‘Hands’ by Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West


By Michael Hartnett
Some white academy of grace
Taught her to dance in perfect ways:
Neck, as locked lily, is not wan
On this great, undulating bird.
Are they indeed your soul, those hands,
As frantic as lace in a wind,
Forever unable to fly
From the beauty of your body.
And if they dance, your five white fawns,
Walking lawns of your spoken word,
What may I do but let linger,
My eyes on each luminous bone?
Your hands are music, and phrases
Escape your fingers as they move,
And make the unmappable lands
Quiet orchestra of your limbs.
For I have seen your hands in fields
And called them fluted flowers
Such as the lily is, before
It unleashes its starwhite life:
I have seen your fingernail
Cut the sky
And called it the new moon.

This beautiful love poem was written by Michael Hartnett in 1966 around the time he had met his future wife Rosemary Grantley (whom he married on 4th April, 1966).  It appears in his collection Selected Poems published by New Writer’s Press in 1970 although it was meant for publication in his first collection, Anatomy of a Cliché published by Liam Millar’s Dolmen Press in 1968.  Many of the poems in that collection are dedicated to and inspired by his relationship with Rosemary.   In ‘Hands’, it is obvious that he is trying to impress her with his poetic prowess and yet he appears to be trying to downplay his poetic skills and be nonchalant at the same time!  Those who knew him need no reminding, those who didn’t should be aware that he was a rogue!

 Commenting on the poem the poet himself  has written:

“This is one of the few of my poems that I can say in full.  It is a love poem and was written in 1966.  I like it for reasons both sentimental and professional.  The hands are my wife’s hands: the poem is their equivalent in words.   I avoided the use of obvious rhymes such as wan/swan and used less expected words to finalise the stanzas, but the more usual rhymes can be inferred.”

 The poem opens with a powerful metaphor – Hartnett’s forte – where his wife is compared to a swan, the perennial symbol of faithfulness in Irish poetry.  The poem is titled ‘Hands’ but here he focuses on her neck and compares it to the swan’s.  There is also a simile used to make the comparison and beautiful use of alliteration, ‘locked lily’.  He downplays the importance of keeping a precise rhyming scheme and uses ‘undulating bird’ instead of the more obvious ‘undulating swan’ in the last line of this first stanza.

There is a hint of fragility and nervous tension throughout and in the second stanza he uses the delicate simile, ‘as frantic as lace in a wind’ to describe his wife’s hands.  He uses another powerful metaphor in the third stanza where her  fingers are compared to  ‘five white fawns’.  There is a very distinctive Celtic ethereal quality to the poem and this is emphasised here by his use of internal rhyme where ‘fawns’ rhymes with ‘lawns’ in the middle of the next line.  Again the rhyme is corrupted at the end and the poet uses ‘bone’ instead of the obvious ‘finger’ to end the stanza.

The fourth stanza contains an extended metaphor where the hands are compared to music – ‘phrases escape your fingers as they move’.  He uses the word ‘orchestra’ here also to continue the comparison.  The stanza ends with another example of corrupted rhyming scheme where he has ‘lands’ rhyming with ‘limbs’ instead of the more obvious ‘hands’.

This extended metaphor ends beautifully in the final stanza with his alliterative allusion to ‘fluted flowers’.   The final tour de force metaphor is exquisite: he compares her fingernail to a sliver of new moon in the night sky.

Hartnett’s gift of observation, his closeness to nature and his searing honesty and genius are evident in abundance here in this amazing love poem.  The delicate, fragile images and almost balletic, musical rhythm are echoed in many of his poems  and also in such poems as ‘Poem for Lara, 10’.

Statue of Michael Hartnett in The Square


The following article was written by Michael Hartnett for The Irish Times in the early 1970’s.  It shows Harnett to be an astute social historian and keen observer of local mores and foibles – talents he later used to good effect in his ‘local’ poems such as Maiden Street Ballad, The Balad of Salad Sunday, The Duck-Lovers Dance, etc.

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By Michael Hartnett

Newcastle West, County Limerick, is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.  The transportation still continues and it is against this background of population loss that the town has survived and is now slowly regaining the status it had in the 19th century.  It was then the largest market town in the county, outside of Limerick city.  It had woollen, linen and brewing industries, two coal mines were operated in the nearby hills and there was a proposal to cut a canal to the Shannon, fourteen miles away.  The population then, 1837, was 2,908.

The population (that part of it which lives in the town proper) has been more or less the same since, but the industries have gone.  The harshness of the 1840’s led to their death.  The people began to leave, at first from despair but in the past twenty years through pure instinct.  Today the major employers are the local County Council, two bottling plants, the local hospital for the old and the unwanted and a few shopkeepers.  A factory, which has been hoped for for many years, is at last being built, and this should reduce the outflow of the young.  A new school was built in the late 1950’s to replace the old, built in 1826: this old school was the one I attended.  It was unbelievable.  In the summer the swallows built in the large beams inside the rooms, flying in and out all day to feed their young.  One of my favourite pastimes was drowning woodlice in the inkwells, as they fell in ridiculous numbers from the rafters.

Some of the boys who did not live in the town brought their lunches – bread and butter and milk wrapped in newspaper, and these were raided almost every day by the rats who lived under the floor and scampered about, completely ignoring us.  Rat poison was put down, and the entire school was pervaded by the delightful aroma of decaying rats.

Home and Abroad

The Headmaster has given me some information indicative of the trend which has kept the town stable.  The following is a list of the pupils from Newcastle West who were in the Sixth Class in 1955.  On the right are their ultimate destinations.

J. O’Sullivan… Co. Limerick        J. Ambrose…………Dublin

P. Ambrose……. Teacher              M. Ambrose………..Sligo

T. Ambrose……….England           P. Condon….Co. Limerick

S. Corbett………….Dublin              P. Devine…………..U.S.A.

T. Dineen…………England            D. Donoghue……Dublin

T. Driscoll…………Dublin              E. Field……………..Dublin

J. Finucane……….England          D. Flynn……………..At home

T. Gray……………..England           T. Hackett…………England

J. Hartnett……………U.S.A.           D. Healy……………….Kenya

S. Hunt……………..At home           D. Lenihan…………At home

J. Maguire …………Dublin            D. Maguire……………Cork

P. McAuliffe………….Garda          T. Massey…………At home

J. Moore……………At home          T. Moriarty………England

R. Mulcahy……….England           L. Murphy…………At home

J. O’Connor……..Limerick           M. O’Connor………….U.S.A.

M. O’Shea………..England             M. Quaid…………..England

T. Roche…………At home             J. Sexton…………..England

P. Shine………….England             J. O’Sullivan ….Co. Limerick

B. Whelan………Dublin                J. Whelan……………Limerick

P. White…………England

This list spotlights the enemy.  England claims 30%, Dublin 20%, and Ireland, excluding Newcastle West, a total of 40%.  Only 18% have found work in the town – seven out of thirty-nine.       These figures do not apply, of course, to the girls of the town; they also drift away.  The enemy is not England, not Dublin, it is the town itself.  It fails to attract and it fails to employ.  I have met most of those who are in England.  They all say: “If I had a job tomorrow I’d go home.”  But they know there is a problem of integration; they have encountered it when they come home on holidays.  It is mainly of their own making.  They usually mock the ways, the wages, the deadness of the place, and, what is worse they manage to acquire an obnoxious London slang which they imagine to be a better English than that spoken in Newcastle West.  The people at home resent this, rightly.  If the emigrants do come back to stay, the many snide remarks that hint at failure make life unpleasant.  Those to whom I have spoken to in Dublin have no desire at all to go back, but they have not been alienated from their own.  Anyway, to the people of the town ‘to go to England’ suggested poverty; but ‘to go to Dublin’ suggests cleverness at school.   Yet none of the 30% I have mentioned who did go to England were poverty stricken.

Why they go

The reasons for leaving are many, but the main one is shortage of work.  I have spoken to many of my friends in London about these reasons.  I have sat in Kilburn pubs all night and heard nothing else discussed but Newcastle West, and with a deep nostalgia.  One of the immediate reasons, one that arises before the young person’s mind turns to employment is that he has a brother or friend in England.  He has heard of the huge wages (usually untrue) and the freedom from priest and parent; he has seen the cheap but tidy suits his returning friends sport, so as soon as possible he is gone.

He returns usually within a year, to sport himself, and his lies about his wages are in proportion to his misery in London.  He is repulsed.  He comes again a few years later, and this is usually his final attempt.  Many of the fights that happen in pubs involve a local and a visiting emigrant.

I have been told in Kilburn of the social injustices.  Some I have witnessed.  Many are so unapparent to the people at home that they are barely injustices at all.  One young man told me he had left for one reason only: it was a practice in Newcastle West, up to the 1960’s, for the priest to read from the pulpit the names of those people who had paid their dues, markedly omitting those who did not or could not – markedly, because the names were read in street order, so everyone knew who had reneged.  The decency of the good, he said, was turned to pride, and the poor were stigmatised.

Why did the better dressed and richer people sit to the front and middle of the church on Sunday and the poor sit right and left, or stand in the porch?  Why were the poor branded and why could the poor not face their God on Sunday?  Were they less religious than the rich?  He said he lost his religion because he could not walk to the altar rails with a hole in his trousers or kneel to God because of a tattered shoe: “God may have been at my face, but the sneering population were behind me.”  I suggested that he was proud, and that a Christian should be humble.  “Humility should not be enforced,” he said.  He also reminded me of the cult of the “ould stock”: that is, if you or even your grandfather was not born in the town, you were a stranger; on the other hand if you happened to reside there since the founding of the castle by the Knight’s Templar in 1184, your history was known, and you wouldn’t be forgiven if you tried to “marry above your station”.

Images from the past

Newcastle West and its countryside provided me with images.  Its neighbourhood is not spectacular: the mountains are miniature, the woods are copses at best.  But it is soft, beautiful, inland country very green and over-lush in the summer.  It is easy to sit in a city house with chrome and enamel, with all ‘mod cons’ and (perhaps) with that essential anonymity found there, away from parent and priest.  It is easy to laugh, and criticise quaint ways and hypocrisy, but beneath these there is a great part of a ‘hidden Ireland’ preserved and no amount of modernity, no television set, no pointed shoes will make up the loss of the last vestiges of an older Ireland.

“Church Street without a church, Bishop Street without a bishop and Maiden Street without a maiden” goes a Newcastle West saying; and Maiden Street alone was – and is – a microcosm of an Ireland that is dying.  It was the Claddagh of the town.  When I was about ten, I took a friend of mine home.  “Please don’t tell my father I’m down here,” he said, meaning “in Maiden Street”.  He was ten years old.  The town was small – and he had never been “down there” before, nor was he allowed to go there by his parents.  The street was mainly a double row of mud houses, some thatched, a few slated, most covered in sheets of corrugated iron.  This was “Lower” Maiden street.  “Upper” Maiden Street was given over to small shops and public houses.

Before the Corpus Christi procession each year all walls were limewashed in bright yellow, red and white colours, windows were aglow with candles and garish statues and any unsightly object, such as a telegraph pole, was garlanded in ivy or ash branches.  Banners and buntings spread across the houses and on the day, with the ragged band blowing brass hymns, followed by all the townspeople who carried confraternity staffs, the Host under a gold canopy was carried through the town.  It matched any Semana Santa procession in Spain.

The Old Customs

Old customs survived for a long time.  I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road.  If anyone picked it up and opened it, I lost my warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.

Then Maiden Street received a severe but necessary blow.  The houses were small with no sanitation: one fountain served the whole street, most of the floors were mud, with large open hearths with cranes and pothooks to take the cast-iron pots and bastibles.  And, of course, families were large.  In 1951 a new housing estate was opened on a hill overlooking Maiden Street and many of the families, including mine, moved there.  Now we had toilets and taps (six I counted, overjoyed) electricity and upstairs bedrooms.  But Skeilg was never played again.

Better standards of living may improve the health of people, but this price of abandoning poor peoples’ customs must always be paid and the customless bourgeoisie come into existence.  Yet the general spirit has still survived; when the oppression of religion and work are forgotten they find again their old joy and innocence.  This innocence is not to be confused with stupidity: I mean wonderment such as expressed by the old man in a story a friend of mine told me.  My friend went home to Newcastle West from U.C.D. and met, a few miles away on Turn Hill, an old man on the road, a distant relation.  The talk came round to Dublin.  “Where do you stay there?” asked the old man.  The other explained about ‘digs’.  “And you pay four pounds a week for a room only?”  He was surprised.  No, my friend replied, that included food as well.  The old man was amazed.  “Surely they wouldn’t charge you for the bite that goes into your mouth?”

Our entertainment was innocent too but not without a touch of cruelty at times; watching crawfish clawing their way towards the river across the roadway, gambling with passing cars.  And on hot dusty summer evenings (all the summer evenings before adulthood seem hot and dusty) suddenly at the pub not far from our door, there would be the joyous sound of curses and breaking glass – joyous to us because we knew the tinkers were settling some family problem in their own way.  We would sit on the window-sills, eating our rawked apples, while they fought.  We never cheered, nor would any of those who appeared over the half-doors up along the street.  Someone would send for the Gardaí, and then light carts and swift horses would rattle off down towards the Cork road, all the fighters friends before the common enemy.  We sat on, waiting for the last act, when, half an hour later, the fat amiable Garda would come strolling down, to an outburst of non-malicious jeers.  But we were poor too, and there was the misery of drink in many houses.

I often tried to read by the faint light of an old oil-lamp with a huge glass globe which was suspended from the rafters.  The house seemed big at the time, but was really incredibly small, and one had to stoop to enter.  I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-livingroom, innocently working out the problems my father set me: “If it took a beetle a week to walk a fortnight, how long would it take two drunken soldiers to swim out of a barrel of treacle?”  I never worked it out.  Or “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub?”  He did supply the answer to that, which indeed is the logical answer for any Irishman: “You don’t pass any – you go into them all!”

 The Mission

Once a year the otherwise idyllic life of the town was ruined by the coming of the ‘Mission’.  It was as if the Grand Inquisitor himself walked through the town pointing out heretics.  I sat in the church on the long seats, sweating with fear at the Hell conjured up by the preaching father, as he roared all sorts of vile accusations at the people.  They sat, silent and red-eared, until he told an ancient joke, probably first told by Paul in Asia Minor, a joke that they had heard year in, year out, for a long time.  But they tittered hysterically, delighted at being able to make a human sound in church.  Outside the ‘Stall’, with its cheap trinkets from Japan, was dutifully looked over by the congregation: phials of Lourdes water, prayer books and all the tokens of religion bought and sold like fish and chips.  But they were not ‘holy’ then, not until the end of the Mission did the preacher bless the huckster’s dross and only then did they become sacred.

Part of the old castle grounds were made public by an Earl of Devon in the nineteenth century.  The overgrown acres were a retreat from the Mission for anyone daring enough to go there during a service.  Getting to the Demesne from the town without being seen was an art in itself (which I cannot divulge lest some young person read this and be led astray), but once gained, it was a haven of quiet trees and overgrown paths and two rivers.  I read much poetry on such nights, watching the shadowy figures of fellow-transgressors hiding in the bushes, a small cloud of blue cigarette smoke over their heads.  I even met a girl there once; easy enough, as the Mission had Men’s Weeks and Women’s Weeks; their sins, I assumed then, were different.

There are as many things to love in a town as there are to hate.  Indeed, the only things I disliked were class and priest-power, but if injustice is not seen to be done, such opinions are merely private prejudices.  I remember, with pity for the man, a priest beating a child about a schoolroom for no good reason.  I remember with joy for myself, my grandmother coming into town on her asscart, her black fringed shawl about her small fresh face, with her stories of pishogues and enchanted fairy forts.  I remember her dancing on the road to a comb-and-paper hornpipe: I remember her illness and her dying and my absence from this, being in London working or drunk in a Dublin pub.  If you cannot mock a place you love, how can you love it fully?  And can you not hate it because it is becoming televisionised, educated and more middle-class every year?  Is Dickie Rock to replace the Wren-boy?

The Wren Boys

Christmas Day was not unique in Newcastle West.  I remember no customs that were not common to today’s commercial carnival, but St. Stephen’s Day – the Wren’s Day – was always exciting and memorable.  One fine frosty morning the sound sleep of our house, after the excess and boredom of Christmas Day, was magically finished by the excitement of bodhrán and the wild tin whistles of a group of ‘Wran Boys’ from Castlemahon.  I saw the masks and the weird costumes through the window and was out of bed, searching my pockets for the pence of Christmas Day.

“The Wran, the wran, the king

of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day he was caught

in the furze.

Up with the kettle and down

with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the Wran!”


That was the first and last time I saw a dead wren, complete with nest, held up in a furze bush, hung with red streamers: it was 1949.  The pubs were open that day, and melodeon, pipes, bodhrán, fiddle, drums and tenor voices raced up and down the streets until night.  It was like that for a few years, but again progress stepped in; in 1951 the ‘New Houses’ were opened and for some reason seemed prohibitive to the Wran-boys.  They still kept to the town, but all we got was a few guitars and little boys with lip-stick singing “I’m all shook up,” or some such transient ditty.  A brilliant move, however, was made by some of the townspeople and Wran-boy Competitions were organised every New Year, in which authenticity figured greatly, and which has helped preserve the custom or at least to lengthen its days.

But that small town, the small farmer, is slowly becoming obsolete: even the labourer himself is going.  A small town like Newcastle West is perhaps the pattern of all small towns in Ireland: the pseudo-comforts of so called civilisations like that of the U.S.A. and Britain are being sought after.  Few would deny progress, but then few reckon the cost.

(Reprinted from articles published in The Irish Times.)

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Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen



Before Ibsen, European theatre was at its lowest ebb. It was felt that theatre no longer reflected serious issues. Rather, theatre had become a vehicle for entertainment. Theatre in the early nineteenth century (pre Ibsen) included historical costume drama, melodrama and the Scribean ‘well made’ play. The Scribean ‘well made’ play was first created by the playwright Eugene Scribe (1791-1861).  The Scribean play was a very simplistic problem play that followed a linear pattern.  Act 1 involved the exposition; Act 2 the crisis and Act 3 saw a resolution and a happy ending. The following are some typical characterisations of the Scribean ‘well made’ play:

  • No depth of psychological characterisation
  • Over elaborate intricacies of plot
  • Playwright was seen as entertainer
  • No individualised characters, instead there were traditional ‘stock types’ presented in each Scribean play – the villain, the woman with a past etc.
  • Allegiance to a happy ending which affirms the status quo of society

Ibsen, having come into contact with Zola’s ideas through the Danish critic Georges Brandes changed all this in his plays.  Zola advocated a move towards problem drama and he challenged dramatists  to be truthful and to represent reality truthfully. For Zola, the realist writer should concern himself with everyday reality. Ibsen heeded Zola’s challenge. He combined the classical Greek Tragedy and the Scribean ‘well made’ play to create his own distinctive ‘theatre of realism’.

A Doll’s House was first premiered in Copenhagen in 1879 in the Royal Theatre.  Ibsen’s plays were written for a predominantly middle-class audience.

The Characters

Within the play there are three major groups of characters:

Torvald Helmer and Dr. Rank possess inherited values and they represent the social masquerade within the society of the time. Torvald remains a bewildered or embittered victim of social determinism while Rank is a victim of biological determinism.

Nora is both a ‘doll child’ and a ‘doll wife’ in this social masquerade. However, in Act 3 she succeeds in rejecting the masquerade.

Mrs. Linde and Krogstad learn to move beyond the masquerade and form a relationship based on truth. Contrast Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s relationship of truth to Nora and Torvald’s marriage.

 The most significant minor character in the play is Anne-Marie. She represents the working class within ‘A Doll’s House’. She is marginalized in terms of economics, class and social morality. Anne-Marie’s character causes us as readers to ask some central questions: Is Anne-Marie a foil for Nora? Is Ibsen advocating liberation for all women or liberation only for some?  ‘A Doll’s House’, therefore, can be described as a feminist text but perhaps it is not feminist enough.

 General Vision and Viewpoint

Ibsen’s contemporaries quite correctly interpreted A Doll’s House as a swingeing attack on conventional bourgeois marriage (although importantly not on marriage per se). It was intended to be a profoundly revolutionary play, deepening the critique of patriarchal attitudes he had initiated in Pillars of Society. As Ibsen saw it, women would spearhead the revolt against the repressive conventions of contemporary society. Men were far more likely to be dominated by the social prejudices of their day because of their role as breadwinner and provider. That is why Nora consciously acts the part of a doll wife, whereas Torvald unthinkingly lives out his role as the authoritarian husband. By the same token, that also explains why Nora achieves insight at the end of the play, while her husband remains bewildered and confused.

 Despite the conscious provocation within it, the play closes on an optimistic note. Nora has left with the positive aim of discovering who and what she is and what she can become. Meanwhile, there is at least a slender ray of hope that Torvald may yet achieve some degree of insight once he has recovered from the initial shock of his wife’s departure. The question he articulates at the end sums up that hope and the difficulty implicit within it: ‘The miracle of miracles…..?’

 It is interesting that the play begins with the door opening to let Helmer into the house, and it concludes with Nora slamming the door in his face.  Throughout the play a certain number of decisions have been taken and choices made by the characters.  For the first time in her life, Nora forces Helmer to face the truth about their marriage.  Roles are reversed.  She recognises that, ‘our home has never been anything but a playroom, where we have never exchanged a serious word on a serious subject’.

 She leaves him, claiming she needs to be freed from the marriage in order to educate herself, and to learn to think about life and its issues.  Helmer is seen as a tragic figure.  He sincerely loved his wife even though he has failed to express it well.  He is left abandoned and alone to look after the family and face the ensuing scandal.  There is a sense that both people need to readdress certain basic issues in their lives such as the reality of what is involved in marriage.

 Visual Symbolism

The play is full of visual suggestions that provide a comment on the action or underline a particular facet of a given character’s responses. We see something of Nora’s extravagance in the Christmas presents she has bought and the excessive tipping of the porter. But in always buying the cheapest clothes we see her resourcefulness in making do. In eating forbidden macaroons she shows her defiance of Torvald, while in asking his advice about her costume for a fancy dress party, we see her skill in flattering and cajoling him. In showing her new silk stockings to Dr Rank, we see her willingness to flirt and exploit her sexuality, but not to the point where it becomes explicit. In her performance of the tarantella, we have an image of the dance of death, an image of the black thoughts filling her mind. The image is reinforced when she pulls a black shawl over her head before attempting to leave the house to commit suicide. Finally, her change of clothes and the donning of everyday dress underlines her determination in the last act of the play to face up to the prosaic reality of her marriage for the very first time.

 Significance of Doors

Ibsen’s first stage direction (p. 23) is both detailed and significant. There are multiple references to ‘doors’, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the open and closed possibilities within the play. Ibsen frames the play with references to ‘doors’. Nora leaves through the same door, a changed individual, at the end of the play.  (Note again the stage direction p. 104.)

 Living Room

When first confronted with the living room it is hard to find much significance attached to it. It is said to be attractive – as a room in a doll’s house is likely to be. The piano (music), the engravings (art) and the books (literature) suggest that at least one of the inhabitants has cultural interests. That is about all. We should realise that there is difference between being a reader (secondary text) and a spectator or member of the audience (primary text).[1] The latter will neither be immediately aware of what is behind the door in the background nor of the fact that it is ‘a winter’s day’ because, after all, they have not read the stage directions!

 However, when we reread the play (highly advised to reread it!!!!), the setting takes on a greater significance. We can see that the room is an expression of Helmer’s taste rather than Nora’s taste. He is the ruler in this household and he is the one who explicitly voices his aesthetic interests. Therefore, as Helmer is gradually revealed as a man hiding behind his socially impeccable façade, the living room takes on other qualities. The properties we took to be signs of genuine cultural interests now appear to be merely status objects, social icons. Like the play title, Ibsen thus invests the setting with a concealed meaning.

 We may also ascribe the fact that the whole action takes place in one and the same room as a sign that Nora is imprisoned in a doll’s house existence – although the room has ‘no fewer than four doors, one of which leads to a fifth and a sixth’. This raises the question of whether this is an open or a closed environment.

 The Christmas Tree

The tree is a central symbol within the play. The Christmas tree may be seen as a symbol of family happiness and security, a natural product of the forests, which has been prevented from full growth, cut or transplanted, then decorated in a domestic environment, like Nora herself. The Christmas tree is dressed and then stripped – which links it with the later fancy dress ball and the costume Nora first dons and later discards… The ‘real’ tree for the children is to be the dressed tree, not its unadorned version. And this links the notion of dress and costume to that of deception and masquerade, which in turn links with Nora’s deception of Torvald about borrowing money and Dr. Rank’s disguising for twenty long years his true feelings for Nora. This, in turn, makes us aware that some kinds of deception, like hiding the unadorned Christmas tree, can be for potentially good purposes.

 The Theme of Patriarchy

A Doll’s House is a comment on the patriarchal society in which it was written. Nora is enslaved by her economic dependency. Ibsen comments on women’s economic dependency on males through Nora. Nora states, ‘a wife can’t borrow money without her husband’s consent.’  However, Nora’s selfless deed for Torvald was, ‘something to be proud and happy about’. She felt empowered because it was, ‘almost like being a man’.

Torvald sees Nora as a pet, an acquisition.  In Act 1, Nora acquiesces to her doll life. Nora is childish in her desire to please him.  Torvald’s pet names are indicative of the balance of power between Torvald and Nora – ‘my little squanderbird, my little songbird, my poor helpless little darling, my little Miss Independent, my clandestine little sweetheart….’  Beneath Torvald’s superficial sweetness to Nora in the pet names he uses, there is an undercurrent of something more sinister. Through these pet names, Torvald is constantly jibing and inadvertently insulting, ‘his little Miss Independent’.

There is never a genuine reciprocal conversation between Nora and Torvald until the final Act.  Contrast Nora and Torvald’s use of language.  Torvald’s use of language in Act 1 and 3 is the language of male discourse, the language of duty and instruction. Nora’s language in Act 1 is the language of female discourse, of petitioning and helplessness.

Within this patriarchal society we witness female instinct pitted against masculine regulative thinking. Male rationality is pitted against female intuition. In effect, we witness the suppressed female versus the suppressing male.

 The central theme of the play hinges on the ‘two kinds of conscience’ Ibsen speaks of in his preliminary notes: Nora’s individualist ethics versus Helmer’s socially determined ones.  The conflict is as old as drama itself and can be traced all the way back to Sophocles’ Antigone. To Helmer Nora’s forgery is a criminal act that cannot be excused; to Nora it is an act fully justified by the circumstances.  Aware that she has done it to save her husband’s life, Nora is even proud of her action. For once she has been able to do something for her husband – ironically it must be without his knowing it. The forgery is both an act of love and an act of independence, and it is difficult to say what is most important to Nora.

 Reflecting the views of a male society, everyone sees Nora as a child to be cared for like a doll. Limited to a family environment, she has few possibilities to satisfy her need for self-respect. Even her children are taken care of by others.  No wonder she relishes her secret knowledge that she has performed an independent act of extreme altruism, an act that is her pride not least because it creates a balance within the marriage. Seemingly totally dependent on her husband, Nora knows that at least once in his life Helmer has been totally dependent on her.

Sample Essay:  Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House can be interpreted as a patriarchal play’.   Discuss.

 Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism and his play ‘A Doll’s House’ possess a dominant patriarchal theme. Nora, the female protagonist, needs to break the perpetual cycle of living a ‘doll’s life’.  The Nora under the dominant rule of her patriarchal husband is girlishly innocent, however intuitively knows Helmer’s psyche. The play can and has been interpreted as a patriarchal play. However, I prefer to concentrate on Ibsen’s more central task, which is the portrayal of human beings.

Ibsen’s attempt to transform Nora from ‘twittering skylark’ (p.24) to an authentic human being is gradual. Various visual motifs within the play illustrate Nora’s enslaved dependency. In Act Two Helmer’s possession of the key is highly significant:

 ‘Mrs Linde – And your husband has the key?

Nora – Yes, he always keeps it.’ (p.75)

Essentially the main message portrayed in this scene is Helmer’s power to unlock the truth. Nora’s eating of macaroons is a visual defiance of Torvald’s control.

The following highlights the notion of progression and metamorphosis within the play. In Act One Nora presents her longing to say ‘Bloody Hell’ to Torvald. With the rehearsal dance of the tarantella Nora succeeds in visually saying ‘Bloody Hell’. Her defiance of Torvald’s guidelines is proof of her first stage in her metamorphosis. The Pygmalion motif is strong in this scene also:

 ‘I’d never have believed it. You’ve forgotten everything I taught you.’

 Mrs. Linde is a major agent in the plot. Her presence acts as a foil for Nora. Tornqvist states that Mrs. Linde ‘the disinherited widow’ contrasts strikingly to Nora ‘the deliberately disinherited widow’. David Thomas believes that each map out their future in diametrically opposed ways. Indeed, Mrs. Linde finds a marriage based on truth that will not negate her autonomy. Just as Linde seeks to redefine her position in society she implores Nora to do likewise.

 In Act Two Mrs. Linde states, ‘oh we’ll soon put that right – the stitchings come away.’ Mrs. Linde restitches Nora’s dress in a metaphorical sense also. She restitches Nora and the plot. The ‘Nora’ who dances the dance of the tarantella in the restitched dress is an altogether different character to the Nora who danced in Capri and was then truly Torvald’s ‘capricious little Capricienne’.

 With the symbolic slamming of the door Ibsen reveals two things. Primarily the impromptu divorce ceremony is finally completed. However, Nora also is transformed. Kierkegaard’s philosophy implores us to confront the possibilities of attaining authentic selfhood, as does Ibsen in his portrayal of Nora.  Kiekegaard’s book the ‘Either/Or’ (1843) was a major treatise on the crucial role of decision and choice in human existence. Ibsen explores these roles of decision and choice through Nora and her attempts to gain authentic selfhood within this patriarchal society.

Nora succeeds in creating her own subjective truth: ‘I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life’. She has metamorphosed into a Kierkegaardian existentialist. The dread in making that leap of faith has been overridden by her willingness to ‘educate’ herself.

There is no doubt in my mind that the woman question is a metaphor for individual freedom. Templeton in her work Ibsen’s Women (Chapter 5:‘The Poetry of Feminism’) talks about the contamination of feminism in Ibsen’s play. Richard Gilman believes that ‘A Doll’s House’ is pitched beyond sexual differences. The essential task in this play is the description of humanity. Nora states, ‘I believe I am first and foremost a human being’.

Critics argue how can Nora evolve from ‘twittering skylark’ to Soren Kierkegaard in a skirt? The answer is simple. Nora, the existentialist heroine, is latent in her character from the beginning. The soliloquies play a major role in charting her development.

Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism provides a forum for debate. Long after the redundancy of the ‘Scribean well-made play’, Ibsen’s theatre surpasses and transcends this formula.. The reason for Ibsen’s success is his continuation after the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter.  Torvald’s moral weakness is exposed.  His true nature stands clear. He is depicted in the final scenes not as the noble altruist of Nora’s ‘miracle of miracles’ but rather a shallow egoist. The absence of what Todorov describes as the fifth stage of narrative development, the reinstatement of the initial equilibrium, ensures that the play ends resonating with questions rather than answers. What faces Nora after the slamming of the door?  Will Nora feel ‘unspeakably empty’ like Mrs. Linde? There is no ‘happy ever after’ in Ibsen’s masterpiece.  Instead he believes that as readers we are collaborators. ‘The real end is found outside the frame; the poet has indicated the direction we have to go, it is now our task, each for himself to imagine it.’

Works Cited

Ibsen, H., A Doll’s House (with commentary and notes), Methuen Publishing Limited, London, 1994

Templeton, Joan, Ibsen’s Women, Chapter 5: The Poetry of Feminism,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gilman, Richard,  The Making of Modern Drama: A study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke (New York, 1974).

Kierkegaard, S., Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), Victor Eremita (Editor). Alastair Hannay (Translator, Introduction), Penguin Classics:London, 1992.

Thomas, D., 1983. Henrik Ibsen. Macmillan Press.

Todorov, Egil, Ibsen-A Doll’s House, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Tornqvist, E., 1995. Ibsen: A Doll’s House. Cambridge University Press




[1] By primary text is meant everything that is verbalised in a performance, that is by dialogue; by secondary text that which is verbalised only in the drama text: stage and acting directions, play title, divisional markers (act, scene), cue designations, etc.



Reading in the Dark – An Interview with Seamus Deane Revisited


“I have confidence that there will be a solution (to the Northern Ireland conflict),  maybe by the year 2020 when we all have 2020 vision”                        – Seamus Deane

Reading in the Dark has attracted enormous critical attention and acclaim: ‘we are in the territory of the power of the word’ (Anne Devlin, The Independent, August 1996); ‘a thriller of such enigmatic depth that even when all is revealed, its mystery does not dissolve … a masterpiece of eloquence distilled’ (Laura Cumming, The Guardian, December 1996).  Reading in the Dark was the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize-winner and was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.  A literary critic, poet and Irish republican, what Seamus Deane wants to represent – growing up in Northern Ireland in the forties and fifties, political treachery, sectarian violence, rumour, hauntings, family secrets – makes particular demands on the written word, literary forms and on the reader. 

The English & Media Centre interviewed Seamus Deane for their publication and video, Three Modern Novels at A Level.  In the interview extracts that follow, Seamus Deane throws some light on the writing process, family secrets and Northern Ireland. 

The novel’s landscape is drawn from the intimately domestic, from political history and from Irish legend.  This short, original and captivating book, composed of many self-contained stories or ‘prose poems’ is described by Terry Eagleton as, ‘a working-class, Republican version of Irish gothic … it occupies some transitional zone between fiction and autobiography’ (New Statesman & Society, August 1996).

The writing process: editing memory

This novel was a long time in the making.  It began as a series of flash memories that were recounted.  Those memories accumulated, and as they accumulated they were written and re-written.  Then I realised that the memories actually had a lot of raw material but, like in a movie, by positioning one piece beside another, each actually became more powerful because of its neighbourhood with the other.  In fact, the novel, since it was told from the point of view of a young boy, couldn’t proceed by large, sustained blocks; the flash image was part of the key to the structure.  The next part of the key was to put the images in certain kinds of sequence that would both make them more powerful in themselves, but also attract or seduce the reader into wondering not only what happens next, but what is the relationship between these parts, because you can see a relationship in part, but you can’t see all of it initially, it has to unfold.  I use those sharp pieces almost like arranging crystals into patterns, until I finally found a pattern that I thought did justice to the narrative.  And did justice also to the strange experience of the young boy in actually uncovering something piece by piece by piece, and then only towards the end being able to see the whole thing in perspective.

One of the reasons I called it Reading in the Dark is that one of my earliest memories of reading was reading late at night, lying in bed with my three brothers, two at the top, two at the bottom.  Of course they would frequently object, and after some altercation, the light would have to be switched off.  So I would lie there in the dark imagining the unfinished novel that I’d been reading.  So I lay there reading in the dark, in that sense.  And then, of course, this is what the kid is doing in the novel, he’s ‘in the dark’ about a family secret and at last in some ways he learns to read in that dark, to read the secret, in some ways to his regret.

Differences between poetry and prose

I suppose that, in my limited experience, the outstanding feature in relation to the novel is that the novel must produce a story, a narrative.  It may be difficult to follow parts of the narrative, nevertheless everything, in some sense of the word, must be explained.  Whereas in poetry I think it is possible to leave a great deal unexplained.  Part of the power of poetry is, in fact, in leaving something cryptic and letting it, so to say, leak out slowly in repeated readings for the reader.  But if a novel tries to work like that I think it becomes another kind of narrative.  The narrative element must have a degree of explanation and self-explanation constantly working within it, so that the reader knows where he or she is at any given point.

And there is a relationship between the writing of this novel and the writing of poetry for me.  There are a number of poems that I’ve written, published years ago that bear directly upon this novel and in fact I think I might have raided one of those poems for a phrase or two on occasion.  But once I’d decided to structure the novel in these little carry on pieces then what I wanted to do was to intensify each piece as much as I could so that it would have what poetry very often has, this strange combination of being very exact, very finely edged, and yet at the same time somehow amorphous.  It’s as if you can see something clearly through a mist, that kind of relationship which most poetry can generate.  It’s like a resonance, it’s like striking a musical instrument, striking a key and then hearing, if you had the ears to hear, that the echo went on and on and on.

Writing the truth

I wanted to present the novel as a reflection of the way in which a child would see the world.  But I also wanted to present the novel as something which is dealing with this strange and elusive thing called the truth.  I wanted to transmit to the reader that there’s certainly a connection between knowing the facts of a situation and knowing the truth of a situation, but that the facts and the truth are not entirely coincident one with the other.  And it’s that strange, sometimes distorted relationship between fact and truth that I wanted to gradually expose, because by the time all the facts are in, the truth of the young boy’s situation, he is in a combat with the demons that have been released by those facts, and he doesn’t know.  I mean there are some things he doesn’t really know and can’t know, because they’re not known at the level of fact.  So it’s that kind of inter-connection that is part of the reason for the way the novel unfolds and exfoliates, inch by inch, and not, apparently, in chronological sequence.  But there are other sequences beside the chronological and they’re deliberately there, in order to say, the fact is here but the truth of that fact is larger than the fact.

My mother saw one section of the novel before she died.  Her first reaction was, ‘Well, that’s very nicely written.’  And then she said, ‘But of course it’s not true.’  And then she said, ‘When did you hear all of this anyway?’  And I said, ‘Well, in fact, everything you’ve just read I heard from you, you told me all that.’  This was the section about the grandfather and the policeman, who was put over the bridge.  And she said, ‘I didn’t tell you that.’  But I know she did.  Then later she came back to me and said, ‘Well, whatever the case, just don’t ever publish it.’  And I said, ‘Okay.’  But I said to myself silently, not while you’re alive, no, I won’t.  And I couldn’t publish it when other people were alive, not only my parents.  I could have written it, but I couldn’t have published it before their death.

Secrets and lies

I was concerned to explore a love relationship between my parents, and I was concerned to explore something in that love relationship which I knew carried a shadow.  From the beginning the mother tells the boy there is a shadow, there’s a shadow on the stairs.  Of course stories about ghosts and shadows are frequently used, certainly in Ireland, as code stories for other things that are taboo.  Things like stolen children.  Children stolen by the fairies are very often a code way of talking about a woman who abandoned an unwanted child.

So I knew that in some way the heart of the story was the relationship between the parents.  I knew that in some way that relationship harboured a secret, and as the boy in the novel discovers, it’s a secret of such intimacy that his entering into it is interfering with it, exploring it.  Actually it damages the relationship between his parents.  That’s where his sense of terrible guilt ultimately comes from.  The two people he loved, not only loved them but loved the fact that they loved one another.  He loved them for loving one another, and then he destroys or damages that love relationship.  I suppose it was that I wanted to explore.  I really think that kind of relationship is, now I’m guessing here, is more frequently found in political cultures that are troubled, that have had various forms of oppression visited upon them and therefore have developed modes of secrecy.  And those modes of secrecy are not just political, they become also personal.  And in the story I’m telling here, the political and the personal are so intertwined that you can’t say where one leaves off and the other begins.

I wanted to write about the process of discovery, but the writing about the process of discovery was itself another form of discovery.  It was both retrieval of something that I have known and I had experienced, but was also finally coming to terms with it and to some extent, it was like an act of self-forgiveness.  I felt how the child in the fiction feels.  In some ways he has done a profound injustice to both his parents in different ways, and yet he has another feeling that there was no avoiding this.  He is and he is not responsible.  And I suppose the process of the discovery was not only finding out the various pieces of information, but each piece of information also carried its weight of feeling, of emotion, and it was a matter of finding, finally finding, some way of balancing that emotion.  I’m not even sure now whether I’ve done that or not. I’ve had, not exactly second thoughts, but little quivers of doubt that still survive.

Ireland: colonised cultures

The mother’s grief is in some ways aligned to Irish history in that it is something that is real, that is actual and yet that cannot be articulated, cannot fully be represented, even to herself, never mind by herself to others.  That’s a maimed condition that is frequent in colonised societies.  Ireland knows this problem to an unwanted degree by now.  The problem is that in a colonised country you’re always represented by the coloniser, you’re represented in a particular way, you know, through stereotypes of various kinds.

The effect of stereotypes is that they have an almost chemical working; they work within the communities to such a degree that you actually begin to find people behaving according to the stereotype.  The stereotype sometimes can be benign, sometimes malign, but the problem of being stereotyped is that you’re always being represented by somebody else.  If it’s a powerful culture that is colonising you, you really have very little space to find some alternative way of representing yourself.  You can do it, of course, in a different language, if you have the different language, but if you’re in the Irish condition where you had a language, lost it, and the only language you have is the language in which you’re stereotyped in then you have to take a peculiar position on that language to escape from it.  The mother is, in her grief, taking the shock, the trauma of a history into herself, but can find no escape from it.

Treachery and betrayal: the personal and the political

I am saying both something about the nature of political struggle and I’m saying something about the mysterious nature of human relationships.  The constant element within all of the relationships is that of betrayal.  You know, there are a variety of forms of betrayal: there is the outright, coarse McIlhenny kind of betrayal, and then there are all the subtler more seductive modes of treachery which nevertheless are also very deeply destructive.  Within a political culture that operates in its militant mould through, what is in effect, a secret guerrilla army, then you have an army that depends upon secrecy.  The biggest threat to such an army always is betrayal, and it’s a feature of many insurgent movements, and it certainly has been the case in Irish history, that the traitor is a particularly hated, but also a particularly frequent, creature.

If you have something suppressed, if you have great pressure bearing down upon a community, then within that community there is going to be all sorts of ways of dealing with that pressure of which secrecy is one.  And secrecy’s other face is always betrayal.  The terrible problem of betrayal in human relationships is that if you are betrayed by someone whom you loved, one of the first effects of betrayal is to make you feel, ‘I never knew that person’, ‘I don’t know her’, ‘I don’t know him’.  And that person suddenly loses substance, becomes almost shadowy.  That is one of the functions of shadows within this novel.  Something that’s real and yet at the same time is unreal, just the way somebody whom you thought you knew can almost instantaneously become unreal to you if you find out that some terrible betrayal has been taking place without your knowledge, and especially if it’s been done over a long time.

(Note:  Tony McIlhenny is at the centre of the family secret.  He betrayed everyone – his lover (the narrator’s mother), his wife (Katie, his mother’s sister) and their unborn child, the IRA, and Eddie (the narrator’s uncle), who was mistakenly executed by the IRA as an informer while McIlhenny fled to America.)

Fire and darkness: representations of Derry

The North is a gothic place.  Fire, bonfire, violence, ritual, marches, drums, that’s part of the ritual of a very enclosed and a very explosive society.  The North is a place dominated by rituals like Orange marches, bonfires on the 12th. July, the burning of the effigy of the traitor Lundy every December from a pillar.  That was one of the things I always remember about December.  In fact, Derry is a city which has, as its central story, its great historical story (at least on the Protestant side), of a city besieged by Catholic armies.  This man called Lundy tried to open the gates to the Catholic besiegers.  So every year, in the heart of winter we see the traitor burned from a pillar on a hill.  This giant twenty-foot high figure, always in black, stuffed with rockets and soaked in petrol, would loll on the pillar before they set fire to it.  I remember a dark December day and this exploding traitor on the pillar.

Then we also have our own bonfires on the 15th. August every year.  The physical darkness of the place is emblematic of the political condition of the place.  All through the novel there is a link between darkness and fire and intimacy as well as between intimacy and violence.  From that distillery fire forward the young child actually sees the city as a city that is in some sense burning, always burning.  His mother says when she’s in her distress, ‘There’s something always burning there.’  You can hear the sound of a fire in a society that is breaking down.  You can hear the sound of the disintegration if you listen with sufficient care.  So that’s why the city appears so dark because it is a city in a dark condition, a condition of entrapment.

Fantasy and realism: form and conventions

Folklore and legend were important in my own childhood.  For me there were two major formal elements in the fiction.  There was the kind of element that one would associate with folk telling, folk stories, and there was the kind of element that one would associate with novels.  Now the difference between those two, as famously has been said by somebody, is that a novel understands answers, gives an answer to a problem, whereas in a folk story you don’t seek for an answer.  The listener to a folk story actually simply says, ‘Ah, the wonder of it, the world is a strange place.’  The folk story is full of wonder, the novel is much more rational as a form, and I wanted to keep precisely those two things in relation, one to the other, because that, in effect, is what the young boy is experiencing: the sense of wonder and the recognition that the only proper response to what he’s undergoing is really just to shake his head and say, the world is a strange place.

But then the novelistic element that involves some of those ingredients such as the ingredient of the thriller and social realism and so forth, that’s the element that allows him to ask, ‘Why? What happened?  When?  Why did it happen?  Why didn’t somebody do this?’  And that variety of question is scattered all through the novel.  The sense of mystery and wonder that is alongside it is almost an antidote to the questioning intelligence of the young boy.  I keep thinking and speaking of this novel as a matter of balancing, crystallising, patterning so that the various elements which would normally be in conflict, like the element of folk story and novel, come in to harmony.

 Different literacies: oral cultures

The Northern Ireland I grew up in was a place that for my generation was transformed by the socialist legislation passed by the Labour government in the mid 1940s, especially the Free Education Act.  Up until then it had been really an oral culture rather than a highly literate culture.  I had an actual Aunt Katie, the Katie that is commemorated in this novel.  One of her functions in life as far as I was concerned was to scare me helpless every night with the stories that she would tell.  She would sit on a chair or at the end of the bed, and she would tell stories, some of which she invented, some of which she was passing on, that she had heard.

Later when I went to places like the West of Donegal, to the Irish speaking areas, I heard some of the Seanachies, as they’re called, the traditional storytellers, telling traditional tales in Irish, and these tales were well known to everybody in the neighbourhood.  The people treated the Seanachies the way you would treat a great singer.  You know the song, you just want to hear this particular rendition of it, how he or she is going to treat this.  So I remember sitting in a little house in West Donegal, listening to my first Seanachie, and I suddenly realised this is the tradition out of which Katie came.  This is the tradition which was still alive when I was growing up, but was beginning to be replaced by the tradition of school, education, university, that sort of thing.  I think I was pretty fortunate in that respect, for an overlap of several years the two were intermingled.  The oral tradition was very quickly destroyed.  It was dealt the death blow by modern media, though it still survived in a residual way in some parts of the West of Ireland.  But it doesn’t any longer have the natural life that it once did have, can’t have in present conditions.

The importance of language in Irish history and literature

Language is important in Irish history for a variety of reasons.  I mean it has left us in that condition Yeats spoke of once, not of course that Yeats knew the Irish (language), but he says, ‘English is my native language but not my mother tongue.’  That’s a very curious position to be in.  The relationship between the language and the search for the integrity of independence is a story about a meaning too, because while, of course, there’s great pressure on the Irish to speak English, the people who are most effective in destroying the Irish language were the Irish themselves.

You know, there was the terrible memento of what they called the tally stick, which was on a string and put round the neck of a schoolchild.  And if the schoolchild spoke Irish a notch was made on the stick, and when the child went home he was beaten for every notch for having spoken Irish, because they were trying to persuade them, your economic future is in the English language.  But then of course they realised that this actually was a form of self-mutilation, but too late.  It’s a permanent form of self-mutilation and so the mutilation that goes with colonialism, or goes with oppression, also leads to forms of self-mutilation and one of the areas in which it is most powerfully felt, is in the area of language.

I mean there are all sorts of works of Irish literature which are about, you know, somebody starting, unable to speak, and finishing in a condition of great eloquence.  In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the first page, Baby Stephen is lisping, he’s mispronouncing words, he cannot speak, but that novel, a sort of central classical Irish novel, ends with Stephen about whom the story was being told, taking over the story and telling it himself in his own eloquent way.  Similarly, in a simple play like J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the hero when we first meet him, is a stuttering lout in a ditch, he can’t speak and he comes out of the ditch into the pub, and he starts telling a story which is partly a lie and partly of course the truth.  And he becomes more and more eloquent.  The more eloquent he becomes the more he discovers he has an identity, he is a person.

There are various other works of Irish literature that are entranced by that notion that you discover your identity through the mastery of language, but behind that there is the other story, which says to you no-one ever became masterly at something who has not first known incompetence in it.  And that’s especially true for the Irish people in relation to the English language.  The comic way, in which they have often been represented speaking their English language, becomes stereotyped, which largely belongs to the 19th. Century where Irish became in effect, two languages, and where they were very often forcing the syntax of the Irish language into English words, and of course sounding very quaint and strange to English ears.  Irish writers became self-conscious, virtuoso players of the English language, a kind of mastery that comes from recognition of previous incompetence.

So there’s a very deep relation between dumbness, aphasia and eloquence, and something that is not just true in Irish literature, though it’s most definitely true in various other aspects of Irish life, that relationship between astonishing achievement and loss and gain.  In some ways in this novel, the child learns slowly that by the time he achieves eloquence, learns the whole truth, the aphasia, the dumbness, the inner articulacy that characterised both his father and his mother, he has passed from their world in to that world.  But it’s a very expensive journey that he’s undertaking, and it’s dubious whether that form of eloquence is something that one should aspire to.  But whether he wants to aspire to it or not, he’s going to get it, it’s inescapable.

That mix of the folkloric, the legendary, the old Irish language and the connection between the English language, the new legislation, education, modernity; the relationship between the two is one that is central to the whole way in which the novel produces itself.  It’s a work which is about modernity and it’s about, dare I use the weary old word, tradition and a relationship between them, and the painful emergence from a traditional society into the modern era.

Northern Ireland: the future

I can’t say I feel optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland.  There isn’t much reason to be optimistic right now in early 1997.  I felt perhaps foolishly optimistic for the eighteen months of the ceasefire.  We’ve had twenty-eight years of what Brigadier Kitson calls ‘low intensity warfare’ in Northern Ireland.  There have been some profound changes, but not one of those changes actually seems to have the potential to reveal a way of solving or even shelving the problem, or the problems that beset the place.  I suppose if I have optimism it’s – and this may seem strangely ill-founded to many people – but I  think the solution is actually going to come from the paramilitaries.

It has already begun to emerge, I must say to my own surprise, from the Protestant paramilitaries.  Very slowly but visibly, they are detaching themselves, disengaging themselves from the traditional forms of unionism.  This is not to say that they’re not unionist, they are, but they’re unionist in a different way.   And I think equally in the Nationalist Republican side, the IRA, especially if Gerry Adams survives as leader of Sinn Fein, some kind of accommodation can be found between the IRA and UVF.

But, it’s a very frail hope, and of course it could be extinguished by the next bomb, could be extinguished by another assassination campaign beginning.  In the very worst year, 1972, starting with Bloody Sunday, finishing with what, 640 people assassinated something like that in that year, I remember the feeling that we were trapped in such a cul-de-sac that the violence would simply go on reproducing itself endlessly and that there was simply no escape route.  I don’t think it would ever have quite that feeling of entrapment again but it could.  The possibility of there being a solution, at the moment is quite remote, but on the other hand somewhere in me I have confidence that there will be a solution, maybe by the year 2020 when we all have 2020 vision.



– This interview was taken from The English & Media Magazine, No. 36, Summer 1997.