Caught Between the Orange and the Green
by Joyce Milne D’Auria
‘Maggie’s eye fixed on the boy. She smiled and felt drawn to the cot’s side. The child had red-gold hair down to his collar and piercing blue eyes. He raised his arms to be picked up ….’
Billy Boy is an historical coming-of-age novel set in the village of Whifflet, lying in the region of central Scotland known as the Monklands. The time is the late nineteenth century. The novel’s theme is the sectarian strife which is so often associated with Northern Ireland, but which is, even today, prevalent in other parts of Britain too.
William (Bill) Maclure is born in the Poorhouse. His mother, an Irish Catholic, dies in childbirth; his father, an ‘Orange’ Protestant has died of sepsis following an altercation in a pub. As an infant, Bill(y) is taken in by his aunt Maggie, a teacher, and grandfather (also William), a staunch member of the Orange Lodge.
‘[Grandfather] explained to Billy, yet again, that in most other areas of town Protestants lived on one street and Catholics on another, just the way God intended. Unfortunately, in the Rosehall Rows they were all mixed in. It was the devil’s work …..’
For the majority of boys in the village, the future is a job in coal-mining, or the iron works – if they are lucky. Life is hard for both Catholics and Protestants, but the former suffer more from bad living conditions and the politics of sectarianism, which deny them a proper schooling. However, Bill gets a good education and, despite pressures from his grandfather and others in his Orange community, resolves to have a life away from the coal pit. His aunt and her husband want him to go to university; he meets the requirements. But Bill has a different idea. He wants his own business, maybe even a future in America with his cousin, the Irishman Patrick Rafferty. Moreover, he sees how life is so much better for the inhabitants of the middle class districts of nearby Coatbridge and Airdrie.
While working at Airdrie Library during the summer holidays, Bill meets Jennie, a girl from an affluent Coatbridge family whose father is something of a bully and keeps a tight rein on both his wife and his daughter. Bill falls in love. However, they are a class apart, which seems to doom their relationship from the beginning.
I don’t want to introduce spoilers for other readers, so, suffice to say, it is not so easy for Bill to escape his heritage. He is drawn into the sectarian struggle, with its violence and drunkenness, and gets into trouble because of it. An adventure in America appears to provide an escape, until he discovers New York to be no better than the town he left.
‘[Bill] tried to recall the night before but could only conjure a feeling of foreboding. He roused himself, moved his left leg and found another locus of pain ….. He knew something had happened and that it was bad.’
Billy Boy tells of a dark time in Scotland’s industrial and political history, but it is also a time of change. The author immerses the reader in the polluted and unhealthy atmosphere of the coal and iron works. She does a good job in recreating the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life, both in industrial Scotland and in immigrant New York. But she also succeeds in engendering hope that, with the proper stumulus, life can be better for the masses. One of the real-life characters she introduces into the story is Andrew Carnegie, with his dream of providing public libraries for all.
Apart from the enjoyment it gives, reading occasionally triggers memories – of places we have visited, of events we have witnessed, and of people we have met or known. It is probably rarer for a novel to transport the reader firmly – for good or ill – into his or her own past. For me, Billy Boy was such a book.
Joyce Milne D’Auria and I both grew up in Coatbridge; we went to the same High School. Because so many of the places she describes from another era are known to me, I found myself walking down old familiar streets and lanes. I fondly remembered my grandmother, and my mother, who once lived in the same street as the fictitious Jennie. I recalled afternoons and evenings spent watching or playing cricket at the club where the fictitious Bill mistakenly caught a ball! The narrative is humorous in places, though I suspect a somewhat cynical humour on the author’s part.
The ending was satisfying in a classical sense, although I felt that the last few chapters were rushed. More on Bill’s New York experiences would have put a little icing on the cake.
Sadly, reading Billy Boy also brought back the horrors of sectarianism, something that, more than half a century ago, I was very happy to leave behind.
In spite of those negatives, this was a novel I very much enjoyed reading.