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Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space

Adam Hanna
Palgrave Macmillan
Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space


From the Introduction: Politicised Houses and Poets

And did we come into our own
When, minus muse and lexicon,
We traced in August sixty-nine
Our imaginary Peace Line
Around the burnt-out houses of
The Catholics we'd scarcely loved,
Two Sisyphuses come to budge
The sticks and stones of an old grudge...

So wrote Michael Longley in a verse letter to Derek Mahon after the two young poets had picked their way through a Catholic neighbourhood which had been reduced to streets of gutted shells by recent sectarian attacks. The destruction that they saw there was on a scale that the city, and indeed Europe, had not seen since the Second World War, and was a stark symbol of the human costs of Northern Ireland's unresolved conflicts.2 The house-burnings of August 1969 were the latest incident in several years of escalating violence that had begun in the mid-1960s, but they were also the latest of the spates of open antagonism that had inter­spersed centuries of mutual suspicion between Belfast's mainly Protestant descendants of the settler population from Great Britain and the popula­tion of the city that is Catholic and mainly identifies itself as Irish.3

Though both Mahon and Longley are natives of Belfast, the tightly packed streets of terraced houses in the Catholic Falls Road district were practically unknown territory to them. Because of this, Longley's question of whether he and Mahon had 'come into [their] own' by visiting this beleaguered part of their city was a loaded one. The sense of guilt towards 'the Catholics we'd scarcely loved' is joined with Sisyphean feelings of futility and responsible compulsion to return to the problems of which the burnt-out houses were shocking symbols.4 Longley's references to 'muse', 'lexicon' and 'Sisyphuses' also perhaps point to an uncomfortable awareness of being divided by education and social class (as well as by religion) from the houses' former occupants. That the question that Longley poses in this stanza is self-directed is tell­ing. The sight of burnt-out houses is, like a murder, something which one cannot see and yet remain indifferent to. The question of the right response to the destroyed houses which is at the heart of this stanza was inextricable from questions of the extent to which the poets were implicated in the politics of Northern Ireland, and of the place of public matters in their work.

Perhaps houses were so central to Longley's engagement with public matters because his involvement in public issues had, according to him, in part been compelled by the violation of houses. These house-burnings, Longley wrote in an article that year, had made his previous scornful disinterest in Northern Irish politics untenable: 'I see now that as a criticism of an unjust and, even at this late hour, dishonest regime, ironies have proved pusillanimous, that in the context of lost lives and burnt-out houses they amount to an impertinence'.5 That earlier, ironic, approach to prevailing political circumstances in Northern Ireland had been made possible by the broadly peaceable nature of those cir­cumstances. These peaceful but haunted conditions had been in the backdrop of a poem written just a few years earlier in 1965, when Derek Mahon commented in his poetic survey of the North Belfast suburb of Glengormley that 'the sticks / And stones that once broke bones will not now harm / A generation of such sense and charm'.6

The 'sticks and stones' that menaced the past in Mahon's poem contain echoes of Northern Ireland's origins in tumultuous political circumstances in the early 1920s. The creation of the six counties as a separate political entity had been made possible by the census-driven determination of its border, as a smaller state with a strong Protestant majority was favoured by Unionists over a state based on the nine-county historic province of Ulster. These calculations politicised indi­vidual dwellings by making each house a unit that either underwrote or called into question the existence of the polity.7 The same streets that had seen sectarian rioting, and the campaigns of destruction and intimidation that resulted in mass expulsions of civilian populations from their houses in the late 1960s, had also been sites of inter-sectarian violence in the early 1920s.8 Though an uneasy peace reigned for most of the intervening decades (aside from the IRA's relatively small-scale 'Border Campaign' of the 1950s), this was increasingly unsettled during the 1960s by Catholic agitation at their status in Northern Ireland. Belief in their second-class citizenship was confirmed, in the eyes of many Catholics, by the discriminatory allocation of council accommo­dation in some areas in favour of the Protestant majority.9 The Ulster Unionist regime that had come to power in the 1920s, although it was not responsible for the later house-burnings, presided over the condi­tions in which they occurred. Mahon's 1965 prediction that 'sticks and stones' had left Ulster politics had been proved wrong by August 1969, as Longley's poem, with its reference to the 'sticks and stones of an old grudge', grimly attested.