Culture After Conflict: Between Remembrance and Reconciliation.

Ulster Museum 23rd March …Sponsored by Instiute of British-Irish Studies (IBIS) at UCD.

Following closely on “Remembering the Future” a CRC event, IBIS held a related event at the Ulster Museum. There were about 200, mostly pre-registered, “attendees” but I noted that many of the well known names on the list did not actually show up.

Against a background of upcoming centenaries what exactly can or should the Cultural Community do to foster a positive approach to it all.

Chairing a discussion on “Legacies of Conflict”, historian Pat Cooke reflected on his time as curator of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. There is an attempt to escape History as there are attempts to escape prison but Cooke issued a cautionary note into the proceedings by stating that in the rush to escape, prisoners often have no idea where they will end up.

Even having escaped the building there is the ball and chain around the ankles which is inhibiting. He talked about the “ouch factor” in History, the need for a physician to actually touch and press a wound to see how it’s healing.

Former Poetry Professor, Edna Longley proved somewhat of a revelation. She was concerned at the notion that a role should be assigned to Culture. Forgiveness is a religious theme not a matter for Culture.

She noted the similar conference at City Hall, just two days previously and the concern about these centenaries. I paraphrase “we have conferences about the centenaries and then mark the centenary of the conferences”. It resonated with the audience

Philip Orr, dramatist, spoke of working with loyalists (including ex- prisoners). Orr spoke of the stereotype of loyalist culture as “angry, marginal and embarrassing” and the cliché that loyalist culture is an oxymoron.

But he seems tired of people approaching him to write another play about the Somme. He works with loyalist bands. He notes that in the aftermath of Partition, plays (O’Casey) were written and books written but there was no equivalent culture in the North.

There are different attitudes to Culture within the northern communities. Loyalists are resentful that nationalists seem to have a monopoly of culture. Hollywod does “Michael Collins” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” but where is the Loyalist screenplay?

Re-Imaginings of “Northern Ireland”

Imelda Foley spoke about theatre work on the Shankill Road and community art in general. David Park, the writer told us that Art comes from a narrative and that very little of the drama, books and stories relating to the Troubles will actually endure. The Troubles have actually damaged us creatively. “Artists can’t live off the Troubles forever”.

Writing and other forms of art are about exploring what it is to be human. And these narratives must be true. He was saying that Art cannot be produced to order for the Common Good.

Tim Loane, theatre director went further. We are a society in denial and Art is our Prozac. We don’t need more Prozac Art. Art is not social engineering. With community art, we have fostered Inclusivity in place of Excellence. Art is NOT fireworks and face painting. It is not the function of the Arts to engage in Reconciliation and took a side swipe at Ulster Scots and Irish.

According to Loane, the simple truth is that our indigenous artists are tribal. We actually encouraged Michael Stone to believe he is an artist and Danny Morrison to believe he is a playwright.

He criticised a play “We Held Your Secrets” (authors name I did not catch) where an American director had taken real life stories of victims and edited them into a drama. It was obscene “Troubles Porn”…..a means for people who have not suffered at all to “get off on other peoples misery”.

He said that the impuse  for Art to be part of a Reconciliation Process is coming from outsiders and do-gooders. How risible is it that “the City of Culture does not have a professional theatre”?

For me, Loane overdid the passion. It resulted in a heated exchange between him (he was forced to back pedal a little) by the force of feeling) and two women community writers, who accused him of elitism.

Eamonn McTeagues artistic speciality is photographing and displaying the Belfast murals. He is particularly interested in their changing nature. A  contribution from the floor. was telling. Seemingly one of the walls on the Ormeau Road in his presentation had actually been the scene of a 1970s killing…….a young man who was painting a mural.

The final session “Arts and Culture After the Conflict” was effectively the Gerry Anderson Show. Frankly nobody on the panel, Pauline Ross (Community Theatre in Derry), Alan Gillis (Belfast poet), Robert Ballagh (Dublin artist) Glenn Patterson (Belfast writer) spoke about Conflict Resolution..

It was back and forth banter about Pattersons hasty retreat from a Lisburn bar as his red velours trousers were causing a disturbance, Ballagh selling his guitar to Phil Lynnott, Gerry Anderson loaning Lynnott a tenner in the gents in a Dublin bar…….and well I guess you had to be there.

Yet for me the single most poignant moment of the day was Anderson’s recollection of a suppressed memory from St Patricks Day in Derry on St Patricks Day 1952. I wont elaborate on that.

So what did we learn about Conflict Resolution and Art? There was a general acceptance that it is not the responsibility of artists to be involved. There is possibly a bigger debate about Art being subsidised. Whether at community or professional level, is the artist obliged to follow the wishes of a patron.

The other most noticeable theme was that so many “History” and “Politics” registered names from QUB who failed to attend.

We already know from a previous post that the Churches aren’t overly concerned about playing a part in Conflict Resolution. Neither are Historians who value the historical record above its re-writing for the perceived benefit to Society. And the Arts people feel the same way.

Yet that’s the point that Pat Cooke, the Historian made at the very start of the day. When you escape from History, you don’t really know where you will end up.

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  • Cynic2

    I dontw ant to offend you nor disagree with this, but it just struck me. Why are so many Slugger posts about the past and not the present or future?

  • Found Loane refreshing and at no point did he back-pedal. He made a good point that there was too much self-validation in what communities saw as ‘art’ using artisitc formats to reaffirm political or cultural postures rather than exploration and examination of cenrtral propositions. That is not to say art cannot be used to make a political statement, but it needs to rise above process and be capable of value as art in its own right regardless of the message.

  • nightrider

    It might come as a shock to some people that there was a life (for most people) beyond the ‘conflict’ One aspect for people of ‘a certain vintage’ was the music scene epitomised in the film ‘Shellshock Rock’

    Going to the ABC or New Vic or Laverys or watching AC/DC at the Ulster Hall was just normal.

    In fact the only time the ‘Troubles’ impacted -apart from UDR checkpoints – was during one of Paisley’s strikes and the power went off 2 minutes from the end of ‘Aliens’ at the ABC

    Most of us led very normal lives.

  • Turgon

    A most impressive first post. Congratulations (I do not mean that in any way condesendingly).

    I think nightrider is absolutely spot on here. Throughout the Troubles and following it lots of cultural and arts activities had nothing to do with the Troubles. There were (and are) amateur and proferssional theatre shows from ancient to modern and all between (the Riverside in Coleraine is an example, as is the Ardhowen in Enniskillen or the Strule in Omagh). There were and are concerts both modern and classic etc. Now, however, assorted people seem most interested in “culture” if it can be politicised for unionism or nationalism or (to again steal FJH’s excellent comments) for the liberal dissidents.

    Arts and culture can have something to say about our difficulties but it can also be a good thing of itself. I do wish people would stop seeing Shakesphere and everything else as relating to the Troubles: you can go to the theatre, a concert (classic or modern) and lots of other things without it being a political statement.

  • FJH, yes, thanks for your post. I respectfully disagree on some things, and started to write a comment, but it got so long that I have written it in a new post called ‘why Northern Ireland needs to keep talking about its past.’

  • Another thanks here for your post. Guilty confession — I wanted to go but knew I couldn’t so declined; grateful to have your writeup.

    Regarding art and conflict resolution, I’m disappointed to hear you say no one on the panel spoke to this. Especially Pauline Ross, who is Director of The Playhouse in Derry-Londonderry, which backs the International Culture Arts Network (ICAN) which has showcased some excellent examples of just this topic.

    (Declaration of interest: my Forum for Cities in Transition project is collaborating with ICAN, including our forthcoming conference 23-26 May, which will include a panel discussion on “Art, Culture and Conflict”.)

    Again, grateful you took the time to write this article.

  • Well Turgon, I fear this will be my last post as well as the first (unless Mr Fealty hires me for election analysis). I actually found it quite difficult to do the reportage without too much “comment”. Hopefully the balance is right. Although I now feel free to comment of course.
    become my usual unbalanced self. community writers.
    was “refreshing” and did not back pedal…well a matter of opinion.
    On the specific points about whether Tim Loane…was “refreshing”……..a little too passionate for my delicate tastes but I think by the time he spoke(a late substitute for Martin Lynch) the direction that the Conference was going was well established.
    By the way, Id have to point out that my own experiences of West Belfast in the early 1970s was not of a place where the Troubles rarely impacted me.

  • Mr Ulster,
    this of course is my perspective of the Conference. Gladys Ganiel will have a completely different perspective and thats fair enough. There was of course mention of Conflict Resolution but people had to be dragged back to the point of it all.
    Pauline Ross was involved in the final session, the Gerry Anderson Show. Prompted by Gerry, she did speak about theatre but actually most of it was all banter with Gerry going off on a tangent.
    But she did say in relation to a visit to South Africa that she encountered someone saying that their Truth Commission was little more than “a marketing ploy for an international audience”.

  • otto

    “It is not the function of the Arts to engage in Reconciliation”


    What’s that whole comedy/tragedy, harmony/discord thing all about then?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Hollywod does “Michael Collins” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” but where is the Loyalist screenplay?

    Resurrection Man?

  • Indeed…..but hardly an example where loyalists are depicted as heroes.
    I must admit that when I heard Tim Loane say that, I decided to rush home and write a screen play about “Lord” Brookeborough.
    It is actually a serious point and in my own journal I come up with a reason why this is so. But leaving aside a perceived “left wing” Hollywood bias, there is no good reason why any screenplay cant be written.
    Just write it.

  • Actually I think I will write a screenplay called “Escape From History” where two RAF pilots called Turgon and Fitzjames are on the escape committee that doesnt actually want to escape. Because where we are is actually quite comfortable and we are very good at performing “Underneath the Arches” at prison concerts. Squadron Leader McCausland directs the shows.
    Along comes the Cooler King who Pele teaches how to be a goalkeeper……..and he forces us to try to escape.
    Arent we entitled to say “no thanks”.

  • Dewi

    Great to read you posting FJH! (Get some constituency profiles in before Mick does all the juicy ones….)

  • nightrider

    sounds like a Philip K Dick novella..

    Peter Taylor wrote a fairly comprehensive trilogy on the troubles which are about as ‘balanced’ as you are likely to get. I think Amazon has all 3 books for under 20 quid.

    But there are careers to be maintained in this faux empathy. the liberal guilt trip writ large.

    I take it the croissants and canapes at these

  • Turgon

    re Peter Taylor. He may attempt balance but he did comment on his surprise at the Enniskillen massacre stating that the “IRA did not target civilians”. I mentioned it in a blog at the time. That sort of comment is to most unionists very far from “balanced.”

    Your last comment is spot on: There are a lot of nice, not wealthy, but comfortable, middle class careers to be made by the peace processers. The terrorists and their cheerleaders seem inclined to help the do gooders in their efforts (do-gooders are exepcially fond of doing good to themselves). As such the terrorists are lionised by the peace process do-gooders.

    The annoying real victims and the annoying non victims who show no interest in the vital need the do-gooders have for a comfortable job are denounced as extremely guilty. Indeed the do-gooders need more money and more of them to try to persuade the bad non guilty of their guilt. It is all a bit Kafkaesque.

  • nightrider

    How people view the past is an individual thing.

    People do not need patronising. And if they want to air their views there is you tube, and google will find any documents they want to reference.

    But patronised we all are, by the likes of Eames, who see themselves as professional ‘facilitators’ in a ‘process’ to shroud the whole population with some degree of guilt.

    I remember most of the 80’s in films, football matches, music, horse racing (point 2 point) and other sundry pursuits. How others remember is none of my business. It shouldn’t be the business of others to ‘reconcile’ myself with that past.

  • Dewi…….thanks.
    As they say “never say never” but I see this post as a one-off.

  • wild turkey

    Ditto Dewis’ comment

    Fitz James, you might want to consider the current Dr Who approach. Thought provoking, entertaining occassional seasonal ‘specials’ Scarcity creates value. Go for it FJ

    having lived in norn ironland since 1979 and seen, and on two occassions, experienced the shit, my two cents worth on the reconciliation/ community relations industry? the industry has about as much relevance to my life and my childrens future as the north down tennis elbow foundation. then again, we don’t play tennis and only the wimbeldon finals