Northern Irish Literature: The Imprint of History

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Northern Irish Literature: The Imprint of History by Michael Parker. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Volume 1, 1956-1975, pp. xx + 357. Volume 2, 1975-2006, pp. xix + 334. $125 per volume.

In a talk given in 1989, the poet Michael Longley told his Northern Ireland audience: "culturally speaking, we're sitting on a gold mine." (1) This two-volume study digs into the rich literary seams that vein with fine writing Ulster's mother lode of cultural ore. Parker expertly extracts a glittering sample of the Province's poetry, fiction, and drama. However, his intention is not just to display some of the best nuggets from this treasure trove but also to grasp the milieu in which they are set and the influences exerted on them. His interest in "the imprint of history" means looking at the stones and dirt in which the gold is embedded and at the geological processes that shaped things, rather than just focusing on the precious metal itself, stripped of its provenance and refined into the abstract purity of text. History and locality, so important in Irish writing, are highlighted. This is criticism rooted in locus as well as in literature. It is entirely apt, therefore, to find Yeats's comment quoted at the outset about a work of art being "no rootless flower." It is, rather, "created through an intricate interplay of forces both external and internal to the writer" (1:xvi). Northern Irish Literature: The Imprint of History casts much light on the "intricate interplay" behind the blossoms of published work.

Of course gold, literary or otherwise, is unlikely to be the first thing people associate with Northern Ireland. Its public image--though improved of late--is still clouded by "The Troubles," the name given to the intermittent eruption of violence between its competing factions over a long period, but particularly between 1969, with the deployment of the British army, and the paramilitary ceasefires of the 1990s. This turbulence led to considerable media coverage. Unsurprisingly, this encouraged a bleakly adversarial picture of the place in which little glimmer of its cultural gold was visible. The complexities of difference were reduced to the grotesque antics of two tribal blocs implacable in their mutual hatred. History's intricacies, the complicated webs of allegiance and aspiration that underlie life in Ulster, as they do everywhere, were obscured by stereotypes. Like other contested regions, Northern Ireland has suffered from media simplifications which promote crudely dichotomous views. Its people were parsed into one or other category: nationalist or unionist; republican or loyalist; Catholic or Protestant; Irish or British--each presented as an undifferentiated mass sharing the same credo and uniform in its hostility to "the other side." One of the strengths of Michael Parker's approach is that he provides an antidote to such fatuous portrayals. He makes the point repeatedly that there is considerable heterogeneity in "the two communities." Indeed, were one given to looking for some curative role for literature in a situation of conflict, one could point to how it provides a corrective to the (deadly) view that promotes the fictive sameness of groups. It humanizes antagonistic homogeneities by showing individual faces in their apparently undifferentiated mass.

Throughout the 700-plus pages of this meticulous study, Parker comes across as a kind of indefatigable ring-master. Readers who enter the big top of these capacious volumes are treated to an accomplished performance. He puts both well and lesser known writers through their paces. With a deft crack of his whip Sam Thompson, Maurice Leitch, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Padraic Fiacc, John Boyd, Derek Mahon, Roy McFadden, Paul Muldoon, Brian Friel, James Simmons, and Seamus Deane parade before the audience. Volume 1 provides both perceptive comment on a selection of their writings and an expert contextualization showing their relationship to Northern Ireland's often stifling, sometimes terrifying, environs. …