Sometimes the right play, or novel, or poem, comes along at exactly the right moment. Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’, published within days of the IRA’s 1994 ‘complete cessation of military operations’, springs to mind: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
Quietly by Owen McCafferty, which has been playing for the past week in the Abbey Theatre, ahead of a month at London’s Soho Theatre, is a revival (it was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010), but it had never until last month been staged in McCafferty’s native Belfast, where it was received by audiences almost as a new play.
The play dramatises the meeting in a Belfast bar of two men, both aged 52. When they were 16, one of them, Ian, a member of the UVF, had thrown a bomb into that same bar, killing six men, among them the father of the other man, Jimmy.
Ian has asked for the meeting, Jimmy has insisted on the venue, and the timing, the second half of a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Poland, is a further reminder of the bomb attack, which took place during a match between Poland and West Germany in the 1974 World Cup.
The play has much to say about how we in Northern Ireland deal with past events, not just whether we choose to kiss the hand, as it were, but whether we will ever know whose hand we are (or are not) to kiss.
I saw it last Tuesday night – having been asked to take part in an aftershow discussion – and was thinking as I watched of a line from John Calder’s memoir of Paris in the 1940s, In the Garden of Eros: ‘To tidy up history is to distort it.’
Jimmy, in Quietly, desperate to understand what Ian could have been thinking when he threw the bomb into the bar, walks him through the attack frame by frame: ‘Joe behind the bar – Aiden and Brendan at either end of it – Paddy, Frank – and my da – sittin round the TV.’
Even that, though, is ‘just a picture’, not the story. The truth, you could say, happens in real time and in more than one place at once. Any attempt at truth-telling will inevitably be partial. The teller – even the best-intentioned teller – of necessity selects. On occasion this selection will amount to conscious omission. More perniciously, the forms of truth-telling will sometimes be employed in a deliberate attempt to obscure.
In his introduction to The Road: Short Fiction and Essays by Vasily Grossman, Robert Chandler describes the difficulties Grossman encountered as one of the first journalists to write about the Holocaust when the official Soviet line was that all peoples had suffered equally at the hands of the Nazis: ‘A frequently used slogan – all the more effective no doubt because of its apparent nobility – was “Do not divide the dead!”’
There are echoes in that slogan of the appeal in Northern Ireland that there be ‘no hierarchy of victims’. This is not to single out that particular phrase, but rather to suggest that the language of truth recovery (including the words ‘truth recovery’) has been compromised. Repetition has emptied much of it of meaning. Sentences sound more like stratagems than sincere sentiments.
I voiced some of these concerns in the discussion after Tuesday night’s production of Quietly. In the course of the same discussion Patrick O’Kane, who plays (brilliantly) Jimmy, the murder victim’s son, spoke of a movement in the play whereby ‘truth is superseded by honesty’.
It was a stunning insight into a remarkable piece of work, as well as one of the few useful things I have heard spoken on the subject of truth and the past in the last couple of decades.
Whatever transpires in the coming hours behind the walls of Antrim Police Station, where Gerry Adams is being questioned over the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972, let’s hope at least that from now on we get a bit more honesty. An admission from Adams that he was indeed for many years a member of the IRA would be a good start.