- Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space by Adam Hanna
Irish writers’ relationships with place, and their efforts to feel rooted in place, are often subjects of critical debate. When the writers in question are of the “Troubled” North, the attention to these themes becomes particularly acute: to what degree, critics wonder, can authors feel at home on insecure, unsettled ground? Most analyses of contemporary Northern Irish writing focus on external landscapes and landmarks, assuming that these spaces can best illuminate the devastating effects of the conflict. However, Northern writers also repeatedly turn inward, thematizing houses and domestic interiors as often as they do the world beyond. Adam Hanna’s richly textured Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space points the criticism indoors, asking us to revisit the intimate domestic details of four contemporary Northern poets: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Medbh McGuckian. Hanna demonstrates that these writers’ domestic spaces are not merely private refuges from the conflict’s public face; they are also politicized, contested sites, places where the poets wrestle with questions of ownership, territoriality, and violence.
The chapter on Heaney examines Mossbawn, Heaney’s childhood farmhouse in County Derry, and Glanmore Cottage, his later home in rural County Wick-low, as central concerns in the poetry. Hanna focuses first on the concept of the threshold in Heaney’s work, arguing for the doorstep as a place where Heaney negotiates relationships between private and public, self and Other (with the “Other” often being his family’s Protestant neighbors at Mossbawn). Far from being a dividing line that enables the poet-speaker’s retreat into the sanctuary of the farmhouse, the threshold, as Hanna puts it, “is both a marker of where two territories are divided and the point at which this division can be crossed over.” This approach to Heaney’s work resonates with Paul Muldoon’s argument in To Ireland, I (2000) that “liminality” and “narthecality”—that is to say, a border [End Page 155] location—are the central affects of Irish literature. Although this sense of inbetweenness can be paralyzing, Hanna points to its political value for Heaney. Like the radio, another motif that he highlights in Heaney’s poetry for its ability to bear the world into the home, the threshold is a space where outside and inside meet; it allows the poetry to be both redolent of conflict and potentially conciliatory.
Hanna’s observation that Heaney’s poetry often holds such tensions in equilibrium gestures toward one of this book’s greatest strengths: its ability to turn poems against received critical “wisdom” by way of nuanced close readings. For example, other critics read Heaney’s “Trial Runs,” a prose poem that depicts a doorstep conversation between Heaney’s father and a demobbed soldier, either as entirely threatening or as an optimistic indication that individual relationships can override the conflict’s divides. Hanna, however, takes the poem as both unsettling and unsettled, unwilling to choose between the Heaney who wishes to close the door on this encounter and the Heaney who feels the pull of public engagement. As Hanna rightly points out, this tension also informs Heaney’s relationship to the lyric: a genre that typically relies on inwardness and solitude, but also one that must register the pressure of public, political concerns in the North in the era of the “Troubles.”
Chapters on Longley and Mahon follow similar arcs, drawing out the particulars of each poet’s subject position in relation to the conflict, as well as to a sense of “home place.” When Longley writes of Carrigskeewaun, his rented holiday home in County Mayo, he is not turning away from violence; rather, the domestic details of his poetry, even those that supposedly depict the West of Ireland, index Ulster’s political charges. However, as Hanna indicates, it is significant that Carrigskeewaun—unlike Heaney’s Glanmore Cottage—is borrowed. Longley’s domestic spaces are often fragile, and his poet-speakers feel at once rooted and temporary. This ambivalence, Hanna suggests, reflects Longley’s consideration of contested claims to territory in the North.