How writers sought to make sense of the Troubles
Seamus Heaney, William Trevor, Benedict Kiely and Brian Friel tackled the North’s nightmarish 1970s in their own unique ways
An RUC and British army vehicle checkpoint in Strabane, Co Tyrone during The Troubles in 1978. Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images
There are a number of landmark literary events in the Ireland of the 1920s, all of which are linked directly or indirectly to the country’s struggle for independence after 1916. Ulysses is published (albeit in Paris); Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy is performed at the Abbey Theatre and Yeats published his groundbreaking volume The Tower, which featured the poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and the epochal cycle Meditations in Time of Civil War. Yeats’s attitude to political violence in the period might best be summed up by the aphoristic poem A Meditation in Time of War.
“For one throb of the artery/While on that old grey stone I sat/Under the old wind broken tree/I knew that One is animate/Mankind inanimate fantasy.”
Fifty years later, in the late 1970s, another sustained period of political violence was beginning to evoke a no less dynamic and sustained response from key Irish writers of the period. It’s now 40 years since the time period I’m about to discuss, and the related publications and first performances, as well as over 20 years since the IRA ceasefire, so we can look at the events of the period and the related literature it spawned with some degree of objectivity, if not quite detached impartiality. To paraphrase one of Benedict Kiely’s key statements in Proxopera – “we hope it will never be the same again”.
What the violence produced in this period was a diverse body of work trying to morally disentangle and make sense of the nightmare which had developed and was certain to continue to unfold for a significant period of time. But even if thematically they have broadly similar aims – each of the four writers I am going to discuss are doing subtly different things in subtly different forms in the period of the mid-Seventies in response to the ongoing violence. In the sharply defined period I am about to discuss, namely the years in and around the composition of Proxopera, to my mind the work of four key writers will remain as the key literary documents of this violent period of Irish history.
So to the four writers concerned and, by way of introduction, their personal situation in the mid-late 1970s:
Benedict Kiely was a northern Catholic born in 1919, just before the Partition of Ireland. At the time had been residing in Dublin for almost 40 years, alternating with extended lecturing visits to America.
William Trevor described himself as a “lace-curtain Protestant” by which he meant he was resolutely middle class, not a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, who were defined by Brendan Behan as being any Protestant with a horse. Trevor was born into the fledgling Irish Free State in 1928 and residing in Devon by the 1970s, with frequent spells of foreign travel.
Brian Friel, a northern Catholic born in 1929, lived just across the border in Greencastle, Co Donegal, and was soon to embark on the Field Day enterprise with actor Stephen Rea – an artistic response to political events in the North.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in the North, significantly younger than the other three – a generation after Kiely. He had moved to the Republic in the early Seventies, as well as lecturing in America, and was also to become involved in the Field Day initiative.
So all of these writers to varying degrees were detached from the contemporary political situation in the late 1970s. None of them were residing in the jurisdiction and they had varying involvement with contemporary life in the North. More significantly perhaps, all were at the peak of their creative powers to a greater or lesser extent.
In terms of the chronology of the works I intend to discuss, Brian Friel’s 1973 play The Freedom of the City comes first. It is Friel’s most overtly political play with clear contemporary relevance. It is plainly a response to the events of Bloody Sunday and the resultant Widgery Report. It was first performed in the Royal Court Theatre, London.
The naturalism in the play stems from the series of statements given to an enquiry investigating the shooting dead of three Catholics in the Guildhall.
However, the varying time structure – switching between the events in the Guildhall and the resultant enquiry – allow the audience a quasi-judicial capacity in relation to not only the actual events but also the resultant enquiry. The main protagonists or victims – Lily, a housewife, and two young men, Skinner and Michael - are successfully humanised, so that we see them develop a real sense of camaraderie over the course of the action, using a great deal of comedy and good humour, which ultimately makes the impact of their deaths all the more affecting.
Sustained irony is evoked through juxtaposing the generalised, prejudicial statements of authority figures against the warmth and good nature of the protagonists who have been shot.
Take this self-effacing comic line from Skinner inside the Guildhall – “I was a bus conductor for a while but I didn’t like the travelling”, then compare it with the state-sponsored, self-satisfied declaration of the judge. The haphazard way we actually see events unfolding making a mockery of his words:
“Our only concern is with that period of time when these three people came together, seized possession of a civic building, and openly defied the security forces. The facts we garner over the coming days may indicate that the deceased were callous terrorists who had planned to seize the Guildhall weeks before the events of February 10th.”
The judge is clearly directing the enquiry but the events of the play reveal that the victims stumbled blindly into the Guildhall in the midst of a British Army gas attack, so Friel is demonstrating that it is actually the antithesis of a pre-planned takeover, and the venue is rather a place of sanctuary for the victims. But in the light of Edward Heath’s professed directive to Lord Widgery that the British were “fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war” in the North, and the resultant findings of the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday, the judge’s comments in Friel’s play are no mere conceit.
Even the sociologist sounds clinical and overarching initially, adopting an inappropriately hyper-intellectual and supercilious tone, as if the victims are microbes in a petri dish:
“People with a culture of poverty are provincial and locally orientated and have very little sense of history. They know only their own troubles, their own neighbourhood, their own local conditions, their own way of life; but they don’t have the knowledge or the vision or the ideology to see that their problems are also the problems of the poor in the ghettos of New York and London and Paris and Dublin – in fact all over the Western world.”
Even the supposedly impartial newsman is prone to wild hyperbole – “There are no reports of serious casualties but unconfirmed reports are coming in that a group of about fifty armed gunmen have taken possession of the Guildhall.” Never mind the balladeer – “A hundred Irish heroes one February day took over Derry’s Guildhall, beside old Derry’s quay. They defied the British Army, they defied the RUC. They showed the crumbling empire what good Irishmen could be.” But the priest too is seen to be equally wide of the mark in his own way – “They died for their beliefs. They died for their fellow citizens. They died because they could endure no longer the injuries and injustices and indignities that have been their lot for too many years. They sacrificed their lives so that you and I and thousands like us might be rid of that iniquitous yoke and might inherit a decent way of life.”
What everyone fails to see is that they are simply entirely innocent victims.
So The Freedom of the City is a play with real immediate political impact, akin to Thomas Kinsella’s poetic response to the events of Bloody Sunday – Butcher’s Dozen. The humanity of the three victims is contrasted with the dehumanisation of the proceedings surrounding their deaths: both their vicious shooting dead and the resultant enquiry. These are victims in every sense of the word: doomed in the world of the play from birth – innocent, oppressed, voiceless. Friel’s own entirely humanist viewpoint may find best expression in the sociologist’s later utterances, which are almost Marxist in tone, alongside the social insights of Skinner.
But this is not just a play presenting consensual nationalistic opinion, it is pointing out the nature of propaganda on both sides, and the devastating effects these alternative truths can engender. This idea is a theme explored more broadly by Friel in subsequent plays, especially in works such as Translations and Making History. The Derry-born critic Seamus Deane has said that “Brian Friel’s problem has always seemed to me to be the classic one whereby a man must find in a particular crisis, its universal implication”. But though there is a temptation to assume that due to its specificity, The Freedom of the City is less successful in this regard than say Translations, where Friel brilliantly allows the past to illuminate the present, there is a distinct attempt at universality in Freedom as well.
Richard Pine, in his study of Friel’s work, The Diviner, points out that the sociologist’s speeches in the play draw on material from Oscar Lewis’s La Vida, in which he illustrated his theory of a “culture of poverty” in a Puerto Rican family. In fact at various points the three Catholic victims in Freedom represent each of the only options Lewis felt were open to the generational poor. Namely, the mythic, logical or impulsive approach to their impoverished and marginalised state.
The mythic approach finds adequate expression in Lily’s lyrical reflection on her own death. So often in Friel the impoverished and the dispossessed have the consolation of eloquence, as a “method of replying … to inevitabilities”, and so it is here. After the momentary panic of realising they are going to be shot, Lily says “it was succeeded, overtaken, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of regret, not for myself nor my family, but that life had somehow eluded me. And now it was finished; it had all seeped away; and I had never experienced it. And in the silence before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated. And the fact that this, my last experience, was defined by this perception, this was the culmination of sorrow. In a way I died of grief.” The great irony here is that Lily’s great moment of articulation is about her very inarticulateness.
Meanwhile Michael’s rational approach throughout the play is challenged by the violent manner of his death and his own resultant reflection on this event: “That was how I died, in disbelief, in astonishment, in shock. It was a foolish way for a man to die.”
The final option open to the “generational poor” as defined by Lewis, finds adequate expression in Skinner’s acts of impulsivity and open defiance, as well as his iconoclastic attitude throughout the play. The honesty and instinctive warmth of these characters is a very successful contrast with the staid, traditional pieties being uttered by establishment figures on both sides of the divide as represented in the play.
Deane has talked about the “disfigurement” of the poor in Derry, but Friel is equally preoccupied with capturing their essential good humour. Juxtaposition and irony accentuating the comedy of course, which makes The Freedom of the City extremely entertaining and it is its Brechtian sense of theatricality which lingers in the memory alongside the immediate political concerns it considers. For example: as they relax after a few drinks and become more relaxed in the Guildhall surroundings, this is what the intelligent but wayward Skinner says to the robed and salt-of-the earth Lily and the more politically minded Michael: “Lily, this day I confer on you the freedom of the City of Derry. God bless you, my child. And now, Mr Hegarty, I think we’ll make you a life peer. Arise Lord Michael – of Gas.”
By the mid-1970s in the Bog poems of North, Seamus Heaney had found “symbols and images adequate to our predicament”, which was his modern equivalent to Yeats’s phrase”‘befitting emblems of adversity”. The conflict in the North finds representation in the excavations and sacrificial myths of a range of ancient Scandinavian civilisations. In the first Bog poem to appear in this volume, Funeral Rites, Heaney begins by making reference to personal funerals he has attended – “I shouldered a kind of manhood/stepping in to lift the coffins/of dead relations”. Later the poem makes explicit reference to the conflict in the North – “Now as news comes in/of each neighbourly murder/we pine for ceremony”.
This poem consciously draws a connection with an entirely different though appropriate time; the ancient ceremonies surrounding death in the excavations of the Boyne Valley, as ancient ritual self-sacrifice and burial rites provoke analogy with what is happening in the North of Ireland – “The great chambers of Boyne/prepare a speulchre/under the cupmarked stones”.
Finally Heaney draws an analogy with a mythical character in Njals Saga set in 10th-century Iceland, accentuating the idea of restorative justice and violence breeding more violence – “Imagining those under the hill/disposed like Gunnar/who lay beautiful/inside his burial mound,/though dead by violence/and unavenged”.
In Bone Dreams, Digging Skeleton and Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces Heaney is like an archaeologist excavating below the surface – and similarly bones and skeleton predominate, but although Heaney initially sounds tentative regarding his discoveries, he knows enough to suspect the corpse may have been defiled:
“It could be a jaw-bone/or a rib or a portion cut/from something sturdier”.
The poems Bog Queen, Graubelle Man, Punishment and Strange Fruit represent a significant act of empathy across the ages with similar sufferers of violence. These poems are not only representations of the widespread tit-for-tat killings in the North, but the sacrificial, atavistic, reprisal-driven aspects of humanity throughout the ages.
They are beautifully written of course. Listen to the descriptive depth at the opening of Graubelle Man – the subject of which is a 3rd-century body discovered in a bog in Jutland in 1952:
“The grain of his wrists/is like bog oak,/the ball of his heel/like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk/cold as a swan’s foot/or a wet swamp root. /His hips are the ridge/and purse of a mussel,/His spine an eel arrested/under a glisten of mud.”
But then we realise he is a sacrificial victim, the injustice of which the beautiful imagery and insistent questioning cannot disguise:
“The head lifts,/the chin is a visor/raised above the vent/of his slashed throat/that has tanned and toughened./The cured wound/opens inwards to a dark/elderberry place.
“Who will say ‘corpse’/to his vivid cast?/Who will say ‘body’/to his opaque repose?”
Finally, despite Heaney’s acknowledgement that he has idealised him to an extent, he becomes a stark and unequivocal emblem of sacrificial victims in the Ireland of the 1970s:
“But now he lies/perfected in my memory …. hung in the scales with beauty and atrocity …. With the actual weight of each hooded victim slashed and dumped.”
The most overt linking of archaic and contemporary sacrificial elements in Heaney’s Bog poems is evident in the poem Punishment. He equates “the Windeby girl” disinterred in northern Germany with the Catholic girls whose heads were shaved and who themselves were tarred for fraternising with British soldiers. Heaney speaks about the bog body in the third person initially – “I can feel the tug/of the halter at the nape /of her neck” – before moving to a more empathetic second person voice – “I almost love you”, which becomes a mechanism to indict himself by the conclusion of the poem – “I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters,/cauled in tar,/wept by the railings,/who would connive/in civilised outrage/yet understand the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge”.
If the comparison between sacrificial rites in ancient cultures and 1970s Ireland serves to underscore the barbarity of the present in Heaney’s bog poems, it also conversely reminds a reader in the period that violence as a means of settling disputes is not a new cultural phenomenon.
Incidentally it was Heaney in this 1970s period who described the act of writing poetry as a sort of a raid into dark corners to Benedict Kiely, who adapted the phrase to use it as a title for an incisive and allusive essay he wrote about Heaney’s early poetry. On the surface Heaney’s phrase appears a fairly bleak one, but it emanated from fondly remembered forays along the tops of dressers and wardrobes, for example, throughout his childhood, in a sort of blind, fumbling search for cherished objects. An apt metaphor for the act of writing poetry and in his essay, with an astute critical eye, Kiely outlines the significance of this phrase in the overall context of Heaney’s writing: “He walks into the early Christian stone oratory of Gallarus. The experience seems to have meant a lot to him and its significance will increase, I feel, as his poetry, and the years, advance. It has linked itself with other moments of epiphany; with the smith or the poet hammering in the dark smithy, the forge red, the anvil horned like a unicorn, and the world on soft wheels passing at his door.”
In this period Heaney himself stated that “writing is usually born today out of the dark active inner centre of the imagination …. I think this notion of the dark centre, the blurred and irrational storehouse of insight and instincts, the hidden core of the self – this notion is the foundation of what viewpoint I might articulate for myself as a poet.”
It is as if the young poet feels he has to place his faith completely in the dark, and few places emit less light than the damp peat soil of an ancient bog, but look at how it is used to illuminate the contemporary political situation. Nowhere in Heaney’s poetry did his professed statement of his metaphorical art reach greater sustained fruition than the Bog poems of his volume North.
Heaney was the dedicatee of Friel’s 1975 play Volunteers and it was he who dismissed the charge that it was a direct response to internment in the North. The action of the play involves an archaeological dig, which has enlisted the help of a number of political prisoners, whose crimes are not specified, who learn that they will be killed by their fellow internees when they return to the prison, for the very act of volunteering to help with the dig. They are assisting with the excavation of a Viking body akin to Heaney’s Tollund Man. In the play different versions of this man’s particular myth are projected, but the one certainty is that he is a sacrificial victim, clearly giving the play a stark contemporary relevance when it was first performed at the Abbey Theatre.
The play’s purpose according to Richard Pine being to “sift the layers of meaning which separate reality from the perception of reality”. It was a controversial play upon first appearance: historical distance means that a reappraisal of its impact on a modern dramatic audience would be more than welcome.
William Trevor always identified with outsiders in his fiction and in a number of his key short stories written in the late 1970s he brought the acute eye of an outsider to the ongoing violence in the North of Ireland. Penetrating insight and supreme empathy for the plight of others remained the key feature of his work, so that he continued to draw us into what Dolores McKenna has described as “meticulously realised, relentlessly believable worlds”. His use of understatement, epiphany, occasionally unreliable narrators, time switches and supreme irony remained some of his enduring trademarks. His masterly use of suggestion often contribute to a rare atmosphere of uncertainty and subjectivity.
McKenna has also said that much of Trevor’s work is about “guilt” and “the nature of evil”. So it is tempting to suggest that the particular social, religious and political peculiarities in the period were always likely to prove fertile raw material for a writer such as Trevor. The writer himself has said: “How do we understand the people who pulled the trigger, who plant the bomb? Just as the bomber has to avoid looking at the humanity in his victims, we have to seek the humanity in the bomber. We don’t have to be sympathetic with the bombers, but unless we find a way to see them as ourselves, the whole thing makes no sense.”
It is interesting to note that, consistent perhaps with Trevor’s southern Protestant background and general artistic philosophy, he was loath in this period to assume an over-familiar approach to a conflict he had not directly experienced, and none of the three stories cited are actually set in the North. But even though the tragic political situation is only a backdrop to the lives of the stories’ protagonists, it is the spur for penetrating, empathetic insights into the lives of a diverse range of characters, who to varying degrees in different situations are devastated by the conflict.
In The Distant Past Trevor traces the effect of the rise of violence in the North on the attitudes adopted towards an Anglo-Irish brother and sister living in a decayed Georgian mansion, in an unnamed town 60 miles on the southern side of the border. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Middletons of Carraveagh, as they are known, are viewed as a quaint oddity but the locals have a “burnish of affection” for them. So it is with amused indulgence that the Catholic majority view their shows of loyalty to England – “On the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II they drove into the town with a small Union Jack propped up in the back window of their Ford Anglia”. The town booms in this period until violence in the North becomes embedded; with the town’s proximity to the border ensuring that trade and tourism significantly decline. A resultant resentment begins to become apparent towards the Middletons of Carraveagh:
“The town’s prosperity ebbed. The Border was more than sixty miles away, but over that distance had spread some wisps of the fogs of war. As anger rose in the town at the loss of fortune so there rose also the kind of talk there had been in the distant past. There was talk of atrocities and counter-atrocities, and of guns and gelignite and the rights of people. There was bitterness suddenly in Mrs Gerrity’s bar because of the lack of trade, and in the empty hotel there was bitterness also. On Fridays, only sometimes at first, there was a silence when the Middletons appeared. It was as though, going back nearly twenty years, people remembered the Union Jack in the window of their car and saw it now in a different light.”
Trevor is subtly unpicking the all-pervasive impact of conflict on people who are not even directly affected by it. In Another Christmas, though even more remote from the conflict in the North, an emigrant Catholic couple in London feel the emotional ripples of the unfolding violence. The events of the story are simple. As usual Trevor lets the atmosphere unfold luxuriantly, painting a picture of a happily married middle-aged couple as they prepare assiduously for Christmas:
“Patiently he held a chair for her while she strung paper-chains across the room, from one picture-rail to another. He warned her to be careful about attaching anything to the electric light. He still held the chair while she put sprigs of holly behind the pictures.”
Initial reference to Irish-related violence appears to be merely a trope to underscore the warmth of the relationship between the couple and their landlord, Mr Joyce, as we are informed:
“There had never been any difficulty.”
The brilliance of the story is the manner in which Trevor presents Norah’s epiphany that her husband, Dermot, has mortally offended Mr Joyce, by his tacit condoning of violence, and in turn Dermot’s denial that he has done anything of the sort:
“I don’t think Mr. Joyce and I had any disagreement, Norah.”
“I know, Dermot. You didn’t mean anything –”
“There was no disagreement, girl.”
Trevor’s characters here seem to be learning the hard way the wisdom of Heaney’s oft-quoted line from the period “Whatever you say, say nothing”.
But it is in the closing epiphany, in which Norah foretells her husband losing his job as a gas meter reader in England, that we see Trevor’s genius, for Norah is able to empathise with any potential English complainant’s position:
“In the present circumstances the objection would be understandable and fair. It seemed even right that it should be made, for it was a man with an Irish accent in whom the worst had been brought out by the troubles that had come, who was guilty of a cruelty no one would have believed him capable of.”
By focusing on an Irish emigrant couple, Trevor here is capturing the all-pervasive pollutant impact of the Troubles for Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea.
In Attracta the barbarity of the present in the North of Ireland becomes a mechanism for exploring parallels with the violence which was manifest at the foundation of the Free State. By tracing the antecedents of the current conflict he manages to shine a light into the devastating personal and social consequences of violence in each period.
Attracta is a Protestant teacher in provincial southern Ireland – “In the schoolroom Attracta taught the sixteen Protestant children of the town.” However, in the twilight of her career she becomes obsessed by the ongoing violence in the North and one terrible catalogue of grisly events, which has resulted in a woman killing herself:
“Attracta read about Penelope Vade in a newspaper …… Her husband, an army officer, had been murdered in Belfast; he’d been decapitated as well. His head, wrapped in cotton-wool to absorb the ooze of blood, secured within a plastic bag and packed in a biscuit-tin, had been posted to Penelope Vade.”
And this is not the end of the woman’s horror, for upon moving to Belfast to help launch a women’s peace movement, she is raped repeatedly by her husband’s killers. But this shocking opening to the story is merely a backdrop, as the majority of the story is a meditation on Attracta’s own childhood, during which her parents were killed in the War of Independence:
“What made Attracta feel close to the girl in the newspaper item was the tragedy in her own life: the death of her mother and father when she was three.”
We learn somewhat obliquely that throughout Attracta’s childhood her parents’ accidental murderers tried to befriend her, despite the protestations of a Protestant man, Mr Purce. Initially Trevor seems to be manipulating Attracta, and by association the reader, to the viewpoint that Mr Purce is simply sectarian. However, the masterly suggestion, which is the most striking stylistic feature of this story, means that as the tale progresses it seems to resonate with ambiguities and uncertainties, which are also often a key feature of violent events in the present of the 1970s.
Increasingly uncertain about the truth regarding the motive of the chief protagonists in her own life story, Attracta over-empathises with victims in the present, relaying all the gory details to her perplexed pupils. The result is that she is deemed to be losing her mind and is politely ordered to retire.
The story is a masterly study of violence and its shattering impact on those left behind; successfully reminding the reader of the subjectivity inherent in any conflict, and the resultant differing perspectives which surround events. For instance: is Mr Purce a sectarian bigot or does he represent the rightful indignation of a caste with no real voice in Catholic Ireland; are Attracta’s parents’ killers genuinely atoning for their crime or shamelessly manipulating her?
What is most striking is that Trevor chooses to set the majority of his story during the dawn of the Irish State, which has been forged out of exactly the sort of acts of violence which are now happening freely again in the North of Ireland. The story is a spur to remind us how violent events shaped the past and continue to shape the present, whilst also being a remarkable meditation on the need for forgiveness and redemption before a society can truly progress.
So central was this consideration of violence in Ireland to become for Trevor, that the title stories of each of his subsequent short story volumes were related to political events in Ireland. Beyond the Pale (1981) is set on the north coast in the present day and The News from Ireland (1986), is set at the time of the Famine. In both of these stories a tangible sense of empathy for the plight of Catholics becomes apparent, whilst maintaining a general abhorrence at ongoing and historical violence. As an English character having an epiphany regarding the situation in the North in Beyond the Pale astutely observes – and here she is an obvious mouthpiece for the author: “History is unfinished in this island; long since it has come to a stop in Surrey”.
So evidence of this increasing preoccupation by Irish writers with the moral and intellectual dilemma represented by the conflict in the North were already apparent by 1977, the year Kiely’s novella Proxopera appeared in print.
The first thing to say is that Proxopera exhibits complete contempt for censorship of any prescription. Kiely had been one of those novelists banned under the censorships of the “Green Curtain” to use John Montague’s memorable phrase from his preface to Kiely’s aforementioned collection of essays, A Raid into Dark Corners. In this preface Montague refers to essays contained in the volume in which Kiely discusses the censorship of the 1940s and ’50s in Ireland, when according to Montague “the atmosphere of the time was against any honesty in thought or art”.
Thirty or so years after these prohibitions, Kiely seems to be revelling in writing with complete artistic freedom about a political conflict from which he is somewhat removed. Whether self-censorship would have affected Kiely in the writing of his novella, had he still been resident in the North, is a moot point; but the result is a wonderfully uninhibited polemic against the ongoing violence in the North, from an informed commentator with impeccable credentials for offering insights on the dreadful contemporary situation. The epigraph In Memory of the Innocent Dead makes his intentions perfectly clear from the outset.
By this stage The Troubles had become the most widespread euphemism used to describe the violence in the North, but by 1977 Kiely seemed determined to present the conflict as a dirty war: an intelligence and stupidity battle in which the nationalist foot soldiers are Pearse’s cousins many times removed -– “soldiers of the Republic in their own eyes, knee-cappers, murderers, arsonists, protection racketeers, decorators of young girls with tar and feathers, God, the oddities that in times like these crawled out from under the stones”.
Frequent recent comment that the book is a harrowing prophecy of the Omagh bomb in 1998 is fair enough, if only in the sense that Irish history ceaselessly offering parallels is one of the themes of Kiely’s work. For Proxopera’s title itself derived from the tactic of having bombs delivered by a third party, a tactic frequently revisited in Irish history. However, in addition, Kiely’s novella is based on or at least inspired by one contemporary event among hundreds: the IRA kidnapping of the Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema. More generally it is a statement of civilised outrage at the ongoing violence in the North of Ireland as it approaches its second decade. In Kiely’s story a retired schoolteacher, Binchy, is forced to drive a bomb into a target in his hometown, and none of the grim hypocrisy of the situation is lost on him:
“Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours. Could Pearse in the post office have, by proxy, summoned Cuchulain to his side, could the wild geese have, by proxy, spread the grey wing on the bitter tide, could all that delirium of the brave not have died by proxy, Edward Fitzgerald, and Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone?”
Kiely’s insider status regarding vocalising an opinion on the situation in the North is confirmed here through the paraphrasing of Yeats’s poem September 1913, for he was surely the ultimate bardic commentator of his generation. In Proxopera Kiely’s apoplexy is maintained by the furious tone adopted throughout; the welter of emotional detail; the specificity of his descriptions of the natural world, the colloquial, un-stylised dialogue and the sense of proprietorship displayed in the language. The narrator continually referring with almost italicised indignation to “my town”.
And yet we are in familiar Kiely territory as well. His love of ballads is immediately apparent. Frank McCrory’s comedy song The Treacherous Waves of Lough Muck opens the novel:
“Sea-lions and sharks, alligators and whales with mouths that would swallow a truck …”
But the song is not being used simply to provide amusement, for the narrator is quick to intrude – “That lake would never be the same again”. Yet other lines from the song become a repeated refrain, which has a deeply thematic resonance in the overall work. For McCrory’s song is a positive act of mythology, a humane counterpoint to the murderous mythologies the terrorists live by.
And yet, for all McCrory’s obvious comic intent, the second line quoted from his song sounds deeply ominous, when juxtaposed with Kiely’s narrative commentary: “‘Oh, the sights that we saw as we waited for death on the treacherous waves of Lough Muck.’ Yet the birds, they say, sang around Dachau.”
Which brings us back to the grisly events which provide the locale for Kiely’s novella. Let’s remember that despite Kiely’s professed intention in this regard – “the lake in the story is one half Lough Muck and one half the lake near Trillick where the murdered county councillor was found” – in the geography of the novel he appears to be referring directly to Lough Muck and its satellite Fireagh Lake. Politically the recent events in Lough Eyes are plainly in his mind. So it’s a conflation of three lakes – two emanating from the author’s mind’s eye, remembered from childhood, and the third displaying an acute political eye for detail relating to the terrible events unfolding in the Omagh locality.
Throughout the novel the stream of informed allusions used by Kiely’s narrator, Binchy, as well as his deep respect both for nature and the human customs of the past, are set against the shallowness of motive, the political expediency, the disrespect for humanity and the desecration of the natural world displayed by proponents of political violence.
Take this wonderfully descriptive passage from the first page: “The waterfowl now swim on the still surface or fly around and cry around the circle of hills, harvest-coloured. The holidays are over and the dry rustle this year is early in the leaves. A dozen or more waterhens are in convention in a reedy corner near a sagging black boathouse.”
It is mankind, or more particularly men, who disturb this equilibrium in the natural world – “Only in one bay on the far shore is the silence disturbed by two black boats, moving slowly, men just barely using the oars or standing up and sitting down again”. But one of Kiely’s characters maintains – “The water never knew what was happening”. That most elemental body – the life force itself – is blind apparently to the shenanigans taking place around it, on its surface and within its waters.
Or maybe not. The next lines prove a rebuff, presumably the father responding to his son – “I doubt that. Water may know more than we think. And grass. And old rocks. Think of all those old rocks that were around us in Donegal for the last three weeks.” So that it is hard not to recall Yeats’s famous image from Easter 1916 – “the stone’s in the midst of it all” – where he compares the hardest natural element to the taut hearts of the rebels.
But water or “the living stream” is the continual motif in Kiely’s work of fiction. The lake seems to reflect the events which take place in its environs – “Oh the night that thing happened the lake was dark and still”. It seems to have some form of natural omniscience that is much more everlasting than the temporal activities of man. And let’s face it, no one is more aware of what’s going on than a goddess:
“Water doesn’t need light in order to see. Water is a sort of God. Or at any rate a Goddess. That’s what people thought long ago, they called rivers after Goddesses.”
It’s tempting to speculate that the name Lough Eyes accentuated Kiely’s development of the idea of water’s omniscience, and imbuing water with a sort of mystical femininity is no mere trope. As the ultimate mother and bringer of life, it is being placed in deliberate juxtaposition with the destructive and deathly world of man.
The depth – to use an apt metaphor – of Kiely’s imagery here is reminiscent of Heaney at his best, and it may be more than fanciful to imagine that his critique of the younger poet’s work I mentioned earlier has enhanced the older writer’s creative power and taken his own descriptive and allusive talents to a higher level.
We are told that “for him in his boyhood that lake had always been asleep”. The metaphor seems to have become as relentless as the treacherous waves of Lough Muck themselves, for it is hard not to feel this is a subtle reference to the years of political slumber which followed partition.
In the resulting descriptions of childhood we get Kiely at his absolute best, for he is a remarkable evocator of the pastoral world – “The walk from the town to the lake switchbacked over rolling farmyard, root crops and oats, heavy black soil, solid square slated farmhouses, a well-planted Presbyterian countryside. After the first mile it was the custom for himself and his comrades to slither down an embankment where the road crossed the railway to the west and the ocean, to walk a hundred yards into a dank rock-cutting, to drink there from a spring that came on an iron spout out of the naked rock. That, for him, had been the well at the world’s end mentioned in the old stories. No water had ever tasted like that water.”
The positive impact on nature of both traditions is receiving due reverence here, as he remembers a time of greater mutual toleration (however much is bubbling beneath the surface), with idyllic references to water flowing easily throughout the passage. The sacrosanct primacy of the natural world here is quickly juxtaposed with the potentially barbarous activities of man which lead to its ultimate desecration. Subtly we are informed that even in his childhood there was a political world capable of defiling all that was idyllic about the countryside:
“From the top of the hill you had a choice of routes: to the right the longer one, uphill, down dale, passing a place where there was a wooden bridge over the bend of a river, going round the world for sport, by fifty farms, a corrugated-iron-roofed Orange hall where there had been a bloody row one night because some guileless, love-deludhered young Orangemen had brought a Catholic girl to a dance ….”
The potential for man to intrude on the sacrosanct aspects of the natural world is continually made apparent in this novella. But throughout this opening section we are reminded of the ubiquitous power of water and the lake in particular, as if it is an almost mystical force imbued with hidden powers. From the bald statement that nowadays “demented old ladies and others were continually drowning themselves” to the fact that the melting of the glaciers had formed this “melancholy” lake. We are also told “That little lake as far as he knew had never had a name”. Suddenly it is the pathetic attempts of man to shape short-term events, which looks paltry by comparison with its longevity. It will survive long after contemporary events become folklore before eventually being forgotten.
For Kiely’s narrator, Binchy, the lake has always been a place of escape from the nastiness of the temporal world of man – “What it was all about was hate which, as always, bred hate, and suddenly you were sick of the town on that day and the lake was paradise”. From McCrory’s mythological song to a reverie of childhood near the conclusion of the novel, to his “dream” of a white house on a lake throughout the piece, it is identified with freedom from the constrictions of man’s iniquities. Unfortunately they currently coexist as the police are looking for the Catholic victim that is in turn resulting in the planned reprisal which is the subject of the novel.
“The best corners in the lake were in there beyond the boathouse where the reeds were so high you were almost but not quite cut off from the rest of the world: or over there where men in black boats were still probing and dredging.”
Images related to water are continually evoked: rains, tempests, Lammas floods, crabs in jars. Even the bomb itself is transported in a milk float, another life-giving liquid, on the verge of being defiled by destruction. And just as the world of man intrudes on the world of nature; Kiely changes gear technically, with his epic prose descriptions of the natural world, replaced by the fragmented dialogic exchanges which announce man’s arrival on the scene:
“One false step. Into the house. All of you. We’re all inside.”
As soon as these men literally intrude in the world of the novel, we are informed that the political world of man is full of hatreds, irrationalities, contradictions, petty viciousness, “intimate revenge” to borrow Heaney’s phrase, and if this was not enough, we are reminded via the refrain that “the lake would never be the same again”, as if it too has been implicated in the world of men because of the body found within the confines of its water. “But murderers in the dark had made the sleeping lake their accomplice. The innocent lake had been forced to share the guilt. The lake, out there and fading into another dusk, the lake knew. It could never be the same again.”
So like any deity, the lake is implicated in the dubious moral behaviour of its creations. The prelapsarian world will remain tainted by this form of original sin forever apparently. And when it is described as “Stygian” it even becomes analogous with the River Styx, which ferried the dead to the underworld in Greek mythology.
In his reflection on the cause and effect of partition, Counties of Contention (1945), over 30 years before, Kiely had been keen not to offend traditional pieties in his foreword:
“The attempt to appreciate Unionist sentiment will possibly offend a few Nationalist Irishmen; while the inevitable result of the writer’s nationalist breeding and background will eventually drive away all but the most impartial and persevering unionist readers.”
By the time of Proxopera he doesn’t care. It is a case of a plague on both your houses:
“There were three UVF men came over from the murder triangle by Portadown to kill a Catholic in Newtownstewart. Two hit men and one man to finger the subject. When they got there the man’s away in Dublin. They go into a pub in Newtownstewart and start to drink. Then the fingerman says he knows another papish who would be better dead. They set out to get him. But he has emigrated to Canada. Feeling very bad they go back to the pub in Newtownstewart. On the way home, well drunk, they stop in Gortin Gap for a piss and the gunmen shoot the fingerman because he couldn’t find anybody for them to shoot. One of their own. Think of that, old man.”
In Counties of Contention Kiely added that “the most that can be hoped for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, to approach the present in the practical way that the artist or the craftsman approaches the material out of which he is to make something permanent and durable and essentially one”.
By the time of the writing of Proxopera that wish lay in tatters and the novel adequately represents the legacy of this missed opportunity: for the squabbles of the past have become the tit-for-tat nightmare of the present:
“We’ll get them.
“You’ll get who, Binchey One asks. The town hall. The post office? Judge Flynn who sure as god had nothing to do with it?
“We’ll show them we’re active. That we can plant bombs where we like.”
Counties of Contention is a book which rationally tries to clarify misunderstandings regarding terms such as Ulster, unionist and nationalist. The tone of Proxopera is one of enraged perplexity at the continuance of these misunderstandings and their dire consequences:
“More of you should kill each other. Go to the Greenland Cap and settle whatever it is between ye and leave normal people alone.”
But the past is another country, literally almost for Kiely, who alone amongst the writers I’ve mentioned, was born (just) into a united, non-partitioned island. His perplexity at the violence of the 1970s is rooted like these other writers in his deep humanity, but there may also be a generational aspect to it as well. His father fought in the Boer War and there was fairly easygoing fraternisation between townsfolk and the garrison stationed there when Kiely was growing up. This is not in any way to diminish his own complete affinity with the nationalist predicament, but rather to contextualise the complex and Janus-like political relationship faced by northern Catholics in the period, which in Kiely’s case in part resulted in the pluralistic and patrician commentator that he was to become.
Though always an essentially good-humoured one. Take this ironically prescient response to the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966, which simultaneously displays two aforementioned threads in Kiely’s writings: his mutual detestation of violence and censorship; as if in conjunction they represent the ultimate affront to independence of thought:
“The Nelson’s Pillar outrage is deplored by everybody with sense. But it’s the sort of unfortunate thing that can still happen in Ireland. In a letter to The Irish Times I suggested that these half educated poor devils would be better employed putting stink bombs in the office of the censorship of publications.”
In Proxopera Kiely is able to brood over the significance of the name Lough Muck, as a means of ruefully contemplating the nature of his condemned isle:
“The shadow of the monstrous mythological pig brooded over a landscape that could never free itself from vengeance and old wrongs. A pig of an island, an island changed by the magic of the Tuatha-de-Danaan into that mammoth of a black pig crouching on the sea, so as to try and prevent the Milesian wandering heroes from coming safely to haven on their isle of destiny. What a destiny to consort with murderers in the valley of the black pig.”
Indeed, well before the writing of Proxopera the critic Grace Eckley had discerned “a deep abhorrence of violence” in his work. But the understatement which was always apparent has been replaced by a more openly combative/hostile and (entirely understandably) declamatory approach, for to Kiely it appears apparent that any understatement of the horror of continually unfolding events would represent a travesty.
The one thing we know by the end of the novella is that the endless catalogue of casualties continues, a preoccupation of all of the writers’ work of the period I have mentioned, and Kiely is not afraid to treat us to a litany of horrors. However, even in the most direly pessimistic of times, Kiely remains the eternal optimist and this understandably bleak treatise, leavened by appropriately grim black humour, manages to end on a note of some hope. Towards the end there is a remarkable piece of reminiscence from Binchy’s childhood. “When he was twelve years old he owned a Brownie camera, a birthday present. His pal, Tony, and himself, both trouserless, waded out to the Blue Stones. Tony balanced on one, he on the other. He peered and clicked and snapped Tony balancing, bare-legged, shirt tail fluttering, and the snap was no sooner taken than Tony fell off into the water. Sitting on the shore in the July sunshine, Tony naked, his clothes spread out on a bush, they laughed and dried themselves and ate toffee and drank lemonade.”
But by the time he is 18 we are informed that Tony has gone mad and the narrator is haunted by nightmares in which the boy features. Apparently great memories of places can be defiled by the events which succeed them. However, Kiely transforms the tone at the finish as the convalescing Binchy rallies and rails against the intruders – “But by the living Jesus they should not have touched my house, my living dream seen across water and through tall reeds and beech trees, they should not, they should not have touched my living dream …”
Until the most unlikely and transformative of conclusions – “And through a gap in the reeds he looks, as he waits for the perch, across the water at the white house. Reeds make one frame for the picture. Beech trees, set back from the avenue that leads up to the house, make another. He envies the people who own it, the lawn and flower-beds before it, the barns and varied outbuildings behind it. He has missed a strike. Tony is laughing. And the most beautiful thing of all, cutting across a corner of the lawn, a small brook tumbling down to join the lake. To have your own stream on your own lawn is the height of everthing.”
Maybe the lake will be the same again? Eden can be recaptured, through the redemptive act of memory, sustaining us beyond the dreadful present, into a better future. Kiely’s message seems to be that terrible things do indeed happen in life but we should never lose our essential optimism and good nature in the face of these events. And the way in which we achieve this is by continuing to cherish those dreams which have given us proper sustenance throughout our lives and kept our hearts light, no matter what dreadful events fate has in store for us.
Kiely loved Latin and yet he confined himself to one reference from Catullus in this novella, which is all the more blindingly instructive and thematically apposite because of its isolation in the text:
“Soles occidere possunt et redire” which translates as “The suns are able to set and return”.
Conor McCloskey is one of the organisers of the annual Benedict Kiely festival in Omagh, Co Tyrone. benedictkiely.info