PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 1-18
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Seamus Heaney, Colonialism, and the Cure: Sophoclean Re-visions
In November 1990, the election to the Irish presidency of Mary Robinson heralded an overnight transformation of the iconography of State in the Republic of Ireland. Robinson was a progressive young constitutional lawyer and a brave champion of civil rights; her election to this largely symbolic role was seen by many to mark a national "coming of age." It was certainly one of the most clearly defined and defining moments in Irish history since partition. In her inauguration speech she set the tone for her Presidency with the words:
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here. 1
These words were drawn from Seamus Heaney's version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, entitled The Cure at Troy.
Four years later, on August 31, 1994, the IRA announced its first ceasefire in twenty-five years, this marking the opening of a new chapter of different possibilities, and different fears, throughout the island of Ireland. A striking symmetry revealed itself on December 1 of the following year when, mirroring Robinson's inaugural speech, Bill Clinton recited the same words from The Cure at Troy as he stood on the steps of the Bank of Ireland, bringing the weight of American influence and dollars to bear on the Northern Irish peace process. The Bank, still crowned by symbols of royal authority from its days as the Irish Houses of Commons and Lords under British rule, faces the front gates of Trinity College, which was established in 1592 by Elizabeth I to be the educational foundation for the Anglicization of Ireland. The symbolism of the occasion was unmistakable. [End Page 1]
Also in 1995, Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, addressed the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle; he too looked to The Cure at Troy for a vocabulary through which he could express his aspiration that "history and hope can be made to rhyme" in Ireland. Indeed, shortly after his visit, Judge Catherine McGuinness, the Chair of the Forum, wrote in the Irish Times that "these words could be a motto for the forum, set up as it was in the climate of hope and optimism induced by the paramilitary ceasefires." Heaney had not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995) nor the Whitbread Prize for his translation of Beowulf (2000), but nonetheless, there are surely few dramatic texts which can claim to have acquired such prominence in the political affairs of modern times.
Among the various narratives of identity which have shaped political and social discourses in Northern Ireland, those which have themselves been structured by the discourse of colonialism have perhaps been the most decisive. Heaney's work boldly opened up a dialogue between its Sophoclean model and the culture and politics of Northern Ireland. To the Sophoclean representation of a wounded, embittered Philoctetes, Heaney brought the experience of suffering in Northern Ireland. To the Northern Irish crisis, the Sophoclean model brought a vision of miraculous redemption which, in Heaney's version, avoided merely aestheticizing "The Troubles" by the toughness and realism of its tenor, and the long shadows of irony with which it concludes. But in this article, I propose a reading of Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy which does not merely take place within colonial discourse, but rather which takes Heaney's version as a pretext for subjecting that discourse itself to interrogation. Challenging its value as a template for historical and political narratives in and of Northern Ireland, I arrive at the following conclusions:
Colonial discourse itself, as an interpretative paradigm or episteme, has served to lock Catholics and Protestants (and critics and analysts of the crisis) into accepting the...