- Northern Irish Literature: The Imprint of History, 1956–2006
In keeping with the promise of its title, Michael Parker’s two-volume study of Northern Irish literature from the postwar era to the present relates the literary productions of that period to the major events of modern Irish history. Within the outlines of the last fifty years, Parker enlarges the possibilities of his literary and historical narrative by refocusing attention on often overlooked economic, political, and social developments in Northern Irish life. These two volumes comprise the work of eleven years of scholarship and writing; Parker’s consistent achievement is to illuminate “the imprint of history” on literary works. He approaches texts by placing them within their original cultural landscape to “increase perceptual angles” (Edna Longley’s phrase) on their composition, production, and reception, reconstructing a narrative that includes the intersecting histories of nationalists, republicans, and loyalists. His procedure in each instance is to set forth a detailed historical narrative complete with references to newspaper accounts, historical studies, memoirs, and diaries, to show the “depth of field” in which the literature of these times was imagined, written, and read.
The first lens through which Parker refracts this literature is economic history, especially the high unemployment and threat of massive job losses that hung over Belfast in the 1950s and 1960s, and the consequent political and cultural destabilization in Northern Ireland. Out of the North’s turbulent economic climate came a seminal play, Sam Thomson’s Over the Bridge, produced in January 1960. Its popular reception, Parker asserts, speaks of “the unease [End Page 152] within the Unionist establishment during this period.” According to the Northern Whig, 42000, people saw the play during its six-week Belfast run.
Parker challenges many received points of emphasis in the study of Northern Irish literature and supplies much new information. For example, in tracing the biographical and historical sources of Michael Longley’s “Wounds” and other poems written in the early 1970s that were inspired by World War I, and in discussing the theme of discovery of sexual identity in Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1986), Parker supplies new information about the genesis of both works. He notes that “one of ‘Wounds’ immediate precursors, the verse letter ‘To Three Irish Poets,’ illustrates further the associations in Longley’s mind between paternity and war, poetry and witness. ‘To Three Irish Poets’ was occasioned by the birth of his son, Daniel, on 20 March 1971.” He sees both Longley’s “war poems” and McGuinness’s play as significant contributions to the powerful mythology of sacrifice surrounding the Battle of the Somme. Parker praises McGuinness—who was born in Ulster but does not self-identify as a Northerner—for his sympathetic portrait of the narrator, soldier Kenneth Pyper, and points out that
what most affected McGuinness during the period in which Observe the Sons was composed . . . was the beginning of the AIDS pandemic; its presence was first diagnosed in Ireland in 1982 and it claimed its first victims in the mid-1980s. In a recent interview, the dramatist states that ‘the subject of AIDS is very strikingly there’ in his play, albeit in ‘coded’ form.
The historical details of major events and the emotional reactions of all parties to them are central to Parker’s method. The events include the contested elections; the Bloody Sunday shootings; the bombings in London, Belfast, Omagh, and elsewhere; the tone-deaf statements of Edward Heath regarding the policy of internment; and the reactionary attitudes of Margaret Thatcher in dealing with the IRA hunger strikers. A particular strength is the author’s ability to bring sustained attention to different registers of political discourse, as well as to its Northern and extramural reception. He examines Ian Paisley’s repeated incitements to loyalist bigotry in the 1970s and 1980s; the equilibrium and moral responsibility that marked John Hume’s observations; and the Pearse-inflected martyrology in the diction...