'Writing the North - The Contemporary Novel in Northern Ireland', by Laura Pelaschiar
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
[Literature and the Conflict]
The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Laura Pelaschiar, with the permission of the publishers, Fonda grafiche multimediali s.r.l. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
Writing the North
Published by (and orders from):
This publication is copyright Laura Pelaxchiar 1998 and is included on
the CAIN site by permission of Fonda grafiche multimediali s.r.l and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes
is not permitted.
The Contemporary Novel in Northern Ireland
With a preface by Renzo S. Crivelli
That Northern Ireland is a centre of intense literary production is by now a well established fact. The roots of this are to be found in the sixties, a decade which saw John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Michael Longley publish their first volumes of poetry. It soon became clear that even if the political situation in Northern Ireland was worsening clay by day and bombs were exploding all over the Six Counties with devastating regularity, the province was also starting to produce an incredible body of first-class poetry, which would form an essential part of what critics are now pleased to term the "Northern Renaissance."
Northern Ireland has continued to develop new textual forms and registers for the past 30 years, and if to the names already mentioned one adds those of an earlier generation that incltided writers such as Louis Mac Neice, John Hewitt, Forrest Reid and Robert Greacen as well as those poets who came to prominence in the seventies and eighties, such as Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon. Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson, plus an equally impressive body of dramatists led by Brian Friel but also including, Stewart Parker, Graham Reid and Gary Mitchell, and an apparently inexhaustible supply of novelists and short-story writers, one is justly left with an impression of Northern Ireland as a place bursting with artistic energy, a generous literary cornucopia strikingly at odds with the hate-ridden minefield of violence which is equally justly conveyed by the media.
In spite of the high rate of literary output in Northern Ireland, and the surprisingly high quality of so much of it, no critic has as yet gone so far as to claim for it the title of Northern Irish literature’. Northern Irish Writing’ seems to be about as far as most critics are willing to go towards finding an apt substitute. One might well ask, however, if it is possible or even helpful to refer to this sustained explosion of literary production as ‘Northern Irish literature’. Surely if one can speak openly about Scottish literature, and since one regularly encounters terms such as ‘Northern Irish Poetry", ‘Northern Irish Theatre" and ‘Northern Irish Narrative’, then it should not be such an outrageous thing to talk about Northern Irish literature. The answer to this question is however as vexed and complicated as Northern Ireland itself and most certainly would divide critics.
The reluctance on the part of the critics to use the title "Northern Irish Literature" is, in my opinion, well grounded for two) principal reasons. Firstly because the adoption of such a term implies the idea of ‘canonicity’, a somewhat limiting concept of a well established "national" literary tradition, which simply does not fit the fluid and everchanging literary (as well as cultural social and political) reality of Northern Ireland.
Secondly, even if (as is the case with Scottish literature) the distinction with British literature, in terms of origins. textuality, and cultural paradigms, is obvious enough (and this in spite of an indebtedness on the part of Heaney, Mahon and others to English poetic forms in general and in particular to those of the Movement), it is still almost impossible to separate Northern Irish writing from what has been variously termed Anglo-Irish literature, Hiberno-English Literature or simply Irish literature. The margins between a possible Northern Irish Literature and Irish literature are undeniably confused and no matter how great the current divides between the two parts of the island they have more in common with one another than either of them have with Great Britain. Even it officially Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, it is also undeniable that its culture, history and politics are much more part of that larger cultural, historical and political story that is Ireland than they are of England. For this reason, writing from Northern Ireland must be seen to constitute a part of Irish literature, even if its concerns are often at variance with those being voiced by writers in the South.
These considerations should immediately alert readers to the complexity of the situation, a complexity which some critics find embarrassing and somewhat hard to fit into their ideological approaches. Gerry Smyth is a clear example of this. In his essay on Irish contemporary fiction entitled The Novel and the Nation Smyth dedicates a chapter to the topic of ‘The Novel and the North’; yet his uneasiness at discussing Northern Ireland’s novelists in a study focussed on Irish literature becomes all too evident in the rather tortuous justification he feels he has to make for such an inclusion.
In justification of the inclusion here of material dealing with what is officially part of the British political, and thus cultural, apparatus, however, I would suggest that it is not possible to consider the kinds of fiction that are emerging in the different parts of Ireland in isolation from each other, (...) In this chapter, therefore, we shall be concerned with the question of how the emergence of a modern novelistic tradition dealing with the Troubles’ engages with the wider political and cultural issues bearing on the constitution of modern Irish identity. Such a manoeuvre should not be seen as some kind of critical Republicanism in which a discrete Northern tradition is absorbed into an inclusive cultural formation, but rather as part of the exploration of the limits of modern Irish identity, as well as an exposition of the limitations of any narrowly defined cultural or political tradition (Smyth, 113).
One wonders how Deirdre Madden, Eoin Mc Namee, Colin Bateman, Glenn Patterson, Robert MacLiam Wilson, Mary Beckett, Eugene McCabe and Kate O’Riordan (the writers selected by Smyth) would feel at hearing their works described as "material dealing with what is officially part of the British political, and thus cultural, apparatus." How would they react to the author’s fear of being accused of "critical Republicanism" simply because he includes them in a study dedicated to the topic of modern Irish identity? What a commentator like Smyth appears to have missed is that the hybridity of the Irish identity, its interactive and porous nature, its cultural and religious diversity and its multiple traditions, show his worries about being charged with critical republicanism to be unfounded. As Seamus Deane put it at the end of his Canon fodder: Literary Mythologies in Ireland, "the classical narrative lines of Irish literary history - the Catholic-Nationalist, the Anglo-Irish - are micro-narratives in a larger and more diverse macro-narrative that claims for itself no principle of continuity or discontinuity. It merely claims to be larger and more diverse than all the micro-narratives put together" (32), Although "Catholic-Nationalist" and "Anglo-Irish" may sound a bit obsolete for the "Celtic Tiger" which is 1998 Ireland, Northern Irish writing in general is a crucial micro-narrative in a larger and more diverse Irish macro-narrative, which it sometimes even seems to overshadow through the excellence and quantity of its literary production.
This book does not aim, however, at giving a comprehensive survey of Northern Irish writing, a literary challenge which some other more accomplished litteratus might take up in a not so remote future; rather it attempts to offer an interpretative reading of the imaginative perception and fictional representation of Northern Ireland in the Northern Irish novels which have been written over the last thirty years, that is after the long-established sectarian divide upon which the Northern statelet was built exploded into the conflict generally referred to by the media with the euphemistic term of the "Troubles", This chronological choice is motivated by three factors. First of all, the "creative explosion" of the Northern Rennaissance came into existence at the end of the 1960s, exactly when the state of civil unrest which had long plagued Ulster society exploded into political violence on an unprecedented scale. Although a Northern Irish literary tradition did exist prior to this, it was largely made up of lone voices which struggled to be heard. What happened in the sixties, and especially following the outbreak of the Troubles, was undoubtedly more intense, more visible, more ambitious and more international, and this not simply because the Troubles had made Northern Ireland "famous" throughout the world. Secondly Ulster’s narrative tradition from its origins in the nineteenth century with William Carleton, the peasant novelist from Clogher, and perhaps Ireland’s only great nineteenth century prose writer, right down to the mid-sixties has already been comprehensively and thoroughly analyzed by John Wilson Foster in his Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, a long and illuminating study which stops shortly before where this more modest and less comprehensive essay starts. Thirdly and most importantly, the Troubles brought such a dramatic and pervasive change to the Northern Irish situation that it soon became clear that in order to code this change into literary texts and thus contribute to the understanding and formation of a Northern Irish consciousness and identity, new symbols "adequate to our predicament" would have to be found (to paraphrase Heaney) and "new languages would have to be invented" (to quote from Eoin Mc Namees Resurrection Man (16)).
The creation of these "new languages" as a means of exploring. expressing and codifying the complex uniqueness of Northern Ireland has been the task of contemporary Northern Irish writers and it is perhaps their most distinctive trait. This does not mean that all the writers from the North have only written about Northern Ireland, indeed all of them have engaged their art in a much wider, much more challenging and at the same time much more stimulating horizon, both in terms of space and of time. But, with very few exceptions they have been the only writers to engage seriously with the Northern Irish situation and to write imaginatively and artistically about it. The North of Ireland seems to have provided little inspiration for most of the South of Ireland’s novelists, although a small number such as William Trevor and Dermot Healy deserve more than honourable mention. Great Britain’s writers have more or less completely ignored the Northern Ireland problem: it is simply not part of their creative world. A lonely and onerous task therefore has been left to the writers from the North. In trying to make the realities of Northern Ireland understandable through their mutifarious poetical, dramatic and narrative registers, they have written, and indeed are writing, since this is still very much an ongoing process, a unique chapter in the metatext of human history and experience. To the reading of this chapter this book is dedicated.
One of the major difficulties which has been encountered in the writing of this essay has been to try to keep an acceptable balance between the needs of an Irish readership and those of a non-Irish one. Many cultural, political and especially historical references which would be easily decoded by an Irish person may not come across as obvious to a non-Irish reader. The short historical appendix, entitled "The Wounds of History", far from representing a comprehensive overview is simply a very basic synopsis of the main events of Northern Irish history. A non-Irish reader who is not familiar with this history may find it helpful for locating many references which appear both in this book and in the novels which are analysed in it. The reason why this is not a proper chapter but simply an appendix is that it seemed unfair to make it into an obligatory step.
A few words should be devoted to the methodological approach adopted in this book. Primary importance has been given to a close reading of the texts themselves, and textual analysis has been the principal means by which these texts have been constructed into a definite corpus, or translated into a single, coherent narrative made up of different individual multi-voiced narratives. So loud and clear are the echoes and the counter-echoes of motifs, themes, tropes, images, styles in it that it is hard indeed to resist the temptation of speaking about a Northern Irish tradition.
But Northern Irish writing is going through a phase of fervent evolution, and this evolution clearly speaks the language of post-modernity and of post-nationalism in its often ironically multivoiced perceptions and its representation of the reality which generates it. Now in the nineties, for the first time, with the works of young talents such as Glenn Patterson. Robert Mc Liam Wilson. Colin Bateman. Deirdre Madden and others. the reader is being presented with a new version of Northern Ireland. and in particular of life in its urban centres. This writing sees the North as an encyclopaedic, multivoiced, multiethnic reality which for all its uniqueness has much in common with the rest of the modern world - with the United States but even more so with Western Europe. In this respect. both Edward Said’s advocating (via Fanon) a post-nationalist "transformation of social consciousness beyond national consciousness (Eagleton, Jameson, Said, 1990:83) and Homi Bhabha’s stating that "being obliged to forget becomes the basis for remembering the nation, peopling it anew, imagining the possibility of other contending and liberating forms of cultural identification" (Bhabha, 1990: 311) seem to be particularly relevant. This is a new and refreshing view, which does "forget’ historical myths and heroes by distancing itself from them mainly through an at times bitter irony and wit. Compared to previous writing it also has the merit of envisaging some sort of a "way out" of the socio-political impasse that has for so long been strangling this small corner of Europe. The fact that these novels have somewhat anticipated the 1998 "Good Friday" peace agreement between Northern Ireland’s main political parties, Ireland and Great Britain seems to support this theory.
Since, unlike the vast majority of today’s literary critics, I have not been brought up in any specific school of critical thought, this essay cannot claim to be guided by any particular critical approach. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist the conscious and unconscious influence of critical stances such as post-nationalism. post-colonialism, feminism, post-structuralism and all the other critical "isms" nowadays informing the cultural galaxy which any person interested in literature finds him/ herself propelled into. As Northern Ireland is such a political hot-spot. an analysis of how politics is rendered in the novels was undoubtedly an unavoidably and hopefully useful act. It was also pertinent to see what sort of political statement can be garnered from each of the individual works. This has materialised into the chapter dedicated to political discourse in the Troubles and post Troubles novels, and it was especially in this field that I found some suggestions from various schools of criticism could be helpfully and profitably applied. It seems to me that, given Northern Ireland’s (still ongoing) colonial history. post-colonial theory can prove most fruitful and occasionally indispensable in so far as it enhances the possibilities of a re-thinking of the province’s colonial past and present, not just for the sake of doing so, or because it is fashionable at the moment to do so. but because this can represent a first step towards that "dialogical democracy" intended as "recognition of the authenticity of the other whose views and ideas one is prepared to listen to and debate as a mutual process" which Anthony Giddens describes as "the only alternative to violence in the many areas of the social order where disengagement is no longer a feasible option" (Giddens. Lash 1996: 106). In this sense a post-colonial approach can have, as Catherine Hall writes, "emancipatory potential" in so far as it is "a history which involves recognition and the re-working of memory. A history which shows how fantasized constructions of homogenous nations are constructed and the other possibilities which are always there. A history which is about difference, not homogeneity." (Chambers. Curtis 1996: 76). In Ireland, North and South of the border, this opening towards the views and beliefs of the other is vital if the wounds of history and the wounds of present divisions are to he healed. The Northern Irish writing which has inspired this book is, in my opinion, contributing to this process in so far as it gives voice to multicultural narratives which are the result of what are sometimes radically varying Northern experiences. In so doing, the writers from the North are making that already fascinatingly unique tradition which is Irish experience richer and even more universally "representative of human experience", as Declan Kiberd put it in his Inventing Ireland (641).
Finally I would like to thank Professor Renzo S. Crivelli for his interest and support; Ms Marlene Hackett for proof-reading the text and providing insightful comments; Professor Kevin Barry for his challenging remarks: Dr Nicholas Carter, whose manner of teaching English literature was a deep inspiration and model; Dr Monica Randaccio and Dr Roberta Gefter Wondrich for their help and suggestions. I would also like to express my gratitude to the University of Trieste for providing me with a postdoctoral research grant which enabled me to complete this book, as well as University College Dublin, for allowing me access to its library. Finally my debt to John McCourt could never be fully expressed in words: without him this book would simply not have been possible.
Laura Pelaschiar, Trieste, October 1998.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
Last modified :