Once Upon A Hill, by Glenn Patterson

Echoes of a love across Ireland's frontiers

Nineteen-twenty was an eventful year in the history of Ireland, of Northern Ireland, and of the town of Lisburn. In August occurred the shooting of District Inspector Swanzy, transferred from Cork following his involvement in the murder of that city's republican mayor. Vengeance caught up with him outside Lisburn Cathedral. What followed points up the deadly cycle of reprisal in Ireland, as Lisburn fell victim to mob violence and aggression. Catholic homes and businesses were burnt and looted, and its Catholics fled.

These circumstances are at the centre of Glenn Patterson's narrative. Part memoir, part family history, part idiosyncratic commentary, Once Upon a Hill proceeds in its quirky way, intrepid and compelling. In 1920, Patterson's grandparents, Lisburn born and bred, were at opposite extremes. We're invited to envisage Kate, or Catherine, Logue, with her widowed mother and five-year-old daughter, crouching in terror, perhaps in a neighbour's cellar, while sectarian fury ran its course above her head. Patterson would like to believe his grandfather Jack acted not ignobly; that his concern was his daughter's safety. But he can't be sure.

As with all families, any ancestral shortcomings are apt to be kept under wraps. In 1920, Kate and Jack Patterson were not yet married, due to Jack's formidable mother. Her ideas of social betterment precluded embracing as daughter-in-law a mill-girl and a Catholic. The couple had to wait for Eleanor's death in 1925 before tying the knot.

One of Patterson's aims is to juggle with family myths and facts, finding connections in the plots of different lives. This wonderful, humane and illuminating book comes with copious footnotes, as the author's surplus exuberance spills over into them. It ends with Patterson and his infant daughters in Lisburn's Wallace Park, attempting to locate a famous "lost echo" – thereby encapsulating the story's overriding theme.