I prefer good art and archaeology to bad politics

Taken from Andy Pollak’s monthly blog

Sometimes the sheer badness of politics in Northern Ireland takes my breath away (badness=bad faith, lying, incompetence, being mired in the past). Take the third week of October, for example. Peter Robinson boycotted the opening meeting of the British government initiated all-party talks he had himself called for to deal with the deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein on a wide range of issues which has led to the North being largely ungoverned for the past year. The DUP also reneged on an agreement to allow a Sinn Fein MLA to take up the role of Speaker of the Assembly.

Meanwhile Gerry Adams ran into a real storm when he had to defend himself against charges from a young woman from one of the IRA’s ‘first families’, Mairia Cahill, that he had done nothing after she informed him she had been raped by an IRA man and then subjected to an IRA ‘kangeroo court’ at which she was forced to confront her assailant. Adams is a far more adroit politician than Robinson, but because of the constant requirement to defend the IRA as noble freedom fighters whatever evil deeds they have perpetrated, he will continue to get dragged back into the ugly past by bombshells like this.

In that week I came across two extraordinary small books that gave me some reason for hope: a book of satirical paintings launched at the Ulster Museum and a 30 year old pamphlet from an eminent archaeologist pleading for sharing and common ground. I say extraordinary because they were both humorous and open-minded and optimistic, grounded in history in its broadest sense, and emphasising the humanity, complexity and essential Irishness of the North’s divided history.

The book of paintings was by the Belfast artist Rita Duffy (whose studio now straddles the border between Fermanagh and Cavan) and was called ‘Thaw’ – because she believes art can play a role in thawing the great, icy mass of sectarian fear and hatred in her native place. The paintings feature satirical food product labels which poke fun at the folly and pretensions of iconic leaders and movements in recent and contemporary Irish history.

Duffy spares no sacred cows. Here you will find Ulster Vinegar (“100% Matured Vitriol Vinegar…produced through a historical process of slow fermentation of pain, anger and grievance”); a chocolate covered AK 47, “all romantic freedom fighters’ chocolate of choice”; Padraig Pearse Pasta Sauce, made from “tomatoes grown by the young men of ’65 and ’67 coming to their miraculous ripening”; Edward Carson’s Covenanters Marmalade (“What answer from the North? My friends, it’s Marmalade. We perish if we yield.”); B Special Honey to get rid of the bitter taste from the marmalade; and Peace Line clothes pegs as a way of domesticating the horrible ‘peace line’ security fences that tower over the washing lines of houses in many poorer parts of Belfast. These products are soon to be available on tee shirts from www.thawfactory.com or rita@ritaduffystudio.com

Duffy tells us that when politics fail, we always have art, not least to remind us of the unpalatable and absurd ‘narcissisms of small difference’ that are what is left of our ancient Irish quarrel. It is noticeable that in Duffy’s paintings women usually loom large – although women, the rulers of the kitchen and scullery, are largely absent from these posturing male food labels. As Catherine Marshall, Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, points out in her introductory essay: Women have the power “to replace the language of division by an agreed language of commonality.” I hope and pray it will be so (although in next month’s blog I will explore why brilliant Irish women are so poorly represented in our politics).

The second little gem I came across was a 1984 pamphlet – ‘Ulster: The Common Ground’ by the distinguished geographer and archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, a man from the Welsh borders who graced the world of Irish scholarship until his death in 1989. He was a scholar who would be listened to even more closely today, with his emphasis on the whole human environment, including the earth, as the shaper of humankind.

Evans puts our little contemporary squabble into the context of 5,000 years of Irish history. He notes that during the Bronze Age, “this corner of Ireland was among the most advanced, culturally and technically and commercially, of all regions not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.” The archaeological evidence shows that this was because “people of different origins and cultures had learned to live together, to mix, to quicken each other. So Ulster, which is best known to the English today as a place of unrest and civil strife, is thought of by British archaeologists as the place where they had that brilliant Bronze Age.”

Evans, brought up in England by Welsh-speaking parents and who spent most of his adult life in Northern Ireland, urges that we should pay more attention to archaeology. This would show that “the clash of native and newcomer has been repeated over and over again, and we should try to discover how at various times they have not only come to terms with themselves but produced great blossomings of culture. I think you will find that it is precisely this clash of native and newcomer that struck the sparks in Irish culture.”

He also noted the way successive waves of newcomers had become absorbed into Ireland – even though some of them “still obstinately refuse to call themselves Irish.” He stressed that “you cannot send those of planter stock back across the water, any more than you can recall millions of Irishmen from America.” And he pointed to “a very paradoxical figure: an Orangeman from the Bannside, waving a British flag and pouring scorn on the Englishman because he can’t get his tongue around a good Gaelic place name like Ahoghill.”

So when we get depressed about the dismal state of the North’s politics, we should comfort ourselves with the Buddhist thought that all this is impermanent. The violent sectarianism of the northern part of Ireland is a mere two centuries old, the colonisation which gave rise to it is only four centuries old, and in another two, three or four centuries – if the earth survives – they will be remembered as nothing more than a temporary aberration in the six or seven millenia history of people on this island. Isn’t that a comforting thought of a kind?

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.