In Northern Ireland’s troubled history there have been few moments of illumination. When Seamus Heaney left for Wicklow in the early 1970s, he worried that he’d miss one when it came, his eyes downcast in the wet winter woods. Later Anna Burns described the darkness of Milkman by burying her character’s head in a book.
We are at a different moment now, with a generation of writers who spent half a life in the Troubles and half in the peace, the whole of which was given unexpected shape by Brexit. The Good Friday Agreement gave many of us a self-narrative that recent events have unsettled, the ceasefires a hinge around which our silences had turned to hesitant speech. Brexit brought these stories to a temporary and unwelcome full stop.
As we wonder what follows, Impermanence, an excellent collection of twelve essays by contemporary writers edited by Neil Hegarty and Nora Hickey M’Sichili, is a guide and a petition. Published by the No Alibis Press in collaboration with the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, Impermanence is a wide-ranging, moving and beautifully written series of reflections on friendship, family, place and society.
Read together, they prepare the ground for new ways to think not only about Northern Ireland, but about the island, and the world beyond. For this Northern writing is now migrant, diasporic and diverse, queer and radical, intimate and inclusive. In this it corresponds with so much recent innovation in Irish writing at large, in the flowering of contemporary fiction, poetry and drama, in little magazines such as The Stinging Fly and Winter Papers, and in independent bookshops across the island.
Partition has no power to segregate the imagination, even as its effects can shape our perspectives in ways we mistake to be natural. Instead, Impermanence lifts us up and beyond the enclosed and the inevitable, as Neil Hegarty does with gentle invitation in his beautiful word picture of the watery geographies of Lough Foyle.
Out past the lowlands and salt marshes, beyond claims and counter-claims, centenaries and commemorations, there is a fifth province of literature, that space of the imagination where words invite reality to dress in future shapes. That future is deeply rooted in personal memory, feeling and experience, and if Northern writing is flourishing it is because we have this transitional generation of artists who hold two very different realities in mind, the before and after an upsurge in the present, as they are in Jan Carson’s testament to a lost world of rural religious devotion.
All the essays in Impermanence are studies of mixed feelings, as Nandi Jola describes so well. Henrietta McKervey’s memoir of her father is brilliant and moving, her study of a scientist and entrepreneur a meditation, too, on love and loss. Relatedly, Gail McConnell’s account of the damage caused in her own family by the murder of her father when she was a small child is devastating. McConnell’s poetry inhabits an ecology of quiet survival, her imaginary kin the octopus and the earthworm, deep loss the barometer of her unique imagination. Paul McVeigh suggests a vocabulary for this molecular disruption in his experience as a young person from the Ardoyne discovering himself, and others, in the Ulster Youth Theatre. “Everything I am now is made from some dust of then,” he writes, an ash that falls on many of the essays.
Brian McGilloway, Carlo Gébler and Susan McKay all share northern histories that are gothic in their twisted bleakness, and do so with a clarity of self-reflection that is a signature of Impermanence at large. The directness with which each writer faces themselves and their subject gives the book a supple spine that carries the dead weight of life lightly, as Maria McManus and Kerri ní Dochartaigh show.
Impermanence ends with an essay that knits its tendons together, Susannah Dickey’s notes on growing up in Derry a record of sensations whose aftermath is still unfolding. Gently, inescapably, Dickey asks what kind of society we want now that we have survived, somehow, in some form, wherever we are. Now is the time to dream, she suggests, Impermanence a map of what has been, and what might, the North at last a bearing, not an end.