Two quotations – possibly (maybe even probably) the two best-known poetic references to the Troubles and peace process – are cited a number of times in the current edition of the biannual literary journal Irish Pages, which is about the Belfast Agreement.
The lines are from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure At Troy – “once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme” – and from Michael Longley’s poem Ceasefire: “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”
Both quotes have become synonymous with the Belfast Agreement, though they were written some years before.
They caught the charge of hope that invigorated Ireland after the powersharing agreement was struck on Good Friday 1998. They also spoke to the idea of generosity, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of redemption and renewal. It's clear from this Irish Pages that much of that positive energy has evaporated.
Chris Agee, a 63-year-old Harvard-educated poet and essayist, who holds Irish and American citizenship and since the 1980s has mostly lived in Belfast, is the editor and publisher of the Belfast-located Irish Pages, which he founded in 2002. He has published four collections of poetry; his third, Next to Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2009 Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry.
The current edition of Irish Pages features 42 contributions from journalists, historians and, mostly, writers ruminating on the agreement and also illustrations of a series of paintings by Neil Shawcross of Northern Ireland-themed book covers and albums.
The very first impression from reading the 232-page publication is that the great hope reflected in the lines of Heaney and Longley is largely absent from this journal, although not totally. It’s a fine, thoughtful, well-written, quietly provocative production where, when the final page is turned, the sense that dominates is of opportunity squandered.
The title of one of the articles, by the literary critic Edna Longley, rather gives the game away. It's called The Belfast Agreement and Other Oxymorons.
It's the same with the title of the piece from Andy Pollak, a journalist who was one of the leaders of the campaign for a yes vote in the 1998 referendum on the agreement. His article is called I Am a Disillusioned Disciple of the Belfast Agreement. His chief worry is that if Sinn Féin gets its way on a Border poll that a "50 per cent plus one vote for a (dis)united Ireland . . . will be just the thing to lead us to another recurrence of the ancient bloody conflict".
Historian Paul Arthur, who also played his mainly unsung part in the peace process, laments the "infantilism" that has crept into Northern Ireland politics, which chiefly he ascribes to the DUP.
That's all understandable in the context of the collapse of Stormont, the general political stasis and ill-will that is abroad, and the confusion, nastiness and anxiety arising from Brexit.
Edna’s Longley’s husband, Michael, in his article Songs for Dead Children, acknowledges that torpor while still managing to marvel at the accomplishment of the accord. “When the Good Friday Agreement was painstakingly achieved I felt it had – as it needed to have – an almost poetic complexity,” he writes.
We mainly hear the views of the poets and novelists, who in the world of peace-processing tend not to be heard so much
But, he must add, “You might say that today Northern Irish politics more often resemble bad prose.”
Historian Roy Foster refers to a 1950s essay by Hubert Butler in which, almost anticipating the genius of the agreement, before the spanner in the works of Brexit, he wrote that if the North's unique kind of Irishness were generously recognised, "the Border will cease to become a menace and an anxiety. Either it will become meaningless and will drop off painlessly like a strip of sticking-plaster from a wound that has healed, or else it will survive in some modified form as a definition which distinguishes but does not divide."
In the book we mainly hear the views of the poets and novelists, who in the world of peace-processing tend not to be heard so much and who take their time in reaching conclusions – which perhaps explains why this 20th anniversary of the agreement book is published close to its 21st anniversary on April 10th.
Agee finds the positive in his piece, Weather Report, which looks back on that momentous Easter weekend of 1998, the hint of resurrection in the prose, the conclusion, not unlike the end of Joyce’s The Dead, taking in the climate on that Good Friday – and snow did fall softly on the day – and how “incontrovertibly something new was in the air”.
He makes a keen comparison too about two Derrymen, Seamus Heaney and John Hume: both, he writes, have "cultural poise; of being at home in equal proportion in their provincia, on the island, within the wider world".
Donegal poet Moya Cannon, in the preface to her poem Antrim Conversation, about the hard, hurt and wounded, quotes Simone Weil: "Pain and suffering are a kind of false currency passed from hand to hand until they meet someone who receives them but does not pass them on." Cannon is in awe of the victims and bereaved who can do that.
Irish Pages' Ulster Scots contributing editor Stephen Dornan, from Newtownards, Co Down, was just 20 at the time of the agreement. He was studying in Scotland and can't remember for sure if he voted, but if he did it would have been no.
It was a moral dilemma he had difficulty grappling with, but still he voted yes
He writes: “We can count our blessings, but we still incant our curses . . . We’ve achieved a messy political stalemate and an indefinite constitutional limbo.”
Carlo Gébler, son of writers Edna O’Brien and Ernest Gébler, tells of how for a number of years he taught creative writing to republican and loyalist prisoners and how in advance of the agreement republican inmates were in no doubt they would be set free when the deal was done, as they were.
It was a moral dilemma he had difficulty grappling with, but still he voted yes knowing the consequences were that “the men in the Maze or Long Kesh would walk and those whose lives they’d ruined would just have to suck it up, as the saying goes”.
Writer Glenn Patterson remembers how he was deputed to introduce a programme of music in the Ulster Hall on the 20th anniversary of the agreement when Bill Clinton and George Mitchell were conferred with the freedom of Belfast.
A yes voter in 1998, in 2018, as he prepares his links between performers, he “can’t overlook the fact that almost from the get-go our politicians – and therefore the electorate who voted them in – did their best to fuck the whole thing up”.
Newry-born poet Jean Bleakney, from a unionist family (some of who "served honourably and at great personal risk" in the RUC and UDR), voted yes but "disillusionment set in fairly quickly" – some of that disenchantment reinforced by being assailed currently by "overly loud and cloyingly witty Brexit-bashers, republicans, civic nationalists, DUP-haters, academics, rights activists, journos, etc. An altogether shocking number of high horses saddled up with sanctimony. More than ever, somehow, everything is the fault of the Brits."
As I stepped out of the car I felt something in the air, intangible but so real that it seemed to flow through me
Belfast-based poet, teacher and Englishman Matt Kirkham recalls what his father said when he told him in 1989 he was thinking of moving to work in Northern Ireland: "Don't tell your mother."
There is much to contemplate in this Irish Pages from a wide range of writers such as Tom McIntyre, Evelyn Conlon, Noel Russell, Harry Clifton, Anne Devlin, Monica McWilliams, Ed Moloney and many others, and much too to rue.
David Park, author of several novels, perhaps most notably The Truth Commissioner with its peace process subject, recalls his feelings and the people around him as he voted in a rural school on the day of the referendum, May 22nd, 1998. "As I stepped out of the car I felt something in the air, intangible but so real that it seemed to flow through me and I knew in that split second that they had come to vote yes."
He adds that the agreement “promised the possibility of future reconciliation, of societal healing”, but that opportunity – and he can think of “no worse political epitaph” – was “subverted by a generation of politicians too often lacking in political skill, devoid of a generosity of spirit . . .”
But Park does not completely abandon hope. He concludes: “And yet there is something too in my memory of that May morning when I voted yes that I can never let go, something that endures and will always do so. Nothing that happens now or in the future can ever take that away from me.”
Belfast poet Ruth Carr, in her lovely short poem The Way I Remember It, nails the feeling of liberation and relief that seemed to flood over much of the community when the agreement happened. The poem implicitly seems to ask if what was gained and what is being lost can be retrieved. It opens,
It was the knot in your chest
lodged so long its clench an integral part of you –
suddenly, unimaginably, loosening:
its fist daring to open.
Irish Pages costs £10 (€14) and is available through bookshops or its website irishpages.org