CAIN Web Service

Writing the North - The Contemporary Novel in Northern Ireland, by Laura Pelaschiar

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
[Literature and the Conflict]

Text: Laura Pelaschiar ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna


The Irish are possessed by place. In part, such possession is a practical necessity, a way of separating common and identical names by attaching them genetically to a uniqueness of place: Johnston of Ballykillbeg, O’Sullivan of Beare. But from beginning, even before the practical necessity, the self and the places it came from and inhabits are bound.

Thus Wilson Foster begins his essay "The Geography of Irish Fiction’ in his recent Colonial Consequences (30). Contemporary Northern Irish writing is but a further example of the Irish obsession with place: again in this narrative tradition the relationship between self and place is unseverable. Whether they live in the country (in the heart of a natural landscape) or in the city. characters tend to relate deeply to the environment to which they belong. sometimes choosing it as a metonym of their own states of mind, other times reading it as a text inscribed with the "signatures" of all things. Place, thus, demands for itself a role of "co-protagonist", becomes a metatext in itself, a presence which speaks its own language, a sign which transcends the boundaries of the single text and reappears in different narratives offering meaning and significance.


The idea of the city as a place of perdition, pain, and solitude and the corresponding elegiac celebration of the countryside and of its little villages, custodians of traditional values such as love, friendship, family, respect for others, is a very traditional one. It was born contemporaneously with the birth of the city itself, as we can see if we look to the Romantics. above all to Wordsworth and his "lonely rooms... amid the din of towns and city" in Tintern Abbey, where the mere recollection of the natural beauty and harmony of the river Wye is a source of joy, consolation and spiritual nourishment which can help the soul to survive. The theme of disenchantment with, if not open criticism of, the city and especially of the industrial-capitalistic society that is at its origin is a post-Romantic constant throughout the nineteenth century in the works of Carlyle, Ruskin. Arnold. Dickens and Hardy, to name but a few.

Within an Irish context. the same celebration of rural life, and especially of the West of Ireland — though not so much or not only as a social stance against modern civilization but as part of a more complex cultural and political agenda — is to be found in the Irish Revival, in Yeats. Lady Gregory and Synge. There would soon be a reaction to this celebration by the writers of the counter tradition, by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien, Sean O'Faolain and several others. Kavanagh in particular criticises the misty-eyed artificiality of much of the revival writings and condemns their idealization of rural life as, to use his characteristically uncompromising words. "a thorough-going English bred lie" (Kearney, 1997: 124). The rural world Yeats and company were so keen to celebrate simply did not exist, but was the wishful invention of a small group of urban, Protestant intellectuals, designed to suit their own specific programme and ideological discourse. In his counter-revivalistic version of rural Ireland, Kavanagh expresses a more intense fidelity to the local, to the soil itself, while at the same time giving voice to the dour harsh realities of the struggle for survival on the land. In "Lough Derg", for example, he portrays a countryside which is poverty-stricken and hungry:

… all the thin-faced parishes where hills
Are perished noses running peaty water.

The vital focus on the natural world, be it luscious and imbued with romantic dreams as in the older tradition or harsh and "stony grey m the newer, and on its traditional ways of life is still a major feature in the imaginative and poetic territory of contemporary Irish poetry. which owes every bit as much to Kavanagh as it does to the more famous and more important achievements of Yeats. It is especially a feature of Northern Irish writing. The Catholic poet John Montague carefully connects his native Ulster rural world to both his own personal history and to Irish history in The Rough Field, while Seamus Heaney displays in his poems a religious sense of landscape and rural life, which, as Edna Longley well puts it, is "the primal source, the amniotic fluid" of his poetry.

In Ulster narrative, as Wilson Foster has shown in his Force and Themes in Ulster Fiction, the traumatic loss of the land, the fact of being distanced from the birthplace and the subsequent exile in the city have been and continue to be prominent and forceful themes since William Carleton (1794-1869) first put pen to paper. It is especially in Michael McLaverty’s Call my Brother Back (1938) and Lost Fields (1941) that the traumatic passage from the countryside to the city is recounted in all its dramatic phases. Both novels are set in the 1920s and tell the story of poor Catholic families who must abandon their farms, as they are no longer able to garner a living from them, and move to the city. The harsh conditions of life in Belfast industrial ghettoes are made even more difficult to endure by the memory of the beautiful ancestral fields, of the familial harmony and the universal values of love and respect. And yet while this longing for "the cold companionable streams" survives in the old people, very often the young generations fall victim to the alluring law of the city-streets, which rapidly make them into selfish, hard, materialistic human beings, forgetful of - and alien to - Nature and its honourable ways. In McLaverty, in fact, the harshness of city-life, the sense of imprisonment and alienation, the painful longing for the lovely forms of Nature is always accompanied by the theme of the loss of innocence and of a harmonious existence, which inevitably follows the leaving/betrayal of the land. Nature is therefore, as it was for the Romantics, the setting of a memory of childhood, of a blessed state of innocence, happiness and peace that is no more.

For the older generation of Ulster writers, the countryside also represented a sort of political locus amoenus. that happy elsewhere where, once upon a time, the two communities could naturally co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual respect, a blessed state of things that cannot be recreated in the city. Again it is McLaverty in Call my Brother Back who voices the idea that the normal, peaceful "unitarian" life of the countryside inevitably becomes schizophrenic and violent in the city.

It was a strange city, he thought, to be living two lives, whereas on Rathlin Catholics and Protestants mixed and talked and danced together. It was all a terrible mix-up (122).

Once the tie with Nature is cut, man loses the noblest part of himself, his belief in and respect for all the most precious traditional values, while the city slowly takes possession of his soul. He falls from a state of innocence into one of pride and selfishness. The myth of Paradise Lost is not far away.

Publication Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :