Capt Robert Nairac, who became one of the IRAs disappeared in 1977, is the subject of the latest thriller from Eoin McNamee. He tells Róisín Ingle how people become myths
Once, while researching an article on a cultural festival set up to revamp the grisly image of Bandit Country, I stopped for a quick drink in a pub called the Three Steps Inn. The name had a ghoulish resonance and in truth thats what drew me inside. Even those with only a passing knowledge of key events in Northern Irelands history will recognise the name.
It was from this spot in south Armagh that the British army captain, Robert Nairac, one of the Norths best known disappeared, was abducted by the IRA in 1977. The body of Nairac, who sang in pubs with locals and roamed the streets in civvies as part of his covert mission, was never found. It was later rumoured to have been disposed of in a meat factory across the Border.
The tense atmosphere, real or imagined, in the almost deserted Drumintee pub meant my glass of Coke was abandoned half drunk, and on leaving I couldnt help noticing the British army soldiers crawling in the fields outside, much like Nairac would have done when he patrolled the Border area on surveillance operations.
The same oppressive atmosphere permeates Eoin McNamees The Ultras, a taut thriller based on the events surrounding Nairac and his murder by the IRA. There is a sense of dark secrets being half-revealed, while the truth about the activities of British military and intelligence agencies and their involvement with proxy assassins remain tantalisingly in the shadows.
McNamee, the award-winning author of Last of Deeds, Love of History, Resurrection Man and The Blue Tango, has been trying to find a way in to the Nairac story for some time. When he finally got around to it three years ago he realised he had been squirreling away various texts and research materials on the charismatic figure of Robert Nairac for years. Its not hard to see what attracted the author, well known for his forensic approach to subjects including the Shankill Butchers in Resurrection Man and Patricia Curran in Blue Tango, to Nairac, who is variously described as a courageous Boys Own hero and a deluded, badly led officer.
"He was an almost mythological figure", explains McNamee. "I was interested not only in the man himself but also in the process of myth-making, in how people become myths."
Information came from all different sources - he found out about Tony Ball, a covert colleague of Nairacs, from the auction house, who had sold his medals for example - and he is confident that he got as close as he could to explaining what motivated Nairac and others who operated in the shadows during the dirtiest days of the Troubles.
"The impression I came away with was that he was unknowable", reflects the 42-year-old. "That was something said by a friend of his, that the more you looked the less you saw."
Nairac was a keen sportsman, an Oxford Blue boxer who revived the universitys boxing club. But he enjoyed bare-knuckle fighting, too, which implies, says McNamee, if not a cruel streak then a certain edge to his character. Nairac kept a falcon in his rooms at college; one of his birds was even used in the film, Kes. You might say that he was identifying with the falcons, that he was involved in that kind of objectification of the natural world, says McNamee.
Nairacs parents are dead but the book will make difficult reading for the officers surviving family. Most of the characters who appear are based on real people, including Tony Ball. Its substantially based on real characters and events. I get asked about this, about mixing fiction with historical fact but these stories demand to be told in this way, he says.
Blair Agnew, the fictional ex-sergeant in The Ultras who is trying to make sense of Nairacs death in the hope that it will heal some of his own wounds, places the captain at the scene of the Miami Showband Massacre in 1975. Three members of the band were shot by the UVF when their van was stopped at a bogus checkpoint. When, 10 years after Nairacs death, Ken Livingstone claimed the officer had been involved in the massacre, Nairacs father, Dr Maurice Nairac (an eye-surgeon), expressed complete contempt for the politician. Is McNamee conscious of how the book will be received by the dead mans family?
"I think about it, but at the same time I feel I am absolutely entitled to examine Nairac and his world and his relationship to the conflict that went on. I dont feel any qualms about doing it. I think the thing is to do it well. If one is to tell that story at all you have to find a methodology to do it. Is it better to leave it unexamined? I dont think so. Although I can see from past experience that I am going to take flack from certain sections about The Ultras."
The experience he speaks of is the controversy that dogged the movie of Resurrection Man, for which he wrote the script. When the film came out, McNamee was accused of being immoral and identifying too closely with the Shankill Butchers, a poisonous outpouring of anti-unionist bile by Irish writer Eoin McNamee was how one British newspaper described it.
Resurrection Man was censored out of existence, he says, with only one cinema in Belfast defiantly playing it to packed houses for weeks on end. McNamee went to the cinema one night to judge the crowds reaction. It was full of kids in Rangers jerseys. There was something you dont come across in cinema; you get it sometimes in theatre, but the audience were absolutely intent on and at one with what was going on in the screen. They were locked onto it. To me that validated the film. You cant bring aesthetics to bear on a subject like that. Its not capable of bearing that weight.
The same could be said for The Ultras, which may also be turned into a film. I would imagine that, of course, the way I have mixed fact and fiction will cause controversy. Robert Nairac is a respected figure within the British establishment and I suspect the same people who had a go at Resurrection Man in the various British newspapers will do the same again. But Nairac was a deeply flawed man involved in a very flawed enterprise.
A law graduate, McNamee grew up first in Kilkeel, Co Down, and later in Ravensdale, Co Louth. He began writing while living in New York, where he was inspired by American writers such as Don de Lillo and Raymond Carver. His days as a law student, he says, inform his approach to writing, governing how he dissects arguments and structures and puts them back together again. He has almost completed a drama for RTÉ a border cop story he says laughing at the recurring themes he tends to explore.
But when it comes to Northern Ireland "whats not to write about?" asks the author, who lives in Co Sligo with his wife and two children.
McNamees latest book is unforgiving in its brutality and in its depiction of the operations run by intelligence agencies, whether it was running brothels to gather information from punters or attempting to scare locals by planting chilling evidence of satanic rites and rituals in the area.
For those unfamiliar with the murky terrain of military intelligence, the book might be heavy going, but the beautifully written character of Lorna, Agnews daughter, provides heart and humanity in a world that is often both heartless and inhumane. An anorexic teenager, she is herself an expert in hidden things and becomes as obsessed as her father by Nairac, whom she views as a kind of long-lost soulmate.
Despite her fathers exhaustive investigations into Nairac and his activities, it is she who comes closer than anyone to explaining the British captain: I cant help thinking about Robert. I look at his photograph and I look into his eyes. I cant see anything there, she writes. Maybe that is the meaning of the word ultra. That you are ultra secret and do not give anything away no matter what. That they look and look and look and cannot find you. When I was small I hid in the dark and they called but I did not come out. Each to his own, Robert had to learn his own secrets and I had to learn mine, but I think his were about killing people - lots of people - and mine are just sad secrets.
McNamee has a final word for anyone who might question the morality of his new book. I always had a quote in my head, I think it is Oscar Wilde, that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book - there are only good books or bad books. And I am confident this is a good book.