Mrs Powell: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Benjamin Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Provincia – always near the beast’s lair.
One day in June 2007, I was driving from Belmullet, County Mayo, on the far western seaboard, to Belfast, on the eastern. With me in the car were the critic Patricia Craig, the poet Michael Longley and my teenaged son, Jacob. We were exiting, with some relief, from a few days at a small literary festival, held in the midst of the bleak, windswept, scraggy flatland of northernmost Connaught. It was a soft day, as the expression goes in the West (from the Irish, lá bog), meaning clement, pleasant and gentle – even if, more often than not with the weather of those oceanic parts, also cloudy and misty.
The trip across the island would take us about six hours, perhaps more with stops, and the growing prospect of a day of conversation, free-wheeling narratives, passing scenery, jokes, comebacks and repartees seemed, by turns, to animate each of us. After the slight claustrophobia of another ego-laden literary weekend – one of an archipelago of such gatherings now dotted across virtually every county – we were freed into the vivid island itself. We had nothing but time and the company of ourselves – and the result (“the trek from Belmullet”) has always struck me since as a shorthand image, or personal parable, for why it is easy, first to fall for Ireland, then to stick with it.
In Ireland, counties do indeed still count, in a way now lost or waning on “the other island”. They have antique roots in a remote tribal past but are still the loci of various loyalties, from sport to creameries, politics to ancestral kinship. Likewise the four provinces – or five, if the huge Irish diaspora is made a metaphorical coccyx. To which, interestingly, only three of the cardinal points of the compass are ever superimposed in common island parlance: the North, South and West of Ireland. The Irish lexis somehow shuns the East in any demotic self-definition; it must surely be because that zone is straddled by Partition. But it was to the East of Ireland – the dense population and industrial zones of Belfast and Dublin, with its long historical tilt to Britain, a mere hundred miles apart – to which our talkative car-trek was now headed.
Michael, in the back, got going. He expatiated on the beauties and uses of swearwords, offering a number of choices of purely personal provenance, then suggesting some applications. Patricia, in the passenger seat, out of her phenomenally well-stocked cultural and literary mind, from time to time threw a quip over her shoulder as a perfect foil. Jake, who was attending Michael’s school alma mater fifty years later, incited the latter into a rendition of the transgressive school-boy ditty still in currency. And so on – and on. As I drove to this brilliant sound-track, I must have felt – hence its sticking power – that a “day like this”, to paraphrase “Van the Man”, was, in some ineffable way, one that simply could not be (or be replicated) outside Ireland.
Soon enough we were travelling through the vast blanket boglands of remote North Mayo. They are exquisite, their muted subtleties of colour morphing and blazing through the seasons. Even in winter their rusts, mauve-greys and bleached greens are radiant in low sunshine. They have, of course, been hand-cut for home turf for at least four centuries; at sunset, the resulting bank-trenches of cutaway bog are darkling pools of western light. All over Ireland they have preserved a living museum of extreme archaicness: the vestiges of Neolithic farmsteads; trunks of oak and bog-bodies, steeped in the aspic of their anaerobic reticulations; hoards of golden torcs, brooches and bowls; altar vessels and reliquaries; even butter centuries out-of-date first buried for the bog’s coolth.
Over the past half-century, however, peat extraction has also been heavily mechanized, for industrial purposes, by a state enterprise, Bord na Móna. So it was not long before we entered the now-desolate, stripped prairie-zone around the turf-fired power station at Bellacorick, even then being fed by several tractor-towed caterpillar-tracked millers in the surreal distance. Its huge, rusted tower looked a Lilliputian version of one of the cooling towers at Drax, Yorkshire’s vast power complex. As our silver Cruiser sped by, Michael – the most ecological of poets – revved up again and murmured drolly, to my son’s huge amusement: “so this is the Irish space programme …”
“That’s the Irish people all over,” wrote Sean O’ Casey in his play on the events of the War of Independence, Shadow of a Gunman, “they treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.” But since this theatrical gag is placed in the mouth of an unreliable blabbermouth, we can’t be sure if, well, O’Casey was serious about his now-stereotypical utterance.
So too, writ large, the stereotypical “West of Ireland”: it has become the repository of every romantic or Celticist cliché you care to name re “the real Ireland”. Yet despite all the over-development and atrocious imagery, the modern West is marvellous for its endless dovetailing of natural beauties and cultural fascinations: the sea-girt landscapes, the Irish language, the vestiges of an older material and social way-of-life – to name the obvious ones.
More, the stereotypes about the West of Ireland do point to a decisive historical role in upholding a sense of Irish cultural and national distinctiveness after the 1801 Act of Union. That Victorian anthem of a resurgent Irish nation, “The West’s Awake”, by the Young Irelander Thomas Davis, suggests as much. It could be said – and has been often – that the Easter Rebellion would never have occurred without the Gaelic Revival, whose living linguistic base lay primarily in the Western counties. As the Kilkenny essayist Hubert Butler would put it a generation after independence, “the mainspring of our freedom was not political theory but the claim that Ireland possessed and could develop a unique culture of its own.” Much the same discourse has now taken wing in Scotland.
On an island the middling size of Ireland, however, no cardinal point is very far from its three fellows. This is particularly true of the six counties of Munster, with its South-West axis; but also the nine counties of Ulster, with its North-West axis straddling (unlike the other points) the long, meandering and rural border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The extent to which Partition was felt to be a fracturing of not only an island, but an antique province, is perfectly embodied in the contested lexicon for the new Northern state. The republican nomenclature – “the six counties” or (still more old-fashioned) “the wee six” – reflects “an Ulster of the mind” that sees, therein, the lost limb of an imagined 32-county nation. The “North of Ireland”, tending to be shared by nationalists or centrists of all stripes, avoids the British constitutional terminology, which, of course, is embraced by mainstream unionists in the abbreviated form, “Northern Ireland”. Militant loyalism uses the incorrect “Ulster” for the same native territory. Even in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is often not appreciated that the word “United” in the state’s name refers specifically to the Union with a rump Ireland, not with Scotland and/or Wales. Only the rather poetic “the North” receives easy assent across such petrified national and sectarian divisions.
I couldn’t say now whether Michael’s joke was the trigger, but I recall distinctly that the talk turned to the state of the island, its despoliations and follies, its foibles and stupidities, North and South (meaning: the two jurisdictions). What is perhaps most telling about such perennial ruminations is the instinctive, near-universal assumption that the island somehow remains a fractured whole, a cultural and geographical unity underlying all constitutional and economic arrangements.
More glorious Mayo landscape shot by. Michael, reaching for the closure of a punch-line, delivered the coup de grace to our antic critiques: The Irish don’t deserve Ireland, I’m beginning to think … All caveats notwithstanding, we knew exactly what he meant – even if, in truth, the same might be said of every place where natural beauty is despoiled by human activity.
If the East of Ireland seems somehow bifurcated by the two states, the West suffers no such psychic partition. Donegal, in particular – where the West and North crosshatch – is widely felt to be the seamless hinterland of Northern Ireland, a fact evident in much of the most important imaginative literature to have emerged coevally with the Troubles. In a clutch of Brian Friel’s plays, the fictional townland of Ballybeg in Donegal becomes the Chekhovian locus of an extended history of this “imagined community” and, by subtle proxy, of the West of Ireland itself – in sharp contrast to several of his others dealing overtly with the politics of a turbulent Ulster.
More widely, Seamus Heaney’s magisterial poetry volume, North (Faber, 1975) – perhaps the single most influential book written in the shadow of Troubled Ulster – plumbs the boglands of the North and West as a rich metaphor for the continuum of violence, ancient and modern. Patricia herself, in her splendid memoir of teenage hi-jinks in the fifties, Asking for Trouble (Blackstaff, 2007), shuttles between the gritty backstreets of Belfast and a Donegal Gaeltacht’s authoritarian charms. For Michael too – witness a half-century of poems – Belfast and Mayo are the twin poles of his imaginative zodiac.
As we crossed the Border, the craic dwindled and silence descended – whether from the vanished West, conversational fatigue or nightfall (or all three), I could not have said even then. But I have often had this feeling of a slow landing as my son and I hurtled home on a motorway from a spell in Donegal. In that movement from time in the West to life in the North, would it be too much to see something epigrammatically human? Peace and violence? The ordinary and the extraordinary – or vice versa? The rural and the urban? The vital and the petrified? “Days like this” and the daily grind?
In any event, the car-trek from Mayo had ended and the mean streets of a still-troubled Belfast were the first to meet us.
I grew up in the liberal milieux of East Coast America, but I have spent almost my entire adult life (36 years) in Ireland. Is it strange destiny to have fallen so far from the trunk of origins?
For the first two decades or so, I often thought so, particularly intensely in relation to Belfast. That changed, decisively, with the birth of my two children. Now, like so many immigrants, I am much more sanguine about the experience of departure from my life’s “first narrative” and the unexpected arrival into a second, indeed a third. As the English poet (and lover of orchards) Michael Hamburger once remarked – his family fled from Nazi Germany when he was nine – it is trees, not humans, which have roots. Viewed in the round, acknowledging the original risk of a mistaken cul-de-sac and the many subsequent difficulties, I have no doubt whatsoever now that my Irish flit was a good opening gambit for a second narrative. Without it, no Jacob and Miriam – and that, of course, settles the question, especially in retrospect. Destiny Ireland, it turns out, has been very good indeed for me. In life, says an elderly Sarajevo friend who survived the siege, always expect the unexpected.
Why, at first, did I come? There was a push and there was a pull. The push was from the United States in the 1970s: I had become somehow disenchanted with those “milieux”, for a complex and suffocating mix of family, class, cultural and personal reasons (another story!). The intense proto-professional pressures of boarding school and an Ivy League education had exhausted me by the summer of ’79, and indeed – I see now very clearly – I feared proceeding further along an unknown route to a known professional fate for which apparently I had been prepared, but to which I had never really inwardly assented. I needed a pause. I feared above all, after graduation, I would now say, the danger this unreflectively preordained path posed to what had already become a central literary aspiration.
Outside the dominant familial and educational zones before university, I had had, moreover, important extended experiences, mainly in the summer, in rural Vermont, Rhode Island and the Adirondacks of New York, as well as in peasant Mexico and circumpolar Labrador. These constituted a composite alternative universe and anti-suburban formation – of which I was very emotionally and aesthetically aware, from an early age. In such supposed backwaters, the small-scale, the remote, the intimate, the natural and the wild, and of course the older, were revelatorily present. From early on it became a kind of grain within me, where I most distinctly felt more fully at home, happier and clearer, and so more fully myself.
The pull came from Europe. I had spent a transformative gap year (1974-75) studying French language and literature at the Université d’Aix-en-Provence, followed by two memorable summers in Ireland (1977-78), where I did some contact-scouting in the North for a Harvard professor writing on the Troubles, and so acquired an incipient interest in Irish writing. Without any post-graduation plan whatsoever, I defaulted to another summer on Block Island, Rhode Island, where I worked as a night watchman. My plan was to write in the wee hours; but I mostly slept on duty and wrote, I think, only a sentence or two before my one idea expired.
But Ireland, it seemed, was unfinished business – and the vague desire to return gelled over a Thoreauvian summer and early fall on that ecologically radiant island. I had no commitments and made some money renovating an old summer shack. Now or never! I expected to stay a year or two.
I arrived in Ireland on 29 September 1979, via a Laker flight to London and the ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, the route used by generations of immigrants to Britain, whether leaving or returning. It’s not that I didn’t know that the Polish Pope was arriving in Dublin the same day; it’s just that, like the rest of the island, the scale of the crowds and the collective euphoria greeting him in the Republic was beyond my ken. Off the boat, I took the last packed train through a completely emptied city, to Phoenix Park, where John Paul II performed his first Mass, a tiny speck in the raised distance, before 1.2 million people – the largest single mass of humanity I have ever experienced.
Looking back, those three days of the first papal visit to Hibernia strike me now as a perfect symbolic threshold between the old and the new Ireland – between the 63 years succeeding the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and the 37 since. With further masses to the West, South and North, the Pope’s triumphal trip did not prove the well-spring of enduring Eucharistic renewal, as many in the Church hoped and expected, so much as an autumnal, ebullient celebration of the mighty magisterium and its faithful grip on the res publica and much of its citizenry.
Yes, in the figure of Karol Wojtyla, former athlete and passable poet, the Church was at its liturgical, verbal and ethical best – but there was something, too, of the last unselfconscious hurrah for a monolithic political Christianity, Irish Catholicism, that had so hijacked that state and its evolution. Within a decade, its authority was in sharp decline, rocked by a relentless series of scandals, heading rapidly towards the Irish separation of church and state that now mainly obtains. Meanwhile, the North – in its usual time-lag time-warp – would have to wait another two decades for its own great glacial shift: the Good Friday Agreement.
Four days later, I was on the train from Dublin to Belfast, wondering whether I had made the right decision. As we passed a row of ruined houses along a grim Portadown siding – due, possibly, to the turmoil of the Troubles – I had my first real stab of adult fear. What was I doing here, intending this time to stay? Why had I not stuck to the beaten American track? Would it, ultimately, be dangerous?
That first Belfast, in 1979, was almost wholly devoid of immigration in the usual sense. Naturally, there were numbers of English and Scots, fellow citizens, as well as Southerners, who had come for work or personal reasons; there was even a sprinkling of immigration from Hong Kong and the Subcontinent, mainly centred on the restaurant business. Outside Queen’s University Belfast, however – with its longstanding tradition of overseas students – the city had achieved as close to nil inward immigration as would be possible in a post-colonial, multinational state like Britain.
As the stalemate of the violence dragged on through the eighties, a small trickle of EEC nationals did begin to arrive, often for particular reasons – to teach as assistants in schools, say, or to man the new cosmopolitan restaurants that began to burgeon as the politico-military situation began to “stabilize”. Amazingly, I remember reckoning, at some point in the early eighties, that I knew of only two Afro-origin people living in Belfast; one had grown up on the Shankill Road with a white mother, the other was a strikingly elegant, salt-and-pepper West Indian residing right in the middle of loyalist working-class East Belfast.
My future wife, who grew up in Armagh, first saw a black person when she emigrated to London at the age of 18. Ethnically speaking, the early troubled North amounted to a near-autarky – certainly compared to the vast polyglot cities (Boston, New York, Providence) I grew up with. Apart, of course, from the rotating regiments of the British Army, lodged in ring-fenced bases.
So the common joke with me during my first years in Belfast was that I had somehow come in the wrong direction. From the outset of the Troubles in 1969, the North had been haemorrhaging people, especially from the Protestant community, and the young. In the early eighties, the Southern economy had tanked after the comparative prosperity of the sixties and seventies, triggering new large waves of Irish emigration to America, the Continent and Australia.
Metaphorically speaking, the exit/entrance was getting crowded and I was moving against the flow. In time, though, I would find that the Belfast cultural scene, however constricted by the Troubles, had a distinct international dimension; and that, even earlier, there had actually been a small but fascinating émigré artist tradition in interwar Belfast. I soon got to know the Mexican painter Alfonso Monreal; the Iranian gallery owner Jamshid Fenderesky; and the extraordinary Czech choreographer, writer and Auschwitz-survivor Helen Lewis (1916-2009).
Now Belfast has “changed, changed utterly” in the matter of diversity. Since the historic political settlement in 1998, large-scale immigration has increased by leaps and bounds. The obvious first arrivals were from the Balkans, Africa and Romania; then, with the 2004 EU accession of the Eastern states, large numbers of Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks and Roma, along with many Western Europeans (especially Portuguese), have settled in Belfast and the North.
At the weekly market under the clock and glass-roof of St George’s – in dereliction during the Troubles, where once over 900 corpses were laid out after the Belfast Blitz, on Easter Tuesday, 1941 – a new and vibrant multiculturalism shows its full face. Not since the “plantation” of Ulster by Lowland Scots and English in the seventeenth century has there been such an overseas influx of population to the Belfast environs; it was, in fact, this foundational Protestant colonization that gave birth to the city around an older native ford.
In the long-term, this enormous shift in the human character of the city may be the most momentous of the all the changes following the Troubles. Some of the new arrivals, especially non-European refugees, may maintain a loyalty to Britain for the asylum granted; others from nations characterized by independence struggles, like Poles and Lithuanians, may come to identify with Irish nationalism. One thing is certain: they and their native descendants will change the whole religious-national-ethnic-sectarian dynamic that has so scarred the city for at least a century and a half – and, in fact, have already done so.
So part of my unexpected destiny, strange or not, is to have become an immigrant, nationally-ambiguous and, even, exilic writer. In recent years, I have come to view this as an almost unqualified creative positive. For there is a sense in which a writer’s true homeland is language. Within English, the global lingua franca, the interplay of the national and transnational is now acute. For the poet as immigrant, it becomes fruitful, as in my case, to inhabit double perspectives within a single language – to be a “tinker of the spirit”, shifting between various cultures, seeing what I can make out of looking both ways from the threshold of expatriate life.
In the new Age of the Refugee that is now upon us, it is perhaps no bad thing for a writer to be disabused somewhat of the enchantments of “roots”, and to feel in himself, as a distant echo, the fragility of the insular in face of the global upheavals. In a critical or reputational sense, the danger is that you might seem to fall between two stools. In a creative sense, the bifocal award is that you are bound by neither.
What is a city? Not, surely, simply the material urban culture at a named spot.
A moment’s reflection makes clear that it is equally something quite immaterial: a general atmosphere, a cultural ambience, a civic timbre, an embodied zeitgeist, a psycho-social pattern – the angles are legion. What is adumbrated, in short, by the classical term civitas, the cumulative ethos or values, or prevailing leitmotif of self-definition or collective self-consciousness, that binds together a city or a state (e.g., Athens or Sparta, Hong Kong or Jerusalem), especially in relation to common purpose, shared responsibility, and/or “imagined community”. The apparently anodyne slogan, People Make Glasgow, gets the classical idea in exact demotic.
Cities, of course, never stay static. Like consciousness, they must evolve, morph, segue, metamorphose. A fixed city is a fantastical dystopia, like the frozen stopwatch episode of “The Twilight Zone”. But the rate at which the material and immaterial cultures of any city change can vary dramatically. With some cities, especially ancient ones, these can proceed together in slow and stately tandem, under the aegis of tradition. In others – subject to war, natural catastrophe, or urban planning – the two are razed, then reborn, together. In still others, the material and the immaterial move rapidly out of sync, with the latter often moving much more swiftly. Such has been the fate of many Eastern European and Balkan cities after the fall of communism. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik remarked, surveying the East’s dismal perspectives, “The worst thing about communism is what comes after.”
Since my arrival in Belfast, the material culture of the city has changed not quite beyond all recognition – but profoundly for the better. Large swathes of the old industrial working-class districts have been renewed or redeveloped, including many tragically wrecked by the Troubles (bombings, rioting, arson, flight, dereliction). Much of this task of reconstruction during the Troubles fell to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, whose slow transformation of Belfast despite the troubled mayhem was widely viewed as a rare early triumph of non-sectarian, municipal socialism. It learnt from the brutalist excesses of housing redevelopment in Britain, and returned (often quite aesthetically) to the scale of the city’s traditionally terraced streets.
Discrimination against Catholics in the allocation of housing had been a key grievance that led to the formation of the Civil Rights Movement in the run-up to the outbreak of the Troubles. The whole political pH of the city began to change as progressive urban renewal kicked in from the early eighties. Nonetheless, a huge, rich, highly distinctive urban heritage was lost. In her extraordinarily evocative book, Byker (Cape, 1983), the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen provides a visual record of a cognate North-of-England working-class community on the eve of its destruction, not by communal violence, but wholesale redevelopment.
In the case of Belfast, this double palimpsest – the material and the immaterial, both past and present – parses in a different form. Since the Belfast Agreement (as it is formally known), indeed long before, I would not be alone in seeing the immaterial lagging well behind the material. The paramilitary cessations of violence, the removal of the Army from the streets, the full functioning of devolution, the overall economic improvement, indeed the totality of the new constitutional and social dispensation – all this transformed the tone of the city and wider polity. Above all, the funereal, tense, leaden, insular, super-bitter atmosphere of the Troubles that lay like a psychic slab over the population has been magicked away.
Yet few here would dissent from the view that the native territory remains deeply toxic in the immaterial dimension. One prime source, of course, is the poisonous legacy of the vanished violence. The British and Irish states, as well as all the major Northern political parties, may have reached a durable accommodation – but deeper down, on the communal and attitudinal level, “the antique quarrel” of ethno-religious, national and sectarian division is largely intact and highly unmoderated, still bedevilling Belfast and Ulster as it has done since Partition. This is the lurking iceberg, instinct says, that could yet sink the New Belfast and the New North. On the eve of his departure from the North (1972), Heaney wrote: “we must uproot or petrify”. That choice still faces the immaterial city in respect of its troubled past.
To a city’s blend of the material and immaterial, there must be added a further ingredient: the subjective onlooker, yourself. Just as that blend must change over time, so do you, its interpreter. You must search for a city: it does not simply present its meshed palimpsest and subjective mnemonics in vacuo. That context is your own shifting, evolving, seguing, metamorphosing self. If that self changes dramatically, through whatever combination of inner and outer experience, so may your view of what lies before you. What was discounted, for instance, might now be cherished. You might walk the same streets, pass the same buildings, meet some of the same people as decades before. But are you “in the same place”, as a therapist might put it?
The city’s blend has evolved. You have evolved. The perspectival relationship between you and it must, perforce, have evolved. Perhaps this is often why, when I am abroad on Belfast’s troubled palimpsest, I feel at home – in a new city – on the same streets of recessional cities I no longer inhabit.
To understand fully the Northern polity and thus Belfast’s place within it, a comprehensive historical definition of “Northern Ireland” is always seasonable. The series of events between 1916 and 1922 – leading to a new “Irish Free State” and the retention of six Ulster counties within the newly named “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (the “Northern” now added) – is but the basic historical description.
And a description, of course, is never quite the same as an explanation. Together, these constitute a historical narrative – and the narratives about the North, however divergent, have tended over time, in my view, to become detached from a third but essential historical context. They first congealed, then petrified, into the two contending, predominant Irish-British perspectives, both in politics and historiography; the pan-European context of Partition, I have long thought, has generally fallen from view even in the most scholarly narratives.
I have already alluded to the Succession States, of which the Irish Free State was formally the last (1922). With regard to Irish parallels, the wider European situation in the immediate aftermath of the Great War merits the closest scrutiny. The four great intra-European empires (the Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Ottoman, the Russian) had comprehensively collapsed; and the Treaty of Versailles and many others (Brest-Litvosk, St Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, Sèvres, Lausanne, Rapallo, including several British imperial agreements vis-à-vis the carve-up of the post-Ottoman Middle East) brought into being a dramatically new, post-imperial state system in interwar Europe.
In retrospect, this period 1918-1922 seems a gigantic interregnum for organized-legitimate power and cartography, much as the collapse of communism would be for the decade from 1989. The reconfigured and reconfiguring continent was not only characterized by new, expanded and/or revolutionary states; but nationally-ambiguous territories, condominiums, annexations, Free Cities, minority rights, non-state armed formations, uprisings, putsches, population “transfers”, and much else of post-colonial descent amid the rise of the “nation-state”. Even in Ireland, as Heinrich Böll would later write in his masterly Irish Journal (1957), referring to the direct writerly participation in the events of Easter Monday 1916, “eighteen months before Lenin took over the remains of an empire, the Irish poets were scraping away the first stone from the pedestal of that other empire which was regarded as indestructible but has since turned out to be far from it.”
Once the formation of Northern Ireland is contextualized in this period, it immediately ceases to be a process confined simply to the historical umbilicus between the two islands, and assumes its proper pan-European nexus as well. That nexus is, first of all historically, the aforementioned Plantation of Ireland and its Siamese twin, the Reformation in Ireland. Both are what French historiography calls “la longue durée” – those deep structures that move glacially through history. In addition to “civilizing” and commercial motivations, the Plantation was conceived explicitly as a means of making “English-speaking” and “Protestant” the Gaelic and Catholic fastness of Ulster, where the power of the English crown had been historically weak. Through various historical knock-ons, it could be said to have succeeded with the first aim, but failed partly with the second.
One of the main architects of this policy of dispossession and colonization, the English Viceroy of Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, was also instrumental in the founding of Belfast, which remained a largely Protestant city until the mid-nineteenth century. Even if it is maintained that the subsequent communal polarization in Ulster had more to do with further waves of Scottish immigration than the original plantation in the early seventeenth century, there is also a thesis in cultural geography, known as “First Effective Settlement”, that holds that the original successful settlement of an empty or (as we would say today) “ethnically-cleansed” or dispossessed territory is of crucial significance to later social and cultural development, no matter how small the original group of settlers may have been.
Indeed, this very principle was deployed, intuitively, by the aforementioned European empires for centuries. All over Europe, populations considered “loyal” by the imperial authorities were “planted” in territories, especially borderlands or frontiers, which needed to be “secured”. Such were the Serbs of the Krajina, the Saxons of Transylvania, the Russians of Novorossiya – and the Protestants of Ulster.
Four centuries later, the irony is that what began as an anabasis of the migrant into the native has ended in the ostensibly autochthonous and immutable divisions of Northern society and (lo and alas) of our Troubled Belfast. Here I will re-join my own narrative in an earlier essay, “The New North” (2008):
If the emergence of Northern Ireland was the long-distance descendant of the Plantation, it can also be understood as the terminus to a great swathe of lands shaped by the Reformation, arcing from Central and Northern Europe, into the British-and-Irish archipelago. Likewise, the cognate independence of the South belongs to a much later pan-European cultural pattern; namely, the small nations of Europe, the so-called Succession States, that emerged out of the imperial aftermath of the First World War … In this European perspective, the creation of Northern Ireland eighty-six years ago was, willy-nilly, the product of the very same ascendant continental pattern that brought into existence the Succession States. Even if the North was not itself, properly speaking, one of those states, remaining a loyal remnant of an older multinational Union, it was nonetheless a new constitutional European jurisdiction and, in this sense, one of the new small succession “countries” of post-Versailles Europe … If such dynamics are amenable to grand theories, it might be said that Northern Ireland had emerged out of the historical equivalent of two colliding tectonic plates, one foundational, one contemporary: the Reformation in Ireland, and the disintegration of internal European empires.
Though not much frequented by standard historiography, the implicit Eastern trope here, that there are parallels between modern Ireland (and its Partition) and the other post-Versailles Succession States of Eastern Europe – and their successors – has some pedigree in Irish writing. Heaney often uses Polish experience as a trope for his native ground (Ireland and Poland, he says, “have their historical roofs off”, unlike England, where no shot has been fired in political anger since the Civil War); whilst the ever-prescient Butler (1900-1991), Ireland’s Orwell, wrote extensively on the close parallels between religious, national and ethnic loyalties and tensions within Ireland (especially the North) and the Balkans (especially Yugoslavia).
In early 1996 I visited Sarajevo right at the end of its long siege. Through a journalist friend, an invitation reached me from the Sarajevo Winter Festival, which was celebrating its own resurrection and the city’s multi-ethnic survival after nearly four years of encirclement by the war criminals in the hills. It was inviting many of the writers, artists and actors who had actively supported, from the outside, the survival of what Bosnia had come to represent.
I had written and edited some journalism; joined solidarity groups in Ireland and Britain; and, with the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, spoke out at a number of literary events and public meetings concerning “the scandal of Sarajevo”. As I wrote in one essay, Bosnia was the Spanish Civil War of our time, representing “a clash between the open and closed society, a modern polity aspiring to pluralism and democracy, and one predicated on hatred and ‘purity’ – between the ideals of the Enlightenment and the dark cult of chauvinism.” Susan Sontag, who visited Sarajevo 11 times during the war, risking her life each time, was the best-known plenipotentiary of this global republic of conscience – whose “embassies” (in the words of Heaney’s famous poem for Amnesty International) “were everywhere/but operated independently/and no ambassador would ever be relieved.” I had been recalled to Sarajevo for my first first-hand briefing.
It was one of the key moments of my life – the beginning, in fact, of a third narrative, and eventual subject of an essay to which I am especially attached, “A Week in Sarajevo” (1996). Like the Pope’s day in Dublin, it would be a decisive swerve into an utterly unexpected course in life. By the end of the nineties, I had edited the first post-war anthology of Bosnian writing, Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe, 1998), and bought and renovated a house on the Dalmatian coast, not far from Dubrovnik. I have since spent long periods in both Bosnia and Croatia. To the bifocal perspectives of those first two narratives, I managed to add a trifocal extra, with a growing influence (I would soon discern) on the evolution of my writing, especially poetry.
Comparisons between Belfast and Sarajevo have for me proved very fertile. In the case of pre-war Sarajevo, for instance, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox and Jews were entirely intermingled, with no trace of necessitated segregation. Religious intermarriage was widespread and normal; and although non-Yugoslav national sentiment did of course exist before the break-up of Yugoslavia, the various Bosnian denominations were not dangerously “nationalized” until Milosevic’s virulent Serbian chauvinism appeared in 1987, triggering a rapid chain reaction throughout the federation that caught up with even this most cosmopolitan of cities. Bosnia had been the most ethically diverse of the six constituent republics; but what it tragically lacked, as the authoritarian structures of Yugo-communism fell away, was any ready theory of state that could secure its actually-existing ethnic and religious diversity. It fell to a multi-ethnic citizen mobilization to defend the city for most of the first year of the siege.
That Balkan contrast could not be starker. Since the arrival of Catholic mass immigration to the mills from the countryside in the mid-nineteenth century, Belfast has been a profoundly segregated city. There have been intercommunal riots, including over Home Rule, every decade since the 1850s. It is often claimed that the city had proportionately one of the largest working-classes in post-war Western Europe; even now, these traditional districts are almost completely segregated on sectarian grounds. One the first districts where Catholics settled, Ardoyne (from the Irish, Ard Eoin, “Eoin’s height”), remains a huge nationalist ghetto in a sea of loyalist estates, in North Belfast, currently the most fractured and turbulent area of the city. Working-class and rural intermarriage across communal boundaries is still unusual.
The euphemistic “peace walls” – the city’s homespun version of the Berlin wall – snake half-visibly through various districts, “interfaces” and flashpoints where intercommunal violence has long flared. Some hold, half-jokingly, that Belfast is not so much a single unified urbs as a series of contiguous sectarian villages – and there is a certain metaphorical truth in that. Everywhere in working-class areas there are curb-stones painted in the contending national colours, marking (to the foot) the communal boundaries – over which, if you are someone from “the other side”, it was (and very often still is) high danger to cross. Nor is leafy middle-class Belfast fully immune from all this – the divisions are simply more “civilized” behind the façade of the genteel.
What saved Northern Ireland after 1969 from anything like a Bosnian fate was, of course, the huge power of the British state, with its long history of Irish statecraft. After Partition in 1922, the locus of that power may moved symbolically from Dublin Castle to Belfast Castle; but the Westminster Parliament and its London bureaucracy, however amnesiac over the next half-century, never quite forgot the lessons of the previous two centuries. The essential British-London metropolitan mistake was, however, to allow Northern Ireland to become what might be called in Eastern Europe an “autonomous region”, outwith many of the norms, laws, developments, common narratives and principles of Great Britain proper.
The little one-party state soon become, de facto, a Protestant-Unionist bastion, with its own internally powerful Parliament (prorogued by Westminster in 1972), civil service, police and auxiliary special forces; its unrelenting sectarian ethos and authoritarian modus operandi made it, in the classic phrase, “a cold house for Catholics”. Meanwhile, down South, a second political monolith took shape, sustained by Irish Catholicism. One might easily argue that the Northern Troubles from 1969 were a kind of time-lag peregrination of violence out of the earlier “interregnum” period that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.
Early in the millennium, owing to my time in the Balkans, I was asked to teach a course at Queens University Belfast on post-communism in Central Europe and the Balkans. I had to read up, especially, on an unfamiliar but fascinating academic literature: the theory and practice of “state formation.” I learnt that there are essentially only four types of states characterizing the whole of Europe and North America in the postwar period: the nation state (centred on a predominant ethnic group, or “people”); the ethno-religious federation (e.g., the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia); the true confederation (Switzerland); and the federal nation (the US and Canada).
After the fall of communism, only two true federations had survived: the Russian Federation and, in effect – though usually not quite seen in this light – the monarchical multinational “union” of the United Kingdom, held together by the glue of “Britishness”. Whilst recent events suggested the former might be fragile in the longer term, why – I wondered (and still wonder) – had the latter been so enduringly successful, even in the face of Irish violence? Just the tensile strength of an evolved, self-correcting democracy?
Westminster often pays lip service to “the four nations of the United Kingdom”. But, in truth, this phrase is almost never heard in Northern Ireland; it is a self-defining catch-phrase in Great Britain for the whole of Ukania that has near-zero traction in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have never once heard the word nation naturally, spontaneously or even ideologically applied to our Lilliputian state. It is simply not a word, concept or belief that feels right, ironically, to the culture as a whole.
“Occam’s razor” will clarify. For the unionist or loyalist, the nation is nearly always “Britain”, the overall “state formation”, within which, perhaps, “Ulster” is at best a subordinate quasi-formation. For the Irish nationalist or republican, the Irish nation is by definition the whole of Ireland and its peoples – so that, ipso facto, one of its cardinal parts can never contain its geographical whole. Northern Ireland is a kind of linguistic limbo which strikes neither side as the actual serious nation to which they give final assent.
To repeat: Northern Ireland has never been, is not, and will not likely be any time soon a fully “imagined” nation. That is because – to crib the title of Benedict Anderson’s classic book of the same name – Northern Ireland has not one, but two highly divergent imagined communities inhabiting the same territory. These constitute two narratives, two “Ulsters of the mind” (Heaney) – shades of Israel and Palestine! – in long-term historical contention.
As an illustration, one might cite the high proportion of the North’s population that already possesses an Irish passport by dint of the Republic’s constitution. In one of those strange historical twists that one would never have expected, the Belfast Agreement actually guarantees (via subsequent law) every child born in Northern Ireland after 2005 both British and Irish citizenship. Strange destiny, indeed – the North may be the only jurisdiction in the world that is, de jure, in the matter of citizenship, automatically multinational.
If Northern Ireland itself is not a nation, then what is it? The search for even loose parallels in Europe yields few pickings. There are now two miserable Slav gangster para-states descending from imperial plantations – Transnistria in Moldova, Republika Srpska in Bosnia (the latter much larger than the North). My own joke – that if Scotland secedes, the North risks becoming “Kaliningrad on the Irish Sea”, an actual exclave – is not much appreciated here when the allusion is twigged. Both new Kosova (tensions of religion and language) and old Belgium (tensions of language and culture) contain contending “imagined communities” within a single state. The ethno-religious divisions, the subsequent partition, and the current unrecognized union of the island’s north with Turkey make Cyprus an interesting parallel. The Basque country too has real resonances.
But perhaps it is better to take a leaf out of the lexicon of the recent Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, when she remarked that her small country, Belarus, had been caught up in the “grinder” of history. That image for the six truncated Ulster counties somehow seems right – albeit in a much less catastrophic way.
So my bifocal credo for the Belfast home-place has become: Look east, but then west. Fruitful as the Eastern trope can be, it has no meaning, needless to say, shorn of the North’s actual Western European context. In the Balkans, what historians call “the pre-national period” in the Ottoman lands lasted well into the second half of the nineteenth century; for example, neither the national idea nor even the word for the state now known as Macedonia existed in the 1850s. In contrast, “an idea of Ireland” had already been in existence for centuries.
By the late eighteenth century, the Irish Parliament had legislative independence within a Kingdom of Ireland separate from the Kingdom of Great Britain, though sharing the same monarchy and under the administrative control of the British executive power. Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, and led mainly by Belfast Presbyterians, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 sought, through arms, full nationhood and a clean break with Britain. It failed; and the union of the Irish and British Parliaments that created the first “United Kingdom” followed swiftly, and in fear, in 1801. Even during that Union, importantly, Ireland remained a single constitutional polity, with a strong sense of its cultural distinctiveness – and with most of the population speaking Irish until the Great Famine.
Ireland, then, joins England, Scotland, France, Spain and Portugal in a very antique sense of itself as a “nation”. “What ish my nation?” asks the drunken Irishman, MacMorris, in Shakespeare’s Henry V (c. 1599). The island is, in this sense, and several others – for instance, the efflorescence of early Christian monastic and manuscript culture – a core Western European country.
So that when Partition came, within living memory of the Famine, the shock might be likened to the screaming roots of a mandrake – a deep cultural and political trauma. And yes, the depth and felt injustice of that all-island trauma since 1969 added a certain Irish revolutionary and martyred glamour (the British Left was particularly susceptible) to the intense bitterness and extreme ugliness of violence everywhere. It is also why neither “imagined community” – though scarred – will wither on the vine anytime soon. Bereavement, it becomes ever clearer this century, is a world-historical political force. In short, Northern Ireland was quite unique in the postwar West.
To description and explanation must be added actuality. What are we left with? A very small polity. Six counties only. “A place apart” (Dervla Murphy), a narrow ground, a provincia? In my own mind I would, now, often think of it naturally – if a bit ironically – as simply “the native territory”.
We have got our Lilliput and must make it work, faute de mieux. A work-in-progress – capital, Belfast. The constitutional dispensation is settled, human rights fully guaranteed, whatever the latest sound-and-fury emanating from the Stormont Parliament might be. For the time being, anyway. And after nearly four decades and three narratives, I do often marvel at the fact that I have somehow transitioned from the West’s largest English-speaking polity to its smallest – from the über-metropolitan to the ultra-peripheral.
Then I remind myself that living in a provincia was the common human condition for most of Europe before the First World War. Was Bukovina really, by definition, any less “cosmopolitan” than Vienna, the imperial capital? People lived, loved and died in “provinces” whose boundaries have now vanished without trace into those of other polities. Often these “native territories” and their capitals produced artists and, especially, writers of enormous talent – like Joseph Roth, Paul Celan, Czeslaw Miłosz, Herta Müller. Or, come to think of it, Seamus Heaney. In this light, Northern Ireland might be seen as a kind of “modern throwback” … To a post-globalized future?
In the wake of nearly 30 years of civil disturbance, terrorism and counter-terrorism – and after nearly four years of arduous negotiations – the politically miraculous occurred. A settlement was reached and signed on the same day – and a moment of all-Ireland euphoria swept the fractured island over the Easter weekend of 1998. It would take another decade for the envisioned institutions to operate fully, but the die was cast.
Although the whole process is now filed in Westminster under the rubric “devolution”, the reality was, and is, much more supple and subtle, constitutionally speaking. In effect, in retrospect, the core negotiation centred on none other than a new “state formation” for the devolved polity – one that could accommodate the perspectives of the constitutional-monarchical (the North) and the constitutional-republican (the South). My own earlier narrative again:
But what exactly was this [new] state? For the polity that exited the Troubles was profoundly different from the vanished unionist bastion of four decades earlier … Is it a permanent remnant of an older Union, the lost province of a future unified Irish nation, or one of the small countries of Europe? In according various degrees of formal legitimacy to each of these perspectives, the Belfast Agreement consciously foreclosed on the possibility of a single constitutional answer. “All” or “none” might easily be construed as more plausible answers … The natural tendency of any polity to bolster the autonomy of its own civic life is, however, well under way. In the current period of dramatic cultural and economic transformation, Northern Ireland can often seem akin to a “city state” – Belfast, and all its hinterland within easy driving distance – or even a kind of “anti-state”, where classic sovereignty has been diluted in the name of the native ground, or common good.
Hallelujah! …To which might be added that the Agreement, as a process, is surely a global model for other intractable conflicts.
As I wander through the stalls at St George’s Market on a Saturday morning, I am bound to dwell on the civic meaning of the new diversity. Even here, in a corner of Europe, the waves of globalization and its cousins – migration and the re-imagining of nations – are lapping strongly. I am struck, especially, by how well Belfast has managed its immigration. Bar an occasional incident, the overwhelming response of the city’s inhabitants to the newcomers seems to have ranged from the nonplussed to the genuinely welcoming.
You might wonder, in light of a sectarian past and present, why such “easygoingness” has so easily materialized. Perhaps it has something to do with the assumption that even large-scale immigration poses no risk to the blesséd divisions of “the antique quarrel”. Perhaps it has something to do with a subliminal belief that this new infusion of people will, thankfully, give relief to those very divisions. Or, precisely, perhaps both.
For myself, I tend to the idea that the city’s laissez-faire response to its new human element has a great deal to do with Ireland’s own experience of immigration. As the trilingual Irish novelist Hugo Hamilton once remarked (his mother was German), “Here in Ireland, we understand the emptiness of migrancy perhaps better than anyone else”. Not only because of the historical trauma – the island lost half its population in the nineteenth century – but because so many living Irish people, North and South, have worked for summers, years and decades in the multicultural cities of North America, Britain and the Continent before returning to the island. If Belfast’s diversity suddenly begins to resemble that of Boston or London – and then feels quite natural – so what? And – my thought continues – if Troubled Belfast itself is so deeply divided on the national question, what’s the point of getting hysterical about some imagined “existential threat” to one or another “imagined community” – the single possibility of which, even the dogs in the streets know by now, is kaput …
But Belfast being Belfast, the first decade of the Agreement hardly ran smoothly. A series of provincial “culture wars”, especially in and around the city, immediately bubbled up from the communal mantle underlying the new dispensation. Slowly it became clear that Belfast was even more deeply troubled than one might have imagined when focussing solely on political and governmental solutions. Most of these local conflicts centred on holding or extending “cultural territory”; many were sparked off by Orange marches (like the stereophonic one at Drumcree) in proximity to Catholic communities.
What soon could not be gainsaid is that integral to each of the “two traditions” is a deep element of antagonism to the other. Put another way, each “tradition” or “identity” has to decommission something within itself, if anything like real civic-civil co-existence can be secured; to that end, if desired, each “side” has also to shift the collective focus from self-exculpatory “prevention of the other” to self-affirming “transformation of the inherited”. That, of course, is a cultural archetype stretching right across the globe; writ very large, it might even be called “the clash of civilisations”. But it is also what makes Belfast’s very narrow ground so utterly intractable.
There are the old tensions, the old narratives, a new diversity – and the complex psycho-cultural currents that carry it all along. There are offsets, too, flowing from the city’s tradition of tough politics: the struggle for gay rights, the revival of Irish, the widespread hostility to Great Power thinking, the urge to escape a mantle of dreadful provincialism. Yet the real puppet-master of the body politic must be, it often seems to me, the very space of the place – the intense cabin fever of the polity, as it were. Fed up with the whole scene? You cannot simply take a bus to Florida or Los Angeles and start afresh. If you wish to escape the atmosphere of the North, you must leave it altogether.
That the Belfast ground is still deeply narrow is, then, taken as read. Triumphalist Orangeism, republican martyrology, “Biblical” Protestantism, and severe deprivation continue to weave much of its urban warp and woof. I would say that the degree to which Northern society is equidistant from much in Great Britain and the Republic is barely appreciated outside “the Province”. Yeats once remarked that the North was “half-Scotch” – and a certain “tidy-mindedness”, a certain Protestant work ethic, a certain British-imperial industrial culture set down in an Irish landscape, does permeate the very grain of Belfast. But the wider bifurcated polity and its intractable psychodynamics lack utterly the common civil society and culture of Scotland – well reflected in its civic, rather ethnic, nationalism – which may soon take it altogether out of fractured Britain.
What then for the city-state’s republican-monarchical Lilliput? An English dependency? The Republic’s foundling? To what will it stay loyal? Itself divided?
Not so long ago I was “driving Lilliput”, criss-crossing those same streets of former cities. I was thinking about what a young poet had said to me earlier from a sofa in my office: Ireland, you know, is a literary superpower. I had paused a moment before I agreed, ticking off in my mind a first quick roster of distinction: Shaw, Yeats, O’Casey, Beckett, Bowen, Heaney, Butler, Tóibín… before trailing off into many others. It’s something of a mystery – we concluded weakly, adjourning till the next reprise of the theme – that such a small culture had produced such literary magnificence over the past century.
A moment later I was stopped at traffic lights and an amplifying image sprang to mind: a gigantic microcosm. Ireland, that is. Not that the trope was new to me. But the phrase was. Ireland (East, West, South, North) seemed large enough to contain “epigrammatic” multitudes. But small enough to retain a human scale in the age of anthills – the megapolitan cities, the authoritarian Eurasian federations, the failed states, the neo-liberal malls. Butler’s first book, after all, was entitled Escape from the Anthill (Lilliput Press, 1985).
As with some of the other small ancient countries of Europe, it could be said of Ireland: small size, big space. To the metropolitan with a map, those counties, provinces and cardinal spaces might seem a “limited” territory. But cultural space does not exist in proportion to geographical size. Even less its global relevance. Heaney, towards the end of his life, proffered that the world was becoming “a big Ulster.” From Ukraine to Bahrain, Thailand to the Central African Republic, the truth of that metaphor now seems borne home daily on the magic carpet of the global media.
Small cultures have energies, strengths and insights that are often invisible or largely inaccessible to the larger psycho-spatial territories of classic “metropolitan” cultures. Precisely because the beast’s lair is often so close, a provincia can have a special feel for the extremist political seductions of “borderland/borderline identities”. The North, once thought to be Western Europe’s great aberration, seems less so now – and, indeed, more of a canary in the global coalmine.
Revving up from those lights, I recalled for the umpteenth time something said by the very fine Shetlandic poet, Robert Alan Jamieson. At a reading in Glasgow, he observed that whereas the so-called “peripheral” culture could see straight to the centre of its “metropolitan” capital, the reverse was hardly the case. As it happened, his remarks occurred just before I attended a “Reception for Contemporary British Poetry” at Buckingham Palace. Since I am not even a British citizen, the invitation was perhaps a tiny example of why the “British” Monarchy has been so successful for so long.
It was fun to cross the Palace’s gravelled moonlit courtyard and process up the Soviet-style plush of the grand staircases. Soon the Royals were circulating with their equerries though the Picture Gallery hung with masterpieces. Prince Phillip approached one group of us waiting poets and critics, champagne in hand, and asked: “In your readings, does the poet read his own work?” He evidently had never attended a common-or-garden “poetry reading”. Trapped at the glittering centre, the distant gossamer was occluded. No wonder those Belfast Presbyterians had once led the campaign to break with the remote centre.
Hence the desire to stay close to small size, big space seems instinct in many Irish writers. Perhaps this only reflects the inspirational need of most literary artists for the precise images and small details of known worlds. Never stray too far from your first style was Orwell’s parallel dictum. Heaney held that his creative course was always locked into “Irish airspace”. Beckett never left his mastery of the Dublin demotic. Bowen, who remained in black-out London during its Churchillian hour (see under: “Mysterious Kôr”!), had an unsurpassed grasp of her Anglo-Irish native territory. Swift created his Lilliput. Butler, who attended Charterhouse (which he loathed) and Oxford, gets the cultural logic of the smaller-scale exactly, in his second volume The Children of Drancy (Lilliput Press, 1988):
Yeats deliberately chose the small community, moving his heart and his body and as much as he could of his mind from London to Ireland, his birthplace. For him and a dozen other well-known Irish writers Ireland had been a larger Brook Farm, a refuge whose walls were built not by some transcendental theory but by history and geography. For a few years our most parochial period became also our most creative.
I never left – I guess – the alternative grain of that first narrative.
Chris Agee is a poet, essayist, photographer and editor. His third collection of poems, Next to Nothing (Salt, 2009), was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, organized by the Poetry Society and funded by the British Poet Laureate. He is the Editor of Irish Pages, Ireland’s premier literary journal, and The Irish Pages Press, and recently edited Balkan Essays (The Irish Pages Press, 2016), the sixth volume of Hubert Butler’s essays. His fourth collection, Blue Sandbar Moon, is forthcoming in October 2018. He divides his time between Ireland, Scotland and Croatia.
This essay originally appeared in a print issue of Irish Pages.