From the Archive: Seamus Heaney on Ulster’s Troubles

A piece by the future Nobel winner on the curious atmosphere in Ulster during the Troubles, first published in the <em>NS</em> of 1 July 1966.

When Irish eyes are smiling: the poet in Dublin, 1996. Photo: Franck Ferville/Agence VU

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Seamus Heaney, who died on 30 August, published poetry and criticism regularly in the NS in the 1960s and 1970s. Here, we republish a 1966 sketch of Belfast, where he was living at the time.

Although it is the official capital of the partitioned state of Northern Ireland and although its citizens regard themselves definitely as “townies”, it is impossible to forget that Belfast is essentially a country town, situated where one of the Glens of Antrim sweeps down to the sea. The hills are what constantly catch the eye of the man “out of London”. In 1858 Dickens wrote home:

This is a fine place, surrounded by lofty hills. The streets are very wide and the place is very prosperous . . . I want to climb one of the neighbouring hills before this morning’s Dombey.

A hundred years later Philip Larkin, then librarian at the university, recorded:

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable.

The natural encroaches on the urban in all sorts of ways. Several of the main buildings and High Street, one of the main thoroughfares, are built over what is now an underground river that in the early days flowed down the centre of High Street to the docks. Names like Falls Road and Malone Road (preserves of the Nationalist mass and the bourgeois ascendancy respectively) are anglicised forms of Gaelic names, indicative of former pastoral conditions – “the road of the hedges”, “the plain of the lambs”.

More disturbing indications of the essentially natural character of the place came a few weeks ago when the test pilot at Shorts aircraft factory declared that the flights of seabirds across the path of test aircraft were not only dangerous but costly. The decision might have to be taken, he intimated darkly, whether to preserve the wildlife or the industry.

It is a country town, too, in its provincialism, its lack of independence. Despite its own House of Parliament and its late-18th-century reputation (it has a long memory for most things) of being “the Athens of the North”, the Belfast position is by no means the selfsufficient one that a capital usually maintains. Its political ties with Westminster have led to the development of a state of mind that looks to England for approbation, and its fashions, artistic and sartorial, are the London fashions – the red tape has become, for some sections of the community, a lifeline.

This, of course, is the result of long-standing Unionist shunning of the South of Ireland and Dublin in particular. Many of the people here rely for their identity on their adopted political allegiance rather than their geographical position. When the extreme Unionist hears an English accent, a whole series of reactions takes place: here, he thinks, is one loyal to the Crown, concerned to maintain the Ulster border as a bulwark against the tyranny of Rome and rebels, one who is grateful for the North’s refusal of Home Rule, who recognises that gerrymandering is a necessary evil in order to maintain a loyalist government. I remember the dismay that soon turned to anger on the faces of a middle-aged company in a Belfast hotel when an English friend of mine got vociferous in his Guinness about the wrongs of Ireland and the stupidity of partition. In fact, a colonial attitude exists within the United Kingdom itself.

So the Queen can be assured of a fervid demonstration of affection when she comes next week to open the new bridge named after her. Her image, usually in scarlet tunic and mounted on horseback, presides from many a kitchen wall. Her coronation mug takes pride of place on many a shelf of crockery. The Union Jack will droop from upstairs windows in streets hardly broad enough to admit the royal car. “God save the Queen” will remain proudly inscribed with a tar brush on gables and in pencil or chalk on the walls of public conveniences.

In other kitchens, of course, it is the benign countenance of a Pope, or a series of Popes, that presides. There is no coronation mug on the shelf but a souvenir from Lourdes or a shamrocked plaque from Dublin (already gaining the status of an antique since it shows Nelson’s Pillar dominating O’Connell Street). On other gables and in the same conveniences her sovereignty will be challenged with “Up the Rebels” and “Remember 1916”.

But the slogans and the bunting won’t be for the Queen alone. July 12th, the Orangemen’s “walking day”, approaches. Already Sandy Row, the centre of Orange gravity, has been straddled with magnificent arches where William III, victor of the Battle of the Boyne, all pale cheeks and curly black locks, sits astride a white charger and wields a sword that could as easily be a Bible. The Twelfth is a day of national holiday and Nationalist mourning, something of a cross between religious and folk festival, when an unsuspected Latin glamour manifests itself in bands, banners and bonfires.

For weeks now, in districts adjoining Sandy Row and the Shankhill, children have been collecting scrap, old tyres, old boxes, anything that burns, and at the ends of streets piles of unlikely fuel are accumulating. In the “heel of the evening” you may hear the treble strains of an accordion band stepping it out round its own district, practising “On the Green, Grassy Slopes of the Boyne”. And in small gardens the orange lily has begun to show its beloved head. Possibly in a pub, towards closing time, a man who was christened in Boyne water 50 years ago will break into song, to the tune of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”:

When you’re rolling down the Shankhill
With your lily in your hand,
Rolling down the Shankhill
With a wee accordion band,
When the band begins to play
“Kick the Pope” and “Dolly’s Brae”,
Och, it’s lovely rolling down the Shankhill.

While the Twelfth is an occasion of religious and political solidarity, a shaking of rhetorical fists and ceremonial pikes at Rome and Dublin, it would hardly be true to say that it leaves the papist minority uneasy in their beds. They console themselves with the fact that this annual belligerence is a sign of their own power; when they see Unionist politicians consorting with the Orange Order, they are happy simply to constitute a threat to the status quo. “We’ll outbreed them in the end.”

Lately one man has upset the regular ups and downs of the politico-religious see-saw, a man who has been described variously as “a fascist” and “a bloated bullfrog”, whose recent prominence is regarded by many as the death throes of the ignorant and ugly bigotry that has numbed the social life of the community for years. Others tend to feel that he is a phoenix figure, stirring the embers of old feuds into a new conflagration. The Rev Ian Paisley’s extreme Protestantism resents toleration, ecumenism and, it seems, a quiet life. Riots and rallies are what he thrives on. Disappointed at the liberal attitude recently displayed by the Belfast Telegraph he has retorted with his own Protestant Telegraph, the most disturbing feature of its appearance being the fact that many good newsagents are happy to give it pride of place on their counters. His “Do You Know?” column is humorous only if you regard epileptics as humorous. Do you know that the laundering requirements of Queen’s University residences are handled by the Good Shepherd Convent Laundry? That the Jesuits are the secret police of the Vatican?

Even the Unionists are traitors in the eyes of the Rev Ian Paisley: after all, they flew the Union Jack at half mast on the City Hall when the last Pope died. His supporters have mobbed the Governor, Lord Erskine, “the noted Romanist sympathiser”. Outspoken liberal politicians, clergy and public figures have been threatened with destruction: “They have sown the wind, they most certainly shall reap the whirlwind.” All in all, the movement seems directed at the breaking down of any bridges that might exist between Catholic and Protestant; it would create its own Troubles and set the political and religious question back 40 years. The atmosphere of the Troubles has been growing: there have been stabbings, shootings and bomb-throwings. A month ago it was still possible to say “hooliganism”, but with the shooting down of three youths on Sunday and the death of one of them nobody can ignore the threat to public safety. The government has since proscribed the Ulster Volunteers. Life goes on, yet people are reluctant to dismiss the possibility of an explosion. A kind of doublethink operates: something is rotten, but maybe if we wait it will fester to death. Faced with such a prospect, one tends to concur with Keats’s verdict, given after a visit to Belfast 150 years ago: “What a tremendous difficulty is the improvement of the condition of such people.” And as one might expect, when he was on his way here he had heard an old man on the boat sing a ballad about the Battle of the Boyne.

This kind of tension might be expected to have either of two effects on the artistic life of the place. It might induce a sense of claustrophobia and a desire to escape or it might concentrate a man’s energies on the immediate dramatic complex of tension and intrigue. Of course the uncommitted and the sceptical tend to leave, or to be elbowed out. Brian Moore is no doubt an example of a man who thrives on this exile, judging his roots once he has been transplanted. But a more tragic example of the committed writer who stayed put was the late Sam Thompson, whose anger at hypocrisy in high places and whose passion for justice transfigured plays that might otherwise have been regarded as clumsy or old-fashioned into urgent tracts for the times.

Thompson once labelled Belfast the “Siberia of the Arts” and if one were to judge the city’s artistic life by the comic revues and thrillers presented at the two commercially successful theatres one might be inclined to agree. The impression is only countered by totting up the achievements of small dedicated groups like the Lyric Theatre or the Circle Theatre, both of which present original plays and the best of world drama that would not otherwise be seen in the town. The Lyric under the tutelage of Mary and Pearse O’Malley concentrates on poetic drama – to such an extent that the plays of Yeats now seem exclusive to this group. They have raised funds and foundations for a new theatre which they hope to complete by the end of next year. With help from the Arts Council, the Circle’s plans for next season include the professional presentation of four new Ulster plays.

The local Arts Council is at once a concert promoter, theatrical management and general artistic catalyst. In its own gallery it maintains a constant series of exhibitions by Irish and international artists, though the main contribution in this field is made by the Ulster Museum and Art Gallery. Two other galleries have come into operation in the last couple of years, the Bell Gallery and the New Gallery.

The Northern Review, heavily subsidised by the Arts Council, is a magazine which they hope will cater for the alleged renaissance of writing in the town, a renaissance due among other things to the energetic fostering of Philip Hobsbaum. Hobsbaum came to Queen’s to lecture in English four years ago and since then has scanned the scene for talent that would come together at his Group meetings. Queen’s also sponsors a Festival based in, but by no means exclusively aimed at, the university and initiated by Michael Emmerson. Emmerson has managed to bring international artists to Belfast and to encourage local talent – as in the series of poetry pamphlets. In all these activities (and in Queen’s itself, despite reports to the contrary) a liberal atmosphere prevails. The possibility of a cultural life here is the possibility of salvation, and there is at least one good sign of the times: it would hardly be possible for a serious critic of the scene to write now, as one did 20 years ago:

It’s to hell with the future and live on the past!
May the Lord in his mercy look down on Belfast.