Big Troubles in Northern Ireland: The Conflicted Character of Cal

Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal explores the intense conflict between the Roman Catholic nationalist party and the Protestant British police forces of northern Ireland in the late 20th century. MacLaverty tells the story of Ireland’s most violent period through the teenaged protagonist, Cal, who gets unwillingly roped into helping the IRA, and subsequently faces his own internal torment after assisting in the murder of Robert Morton, a Protestant reserve policeman. Cal’s guilt-ridden conscience and desire for redemption drive the plot of the novel forward and come to a head when he develops feelings for Marcella Morton, whom he becomes infatuated with upon learning her status as Robert’s widowed wife. His obsession grows once he begins work on the very farm where Marcella lives, and through their budding relationship Cal comes to the realization that Marcella is the only one who can grant him salvation from his crime, as it is with her and only her that his constant suffering and self-hatred is at ease. As Peter Mahon observes in his long form on Cal entitled “Blood, Shit and Tears,” MacLaverty employs vivid, animalistic imagery and religious allegory to illustrate Cal’s inner turmoil over his reluctant participation in ideological warfare, and quest for absolution.

MacLaverty utilizes the motifs of animals, slaughtering, and feces in multiple ways throughout the novel. The novel takes place a year after the killing of Robert Morton, and within the first page MacLaverty steeps the text with vivid, animalistic and religious imagery to illustrate Cal’s psychological struggle, as well as to allude to the larger conflict in Ireland. Cal, having quit his job at the abattoir due to his “stomach having felt like a washboard over the past year” (20), feels sickened at the sight of innocent cows being slaughtered and “the spout of blood” (8) spewing from their bodies and so Crilly, who carries out the actual killings for the IRA, replaces Cal in his role at the abattoir. Cal’s obvious disgust by the killing of the animals, in stark juxtaposition to Crilly’s indifference, stands as the first indicator of his character’s immense guilt which pervades the novel. This theme arises again through Cal’s repeated self-association with shit, emphasizing his increased self-loathing since the murder took place. While attending church, the narrator notes “the rest of his prayers consisted of telling himself how vile he was. If he was sick of himself, how would God react to him? ‘Merde. Dog-shit. Crotte de vache.’” (37) As Mahon attests, “Cal is both an animal and shit because of his involvement in political violence,” and that for Cal, “violence is indissociable from the filthiest and most contagious impurity of all―blood” (Mahon 76). Cal’s sin essentially consumes his conscience and instills in him a mental and physical sickness that he cannot escape from. He feels so incredibly contrite to the point that it’s as if “he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge” (89). As a result, Cal seeks repentance and forgiveness in the arms of Marcella.

MacLaverty’s nod toward religious allegory dramatize Cal’s need to be absolved from his sin, which further explain his desperation for a relationship with Marcella. Haunted by the “sickening visions of her genuflecting husband” (139), Cal’s only relief comes in the form of a relationship with Marcella, and the possibility of her future forgiveness. After hearing the sermon regarding Matt Talbot and his physical atonement with chains, Cal basically begins to torture himself with his want for Marcella, going so far as to spy on her and sneak into her bedroom at night. Mahon expounds on this idea, citing that throughout the novel she “remains “unattainable” and must be “suffered” for” (Mahon 84). By the end of the novel, Cal embraces his inevitable arrest, looking forward to being beaten “within an inch of his life” (154). Finally, he secures the deliverance from his sin that he’s been searching for since Robert Morton was killed.

Bernard MacLaverty uses the character of Cal to again and again allude to the religious warfare in northern Ireland. Torn between helping his friend and his own moral fiber, Cal’s turmoil reflects the overarching conflict between the nationalists versus the unionists. MacLaverty evokes this character struggle by featuring literary devices such as imagery and allegory throughout the text to explore Cal’s dynamic ultimatum between sin and deliverance, innocence and guilt, and violence and nonviolence, which, as Mahon puts it, makes Cal a symbol for the brutal mayhem that enveloped Ireland in the late 1900’s.

O Mother, Where Art Thou?: Parental Absence in Literatures of Conflict

Bernard Maclaverty’s Cal and Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother both present the larger conflicts of a country through the voice of a single protagonist. The violence plaguing the lands of both Northern Ireland and South Africa in the late 1900’s situate the reader in the reality of each country, and through fictional characters, the authors portray the effects of conflict on the individual. In Mother to Mother, Magona recreates the circumstances that black South Africans grew up in, highlighting how the education system, separation from original community, and likelihood of teenage parenthood come together to inevitably create a brew for violence. Mandisa’s pregnancy at a young age puts a huge strain on her relationship with her traditional, religious family as well as teenage boyfriend, China, as they are forced into a loveless marriage. The subsequent abandonment of her and her child by China plays a huge role in Mxolisi’s upbringing, and this lack of parental presence, albeit only one part of the problem, directly leads to Mxolisi’s active engagement with the violent youth that occupy the townships. Similarly in Cal, the reader notices how familial dynamics can come together to negatively influence a child. Cal’s mother having died when he was only eight, and his ensuing strained relationship with his father take huge tolls on Cal’s psyche, making him isolated and emotionally detached from not only his father, but also society at large. Lacking any strong parental guidance, Cal, just like Mxolisi, is easily influenced by his friends and his surroundings, and eventually starts committing crimes for the IRA. If either character had both parents in their lives, things might have been different, but their tragic childhoods and the absence of proper parental direction causes a ripple effect in each young man’s life, ultimately leading them down a path of violence.

The familial trauma that took place at a young age in both Cal and Mxolisi’s life is easily discernable to the reader, and are huge factors in each boys’ psychological development. For example, following the sudden departure of China from Mandisa and Mxolisi’s life, and the murder of his two childhood friends by the police, Mxolisi stays silent for nearly two years, “and when he did speak again, it was to ask me a question to which I had no answer…Uph’ owam utata? Where is my own father? (Magona 159). Growing up in the face of heavy police brutality and not knowing life with his father shape Mxolisi’s view of the world, causing him to become taciturn as well as a rebellious spirit. Mandisa recognizes how these variables came together to create “a long, hard road” for her son, one that stretched “long, lean, mean, and empty” (Magona 3, 203). Elaborating on the origins of his detached, disaffected state, she goes on to explain “he had already seen his tomorrows; in the defeated stoop of his father’s shoulders” (Magona 203). Living within the apartheid system, he sees his future painted before his very own eyes through the lives of his parents. Mxolisi, just like the “three- and four-year-olds as well as older children, roaming the streets of Guguletu with nothing to do all day long” (Magona 199), all lack a central authority figure in their daily lives and therefore have no one around to urge them to succeed school or stay out of trouble. In an article entitled “Community of the Careless,” Anthony Barker sustains that “Deprived of their natural guides, children of migrants grow through an insecure, uncertain childhood to an adult life whose sole preoccupation may be to escape the system. There must be a harvest of aggression, with the weeds of violence growing rank within it” (qtd. in UNICEF 51). The novel reveals how absentee parenthood, which Mandisa and by extension all other adults in the townships must endure as working parents in the Apartheid system, is linked directly to raising the “monsters [their] children have become” (Magona 2). Although Mandisa in no way excuses her son’s murderous actions, her narrative seeks to highlight the ways in which Mxolisi’s upbringing inevitably led him astray, and made Amy Diehl’s murder possible.

Magona illustrates in Mother to Mother just how the Apartheid regime separated parents from their children through the enforced migratory labor systems. The novel represents how, posed with significant challenges, life in the townships breeds familial disorganization. She herself notes in an interview with Kari Miller, “Children need both parents. We don’t have that. We have single parents…Today you just have a generation of men who don’t have role models, whose parents were never together” (Miller 4). As both parents had to work far away from the townships in order to sustain a living, the familial structure became disrupted, and children were often left unattended, which in turn had a devastating effect on their individual well-being. In a report by UNICEF studying the impact of Apartheid, it states, “parents, whether living together under the intense pressures of survival in the townships or separated for most of the time by the requirements of migratory labour system, have problems relating to each other in a way that binds them together as a unit of mutual support, both as partners and as parents” (UNICEF 50-51). Within the novel, Mandisa is well-aware of how her work prevents her from being a hands-on mother, and is wracked with guilt when seeing the negative effects of it on her children. She expresses “as a mother, I’m supposed to have authority over my children, over the running of my house. Never mind that I’m never there..The children do pretty much as they please. And get away with it too” (Magona 9). The children essentially raise themselves in an environment lacking discipline and stability, and although they do have an authority figure in Dwadwa, who “is good to…all three children,” Mandisa knows that, given his traumatic early childhood, “it is not his fault that Mxolisi is so disobedient” (Magona 71). Devoid of a patriarchal figure as a child, in combination with Mandisa’s daytime absence, Mxolisi’s peers become his only source of reference, and coupled with the pervading violence in the townships, contribute to his downfall.

Likewise, Cal’s surroundings and home life also lead to his somewhat willing involvement in the Northern Ireland violence. Haunted by his mother’s death, he lives alone with his father, Shamie, trying to cope as Catholics in an all Protestant neighborhood during The Troubles. The novel uses flashbacks to illustrate how his mother’s passing haunts him still in the present. Cal loses the little sense of self-love that his mother engendered within him during his first eight years of life; however, he remains unable to communicate these issues with his father, as they are both depressed. Although they do care for each other, they do not openly display love, and their relationship becomes even more awkward and reserved after Cal’s decision to quit the abattoir. While working with his father would have brought them closer together, Cal’s association of the slaughtered animals with human blood and violence, specifically his own participation in the killing of Robert Morton, prohibits him from taking the job. As a result of Crilly replacing him, Shamie repeatedly criticizes Cal for his choice, snapping “It sticks in my throat that he got the job that you gave up because you hadn’t a strong enough stomach. Now he’s got money to burn and you’re running about borrowing fags. Not to mention the embarrassment it caused me” (MacLaverty 18). Both harboring the pain from the deaths in their family, and each dealing with their own psychological struggle, the tension between Cal and Shamie is made clear from the start of the novel. The absence of one parent and adverse pressure from the other causes Cal immense mental torment and ultimately leads him to be railroaded into helping the IRA. For example, Shamie’s preoccupation to have “the right on his side” leads him to encourage Cal to join Crilly’s gang, as he accepts a gun from the IRA only because “He knew the old man felt safe with his notion and Cal did not want to disillusion him” (MacLaverty 29). With this unethical parental guidance, Cal’s role in the Troubles violence grows larger, as does his inner turmoil. He again laments his mother in the novel, wondering “if the reason he loved her so much was because she had died before he reached adolescence. He could not remember ever fighting with her or being beaten by her. From the age of fourteen onwards he had constantly been at war with his father” (MacLaverty 33). Were his mother still alive, the reader can presume that Cal would not be in the situation he is in with the IRA, but her traumatic death when he was a child, linked with the guilt he feels to appease his father, further complicates his moral dilemma. As stated in Blood, Shit and Tears, Cal’s familial relationships are tangled by his connection of “his love for his mother to his rivalry with his father” (Mahon 81). Due to their inability to talk about her with one another, their father and son dynamic becomes convoluted with contention and resentment. Cal, having no sense of a strong, familial upbringing, easily succumbs to his environment and the people around him, and commits crimes that he did not really intend to do, just like Mxolisi.

In both Cal and Mother to Mother, parental roles play an important part in the development of the characters. The absence of a parent has a direct link on the psyche of children, and thus affects their decision-making process as an adult. Both Cal and Mxolisi are characters haunted by their lack of a parental figure, and their subsequent involvement in crimes seems to be a psychological result of this childhood tragedy. Each novel also suggests the connection of peer relationships with the tendency to go along with a crowd, and commit violent acts. Nevertheless, it is a mixture of both Mxolisi and Cal’s early life, essentially war-torn environment, but most importantly parental guidance, or lack thereof, which causes both characters to succumb into a larger, violent conflict.