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Anna Burns’s Milkman and the politics of hatred

Her Belfast-set novel upended my understanding of the Catholic Church and its history of prejudice.

By Mary McAleese

I first heard about Anna Burns’s Milkman from my cousin. He and I both grew up in the Ardoyne district of Belfast, both lost our homes there through sectarian violence. But he knows that I am a very impatient reader. So he said: “I’m going to recommend this book, but you absolutely must stick with it. It will reward your patience.” And never was a truer word said.

Like me, Burns is from north Belfast. Her novel, which won the 2018 Booker Prize, is set there during the Troubles and shows what it is like to live in a ghetto where the politics of hatred has metastasised, and where misogyny, hatred and sectarianism exist in a cacophony. She writes not as a rarefied observer but rather as somebody who’s been pushed and shoved yet keeps insisting on their right to be an individual when people all around want them to conform, and not necessarily to something that is good.

Burns’s style is initially quite disconcerting. But as you get into it, you realise just how courageous it is. The humanity of this woman is ferocious. I had never before had the experience of almost being bereft that I had to turn a page. It made me think about all the other places that the book could have been set, where the politics of neglect have allowed a system where people who could be decent become capable of great evil.

In Milkman, religious prejudices underpin a lot of the violence. After I finished it, I started to reread the history of the Catholic Church, which I grew up in. I looked back to when it was an empire with armies that killed people. I discovered for the first time in my life that St Augustine was a thoroughgoing bully, who believed in forcing faith down people’s throats. Put it like this: Anna Burns sent me on a journey of relearning that has been a miracle of the mind for me.

Mary McAleese is chancellor of Trinity College Dublin. She was president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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