Sunday, 22 April 2018

Irish Poetry, and the Good Friday Agreement

I vividly remember the announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, which recently saw its twentieth anniversary.  Its hard to imagine such an achievement amid today's squalid politics, but perhaps harder to overstate the optimism which pervaded much of British public life in the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the backdrop to this historic agreement, an agreement borne of painful compromises and difficult decisions. 
 Although I have family in Ireland and have thoroughly enjoyed visiting, my own life has been mercifully untouched by the situation there, which persisted through the 70's, 80's and early 90's under the somewhat understated byword of the "Troubles".  Like the conflict in the Balkans, it raged by varying degrees across the anesthetic distance of a television screen.  I remember a bomb scare disrupting access to the city centre, a television news item about a playground in Belfast being opened for infants in response to childhoods blighted by violence, and the deep sense of injustice in comparison with my own peaceful, and thus comparatively idyllic, young life. It was a world away, but seemed, even to my eight or nine year old eyes, a conflict apparently intractable. I have vague memories of schoolyard squabbles between those of Catholic or Protestant backgrounds, and loyalist and nationalist graffiti in areas of significant sectarian demographics, but this also seemed somehow second-hand, daubed by those safely away from the line of fire. Contrast this with the recollections of the great poet Seamus Heaney:

He was blown to bits   
Out drinking in a curfew   
Others obeyed, three nights   
After they shot dead   
The thirteen men in Derry.   
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   
Everyone held   
His breath and trembled.

The lines breathe fear, and resignation to an inescapable reality. Born to a Catholic family in Derry in 1939, Heaney was certainly far from averse to establishing his own place in the context of Irish political affairs:

Be advised, my passport's green 
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen

and yet was sometimes criticized for the lack of overt focus on the Troubles in his work, or perhaps more accurately the lack of concrete side-taking.  To quote from the BBC's obituary to Heaney, from 2013:

He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

Describing his reticence to become a "spokesman" for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had "an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head".(1)

Indeed, to overlook this is to ignore the degree to which Heaney's distinctly personal or intimate poetry is weighted by the burden of history.  For me, Heaney's poetry distills the tragedy and tension of his people's past in a way which is both more "telling" than many more militant streams of didactic or one-dimensional political poetry.  As Professor Michael Valdez Moses of Duke University, North Carolina, told an audience in October 2013, two months after Heaney's death, at an event entitled Expressing Humanity During The Troubles"He is one of the few poets able to combine political and personal poetry in very striking and unique ways. He literally allows us to see the world differently."

To many readers, far from neglecting the important subjects of Irish politics and their attendant pains, Heaney's work was central to a broader cultural understanding of them.  His poems, interviews and essays articulate the territory with acute sensitivity and detail, and according to Duke's Professor Richard Brodhead, "Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and had the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence."

The disruption of these sudden intrusions seem to hammer beneath the surface of the work of Collette Bryce, who tells us in her poem The Whole-Domed Universe how, I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside, / To the sounds of crowds and smashing glass… and whose work has sometimes recalled the intimidation wrought by soldiers on the streets of her home town.  Such recollections echo the terrible stories of my old colleague Mary Kelly, a former pub landlady who, as we propped up the counter during shifts at Oakwood Library in Leeds, would describe her experiences of growing up in Derry, which involved being shot at and threatened during walks to and from school.
Elsewhere, though, Bryce has reminisced in a way not dissimilar to those who recall playing on the rubble of bombsites during World War Two: was also quite exciting to be raided. I was very young at the time so I didn’t really understand what was going on. We were raided at a particular period of the Troubles when they wanted to pick up every young man in the area. So the bin-lids would go, the women banging them to warn you that the Saracens were coming. It was a common enough occurrence in our neighbourhood. (2)

When I published Nuala Fagan's Not All Birdsong in 2015, one poem which stuck out for me during the editing process was Nuala's subtle History House.  The poem is distinct from others in the book both for its length, and the departure from personal observation, but its inclusion was fundamental to the shape and spirit of the collection, for it places its author deeply in the context of the country of her birth.  I told Nuala at the time that I felt History House somehow articulates the whole of Irish history in its three thematically opaque, yet highly visual, stanzas. For me it i s a poem which speaks of loss and time, of rituals, traditions, questions, and of pain. 


Here is the house,
opened at last
to the public.
On the drive
a blue car and a van
Whose car?
The parents'.
Of no consequence,
they were not there.
The van?
We need to go outside.
An arrow on the stair,
the bed.
Here I lay me down to sleep...

The October orchard
swells beneath the window
with its rowan reds,
yellow pears,
its wares
of fallen apples,
purple plums,
and the sweet smell
of dogwood on the wind.
There is the bicycle
I give my soul to God to keep...

We must go down.
here is the freezer.
Slices of green?
The jacket.
Mixes of red and white?
A swathe of silk?
Spread on the road
And so many rubies?
Scattered everywhere.

My closest connections to the Irish political situation came not during the years of violence, but in the years following the Agreement, when, living in east London, I would visit a Leytonstone bar called The Croppy Acre.  The owner, and most of the clientele, were Irish - from the North and the South, both Catholic and Protestant - and were more than happy to share with me how the previous thirty years had shaped their own lives and worldviews.  The pub's name was, of course, a reference to the burial grounds of the Irishmen killed during and after the 1798 Rising, when those with close-cropped hair were assumed to be in sympathy with the Society of United Irishmen, a republican group.  On the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Easter Rising, Seamus Heaney published Requiem for the Croppies. In the 1960's, he had read this poem to a Protestant audience, and in 2009 told Sameer Rahim in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, To read ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything. It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing. If the work of Seamus Heaney might be said, then, to target the trauma of the Troubles in an historical context, it was the poetry of Belfast born Padraic Fiacc which, to my mind, most humanly expresses it in a Universal sense.  The effects of the period on the Irish people have, rightly, been mostly the subject of most poetry of the Troubles.  In much of this, the British soldiers on the streets of Irish towns and cities seem to figure only as abstract, background presences. This is not so in Fiacc's poem Enemy Encounter, which I first heard in a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast eight years ago, in which the human tragedy of the conflict is brought brutally, unexpectedly, to the foreThe poet describes how, dumping dead leaves near a culvert, he encounters a British Army Soldier /
with a rifle and a radio / Perched hiding.
There is an avuncular note in the narrator's assessment:

He is young enough to be my weenie
-bopper daughter’s boyfriend.

...and the sense of unlikely kinship is furthered when the soldier becomes aware of Fiac's presence:

We are that close to each other, I
Can nearly hear his heart beating.

The delicate balance of the poem's tense lines - reminding me a little of Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting - is bluntly broken by the poem's denouement, which demonstrates both human empathy, and the bleak futility of the conflict:

I am an Irishman
and he is afraid
That I have come to kill him.

Few poets, says Fiacc's fellow Irish poet Brian Patten, have faced up to contemporary Irish history like Fiacc. Without wishing to denigrate other poets, for me it is the torn soul of Padriac Fiacc that has mirrored the modern history of Belfast and its troubles like no other writer. He is the shadow falling across the conscience of so many poets, the elephant at the literary tea party. It would seem at first that he is a political poet, but that would not do him justice. It is empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals, for all on either side of the great divide, that shines through his work. (3)

As I began by saying, I find it almost impossible to imagine such an achievement as the Belfast Agreement taking place today.  Against a backdrop of insecurity, extremism and economic instability, our quests for answers seem to have led to the rise of divisive figures and an ideological impasse, an atmosphere of cynicism and fear for which the spirit and optimism of two decades ago would serve as a deeply needed balm.  When former US President Bill Clinton addressed in his remarks to the community the Irish public in Londonderry in November 1995, neither they nor he could have known that within three years the Belfast Agreement would have been signed, ushering in a cautious cessation to a conflict that had lasted three decades, nor the manifold ways in which the world would change during the years to follow. But in his address, Clinton quoted from Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, from 1991.  In the opening chorus, Heaney's translation celebrates the role of poetry as the voice of reality and justice:

 History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme

1. BBC News, 30/8/13
2. Dundee University Review of the Arts
3. BBC News, 02/05/10

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