Back to Belfast with Malachi O’Doherty
Destiny, karma & baloney, writing, photography and Terry Brankin
Jackie De Burca Do you think at all, Malachi– just something that comes into my mind- I’ve been- I haven’t done anything like the years you did obviously in an Ashram, but I’ve been on retreats and healing situations. I can imagine that that period of time and the bliss that you were feeling some of that time– Could that- could that have given you a different perspective, possibly, overly high expectations of normal human relations afterwards?
Malachi O’Doherty You mean, would it have primed me to expect more than was possible?
Jackie De Burca Yes, essentially. Yes. Yes.
Malachi O’Doherty These weird experiences of going to Amsterdam and going to India were– had a sense of the magical about them. You know, I had mythologised them in my own mind, to believe or feel that things happened because they were destined to happen.
Jackie De Burca Okay, yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty And you know that – And that if I was just available to good fortune, there was– there was a script there for me, you know, was already laid down. That was the kind of way I was- I was kind of thinking. And that fitted with a lot of the discussion you see in India around Hinduism and Karma. So there was a kind of a sense that- you know, if I had met this girl who was really interested in me, you know, and we connected so well, that this was meant to happen, you know?
Jackie De Burca Yeah. Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty I mean, that- that’s the kind of thinking that maybe come out of that. And actually, you know, none of it was meant to happen. What you- what you have to do in a relationship is get to know the other person, let the other person get to know you and ride the storms, you know?
Jackie De Burca Yes. Absolutely.
Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. And I didn’t know that. You know, I should’ve known that.
Jackie De Burca Yeah. I think – I think it’s a – It’s a normal reaction from, you know, your years in India to be looking for sort of that almost twin soul or soul mates, let’s say.
Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Yeah. And we used language like that. People were using that language, you know. I mean, I don’t want- I’m not going to go into– I mean, I have– I am doing a book on relationships so we can talk about that another time. But I mean– but that is the kind of– I mean, for instance, I’ll just tell you briefly. In Donegal, I met a woman who was part Indian, right? And, you know, we were– on the first day we were together, we sitting down talking. And she told me the name of her Indian grandfather. And I said, “Oh, I know. That would be– he would win one of the sands of Calcutta.” Yeah. And says, “qas he a member of the Brahmo Samaj?” And she says, “he was.” You know? So because I had done my reading and knew about the religious reformation, if you like, within Hinduism in Calcutta at the beginning of the 19th century. And she had never met anyone who knew anything about this. Although she was a highly educated Swiss woman, you know? And here she comes to Donegal, and this guy who’s giving her a lift is taking her and having a drink. And he’s certainly talking to her about her grandfather. You know, with the knowledge that she’s never come across another person– And again, you kind of get that “of course it’s meant to happen.”
Jackie De Burca Yeah. Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty And it’s all baloney, you know?
Jackie De Burca Yeah. Well, it’s- I guess it’s up for grabs. I mean, for example, you said–
Malachi O’Doherty Put it that way if you like. I think it’s baloney. Well, I do.
Jackie De Burca Okay. I’m kind of open minded about–
Malachi O’Doherty At least I think you’re better treating it– I think you’re better treating it as baloney. Put it that way. I have no idea about whether there’s a script laid down. I have no idea. I mean, I do still have that feeling of there being, you know, a– I think, you know, the whole idea of karma and whatever. I do- I’ve been so immersed in that thinking, you know, that I too, have that- feeling of that. But I think that if you are in a relationship and you start thinking in those terms, then you are– you can’t anticipate what the script is. Even if there is a script, you can’t beat it at what it is. So what’s the point–
Jackie De Burca I know.
Malachi O’Doherty –in congratulating yourself and having recognised the script and play, you know? That’s my– that’s- that’s what I’m saying.
Jackie De Burca No, I don’t think so–
Malachi O’Doherty –That’s a different conversation.
Jackie De Burca Well, I was, I was actually looking- looking at some of the notes I had made. At the same time, I’m thinking exactly about what you’re saying. And on one hand, maybe our chosen partners– forgetting about the script for a moment– Are they people we have in common life– life lessons in connection with? You know, that’s another possibility.
Malachi O’Doherty I also think the way we relate to people, like siblings, as well. You know, I think there’s something there. I think you you find your sibling in the other, you know? But I mean, if you are in a relationship with someone and you have that feeling that this person is your soulmate, that you’ve been together in a previous lifetime or whatever, and things are going wrong in the relationship– you know?
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty You know, that– that thinking may just disrupt the way in which you manage that situation, you know? You’re better– you’re better just leaving that thinking to the side altogether, you know? That’s– that’s my feeling.
Jackie De Burca I think– I think if things go wrong, Malachi, you could view it as maybe that these are points of growth for both people.
Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, of course they are. Yeah. Yeah. Or you can walk away from them because they’re a pain in the arse. You know, if you’re in a– but if you’re in a, you know– but even in a stable relationship– and I’m married now, 25 years, you know–
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty –Going back quite a bit. But even within a good, strong relationship, there will be moments of– there will be quarrelling and moments of doubt, you know. And you work through them and you make it work. You know? You don’t– You don’t- you can’t fall back on some sense of spiritual destiny having brought you together. And think that that’s gonna get you through those difficulties. You know, it’s back to the question of whether what works is the Western psychological model or the spiritual model. And I come back to the Western psychological without saying that the spiritual model is wrong, because how do I know? You know, how can we know that? I mean, we live in a context which is beyond all comprehension, you know? So how can I know what’s wrong? But still in on the– on the day to day level, what works is psychology and consideration and empathy on a personal level. Not some- not some– not some reliance on God to sort things out, you know?
Jackie De Burca Definitely. You wrote in, I Was a Teenage Catholic – “I had my spiritual roots in Ireland that simply could not be transplanted in India and that it was here that the only path I was really called to had to be walked.” When you refer to your spiritual roots, Malachi, do you feel that that also encompasses your life works, the responsibility, if you like, of being a communicator and a writer? How do you feel about that?
Malachi O’Doherty I think that’s what I do best. I think it’s a responsible thing to cut into the political discussion that we’ve been having over the last 40, 50 years and chip in my bet. I- having said you have to get away from all that magical thinking, I do think that I have a nature, you know. In my nature is- is not just conditioned by circumstance, but it’s- precedes all circumstance. Or what you mean is- was it genetic?
What I have, you know, I have an orientation or if you like, towards writing and communication and image-making. And I think that has been a good thing to do, and I think that you judge the quality of your life by the satisfaction you feel in what you’re doing. And for instance, when I’m engrossed in- in writing the next chapter in my book, you know, then I– I’ll tell you something very interesting about writing– just to slightly change the subject. If you pick up one of my books and say, “do you remember where you were when you wrote that page?”
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty Invariably, I will not be able to tell you. And the reason I can’t tell you I’ve worked out is because I was so grossed– engrossed in what I was doing at the time I was doing that, that I wasn’t taking in any stimuli from the environment around me, you know?
And I think that’s– I think that’s quite a telling thing. You know, just to illustrate that, you know, that my meditation, my absorption is at that time is wholly encompassing and absorbing. And it’s- and it’s the right– that, you know, that- that fact of itself attests doing the right thing for me beginning at that time.
Jackie De Burca I think so. So would you feel the same looking at your photography, Malachi? I have the exact same feeling with writing myself. So, I absolutely get what you’re saying. With your photography, would you feel the same? So it’s almost like this, like, kind of marriage or connection between you, the scene, and the moment at that time, that kind of level of absorption. No?
Malachi O’Doherty No, partly because the thing is, it happens so briefly when you’re taking a picture. But also, I think that whereas writing is about throwing the mind out and grasping hold of something and engaging it, I think that the photography is more responsive. You know, it’s like letting something happen, you know? Artists struggle with fine art or fine poetry. I think in a sense, every photograph is a fine photograph, you know? Unless you’re a wedding photographer and you have to go out and do things at your job. But I think there is– you know, I do– I think they employ two different sides of the brain maybe? You know, at the writing side.
Now, I’m saying the writing side is the assertive, engaged, reaching out. But there are also times when you’re just out having a wee dander and click, you know what to write. You know, things just come to you- you know, and I was just describing that in terms of that experience as a child, writing a composition and getting stuck and then something coming laterally into it.
So yes, there is, you know, there is something responsive in both.
But I do think that the writing mind is a more assertive mind. I don’t feel that the– I don’t feel that the photographic mind is an assertive mind, although it’s a cheeky mind. It can be very intrusive, you know? I mean, sometimes you take a picture of somebody, you really are doing something really quite rude. You’re trying to catch them, letting themselves dine, you know, or betraying their inner soul, you know?
And so, there’s that. So I don’t know. I mean, I’m thinking out loud and I’m still thinking that the writing is a more- well, it’s certainly more cumulative. You know, you get an idea, you build in an idea, you build on it further. You test it. You know, you bring things in from the side that say, you know, it’s a building project. Whereas taking a photograph is you will take it away and edit it in Lightroom and you know, make changes to it. And maybe there’d be different changes if you’re doing another day. But it does now that, you know, working on a photograph isn’t for me, anything like writing, say a 3000-word essay, you know, which is- you know. One is receptive and the other is striding out on a journey.
Jackie De Burca Okay, okay. Talking about journeys, Malachi, there are a couple of other locations that you did spend some briefer times in, which were Geneva and Libya. And can you tell us a little bit about, you know, each environment, what you were doing there, what it meant to you? And were there lessons that you-
Malachi O’Doherty Well, Geneva was the– the part Indian girl. You know, I went and stayed with her. And then while I was there, I got recruited into this job teaching. And then in Libya– I really didn’t want to go to Libya. I really resisted. And I really had the feeling, you know, this is not– this doesn’t fit– this doesn’t feel like, you know, the lift to Amsterdam or the– or the chance of going to India. This just feels too– too practical, you know. And so, I was you know, I had a bad feeling about doing it. But actually, I was wrong. It was quite good for me to go to India. India was the kind of counterbalance to India. Sorry. Libya was a counterbalance to India and India had gone so soft and so gentle and so dreamy and- and whatever. And then suddenly, I’m in a work camp with men and we’re drinking and we’re arguing. I’m going to a military camp to work with soldiers, young conscripts, you know, who were hardly kids themselves, but– but amongst other soldiers. And I just think that kind of– I don’t like to use the word “toughen me up”, but yeah, it did– it did, it kind of- the kind of- was an unnecessary corrective to the kind of hippy dippy state that I was in when I came back from India.
Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah. So that sounds – sounds, Malachi, like it made also an important mark on your– on your sort of, psyche, if you like. I mean, you returned–
Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, yeah. A lot of it was about being with men, you know. A lot of it was without being with men. And you’ve learnt some very interesting things when you were with men all the time. I mean, for instance, sometimes- sometimes you go into the canteen for breakfast in the morning and you’d say to the guy next to you, or facing you, “Geez, I had the weirdest dream last night.” and he would say, “me, too.” You know, you talk about women being synchronised in their periods. Maybe we were all synchronised in our depressions. And then– and everybody’s missing their girlfriend or their wife, you know, and everybody’s saying awful times and sometimes shouting matches and stuff.
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty Not for– not – not actual blows, but Jesus, quite close to it sometimes. And the other thing that’s so much easier with German men and French men is being naked together, you know? Which you, you know, you don’t do in Ireland, you know? With you know, men would just undress by the pool and jump in together, you know, stuff like that, which wasn’t sexual or anything. It was just– just an evolving body consciousness, you know, in the following sense of being more at ease with the body around other bodies. But a lot of heavy drinking, a lot of arguing, a lot of seeing men close to the edge, you know, in terms of depression. Missing their– missing their partners.
And a sense that men had this internal life of the mind, you know, that was troubling them. A funny story out of that, if you want a funny story- there was a cook called Walter– Walter Ludwig. And Walter Ludwig was– had been married, and his marriage has broken up. But he and his wife were still friendly. And she actually came out to the camp and– and I danced with her one night at a ball, you know, and a terrific time. But she was just drunk and dancing and going crazy and– But then a few weeks later, I was going to Switzerland to meet my girlfriend there. And Walter asked me if I would send- go to your florist in Geneva and send a dozen red roses to his wife because it was her birthday, you know? And you know, he had good feelings for her. So we went to a little florist in Geneva and said, you know, want to send a dozen red roses to this woman in Jersey.
And he said, well, we don’t know what roses cost there. So, all we can do is charge you for the roses here. And if they’re more expensive there, we’d give her fewer. And if there’s– it’s cheaper, we give her more. And I said, “okay, well, 10 red roses and then we’d gamble on it.” And then I get back to Gene– back to Libya. And Walter was waiting for me.
He says, “What the f– have you done?” And he says– I did what you asked me to do. He says, “you sent my wife 60 red roses. She thinks it’s back on again!”
Jackie De Burca Well, that’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. So, coming back to Belfast, Malachi, you returned. It was in 1983 that you returned, isn’t that correct?
Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Yeah. Yes, that’s correct.
Jackie De Burca Okay. And I read, it was in an Irish Times article that I read that you were at that time a little bit concerned that you’d come back a little bit too late to kind of make your mark on your chosen vocation. After everything that we’ve spoken on– go ahead.
Malachi O’Doherty No, I’m just saying I thought that by that- at that point, I thought journalism is finished. I hadn’t– I’d lost my chance. I’d been too long out of it. So, I’d have to do something else. You still there, by the way? Can you hear me?
Jackie De Burca Yes, yeah. Yeah. I am.
Malachi O’Doherty So, I mean, I actually- I actually enrolled at the College of Business Studies to do an A-level in French because I picked up a bit of French when I was away with an idea that I would maybe go to university and get a degree and go straight, you know? And– and while I was doing that and I wasn’t enjoying it, I thought, this isn’t really me at all. But I started writing little stories and sending them out. I send a wee story to the Irish news.
Jackie De Burca Okay.
Malachi O’Doherty It was a story about getting trapped in the toilet for the disabled on a stranded boat, or something, you know? And then– and then- they published it and sent me 20 pounds for it. And then I sent them another and they give me another 20 pounds. And then they- they called me up and say, “look, these are all very nice, but would you not want to do some real work for us?” I said, “Sure.” And says, “Well, would you go and interview so and so?” And so, I was back in, you know, in no time at all, I was back into the groove of– of freelance journalism. And it suited me very well indeed. It suited me a lot better than being a member of staff in an office, you know, with the kind of rivalries that you get in an office, the office politics, you know? And stuff and– You know, if somebody– you know, I wasn’t making good money, but I was– I was making enough money to get off the dole and– and it built from newspaper work to radio work. From radio work even to television documentaries that I think– I presented with a dozen TV documentaries.
Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty And then, I just kept on going, you know, and now, with anything that I do that is- well, I still write a column for the Belfast Telegraph. But the– the sense of having a project as about the books, you know, I like to– I always like to have a book in hand that I’m working on. And so, I have that. So–
Jackie De Burca What are you working on at the moment, Malachi?
Malachi O’Doherty You’re not gonna believe me if I tell you I’m actually writing about four books at the moment, but I am– the main book- the one that I have to deliver at the end of September is a book about The Early Troubles. The– the working title is The Year of Chaos. It’s about the period between internment and Operation Motorman. Also my book, “Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland”– that’s out this week in paperback. That’s– and then, see what happens is you’re writing books and you’re into writing books, as you know, you get the commissions and you work for them, and that’s the best part of it. But you also work on other things tentatively and see if they develop. And so, you’ve got a kind of a concertina effect. You get these bunching up on you. Literally, I have about four books that I’m trying to work on at the moment. I brought in a novel, my first novel earlier this year, “Terry Brankin Has A Gun.” And I have a sequel underway on that, you know?
Jackie De Burca Okay, tell me something, Malachi, that your– your most recent that you’ve just mentioned, “Terry Brankin Has A Gun.” It has a brilliant, fast-moving storyline, obviously set against the backdrop–
Malachi O’Doherty Oh, thank you very much.
Jackie De Burca You’re very welcome. Set against the backdrop of a post-Troubles Belfast, if you like, to use a coined phrase. The character, Terry– Can you tell- can you tell readers and listeners a little bit about your character, Terry?
Malachi O’Doherty Well, Terry was in the IRA and he did some awful things, but he left, partly motivated by conscience and partly because he met a really wonderful young woman called Kathleen. And he– so he put the IRA behind him and he and he got married. He trained as a lawyer. He became a solicitor, a bit of a property developer. Good relationship with his wife, but no children. Bit of a cynic in some ways, you know, because he’s a lawyer and he deals with cases including loyalist paramilitary cases. But life’s chugging along nicely until the Cold Case Review Team arrived to enquire about a bombing in which a child was killed. And that blows his marriage apart and blows his hopes of stability and settled down apart. And- and that’s the start of it then. Things begin to happen, which are initially inexplicable. His- his wife has basically walked out on him. She can’t live with a man who killed a child.
And- but she’s attacked in her home where she’s– she’s staying in one of the houses that they rent out to students in the Holy Land. And on her first night there, a petrol bomb comes through the window and all the properties that they own are bombed or petrol bombed at that night. So then– so you have the mystery. So basically, the challenge for Kathleen is– are you better off- when somebody’s trying to kill you, are you better off with a husband who’s capable of killing, you know, to protect you? And– and the answer is yes, you are, you know?
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty So– so that takes you on a kind of– hopefully, a fascinating romp, you know, to find out who it is that’s after them and to deal with other problems along the way. So, Terry- Terry is a very strategic person. He’s– in another life, he would never have done any harm to anybody. He certainly would never have killed anybody.
But now if he– if, if he needs to kill somebody to clear the decks and protect his wife, he’ll do it.
Jackie De Burca Yeah. And was his– was his character based on any particular real life character that you’ve encountered? Or would you say he’s more like a composite or how did you–?
Malachi O’Doherty I don’t know. I don’t know. I do have a sense that if he walked in the door, I would recognise him. But I don’t know, you know, what he’s made of. I mean, I do know that there are people who had violent paramilitary careers and never went to jail and– and have professional lives. No, there are there are such people amongst us. And good luck to them, you know? But Terry himself, you know, I– I mean, I have made him, you know, and I have maybe exaggerated some of his qualities because they impress me.
I mean, I like it that he’s really logical. And he is really strategic. And I like that about him. I like it about him that he loves his wife. You know? You know, that he will deal– You know, he will look after her.
But, you know, I think in a way, he’s still evolving as well. I mean, he– there’s a sequel now in the making in which we will have other insights into his character.
Jackie De Burca Okay.
Malachi O’Doherty And I think there are other characters in the book, you know, who are- you know, like Basil McKeague, the copper who’s a born-again Christian, evangelical minded copper.
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty Whose idea of justice is to leave it to God. You know, he says- you know, I don’t want this guy to go to jail, I want him to go to hell– I mean, I think Basil is a– at one point, I thought of making Basil the centrepiece of the whole story, you know, and maybe doing a sequence of novels. A bit of a born-again Christian detective. You know?
Jackie De Burca Yeah. He’s a great character as well. You mentioned, Malachi, in terms of the places, you know, Belfast being home and so central to your work, obviously, that goes without saying. You said previously to me, “It is home. It is where people get your jokes. In many ways, Belfast was difficult because of The Troubles. In recent years, I’ve taken to lunching in city bars, enjoying the lightness of familiarity that had been tainted unobscured in the past.”
If you had a friend who was coming to visit from anywhere else in the world, apart from Ireland or– North or South of Ireland– and coming to Belfast for the first time in 2020 or 2021, what should be the first sites that would be so close to your heart? They could be iconic or sort of off the beaten track. Where would you bring your friend?
Malachi O’Doherty Well, yeah, it’s probably down to the Morning Star.
You know, I think that a bit of old Belfast, with the wee entries between High Street, Down Street and some of the pubs down there and the nice pub food, you know? I mean, people often ask for a wee tour and you take them up behind the- and you show them the murals and stuff, you know?
But I– and I also– I mean, I– you know. Also take them out for a drive around the mountains where you get a view of the city from high up. You know, I think there’s some great sites up there. I mean, that’s it. I mean, I – It’s very hard for me to think of Belfast as a tourist city because I’m not a tourist in it. It’s hugely different from what it was. I mean, it’s very much more easy to cycle around now, you know, there’s the towpath and the docks area. I mean, you think of that docks area– I mean, a McHughs bar. And places like that. McHughs. It wasn’t McHughs. It was Dubarry’s, you know, I mean, that that was the sleaziest part of Belfast in the ‘70s, you know, that you wouldn’t dream of going near, you know. Because that’s where, you know- and now, it’s the classy pub restaurants, you know? And that’s a marvelous change, and that change has been handled really quite well, I think. You know, I think it would have been– It would have been conceivable that somebody might have just thought of just– demolishing the whole lot and building anew. And having said that– that I still think that area around the Titanic is lovely. You know, when you cycle down there, go down to the Public Records Office of the Titanic. It’s almost like Geneva, you know? Some of the, you know, the modernity of it. Beside the water and on a nice day, it’s lovely.
Jackie De Burca Yeah.
Malachi O’Doherty But, I mean, I- I have a close friend that I’ll not name, but he’s– he and I meet every, I mean- the CoViD has wrecked this, you know, so. And he’s got health issues so he needs to be shielded. But before that, we called ourselves, jokingly, The Chowder Club, you know? And we would meet in a different bar every fortnight to try their chowder. And it’s amazing how many Belfast bars serve chowder.
Jackie De Burca Really?
Malachi O’Doherty And we became experts in the Belfast chowders. You know, The Morning Star and, you know- and I could tell you the worst of them and the best of them. But we haven’t been able to do that since, since March. So I think the last chowder we had was in White’s Tavern. So you know, it’s just that’s– that’s lovely that Belfast still has Kelly’s Cellars, White’s Tavern and Morning Star and the old entries and– and that, you know, you can- you can walk around it and cast your mind back to before The Troubles. And it’s still the same place.
Jackie De Burca Yeah, I think so. One of the teams that you mentioned earlier on– much earlier on– we were talking about obviously telling a yarn, telling stories, and you talked about the people coming to your course, that they were coming from all sorts of different backgrounds but had the common ground of maybe needing to talk about this– this– the relationships they’ve had with fathers. And in the foreword that you wrote for Belfast Stories, you wrote, “I discovered that it is through individuals telling their own stories that the simple model of a society preoccupied with its own division breaks down.” I was really, really moved by that. Can you elaborate, please, Malachi?
Malachi O’Doherty I mean, that is so obviously true, you know? I mean, at the moment, people are absorbed in reflecting on John Hume and his achievement, you know? No, but the– you know, which was not to begin say, in any way- but the model, the vision of Belfast in John Hume’s remedy, if you like, are the Clinton-esque view of Belfast, is that Belfast is a society that was deadlocked between two heterogeneous communities– Sorry, homogenous communities at odds with each other, you know? And you can read it that way. That is true, that if you put Belfast on the stream and the sectarian division will emerge and we will argue about anything, but we will line up as (inaudible – 01:45:40) to do that, you know? But the reality is that when you sit down and say to somebody, not- “what did you do in The Troubles?” but say, “what were you doing when you were 30?” or you know, or, “what was it like growing up at such a place?” You know, they don’t bring forward The Troubles as the, you know, as the most significant part of their experience. They don’t bring up sectarianism as the biggest blight on their lives. And it didn’t bring up the Brits as the biggest blight on their lives. You know, unless it– unless you have at it really bad. And someone did have, you know, and I’ve met them. But generally, you know- what they talk about- each individual life is an individual life with its own story and its own experience, you know? And each mind is informed by that experience. And it’s when you go to the individual that– that the whole idea of- of a homogenous society, of- you know, of a two communities model, it just becomes irrelevant. It becomes– it’s like that silly song from a distance, you know, which actually I think is appalling. But from a distance, Northern Ireland is a bleak, divided society, you know? Come up close to it and talk to people and it’s not, you know? It’s, you know, from a distance there, you know, the– there are canals on Mars– going to land on Mars and there’s no canals. So, it’s something similar to that.
Jackie De Burca Yeah. Okay. I am so happy that you could join me today, Malachi. You’ve been so patient with our technical issues and everything. And so- so thank you very much, Malachi.