Diary

Edna Longley

On the 11th of July the Belfast-London shuttle was an airlift by jumbo-jet. But the exodus I joined had nothing to do with political panic. It meant holiday-time – ‘the Twelfth fortnight’. The Protestants left behind to march, and Catholics left behind to object to their marches, were mostly those who couldn’t afford Corfu. In The Crack: A Belfast Year [1] Sally Belfrage notes: ‘A look at the class-composition’ of the Twelfth procession was ‘to see overwhelmingly the poor, albeit with the gentry to the fore, and it ill becomes middle-class snobs to sneer at this celebration of who they were.’ I was deserting this ‘genuine people’s festival’, this dangerously alive piece of folklore, for an academic conference on Irish drama. However, the dust of Ulster is not so easily shaken off: at the University of Caen there were video-clips of something called ‘the Northern play’, a dramatic form which now interests Continental professors. Searching for origins, they might turn to the first page of Northern Windows,[2] where William Carleton tells how ‘for some years after the Rebellion of ’98 a bitter political resentment subsisted between Protestants and Catholics ... The plays of the Siege of Londonderry and The Battle of Aughrim were acted in barns and waste houses every night.’ Back home, too, middle-class Belfast watches working-class Belfast on TV, in fact and fiction. But viewing the familiar mayhem at a seminar in France made me more conscious of the processes whereby a slice of life ends up as a critical category.

Ireland is used to being processed abroad: whether in the memories of ‘exiles wandering over lands and seas’, or by IASAIL (the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature) and ACIS (American Conference for Irish Studies). The latter has two thousand members, nearly four hundred of whom came to Dublin in June for a special 25th-anniversary session. A new British Association for Irish Studies has entered the fray, as eagerly as if the two countries had only just met. Like ACIS, BAIS can tap ethnic self-awareness: more subterranean and complex than in the Irish-American instance. Not only indifference or hostility within Britain, but the rhetoric that Ireland and Britain are alien, has left a vast interpenetration largely unexamined. Indeed, all the sins of omission may point to inadmissible ties.

Not that Declan Kiberd, director of the Yeats Summer School, would admit them. Citing the ideas of Edward Said, he recently argued that ‘ “Irishness” is simply the experience of being endlessly defined and described, derided and defended, by others.’ This is a bit odd coming from a man who annually invites the likes of Said and Terry Eagleton to address a largely non-Irish student body in Sligo. Irish studies is inevitably a net-importer, because indigenous academic resources are not large enough to grapple alone with an exceptionally demanding literature and history. Kiberd is, in fact, a victim of Southern Irish post-colonial trauma (both sides in the North fiercely resist being defined etc by others). He says: ‘We lose if we uncritically accept the old racialist stereotypes. We lose if we critically reinterpret them, because we are still sanitising a slur. And yet we lose also – even to the point of abjection – if we deem them serious enough to deserve refutation.’ Perhaps we win if we stop thinking about external audiences and concentrate upon ourselves. Kiberd’s prose implicitly enjoys all the attention. Ireland has not only been a helpless text for foreign readers: the historic need to explain the national case to the world has involved some propagandist editing which, out of habit, we displace onto the oppressor to add to his own sins. Kiberd is himself appealing to an unrevised passive-suffering model of Irish history.

Because Ireland’s self-image exacts a positive feedback, outside commentators often function as fans rather than as critics. Thus Robert Garratt [3] for the most part respectfully backs off from evaluation. He takes refuge in literary history, and in the same way that poets themselves have done. But American deference is the least of our problems from that quarter. Several members of ACIS have done admirable work to combat simplistic views of Irish culture and politics (i.e. NORAID) in the US. One of the attractions of Irish studies is that scholarship has a chance of becoming relevant to current events. This is due not only to still-volcanic conditions but to the country’s size, to the shorter distances between interdisciplinary components. However, the sentiment-level of ACIS rose at a banquet in Trinity College when a harper played and an American academic sang Moore’s Irish melodies. The downmarket, or radical chic, version of this is Sally Belfrage (American by birth) getting carried away in Andersonstown: ‘There is little in my life’s experience, except maybe singing round a campfire as a child, that makes me feel so fully a part of the people of the planet as a night in an Irish Republican club. It has a lot to do with the music.’ The singing is of course expressly geared to removing other people from Ireland, if not from the planet. Ms Belfrage goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton: ‘For all their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad.’ This is a fair specimen of colluding propagandas. Irish critics with a Nationalist perspective deconstruct (ungratefully) the legacy of Thomas Moore – strictly for the English, like Arnold’s Celticism – but not the patriotic ballads of Thomas Davis. Those who are truly purist about Irish traditional music, including a number of Northern Protestants, deplore both.

The processing of contemporary Northern Ireland is a more delicate matter than yet another inquest on the Irish Literary Revival, although the former can skew the latter when Anglo-Irish Protestant writers are stigmatised as ‘colonial’ or even ‘Unionist’. Once again we meet outsider-researchers with their notebooks and/or fixed ideas (The Crack has the merit of becoming confused as its notes accumulate), but also two conflicting native narratives. Ms Belfrage quotes a Republican graffito after nine RUC men and women were killed in their Newry canteen: RUC FOOD IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH. Recently, during the Apprentice Boys’ parade in Derry (counterpart of Carleton’s play), youths wore badges proclaiming ‘Loughgall 8, wasn’t it great.’ (The security forces had killed eight IRA men at Loughgall.) There is also the problem of interviewee-fatigue. Ms Belfrage ‘interviewing the most unlikely people ... got used to the idea that I was the fourth interviewer they’d had that week.’ Belfast is ‘chock-a-block with journalists, academics, social scientists, photographers, every kind of pundit’. Too true. A local academic like myself sometimes has to help out on the other side of the tape-recorder. I can now offer three for the price of one: my viewpoint as a literary critic, as a woman, as a Southerner who lives in the North. Since all these roles remove me from the epicentre, if there is one, it is not as a complacent insider that I reflect on the difficulty of telling it how it is, best phrased by Paul Muldoon in ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’:

For there’s no such book, so far as I know,
As How it Happened Here,
Though there may be. There may.

‘Pancho Villa’ symbolises the phenomenon of ‘the revolutionary tourist’, mentioned by Sally Belfrage without quite realising that she belongs to it. (Perhaps no one used the less polite term ‘armalite-sniffer’.) As such and as a journalist, she feels safe in Andersonstown and comes across ‘friendly bruisers’ in the Sinn Fein office. She has the honesty to quote a diatribe from Workers’ Party activist Mary McMahon: ‘I’m just sick of Brits telling the Irish about the Irish Revolution, and telling the Brits how they are oppressing the Irish.’ (The Troops Out movement exports back to Ireland propaganda that most genuine Irish socialists have outgrown.) Ms Belfrage also quotes a warning she received from Andy Tyrie, UDA leader and unlikely Post-Structuralist: ‘People in Belfast are treacherous conmen: you never know who’s telling the truth. But of course there are different truths.’ Ms Belfrage is a revolutionary tourist in as much as she mainly concentrates on ghetto-Republicans and Loyalist paramilitaries. To some extent she became a prisoner of the prison-culture – which needs liberating from itself. She interviewed some brave working-class bridge-builders, but few SDLP supporters or middle-class Unionists. No RUC or UDR widows. It distorts the entire political dynamics to project Sinn Fein and the UDA as structurally equivalent.

All this interviewing makes the narratives too word-perfect. She is not fully aware of the high political investment in some of the eloquence she admires. If she found Protestants harder to draw out, it is because they reserve their rhetoric for themselves, for keeping courage up within the siege. They can be almost comically unaware of other audiences. In this – to me – territorial conflict, language stakes out territory. Derry or Londonderry. Ulster or the Six Counties. Not a linguistic inch. At a higher level, where languages meet, John Hewitt’s poetry favours the word ‘stubborn’, Seamus Heaney’s the word ‘obstinate’. It follows that rhetorical exclusion is potentially territorial exclusion. Ms Belfrage grasps the point that, in Republican theory, ‘the Protestants don’t fit in. They aren’t even dignified with the name of enemy. The Brits are the enemy.’ Equally, Unionist rhetoric passes over Ulster Catholics, treats the Republic as wholly foreign. Hence the genuine shock of the Anglo-Irish Agreement: the censorship had not only been believed but internalised. As a social psychologist reported at the ACIS conference, there is also ‘no agreement on the nature of political behaviour’.

Republican News condemns Fleet Street’s ‘portrayal of the war of national liberation as a glorified religious squabble’. But historically Presbyterians have regarded the territory as a land promised to nonconformists. The ‘Loyalism’ that defies the British Government is contractarian, not contradictory. In 1985 a clergyman writing in the Church of Ireland Gazette grandly argued that the Ulster border marks the western boundary between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, whose ‘residual sensibilities’ still convulse Ireland. Thus Ulster Protestantism is understood in Scotland, but has lost its audience in an England which forgets one of its own frontiers. By the same token, Sally Belfrage responds with wonderful double-think to hearing ‘God save the Queen’ sung in a UDA club: ‘On the other side of town they played “The Soldier’s Song” and I’d stood happily enough for that: it had involved respect for the customs of others. But this anthem was mine, and in London long ago people had mocked such symbols into oblivion.’

Unitary assumptions about Irish poetry prevent Robert Garratt from perceiving aspects of MacNeice, let alone Yeats, which extend the tradition, rather than leave it behind. ‘Irish subject-matter disappears in some phases of Yeats’s career, and at other times the Irish voice is only faintly audible.’ However, his survey usefully documents the obsession, during the 1930s and 1940s, with making it different from Yeats. This had a political as well as a literary-political thrust. Even in the 1950s Hubert Butler thought the ‘Anglo-Irish contribution to letters ... a chief focus of psychological disturbance’. Perhaps Irish poetry has only gradually lost the idea, absorbed from Irish politics, that you replace one tradition with another, rather than allow multiple lines their evolutionary space. At the same time, it remains an unusually genealogical poetry in constructive ways. John Hewitt, whose inclusion would have complicated Modern Irish Poetry, said in 1945 that a writer ‘must have ancestors. Not just of the blood, but of the emotions, of the quality and slant of mind. He must know where he comes from and where he is: otherwise how can he tell where he wishes to go?’

John Hewitt died in Belfast on 27 June 1987, a few months short of his 80th birthday. A socialist and atheist, he explored in his poetry and prose (a selection of the latter will be published by Blackstaff in November) the full complexity of the Ulster ‘planter’ as ‘no rootless colonist’ – Samuel Ferguson’s phrase. Hewitt had a communal vision of poetry and a poetic vision of community: ‘I may appear Planter’s Gothic, but there is a round tower somewhere inside me and needling through every sentence I utter.’ He fought all that is dark and dead in Unionism; and his cross-sectarian ideal of Regionalism energised writers, painters, and general cultural activity during the post-war period. It recovered ancestral voices and provided some of the basis for a second take-off in the 1960s. Northern Windows, like several works it excerpts, is the kind of book that vindicates Hewitt’s efforts and might not have existed without them. It incorporates the heavy outline of what Hewitt called ‘the major problem of my native province’: Robert Harbinson revelling in the Twelfth (‘Such sights. Such music churning the Protestant blood in our veins’), Bernadette Devlin defying the nuns yet absorbing their Republicanism. But these personal narratives trellis the harsh girders with myriad details: cockle-gathering, the lore of the linen-mills, MacNeice having nightmares in Carrickfergus rectory, all the intimate accents of the conversational ‘crack’ that gives Sally Belfrage her title.

An over-determined history may intensify awareness of the particular and individual. Certainly, the positive side of Ulster territoriality is strong family and local feeling: Sam McAughtry’s simple ‘Nobody in the world could have been happier than we were, when the Dunaff Head came home.’ John Hewitt later decided that he had got Regionalism wrong because ‘there are at least three regions in Ulster.’ But I don’t see much wrong with what he wrote in 1947: ‘Ulster, considered as a Region, and not as the symbol of any particular creed, can, I believe, command the loyalty of every one of its inhabitants. For Regional identity does not preclude, rather it requires, membership of a larger association. And, whether that association be, as I hope, of a Federated British Isles, or of a Federal Ireland, out of that loyalty to our own place, rooted in honest history, in familiar folkways and knowledge, phrased in our own dialect, there should emerge a culture and an attitude individual and distinctive.’

[1] The Crack: A Belfast Year by Sally Belfrage. Deutsch, 309 pp., £12.95, 9 July, 0 233 97955 7.

[2] Northern Windows: An Anthology of Ulster Autobiography, edited by Frank Ormsby. Blackstaff, 265 pp., £10.95, 2 July, 0 85640 375 X.

[3] Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney by Robert Garratt. University of California Press, 322 pp., £19.95, October 1986, 0 520 05567 5.