To live in Northern Ireland was to exist in varying degrees of extremity
Many of us left in dribs and drabs, only realising later how strange the place was
Seamus Heaney in Wicklow in 1971, where he moved to after leaving Belfast. Photograph: Jack McManus
I have been thinking of the past more than usual these last, stilled months of a year of strange crossings, of pandemic, of Brexit and of the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland, which arrived like an uncertain guest.
I meet these events in jumbled sequences on my daily walks, listening to the radio from home as I look the wrong way on crosswalks, my inner voice in constant argument with this, as with that. I have come to think of this contrariness as the function, partly, of a Belfast upbringing in which uncertainty of the most terrible kind struggled with the need to hope that individual experience might still find comfort in humane, collective, agreement.
I was born in Belfast in 1972, and live in the United States. I can’t think now of any experience in my earlier life that didn’t have some tone of disturbance to it, some shade of the just-happened, or the about-to-be. We many of us faced this uncertainty with a wild abandon, head on, but with eyes half-shut, the images there, but blurred, as Anna Burns told in Milkman, a fiction I knew to be true because it said what I had only ever felt.
The Belfast that I experienced until I left for Dublin in the mid-1990s, to a city where I felt at home as if for the first time, was governed by interlocking hierarchies, of class and gender, as of religion and race, that applied to everyone. My parents both came from working-class families, but the home I grew up in was middle-class. And still there was an anxiety, a fear even, of authority, which was the social inheritance of knowing your place.
Perhaps that anxiety took vague shape from the lingering presence of one grandfather, dead before I was born, and who I now wonder if he suffered from depression, in those days before the salvation that was public health care. He was a gentle man, and deeply loved, forced into itinerant work, across the water, in the shipyards, where he was injured, another figure in the personal, honeycomb histories that lie not far beneath the surface of the North’s official past.
I felt the after-effects of this generational loss in an expectation of disaster that has never quite left me. The elision of these unresolved personal histories in the big words of political and sectarian association that frame the story of Northern Ireland only obscures its intimate, traumatic histories.
Consequent to this, the narrative of an island divided into north and south by a border, hard or soft, diminishes the overlapping experiences of border communities whose human textures suggest a deeper truth of layered, sometimes contradictory, and always evolving attachments and experiences. For my own part, I spent my childhood summers “going south”, north to Donegal, and it was glorious.
These past months on my walks through winter in a college town, I wondered then, when I read of this centenary of Northern Ireland, how it was, as the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has suggested, that this year could come to be an “opportunity to hear untold stories, to promote Northern Ireland on the world stage and to celebrate its people, culture, traditions and enterprise; and its vital contribution to the United Kingdom”.
For were we to tell our untold stories, there would be no end of sorrow, living as we all did in varying degrees of extremity, even as we tried to see normalcy as the day-to-day survival of those late-century decades.
And mostly, I have thought of the late Seamus Heaney, whose portrait the Northern Ireland Office has used to commemorate the centenary, to some puzzlement given his own personal scepticism about the northern state. There is, however, one way in which Heaney’s art is emblematic of Northern Ireland, and that is in passing. For Heaney is the great poet of the shades, of place and mourning, from the grim water lands of Lough Beg to the softer Elysium of mid-Ulster in the late versions of the Aeneid. His poems are full of ghosts, his memory sketches of friends and family drawn on a cultural canvas that extends from the lookouts of Mycenae to the further north of Beowulf.
This wide perspective is true to the centenary of Northern Ireland too, since leaving was the Troubles’ one constant. Many of us left in dribs and drabs, unintentionally, only realising later how strange the place was from which we had come. Returning, we are strange in turn to those who stayed, and to those who grew up after, with no immediate experience of what happened, as it happened.
The effect is of serial disorder, an irregularity, or a disquiet, all of which Heaney caught in his wry, quiet way, and in his own leaving, to Wicklow, Dublin, Massachusetts and Oxford. Heaney’s travels, then, suggest another perspective on this centenary year that might be otherwise missed in the usual Atlantic thundering, a perspective that is diasporic, fragmentary, and dispersed, another north, out there on further shores. Seeing Heaney like this, unmoored, uncertain, observant, abroad, is to see the past in a more personal, a deeper and a longer perspective than any state centenary, anywhere, would admit.
It is here, at the thin border between what has happened and what can, that the idea of Northern Ireland as a solid, discrete and representative state is most uncertain. My experience there was uneven, and has left me, as Heaney put it, with a “sense of a tragedy going on,/ Uncomprehended, at the very edge/ Of the usual.” I imagine many of us know this feeling, and have learned to live with it.
But I can’t help wonder as I read Heaney, as I read Anna Burns, if this centenary might not in fact be a step towards the dissolution of larger arrangements that generated this anxiety, arrangements that have always been conditional, but which like to appear permanent. So, the anger over a sea-border whose fluid dimensions imply the partiality of the land border it substitutes, and so too the possibility of an undoing that is there in the literature already, as it is in Milkman when the narrator looks out to see a sunset in all its bright dimensions, the colours “blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining”.
Nicholas Allen is the director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia. His latest book is Ireland, Literature and the Coast: Seatangled