Review of a supple, subtle, surprising selection essay collection edited by Neil Hegarty and Nora M’Sichili
The danger when writing about Northern Ireland is that the author will feel compelled to make grand, definitive statements to sum up the place, the situation, the people.
That kind of certainty, informed as it always is by the author’s own prejudices and politics, can be off-putting.
This new collection of essays could easily have fallen into that dreaded trap. It began life back in the spring of 2020 as a series of conversations with the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris about the impending centenary of partition.
“Given its role as a focus of Irish culture in Europe,” the introduction explains, “the Centre Culturel Irlandais was keen to provide a space to reflect on how this fraught anniversary was being approached, and how it was to be commemorated and addressed.”
Put like that, it had the potential to be deadly dull. The editors of this first ever essay collection by No Alibis independent book shop in Belfast avoided that fate by picking a theme — impermanence — that was allusive and elusive enough to chime with the uncertainty of the times, as Brexit and Covid-19 were reshaping the familiar world in unexpected ways.
They then invited an attractively eclectic array of, mostly, poets and novelists, either from or living in the North, to contribute, rather than the usual suspects with an ideological axe to grind.
The result is a supple, subtle, surprising selection of essays in which each contributor is left entirely free to respond, in prose and poetry, to the theme, drawing on the fluidity of their own experience and identity. Autobiography overlaps with psychogeography, an evolving artistic form that explores the intersection between psychology and landscape.
Each has a different flavour, and, like all the best writing, it’s hard to describe any of the essays without savouring them in full because they cover so much ground.
Novelist Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, recalls what it was like to grow up in Belfast during the Troubles as he came to realise he was attracted to both boys and girls, a state of affairs which, he notes with admirable understatement, “made life difficult for me”.
The liminal spaces here are sexual. “I was one way, I was the other. I was both. Now, mostly, I am neither.”
McVeigh unpicks too his attempts to navigate class divisions, another subject that is too little explored in writing about the North, where sectarian divides loom larger. The point is that nothing is ever entirely one thing or another. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s something else entirely.
Poet Gail McConnell’s father, William, an assistant governor at the Maze prison, was murdered by the IRA in front of his wife and then three-year-old daughter in 1984.
But the 1980s, she writes, also meant “watching SuperTed and Bananaman, playing Tetris on my Gameboy, and going to Sunday school and summer camps”. Memory, like identity, exists in layers.
Many of the authors come from Derry, and are drawn back repeatedly to Lough Foyle as it constantly encroaches on the polderlands (the word describes an area that is below sea level), and may one day rush in to take them back entirely.
Even the way the individual authors describe this location varies according to their mood. In his own essay, novelist Neil Hegarty sees the lough, which is still contested territory between Ireland and Britain, as “a fraught point of geopolitics”.
Journalist Susan McKay suggests being “in no jurisdiction” means the lough is “as free as the swans and geese that gather in winter on the broad fields it floods”.
McKay is the only journalist in the line-up, but here she too wisely avoids the political for the personal. Her fine essay, poignantly titled ‘People Never Last’, moves from melancholy memoir to a meditation on the vulnerable who vanished between the cracks in the North to her own mother’s struggles with dementia, “drifting between life and oblivion”.
She is reminded of desolate border wildernesses where “the loneliness… had an uneasy edge” and, symbolically, there are few signs to guide the lost. You just have to keep going.
Another Derry native, poet Kerri ní Dochartaigh, talks of being “drawn to Wabi-Sabi — a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection”. As she warns, many in Northern Ireland have too long striven for permanence and perfection, and ripped the place apart as they did so. Now we know it’s not possible. “Nothing lasts; nothing is finished; nothing is perfect”.
That goes for countries too. As the introduction makes clear: “Nations are provisional too.” Borders come and go. If everything is impermanent, why expect any political dispensation to last forever?
The collection is ordered alphabetically according to contributors’ given names, but ends by happy coincidence with poet and novelist Susannah Dickey questioning whether there can ever be one all-encompassing representation of “Northern Ireland” — “and if there is,” she adds, “it’s not one I feel equipped to tackle”.
“I am wary,” Dickey writes, “of attempting to describe what it is like, because to do so perpetuates some idea that there is any homogeneity of experience.”
The genius of this lovely, timely collection is that it likewise refuses to impose suffocating, worn-out definitions on a place which, small as it may be, is still big enough to contain as many differences as there are people ready to embrace them.
Essays: Impermanence, edited by Neil Hegarty and Nora M’Sichili
No Alibis Press, 188 pages, paperback €11.80