My review of “The Metal Mountain” by John Healy

the metal mountain

IT  is 30 years since John Healy wrote his classic “Grass Arena”  his autobiography of growing up Irish in London. Published at a time when the Irish in Britain were going through a time of renaissance from politics in groups such as IBRG to culture and  bookshops such as Green Ink Books.

John was part of a new group of writers who published books about issues that were not mainstream including; anti-Irish racism, identity and history. He joined authors such as Maude Casey who wrote another classic “Over the Water” and Moy McCrory’s “The Water’s Edge”. Books that spoke to the experience of the Irish over here and an Irish that was overwhelmingly working class.

over the water

“The Metal Mountain” is set in 1950s Britain and is about the lives of the Docherty family, Irish immigrants who have survived the Second World War, and are bringing up their children in a bombed out London. The mother, Mary Jane, takes the children to the local Queen’s Coronation party only to be excluded because of her Irishness – even though the children were born in England.  Retreating into Catholicism she represses her hurt and anger. Sean, the father, keeps his anger locked up as he takes the only jobs available for him as a navvy.

Nine year old, Michael,  tries to understand why his mother has been excluded from the party and then listens to her lying to his father about the reason why. He walks through his local area surrounded by  angry signs about him and his family: “Filthy Irish Pigs Go Home.” Maybe that is why he becomes his mother’s right hand,  even going down to the train station to meet his auntie Bridget.

Mary Jane’s sister, Bridget, arrives with a handful of school certificates  and  is not prepared to put up with this discrimination. Unlike Mary Jane she will not try to escape reality  through her Catholic faith, instead she  starts to agitate about the injustice experienced by her countryfolk. But when she is followed by Special Branch and interrogated at a police station she begins to understand the perimeters of her civil rights as an Irishwoman. Her experience reflects how some Irish people through organisations such as the Connolly Association did take up very unfashionable issues including the ongoing occupation of the North of Ireland as well as the rights of the Irish in this country.

connolly association

Irish Democrat newspaper of the C.A.


For me the novel really comes alive with Healy’s description of London. The scene in the local washhouse is mesmeric  and poetic –  a place  where the local women  of all colours and ethnicities  meet .Through Michael’s eyes we watch this weekly ritual and share  his fascination with the work and the women’s bodies.

The theme running through the novel is  emigration and the price that the Irish have paid to find work in this country. The Dochertys fled the Black and Tans in Ireland for work and a new life in Britain,  but their life changes little as they are choked by the ongoing racism and  everyday discrimination.

Healy captures the way in which some Irish people were walking down a long dark tunnel during this period of history. Missing  though is the way the Irish fought back through humour, poetry and song. “ The Metal Mountain” is an elegy to  the past history of the Irish in a world that has been forgotten.

Price £14.95. Published by Etruscan Books. Buy it here

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in book review, Catholicism, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to My review of “The Metal Mountain” by John Healy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s