It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years. The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in. It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast. The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities. While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast. Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles. The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the Parachute Regiment. The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.
‘Over and over again, the same stories’
The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons. This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home. Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother. The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation. He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s. We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts. Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan. Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.
What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions. He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell. He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action. Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism. The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’. Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’. He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA. He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself. He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).
A selfish father
The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife. From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War. For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences. It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime. Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul. Aye, soul too. I have wasted away my life since’). Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers. He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well. He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.
Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them. His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’ His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein. When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).
A worn out mother
Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd. What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation. Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind. His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes. She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him. She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North. To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people. Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:
Is there a job for every man? And a home for everyone? Have all the children got shoes on their feet? Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom? Singing their songs about heroes?
A dominated brother
This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities. There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan. The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt. The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother. She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate. He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged. He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified. Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’ Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets. She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man. They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’
Joe, a victim of his environment
Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood. The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth. He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother. His school life is as unhappy as his home life. His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference. The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time. Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism. Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel. Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’ the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household. His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’ The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’
All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism. Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness. Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother. ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’ Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world. In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess. Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea. The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows. His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope. As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:
Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation. There was no safety.
Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example. She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is. She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot. Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities. She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’. Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life. This he finds unfair. He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’. Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.
A world of grief
Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief. The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships. His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class. The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit. We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly. Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’. She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is. She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds. Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways. After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:
‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’
‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’
‘He’d have been home otherwise.’
Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.
Three themes in the novel
Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal. (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland). The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members. Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:
The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most. They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever. I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.
Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons. He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him. The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people. He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories. His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt. Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around. Hate is a better word. I can understand that.’ Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family. Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.
The novel offers some small (prophetic?) glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken. Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute. Kathleen Doherty recognises this. Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’. Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily. Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off. When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off. I wouldn’t be any use to them.’
A sense of betrayal haunts the novel. Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare. His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions. Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal. When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life. Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan. Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred. When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier. She wears his ring, you know. And she tells him everything.’ It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.
This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made. Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it. It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.
And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry. Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader. However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.
In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming. It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland. Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.
This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers. I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother. We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.