I’m hoping to write a series of pieces about my identity as a Northern Irish person and poet – this is the first of them, sparked by a recent visit to Dublin.
I was pleased to be invited to read at this year’s Dublin Book Festival and after a lovely event with a warm and receptive audience, I went for some food with my husband and then back to attend the launch of the Windharp, an anthology charting the history of Ireland through poetry since 1916, edited by poetry commentator Niall MacMonagle. It was a great reading, with poets such as Paula Meehan and Moya Cannon reading both some of their own work and the work of others, from Yeats, Easter 1916 to a poem about a post-crash ‘ghost estate’ and Paula’s wonderful The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks. However as the evening went on, I found myself becoming more and more aware that this did not feel like my history or my life. The cultural references were not mine. I was in a foreign country. The next day, as we walked around Dublin, there was a sense of the whole city’s tourist machine gearing up for the centenary next year of the Easter Rising.
I grew up in a Presbyterian family in Northern Ireland through the worst years of the ‘troubles’. It sometimes feels to me as if my history has been made up of nothing but grim news flashes, bombs, shootings, horror and despair. This is what we have inherited, here in the North, and we are still struggling to find a way through to the future. Even now, sectarian gangs hold huge swathes of people here to ransom, fattening on the communities’ fears. In a recent article by Glenn Patterson, he stated that in the twelve months to February 2015, there were 347 incidents where bomb disposal experts were called out. This is our peace. Fear and pain is in the fabric of our society, politicians rely on it. It is difficult for me to regard Pearse without also seeing the shadows he left behind, that we’ve had to sleep with for forty years. I feel very far away from notions of Romantic Ireland and the Celtic Tiger neither boomed nor busted in my neck of the woods.
I have struggled to find a sense of my own identity in Northern Ireland. In the early 90’s, when I helped to found the Creative Writers’ Network, it was at least in part to explore the idea of an alternative ‘Ulster Voice’. At the time another poet was so vehemently opposed to the very idea of that voice, that she said that the word ‘Ulster’ made her feel physically sick.
I have no time for hatred, guns and flags, for narrow-mindedness, or that mind-set that seems so prevalent here and that will always and forever argue the opposite from the ‘other side’. I have grown into a sense of myself as being Northern Irish, not Orange and not Green; not one thing or the other. It continues to feel as if there isn’t a lot of room for people like me in the North; when the chips are down and the votes counted, our society still falls into its tribal lines.
So who am I? Though I’m not defined by the Battle of the Boyne neither am I by the Easter Rising; neither the burning bush or the sacred heart; not the sash, nor the shamrock – or England’s red rose. To quote a great Ulster poet, John Hewitt, ‘Time and this island tied a crazy knot.’