|Texts and Contexts|
This is adapted from an essay that will appear in the Peace Review1 in June, in a special issue on “Peace and Literature.” I’ve been wanting for a long time to be able to say something about that topic, because I’ve been anxious, since I first began trying to produce reception studies of contemporary Irish poetry in the late ’80s, about ways in which the distribution and study of twentieth century Irish literature have seemed intertwined with the fostering of political violence. There is, as I’ll describe, a still-vibrant tradition of claiming that Ireland is a place where plays and poetry make things happen, and where what they make happen is sometimes lethal. Since I know myself to be of a generation whose engagement with Irish literature derives in part from a voyeuristic interest in Northern Irish violence, and since I have been especially intrigued by continued assertions about Irish poetry’s efficacy, I’ve been hoping that I might some time be able to say something about poetry’s capacity to become a visible force for peace on that island. I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to make a kind of progress report. The upshot is that there’s now a poem that is being talked about as serving the current ceasefire much as poems have been talked about as participating in violence in the past. The mechanics that have made that poem conspicuous are so similar to the mechanics that have made poems available in service of violent ends that we’re now finally in a position to say that a certain sort of assimilation of Irish texts might also become a force against violence. This is not to say that there have never been pacifist Irish poems before this one, only that they have never before, to my knowledge, had the kind of repeated and conspicuous invocation I’ll describe.
In the Peace Review version of this I begin by describing a literary debate about poetry and causality, referring to one of the seminal statements against poetry’s modern efficacy, in Auden’s elegy to the pre-eminent modern Irish poet, and referring as well to one of the conspicuous counter-examples, Yeats’s own “Man and the Echo,” and its series of questions about what Yeats’s work did or might have done. Here, instead, I’m going to say a little about why such issues seem important to me for Irish Studies as practiced in the United States. My broader concern would be the ways in which Irish studies and related literature courses may have contributed to a romanticized view of Irish nationalism that helps make literature students, and perhaps especially Irish-American literature students, if not direct contributors to gun-running then at least comfortable bystanders to it. Nowadays it is possible to commend the American Conference for Irish Studies as a forum for pluralistic discussion of Northern Irish politics. (See for instance Wilson, 166-7.) But while the Irish representatives most frequently featured in English or British literature surveys—I take those to be Yeats, Joyce, and Heaney—are a religiously mixed and politically complex group, it is I think not always noticed that together their work is comprehensible, in relation to the politics of contemporary Northern Ireland, only as a set of negotiations with nationalism, so that the loyalist or Unionist political allegiances long held by the majority of people in Northern Ireland go wholly unrepresented in courses that give extended voice to their political opposites. That’s one sort of problem; another is the way in which English and American criticism has, since the early 1970s, expressed rather ardently the wish that poets like Heaney would provide insight about Northern Irish violence, and have sometimes resorted to anachronism and inaccuracy to demonstrate that Heaney meant his poems to report on the killing.
Then there’s a third complaint, more frequently and more explicitly asserted in Ireland, that says that any association of poetry with Irish politics is inherently culpable. One form of that accusation can be found even within violent nationalist activism, in for instance Michael Collins’s complaint, “I do not think the Rising week was an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrases, nor of actions worked out in a similar fashion” (Kiberd, 207): there were, of course, plenty of those phrases and actions around Easter, 1916. But I’m more interested in the opposite version, which says that far from rendering violent insurrection less efficient, literature has helped grease its wheels. In 1975, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote of “An Unhealthy Intersection” between “a certain form of literature and a certain form of politics,” particularly in the way romantic depictions of sacrifice might serve to encourage those who had committed themselves to killing for political ends. O’Brien traced the origins of the Irish Republican Army’s violent tendencies to a “version of literature” that validates heroic sacrifice. “Ours is a small country,” wrote O’Brien,
much afflicted by ballads, and by persons shooting and bombing their way to a place in the ballads to be. I have heard Yeats’s line ‘A terrible beauty is born’ used to glorify, or better to bedizen, the sordid horrrors which the Provisional IRA and their competitors have brought to the streets of Belfast. In these conditions one develops—or at any rate I have developed—a resistance to romanticism, an aversion to the ballad form, a horror of the manic passages in the poetry of Yeats, and a tendency to see the influence of literature over politics, in the tragic heroic mode, as a contagion to be eradicated where possible. (8)O’Brien’s qualification—his locating the dangerous element in the “tragic heroic mode” rather than in all literature—offers room for different generic possibilities. Other scholars, such as Edna Longley, the most prominent literary critic remaining in Northern Ireland, have been less flexible in comparable pronouncements. Longley’s 1994 book The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland begins by expanding a statement made in her earlier Poetry in the Wars: “Poetry and politics, like church and state,” she says, “should be separated” (9). I’m being deliberate in focusing on O’Brien and Longley as the antagonists to the Irish linking of poetry and politics, because both are explicitly anti-nationalist in their assertions and because the long conjunction of poetry and Irish nationalist causes makes it possible to think of that conjunction as sectarian: to be for Irish nationalism, according to that equation, is to validate the use of poetry for political ends. The contemporary poet Thomas McCarthy quotes O’Brien as saying about “Easter, 1916” that “the poem is now part of the I.R.A. and I have heard Republican sympathisers say it in and out of [the Irish parliament]."
But in the passage I quoted earlier, O’Brien refers to the invocation of “Easter, 1916” by both the IRA and their “competitors,” and it is at least possible to think that he is alluding there to their political opposites. For McCarthy quotes Tom Paulin as saying that “Easter, 1916” is “alive and well and living in the Democratic Unionist Party” (34)—that is, among the IRA’s political adversaries.
The works of Yeats, who was highly conscious of this sort of appropriation, continue to be used as the standard for poetry’s currency in these fora. Thus, in the foreword to the Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems (a collection of poems voted for in a millenial readers’ survey), the newspaper’s literary editor, Caroline Walsh, cited poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill as attributing to a recent poem a force “that could only be imagined, of some lines, perhaps, of Yeats, at the turn of the previous century.” There’s some obfuscation in this continual recourse to Yeats as the standard: it’s a way of ignoring the more recent and enormous prestige, especially in Northern Ireland, that adhered to poems produced by the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands and some of his cohort. But Walsh is using Yeats to make a point about poetry’s present-day strength in Ireland: she wants to insist that poems can now do what they did in Yeats’s time.
The poem she has in mind is one called “Ceasefire”, which she describes as published by its author Michael Longley in the Irish Times
coinciding with the announcement by the IRA of the first Northern Ireland ceasefire. The poem’s first “electrifying appearance” in the newspaper had, said Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a galvanising effect... (xv)
Such reports are the stuff of legend: in the Republic of Ireland, Michael Longley is one of the most respected of Northern Irish poets from the generation of Heaney, and for him to have published a pacifist poem “coinciding” with the historic 1994 ceasefire announcement would indeed seem a powerful gesture. This timing is referred to often. Prefacing a March 2000 interview with Longley, the Irish Times recalled its having published his poem “coinciding with” the ceasefire announcement (“Observing”, 13), just as a July 1999 commentary on the poem in the London Independent remembered, “The poem first appeared in the Irish Times when the IRA announced their original ceasefire....” (Padel, 13). Today, at www.desert.net one can find a somewhat different recollection: ““Ceasefire” [was] composed on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Irish Republican Army ceasefire [and] was read over National Public Radio in [the U.S.].”
The poet’s own account differs from all of these. During the late summer of 1994, when many in Ireland and out waited anxiously to see whether the IRA would indeed announce a ceasefire, Longley says he was translating the episode in the Iliad in which Priam witnesses his enemy’s desecration of his dead son’s body, then successfully begs that enemy, Achilles, to think of his own aging father and to allow the body to be properly attended to. From the episode Longley developed a sonnet that ends with Priam’s saying, “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son,” tersely and tidily expressing necessary acceptance of an enemy with whom he has been at war. “Because at that time we were praying for an IRA ceasefire,” Longley recalls
I called the poem “Ceasefire” and, hoping to make my own minute contribution, sent it to the Irish Times. It was the poem’s good luck to be published two days after the IRA’s declaration. (158)The IRA declaration was issued on August 31, a Wednesday, and was reported in the Irish Times the following day. Then Longley’s poem appeared that Saturday in the weekly Arts section, the typical place for poems to appear in Irish Times. That’s within a few days of the declaration, certainly, and it’s easy to see how memory could render the two events simultaneous, though the claim in the newspaper’s March 2000 account that the poem was “prophetic, and as coincidental as it was planned” is to try to attach all relations at once: to remember the poem’s publication as prophecy, strategy, and lucky accident.
The poem is becoming a part of the lexicon associated with the tenuous ceasefire much as the refrain from “Easter, 1916” has been a part of the lexicon associated with Northern Irish bloodshed. For instance, Irish Times columnist Mary Holland reported that she first heard the poem praised for its pacifist sentiments at a 1995 American conference on Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland; Senator Edward Kennedy, who comes from a family apt to invoke poems on political occasions (see Luftig), quoted its final couplet in a pacifist speech in Northern Ireland in 1998. In February 1996, soon after the deadly bombing at Canary Wharf in London, a letter to the Irish Times asked that “Ceasefire” be reprinted so that “it might be read by politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea, and perhaps some of last Friday’s ‘heroes’” (Cunniffe, 13).
“Ceasefire” has gotten around.2 If poetry’s function in Irish politics is importantly illustrated in the disparate uses that are made of poems after their creation, then “Ceasefire” seems to be having a vital career indeed—though I should add that that career seems to be limited mainly to the USA and to the Republic of Ireland, especially the pages of Dublin’s highbrow Irish Times, and not to extend to the North. But in the Republic, “Ceasefire” has become, like the most overused ballads and anti-ballads, the stuff of fuzzy recollection and disparate quotation. I don't find strategies such as close reading to be a sufficient response to such usage. I've seen only one commentary that suggests that “Ceasefire” is an interesting enough poem to generate much productive close reading, and anyway, the uses being made of it have to do with readings that are not evidently very close but that are nevertheless intense and passionate and conspicuous. I have been trying to learn to take such poems as I find them, as parts of new texts that remake the poems in the process of their reception. It is not clear to me that the years since “Ceasefire” have suggested that these Irish mechanics promise any guarantee that poetry may be a reliable or important cause for good, but it is perhaps now necessary to admit, as O'Brien wouldn't in 1975, that its heroic dimension can be summoned for non-violent purposes.
2. See http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe (search for “Ceasefire” and “Longley” in European news). I used Lexis/Nexis to find most of the articles cited here. Some additional references are noted at http://www22.homepage.villanova.edu/evan.radcliffe/engl2400/2400links.htm. I was alerted to this latter source by Tom Keegan.
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