Ronan Bennett: From Prisoner to Writer Novelist Ronan Bennett endured two stints in British prisons before he ever imagined himself a writer. He rarely writes directly about the Troubles of Northern Ireland, but the struggle against British rule is a common subtext in his work.
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Ronan Bennett: From Prisoner to Writer

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Ronan Bennett: From Prisoner to Writer

Ronan Bennett: From Prisoner to Writer

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Novelist Ronan Bennett endured two stints in British prisons before he ever imagined himself a writer. He was young then, and wrongly accused of crimes committed by the Irish Republican Army.

Years later, his fiction has rarely taken the troubles of Northern Ireland as a subject. But Ireland's centuries of struggle against British rule are always there as a subtext.

Ronan Bennett spoke to us from London for our series War and Literature.

His writing has been likened to that of Graham Greene and Arthur Miller. Like them, he uses historical events to explore the passion and dark energy that fuel conflict, which goes back to his own experience, a Catholic boy in Belfast caught up in the bloodshed of the 1970s.

Mr. RONAN BENNETT (Author): I was accused of participation in an IRA bank robbery, during which there was a shootout and a police inspector was killed in the shootout. And I was arrested about - I think it was about a week or 10 days later at home, in the - early in the morning - one of a number of people who were picked up for the offense. I'm one of a number who went on trial for it, and originally, I was convicted at the age 18. I was convicted and sentenced to life.

But I was released within a year because the evidence was - even by the standards of the times - it was poor.

MONTAGNE: You say that in - today - reasonably, matter-of-factly, but was it not a bit of a shock to you at that age, you're still a teenager? You're suddenly facing life in prison?

Mr. BENNETT: Well, it's completely traumatic. I mean it was, you know, you're imprisoned for life for something you didn't do. But, you see, this is the difference between pulling somebody off the street in a settled society and throwing them in prison for something they didn't do. In the end, it becomes a very real, personal tragedy. It's an issue of miscarriage of justice and so on. In a conflict zone, where there is a war, even to - I remember doing this at a time in prison - even at the time complaining about it among, you know, 2,000-3,000 men who are in a prison camp - you know, if you complained about it, well, you really had kind of 2,000 or 3,000 companions who also complained about their imprisonment, even if they'd done what had been alleged.

They still saw it as an injustice, because in their eyes, they were fighting for the rights of self-determination of their country against an occupier. So there was no room, really, for self-pity or anything like that. You just - you get on with it. The standard for years was dry your eyes - which means stop crying - and do your bird, which means do your time. And that was really - that was it.

MONTAGNE: This was going on at a time when Great Britain saw itself as fighting terrorism.


MONTAGNE: There were terrorist - there were terrorist attacks. Some of the IRA bombings, there were often soft targets.

Mr. BENNETT: Oh, yes. Yes. They were terrible things. The 1970s and '80s were terrible times, and very bad things were done on both sides. There were civilian bombings at the IRA, carried out which were just horrific and completely indefensible. And all the arguments about self-determination and sovereignty and so on were completely undermined by those sorts of activities. And equally, the British, they did some pretty terrible things as well.

MONTAGNE: When you were first sent to and being held at the Long Kesh prison camp, did you write?

Mr. BENNETT: Not really. I read. I was a big reader. I read a lot of fiction, and then a friend of mine - slightly older - I considered him a lot older. He was all of 26, I suppose, when I was 18. He persuaded me that fiction was, in this context - when there was a struggle going on around - was a complete waste of time. And it wasn't until probably 10 or 12 years later that I began to read fiction again.

MONTAGNE: To read it - but I mean, did you hesitate to write it?

Mr. BENNETT: There was no question of writing, really, because the emphasis in Long Kesh at that time was on the collective. And, as we know, writing is a very individual thing. With the emphasis on the collective, it meant that if you did write, it was seen as you were trying to draw attention to yourself, when what needed attention drawn to it was what was going on in the wider society.

MONTAGNE: When you came to write, you wrote a couple of novels, and the novel, though, that brought you a great deal of attention and created quite a literary stir was called "The Catastrophist." And its protagonist is an Irish journalist by the name of James Gillespie. It opens with Gillespie - it's 1960, and he's in the Congo - early, post-colonial conflict-ridden Congo.

Mr. BENNETT: Yes. He has gone there because his lover - an Italian journalist named Ines - has gone to the Congo for her newspaper to cover the independence crisis. And the Congo, you know, as you know, was colonized by the Belgians. And it became a byword for brutality and exploitation.

MONTAGNE: You know, there wouldn't seem to be a great number of links between the Congo of 1960 and the conflict in Northern Ireland. But do you see them?

Mr. BENNETT: Oh, yes. I was thinking very strongly of Ireland. And I was thinking about how can I write about what the wider responsibilities of the artist in general are to the society he or she comes from? And how do you express that? How do you express that role without the politics taking over the art? And I looked around for context to sort of grapple with this theme, and then starting to investigate the Congo in that period. And the more I looked at it, the more I read, the more the parallels came through. And in some ways, the book, you know, critics recognized that the book was an allegory for Ireland at the same time.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is interesting in "The Catastrophist" that the journalist -he's not a soldier, he's a journalist - Gillespie is arrested and interrogated at one point. Did you draw directly from your own experience in how he reacted or what he was thinking?

Mr. BENNETT: Actually, yes. Actually, there's a kind of recurring motif in my fiction, including a new book that's coming out - I think it comes out in the States in November, "Zugzwang" - in which in the five novels that I've written, there is always an interrogation scene. I'm interested in it, because it is -it's such a raw confrontation. The person being interrogated is weak, is vulnerable, is often trying to hide something, is sometimes innocent. And the person doing the - the interrogator is in a position of supreme power over the person in front of him.

And that relationship, I always find full of possibilities for exploring truths about individuals, truths about the relationship between the strong and the weak. It is kind of reliving an experience that was one of the fundamental experiences in my life - one of the most formative experiences, and has left me with a profound distrust of authority.

I think that's where the writer - you know, the writers should be distrustful of authority. I think writers should always be in position of tension in relation to governments and power and authority.

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MONTAGNE: Novelist Ronan Bennett. Last spring, Catholic and Protestant groups joined a historic power-sharing government. After nearly 40 years and more than 3,000 deaths, both sides declared the troubles had ended.

Tomorrow, we hear a poem about a stray cat written on a battlefield in Iraq.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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