Seamus Deane , ‘The Artist and the Troubles’, in Ireland and the Arts, ed. T. P. Coogan [Special Issue of Literary Review] (London: Namara Press 1984), pp.42-50.

Artists can often be more troubled by the idea that they should be troubled by a crisis than they are by the crisis itself. The nervous collapse of the Northern Irish statelet has been uneven in its speed but relentless in its direction. Yet the recognition that it was a crisis of real proportions, that it was something other than a squalid little sectarian war or anachronistic battle between outmoded nationalisms has only been slowly borne in upon artists, and upon people in general, and they have accepted it reluctantly and sullenly. It is not surprising that this should be so. The thought of what the present state of affairs might become is not attractive. To imagine what it is like to live in Divis Flats, in Turf Lodge or in Andersonstown is to imagine what the whole society could become - poor, oppressed, debased, insanitary, numbed into the acceptance of violence as part of the daily round. The infernal region in which so many people are [42] now seen to live seems to extend day by day, as the political hopes recede, as the crack in the industrial base widens, as the distinction between “security" forces and “terrorists" fades. In the midst of all this breakdown and internecine strife, the artist is looked to for some kind of “comment", “vision", “attitude", as though the audience still believed, to an extent that few artists do, in the civilizing or clarifying influence of art. Yet the feeling persists that the artist who avoids or evades a confrontation with the crisis is in some sense irresponsible or cowardly or insufficiently an artist to merit the name. The notion that they bear such a responsibility is often repudiated by the artists themselves on the good ground that it can lead to a distortion of the work into a propaganda exercise, an exploitation of easy and ephemeral political feelings which would be better left to sleep. On the other hand, the depth of feeling in the political arena, the savagery of the matching violence in the military arena, are reminders that an and politics are rooted in the same deep atavistic darkness. Their interest in structuring and in destroying structures is a common bond; in modern Ireland, especially, politics and an have gone through what seem to be matching phases of revolution and consolidation. The long and critical years between the fall of Parnell and the rise of De Valera to power (1890-1932) saw the formation of a new state and a new literature, both of which had features exemplary of the general world crisis, defined and articulated on the small Irish stage to an unequalled degree. The relationship between modem romantic nationalism and authoritarian politics can be seen more clearly in Yeats than in anyone else; the transformation of the middle-class English novel into the modern novel in English is more fully achieved in Joyce’s work than anywhere else; the relationship between these ostensibly literary subjects and the role of Ireland in the transformation of British imperial and national policies throughout this period would suggest that the intimacy between art and politics was so close, so intimate, that their energies had become interchangeable. A new Ireland or a new idea of Ireland was created by artists and politicians, military leaders and poets. As in the outstanding case of Pearce, these functions were often combined in the same individual. Even afterwards, in the hungry thirties and the lean forties, the provincialism of the new Free State found its artistic voice in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh who, although an adversary voice in many obvious respects, also realized in literature an aspect of the community’s sense of self which the Revival had obscured. In [43] general terms, whether as sponsors, participants or as opponents, the impression has literally gone abroad that Ireland has traditionally been a culture in which the relationship between art and politics, and especially the politics of trouble, (since there has been little else), has been a close and mutually enforcing one. But, equally, there is at present a conviction that the new crisis in the North has seen the fading of that relationship, and that in the inertia and squalor of the situation there is a symptom of, or the product of the artistic imagination’s failure to confront the issues which have been raised.

My own belief is that this is not a true reading of the situation, although it is understandable that it should have been made. One of the reasons for the current interpretation is the disappearance of the heroicizing impulse which Irish art and Irish politics discovered as a principle of liberation and energy in the earlier part of the century. The Northern troubles have developed in a world in which the anti-imperialist ethos has weakened and been replaced by an anxiety to preserve established institutions and systems, precisely because they appeared to have reached a point of exhaustion which it was terrifying to contemplate. In the sixties, when the troubles first began, the political attacks on the ruling establishments in the USA, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom had become so serious that they seemed to be capable of offering an alternative (if much more dishevelled) cultural form and ideology to those then prevailing. The fall of de Gaulle, the end of the Vietnam War, the failure of the new technocrat socialism in England, all seemed to herald the end of an era. But these changes were almost immediately followed by a period of economic gloom in which the need for authority was rediscovered, and the law-and-order theory came into play, with the international terrorist or paramilitary regarded as the primary enemy, the distilled product of a decade’s adversarial politics and of authority’s invertebrate liberalism. Against this background, the Northern Irish crisis developed. From the outset it contained within itself the seeds of a civil war, as well as having many of the features of a colonial struggle against oppression. Inevitably, therefore, it lent itself to a variety of competing interpretations. Many of them were determined by the “revisionism" in Irish historical writing (itself a product of the sixties) which had chosen the constitutional nationalist movements in Ireland as its paradigm for the true tradition in Irish history, thereby anticipating and to some extent creating the hostility towards the more militant republican [44] tradition. Out of all the welter of reportage, interpretation, propaganda and debate, one salient issue emerged - the role of violence, as a moral, as a political, as a social issue. Its relationship to religious belief, to political stability, to social oppression was debated over and over again. Since all sides availed themselves of it and, indeed, made it central to their various policies, the element of hypocrisy and double-think in these debates was possibly higher than normal. But that apart, it had clearly become for Ireland a focus, an obsession, a daily threat. It was here, on this issue, that Irish art, particularly Irish writing, became most profoundly engaged.

The beginning of the Northern troubles coincided with the emergence of the Northern poets as a clearly identifiable group. Although in retrospect it would seem to be one of those apparent coincidences which are really part of a recognizable pattern of related events, it is too easy and dangerous to stress this aspect. For, secreted within this attitude, is the view that there is an inevitable and even welcome connection between violence and art. The release of one and the efflorescence of the other are assumed to be simultaneous. The facts of Northern experience do not bear this out. Violence has often disfigured the society there, but art has not consistently flourished in its shadow. The twenties and thirties were particularly barren in the North as far as artistic productions were concerned. But violence, especially of the politically-directed, official kind, was frequent. Similarly, during the fifties, when tensions in the North began to ease, a group of painters, graduates of the Belfast College of Art, appeared - Basil Blackshaw, Terence Flanagan, Wilfred Stewart, Martin MacKeown and others. Again in retrospect, this emergence seems to have been encouraged by the relatively peaceful, more generously open spirit of those days. Other things stirred: Mary O’Malley’s Lyric Players’ Theatre, 1951, and its associated magazine Threshold, 1957, both of which still survive; the appearance of Brian Moore’s first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and preceding it, in 1951, Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride and Michael MacLaverty’s Truth in the Night; the Ulster Group Theatre’s production of Gerald McLarnon’s The Bonefire (1958) and the independent production of Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge (1960). Nevertheless, despite such cultural awakenings, the desolation of the province’s indelible divisions and injustices also kept coming through - in paintings, in buildings, in novels and poems. Ulster’s peculiar fate - to be neither Irish nor British while [45] also being both - gave to its regional art a characteristic blend of stridency and indecision which ominously prefigured the regional politics of later decades. If one were to compare the peculiar gracefulness of the paintings of William Conor (1881-1968), or of an early novel like Michael MacLaverty’s Call My Brother Back (1939) with the disturbing silence of Tom Carr’s paintings, with their stifled atmospheres, or the sensation of a cramped intellect which we find in Colin Middleton’s paintings, Brian Moore’s novels, John Montague’s early poetry, we can sense the drift from sensibilities secured by local experience to sensibilities dislocated by it. This process was to become more pronounced after 1960. There is hardly a memorable painting, play, novel or poem of that decade that is not both disturbed and disturbing in its implications. Maurice Leitch’s novel Poor Lazarus (1969), although crudely written, is full of that savage turning back on polluted origins which is by now such an integral part of the Northern sensibility, both political, and artistic.

It is this search, or re-search into the roots of a society so impregnated by violence and division which has marked much contemporary Irish an, both in the North and in the South. Since the early sixties, the new history and the new art shared a repudiation of the idea of violent origin and its extension and ratification into the present. But whereas the writing of history could manage for the most pan to rationalize this new version of disengagement from the violent beginnings of both the Republic and the North, art could do so only at the risk of becoming disengaged from its own farouche nature. In the Republic, Thomas Kinsella’s poetry underwent a profound sea change in the early seventies, with the publication of Notes from the Land of the Dead. In that volume he gave a kind of dreadful pre-eminence to the creative will, that it should structure as a blind force, forging shape out of mess, crystalline order out of inchoate experience in an endless, implacable struggle.

In a similar way, in the year 1972, which brought the first phase of the troubles to a bloody climax, John Montague published The Rough Field, a mosaic of discourses, lyric and pleb, which he differentiated from Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger by saying that: “The historical dimension didn’t exist for him.” Montague, who more than most believes that the artist most bear witness in a time of historical crisis, has, in a strange way, been energized as an artist by the Northern troubles. The dead Ulster of his childhood has become imaginatively repossessed as a place of value for him, largely because [46] its occluding political system has broken under the impact of the violence. But this is not to say that he glamourizes violence. The reverse is true. He offers art as the only substantial alternative to it, potentially effective because it draws its energies from the same ancestral and psychic roots.

The engagement with violence or the disengagement from it was, however, an immediate choice which faced those writers who began their careers in the late sixties. Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, Michael Longley, and a little later, Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby, Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin all became publicly known as Northern poets and their work received more exposure than usual because of the ongoing crisis. Older poets like John Hewitt and Padraic Fiacc were also subjected to a new pressure, public and private, which had seismic effects on their work. One noticeable feature in these lists is the emergence of Catholic names. Since the 1944 Education Act the role of Catholics in the Northern political and cultural scene, previously so subdued, had promised to become a new reality. Exactly one generation later, the effects were felt. This liberalizing legislation, which helped to undermine the State which passed it, also helped to confirm the presence of two traditions and the close but endlessly difficult relationship which had been soldered between them over a long period. Seamus Heaney’s work, which began in a regionalism of the kind which had seemed to have passed with Conor and MacLaverty, suddenly expanded into rise historical dimension with Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) with such incandescent energy and force that it was immediately clear that here, in this work, the Northern imagination had finally lost its natural stridency (replaced by patience) and had confronted its violent origins. Heaney’s best work is a contemplation of root and origin - of words, names, stories, practices, of violence itself. In him, Ulster regionalism realizes itself most fully and, in doing so, transcends itself. On the other hand, Derek Mahon, a natural cosmopolitan, adopted a pose of such mandarin disengagement in his work that it seemed to some he had deliberately chosen stylishness as a defence against the risks of commitment. But Mahon’s work has refuted this notion. In his poetry we hear the note of rather weary disaffection which had been so prominent in the work of one of his mentors, Louis MacNeice, blended with grief at the prospect of the wasteland of lost causes which the North and so much else had become. Mahon transposes the customary inspection of the roots of the past into an [47] inspection of the debris of the future - which is itself the past in its completed form. Between them, these two poets dominate their generations with work which is saturated with a sense of the doom of history expressing itself as violence, made possible by the attrition of feeling, the cauterisation of sensibility. Again it can be seen that in itself, this is a position that accords with the Irish turn against the apotheosis of violence, as a stimulator of consciousness, as a release of and from oppression. But the poets are not simply rehearsing a party line. In their attempt to come to grips with destructive energies, they attempt to demonstrate a way of turning them towards creativity. Their sponsorship is not simply for the sake of art; it is for the energies embodied in an which have been diminished or destroyed elsewhere. This is not a form of political commitment. It is not a form of evasion, either. It is that species of humanism which knows that the demonic and the diabolic have the same origin. In remaining true to the first, they concede to the power of the second.

In a similar fashion, the work of Brian Friel in the drama has revealed an ever-increasing obsession with the linkage between the violent roots of history and the sources of creativity, especially when both of these are tested in a language which is itself a testimony to the presence of these forces. The shadowing of the English language by the Irish language is a metaphor of the contemporary consciousness in its contemplation of history. The great expansion in Friel’s work dates from The Freedom of the City (1973, although written in that crucial year 1972). As in Montague’s and Heaney’s, it takes place when the troubles finally force him to include the historical dimension in such a way that his drama of closed communities, with the characteristic ingredients of a hidden story, a gifted outsider with an antic intelligence, a drastic revelation leading to violence is transformed into a meditation on a problem at once political and artistic - that of authority. Yet, none of these writers - Heaney, Mahon, Friel, Montague, Kinsella - or any other artist in other fields - John Behan, F. E. McWilliams, Louis le Brocquy, or even a painter like Joe McWilliams who has asked, “Why is it that the political and sectarian violence of the past decade is so seldom reflected in Ulster art?” - can be called a political imagination. It is this fact which has been generally recognized, although it has been exaggerated into the claim that Irish artists are in some sense politically disengaged, indifferent, or immobilized. [48]

A preoccupation with history does not necessarily involve a politicization of the artist. In Ireland, the reverse is often true. The core of Irish nationalist feeling, orange or green, has been a moral, not a political passion. No political ideology is bound up with it by political necessity; many are linked with it ephemerally or by opportunism. It might even be argued that the separation of Irish nationalisms from socialism left them ideologically lamed to such a degree that they became little more than exercises in introversion once the two States had been formed. The introversion helped to sustain the intensity of feeling; the sense of insecurity, especially in the North, further inflamed it; but the political world was, as a result, dominated by fidelities, loyalties, feelings which had little or nothing to control them. Everything went to heighten them. No idea of society, no idea of the future, no ideology save that of frustration, incompleteness, endless blind struggle, existed to discipline, channel, direct the energies of the community. In such a world, which was very different from that of the earlier part of the century, when programmes of national revival and rehabilitation gave form to political passion, it was almost inevitable that, for the artist, the only available resource was the construction of ideologies of an itself. A preoccupation with history was contributory towards this, especially when, as in the case of writers as diverse as Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Francis Stuart, Patrick Kavanagh, history was understood as something to escape from, as an emptiness which only the activity of the artist could, in compensation, fill.

Thus the demands made by a dramatically broken history on artists who are caught between identities, Irish and British, Irish and Anglo-Irish, Catholic and Protestant, are well nigh irresistible. In the period of the Revival, the response to history was heroic and astounding. It cradled figures of great stature; Yeats, Synge, Fayers [sic] and O’Casey among them. They produced work which was definitively Irish but which, at the same time, could not be defined by that term. In that respect, they transcended without ignoring the insistent demands of their regional culture. Since them, and especially since Patrick Kavanagh deflected the Yeatsian influence by replacing the notion of the region, Ireland, with the notion of the parish, Monaghan, it has seemed that the pressures of history were becoming more tolerable and amenable. But the transformation of the Republic achieved in the sixties by the new economic policies of the Lemass governments, and the disintegration of the North, unwittingly [49] brought about by socialist educational policies and by the erosion of unionist economic privilege in the aftermath of the Second World War, heightened the pressures once again. We can look back now, with some nostalgia, at Patrick Kavanagh, the Free State poet, the man who blended the traditional languages of regional loyalty, Catholicism and the adversary language of the artist in a body of work which, finally, bears witness to the spectacle of the ordinary, but still miraculous world. Again, it is the feature of Conor’s paintings and MacLaverty’s stories. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of at-homeness in these works which is never overborne by the difficulties or disputes they explore. When we think of these in relation to the writing and painting, the sculpture and the performance arts of the present day, we realize with some sense of shock (perhaps) how far the troubles have taken us from the assumptions and pieties of one generation ago. In his realization of an essential homelessness, a political as well as a psychological feature of the Northern crisis (especially in this period of its abandonment), the artist has committed himself to the exploration of a central, if forbidding, feature of the community’s experience. Although it is clearly different from the heroic commitments of the past, it is none the less a dedication to the idea that an has a function in society even though it may not be as consolatory as the society would like it to be.

[End.]