever happened to Alan and Nadia?' [Alan’s one of the seven men in the book and fancies himself as a bit of a heart throb. Nadia’s his Easter European Catholic girlfriend who he met when she served him in the local chip shop.] Maybe that's the basis of another book.

1 comment:

Norwin! said...

I have to agree - a genuinely challenging book on the nature of faith in Northern Ireland. Written by a good friend of mine, I admit, but still well worth a read.