Saturday 19 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: The healing rivers beneath the fourth green field

FOR the past week, I have been reading and reflecting on Liam Carson's memoir of his parents, Call Mother a Lonely Field (Hag's Head Press). Although this memoir works on many levels, at first sight it seems to be just another Irish family chronicle, albeit that of a happy family.

But even at the first level it lifts the bar. Sparely written, Call Mother a Lonely Field will sit on the small shelf of classic Northern memoirs alongside Maurice Hayes's Black Puddings and Slim, Denis Kennedy's Climbing Slemish and Malachi O'Doherty's serial memoirs, the latest of which is Under His Roof.

Liam Carson looks back at his Belfast childhood through both boyish and adult eyes. We are seduced into seeing nothing strange in growing up in an Irish-speaking Belfast Catholic family during the darkest days of the Northern conflict. Indeed, the Carson family, living their lives through Irish, could have claimed to be culturally more Irish than most of their Falls Road neighbours.

But the Irish language gave the family more than a sense of cultural identity. It also offered shelter from the more lethal effects of the ideological passions around them. To borrow a favourite concept from his father, Liam Mac Carrain, the Irish language offered the family tearmann or sanctuary.

Although the title of the memoir addresses Liam Carson's mother, at first I identified more strongly with his portrait of his father. Like my own father, Liam Mac Carrain had a fanatic heart, albeit a loving one. Without such hearts, I believe we would still be living like second-class citizens, full of self-pity, shooting at landlords and touching the forelock when we missed.

Liam's father fixed his fanatic heart not on shooting at his Protestant neighbours, but on raising a family whose first language would be Irish. To do that in Dublin today still needs a special dedication. To do it in Belfast during the Troubles needed a benignly fanatic heart.

Liam Mac Carrain got some help from his genes. His grandfather, William Carson, was a Protestant widower who turned Catholic in order to marry his second wife. We can only guess at the psychological fortitude it took to cross the sectarian divide in the 19th century.

William Carson did not hide what his heart had done. Having fathered nine children by his first wife, he went on to father 13 children by his second, Roman Catholic, wife, the equivalent as his great grandson puts it, "of two soccer teams".

William's son, David Carson, was formed in the same steely mode. Aptly enough, he was a fitter in Harland and Wolff until the anti-socialist and anti-Catholic pogrom of July 21, 1921, when he and other Catholic workers he was driven out of their workplace under a hail of hurled rivets.

Davy Carson never worked full-time again. He bore his burden with good humour. Paradoxically -- and to my mind a further proof of his Protestant heritage -- he was never idle, acting as cobbler, seamstress, tailor and toymaker to the whole family. Above all, he was a superior storyteller.

But it was Davy's son, William, who really broke the mould. What drove him, a humble postman, to change his name to Liam Mac Carrain, to raise a family in Irish in the centre of Belfast and to persist in this personal and familial crusade?

As his son Liam Carson tells it, his father seems to have experienced an epiphany of the ear.

Listening to two Irish speakers in the Belfast GPO one day, he found himself faoi draiocht acu ag comhra le cheile i nGaeilge -- under the spell of them speaking in Irish. He set himself to learn both literary and spoken Irish to a high standard.

In 1943, while a part-time teacher of Irish, Liam Mac Carrain met his soulmate, Mary Maginn, when she came to his class. Later in life, when he joked that she badgered him for "private lessons to study the irregular verbs", Mary would say modestly, "God forgive you Liam, I never did".

Mary was as modest as her background. She left school at 14 and became a doffer in Greaves factory, picking up bobbins in the huge mill where noisy machines battered the walls. Like her husband, she was formed by an industrial city, but nourished by a language whose core strength came from the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Liam and Mary married on very little money. But they somehow managed to lead a life of the mind, first off the Falls Road, and later in Andersonstown. And this simple and pious couple provided enough love and literary stimulus to turn out at least two writers (who knows what the future holds for the rest of the family?).

The moral and cultural passion of these two extraordinary people throbs through Liam Carson's loving memoir. It throbs through Liam's prose and the poetry of his brother Ciaran Carson -- who has given us the best rendering in English of Cuirt An Mhean Oiche, not excepting Frank O'Connor.

The Carson brothers are ample proof that the power of their parents' twin belief systems -- Roman Catholicism and the Irish language -- still retained a powerful charge until recent times. Liam Carson is not afraid to lay these beliefs out barely. "My parents were Falls people, with all that entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values. They had a framework that made sense of the world for them."

The Carson parents practised a form of Roman Catholicism that may no longer be fashionable -- but it fashioned a family of poets rather than republican activists. Alas, this tradition, represented by the tough Christian values of the late Fr Denis Faul rather than that the ideological dogmas of Eamon McCann, was increasingly marginalised during the Troubles.

Luckily, that tradition still produces SDLP politicians like Alban McGuinness and Dominic Bradley. As the dissidents try to reduce Irish patriotism to ideology, we again have to draw on the deep wells of constitutional nationalism, including Roman Catholicism and the Irish language. But we do not need to wear them as tribal badges.

In later life, Liam Carson records that his mother was troubled by the perceived link between Irish and republican politics. "With the coming of the Troubles, the linguistic lie of the land changed in my home. My mother spoke Irish less and less . . . in her mind, Irish was now linked to republicanism, to the IRA, to violence."

Many of us in the Republic had the same problem as Mary Carson during the armed struggle. Sinn Fein uses the Irish language the same way the IRA used baseball bats in punishment beatings: to beat up their political enemies.

This weekend's ard fheis should address this sectarian legacy, and put it aside forever.

Call Mother a Lonely Field reminds us that beneath the barren landscape of Northern Ireland, Christianity and the Irish language run like deep rivers. Writers, like water diviners, can find fresh outlets for these healing waters. Liam Carson is such a diviner.

Sunday Independent

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