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big trouble

October 1968

The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present big trouble by Donal McLaughlin - read more about about Donal McLaughlin.

Liam knew when he woke that morning something was going to happen.

   It was a year maybe since they’d left Derry to go 'n' live in the country, 'n' one of them mornings – bright, sunny - when his mammy & daddy took forever to get up, 'n' something was definitely telling him something was going to happen.

   He rose anyhow. All Sean done, when he did, was roll over. Cahal, likewise, was completely out for the count. His sisters, but, were up - he could hear them; Annette & Ciara, anyway. Up to something, they were. Liam might've been seven 'n' might've been the eldest. Them two were thick as thieves but.

   He went for a wee-wee first, then headed into the scullery. The girls had been up for donkeys, it looked like. Finished their Cornflakes, they were, 'n' doing the dishes. It was good they were trying to help. Liam, himself, was too. It wasn’t long since God had taken their gran, sure, 'n' Daddy’d asked the Big Ones to try 'n' help. They could be getting a new wee baby was the other thing he’d said. Mammy’d need help on that front too. Three-each, it was at the minute - so Liam was hoping, this time, the Boys would go into the lead.

   'You don’t take Cornflakes, don’t you not, Liam?' Annette checked.

   He shook his head just, 'n' she put them back in the larder. He took a taste of Crispies instead. Ciara passed the milk. Making sure it wasn't off, he poured some; listened for the snack-crackle-pop; then started wolfing them down.

   'Take your time, weeboy!' Ciara said - sactly the way their mammy would.


Whatever the girls were up to, they still weren't letting on. Liam was damned if he was going to ask. Not that they were shy about pestering him:

   'We still playing The Band Song, Liam?' Ciara was soon asking.

   'At some point, aye - ' he answered, sounding as bad as their daddy nearly.

   'Ye promised, mind!' Annette warned. 'And the Wee Ones can’t wait!'

   He was making sure it didn't show. Liam but, if he got his way, was for buggering off without them. He wanted peace. That was the advantage of the countryside, sure! All Spring & Summer, he'd been watching things grow. The ladybirds & caterpillars. Catkins & pussy-willow. Even the wee black chicks till the dog next door got them.

   Autumn mist, the forecast was, 'n' he was dying to see the colours: all the different colours in the trees. Autumn was on its way, alright. Ye could feel the change in the air. Sun or no sun (to quote his mammy), ye could feel it.


He finished his Crispies; rinsed the plate out; headed into the living-room to see what themmins were up to. Sean was finally up. Bernadette & Cahal were up 'n' dressed now too. 'Did yis say your morning prayers?' Annette was asking. She'd've been better getting their breakfasts ready.

   Liam soon saw what her & Ciara were up to. They were making firelighters. The Journal’s big pages were a handful, so it was just Ciara & Annette; not the Wee Ones. Liam watched them: starting at a corner; rolling the paper lik their mammy always done. The bit in your hand was wee to start wi; soon got longer 'n' longer but. In no time at all, you'd a stick. The girls knew to wrap it round your fingers, then slip your fingers out of the ring & poke the last bit up through the middle, making sure it held. That way, you'd the wee boats their mammy put the coals on. Sure enough: soon they’d a whole collection, stacked in front of the fireplace, waiting for their mammy to light them.

   The weans were twiddling their thumbs now; at a loss for what to do wi themselves. Were they blind? The place was lik a pig-sty! It wasn't just the night-dresses they'd taken off to put on them. Their daddy's tie was over the settee, his shirt had fallen to the floor. His trousers lay in a heap, beneath the Sacred Heart. His socks, at least, were tucked into his brogues; his cuff-links 'n' tie-pin beside his Gallagher’s Blues.

   It wasn't like their mammy to be untidy. Her shoes were where she'd left them too but; her jacket hung over the door. They must've had visitors. Empty 'n' half-empty mugs 'n' cups were everywhere ye looked. Plates full of crumbs were, as well. A dirty spoon in the bowl had soiled the sugar.

   'We definitely playing The Band Song, Liam?' a certain wee pest asked.

   'Aye, Sean!' Liam snapped. 'Didn't I promise?'

   'Not till Mammy and Daddy are up but,' he added. 'We're not allowed out till they are - '

   The weans looked disappointed. Would just have to be patient.

   'I know what!’ he said, trying to sound excited. ‘We can redd up! See who the best redder-upper is – ‘

   Was either that, or teach them all to spell Czechoslovakia.


There was a dishcloth over the back of the settee, a towel to go back to the toilet. Liam lifted them, folded them. Headed first into the toilet, then the scullery.

   'Gi'e us a hand wi these cups, Ciara, will ye?'

   Ciara gathered the spoons while she was at it. Sean, seeing her, said he'd get the biscuits. Meant he'd the chance to sneak one.

   The place was looking better already: Annette was busy folding Daddy's clothes, Ciara was shoving the papers under the cushions, Bernie took the nightdresses into the bedroom. They sat down to admire the place. Aye, their mammy would be pleased. Definitely.

    The one last thing was the ashtrays. Diabolical the smell was, off them. Holding their noses, Liam lifted one 'n' Ciara the other 'n' they marched them out to the bin.

   Annette grabbed her chance. Liam was hardly back before she started her playacting.

   'God, I could kill a cigarette, Liam!' she said.

   The Wee Ones laughed.

   Liam was fit for her. 'Aye, well ye can smoke your own, woman!'

   He'd to laugh, himself. Specially when he spotted Cahal looking to see was it okay to laugh?

   Annette pretended to huff. 'Okay, ya lousy shite - I will!' And wi a 'See if I care!' sort-of shrug 'n' an 'I'll remember that!' kind-of glare, she was down off the settee 'n' across to the fireplace to lift the nearest ‘boat’. The thing unfurled, soon as she touched it. Not that it mattered – it was the paper stick she was after, sure.

   She held it to her lips, lik she was smoking. The weans laughed again.

   Sean jumped down to join her. 'Gi'e us one, too, Annette! - Gaun!'

   'Roll your own, ye big lump!' she just said.

   The others were killing themselves. Sean tried, struggled wi the big sheet of paper but. Eventually, when he held his fag (as he called it) up, it was two feet long nearly. Cahal was in kinks, so he was.

   By this time, Annette had found the matches. She posed, holding the box, her bare legs wrapped round each other like Auntie Bernie's.

   Ciara egged her on. 'Gaun, Annette! - Light it!'

   'She's goney!' Sean squealed.

   She will 'n' all! Liam realised.

   He thought about trying to stop her, lik his mother 'n' father would expect him to. There was no way she'd burn herself but, he reckoned. Naw, it would fizzle out just, before it got to her mouth, probably.

   Annette took a match out.

   'Gi'e us a light, too, love, will ye?' Sean said.

   He moved his head closer.

   She struck the match 'n' lit the fag 'n' Sean - absolutely shitting himself - jumped back. The amount of smoke 'n' speed 'n' size of the flame were terrible. Wild flimsy the 'cigarette' looked, way the flames were racing up it. Annette froze just.

   'Into the grate!' Liam managed to say. 'Put it in the grate, would ye?'

   She did. They watched the paper burn, the flames licking round it till they just went out by themselves.

   Ye could hear the relief.

   Ciara went over to Annette. 'Are ye alright?'

   Sean just laughed. 'Course she is!'

   Annette said she was. Ye could see she was shaking but.

   'None of this would’ve happened if ye'd let us play The Band Song!' she tried to protest.

   Liam ignored her. 'No-one's to say a word about this, right? We'll be in big big trouble if yis do!'

   'Promise me!' he insisted, lifting the charred papers, to hide them.

   They promised.

   Liam could just hear his daddy but, if anyone opened their mouth. He'd read the bloody Riot Act, he would. To him, especially: 'You that's made your First Holy Communion 'n' all! What age are ye now? Seven-'n'-a-half? Well, ye want to bloody act it!'


It was a good while before first their mammy 'n' then their daddy rose 'n' had their breakfasts.

   The weans sat watching them, willing them on.

   ‘What is it?’ their da – nervous, sort-of – asked at one point.

   ‘Nothing!’ they claimed.

   Their da had hardly finished before he was scooting up to his mother's. On his way home, he’d be dropping in on the Housing Association, he told their mammy. And on the Civil Rights people.

   Soon as the car drove off, their mammy got stuck in. It was time she done the beds, she said. She thanked them for the nice 'n' tidy living-room. No-one mentioned the fire, thank God.

   Sean waited a minute. 'Is it alright if we play out the front, Mammy?' he then called in from the hall.

   'Long as you're careful, aye - '

   'We can do it now!' Sean raced in to tell them. 'We can play The Band Song!'

   'We know! We heard!'

   Ye could see Sean couldn't wait. The weeboy'd not shut up about it, sure, since Liam'd first told them about down the town last week. Everyone'd been talking about the big Civil Rights March. Him 'n' his granda had only seen the Orange one but. Heading down the Strand, they'd been, when they stopped to watch the Parade.

   Liam thought The Band was great. Had never seen anything like it. He loved their bowler hats. The banners, the flutes. The enormous great drums were the icing on the cake. Lumbago drums, his granda called them.

   The tune they played was wild catchy. So much so Liam, who was constantly humming it, had the rest of them humming it, too. ‘The Band Song’ was their name for it. Their daddy called it ‘The Sash’. The words were a bit hard for children lik. Ireland wasn't just Ireland, for example, but Erin's isle. And the past wasn't the past but bygone days of yore.

   'It rhymes wi sash my father wore,' their da'd explained.

   'It's supposed 'n' all to put the fear of God into us Catholics,' he'd added, looking at their mammy only but.


Now they'd the all-clear, the rest of the mahoods couldn't get ready quick enough. Ciara & Annette appeared wi every pot in the house. They'd the lids to use as cymbals 'n' all. 'Mammy's knitting needles'll be the drumsticks,' Annette was telling the Wee Ones. The ones wi the plastic row-counters gave off a nice sound.

   Liam, it was, who minded the dishcloths. He fetched them from the hot-press 'n' put the green one round his shoulders. Annette grabbed the other. The rest made do wi toilet-paper. It was comical, right enough: the way Bernie's kept tearing 'n' Cahal's was all twisted.

   The next thing they needed was hats. The closest they had was cowboy hats. Sean looked his Big Chief head-dress out, was told to put it back but. 'It'll ruin the effect, wee boy,' Annette was claiming. The fruit bowl was sent back 'n' all. It wasn’t that kind of orange, Liam explained to Cahal. It was a different kind.

   He was starting to lose his patience, Liam.

   'Are yis taking this seriously or not?'

   "We are! We're taking it seriously!' the weans all protested.


He was lining them up in the back hall when the needles gave Liam another idea.

   'Wait here!' he said.

   He found an old jotter, tore all the clean pages out, returned to the kitchen wi a pen. All eyes, the others watched. Writing down names, Liam was - a different page for each. PAISLEY was first. Then O'NEILL. FAULKNER 'n' HUME followed.

   Liam paused to study what he'd done. The rest, looking too, were none the wiser. Sean was the one to ask: 'What ye doing, Liam?'

   'Ye'll see in a minute!' he said.

   Ye could see he was working it out. When he lifted the pen again, it was to add IN or OUT. PAISLEY was IN, 'n' O'NEILL OUT.

   HUME had to be IN. He was a friend of their da's, after all, 'n' wild civil. Their gran – their other gran: their daddy’s mammy - raved about him.


   Liam done some DOWN WITH STORMONT!s while he was at it.

   ‘You’re forgetting ONE MAN, ONE VOTE’ Ciara minded him.

   He done some of them 'n' all; then pierced each page, top 'n' bottom. All he’d to do now was take each sheet 'n' poke up a needle through the holes.

   Pleased as Punch, he was, as he handed out his placards.

   Tripping over themselves, the rest of them were now, to get out. Liam lined them up at the gate. Once they were all in position, he lifted the latch 'n' they filed out, their placards under their arms. Soon, they were marching along past the chapel, stopping only to bless themselves.

   Beating their drums, they were.
   Left, right. Left, right.
   And banging the lids off the pots.
   And humming for all they were worth.
   Sure I am an Ulster Orangeman, Liam started giving it. From Erin's isle I came -
   That was all he minded but. All any of them minded. After that, it was dih dih dih just.

   They were reaching the chorus as they approached the local MACE. Mrs Jackson, if ye don't mind, was greeted wi It is green but it is beautiful, if ye don’t mind, as she left wi her groceries. For once in her life, she smiled. She even looked as if she forgave them for the time they broke her window.

   Dih dih dih dih dih-dih dih-dih-dih, dih-dih-DIH-dih dih dih dih --

   It wasn't like him, either: your man from above The Bar smiled 'n' all but.

   Me-e father wore it as a YOUTH i-in by-gone day-s of yore, Liam roared finally, his eyebrow giving the signal for the rest to join in:

And it's on the TWELFTH,
I-I love to wear -
the-e SASH me fa-a-ther wore!


Another verse & chorus, 'n' they were back at the house. Wee Cahal was full of it. 'The Band Song's great, Liam, isn't it, Liam?' he kept repeating.

   A pause, kind-of, followed – as if they were taking a rest. Liam knew fine, but, what was next. Something’d distracted him just. Out of the corner of his eye, he'd spotted Mrs McKinney up at her window - her hair all over the place, as usual. The oul bitch was hanging out even, big lump of a woman though she was. She looked lik she was raging - not that Liam let that stop him.

   'PAISLEY IN' he chanted, punching the air with his placard. 'FAULK-NER OUT!'

   The Wee Ones repeated it after him, waving their own placards.

    It was The News they were playing at now, not what he seen with his granda. The News was boring usually. It could be scary 'n' all but – if Paris or Czechoslovakia was on. Derry wasn’t scary, apart from last week. Derry being shown was normally great. His da, sure, would recognise people. And his mammy could always spot the different places. Naw, there was no need to be feart. Not if you trusted in God, there wasn’t, 'n' if the B-Specials stayed put 'n' didn't draw their truncheons. Last week was different but. The RUC had lashed out. Had aimed for people's heads. On the TV, it was, when Liam got home with his granda. Bloody brutes, his da had roared when they baton-charged the marchers.

   ‘FITT IN!’ Liam shouted next. - Annette looked at him, puzzled.

   ‘Gerry Fitt!’ he told her. ‘Not fit with one “t”!’

   It was as if Fitt’s name started Ciara singing: We shall over-co-o-me

   They knew the words to this one, alright. Their da had taught them in the car. The Band Song but, they all agreed, was catchier. The way folk sung this one made ye sad.

   Not enough of them were joining in so Ciara gave We shall not, we shall not be moved a go instead. They didn’t join in for that one either but. A few more chants of PAISLEY IN, FAULKNER OUT 'n' that was it, more or less. Everything petered out. Cahal confusing his INs an’ OUTs was the final nail in the coffin. He’d the rest of them in fits, the weeboy. Shouting the sact opposite, he was, of what was wrote on their placards.

   The weans, having had their fun, were heading back in. Liam pretended to do the same 'n' shut the gate behind them. Soon as no-one was looking but, he was off down the lane.

   On his own, he wanted to be. To look at nature. See how things were turning.


Unbeknown to the weeboy as he fingered fallen leaves, Mrs McKinney was down at their door the minute their da got out of the car. Demanding to know what kinda father he was supposed to be? she was. What kinda way did he think he was rearing his youngsters? A bloody buckin disgrace it was: way they were out there chanting 'n' singing - Protestant filth, if you don't mind! - this morning. On her way to the Chapel House she was, to tell. That weeboy Liam was a disgrace. No fit example for his younger brothers 'n' sisters. Shocking, it was. If it was a child of hers, she’d march him up the road to Confession. Straight up. Take him by the ear, she would.

Donal McLaughlin

About Donal McLaughlin

Donal McGlaughlin

Derry born, Donal McLaughlin has lived in Scotland since 1970. He works as a writer and literary translator both in Scotland and around Europe. His translation work includes a stage version of The Reader (with Chris Dolan); a bilingual edition of the poems of Stella Rotenberg; and over 50 German-Swiss writers for recent anthologies.

In 2002, Donal and Janice Galloway co-edited a selection of work from Slovenia. Donal has since edited two further anthologies which focus on Latvia and Scotland.

His short stories have appeared to great acclaim in numerous magazines and anthologies. His first collection – an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories  (Argyll) – appeared in September 2009. Scottish PEN’s first Écrivain sans frontières, Donal is also a recent recipient of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award. He has represented the City of Glasgow in both Berne (Scottish Writing Fellow) and Nuremberg (Hermann Kesten Fellow).

For more information visit www.donalmclaughlin.wordpress.com

The inspiration behind the story

big trouble is a new Liam story. The idea for my Liam stories came from the Franz Kien stories of the German writer Alfred Andersch. Andersch created Franz Kien to write about the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich – and added to this 'loose sequence' of stories with each new collection he published.

Set in the 1970s, the Liam stories move between the West of Scotland and Northern Ireland and use the languages and voices of both places. In an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories, the Liam stories alternate with others which have more recent and international settings. Certain themes recur in both strands of the book. The O'Donnells are thus seen to be part of a wider community.

big trouble, set in 1968, might be seen as a prequel. In this story, the O'Donnells have yet to emigrate to Scotland.

The decision to attempt the story came while I was in Nuremberg as a Hermann Kesten Fellow. A visit to the Party Rally Grounds – where the National Socialists held rallies from 1933-1938 – got me thinking about such events generally: about the power of propaganda, parades, and political paraphernalia - and media coverage of the same. A memory from my own childhood made me realise how e.g. television news can colour the perceptions and actions even of young children – with sometimes funny (but actually not) consequences. From that memory grew this story.

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