2012-11-30 / People

Neighbors

Book is based on author’s experience in The Troubles
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Tom Molloy Tom Molloy SOUTH PORTLAND – When South Portland author Tom Molloy was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles, a British policeman stopped him during a sweep of the Catholic ghetto where Molloy was staying.

British police were looking for members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic minority fighting both for their individual rights and a political separation from the United Kingdom. Molloy was in Belfast from 1971 to 1973, the peak of the violence between the IRA, the Protestants in Belfast, and a British police force unable to control the violence between the two sides. Molloy was working as a freelance journalist at the time, but unlike most journalists in the area, he decided to stay with a family in the Lower Falls neighborhood rather than a luxury hotel downtown.

“Are you an American?” the policeman asked.

Yes, Molloy answered. He was here working, staying with a family in Belfast to get a sense of what the conflict was really like.

“Where are you from?” the policeman countered.

Boston, Molloy answered. He grew up in Brighton, the son of first-generation Irish immigrants.

“So he stuck his gun up under my chin,” Molloy said, “‘Part of the Kennedy mafia?’ the policeman asked.

At the mention of the Catholic political family from his home state, Molloy knew he was in trouble.

Molloy’s time in Belfast included solitary confinement and interrogation in Castlereagh prison, a now-closed facility in Belfast where thousands of suspected terrorists were detained, according to the BBC.

Now, Molloy has turned his experience into a new novel, “Rebel Streets,” which tells the story of Jimmy Fitzpatrick, an IRA member turned informant who struggles with his decision to turn against his cause to protect his life.

Molloy said he wasn’t tortured in Castlereagh, as Jimmy is in the opening scene of the book. But he did know other soldiers who were. Molloy spent 30 hours in solitary confinement in March 1973, losing any sense of day or night and was “roughed up a little bit.” Eventually, police let Molloy go when they found out he had no information of value for them.

“As far as journalists go, (police) were figuring you’re supposed to be down at the hotel, and we tell you what’s happening,” Molloy said. “You’re not supposed to be down there where the other British army is in action, not the one you see at the press conferences.”

In 1972, the height of the violence during “The Troubles,” 496 died on both sides of the conflict. In January of that year, 13 rioters were shot and killed by British troops at a civil rights march in Derry. But the war did not end when Molloy returned to the United States. Violence and political unrest continued through the 1990s, until Catholics were given more political representation and humanitarian rights while Northern Ireland stayed a part of the United Kingdom.

But “Rebel Streets” isn’t a written history of Northern Ireland. Rather, Molloy said, “It was a snapshot of what I saw when the law broke down. There were vigilantes, night riders going through and shooting Catholics. The IRA was assassinating Protestants. The British were doing everything they could to keep everybody apart.”

Nor is the novel an indictment of the British police or Protestants in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The British police were usually young men, 16 to 18 years old, at a loss for how to handle young children growing up hating them and throwing rocks at them. Police Chief Ian McDonald appears to be a human rights violating monster in the opening scene of the book, but Molloy shows the character in a different light in McDonald’s family life.

When Molloy returned to the U.S. in 1973, he knew he had to write about his experience in Northern Ireland. But his first try was too autobiographical, he said, and lacked elements of character development and plot. He wrote two novels about Boston, “The Green Line” in 1982 and “The Vandal” in 1990, before moving to Maine with his wife, Rita. The two have been married for 26 years.

The Molloys initially lived in Starks, where Tom adapted from living in a city his whole life to chopping wood in a rural town. He worked for the Morning Sentinel as a reporter for a number of years before he and Rita moved to South Portland seven years ago. He said he has been working on “Rebel Streets” for a little more than a year.

Molloy hopes his novel will humanize a conflict most have only experienced politically. He said that any conflict – from The Troubles to the racial violence in Boston in the 1970s to political polarization in the United States today – comes from a similar source.

“This stuff breaks loose because I think it’s latent to a lot of people, maybe it’s latent to everybody – the hate,” Molloy said. “I tried to get across the message, if you would just treat other people as humans, and understand they’re just as human as you are, a lot of this stuff wouldn’t happen.”

About Neighbors

Neighbors is a weekly profile that features a community member from South Portland or Cape Elizabeth. Know someone you would like to see featured in the Sentry? Contact Jack Flagler at news@inthesentry.com.

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