In the introduction to her excellent – indeed seminal and unprecedented – anthology of Ulster prose,[*] Patricia Craig remarks that for her collection Northern Ireland is to be regarded as ‘a geographical rather than a political entity; it consists of seven counties, not the partitioned six or the historic nine. Donegal seems to be inescapably part of the “North”, whereas Cavan and even Monaghan have a less decided orientation. I cannot, for example, think of Patrick Kavanagh as a Northern writer, any more than I would wish to allocate Peadar O’Donnell to the South.’ Donegal is part of the North, yes, but it’s also the place many Northerners go to escape from ‘Norn Ireland’, as we sometimes call it, mimicking one of the province’s accents – an accent Gerard Manley Hopkins termed Chaucerian. Outside the tight wee six is another county famous for its healing powers, a mountainous, often boggy, lough-shining region wedged between the Border and the Atlantic. In the summer months, this particular coastal village is full of Northerners who make merry with those few Southern visitors who return here annually. We gaze out at the blue enormous bay, its long curving marram strands, its islands and roshans and purple hills with the white quartzy dome of Errigal beyond – we stare out and agree that this must be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. The moist light moves and zings like a Jack Yeats painting – in a different climate these immense empty strands would be lined with concrete hotels. Seasoned and seasonal visitors, we mellow out into the illusion of dwelling in the place. And because we come back again and again, we remember our childhoods here and watch our children swim and play just as we did back in the Fifties when things were intensely peaceful, the fish more plentiful, the crabs ready to be hoked in sackfuls.
Talking to friends here – friends I’ve known for nearly forty years – I almost persuade myself that I’m still living on this island and have just motored across the Border into this great good place where we pull mackerel, cobalt and frantically glistening, out of the Atlantic, then head down to Rankin’s Hotel where we sit up till the small hours singing and shouting and telling stories. Last night and the night before, as Van Morrison intones in ‘Coney Island’, the crack was good.
I could gunge on about my holiday for ages and hack out the praises of a resort I don’t quite want to name, for that might spoil it – or at least my consumption of it. Like Joyce Cary in his exuberant Donegal memoir A House of Children, I could disguise the names of people and places and rewrite as he does To the Lighthouse, but changing Woolf’s dreary Bloomsbury chic into the new Ulster chic, all tatie farls, cute hominess and dacency – Corny Island, in fact. Taking Joyce Cary’s cue, I could disguise the names of people and places, make Lough Foyle into Mannanen, the longest sea lough in Ireland, and turn Ernie McCleery into Sam Watt or the Bubble. Was it Rankin’s Hotel I mentioned? Not at all, it was the Dolmen Bar – named for the famous dolmen in Kilclooney, a place so small it’s hard to find on any map.
‘Would Kilclooney mean church field?’ I ask Barry as we sit in the bar in the heel of the day.
‘It would, Tomás,’ he says, then instantly produces etymologies and all sorts of words in Irish – way beyond the dozen I vaguely know, and can never pronounce right.
Barry has two languages and can shift in and out of them at will. Our talk races, though behind it he’s being very courteous with my ignorance. Far away from the contortions of the English class system, what swirls under our words is the wish to find a happy raft on which we can skim those rapids, political and theological, that we hit from time to time. Agin the IRA, agin Loyalist nay-saying, we still carry baggage from our respective tribes. Is he annoyed that I think the state he belongs to is a comic-opera republic dominated by grim plausible bigoted clerics who are clawing back the power they lost when the Bishop of Galway fled to South America? What are his views really about abortion? Didn’t he wince when I said Noel Browne’s fearless autobiography Against the tide reduced me to helpless tears? For Browne fought the Hierarchy and lost. So should we really start talking about Church and State or should we just agree that it’s great to be back in this wonderful time-warped place where we can still see ourselves, aged five or six, running down the strand into the breakers?
It’s this sense of time running backwards that makes for a strange feeling of stasis and innocence. Meeting my almost-name-sake Tommy Pallin at the harbour, I feel we haven’t really changed since we were kids, though externally we’re two middle-aged balding men who intersect here every summer. We reassure ourselves with a few minutes’ chat, then jump off the high wall and smash down deep into the water. Hitting the surface again we laugh – great cure for the hangover, ah great altogether. Maybe if we saw each other more often we would in that ominous Ulster phrase really talk, but we don’t and we’re happy that way, for we’re on our holyers fifty or so miles outside Northern Ireland where on 27 August the Troubles claimed their 3000th victim.
There used to be a noticeboard in front of a church in the centre of Belfast with a cross for every victim, but when the church shut its doors sometime back, the noticeboard was taken down. That noticeboard is behind a poem ‘Spot the ball’ which Frank Ormsby wrote in the Seventies:
We persevere from habit. When we try
These days our hope’s mechanical, we trust
To accident. We are selective
No longer, the full hundred crosses
Filling the sky.
It was Craig Raine who pointed out that this is a poem which finds a perfect metaphor for imagining the end of the Troubles. One hundred crosses. Three thousand. Four thousand? What kind of a game is this? It isn’t a game.
On 28 August the Irish Times published a four-page section which listed all the victims to date (there have been more murders since). An editorial pointed out that in European terms this would mean proportionately 100,000 dead in France, 150,000 in the new Germany, and in Great Britain close to 120,000 dead. The newsfilm of funerals, grieving relatives, the details of killings and woundings that surface casually in conversation all form part of the – would the term be? – discourse of this holiday.
In a damp bar just across the Border, I listen to an old man I know bitterly criticise the IRA, then suddenly, but it’s linked, he shifts to describing how a young IRA man was ambushed near an arms dump: ‘The whole town’ heard him pleading with the soldiers for mercy before he was shot.’ ‘Is that so?’ I say, a polite nothing that hides a confused mulch of attitudes – rule of law, Gibraltar, squaddies, seen their mates shot, only makes it worse, martyrs, as Leopold Bloom might muse. We hear the biff biff of two helicopters above the council estate on the hill. Then he describes a recent shoot-out: helicopters and SAS men waiting at the bridge, shooting, a wounded IRA man hiding in the roofspace of a row of council houses and moving from one to the other as the houses are searched again and again. The estate is sealed off for three days, they know he’s in there but can’t find him, then a foot patrol rummages some bloody bandages out of a dustbin, they search the house a third time and the man’s discovered hiding inside a divan bed. He was just out of jail – done ten years and now he’s back in.
‘I saw a Tricolour,’ I begin to ask. ‘On a pole stuck in a grave. None of the other graves had a flag over it.’
He tells what happened, impassioned and exact: a soldier giving the kiss of life to a youth, a slip of a lad, he’d just shot – ‘he had to shoot him, they set him up’ – ‘who’s they?’ – ‘INLA, they set the poor kid up and told him to charge the army post – thon’s his grave with the Tricolour you were asking about.’
What’s it like to be nailed down here? Not to be a visitor consuming the place like a commodity, ready to head for the ferry at Larne and that backward glance into a bloody imaginary theme park? So the ur-voice says: a word in your ear, friend, you’ve no right to say anything about this place. Come you on back and live here, then you can talk.
Back in Donegal, reading the papers and watching the Ulster News I feel a voyeur, a political tourist. It’s then, for whatever reason – self-disgust, self-consciousness, that guilty intermittent sense of whatever breathing down your neck – it’s then when you’re in company that you start to stir things and the late-night arguments begin. A gaggle of friends and relatives will sit up till dawn tearing the shite out of each other. But that hasn’t happened this year, in fact it hasn’t happened for years this sudden setting-to, this – it’s an obscene UDA term for their interrogation tactics – this conversational romper room where all the knives come out and someone says to someone else: ‘Just let me tell you what I really think of you, yuh fuckin middle-class wanker ye.’ I’ve never had this experience in England and have never missed it. Like George J. Watson in his wry and subtle autobiographical piece in The Rattle of the North I believe that English culture, though it’s often a lot less fun than the Irish, contains a core of calm and civility I can never reach, only admire – admire or begrudge. Or admire and begrudge.
For all the beauty of Ulster – its great human hospitable warmth and talk and joyous spirit, its cultural zest and variously lovely landscapes which C.S. Lewis and other writers in Craig’s anthology so tenderly celebrate – for all the abounding glittering jet, as Yeats would never say, of this region – there is another side to the lived experience of the place which cries out for embodiment. And with a deft irony that’s typical of the place, Craig courageously pulls the rug from under any cosy Ulsterness in her sixth and final section. Reading through it, I find she has generously included an essay on Ian Paisley which I published in this journal a decade ago. For Craig, Paisley is an ‘archaic’ figure, but I wonder if this isn’t a shade dismissive? Ireland is time-warped, true, but only in relation to other European countries. In itself it is, well, itselves, a sort of shimmering incorrigible monolith of fixed attitudes that may or may not be shifting slightly. (‘Protestants Cannot be Forced Into A United Ireland – Sinn Fein,’ reads a headline on page four of the Irish Times. Maybe in the talks, maybe there’ll be some federal arrangement? I say to Barry as we sit in the Dolmen Bar beneath a Colm Melly primitive of the harbour where a winsome thatched cottage has magically replaced a Loyalist’s breezeblock bungalow.
‘No chance,’ he says. ‘There’ll be nothing for five years. Someone I know – tell you his name later – what he says is, Molyneaux’s thick, Paisley’s stonewalling – he’ll walk out any day now – and Hume, he looks wrecked – just makes procedural points only – there’ll be no movement for five years, then Robinson, Peter Robinson, he’ll try to make a deal. That’s the word.’
‘Aye, I heard that.’
‘Oh did you so? Well be-God let’s talk about something else then.’
A moment of danger – have we hit the rapids? I wonder. But we haven’t, for he’s a Southerner and they’re civilised. How I admire their carefree hedonism. They seem to live, as Wilde would say, entirely for pleasure.
But it’s those moments of danger – danger, not embarrassmentent – that I want explained, and in Craig’s anthology they’re confronted passionately and brilliantly by Polly Devlin in her autobiographical essay ‘Meeting Brooke-borough’. Devlin describes a humiliating childhood experience where on a visit to Warren-point, the Northern seaside resort that gave Denis Donoghue his bigotry, a ‘shiny’ Protestant girl asked, ‘Are you a Roman?’ and Devlin denied her faith. Denied it because she felt ashamed and wanted to be accepted. Thirty years later, Devlin and her sister Eiram realise that it was a crucially significant moment. With a pitch and directness I recognise and admire, Eiram says she feels the humiliation of self-betrayal and understands
the thing of racial self-hatred, where a race turns in on itself, and feeds on the memories of inferiority, of others being superior. We hate our selves both for letting it happen, for being inferior, and for allowing ourselves to become so. But how could we not? It’s where the IRA get part of their angry energy. We all know how you can demoralise an Irishman. Nobody is easier to demoralise by parading manners and social graces, and by making him feel socially ill at ease. That way you can make almost any Irish person feel uneasy or inferior. But touch him, lay a finger on him and he’ll kill you.
A sense of inferiority and a gut aggression that flares when you’re crossed – this is a significant part of the psychic landscape both communities inhabit. It’s there in Paisley’s complaint to the House of Commons in 1973 that Loyalists are being made to feel ‘like second-class citizens’ – i.e. like Catholics – and it is part of the legacy of ‘self-hatred and dolorousness’ which Devlin so vividly analyses.
All words to do with physical contact, she argues, have a ‘strange ambivalence’ in Ulster: ‘The word “touch” is interchangeable with the world “hit”. “Don’t touch her” means “Don’t beat or hit her” never “Don’t caress her.” ’ And in a very powerful paragraph Devlin analyses the way ‘our voices take on a vehemence and a passion that gives a dangerous edge to ordinary communications.’
As I leave my parent’s house with its for sale sign and overgrown hedges, my mother hands me a battered card folder which I open when the car’s stuck in the queue of cars for the Stranraer ferry. Inside is an old school report – Rosetta Primary P3 – and a photograph from the Daily Mail, 9 June 1914 which shows Sir Edward Carson with his volunteers in Belfast. Among the ‘parade of nurses attached to the West Belfast Regiment’ is my grandmother, fifth from the end. Turning the photograph over I find part of a news story:
Encamped here on the hills of Netheravon, in sight of Stonehenge, the scene of ancient sacrifice, is the new army of the air. Rows of iron buildings, a long stretch of white hoods, contain this new machine without which a modern army would fight a well-nigh hopeless battle. This the first great concentration camp of British airmen has settled down for a month’s training, in which almost every day discovers great possibilities.
Maybe there’s a poem in this? I reflect as the queue shows no sign of moving ... But why is Carson, Sir Edward, not in this Ulster Reader? And why has Edna Longley been excluded? I can see that Donoghue is a more graceful prose stylist, but an Ulster anthology without Edna? That’s strange. The knives will be out in Belfast, but then neither Craig nor I live there any longer. And that’s our fault too.
[*] The Rattle of the North: An Anthology of Ulster Prose. Blackstaff Press, 456 pp., £9.99, 25 June, 0 85640 464 0.