Ireland, My Ireland; Memories from the Heartland

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Would you, too, have cast the stones of silence? When I got home later I was set upon by three of those specimens, who had somehow found out where I lived and let themselves in. I never got it back.

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They were coarse but matey, like the gunmen in Proxopera. After that, bruised and battered but, unlike many others, still in one piece, I learned that you kept your head down and your mouth shut, and you followed certain common-sense guidelines. Not to express your opinions in public. Not to wear badges of the faith—any faith. Not to drink in militant pubs; drinking at home was better. And there were multitudinous corollary no-nos. Not to walk past a row of parked cars because there were more and more bombs in cars.

Twenty-two in downtown Belfast on one especially violent July day in And so on. Of these it is Anna Burns—with her searing, jaunty style, and the way in which she uses family life as a microcosm of Ulster—who is at the forefront of the modern Northern writers of either sex or sect.

Her debut novel No Bones presents life under the Troubles whole and unadorned, and manages, like the North itself, to be ghastly and delightful at the same time. Amelia Lovett, the central character, is a Catholic girl growing up in the midst of the agony in West Belfast. Right from the start we are at home, like it or not, with Amelia and her working-class family—a type it would be generous to call dysfunctional, and made more so by the political situation that, seemingly overnight, is changed utterly. But there is precious little beauty of any kind in what ensues: balkanization, indoctrination, tribal hatreds, murder.

Like Kiely in Proxopera , Burns shows Northern Ireland as a squabbling extended family, but she also convincingly uses the person of her main character as a microcosm of her country. Both Amelia and her society teeter on the edge and pull back just in time. This personification of the place brings home the intimacies of the Troubles. Like Kiely, Burns highlights the links, tribal and cultural, among the combatants and their victims:.

Burns grew up, like her characters, in the midst of just such family turmoil and tribal boundaries in the run-down Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood of West Belfast. Like Amelia, she later moved to England, where she still lives; but she is of Belfast, and it is of Belfast that she writes.

She takes us there through a canny combination of childish disingenuousness, humor, and descriptive power. I could have used her advice, back in the day:. Like Dubliner Roddy Doyle, Burns wears the mantle of the dinnseanchas , in Celtic lore the namer of places, the reader of landscapes, in which a place is more than just a setting or backdrop, almost a character in itself.

I have not been back to Belfast for many years, but when I read No Bones , there I was: I smelled the yeast and the smoke and the fried-cod-and-chips carried on the damp wind. I heard the distant sirens and drums and felt the crunch of broken glass underfoot. I remembered my first venture down the Shankill Road, a working-class Protestant enclave in Belfast; remembered how, as I attempted a casual saunter mistake: only the hard men had the confidence to saunter , I became aware of sidelong glances that, I was convinced, could interpret my features as unmistakably Catholic, or alien in some way, although everyone I saw on the Shankill looked like me, and they were indistinguishable from the Catholics across the way on Falls Road: pasty, doughy, hard-bitten, hungover.

As Amelia knows, camouflage is vital:. But I fooled no one. Praise God at that moment there was a taxi. In her work she satisfies both of Dr. One is apprehensive, at the end, about what may come, but no more than about most things in life. Therein lies a kind of progress. Sitting next to the American President, across from his Catholic co-administrator, the old Protestant firebrand was in a genial mood. I think that peace has come.

Can the chroniclers finally put away their pens and write of dramas less heroic, less shameful? But the burden of history is a strong caution. At the end of Belfast Diary , John Conroy describes his reluctance, even after the Good Friday accords and the supposed arrival of peace, to revisit Clonard, the West Belfast neighborhood where he lived during the dark years:.

Things may be calm enough now, when times are good.


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But come the first economic downturn and Catholics start competing with Protestants again in the dole line, will the old hatreds resurface? In the Irish soul, yesterday is tomorrow, and it will be no surprise to me if the wild men return—and with them, more lovely laments, more bitter books, more art from war.

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Make a tax-deductible donation today. Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics. A Political and Literary Forum. Menu Search Donate Shop Join. Peaceful at first, the movement turned militant in January, , after a Selma-like incident at a place called Burntollet Bridge, during which the police stood by and did nothing while a group of Catholic civil rights marchers were attacked by Protestant mobs consisting largely of off-duty policemen.

Riots followed; discourse ended; the burning and bombing began. The apparent suddenness of it all was a shock, but the eruption had been a long time coming—at least since the founding of Northern Ireland, if not long before. By a low-level civil war was under way.

Bombs went off in London and Manchester, and in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped being blown up in a Brighton hotel. A call of nature saved the Iron Lady. Finally, after 3, deaths and nearly thirty years, the violence came to an end with the signing in of what Catholics call the Good Friday Agreement and Protestants the Belfast Agreement.

Like the best of recent Northern Irish fiction inspired by the conflict, Proxopera gives us an unblinking look at what goes wrong when an effort to redress injustice by legal means turns violent; a sadly predictable process, whether in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or Southern Africa. In Proxopera , Kiely lays bare the anguish of a community that feels itself to be twice betrayed, once by the ruling elite, and once by its self-anointed defenders. These are the seething thoughts of the protagonist, Mr. Binchey, retired Latin teacher, father, and grandfather.

Proxopera means a proxy operation, and this is what Mr. Binchey One is told that the only way he can avoid seeing his family mutilated or worse is by transporting a time bomb into town in his car and leaving it next to the house of a respected local judge.

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Then Binchey One recognizes one of his captors beneath the mask. The boy half-heartedly tries to justify his actions:. In scenes such as this, Kiely captures the awkwardness of relationships in a small place where almost everyone is related or acquainted. It gives such encounters an odd familial touch. Binchey One gets entangled in a kind of pseudo-family squabble with his captors, lecturing them as if they were cousins.

Eventually, things fall apart, but not in the way the gunmen are hoping; it is not the happiest of endings, but it is better than the alternative. As an undergraduate at the University of Ulster during the bloody years of and , I had some experience of the Troubles and the troubled art they gave birth to. Over people lost their lives in alone. It was a world away from Geneva, where I had been living previously, and where no one inquired or cared about religion or affiliations. By contrast, Ulster was barbaric and tribal—and, on one level, exhilarating, because opinions and politics had real meaning.

As an Irish-American—even, or especially, one formerly resident on the Continent—I was suspect from the start.

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Americans were rare birds in Northern Ireland in those days, except for those who had ties to the IRA—which, it was naturally assumed, I had. Such places were rare in that heartland of staunch Paisleyite loyalists, but there were a few. One was the Harbour Bar in Portrush, County Antrim, just along the coast from Coleraine, although it tended to attract a more Bohemian than militant crowd, versifiers rather than bomb-throwers.


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  8. The Harbour was then known for its flexible approach to licensing hours—the legally mandated time period in which a pub can remain open—and late-night poetry readings, at one of which in the winter of I heard a promising young chap named Seamus Heaney read from a collection of his poetry. He read in a strong, steady voice, then made a couple of good-humored comments, bought a round, and retired to a corner table to drink quietly with a couple of friends.

    He has the detachment of the true artist, and boasts of having both Protestant and Catholic friends. Would you, too, have cast the stones of silence? When I got home later I was set upon by three of those specimens, who had somehow found out where I lived and let themselves in. I never got it back. They were coarse but matey, like the gunmen in Proxopera. After that, bruised and battered but, unlike many others, still in one piece, I learned that you kept your head down and your mouth shut, and you followed certain common-sense guidelines. Not to express your opinions in public.

    Not to wear badges of the faith—any faith. Not to drink in militant pubs; drinking at home was better. And there were multitudinous corollary no-nos. Not to walk past a row of parked cars because there were more and more bombs in cars. Twenty-two in downtown Belfast on one especially violent July day in And so on. Of these it is Anna Burns—with her searing, jaunty style, and the way in which she uses family life as a microcosm of Ulster—who is at the forefront of the modern Northern writers of either sex or sect.

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