A key to all mythologies


IF THE defining cultural moment of the last fifty years in Northern Ireland is discussed, it will be hard to get around the address given by Seamus Heaney in Stockholm on receipt of the 1995 Nobel Prize.

In particular, the astonishing passage dealing with the Kingsmill Massacre and the far-reaching ethical and political implications he identified in its details, for individual action as much as for societal repair and renewal.

There is a plausible perspective which would see Heaney’s prize itself as a culmination of sorts for the culture of a ‘place’ fashioned not exclusively but most acutely by partition. It put a seal not only on the particular artistic skills of the poet himself, but the timing also designated the plausibility of the broadly-nationalist account of history moving towards an apotheosis then still up ahead, in the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement.

The accolade had been long predicted. A combination of superlative lyrical gifts, the designing of a vocal register adequate to civic and political concerns, an almost-supernatural agility in finding new imaginative options for a social world making wholly new psychic conditions in everything from traditional literary forms to ground-breaking and mind-boggling technological advances, as well as a popular resonance unmatched in poetry at the highest level since Tennyson – an odd parallel, maybe, but not so much so perhaps as time steps lightly over that grave in Bellaghy – all combined to give the award when it came the character of an inevitability, something Greek in its fated arrival.

Given all that, it may be counter-intuitive to suggest the primacy sits with a prose essay or a speech. Yet Crediting Poetry, his extraordinary statement of acceptance, which is both a resignation to a public and ‘national’ role and a receipt of yet further grace, has about it the resonance of Zola’s famous open letter on the Dreyfus affair almost a hundred years’ earlier, J’accuse (1898), or, closer to our own time, passages in Claudia Rankine’s Forward Prize-winning Citizen: An American Lyric (2015):

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. .. It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born ... It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

Perhaps because we are too close to the centre around which these thoughts cohere, we lose the radical impact of the ethical comportment which brings itself to bear on these baleful consequences of humans in history. But the decisiveness of Heaney’s action here remains salutary today, even as its broad humane embrace had already anticipated many of the themes which were to bring about ultimately the manner in which agreement might be found. Those years were marked by the need to ‘find a form of words’ to enable consent to be gained; and teams of civil servants were employed on just that task, line by line, word by word. It was a paradigm of the literary artform and its practice; though working in pewter rather than gold.

As far as Fortnight was concerned, the matter described by Heaney’s address had been the motive force in coverage for the decades up to that point; but in the sense that the magazine sought to give voice to marginal opinion and creativity, as well as simply provide an outlet for new writing in particular, the orthodoxy of nationalism and its verities didn’t sit easily with the interrogation of the national idea which was in the very DNA of the magazine throughout its existence.

Fortnight Educational Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Trust-funded adjunct to the magazine, which is where this contributor spent most time connected to the magazine, had a social, cultural and educational function, in unearthing even more disparate voices and ideas than might have found a home in the main pages. But the contexts of the arts were diligently mapped and the magazine provides an astute and alert commentary on the behaviour of the arts and attitudes to them in a zone of sustained conflict, where cultural identity and allegiance were among the prizes at stake. Patrick Ramsey’s Lagan Press spent the bulk of its years under its roof, pursuing a regionalist ideal; visual arts, ensemble and orchestral music, theatre and the many fine arts of chit chat and loose talk found their home in almost exclusively in its pages.

Make no mistake, though; we were and have been in the company of true greatness in the arts, and still are. I think of the triumph of Barry Douglas in the 1986 International Tchaikovsky Competition, which presented us out of the blue with a global superstar of the concert platform, one of the great interpreters of the Russian repertoire in the 20th century and of Brahms in the 21st; the wonder, among a half-dozen classics, of Brian Friel’s Translations in 1980, in a cast that drew together so many other talents of the stage; the radiant, mesmeric genius that is the dancer and choreographer Oona Doherty, especially in the episodes of Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer (2016-2019); with Rita Duffy and Willie Doherty, Colin Davidson’s emergence as a major international portraitist with memorable and memorably-moving portraits of the known and the unknown; most recently, Anna Burns’s Booker-winning Milkman – acclaim tragically coupled now with the murder of her friend Lyra McKee in the very week when Burns had returned in triumph to Northern Ireland to celebrate the prize; while just off the shoulder of our own planet, occupying the top region of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with an absolute visual magnitude of between −3 and −8, there is the supergiant star of the poet Sinéad Morrissey, to whom accolades are attracted as if by gravity.

But it’s the chill admonitions and wintry daybreak of that Stockholm passage which calls to me over and over, as this most native of spirits, this intelligence most attuned to the nuance of the everyday in his own backyard of the world, sought a means to communicate with the living through commerce with the dead on that roadside even then almost two decades distant and that transfiguring human transaction in a minibus, the dark joy of which still radiates down the two decades since Heaney’s remarks to our own day. Its luminosity will, I have no doubt, light our future with increasing intensity.

Aside even from Heaney’s own magisterial and enduring poetic output, it’s those passages of Virgilian sternness in the midst of that address which strike home with the greatest force and which will endure as a prime document of recourse for generations ahead.

The Field Day enterprise of which Heaney was a key part – along with Brian Friel, Seamus Deane, Tom Paulin, Stephen Rea and David Hammond (picture a Rat Pack such as Sinatra’s bunch in Vegas, but even cooler) ultimately managed to gain the consent of the intelligentsia in both parts of Ireland as it dominated the discourse internationally. How could it fail, given the vast ready-made narrative of ‘Ireland and ‘Irishness’ – the sob-stuff, the laugh and the swagger as MacNeice might say – and the (mostly) benign stereotype, especially in the United States?

The celebrated anthology of Irish writing, which was to make of the island’s written legacy a monument as startling as Casaubon’s ‘Key to all Mythologies’ in Middlemarch – showing “where all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed” – while not proving quite as elusive a task as that scholar found his, nonetheless stirred up unexpected responses. The first three volumes (1991), it emerged, weren’t so much gender blind as monocular – the muskiness of males in heat was everywhere, editorially and in the content selections. The response was for the general editor to recruit female editors who then recruited others and, ten years later, slammed two further volumes onto the groaning shelf beside their elder brothers.

What ought to have been a joyful affair became unsatisfactory, raised more questions than it was able to answer, and so didn’t quite close the circle of loss and recovery.

From the perspective of this commentator, the damage done to the decent, gifted, eloquent and already kicked-about heritage of poets of the Scots idiom in Ireland, among whose number, in the person of James Orr, lurked and lurks still a great poet of the first rank, is deeply saddening.

But the mission of Field Day itself proved yet another expansion of the common weal of the arts into the everyday of politics and allegiance and belonging in Ireland and, on those terms, it remains persuasive; though where precisely the Fifth Province is located today, and whether it observes the same social distancing protocols as the other four, remains a mystery.

In another dimension, it seemed, memoir and critical reflection came to play a vital role in the outworking of the Ireland’s Ulster problem – Patrick O’Shea’s Voices and the Sound of Drums (1981) led the way. The son of a native Irish-speaking RIC Kerryman, O’Shea was only one of two Catholics in the history of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to attain top rank as Permanent Secretary. The other, the late Dr Maurice Hayes – a Down legend and right up there with Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil OFM and Paddy the Bump as the Greatest Ever Native of Downpatrick – wrote Sweet Killough, Let Go Your Anchor (1995). With Max Wright’s extraordinary Told In Gath (1991), a memoir of the Brethren, Susan McKay’s Bear In Mind These Dead (2007), and Marianne Elliott’s Hearthlands (2017), the volume of high-grade social review gathered momentum as the political process sometimes faltered and halted.

In fiction, meanwhile, the half-century that began with Brian Moore, Ian Cochrane, Jennifer Johnston, Maurice Leitch and Sam Hanna Bell, flourished over the last four decades into a prose culture to rival anywhere on earth; not only per capita, but in real terms. The twin assets of Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson arrived as completely new voices in Belfast in the late 1980s, with new perspectives on their own origins in tribes, and novels which demanded and received attention internationally. David Park was also on his way as the major force in Irish fiction he has become in recent years. Carlo Gébler, as a writer across multiple genres, has produced an astonishing and enduring body of work and enabled so many other writers. Bernard MacLaverty, from a gentle exile in Scotland, has amplified the literatures of several cultures and remains a salutary force in short- and long-form fiction.

Deirdre Madden’s persistent high quality fiction for over forty years now has been acclaimed on larger stages. And that, it must be said, in the midst of a chronic cultural bias against women writing, which has seen only very recently the work of Janet McNeill, Beatrice Grimshaw, Charlotte Riddell and F E Crichton recovered and celebrated in their own right; Frances Molloy now a presence on the landscape; and the energies identified by Ruth Carr – ‘Hooley’ as was – in the ground-breaking The Female Line anthology (1986), and in subsequent embattled publications which struggled for attention, finally being acknowledged as integral to the written culture of the island. These are the great days.

Lucy Caldwell is a major writer of short fiction and novels, whose The Meeting Point won the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2011; Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters (2019) won the EU Ireland Literature Prize for which Rosemary Jenkinson’s short stories in Catholic Boy (2019) and Bernie McGill’s novel The Watch House (2017) were both shortlisted.

Also to be noted is the rise of ‘genre’ fiction. Certainly, the thriller has become a fixture of excellence, with Adrian McKinty and Brian McGilloway and, latterly, Claire McGowan and Steve Cavanagh; but also other zones of imagination, such as fantasy fiction, Gothic, and the old standard of Science Fiction, have found new and acclaimed exponents. In children’s fiction, writers Oliver Jeffers, PJ Lynch and Sheena Wilkinson have joined Martin Waddell and Joan Lingard as among the best names in the business.

At the time, the power of independent theatre companies such as Charabanc (1983-1995) and Dubbeljoint (1991-2004) was undeniable; raw, visceral, but also often with rollicking and unruly imaginations, driven by women; but the stultifying norms of theatre here did impact negatively on the development of women’s writing. Decades ago, I mentioned Marie Jones as the most important playwright in Ireland; there may have been a touch of special pleading when Friel and Murphy and McGuinness were at their trade; but the point was that the force of her work in A Night in November (1994), Stones in his Pockets (1996) and Women on the Verge of HRT (1997) especially was irresistible – vastly popular, unsurpassedly accessible, hilariously funny and, crucially, with behavioural truths strung through them. I don’t see any reason to recant the view. Those plays remain touchstones for successful, transatlantic, contemporary, unexpected, brilliant, tale-telling; their norms of virtuoso demands and portmanteau characterisations as enduring as Friel’s Gar Public and Gar Private in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964).

But this editing is invidious. This is also the era of Christina Reid – Tea in a China Cup (1982), Joyriders (1986); of Graham Reid and the breakthrough of The Billy Plays on television, which established the Belfast accent fully as an earworm for the universe; of Martin Lynch’s Dockers (1981) and The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty (1982) and the ethics of community-focused theatre; and of Stewart Parker and the triumphs of Northern Star (1984) and Pentecost (1987) for Field Day. More recently, there has been the tremendous upsurge of writers for the stage, such as Rosemary Jenkinson (White Star, 2012), Stacey Gregg (Scorch, 2015), Abbie Spallen (Pumpgirl, 2009) and Sarah Gordon (A Sinkhole in Guatemala, 2016), demonstrating that the female voice, in whatever register it makes itself heard, will indeed make itself heard. Owen McCafferty (Mojo Mickybo 1998, Scenes from the Big Picture 2003, Quietly 2012) has had glittering international success for two decades now, establishing himself in the front rank of theatre writers; David Ireland’s multi-prizewinning plays Cypress Avenue (2016) and Ulster American (2018) show a splendid savagery of vision and execution which has gained him a stellar reputation. Anne Devlin, possibly the most unsung of our writers, produced in The Way-Paver (1986), an enduring classic of a short-story collection; and in After Easter (1994) and Ourselves Alone (1986), two dramas of enduring relevance and quality. Her short-story, ‘Naming the Names’, also anticipated Ciaran Carson’s cadenzas on the street-names of Belfast ..

“Osman, Serbia, Sultan, Raglan, Bosnia, Belgrade, Rumania, Sebastopol. The names roll off my tongue like a litany. ‘Has that something to do with Gladstone’s foreign policy?’ he used to laugh and ask. ‘No. Those are the streets of West Belfast.’ Alma, Omar, Conway and Dunlewey, Dunville, Lady and McDonnell. Pray for us. (I used to say, just to please my grandmother.) Now and at the hour.”

These are just some of the reflective spirits of our time – there are many other voices, but there will be other opportunities for appreciation and there will be those better placed to take advantage of them than I. There are also other ways of making theatre and art than the individual artist has access to, and behind and beside all the people named here, especially those in theatre, there are the many professionals in our skilled economy of the arts, from the prop makers to the set designers to the combat specialists and the sound and lighting designers, who have made it possible and easy for major feature film and global TV franchises to make Northern Ireland their secure base for years in the cause of entertainment.

What a transformation these professionals have helped bring about to the once bleak prospects of a culture riven by street violence, bombings and gunfire.

None of us would be where we are now were it not, for example, for the ingenuity of the Community Relations Council and its Cultural Traditions Group in commissioning Varieties of Irishness (1989) from Roy Foster. One remembers here the often overlooked persistence of people such as Maurna Crozier and James Hawthorne in pioneering advances in social and cultural thought. In the subsequent series of similarly transgressive publications, which challenged myths of ownerships and disconcerting attitudes of genetic belonging, over language, music, territory and history, the old tribal wars were reignited, especially revisionism versus traditionalism, in turn leading to wonderful exchanges among distinguished historians such as Brendan Bradshaw and Nancy Curtin. Indeed, Foster’s intervention in his initial book just loses out to Heaney’s Stockholm address by a whisker.

But it is also fair to say that, we wouldn’t be where we are without the ability of the national idea – understood as an island-wide concept hospitable to all identities and allegiances, in full and without loss or reserve – to carry the urgency of the peace process into government chambers in places other than Ireland. Seamus Heaney’s cultural intelligence was pivotal in that and it was no surprise at all that President McAleese had the great poet at the top table beside HM the Queen in Dublin Castle in 2011. If the weight of history was to sit on anyone’s shoulders, there were no broader than the man from Bellaghy and the presence of the arts at that table said something very powerfully about the role of the natural eloquence of the artform precisely in ‘finding a form of words’ to light up the pathway out of danger.

In those culture wars – and, for a time, that wasn’t too grand a term – Fortnight had its partisan inclinations. The world may be divid into the Beatles and the Stones, Madrid and Barca, the roundheads and the cavaliers, but Fortnight throughout was inclined to don both the cravat of Foster’s revisionism and the hairshirt of Stewart Parker’s neo-Protestant mission, leaving Brian Friel’s florid Hawaiian sleeveless numbers and the sylvan moleskins of old Éire to Field Day and the toughs of UCD.

With that, I’m off like the Venerable Matt Talbot, to find a penitential chain for round my waist and the softest of silken purple sashes for next my skin. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


A version of this piece was commissioned by and first appeared in the fiftieth anniversary edition of Fortnight magazine in September 2020.

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