literature, Northern Irish

literature, Northern Irish
   While the identity politics central to the ‘Troubles’ which have dominated Northern Ireland since the mid-1960s are a major factor in the works of many writers, it should be remembered that the Troubles themselves are a response to broader changes, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. It is therefore better to see Northern Ireland as a place in which tradition and modernity, figured in locally nuanced ways, are in conflict.
   As the 1960s opened, a generation of writers, already alert to change, was passing. These broadly leftist writers were born and raised before the Second World War, and brought an internationalist outlook to bear on Northern Ireland. Louis MacNeice’s scepticism and emphasis on flux were a reaction against the bigoted certainties of Northern Ireland’s enclosed political mindsets. W.R.Rodgers, an ex-Presbyterian clergyman whose poetry is marked by idiosyncracy and extravagance, though closer to official Unionism (see Ulster Unionists), shared MacNeice’s openness about the divisions in Northern Irish society. Sam Hanna Bell’s novels, a fictional history from below, engage with the radical politics associated with the dissenting Presbyterian tradition, an interest shared by the poet John Hewitt. Hewitt’s treatment of Northern Ireland’s numerous identities has been influential, and since his death he has become a figurehead for a pluralist approach to Northern Ireland. Though not a part of this loose grouping, Janet McNeill can be mentioned alongside them, since her novels depict women who are defiant misfits in a stultified society. The poet John Montague (who collaborated with Hewitt on The Planter and the Gael in 1970) and the novelists Benedict Kiely and Brian Moore are from Catholic backgrounds. Their treatment of repressive Catholicism and the theme of loss and dispossession leads to an interest in the relationship of the individual to communal and traditional structures. All three have produced work in which sexual liberation figures as an emblem of rebellion against puritanical Irish attitudes. Where Kiely’s work turns nostalgically inward, Moore and Montague’s work is increasingly internationalist, whether as a way of contextualizing Northern Ireland, dealing with exile from it or finding analogies for it.
   The writers who emerged in the 1960s and after benefited from postwar expansionism, notably in educational opportunities. Of these, the most famous is Seamus Heaney (winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature). Heaney’s work treats of the opposition between his rural childhood and the world opened to him by education. Under pressure to respond to the political situation, he turned to mythological and archaeological frameworks; accusations of essentialism are balanced by his sense of wonder in the everyday. Michael Longley’s poetry works within coordinates formed by his botanical and increasingly ecologically sensitive awareness of the fragility of the natural world, and his allusions to war poetry from The Odyssey to Keith Douglas, and this has enabled him to write some of the most moving elegies of recent years. Derek Mahon’s desire to escape from history into the aesthetic is undercut by an apocalyptic consciousness that order can be stifling. James Simmons’s poetry is marked by the sexual liberationist attitude of the late 1960s and negotiates with popular cultural forms. Among established novelists, Maurice Leitch (a counterpart to Brian Moore) details, in novels of great variety of style and setting, the experiences of Northern Irish Protestant life. John Morrow’s robustly humorous approach to the Troubles represents an important aspect of Northern Irish culture absent from the more usual pietistic public commentary; Colin Bateman’s comedy thrillers (many of which have been filmed) take their lead from Morrow. Jennifer Johnston’s early novels dealt subtly with often destructive friendships across barriers of religion, class, gender and age, and while she has turned to considerations of the status of the female writer, her work is unified by a consistent attack on the traditional idea of the family. Bernard MacLaverty’s fiction also centres on troubled relationships, but his variety of styles and settings ensures that each is troubled in a specific way. A younger generation of poets has often been in reaction to Heaney. Ciaran Carson treats Belfast as both the place of the Troubles and as the urcity— shape-shifting, restless, alienating—in a celebratory poetry influenced by contemporary American writing (notably C.K.Williams) and by traditional Irish music and storytelling; the improvisatory and digressive styles of the latter become a formal analogue of urban life. Medbh McGuckian’s work combines ecriture feminine, in its disordered and intimate (never simply private) language, with pointedly political comments despite its gnomic appearance. Paul Muldoon, whose playfully cosmopolitan work is often a response to Heaney, combines references to both Irish and North American traditional tales and legends with influences from writers as diverse as Raymond Chandler and Bob Dylan, while being alert (some would say too alert) to contemporary theoretical writing. In Tom Paulin’s, work the power and possibility of the dissenting tradition is thornily engaged, as he establishes a sense of the global reach of Protestant culture at odds with the siege mentality of Northern Irish Protestantism.
   Novelists make up the most recent generation to come to prominence. Deirdre Madden’s career started with a Troubles novel, but like many of her contemporaries, she is interested in the Troubles as simply one aspect of the socio-cultural context within which her characters move. Eoin McNa-mee’s Resurrection Man (now filmed) is an exception to this rule in its attempt to find a language appropriate to the horrors of sectarian butchery. Glenn Patterson and Robert MacLiam Wilson are very much urban novelists for whom the Troubles are, again, only one part of the backdrop. Patterson has written about Belfast and about EuroDisney as a fantastical European city, while in Eureka Street Wilson sets the bomb-blasted Belfast of stereotype against a more luminous version of it as a paradisal place.
   Further reading
    Corcoran, N. (ed.) (1992) The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, Bridgend: Seren Books.
    Kirkland, R. (1996) Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland since 1965: Moments of Danger, London: Longman.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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