Today is the first day of school for both of my children, my daughter at elementary school and my son at middle school, and finally, after a long, hot summer, there is silence this morning and I can bring my focus back to writing.
One of my Works in Progress, Language Games, connects Grace, the protagonist who is contemplating a return to the north in the context of a reunited Ireland to Granuaile, a pirate and tribal leader operative in the late 16th century as colonisation of Ireland took hold.
In this scene Grace, who is preparing a course in Irish literature for university in London, considers how the language of her childhood in 1980s/90s has impacted her life.
What if they bring back borders? That tremor in Maeve’s voice, unbearable, when Brexit threatened to break the Belfast Agreement. British politicians’ pronunciation of Belle-Fast, a clear demarcation of two syllables, with emphasis falling on the latter, as if it were two different words, as indeed it is in Irish, Béal Feirste, mouth of the sand-bank ford, set on the river Lagan. And now, thanks to a combination of Covid 19 on the heels of Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol fuelling rising energy costs and loyalist rallies, and advice from futurist plotters and Britcoin economists in the parliamentary ranks, we are united once again, an island whole, rattled only by the banging of the Lambeg drums echoing Unionist discontent.
Curious how some words stay in your subconscious and designate a particular time and place. Signifier and signified as Cixous would have it. Graffiti on walls grafted like tar onto my mind’s eye. All the acronyms to figure out: IRA UDA UDF INLA RUC UDR. Belligerent language that seeped into your pores: POLITICAL STATUS FOR HUNGER STRIKERS. BRITS OUT! UP THE PROVOS! ULSTER SAYS NO – to what, Mum, to what?
Dinnseachas or the lore of places, took on a sinister edge: Warrenpoint, Castlereagh, the Maze, Long Kesh, Teebane Crossroads, Cappagh, Coalisland, Kingsmill, Ballydougan, Whitecross, Loughinisland. The Falls Road, the Shankill Road, Greysteel, Castlerock.
Like those cities made adjuncts to bomb or bombing – Dublin and Monaghan, Guilford, Birmingham, Enniskillen, London docklands, Manchester, Warrington, Bishopsgate, Omagh…
P was the letter of the 90s. The language wavered from peace talks to cease fire to peace process, but there was no rose-tinted panacea to the perennial Irish problem. Abuse of power proceeded unimpeded in the communities from parish priest to priestly perpetrators of justice among the IRA, UDA and police force. Misogynist patrolling and punishment of inter-community relations. Pat Finucane, a Belfast solicitor doing his job just like Falcone and Borsellino, and the Bloody Sunday Tribunal set up to investigate the firing of British troops at peaceful protestors on a march – two of the more notorious British peccadilloes which were bandied about the media like there was no tomorrow and there was no tomorrow for anyone involved, and that was the whole awful thing. The proxy bomb, cook Patsy Gillespie, a piercing nadir. Pentiti, as they call supergrasses in similarly feudal Sicily, popped up all over the place to spew facts and fiction in return for their promised filthy liberty.
Penal Laws in history lessons at school. Fifteen year old Isobel from Carrickmacross, one of the republican satellite towns, spelled it out in class. “Yeah miss, penal laws in the 16th century – Catholics couldn’t own (their own) land or houses, go to school, mass or university – just like the 1960s here, Catholics couldn’t get a job, or a house. What about gerrymandering, are we not going to study that, Miss, is it not on the syllabus, why does it stop before we get to the interesting bit?” “That’s enough Isobel,” says Miss Heaney, warning frown in place, though we all know Miss Heaney from nearby republican stronghold Castlederg, agrees wholeheartedly. Isobel persists. “We were second class citizens, 1690, 1960, what’s changed, Miss? Do they study this on the syllabus in England, Miss, have they got the same textbooks? Cos this textbook has got it all wrong, must have been published in England.” Miss Heaney smiles. “We’ve got you to keep us right, Isobel. Just remember that it might be an English examiner who marks your GCSE essay on 20th century history.” “Might teach them a thing or two,” says Isobel.
Local headline: man driving lorry struck by lightning as lorry passed under an electricity wire. Killed instantly. I wonder if he had been wearing wellies would he have been saved. My heart aches for his wife, his children. The faultlines overhead and underfoot, overheard and misunderstood, a society cracked at the seams and not giving, never giving in.
At 15: I need to get out of here! Everyone is too busy inward-gawping. Same old same old, politicians are petty, promises are puerile, the future looks backwards and I need to rock some boats in other, less atavistic waters. Or at least walk city streets without the risk of a bombscare. All the gaping black holes in a Belfast street where windows once were, like all my unanswered questions.
And at home, I say to mummy: Ireland unfree will never be at peace.
Aye. Padraig Pearce, mum says.
A united Ireland. That’s what they want, isn’t it?
Is this what you’re doing at school?
No, it’s what we’re not doing, I say. It’s not in the book obviously. But the girls were saying.
Don’t be talking to those girls. Mummy gives me a sharp look. Get you in trouble. Peace would be enough. All we can hope for in my lifetime.
And in mine? My voice is defiant. What about mine?
Ethno-political violence, as Wikipedia has it, now one way of terming the period known as the Troubles, didn’t even exist at the time. What did that make me then? A member of an ethnic minority? Now the domain of the unionists by virtue of the referendum and subsequent reunification. Violence: so much of it in the little geopolitical entity I grew up in. To think of it now. Violence on the streets, violence on the TV, violence in the language. Derelict buildings splattered with divisive graffiti. Stone throwers on the way home from school. Hockey sticks and hurley bats after pubs closed. Broken noses and blood on the pavement.
Poets trying to make sense of it all, offering redress. Reading texts in a Brexit light to the undergraduate class of 2022. Would English students respond to the irony in Heaney’s line: official recognition /that I was not a dual citizen? The Republic of Conscience was commissioned by Amnesty International in 1985 for Human Rights Day. That year the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed, guaranteeing dual citizenship for Northern Irish people, the year I turned five. I could be Irish, I could be British, what an envious advantage. Many people would later have me solely British at university in England, the territorial claim to Northern Ireland: What passport do you have? Mine is Irish but I’m entitled to hold a British one too. But I don’t need one. Thanks anyway.
They’ve been rushing for an Irish passport since Brexit made the future non too bright for British travellers. Some people say, make it hard for them, take a Brexit line: No Brits no Brexiters no Brexiteers. The Life in the UK test for foreigners for indefinite leave to remain in England. Britpass. Greenpass. Trespass on right to remain human. Digital trackers masquerading as healthcare. Will the truth ever be unmasked?
It all boils down to questions of identity. Brexit as identity crisis, reunification of Ireland an identity crisis for the British in Ireland. My course outline on Irish modernists is turning into an investigation of the construction of Irish identity in the twentieth century and the role the English played in it. To the soundtrack of Lambeg drums, heartbeat of Ulster.