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Essaying Ethics

Raising the dead

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I don’t normally focus on violent events, but growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles means that, now and then, aspects of their ugly presence intrude into my writing. One essay, though, is different. Here violence takes centre stage. In ‘Obelisk’, the subject is assault and killing. Of all the pieces I’ve written it’s the one that makes me doubt myself. Questions about the ethics of writing come to the fore whenever I consider it.

‘Obelisk’ appeared in Irish Haiku, published in 2005. Looking back at what I wrote, I don’t think I’ve infringed the Prime Directive of my genre — to tell the truth. I’ve not written something shameful like Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood — a holocaust ‘memoir’ that is in fact made up. But I still feel uneasy about the way I approached what the newspapers called ‘The Lisburn Tragedy’.

The raw facts, as these appear in the public record, are easily enough laid out. One night, in a lonely farmhouse near Lisburn, a twenty-one-year-old man shot his sleeping father in the head, then turned the same gun on himself. The father, though seriously injured, survived. The son did not.

In ‘Obelisk’ I wanted to explore what might have driven someone to such terrible actions. But I was also interested in how they were understood by members of the family concerned. In particular, I was fascinated by the different versions of events believed by three sisters, nieces of the man who died.

Is it acceptable for a writer to home in on a tragedy, to make other people’s pain and grief the subject of an essay? Though I hope I avoided the kind of sensationalism that fills the popular press, I realise that, however careful I think I was, I was probing things that those involved would have preferred left unprobed; asking questions that unsettled; suggesting interpretations of events that conflicted with the versions people had grown comfortable with. Thinking about it now, I’m reminded of Joan Didion’s remarks in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does […] writers are always selling somebody out.’ Am I guilty of such betrayal?

The nineteenth-century Scottish poet and essayist Alexander Smith once said that ‘The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.’ I agree. There are openings into essays all around us. So why choose something as bleak as the Lisburn Tragedy? Are there not more positive things to write about? Why select something where it’s impossible to resolve into certainty what actually happened, and where the writing may reopen wounds, cause worry, give offence?

Two reasons – one general, one personal – determined my choice. The general one can be summarised via Joseph Conrad. At the end of Lord Jim, Marlow, Conrad’s narrator, says of trying to understand Jim’s final act – where he invites his own killing – ‘We ought to know. He is one of us’. In other words, as a fellow human being what he does should be comprehensible; we ought to be able to understand why he acted as he did. Extreme acts, like Jim’s, or the Lisburn shootings, tug insistently at the sleeve of explanation. Unless we can account for them, they pose a threat to our edifices of meaning, our powerful instinct to try to make the world make sense.

The personal reason is that the Lisburn Tragedy happened in my family. The father who was shot was my maternal great-grandfather, the son who perished my great-uncle. The shootings happened in a place I know well, and they affected my mother and her sisters directly. This gave a further edge to ‘We ought to know. He is one of us’.

It was a casual comment in a conversation about family history that lit the fuse of interest that eventually ignited into ‘Obelisk’. My mother said that her grandparents, Henderson and Catherine Ritchie, had three children. Her sisters, both older, disagreed, insisting they had four. This was the first time my mother heard about the existence of Henderson Ritchie junior, the uncle she never knew she had.

I found it intriguing that history had been so effectively manipulated. As far as my mother was concerned, the Lisburn tragedy never happened; it had been completely censored out. Her two sisters, Eileen and Kay, at least knew of the existence of Henderson Ritchie junior. But their versions of his death were different. Kay told me he died in a shooting accident. What she described suggested a shotgun going off as he was carelessly climbing over a stile while out shooting rabbits. Eileen, at least initially, said it happened when he was cleaning his father’s shotgun. No mention was made of Henderson senior being present.

My curiosity aroused, I did the necessary research, seeking out death certificate, coroner’s report, police statements, and newspaper accounts. The gun was described as a ‘Colt’s revolver’ not a shotgun. The shootings happened in Holburn Hall — the farmhouse where my mother and her sisters were subsequently born. The tragedy unfolded in the small hours of October 8th 1898, not during the day. Henderson senior was so seriously injured it was thought he wouldn’t survive. His doctor advised him to make a Will.

Having studied the official records, I went back to talk with Kay and Eileen. Kay’s account remained unchanged. But pressed to remember what she’d been told, Eileen’s version of an accident while gun-cleaning changed dramatically. Somewhere in her memory she knew that another person had been involved. She mentioned Henderson senior being injured. Then, in a casual, throwaway remark that caught me off guard, she said, ‘Of course some people say that it wasn’t an accident at all and that the father shot the son.’ Asked why a parent might kill their child, she spoke about ‘a woman’ being involved. And that connected with something my mother had told me. When she was a child, she and her mother regularly visited a neighbouring farm to Holborn Hall. It was occupied by three unmarried sisters. Two she remembers as prim and plain and frankly tedious. But the third, the youngest, was – even to a child’s eyes – strikingly different. From what she said, a picture emerged of an electrifyingly lively and attractive woman.

In ‘Obelisk’ I explored how history is shaped and remembered; the way we mould the past into a range of different guises; how stories are handed down from one generation to the next. I summarised the official findings — that Henderson junior died by suicide after shooting his father. But in trying to find some reason that went beyond the coroner’s catch-all ‘while the balance of his mind was upset’ I raised the possibility of the widowed Henderson senior and his son both being attracted to their beautiful neighbour. Henderson senior’s account of what happened, as told to the police, was confused. In the circumstances, that may not be surprising or suspicious, but it raised many questions and left me wondering whether the Lisburn Tragedy was attempted murder followed by suicide, or actual murder followed by attempted suicide.

Does the passage of time absolve me from any censure? I know the dead can’t be libelled, but does that mean they have no rights? Putting information and speculation that cast doubt on the official version into the public domain was certainly not welcomed by family members. Should I have unsettled my mother and her sisters with questions that made them doubt the truthfulness of what their parents told them? Was it my place to alert them to fabrication within a family’s narratives? Is it acceptable to lay bare on the page what the surviving relatives of the woman who may have been at the heart of it would have preferred to keep unsaid? Even at this remove of years they were sensitive to scandal and reputation. I have no answers to this swarm of questions. I guess they simply go with the territory. They still buzz around me whenever I think about what happened at Holborn Hall over a century ago. Exploring such things inevitably raises doubts aplenty. However frustrating it may be, accepting that they’re unresolvable is part and parcel of writing about subjects like the Lisburn Tragedy.

My title, ‘Obelisk’, stemmed from where both Henderson Ritchies are buried. They lie in the remote burial ground of Umgall, near Templepatrick. The grave is marked by a fifteen-foot-high stone obelisk. Standing beside it, I remembered from Pliny’s Natural History that the Egyptian word for obelisk is ‘tekhen’, which also means ‘sunbeam’. For a moment that made me hope the monument might cast light back across the years, illuminate what happened, that its inscription would reveal true feelings. But that’s just wishful thinking. More to the point, ‘obelisk’ shares an etymology with ‘obelus’, the sign used in manuscripts for marking errors, for flagging up suspect words and interpolated passages. There’s no way of knowing whether the inscription – ‘In Loving Memory of my Son Henderson Ritchie’ – was prompted by love and forgiveness, or by guilt and repentance, or just by obedience to what was expected. Raising the essay’s wordy obelisk uncovered many questions about what exactly happened on that October night in 1898. In the end, we’re left with probabilities and guesswork rather than the clarity of certainties.

Chris Arthur lives in St Andrews. His most recent essay collection is Hummingbirds Between the Pages. Among his writing prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Prize, the Akegarasu Haya Prize, and the Times Higher/Palgrave Macmillan Writing Prize in the Humanities.

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