Little Brown, £16.99
The Northern Ireland Troubles have been the subject of a plethora of literary analysis in the past twenty years. With publishing houses traditionally focused on the 'bigger picture' - such as paramilitary organisations or prominent politicians - the stories of local heroes are often forgotten. Thankfully, one such story will survive.
In 1956 a young nun called Sister Genevieve (b. Mary O'Farrell) arrived in Catholic West Belfast. Driven by a desire to follow the example of St Vincent de Paul in helping those at the bottom of the poverty ladder, Genevieve was initially disappointed at her new station. It wasn't long, however, before she realised that the West Belfast of 1956 was one of the poorest and neglected areas in Western Europe.
With the firm belief that education was the key to escaping poverty, Sister Genevieve set about raising the aspirations of the Catholic girls whose erstwhile ambitions were to stitch hankies in the local mills. With the opening of St Louise's Comprehensive College along the notorious Falls Road in 1958, Sister Genevieve started the slow process of raising the morale, hopes and expectations of a bruised and battered people. Then, in 1969, the Troubles erupted…
The success of any biography hinges on two crucial factors: the subject, and the author's ability to present a balanced account of that subject. 'Sister Genevieve' comes up trumps on both counts. In a climate where heroes were borne out of martyrdom, the story of Sister Genevieve's heroism shines brightly in the canon of 'Troubles-inspired' literature. That it does so is due in no small way to author John Rae.
Rae's ability to detach himself from the inherent political tightrope of the Troubles leaves us with an even-handed and insightful chronicle of Belfast from 1969-1994. His juxtaposition of the daily rhythms of St Louise's College with paramilitary activities reminds the reader of the pervading danger of everyday existence. Through it all, the shadow of the nun who defied the IRA, the Catholic Church and the British Army looms large. Recommended.