A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Bloomsbury paperback, 2003; 20221)

Mrs TD urged me to read this novel when she’d finished it – especially as its protagonist shares my family name. Louise Kennedy writes about the region she grew up in: the Belfast area of N. Ireland. Trespasses is a powerful novel set there early (late 1960s-early 70s) in what became known as ‘the troubles’.

Her central character is Cushla Lavery. Her first name is Irish Gaelic for ‘beat of my heart’ or ‘darling’. One of the features of this divided community is that people are usually identifiable as either Protestant or Catholic by their names (‘Cushla’, being a Gaelic name, would immediately indicate that she was Catholic), the schools they attended, or the towns or areas they live in.

Cushla’s family pub is in a relatively quiet and peaceful area, in that theirs is a Catholic-run business, but the clientele are largely local Protestants (some of them associated with the paramilitaries), or British soldiers who don’t interact with the locals, including Cushla, very sensitively. They were supposed to be peacekeepers and restorers of order, but their behaviour (in Kennedy’s fictional scenario) is hardly likely to make the volatile atmosphere any calmer.

Cushla is a young primary school teacher, and takes under her wing a seven-year-old Catholic boy whose family are in a dangerously exposed position, as they live in a predominantly Protestant part of town. There’s a touching love story. Not surprisingly, given this tinder-box environment, not everything turns out well.

This might all sound a bit grim, and it is. Some of Kennedy’s characters are intended to show how intolerance and prejudice fuelled the flames of the troubles (a fiery priest, a rather creepy headteacher, those boorish soldiers). But there are others portrayed with such warmth and sympathy that the humanity and potential for love and kindness are shown as not entirely destroyed in the midst of all the terrorist atrocities, bombs and killings.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to that very sketchy outline. As a person whose family has its roots in this region, I found Trespasses particularly moving: despite all the pain and suffering, the hatred and bigotry that form the background to the novel, Kennedy succeeds, while avoiding sentimentality or over-simplification, in making us care for her central characters, and believe that the forces of decency, humanity and kindness can still just about survive in such dreadful circumstances.

8 thoughts on “A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

  1. I thought this was an excellent book, which really described well the effect the troubles had on families living in the north of Ireland through these very difficult years. As you say in your review there were many acts of kindness particularly from Cushia towards one of her pupils and his family who experienced such hatred and bigotry because of their religion. Louise Kennedy, I think shows the reader the rawness of living through those times. Thank you for reviewing this book and I hope others read it – it had a big impact on me

    • I agree, Gmac, that it’s an excellent novel, and rawness is an apt word to describe the experiences of the people who lived through those times in N. Ireland. It’s interesting that Cushla’s family is Catholic, yet my father’s family with the same surname descends, as far as I can determine, from Ulster Protestant stock.

  2. I’ve had this one on the periphery of my reading life since it was published, but haven’t been quite able to commit to reading it. It really does sound like an excellent novel, but . . . perhaps a little too close to home, in these days when tribalism & religious intolerance seem to be all too triumphant.

    • There are some heartbreaking moments, but it isn’t unremittingly sad. A reminder that ordinary people can be transformed into something monstrous by events and bigotry…

  3. Just got around to this post and was intrigued enough to want to read it. I’ll save it for when I can deal with it. These days I’m often reading Kiddie Lit that was either before or after my time to moderate my mood (Violet Needham, for one) or talk myself off a ledge, but I think I’d like to have this one on hand. I only have a small thread of Irish ancestry, and the bulk of it is the same as yours, Simon (I’m about 70% Scottish on my dad’s side), but I was raised Catholic (and mostly by Irish nuns), so I have divided loyalties. Isn’t that what these kinds of situations are like at heart?

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