Country, by Michael Hughes

Summary: a fresh, determinedly unromantic take on the Iliad from the mountains of South Armagh

In my novel, The Undiscovered Country, one of the protagonists is an Armagh man in Mayo. So, I was delighted to find, in a sort of symmetry, that in Country, Michael Hughes’ superb novel of the Troubles, he has as one of his principal protagonists a Mayo man in South Armagh.

A fearsome IRA sniper, because his people come from Achill Island, he is known throughout simply as Achill. His active service unit is based out of a border bar called The Ships and has been waging a war of attrition for the past nine years with the British soldiers in an old fort, perhaps named after the victor of the Boyne, King William. Over the years the “W” has fallen off the name of the base and so some of the locals refer to the base simply as “Illiam” instead.

However, Nellie, the sister-in-law of the local IRA commander, Pig, has run off with a handsome British intelligence officer and spilled some of the unit’s secrets to the Brits. This not only makes their operations all the harder but introduces a certain animus into the conflict between these two sides.

As should be plain by now, Country is a brilliantly composed scene-for-scene reimagining of the Iliad in the mountains of South Armagh during the Troubles. The casting of the IRA as the Greeks and the Brits as the Trojans is apt given the general sympathy in Irish folk tradition to the Mycenae cause, not least because the English have long claimed descent from the Trojans.

In Christopher Logue’s retellings of the Iliad, the fate of Troy is decided in ill-tempered negotiation amongst the gods echoing contemporary discussions of war in corridors of power the world over. This metaphor is made explicit in Country as the increasing bitter struggle between the SAS and IRA in South Armagh comes to the attention of the various spooks and politicians in Dublin, Belfast, London and Washington.

The story is told in the local vernacular that weaves every old saw or cliché that I grew up with into a fresh prose poem that illuminates this ancient story.

Country is brilliant, and highly deserving of its growing reputation as a modern classic.

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