Years of Apprenticeship

Article excerpt

If in 1971 you wanted to pursue almost any topic in Irish Studies, you were heading for trouble. August 1971 marked the beginning of Internment in Northern Ireland and an upsurge in violence across the region. Thereafter the Troubles only became more intense, the mood more sombre, and for those bent on quiet reading it grew increasingly difficult to keep politics at a distance. This was the background to those early years of my research into Irish writing. As I drove down into Irish history, there was a constant interruption from the present. Indeed, it was quite a struggle to identify what was background and what was foreground. The political situation was providing a resurgence in the colonial encounter between Britain and Ireland, but my research concerned quieter, more literary questions, at first into writers from County Clare and the province of Munster but then into the relation between fiction and society beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century with Maria Edgeworth and William Carleton. How would I connect what was happening in the present with what happened in the past, or should I have addressed the dilemma in a much more direct fashion and undertaken work on contemporary writers from Ulster? Perhaps I should have applied what I had learnt the previous year about the Spanish labyrinth to the Irish situation, for in many ways that is what I was absorbing at this time, that there was an Irish labyrinth which embraced history and the present, politics and literature.

This is what can happen when politics is so intrusive, it threatens to monopolise all the space. Writers in the North took the lead in distinguishing their writing from what was happening on the streets. It was their way of responding to events and marked a refusal to retreat behind the traditional lines of their tribe as it were. Writing should act not as the expression of tribal beliefs or prejudices but as a gesture toward utopia, a world free from sectarianism. There was a certain irony about such a response and yet it was not without a history. Yeats, at the height of the Irish Civil War in 1922-3, pacing the battlements at the top of his Tower at Ballylee on the Clare-Galway border, reflected on the little room that was Ireland: brothers, dressed in one kind of uniform, killing brothers, dressed in another. With its play on Killaloe, a monastic settlement in County Clare, 'Killallwho' is how Joyce the exile puts it in Finnegans Wake, a book that bears the scars of the Civil War, the period when he began his last great work. Kill all who are different, or, given that we're referring to a civil war or civil strife, kill all who are the same as you, farmers, labourers, members of the working class, or from the same family or who have the same surnames. Only rarely it seems to me have writers taken to the barricades as Liberty does in the famous painting by Delacroix, leading the people. In times of heightened political agitation, as was the case in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, writers did well to carry any sort of torch. That seems to be the political lesson to have come out of those bleak years.

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I was no different to anyone else. I was observing a tragic story unfolding and I felt I should do something about it. But how would a cross-channel perspective help when lines were so sharply drawn? I continued with my reading, all the time agitated about something else. Left-wing groups in Britain tended to be pro-republican and some of them interpreted what was happening in the North as parallel to Vietnam in the 1960s. If the IRA could defeat the British Army then this would have repercussions internationally. But that would mean backing a movement whose social policies at that time had little to recommend them. And, besides, what would you do with the million Protestants who didn't want to live in a united Ireland? In retrospect, the early 1970s was a period that had 'cul-de-sac' written all over it. …