Professor discusses Northern Irish poetry and conflict

Author: Jack Rooney

On Friday, Eric Falci, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, presented a lecture titled “Northern Irish Poetry after the Troubles,” in which he explored and analyzed the effects of modern political and social strife in Ireland on the art of Northern Irish poetry.

Falci, who spoke as part of Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies’ Lectures and Public Talks Series, focused his talk on a twofold question of how poets responded to conflict and what patterns emerged therein.

“My question about Northern Irish poetry after the Troubles … is considering the very different social and political conditions in Northern Ireland in the past 20 years, how have poets addressed those conditions,” Falci said. “The second part of that question is what type of formal shapes have emerged?”

Falci concentrated on several specific poetic examples, including Michael Longley’s “Ceasefire,” Sinéad Morrissey’s “Thoughts in a Balck Taxi,” “In Belfast,” and “Signatures” and Allan Gillis’s “Laganside.” Of these works, Falci said “Ceasefire,” which was published in “The Irish Times” three days after the 1994 ceasefire between the north and south factions of Ireland, is the most famous.

“Longley’s great poem, the most famous public poem of the Troubles, approaches the complex particulars of the political situation from the flank,” he said. “Even as it is manifestly about the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland and responsive to events there in a stunningly impressioned way, it stages multiple forms of displacement.”

Falci said the poem, which uses Homer’s Iliad as an allegory for the Troubles, reflects the uncertainty of the ceasefire and its surrounding events.

“I think ‘Ceasefire’ emphasizes the partial, unfinished quality of both the events of the poem, it was only a pause in the Trojan War, and the events in Northern Ireland to which the poem points,” he said. “There had been IRA ceasefires before. The fracture quality of the sonnet serves to forestall any too quick acceptance or even belief in the solidity of the peace.

Falci said poets in Northern Ireland took on a more influential and political role during the Troubles, which resulted in their poetry assuming a dislocated quality.

“From the start of the Troubles in 1968, poets, more than any other kind of cultural figure in Ireland, were called upon, and perhaps more felt themselves to be called upon, to respond to the outbreak of violence,” he said

Falci said many Irish poets resisted the call to act as political or ideological spokespersons, or to provide some kind of artistically minded social commentary, from the start.

Falci said the full impact of the Troubles on Northern Irish poetry cannot be measured, but regardless, the turmoil profoundly affected poets and their work.

“It is impossible to say whether the social and political crisis in Northern Ireland spurred great poetry or whether the great poetry would have happened anyway,” Falci said.

“However we choose to understand the great unlikelihood of so many great poets in such a short time and in such a small space, it is certainly the case that the Troubles becomes a kind of structuring principle for that work and especially for its reception.”

Originally published in The Observer, March 3, 2014