Friday thread: “In this country we need to be extremely vigilant about the stories we choose to tell ourselves”

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So whilst we’ve been indulging in the usual northern recriminations over St Patricks Day, and getting hot under the collar over the Alliance Party Euro candidate making a pitch for the liberal nationalist vote, southern audiences were treated to some great content on St Paddy’s Day in We Need to Talk About Ireland.

I was particularly struck by this contribution from the playwright Bryan Delaney on the critical importance of storytelling and why it matters to the future of Ireland:

I believe that story is extraordinarily potent. All of life is lived through story the stories we internalize about ourselves, our self-worth or lack of it. Story is how we make meaning of our lives.

Every waking minute we’re bombarded by story when we go to sleep we’re flooded by the stories in our dreams, stories about our deeper selves told to us by profound and master storyteller deep within us that we don’t even know.

Religion is based on story. Genocide is based on story love is based on story. And recovery in this country emotional, psychological and spiritual recovery will also be based on story.

The writer Ben Okri has said that people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves but he also said that sick storytellers make nations sick.

As a story telling people we’re at a crossroads in this country we need to be extremely vigilant about the stories we choose to tell ourselves.

We need to make a choice between the stories that shrink life and the stories that expand it and allow us to breath and to grow and to flourish.

It it’s worth quoting Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman from Glenstall Abbey waxing on the pressing matter of the future:

We all know that the last year, that the last decade, that the last century has been traumatic for many of us and there is little point in trying to blame, name or tame what we have been through.

The past will have to be dealt with, certainly. Oblivion is not an option. But there is no future in the past as we have experienced it. The solution lies in a shared vision for an inclusive future.

Building a platform towards that future requires imagination rather than memory.

We need to do more than talk about Ireland. We need to get over it, get on with it. The future is not something out there which we step into as an already design space.

The future does not exist until we make it happen. The future is what we build together what we create together.

And that can be and ugly vulgar extension of what we already are. Or it can be an invitation to the reality of what we might become.

It’s probably not fair to directly compare the experiences of the electorates north and south. The political experience that gives rise to this kind of outpouring is conditioned by a rather different trauma to the one Northern Ireland has gone through.

But if there’s one takeaway for me it might that the kind of top down processes we’ve seen north of the border, like Haass and even the Belfast Agreement itself, it has to be met with something concrete coming up the other way.

A polity is made up of more than just two bundles of mandates. The stories we tell ourselves may be too important just to leave to politicians alone, but our politicians also might take note of that insight from Ben Okri, that “sick storytellers make nations sick.”

People ultimately choose their own narratives, not historians or bureaucratic processes. It does not have to be an “ugly vulgar extension of what we already are.” If you want some idea of what kind of stories we have been telling about ourselves, try these Hollywood movie plots?

See also Grace Dyas, Eleanor Tiernan #itsnotyourfault and Colm O’Gorman’s bravura closing speech

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  • Zig70

    We’re on the one road, sharing the same load.

  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    Yes, Zig, but we keep coming to forks in the road and, unfortunately, we seem to be adept at taking the road which is a cul-de-sac.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nice one zig. But shouldn’t that read: we’re on the good road, they’re on the bad?

    Joe, maybe that’s because we’re still struggling with two navigators arguing over who gets to hold the map?

    [Do keep the story ideas coming people?]

  • Zig70

    Pff, my road is not inwardly political, that’s in the wee stream beside flowing one way. Let them fight over the tiller. There’s no real power in Stormont anyway.

  • IrelandNorth

    Ulster TeleVision (UTV) did a very commendable teatime collage of Saint Patrick’s Day festivities from across N Irleand/Ulster (NI/U), first time to my certain knowledge(?) Perhaps it’s not unrelated with going Island wide with UTV Ireland, (though why they didn’t pursue a provincual theme with three sub-channels of: Munster TV/Leinster TV and Connacht TV). Anyway, resident anchorman Paul Clarke looked like a dapper James Bond, with earthy green tie, tin foiled sprig o’ shamrock and accessories. (Alison Fleming could have done a credible Ms Moneypenny). Top marks to all concerned. Surely Palme D’Or material in the future. Cannes beckons.

  • http://www.e-consultation.org/ davenewman

    Do too many people let the stories take over all political decision-making? Do they live in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where million-to-one chances come up 9 times out of 10 to fit the story, rather than our roundworld where scientific evidence and uncertainty play havoc with simplistic narratives? Would bookmakers rather than novelists make better politicians, as they are better at judging uncertainty?

  • Mick Fealty

    What sort of stories do bookies tell? “You can take me to the cleaners, but it’ll cost ya”? It doesn’t really take us into our futures although the bookie might do very well out of it.

    With the Okri quote in mind, here’s a famous example of storytelling leading to action, as recorded by the war poet Wilfred Owen:

    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    If there’s a positive in the story that Anna Lo tells about her wanting a united Ireland, it’s surely that “divergent constitutional preferences don’t imply degenerate or alien values”.

    It’s far less clear what the outcome of such a story might be. Or perhaps it does not properly constitute a story so much as a moral, since it does not imply either a prefered action or outcome.

    Northern Irish politics is full of inaction stories: unionists can never to be trusted; don’t tell my friends my da’s a Catholic; Northern Ireland is destined to fall apart; we will march down that road; even if they don’t give in we’ll outbreed them.

    There’s a marked absence of future positive stories which imply action. Indeed most of what currently flows in post conflict Northern Ireland tend to be variations on general themes of moral protest and/or passive aggression.

    It’s almost as if people are afraid of doing stuff, perhaps because the last lot of doing stuff led to an awful lot of trouble and a lot people getting hurt.

  • Greenflag

    Rudyard Kipling was a storyteller . His son Jack was deemed unfit for slaughter in WW1 so Kipling pulled strings and bent ears and eventually got his son into an Irish Regiment via the back door so he could be a hero . Sadly Kipling’s son like millions of other dead heros in the great slaughter died for nought .

    As to

    “Northern Irish politics is full of inaction stories: unionists can never to be trusted; don’t tell my friends my da’s a Catholic; Northern Ireland is destined to fall apart; we will march down that road; even if they don’t give in we’ll outbreed them.’

    Nothing surprising about that . It’s what the State was built on from the beginning it’s foundation stone as it were . Could be more than unsettling to tamper with foundation stones . Just read unionist reaction to Anna Lo’s recent bon mots ?

    ‘It’s almost as if people are afraid of doing stuff, perhaps because the last lot of doing stuff led to an awful lot of trouble and a lot people getting hurt.’

    A case could be made and has been- that before the last lot of doing stuff led to an awful lot of trouble and a lot people getting hurt- there was a long period 1920-1968 when a lot of stuff was not done which might have averted the later stuff which led to an awful lot of trouble .

    NI is as it is .It’s not the worst place on the planet and for some it’s the best .Politically it’s a basket case and without London support it’s economy would be the same . The GFA story is the only one in town. It could be argued that the Assembly’s persona is ‘inaction ‘ institutionalised . Perhaps thats for the best . Better for the NI State to demise via an inactive whimper than go out with a big bang ?

    There’s been enough of them one would have thought .

  • Greenflag

    @ Zig ,

    ‘We’re on the one road’

    So are the Germans though they seem to enjoy it much more as this version suggests.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcNwkmAq0wc

    ‘sharing the same load.’

    Oh yeah ? Tell that to the German/French /British/Irish /American etc banksters or their puppets i.e our so called politicians . They won’t laugh directly in your face -it could lose them votes:(

  • Greenflag

    @ mister joe ,

    ‘but we keep coming to forks in the road and, unfortunately, we seem to be adept at taking the road which is a cul-de-sac.’

    At the fork in the road one signpost says Utopia this way and the other says Nowhere that way . Those familar with Sir Thomas Mores ‘Utopia’ will understand why deja vu seems to be the one constant in NI politics .

    Maybe they need to just get off the road altogether and let others do the driving ;)?

  • Mick Fealty

    GF,

    I see your ‘nought’ and ‘demise’ and raise you a Kennelly:

    “Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
    that always seems about to give in
    something that will not acknowledge conclusion
    insists that we forever begin.”

  • Greenflag

    I’ll see your Kennelly and raise you a Stephen Hawking

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1658580/

    I looked at Bryan Delaney’s piece and also Colm O’Gorman and while I would not discount the role of unconscious mind in the creation of new realities or the proper understanding of present realities -political , economic , social or spiritual -at heart I’d rather have actual economic and social policies doing the work of recovery than ‘stories ‘

    Delaney may be overstating our (ROI) national trauma . True the nation has been delivered a serious jolt in respect of the status in which the major institutions of Church, State and the Financial sector have ‘betrayed ‘ the plain people of Ireland this past decade .

    And while this hiatus between former belief and present varying degrees of unbelief continues and may yet provide the impetus for reform and innovation it’s only remarkable in that this is the Republic’s first experience of such a national ‘trauma ‘ since it’s foundation .

    Northern Ireland’s a different story much less remediable for a host of reasons . Again here stories may help e.g Barton Creeth’s piece on post conflict soldiers trying to reenter normal life and finding difficulties in adjusting .

    But again NI’s permanent deja vu in it’s political life will not be resolved by mantra repetition of the status quo.

    Stability as MInsky pointed out is itself ultimately destabilising given enough time .

    Beginning anew is the human condition after every death , loss , war , economic or political crisis , map redrawing -life must go on because life just is -whether it’s a snake in the long grass or whether it’s teethering on a window ledge . Nature cares not for the individual but may be a little more circumspect about entire species but even there 99% of all species that have ever existed -are no longer extant ,

    Jungian synchronicity notwithstanding what Delaney experienced and he probably knows it was pure coincidence . If this is the muse that gives rise to his creativity /thought fine –its as good and maybe better than another muse .

    Lets not kid ourselves that story telling will somehow unjumble the myriad ‘problems ‘ of whatever nature that underlie Northern Ireland’s road to Nowhere or the Republic’s presumed trauma of institutional betrayal .

    I’m more certain that the Republic will find it’s way than NI . Fundamentally this is because Irish nationalism is a much more inclusive tent than NI unionism ever could be . Irish nationalism has never been as exclusive as unionism which is why it had followers and supporters among the Anglo Irish ascendancy of the time and many of it’s leaders had familial connections outside Ireland such as De Valera , Pearse , Parnell , Connolly , Childers , Griffiths etc etc . Unionism in comparison were truly ‘sinn feiners ‘ in that respect .

    Irish nationalism can and is taking under it’s broad tent immigrants from around the world from many ethnic/cultural and religious origins . That in my perspective is a measure of it’s continuing strength . And despite the clarion call on slugger on occasion that nationalism is dead or on it’s way out I’d input a caveat .

    Exclusive ‘nationalism ‘ which is dismissive of the rights of minorities or their cultural identities and endeavours to impose an ethnic /religious or cultural uniformity on everybody is on it’s way out e.g North Korea – the former Romania , Serbia , Croatia , etc etc .

    Its towards that broader and more inclusive Irish nationalism that we in ROI are heading and already well down the road .

    Northern Ireland is as expected way behind as always because it has to be given it’s ‘story ‘.

    It’s all physics anyway at the end of the day at least in this universe as Stephen Hawking would say .

    I’ve yet to listen to Abbot Hederman’s piece but I will this evening time permitting . For a brief moment there my unconscious or was it conscious mind thought that Ireland’s Rugby Team manager Joe Schmidt had taken up the religious life .

    Ireland no longer has to pray for victories in Rugby Internationals . It seems these days that the poor Scots are more in need of divine intervention ;)?

  • Mick Fealty

    Glad you finally got around to reading the material… ;-)

    Please do put Eleanor Tierney’s piece on your list as well:

    Delaney’s a playwright whose job description means he must deal in meaning or do nothing worth bothering with at all. His point about the importance of stories as a prompt to action is pristine, whether Jung and the collective unconscious means anything or not.

    We DO need to care about what stories we tell about ourselves, our children our neighbours and our opponents.

    Interesting…

    “Northern Ireland’s a different story much less remediable for a host of reasons”

    And of course this is just another story. But one whose details are well worth hearing in detail?

  • Greenflag

    Eleanor Tierney’s piece was excellent and she gets it .
    Abbott Hedermann was doing fine until he got to the Holy Spirit part at least for me but his comment re the future etc was just common sense -an altogether not as common a trait as it’s name entails .

    As to

    “Northern Ireland’s a different story much less remediable for a host of reasons” And of course this is just another story. But one whose details are well worth hearing in detail?’

    Point being this story i.e NI’s has past it’s sell by date . It’s gone on for too long now to arouse much interest beyond the NI political anoraks and a few academics or social and political scientists .

    Theres a ‘weariness ‘ out there which just wants it all to be over and to begin anew . Abbott Hederman seems to be believe imagination and spirituality are the required ingredients . Eleanor Tierney suggests more direct accountability and less evasion or blaming Godot .

    A mix of both with more emphasis on Tierney’s humourous approach which in itself (humour ) is proven to increase subsequent imaginative or intellectual performance .

    As to whether NI is ready for such an open ‘debate ‘ or self inquisition ? Probably a decade or so after the State (NI ) ceases to exist would be my best guesstimate .

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s my working assumption that we are slowly being killed by a lethal cocktail of technocratic debates over instruments, the low expectations of populist politics and the deadening effects of opportunism.

    What we actually need, north and south, are new stories, not more sterile debate. That requires a little less certainty about the way the future Will pan out in order to open up new possibilities.

    That will almost certainly mean dispensing with the alienation techniques of conflict and war, and in turn require from us a renewed search for new questions by returning to old, often discarded, sources capable of binding the divergent cultures and communities, in the first place, of Northern Ireland, and seeking to place them within the broader traditions within and between these islands.

  • Greenflag

    ‘That requires a little less certainty about the way the future will pan out in order to open up new possibilities.’

    In Ireland the future is only a little less uncertain than the past .There are some who might even suggest the past is more uncertain as it’s continually revised in the light of new discoveries.

    As to opening up new possibilities ? In the political realm at least the possibilities are limited not limitless . Geography , history ,economics , demographics , the EU , UK , UN , USA, and the local communities in NI and the Republic will see to that .

    ‘That will almost certainly mean dispensing with the alienation techniques of conflict and war,’

    One would hope though that particular genie could still reemerge from it’s current confinement if our ” leaders ‘ lose the plot .

    “and in turn require from us a renewed search for new questions by returning to old, often discarded, sources capable of binding the divergent cultures and communities,”

    I’m unclear as to what you mean by old discarded sources in the above .Theres no going back to earlier idylls assuming they ever existed anyway . We can only work forward with what conditions and circumstances are in the present

    ‘ in the first place, of Northern Ireland, and seeking to place them within the broader traditions within and between these islands.’

    I hear you re your first place noted above and on the face of it it would seem a logical progression . But it’s getting nowhere unless one accepts that the GFA is endstation which is not what is believed by the parties . I would argue that there will be no real debate in NI on an alternative political future until such time as demographics force the issue . And resulting from that there will be no impetus for ‘new questioning ‘ in the allied economic and social development fields .

    In the Republic the ‘new questioning ‘ will continue endlessly .Justice Minister Alan Shatter for one is only too well aware of where that can lead .

    theres not much o

  • Greenflag

    BTW

    I agree with your initial working assumption above in particular in relation to NI’s current immobility in it’s politics and economics .

  • Mick Fealty

    Okay, this…

    “I’m unclear as to what you mean by old discarded sources in the above .Theres no going back to earlier idylls assuming they ever existed anyway . We can only work forward with what conditions and circumstances are in the present.”

    I’m not advocating some wholesale turning back with some point in the past as a desired destination, but rather a re-examination of cast away materials from the cutting room floor as a means of connecting with a different future.

    Think of it as history as resource as opposed to millstone.