Orange Boy Blue is the recently-published debut novel by Galway-based writer Julia Roddy, a lecturer in screenwriting at GMIT. A thoroughly absorbing read, the novel is an across-the-divide love story set in Roddy’s native Belfast. It charts the blossoming of an against-the-odds romance between teenagers - Catholic Ella and Protestant Will, an Orange Order member, which unfolds against the fraught backdrop of The Troubles.
The briskly paced narrative, told now from Ella’s viewpoint, now from Will’s, gives an authentic, intimate sense of two young people coming of age in a world where they must negotiate, not only the normal teenage anxieties and urges, but the added pressures of their society’s sectarian rivalries and hatreds. This is all the more pointed for Ella as her family live in a Protestant neighbourhood.
“I grew up in east Belfast,” Roddy tells me over a morning chat. “Like Ella’s family in the novel, we were Catholics who lived among Protestants. Like her, I also used to stand across the road from the ‘Protestant thugs’ when I was going to school and so on. While the book is completely fictional I have drawn from my memories and experiences, as someone who wasn’t involved politically in any way, of growing up during the Troubles. Eoghan Harris, who launched the book in Dublin, said it was the most authentic history of the Troubles period that he had read.”
Roddy tells me what it was like for her growing up in a Protestant enclave; “The vast majority of Protestants I knew were very kind and Christian people, in fact my first boyfriends were Protestant. I was always aware that the thuggery element was from a minority. Interestingly, the 12th of July marches used to pass our house and we used to close our curtains when they did. I did grow up being biased against Orangemen but then I read a book by Brian Kenneway called The Orange Order, a Tradition Betrayed which really challenged my beliefs. It made me aware of bias and how we all are susceptible to it, and I think that is what inspired me to want to write a book about it.”
Whereas many nationalists, from both the North and the Republic, would regard the Orange Order with suspicion and hostility, it is striking how Roddy’s novel takes a sympathetic, generous view of Will’s pride in his Orange identity. She tells me what underlies her approach; “When I was doing my master's degree in Dun Laoghaire, Eoghan Harris taught us and he threw out the notion that it would be fascinating to do a Romeo and Juliet story between an Orangeman and a Catholic. I thought that was a great idea and having lived among Protestants myself I could see how it would play out.
'I thought a nice Orangeman might throw a cat among the pigeons'
"There’s two things going on there in the novel; I wanted to have a feisty, female protagonist because we are lacking in that, we tend to be very tame with female protagonists. Then I wanted to create a contrast to her and I thought a Christian, nice Orangeman might throw a cat among the pigeons but also be a great contrast to Ella’s character. I find a lot of people very biased against Orangemen when they don’t know who Orangemen are, or have never even met one. When you read into their background a lot of them come from a Christian place and I feel they do deserve to have somewhere to celebrate.”
Julia lived in Belfast until she was 29 and, after completing her studies in Dublin, she came to Galway to do a post-grad in film and television and it was here that she started to write.
“When I came to Galway, Patsy Murphy was my teacher and she really inspired me to become a writer and to teach screenwriting so it was a real turning point for me coming here,” she recalls. “I definitely wanted to get out of Northern Ireland, I don’t know whether that was an identity thing that I didn’t feel at home there. Ironically I now live in the Gaeltacht in Inverin among people whose first language is Irish and I feel similar to how I did living in east Belfast. While I was eager to get away from the North, all my family still live in Belfast, and were very happy to stay there, so whether it was an individual thing with me I am not sure. When I go to Belfast now, I love visiting and seeing how it has transformed into a vibrant contemporary city post-Troubles.”
Roddy has had her own troubles to negotiate in life, having been a single mother to a disabled child for many years, prior to meeting and marrying her husband, Peter Fahey, a thatcher. “My eldest boy suffered a brain injury after being hit by a car when he was six,” she tells me. “It was a struggle and I raised him on my own. I got married in 2002 and had three other little boys with my wonderful supportive husband, Peter. My oldest son who is 22, now lives independently in rehab care and he is very well looked after. I had a struggle but I have come through.”
Film interest in Orange Boy Blue
I ask Julia if coming to novel-writing from a background in film influenced how she wrote the book. “Because I trained as a screenwriter I write in a very visual way,” she replies. “Quite quickly after the book was published two film production companies approached me to buy the screen options. One of them is Cyprus Avenue Films from Belfast. They produced the films Jump and Men From Arlington and they’ve won a number of awards for their films so I am very happy to try and work with them. We’ll probably get a more experienced screenwriter on board and I’ll work alongside them and we’ll do the screenplay. It’s exciting.”
Prior to Orange Boy Blue, Julia had written a couple of short films and a little animation feature with an animator here in Galway. She reveals how the novel evolved; “I wrote the first chapter of the book and sent it to wordsonthestreet and it was shortlisted and got the runner up prize which gave me the impetus to keep going with it. It took a couple of years to finish it, mainly because I work fulltime. The actual story came quite quickly but the polishing and editing took a lot of time – and pain!”
The positive reaction to the novel shown by Cyprus Avenue Films has been replicated by online readers at Amazon, Kindle, and Goodreads where it has garnered five star reviews. Its success to date has whetted Roddy’s appetite for further novelistic forays and she has already started work on her next offering. “I am currently working on a proposal for a practice-based PhD and part of it would be to write a novel, the other part would be to write an academic pape that would entail investigating the work of Joseph Campbell. At the moment the novel is called Izzy and it is about a grumpy disabled woman who finds her voice on social media – she’s another feisty female protagonist!”
Julia Roddy will read from Orange Boy Blue at GMIT Library next Friday, February 29. The novel (published by New Generation Publishing ) is available from Charlie Byrnes and other good bookshops for €15.