“The divisions were still not being seriously addressed. Nor have they been since……When we read or hear about the toxicity of Troubles legacy I firmly believe this is where the arts, culture, historical inquiry can provide the antidote.”
As regards creativity and the arts as a counter to ongoing divisions in N.Ireland I think there is one important thing to stress. When we read or hear about the toxicity of Troubles legacy I firmly believe this is where the arts, culture, historical inquiry can provide the antidote.
Rather than more lawyers to demand public-funded inquiries into this atrocity or that controversial killing or indeed an overarching process, I would argue that confronting our violent past is best served by media such as history, journalistic investigation, cinema, drama, novels, poetry etc. What all of these genres have in common are two keywords: complexity and empathy. Historians or writers, for example, deal with complex matters not the agitprop soundings of politicians or bombast of members of the legal profession.
They also have to approach the painful subject matter with empathy and understanding. I am currently listening to the audio version of ‘Birdsong’, Sebastian Faulks WW1 masterpiece while reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s outstanding book on the Battle of the Somme. This is to help me in my research for my own novel partly based on the experiences of my great grandfather Samuel at the Somme and later the Third Battle of Ypres. What both these great works provide is complexity and empathy. In regard to the latter, the authors even find time and space to humanise the German side and paint these men as complex flesh and blood human beings as the British soldiers on the allied lines.
This is the kind of approach we need to see happening but only organically in any attempt to deal with the past in Northern Ireland.
Think of the impact of Frank McGuinness’ “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” This groundbreaking play written by a Donegal Catholic writer about a generation of Ulster Protestants in the Great War was probably the first time that Dublin and other theatre audiences saw this population upfront, in three dimensional forms, in all their complexities and contradictions. I would argue that this play, which I re-read once more during the lockdown, did more to deepen north-south, nationalist-unionist understanding than a thousand seminars or conferences ever did.
So yes, the creative industries to use a very 21st-century cultural term can play a vital part in helping face these divisions and the toxic Troubles legacy. But they should only do so in an unstructured, free, almost anarchic fashion and should be free from the influence of politicians, lawyers or worse still so-called “human rights activists.”
Photo to the right: Henry McDonald, lead singer in his 80s band, The Flea Circus – Look at the banner behind the band – YOUTH AGAINST SECTARIANISM