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Éire-Ireland 41.3&4 (2007) 42-58

Exorcising the Ghosts of Conflict in Northern Ireland:
Stewart Parker's The Iceberg and Pentecost
Richard Rankin Russell

Plays and ghosts have a lot in common. The energy which flows from some intense moment of conflict in a particular time and place seems to activate them both. Plays intend to achieve resolution, however, whilst ghosts appear to be stuck fast in the quest for vengeance.

Stewart Parker.1

Stewart Parker's The Iceberg (1974) and Pentecost (1987), works that function as bookends of his all-too-short dramatic career, are haunted by ghosts from Northern Ireland's history.2 Both plays accord with Bernard McKenna's description of Northern Irish drama as "'perform[ing]' moments of rupture that consciously emphasize the destruction of individuals' and communities' identities" (8). The Iceberg stages the loss of pride in the Irish Protestant community surrounding the sinking of the Titanic in 1913, whereas Pentecost explores a seeming triumph of Northern Irish Protestantism, the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike—an event, however, that led to a more inflexible political discourse and additional destructive violence in the province. Both works feature revenants, [End Page 42] persistent ghosts whose claims must be recognized and resolved through a process of reconciliation.

Parker's revenants share their marginalized status with other ghosts from literature set in Northern Ireland: for example, Brian Friel's three Catholic characters trapped in the Derry Guildhall in The Freedom of the City (1973) and Seamus Heaney's fisherman friend Louis O'Neill in "Casualty" (1979). Friel's and Heaney's ghosts haunt the places where they were murdered and function as emblems of conscience for their respective authors who reject, finally, the official rhetoric of both Irish nationalism and British authority. Parker's ghosts also haunt their localities, watching and waiting for their presence to be realized and their lives given retrospective value and worth; unlike Heaney's shade of his friend O'Neill, however, they are steadfastly sectarian, bound to their respective Protestant communities by religious and cultural ties. Whereas Heaney's vision of his dead friend leads to a realization that he must leave his Catholic "tribe" to write poetry, Parker's imagined ghosts suggest a commitment to work within his own Protestant community to develop a drama that might soften a hardened political divide.

Parker belonged to a cohort at Queen's University in Belfast in the early to mid-1960s that included Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Bernard MacLaverty.3 All joined Philip Hobsbaum's Belfast Group, a writing group modeling a "twin emphasis on ethics and aesthetics" that proved crucial in developing the ecumenical, highly crafted work of participants (Russell, "Inscribing Cultural Corridors" 223). Parker would quickly merge an ethical compulsion to ameliorate sectarian tensions with his developing dramatic craft: his dual concern to experiment with a variety of styles and to fashion plays "composed of parts which work together in harmony" equipped him to critique the random violence and fragmentation in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s in formally diverse plays invoking a vision of cultural wholeness ("The Modern Poet as [End Page 43] Dramatist" 2).4 Parker's early concern with aesthetic harmony coincided with his developing ethical urge to promote social accord in the province through depicting its particularized local situation and engaging members of disparate factions in dialogue.

Apparitions in The Iceberg and Pentecost emerge from the sense of deprivation engendered by the conflicts in the North—such as those from the 1910s and 1920s, and the contemporary Troubles that began in 1969, the latter of which includes Protestant opposition that toppled the provisional power-sharing government in 1974. The flitting, circling ghosts in these two dramas invoke that pervasive sense of dislocation among Northern Irish Protestants, who feel neither fully British nor Irish and fear abandonment by Britain. Moreover, these apparitions suggest a generalized Northern Irish working-class dispossession stemming from a shared poverty, a deprivation both fueling sectarianism and existing as a potential bond...


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