At the recent publication launch for his new novel, Gone to Earth, Maurice Leitch was amused by the longevity of his career. Gone to Earth is set in Spain during the early 1960s, “it is termed a historical novel but I was alive when it was set.” Maurice published his first novel, The Liberty Lad, in 1965 and now he publishes Gone to Earth at a time when younger Northern Irish writers are undergoing “a renaissance in literature… perhaps underpinned by a peace process that has allowed authors to breathe and speak with daringly candid voices” as Martin Doyle has commented of Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters. Maurice has always been “daringly candid,” his daring took Northern Irish writing in a new direction and is one of the reasons for the Northern Irish literary renaissance 50 years later.
Benedict Kiely once wrote that “until Edna O’Brien and John McGahern came along no Irish writer that I can think of ever really spoke to the young.” Maurice Leitch’s novels spoke to the young in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, and it is striking that they continue to do so. Even in the 1990s, 30 years after his debut, Robert McLiam Wilson could comment on Maurice’s “glorious, inconvenient voice.” For over fifty years, Maurice has explored the frustrations and tensions of Northern Ireland, “this cold cynical northern province,” but always with a sense of opposition to the stalemate of Northern Irish politics and society that led younger writers to find the room to breathe that is evident today.
In The Liberty Lad Frank Glass, a young teacher, lives in a mill village with his parents. Reading The Liberty Lad today the anger and protest that would feed into the Civil Rights movement, and how uncontained emotions would feed into the violence of the Troubles, can be felt. Maurice’s writing has continued to explore those unleashed emotions, “This country came out of violence… Yet everyone’s always amazed when it breaks out again – every time”, as he puts it in Silver’s City.
Maurice brought a directness and confrontation to Northern Irish literature, raising the difficult questions (“our own particular brand of sour and stunted sexuality,” sectarianism) while demonstrating that writing about Northern Ireland truthfully without the clichés (and easy answers) is possible. I remember reading his work as a student while the Troubles dragged on into the 1990s and found a way to understand Northern Ireland through his writing, and later in Glenn Patterson’s Fat Lad and Robert McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle. In novels such as Silver’s City and Gilchrist Maurice faced the uncomfortable realities of Northern Ireland, its paramilitaries and evangelical preachers, through characters who struggled to find a way to live in such a society honestly.
Maurice is aware that he writes from the perspective of his tribe, the Ulster Protestant, but he has never spoken on behalf of that tribe, instead he observes, dissects and understands them. Maurice Leitch’s novels are the work of a Protestant, though not a Unionist, writer. The distinction is important, as he has said: “there is definitely a tradition of Protestant writing which is ‘I protest. I don’t care for what I see’.” In protesting Maurice speaks for all while exposing his own tribe to criticism. John Hewitt, a towering figure in Northern Irish literature, was dismayed by this and felt that Maurice ‘had let the side down’. That charge still rankles with Maurice. Yet, such honesty, exposing both sides to “just cruelty” (to quote Katherine Anne Porter), is desperately needed in a divided, partisan, society.
In his new novel, Gone to Earth, Maurice depicts Spain in the 1960s, another country coming to terms with the violence of civil war. In Torremolinos four characters revolve around a luxury hotel. Among them are Johnnie Ray, once one of America’s top pop stars, and Eugene Furlong, an Irish Blueshirt (one of the volunteers who fought for Franco), and a local couple. Maurice has been visiting Spain for decades and the novel is based on a real-life story he once heard. The former Republican mayor of a village escaped Franco’s police for years, hidden away in the attic of his home.
When Maurice first sent me the manuscript for Gone to Earth, I was initially struck by how familiar this Spain seemed, how evocative of my memories of growing up in 1980s Fermanagh. Then I came across a biography of the Belfast boxer Eamonn Magee, The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee by Paul Gibson, which relates how Magee’s father was told by the IRA to leave Belfast but shortly after returned to the family home and hid in its attic for 18 months. The coincidence of that detail seemed to seal how much this fictional Spain had in common with the Antrim mill villages of Maurice’s early novels.
Gone to Earth portrays a defeated people, watched over by Franco’s police and “the obligatory portrait of Frank the Frog himself”. It is a police state, whose people (like the Northern Irish) follow the philosophy of ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’: “In our country… no one forgets, not even those who don’t remember.” It is a powerful novel, with all the tension and descriptive skill, that five decades of experience brings but with Maurice’s bracing understanding of history: “the past has a habit of springing up from its grave to haunt and horrify onlookers all over again.”