In Ireland's green and pleasant land: Roy Foster on the streaks of nostalgia that mark the never-never land described in the stories of Gerry Adams

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The Independent Culture
ON THE eve of the 1916 Easter Rising its leader Patrick Pearse arranged the rushed publication of his collected works, telling the publisher that he would shortly know the reason and think his trouble worthwhile. Something of the same strategy may have inspired Gerry Adams and the Brandon Press. Like his new dark suit, the stories and essays in his new book (Selected Writings, Brandon, pounds 7.95) has much to do with deliberate self-presentation. Reminiscence and fiction merge in pieces such as Up The Rebels (see, right), which employ straightforward if repetitive diction and almost invariably rely on a death in the last paragraph. It is an undemanding genre, characterised by a relentless sentimentality and a marked nostalgia for a boyhood of idyllic deprivation.

Against a background of Hovis-advertisment back-to- back communalism on and off the Falls Road, young Gerry grows up: dog lover, rescuer of trapped hedgehogs, cinema habitue, polite to his elders, natural leader - a perfect Enid Blyton hero. While his friends use appealing Belfast patois, he says things like 'It must be nearly tea-time now. I'm looking forward to a big fry - a dipped soda and a fried egg would be smashing.' Then political consciousness is forced upon him. Oddly, though his parents are committed Republicans who have served imprisonment terms, their son is ignorant (in 1963) of what 'IRA' stands for, and more strangely still - is not quite sure what the Border is. But the IRA are, after all, 'just ordinary citizens who are forced through difficult circumstances into violence.'

This is provoked by the condition of Catholics, which parallels that of South Africans under apartheid or Mississippi blacks - and stays that way into the 1990s. Westminster and Stormont prevent the emergence of 'a united republican working class' and set up anti-IRA fronts like the 'so-called Peace People'. Gerry speaks for 'the mass of the Irish people' and says things to Protestant fellow-workers like 'All this is yours as well, Geordie, we don't keep it from you. It's you that rejects it all. It doesn't reject you.'

But his beloved city changes incomprehensibly. Nice old Falls 'characters' become dipsos and drunks; no-one listens to Radio Eireann: women no longer polish brasses or scrub tiles. Walking around his manor, he is astonished to find entire streets razed or burnt down. But there is a replacement world: the communal solidarity of Long Kesh. The jollity of the two-up, two-downs is replaced by the camaraderie of the cells. Again, deliberate parallels are made (the story 'Cage Eleven' lifts the ending of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) but the framework remains as cosy as ever. The epitome is 'Shane', where the mood shifts from the Famous Five to Lady and the Tramp. The narrator's beloved Alsatian, hand-reared on scrambled egg and other delicacies, is stolen by the British soldiers (they are obsessed with dogs, and shoot the family's other pet, presumably while it is trying to escape.) Later in Long Kesh the hero's cell-block is raided by army dog-handlers with their brutes - including Shane. Emotional recognition is ended by the prisoner being dragged away while his dog cries forlornly after him. At this point, like Dorothy Parker reviewing Christopher Robin, Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.

And there is, of course, an agenda. Some subjects never mentioned include kneecapping, shipments from Libya, racketeering, drinking-clubs, the targeting of builders' suppliers and school bus-drivers, and civilian bombing campaigns. Only one of the political extracts has been brought up to 1994 speed, with remarks about the longing for peace; others still rail on about 'agreement on the final objective' (Brits out of a United Ireland), unlike the turncoats who compromised in the 1960s. Equally unreconstructed is the listing of 'foreign investors' among those national enemies who threaten the republican community. Apart from 'Geordie', Protestants are notably absent; and the modern 26-county Republic (as opposed to the virtual-reality model presented in well-rehearsed formulae from Pearse and Connolly) only appears as 'Dublin' - traduced for abandoning the cause.

Yet Dublin is where Gerry Adams now shakes hands with the betrayer; and the Downing Street Declaration, with its guarantee of the Unionist position and its call for a reformulated nationalism, creates the terms in which he publicly operates. Those who believe the Hume-Adams initiative must be supported - and I am among them - will find little comfort in the determined myopia preserved in these covers. 'After all the years of struggle,' he writes, 'I look at the city of Belfast which I admire so much and I feel sick at the way in which it has been turned upside-down and I regret that people throughout the course of this war have suffered so much in so many different ways.' Not much here indicates that Adams was ready, when the book went to press, to alter the circumstances that helped create the dereliction of Belfast. But in the last cliffhanging weeks he has taken a public step away from the self-referring never-never land conjured up by these short stories; if he can bring others with him, the chance of encouraging him must be taken.

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