I WANT to start with this image, because in a way everything starts with this.
Most of us are familiar with Takabuti, the mummy in the Ulster Museum. Most of us won’t know, though (why on earth would we?), that the inscriptions on her wrappings and her sarcophagus and those of her companion – for there were two bodies in the shipment from Cairo – were deciphered by the Rector of Killyleagh, Edward Hincks, eminent Egyptologist and even more eminent Assyriologist, who also happened to be the foremost scholar of his day of Mesopotamian cuneiform. In 1835, he was able to pronounce her name as Takabuti, that she was a married woman of between 20 and 30 years of age and the mistress of a great house, which will have impressed most of the great gentlemen assembled themselves who were either married to mistresses of great houses themselves and/or having having affairs with them. Her father was a priest called Nespare, while her mother was called Tasenirit. This is to say, I don’t like the fetishism of this ‘exhibit’. This is a person.
When the Museum unwrapped them,
the mummies, I was staring
not at the past as such
but on the face of disease:
bodies of tar.
One of them torn
apart by the bandages;
the other imperfect,
but nonetheless real.
This hand touched hers.
For all her enchantments,
her name and her prayers
and disappointing tattoos,
like some drowned sailor,
I might have seen her,
bony and wasted,
her womb and heart raided,
in the Down Infirmary.
(from Mesopotamia 2014)
You can’t know everything. An important fact to have in front of you at all times.
Before I joined the Arts Council in 1995, I was first Arts and then deputy editor of Fortnight magazine in Belfast, a now defunct current affairs magazine which has provided a monthly commentary on Northern Ireland and its affairs for at that time, 25 years. In 1991, I had the pleasure of reviewing a book which had just been published, entitled Skeff: The Life of Owen Sheehy Skeffington, 1909-1970 by his widow Andrée.
There was a name from the dim past alright - an echo from childhood, a shade from school day history lessons. A creaky Edwardian surname redolent of odd pioneers of healthy living, arts and crafts, cold water bathing and the Austro-Hungarian model of government. This was a biography of the son of the two people in whose honour this event - this ‘conversation’ today - has been inaugurated.
At that stage, the life and death of Francis Sheehy Skeffington had occurred already 75 years earlier, in the impossibly overcast days of the Easter Rising. In 1991, oddly, counter-intuitively, Easter 1916 was more remote a thing than it became in subsequent decades; certainly than now, today.
Resources available to familiarise oneself with the basic events were all in books - histories largely for students and professionals, more or less reliable; and for popular or propagandist purposes in some utterly unreliable but nonetheless energetic and vivid reconstructions put together for very contemporary political purposes.
The business of 1916 was, in fact, not complete in 1991. Some would say it is not complete now. But it was certainly much less complete then. The details of Easter Week were part of a large tapestry of Irish history - sitting there as near and as far away as Catholic Emancipation, the Famine, the 1798 Rebellion, the fall of Parnell, Brian Boru and the treachery of Dermot MacMurrough.
Everything that came to make the period appear intimate and close, as if it were us, in fact, hadn't yet come in to the consciousness of the general public.
The Hollywood movie Michael Collins was still five years off. The Wind That Shakes The Barley 15 years off. Those two imaginings of historical events - made real and immediate and close for new generations were probably the first mass recreation of events since John Ford’s The Informer (1935), RTE’s dramatisation of Easter Week almost in real time on TV in 1966 or that station’s Strumpet City, which re-imagined the lock-out of 1913 and the outbreak of a World War One. But that dramatisation of the James Plunkett novel had been eleven years earlier; the RTE 1916 recreation was shown only once in 1966; and The Informer, black-and-white and shaky and unorthodox, very rarely screened.
If anything, Sheehy Skeffington’s death in that sequence of events of Easter Week, was, at that point, something of a sideshow. The real business of 1916 was the GPO, O’Connell Street and Boland’s Mills and Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.
So, if Patrick Pearse was a known quantity, by reputation; and James Connolly; and Roger Casement; and, later De Valera and Michael Collins, it was certain that the melancholic execution of Francis Sheehy Skeffington against a brick wall in Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks, took place amid a confusion of purposes.
This pacifist martyr, murdered by the British forces, who yet wasn't a combatant; who, in fact, opposed the violence of the Rising itself; and who had, it emerges, a portfolio of beliefs which, not only in 1916 but for the greater part of the period since in Ireland, has been eccentric, odd-ball, off-the-wall, certainly didn't fit the profile of the traditional Irish hero, that apostolic succession of masculine, four-square, fists-up rebels. Constitutional democracy, pluralism - in politics and thought; secularism; the preservation of individual liberty; the defence of human rights; undiluted academic freedom; universal suffrage and the absolute and universal equality of women; religious tolerance; an implacable opposition to racism, especially in its most virulent strains; resistance to imperialism in all of its forms. This would have made an unorthodox proclamation
An oddness reflected, perhaps, in the surname or names. For this was a compound soubriquet - unhyphenated. The joining of two names - his own Francis Skeffington with that of the woman who married him, Hannah Sheehy. She who survived him by 30 years, who founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 with the aim of obtaining women's voting rights, who was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union, who later aligned herself with Sinn Fein, went to the US in December 1916 to talk about the fight for Irish independence and to raise awareness on behalf of the movement; went again on a tour in 1917, was the sole Irish representative to the League for Small and Subject Nationalities; published British Militarism as I Have Known It, which was banned in the UK until after WWI; was a prisoner on multiple occasions for her beliefs.
In 1920, she joined Dublin Corporation as a councillor and in 1926 she joined Fianna Fáil as an executive. During the 1930s, she was assistant editor of An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein journal. In January 1933, she was arrested in Newry for breaching an exclusion order banning her from Northern Ireland, saying at her trial: "I recognise no partition. I recognise it as no crime to be in my own country. I would be ashamed of my own name and my murdered husband's name if I did … Long live the Republic!" and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. In 1943, at 66, she stood for the Dáil as an independent but failed to secure a seat, dying three years later.
But the ‘Skeff’ whose biography I was asked to review was Owen - the son and only child of this remarkable couple. His own life as an activist was an astonishing catalogue of what we would recognise today as ‘good causes’ but which, for most of his relatively short life - he died at 61 - planted him firmly outside the norms of Irish society. A member of the Seanad, he was a champion of human rights, an opponent of authoritarianism, a campaigner for an end to corporal punishment in schools and helped set up the Irish Humanist Society.
An example of the twisty circuits Irish history takes can be seen in the fact that Owen Sheehy Skeffington’s first cousin was Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose mother Kathleen was a sister of Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and a sister also of Mary Sheehy, whose husband, the poet Tom Kettle, an officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed during the Battle of the Somme.
Such an admixture of opinion and position and attitude and action, much of it oppositional and very nuanced, but all of it, in all cases, characterised by an albeit sometimes short lifelong commitment and fidelity.
And indeed, the tenacity to liberal and libertarian ideals is maintained down through the generations of the Sheehy Skeffington connection. Hannah and Francis’s grand-daughter Micheline is replicating that 1917 tour this autumn and hopes to film it - there is a crowdfunding site set up to assist the effort.
But this ‘conversation’ - which has been one-sided his far! - can’t be and isn't about genetic propensities for revolt. It sent even about hagiography, however astonishing or admirable individuals can be.
This conversation, in this town, in this very building, of all places, is about something other; something persistent and unexpected, perhaps, and enduring. It is perhaps about offering a few ideas, a few perspectives, a couple of dimensions and reflections, rather than answers or even statements.
And I want to enter this now by saying, in the very town where Francis Skeffington was raised - they lived in Irish Street, his mother was a Magorian - that, in fact, it’s not Sheehy Skeffington at is, if you can bear it, ‘Skivviton’!
That’s how folk, like me, from the Gullion, up there at the top of Irish Street and John Street, what was known in 1900 as Spion Kop in support of the Boers, pronounced Skeffington right down to our own time in the town.
In fact, before I had made any connection of interest with Francis, I wrote a little piece in Downpatrick Races (2000), about how we speak here, our native Doric, which lit upon this particular construction, if you can bear with with me:
Or Skivvitons, as our own talking had it,
The ospidal, antiticks, turmits, loo-warm tea,
Step-leathers, grewhouns and the vit,
A universe took shape with every estimate.
These words were like jerkins worn inside out:
Still working for their keep and doing well,
With scars and stitches, nips and tucks,
Swapping the big world’s pattern for their own.
Because these details are important. They colour in, if you like, the bare facts of a case. They shade either side of the straight lines. This place, this museum, is a repository of artefacts which not only embody the past or aspects of it, but illustrate the past, in many cases illuminate it and in other cases help to animate it, to bring it massive and clearly to life before our very eyes and in our two hands.
This is a bullet in a brick; the brick was removed in an attempt to conceal the murder of Francis Skeffington but was kept back by one of the plasterers assigned to the task. It emerges now as a relic of a sort; almost sacred in its location in the National Museum in Dublin; does it not begin to take on symbolic power? Something like:
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding create full of air.
(from Seamus Heaney’s Bogland)
Your own face is reflected by the casket
And this is anybody’s head in a room
Except that the walls are all windows and
He has written his name over the glass.
(from 'Oliver Plunkett' by Michael Longley)
The artefact, up close and personal, becomes personal. It can be nothing other than intimate, and oddly owned by the people with whom it comes into contact. This is the primeval power of the relic. Is it any wonder these bits and bobs have held us in such thrall for so long? This is all about the encounter with Yorick’s skull.
Fragments. Off-cuts. Debris. Flotsam and jetsam. Bits and pieces. Above all, ‘remains’. That word itself encapsulates both the fragmentary and the lost, the broken and the discarded, the empty, if you like; we talk about ‘the remains’ as the corpse even of a loved one. But also the word gathers in the survivals, the tiny immortalities, what endures, what lasts, what persists. What remains, indeed.
These images are from a stunning exhibition which the painter Colin Davidson devised and executed. For ‘Silent Testimony’, he painted relatives of the deceased of the Troubles, and survivors of injury and loss - ‘victims’, indeed. What also remains is grief, of course. These faces describe in fact what no words can; they also create around them a context in which one is confronted by the human as opposed to the stereotype.
Of course, these images of grief or endurance are not the whole story; there could also be representations of suffering and oppression and malice. That there will always be killing, of one variety or other, there can be no doubt; that there will also be reasons for it, is equally true; but that there will also always be artists who will present images such as these, is also true and certain and will, somehow, stand over to one side from the action which makes such images necessary.
Silent Testimony was originated I believe by the Ulster Museum and hosted there and is opened last weekend in Dublin Castle.
I want to direct your attention to two poems by Seamus Heaney: ‘A Constable Calls’, from North (1975), and ‘An Ulster Twilight’, from Station Island (1984). What I am going to say will not be surprising at all, or in any way orignal. On the contrary, it will be something of a truism now in Irish literature studies. I specialise in truisms and unoriginal thought. But it often happens that even the most obvious matters deserve incessant repetition, since no one reads anything anyway, especially those one expects will make a virtue of doing so. It won’t surprise anyone either, or shouldn't, that I will be talking at least partly about the greatest post-war poet in English. It would be unthinkable if Seamus Heaney’s resources weren't deployed by the intellectual life in understanding or better articulating the dilemmas which vex this very vexed island and its neighbours.
‘A Constable Calls’ is a poem full of menace; some of it in close proximity to our own secular experience, if you like, of authority figures, of scrutiny, of inherent human guilt; also though obvious in terms of a representative of a powerful community seen as oppressive and overbearing, with rights of intrusion beyond the law. Some, though, a little melodramatic, a little strident in characterisation - ‘ticked, ticked, ticked’ has always struck me as a very odd and a poor fit in conveying the mechanism of a bomb derived from something as quaint and Heath Robinsonesque, not to say Flann O’Brienesque, as a bike. But maybe that very familiarity, that very homeliness, makes the menace all the more striking.
But I want to move nine years later, if I may, to ‘An Ulster Twilight’. This poem has another characteristic entirely, though with many of the same ingredients as the earlier poem.
Why link them at all? It is clear that the second poem is about the son of the constable of the first poem; that this event described occurred, more than likely, at the same time as the events of the earlier poem; that this is another version of the bicycle. But the poet is revisiting the same era with a different purpose, searching for other things; conducting another exchange across the decades, among near contemporaries; making transactions of another variety.
The poem discovers other nuances of effect; other dimensions of feeling. There is a moment, perhaps when the chisel is handled by the boy’s small, soft hand, that another transaction takes place.
What is happening is history. What is happening is art. This isn't about charting any alteration of mood on the part of the poet, as such. The events are simultaneous. It is the dimensions which alter. Latent in the first encounter of the policeman and the bicycle is the second encounter of the policeman’s son and the toy ship.
This isn’t any reneging of the earlier poem, either. These truths sit sit by side; they complicate easy categories and they bother stereotypes.
However, I do think that the poet’s imaginative visiting of Lough Derg in the collection Station Island can be read on one level as a kind of penance; not for simple-minded political errors or for failures to do this or that at a time of national crisis; but really for human oversights, carelessnesses, off-handedness, lack of fidelity to truths, at times; often, though, also to a failure of nerve at crucial times, bereavement, murder, injury among them.
The 1980s were a bleak era in politics and violence, but they coincided with Heaney’s great collections, Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996). He claimed the Nobel Prize in 1995.
The address he delivered in Stockholm receiving the Prize is one of the most important Irish political documents. It articulates an approach to questions of basic human suffering in Northern Ireland and historically in Ireland that was only being tentatively broached by governments and combatants alike. The profound, intimate, primordial, uniquely human gesture of the hand in the dark which Heaney highlights becomes a powerful metaphor for concern, faith, care, solicitude, protection, comfort.
It was that simple all along, in fact. It was that powerful.
One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, "Any Catholics among you, step out here". As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don't move, we'll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.
(from Crediting Poetry: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/heaney/lecture/)
This isn’t about point-scoring. You will know that. The key element in this paragraph - “the story goes”, as if it is too good to be true, that deflection - is the act of faith between people. It is a clear description, of course, of the best instincts of people everywhere; but has particular resonance in Northern Ireland, in Ulster, in rural Ulster, as much as in Stockholm, as indeed Heaney knew it would.
But I want to walk back, if I may - retrace my steps a little. The poet John Hewitt, from another tradition than Seamus Heaney, - “the story goes” - died 30 years ago this year, a few months before his 80th birthday.
I knew him for the last few years of his life and once or twice he quoted those lines of Housman’s from A Shropshire Lad:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
With a kind of wistful thought that, at least, in his case, there were still some who knew who he was, what he had managed to achieve, what verses he had fashioned out of the light, the air, the slant of mind, and which still at that time give some pause for thought before rash words or intemperate action.
What might happen subsequently, after the journey if you like, was not something that bothered Hewitt one bit. He had a keen sense of how time can abandon even the most celebrated writers – ‘Who today talks about Humbert Wolfe?’, he used to say. And his own researches into the virtually lost, certainly largely forgotten poets he called his ‘rhyming weavers’ – Orr, Herbison of Dunclug, Thompson – provided evidence enough of the fragility of the poet’s art.
In another sense, though, paradoxically he was able to reach to his shelves and find the often tiny volumes of verse produced by those poets. Editions so well-worn, so ‘used’, in fact, that they had been repaired and stuck together with bits of cardboard and newspaper, and put back into circulation within families in the local area the verses themselves celebrated. He was much impressed by the love those poets had generated among the very people the poets themselves wrote about and lived and worked among.
He hoped, I think, to be remembered. Who doesn’t? But, if he was to be forgotten, that it might be in a manner like those weaver poets, salted away somewhere as a resource to be come upon, uncovered, marvelled at.
As it happened, that this poet literally vanished. He died. There was no funeral. He bequeathed his body to the medical students.
"Your work is alive and kicking/In our heads and hearts," wrote James Simmons:, "After a lifetime of service,/Your body is spare parts."
At a gathering in the Lyric Theatre, the invention of a summer school in the poet’s honour in Antrim was declared. There was much scepticism. Could the poetry, for example, sustain examination? Was there sufficient energy around or enthusiasm for this old Protestant to maintain an annual event, for a week, anywhere? Well, it happened in 1988.
And it does bear remembering that those days were not these days.
The idea that poetry itself, or that discussions about identity and allegiance in the context of literature, might be a useful or illuminating activity was by no means as congenial a thought as it might be today, say, here in the Down Museum in July 2017, in an impossible future John Hewitt couldn't even have imagined in ironies; and, let’s face it, it is not a particularly congenial idea even today.
But back then, it was the decade of hunger-strike and Enniskillen and murderous feud and many other things which were vexatious and dangerous.
In the midst of all that, there was still persisting that discreet conversation which had been going on in Heaney’s poem ‘The Other Side’, from Wintering Out (1972) and Hewitt’s poem ‘The Hill-farm’, published in The Day of the Corncrake (1969) but written in 1956 …
Hewitt – the man who pitied an old man in the Glens who described the call of the corncrake as “right good company” and who wondered how one might measure the extent of another’s loneliness – describes himself calling to a cottage in the Glens while there on holiday, and finding the family inside at prayer; he stops in the porch, not wanting to intrude, and – as a dissenter, as an unbaptised Protestant, as a city slicker, as an outsider in so many ways:
At each Hail Mary, Full of Grace,
I pictured every friendly face,
Clenched in devotion of a kind
Alien to my breed and mind,
Easy as breathing, natural
As birds that fly, as leaves that fall;
Yet with a sense that I still stood
Far from that faith-based certitude,
Here in the vast enclosing night,
Outside its little ring of light.
The third part of Heaney’s poem remembers first and then imagines, from ‘the other side’ of Hewitt’s poem, as well as the ‘other side’ of the cultural and religious divide, an equally vivid and poignant transaction, as a neighbour calls in south Derry:
Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
Mournfully on in the kitchen
We would hear his step round the gable
Though not until after the litany
Would the knock come to the door
And the casual whistle strike up
On the doorstep. ‘A right looking night,’
He might say, ‘I was dandering by
And says I, I might as well call.’
But now I stand behind him
In the dark yard, in the moan of prayers.
He puts a hand in his pocket
Or taps a little tune with his blackthorn
Shyly, as if he were party to
Lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping.
Should I slip away, I wonder,
Or go up and tap him on the shoulder
And talk about the weather
Or the price of grass-seed?
There is in that “tap on the shoulder” everything of the ‘hand in the dark’ upon which Heaney comes to place an almost impossible weight of responsibility nearly 25 years later. The almost unbearable intimacy of those exchanges in the natural dark; that commerce; those almost-gifts, also haunt, I think, the decades which have now seen both poets taken out of the reckoning as human actors, but still at large, as it were, in the cultural and communal discourse.
A poet isn’t a political scientist. There is no need for poetry to articulate a political system or a set of consistent principles.
Poetry isn’t a manifesto. It is a direction, a vector, a dimension. Perhaps it is even a mood, a shift of emphasis in which something different can happen.
In the Hewitt profile, there is a jawline set against prejudice, unfairness, bitterness and intemperate speech and, as Heaney noted as a tribute, in verse that rarely raises its voice, an insistent call in favour of justice, understanding, integrity and the right not to be outcast on the world.
The transactions with the ‘other’ continue of course. But they are not accidental. We do not tend to cross each other’s paths in Northern Ireland by accident. Usually, we avoid the other. But stepping across the ditch, surely, is one of the responsibilities of thinking people here. That will not not be comfortable, of course; it may not always be pleasant or pleasant all the time. But it remains necessary.
One of the developments literally over the last decade is the surfacing of women’s writing in NI. I say ‘surfacing’ because, as we know, it was always there, but it was held under the water, face down. Mind you, no one should look to women or their writing for any peculiarly distinctive or less confrontational or less engaged or more humane view of conflict and its origins. But what one can look for there is a vast articulation of other writing, other perspectives, other vantage points on many of the same social and political co-ordinates.
Here’s ‘Ladies’ Night' by the Newcastle poet Grainne Tobin.
A dozen women settling round a table,
In the community centre proudly
Muralled in red-white-and-blue
Scrolls, red hands with daggers,
Unzip their winter jackets and wait
For me to give them something
They didn’t know they had.
Last week it was the cooking demonstration,
Tonight they’re getting me, one of the other sort,
The creative writing woman, their guest
In spite of church and politics,
For I am trusted to remember
Some hated school, some never learned to write.
I promise them in these two hours together
We will make a poem
Pieced from all our lives.
We lay out scraps of stories on the table,
Pregnancies and births – my own tale first,
A fragment from our female comedy
Offered in all its colours. One decides
To risk me. She begins:
It was a military hospital,
And I a sergeant’s wife.
First births are always hard,
But we sat up for officers’ inspection
Wearing nighties, with our army-issue babies
In their fishtank costs beside us,
The sheets perfectly folded.
It seems some password has been spoken.
In married quarters, says another,
We made love on mattresses
Still wrapped in polythene
For fear of baby stains. The first three feet
Of paintwork could be fingermarked,
But doortops must be polished daily
For spot checks, gardens paraded,
Army wives always on duty.
Our child was nearly blinded once,
Her father on manoeuvres;
They said he’d have to follow
The army or his family. He chose
To love us best. We live here now.
Legitimate targets. And she smiles at me,
Over the rag-rug poem
We bind with secrecy,
Names, ranks, addresses to be left behind,
Remnants of these salvaged lives,
When I return to mine, the other, side.
It’s a whole other set of exchanges, confidences, intimacies, worries, transactions. It is a different commerce from the legs-firmly-planted, pipe-tapping, whistling, Rosary-reciting, sacredly agricultural contexts of the Hewitt and Heaney poems.
As the very self-conscious closing line reveals, it is about ‘sides’, it is about the ‘other side’, where, unusually, it is the poet who is ‘other’; and there are other varieties and dimensions and depths this poem explores. It is also, quite clearly, an engagement of combatants of a sort - all these women, poet included, are ‘involved’ in ways which neither Hewitt nor Heaney, for example can admit about their own lofty superiority as they judge the ordinary people.
We are in the middle now of a decade of centenaries. Many of you may be aware of the governmental structure involving civic and voluntary agencies which seeks to discover principles of respect and authenticity in how we all respond to what can be vexatious commemorations. Dates such as, for example, 1641, 1690, 1798, 1847, 1916, all had and have their own very contemporary resonances and nuances, all of them contested, all of them potential opportunities for reflection or conflict or both
Thanks to the UK-wide Somme commemorations and the Irish Government’s detailed, sensitive and vigorously inclusive re-memorisation of 1916, assisted the year to pass, as the news bulletins increasingly say in Northern Ireland, ‘without incident’.
Upcoming is suffrage, the first Dáil, the influenza epidemic of 1918, armistice, the partition of Ireland, the foundation of the two states, civil war.
When we look to some means of managing ourselves in relation to the past and to our present lives, of course we will look to the things themselves - the bullet in the brick, the artefacts recovered from atrocity, ‘the bomb in the turnip sack’ as Louis MacNeice said; the binlid, the carved harp and the leather wallet from the cages, the hole in the tarmac left by a booby-trap, the rubber bullet and its abrasions and worse …
We will also look to historians to give us the many perspectives the past is hospitable to - and they are always much more numerous than the claim of factual narrative will lead us to expect.
But we will also be drawn to the artists and, principally, if I may boast for the artforms I work in, to writers.
A novelist recently returned to Belfast is Paul McVeigh, whose The Good Son, the story of a teenage boy’s growing pains in Ardoyne in the 60s and 70s has already become something of a classic of Irish fiction. He recently wrote a lengthy essay for the International Literary Showcase on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’ which was republished in full in the Belfast Telegraph.
If I had been born at the top of my street, behind the corrugated-iron border, I would have been British. Incredible to think. My whole idea of myself, the attachments made to a culture, heritage, religion, nationalism and politics are all an accident of birth. I was one street away from being born my ‘enemy.’
This is exactly the kind of powerful self-reflective utterance which is rare in Northern Ireland and, increasingly, writers like McVeigh are discovering or rediscovering a responsibility not only to tell it like it is but to imagine how it might be and how we might, as a community, get there.
All the more then is it important that what happens here today is recognised and saluted. If 27 years ago, a Sheehy Skeffington conversation would have been an oddity indeed, the steady intent of recovery which marked the Sheehy Skeffington School of Social Justice and Human Rights, and the pioneering work of historians Margaret Ward and Mary Carolyn, is testament to the fact that not all events which have enduring impact are immediately acknowledged as such; just as many events which are remembered as nauseam have little or no impact upon everyday life, other than as diversions.
I can think of no better summary of the dilemma or of the value of failure than Hewitt’s own verses which open his Collected Poems and which can serve as one version of how a poet, for instance, might face in to a culture such as ours.
If I should be remembered after this,
Pray providence it be by happy men
Who do not feel the skull behind the kiss,
The bony knuckles round the rusting pen,
But summon from the stiff archaic words
A heart whose pulse in its best moments was
Free on the wing, as natural as the birds,
As clear and common as the year's first grass.
For I was nourished by the normal year,
Leaf-mold and frosted clod and sudden rain,
And though a sick age ran its steep career
The quiet voices were not all in vain.
This was a talk at the 1st Annual Sheehy Skeffington Conversation in Down Museum in July 2017.
The Takabuti image can be found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8318518.stm