On the Threshold

Tom Nairn

  • Frameworks for the Future
    Northern Ireland Office, 37 pp, February 1995
  • Northern Ireland: The Choice by Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden
    Penguin, 256 pp, £6.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 14 023541 8

Hyndford Street is a brick-built working-class row looking like hundreds of others. Yet it is to this terrain that the almost unbearable nostalgia of Van Morrison’s music always returns. The outside world now mainly sees Protestant Belfast in terms of Ian Paisley Snr, a man who believes that bridges are built primarily to let the Devil in. But the bridges of Morrison’s music have connected Hyndford Street outwards to a strange semi-mystical realm of angels, children and (ultimately) the Calvinist Nirvana of clear water and silence – Hymns to the Silence was his last double album:

I wanna go out in the countryside
Oh, sit by the clear cool crystal
Water, get my spirit way back to the feeling
Deep in my soul, I wanna feel
Oh so close to the One, close to the One,
Close to the One, close to the One
And that’s why I keep on singin’ baby
My hymns to the silence ...

No one who knows the poems of Hugh MacDiarmid will miss the connection, a contemplative mystique of the absolute. However, MacDiarmid also tried to make himself the voice of a nation, and Morrison is nothing like that for Protestant Ulster people. He is just someone who lives in London, occasionally comes home to sell-out concerts, makes remarks about peace and brotherhood, and then goes away again. Some critics say what he is really harping back to is always that brief era just before the troubles began, when youngsters on both sides of Ulster’s religious divide discovered a musical liberation culture which could take them away from all that – from the old parochial grouses of their respective extended families.

Unlike most of them Morrison had the power to keep on flying. Yet in a sense Hyndford Street has haunted every second of his transcontinental parabola: small terraced houses still awaiting their impossible redemption, an Orangefield of all the epiphanies, beaches somewhere in County Down on which an ocean of transcendence beats.

Too long in exile
You can never go home again
Too long in exile
Too long not singing my song
Too long in exile
Too long like a rolling stone.

In Juris Podnieks’s great film Homeland we see a one-armed man returning from 47 years of American exile to a dark, ruined house in a field overgrown with weeds. He rests in it, overcome with recollections and gazing up through its shattered roof to the sky. ‘I still feel the light’ he says. Against all the odds his Latvia is still in existence, and still able to sing as he remembers from his childhood: a choir in the Baltic forest, a sort of heaven. So you can go home again: home to an imagined community with real foundations which have re-emerged from the wreckage of an empire. A few years ago he would have been forced (like many others) to ask for his ashes to be scattered with flowers somewhere in the sea outside the territorial limit. That was as near the ruined house as exiles were then allowed to go. Special Baltic cruises used to be organised for them. Mocked from both sides of the great imperial divide as nostalgic reactionaries, they crowded together and gazed over the rails at all they would ever see of their countries, a single black line on the horizon.

It is in this context, against this scale and pace of change, that the Northern Ireland peace process should be set. The whole world has changed its skin, not just Ulster. But as the world changes, so does nationalism. Too much emphasis has been placed on die latter as a phenomenon of blood and belonging. Nationalism is also a by-product of the world order itself, the system and general assumptions of the states congregated (rather than ordered) together in the United Nations Organisation. The Baltic émigrés pined for homelands of ancestral song. What brought the latter back to life again, however, was not their commemorations but an international earthquake, the shifting of the tectonic plates on which international relations had been based for half a century. Alter the Wall was demolished no other frontier would ever be the same. Five years later, the internal borders of Ireland have been drawn into the same mutation – a ‘peace process’ reflecting the true end of Cold War stability and empire.

Some verdicts on the process so far still reflect that stability, which was also stagnation. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (1994) is a good example. In a Postscript he foresees disaster for peace because no real movement in Ireland is possible at all: ‘The peace dreamed of, both by Church and State, is as always the peace of nationalist assumptions: the peace that is invariably ultimately identical with the triumph of nationalism and the coming of a united Ireland. The only road to that kind of peace in our time is through civil war ... Things are not better than they were before the ceasefire. They are worse.’

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