Set in west Belfast, Pól Ó Miuri’s intimate 2007 novella Milltown explores the pain of cultural dispossession, the disintegration of a communal shared past and the strains of familial loyalty.
An unremarkable middle-aged teacher and a struggling part-time writer, Joseph McDowell finds his world is slowly dying. The angry polemic of Milltown is bracing in its challenge to the orthodoxies of what it means to belong in this most divided of cities.
He had to lean his shoulder against the door to move it. The first shove forced it open a little; the second just a little more; the third enough to allow him to squeeze his body between the door and the wall and struggle into the hall. He was home. He kicked the pile of junk mail with his foot and didn’t even bother looking at it. He would pick it up later and throw the whole lot in the bin.
None of it was for him. He knew that without doubt; he might be home but it wasn’t his house; it hadn’t been his house since his father’s funeral over ten years ago. It had been leased to students since then and the accumulated envelopes and plastic-covered magazines were certainly theirs. Typical students, he thought, no forward planning, no forwarding address.
The last batch of students—from Fermanagh, the agent had told him— had left in a hurry. A drunken dispute in the street had escalated to such a degree that they no longer felt safe and had taken their bags one night when threatened that ‘the boys’ were on their way to give them a hiding. No such thing had happened of course. The thug making the threat was just mouthing off but the Fermanagh scholars were not to know that and had decided to flee rather than face the paramilitary music of West Belfast.
Conveniently, they had also owed two months’ rent but refused to pay up on the grounds that they had been intimidated out of the house. The fact that the newspapers were full of the tenth anniversary of the IRA ceasefire seemed to have passed them by but he admired their pluck in playing the card nonetheless and could just imagine the horror stories of the Falls Road that they had carried back to Irvinestown and Roslea.
The letting agency was for pursuing them with the claim but he decided against it. The living room door lay open and he laid his suitcase on the sofa. The furniture had seen better days. A dark stain was visible on one of the sofa’s cushions and the solitary armchair had very noticeable cigarette burns on one side. The mantlepiece was littered with debris—an ashtray full of stale butts and a row of empty cans. ‘They should have cleared that up,’ he thought but then they weren’t interested. The house was nothing more to them than temporary accommodation, a term-time retreat. He moved to the kitchen and warily went in. It was not as bad as he had feared. A line of dirty mugs lay on the draining board but the rest of the crockery lay tucked up safely in the cupboards. He opened the fridge, expecting to be confronted by half-eaten takeaways and sour milk.
Mercifully, it was empty apart from one unopened tin of lager. They didn’t eat too much, he thought, too busy drinking their brains out to bother with food. He decided to check outside before doing the rounds of the rooms upstairs.
The bastards. The dog-eating Fermanagh bastards. They had broken the lock to the spare room. Joseph pushed the door open in anger. This room was not to be occupied; that had been made very clear as part of the lease. It was not to be occupied and he himself had locked it but as soon as he reached the door, he saw the shattered wood and swore.
A mattress, covered in crumpled sheets, lay on the floor. The boxes that had been placed for storage in the room were piled along one wall. He started to count them—ten, that at least was right. He dragged the mattress to one side and looked at the first box; it had been opened but, other than that, nothing seemed to have been removed. Joseph lifted out a book: The
Blindness of Doctor Gray.Beneath it lay another volume, Lisheen and beneath that a third, The Graves at Kilmorna. He found a copy of his Masters beneath that again: JOSEPH JAMES MCDOWELL 1974, thirty years ago. He lifted it and read but hardly recognised what was there. It was certainly his. He remembered the work, remembered his parents’ pride as he graduated a second time. His father in particular was pleased. It had been his suggestion that Joseph write on Sheehan and it had been his collection of Sheehan’s novels that Joseph had used: ‘It’ll save you a couple of quid on books.’ And it had but more than that it had allowed his father a certain input into Joseph’s university life which he hadn’t enjoyed while an undergraduate. ‘Could you not just go to Queen’s?’ he had asked, ‘it’s just across the town. Coleraine is so far away. Sure, there’s nothing in Coleraine.’
But Joseph had no intention of going to Queen’s in Belfast. The Bog Meadows had become a poor sanctuary for him in his teenage years and he had grown tired of traipsing down the Falls to the Carnegie library to escape the house. No, Joseph had decided, 1968 was to be the year he became independent. Coleraine, bleak as it was, offered freedom that Queen’s or, worse, going to Trench House to become a teacher, never would. ‘I’ll never teach,’ he told them, ‘never.’ Sheehan had been a peace offering to his father. He was not a fashionable writer and his first inclination had been to write something with an eye to an academic appointment. Sheehan, however, was slightly off-kilter and that had appealed to him. He had made the proposal to his disinterested supervisor. ‘Why not write about the old bugger? You could compare and contrast his vision of Ireland with what the Provos are up to. It could make for an interesting dissertation.’ And so he told his father of his choice. His delight was evident: ‘I’ll get the books for you. I have them all.’ Joseph knew he had. That was the thing they had in common—what his father read, Joseph read. He started going through the boxes: Steinbeck; Peadar O’Donnell; Liam O’Flaherty; Joseph Tomelty’s Red is the Port Light ; McLaverty and Graham Greene and two slim volumes of essays by Robert Lynd. Lynd, now there was a name he had forgotten.
Lynd was a fine writer but who read Lynd now or, for that matter, Sheehan? He knew his literary tastes were out of sync with the English Department’s when one of the lecturers asked sarcastically of him: ‘How goes the literary archaeology?’ He should have read the warning signs better but he was too naïve. The business of being at university had overwhelmed him and he hadn’t understood the snobbery that was at work. The writers he regarded as important were not held in the same respect by the teaching staff; they were not, he was told, vital.