In 1979 Northern Ireland, the Troubles are at their most violent, rebels jailed in the most miserable of prisons, the infamous Belfast Maze. Catholics battered by years of violence in the name of the cause, the Brits react in kind, stomping through residences with impunity, searching for contraband weapons, leaving their mark in the detritus of their careless wake.
All is writ in the language of occupation and resistance as one side fighting for a united Ireland; Catholic families are caught in the middle, their loyalty unassailable, children learning of war instead of the camaraderie of childhood. The soldiers, inured to their role, perform with a blank brutality all the more devastating for its implacability.
In a recent raid at his home, Sean Moran, the younger, is arrested for the death of an English soldier. Sent summarily to the Maze, he “takes the blanket,” joining a group of rebels who refuse to wear prison clothing and paint the walls of their cells with excrement as a statement of their independence.
Sean’s mother, Kate, is undone by the arrest of her favorite son, her family traumatized by the rampaging British soldiers who tear their house to bits in search of evidence. True patriots, the Morans keep their silence. Kate’s husband, the senior Sean, continues to comfort himself with the bottle, rehashing his old war stories, proud of his son.
Englishman John Dunn’s life is in stark contrast to the Moran’s ongoing problems. Reporting daily to the Maze, John plods through foul-smelling shifts where a majority of guards survive by fortifying themselves with drink and sharing ribald tales of manly prowess, but all are deeply affected by their duties.
Stunned by the cavalier brutality and lack of discipline around him, John is aware that the others watch him for any sign of weakness or sympathy for the prisoners. Working long, depressing hours, his home life suffers from lack of attention. The Maze is a black hole of bare subsistence where an “us or them” mentality prevails, the incarcerated rebels determined to change their status from criminals to prisoners of war: “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”
The result is pure bedlam, each faction polarized; the guards lurk in the same filthy hell as their prisoners: “The moment you’ve put on that uniform on, you are a target.” For Dunn, hope appears in the person of his son Mark, born of a casual acquaintance years earlier. Mark delivers him from the depressing tedium of his job, Dunn enduring a personal nightmare with his life threatened and family dynamic in constant flux.
Dean explores the effects of long-term conflict on the social fabric of a warring city, each side locked into preordained battle lines. It is the inevitability of violence that defines Belfast in 1979; the contrast between the two sides is striking, immutable and hopeless: “You can’t change anyone’s mind by killing them.” Dean’s characters capture a profound dilemma, a human season, “this springtime of hatred.”