Ireland's final frontier: it's all in the mind

The population is adept in the mystery of living in two places at one time. A condition of being Irish is to feel divided, and it is best to embrace it, writes Seamus Heaney
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In Oxford, in May 1981, I was a guest at a college dinner, one of those annual celebrations held to commemorate the largesse of a benefactor. My sense of occasion would have been high anyhow, but it was increased by the knowledge that I was to spend the night in a fellow's room in the college, and it was further abetted by a faint, pleasurable sense of transgression. Earlier that evening, after all, I, a Northern Irish Catholic from a nationalist background, had attended evening prayer in an Anglican chapel in the company of a former Lord Chancellor of the realm; and later on I learnt that the room I was to sleep in belonged to a minister in the then Tory Cabinet. Yet piquant as these circumstances were, they were not the real reason for my heightened feelings during that quintessentially Oxford event.

What raised the pressure was the fact that a quintessentially Irish event was coinciding with this Oxford one. Earlier that day, only a week after the death of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, another hunger striker had died in the Maze Prison, the second in a death toll that would mount to 10 over the next three months. The young man who had just died belonged to a neighbour's family in County Derry. Although I had never known him personally, our families had been friends for a couple of generations and I had grown up friendly with his older brothers and sisters. So, because of all those ties of memory, affection and community, my mind kept turning towards that corpse house in County Derry.

Even as I circulated with my glass of sherry, I could imagine the press of a very different crowd outside and inside the house in mid-Ulster, the movement of people from one room to the next, the protocols of sympathy, the hush as members of the bereaved family passed and so on. What was in the eyes of the world at large the death of an IRA hunger striker was in the eyes of a smaller, denser world the death of a son and neighbour. And so, the imagined reality of that confusing wake - confusing because for some it was necessarily a domestic rite of mourning, while for others it was inevitably a show of political solidarity - that imagined event from which I was absent shadowed and questioned my presence at an otherwise perfectly jocund college feast.

But then even if I had been at home in Dublin, I still would not have travelled the 100 miles north to the wake. Because some country habits have remained more or less second nature to me, I would have been susceptible to the traditional sense of obligation, but I would have been wary of the political implications of attendance. Suffice it to say that the handling of the 1981 hunger strike by the British government of the day had created a moment of entrapment for everybody.

Whether you were Irish or English, Northern Catholic or Northern Protestant, activist or audience, the spectacle of a fast to the death being used as a weapon in what was by then essentially a propaganda war was intensely emotive - distressing for some, enraging for others. And those who so totally chose the role of victim in order to expose the total intransigence of those in power had no recourse when the government refused to relent but to follow the fatal logic of their choice.

There was a terrible sadness about their plight that could be appreciated even by those who deplored their affiliations. As the Thatcher administration remained unmoved in the face of the deaths and the corteges kept winding from the prison gates to the local graves, there began to be something almost unseemly about the scruple which prevented a show of support for the hunger strikers' immediate claims - a support withheld because logically it would have been taken as an endorsement of the violent means and programmes of the Provisional IRA. Such caution had produced only silence, and now silence was by default appearing like assent to the triumphalist, implacable handling of the affair by the Thatcher cabinet.

It was a classic moment of conflicting recognitions, self-division, inner quarrel, a moment of dumbness and inadequacy when it felt almost like a betrayal to be enjoying the hospitality of an Establishment college and occupying, if only accidentally, the room of a British minister. And yet the bind which I found myself in mirrored exactly the classic bind of all of Northern Ireland's constitutional nationalists. Constitutional nationalists find themselves constantly wrong-footed or are forced to wrong-foot themselves because of a conflict between, on the one hand, their commitments to cultural and political ideals which are fundamentally Ireland-centred and, on the other hand, their disavowal of support for the violent means of the IRA.

Not, of course, that there is anything new about all of this. The Irish political leader operating between two systems of loyalty, the Irish writer responsive to cultural milieux, the Irish place invoked under two different systems of naming - we can recognise that syndrome in all its manifestations from Hugh O'Neill to John Hume, from Oliver Goldsmith to Edna O'Brien, from Londonderry to Derry Colmcille. The problem is familiar and one of its unignorable causes is the border in Ireland, a frontier which has entered the imagination definitively, north and south, and which continues to divide Britain's Ireland from Ireland's Ireland.

And I use these terms rather than British Ireland and Irish Ireland because in the north there is a minority who prefer not to think of themselves as British although they do live in Britain's Ireland, and in the Republic there is a section of the population who would regard the phrase "Irish Ireland' as reactionary, triumphantly nationalistic and part of an historical baggage that they would prefer to shed.

The whole population is adept in the mystery of living in two places at one time. Like all human beings, of course, the people would prefer to live in one, but in the meantime they make do with a constructed destination, an interim place whose foundations straddle the areas of self-division, a place of resolved contradiction, beyond confusion. A place, slightly to misquote Yeats, that does not exist, a place that is but a dream, since this promised land of durable coherence and perpetual homecoming is not somewhere that is ultimately attainable by constitutional reform or territorial integration. Or perhaps one could say that it exists as a state of unresolved crisis which Ulster people don't quite admit as an immediate realistic expectation but don't quite deny as a deferred possibility.

Poetically, it is an aspect of the place in which the speaker of Thomas Hardy's poem "Afterwards" arrives - an elsewhere beyond the frontier of writing where "the imagination presses back against the pressure of reality". To be a source of truth and at the same time a vehicle of harmony: this expresses what we would like poetry to be and it takes me back to the kinds of pressure to which poets from Northern Ireland are subject.

In an open letter to the editors of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, I wrote that my passport was green - although nowadays it is Euro - but not an imperial purple. I wrote about the colour of the passport, however, not in order to expunge the British connection in Britain's Ireland but to maintain the right to diversity within the border, to be understood as having the full freedom to the enjoyment of an Irish name and identity within that northern jurisdiction.

Those who want to share that name and identity in Britain's Ireland should not be penalised nor resented nor suspected of a sinister motive because they draw cultural and psychic sustenance from an elsewhere supplementary to the one across the water. Unresented, they could more easily stop resenting or they, in turn, must not penalise nor resist the at-homeness of their neighbours who cherish the primacy of the British link. Their refusal to be "outcast on the world" expresses itself politically as a refusal to be included in an integral Ireland.

And that refusal has to be imaginatively comprehended as well as constitutionally respected. As Professor Roy Foster writes in the introduction to his recent book of essays on the ways that British and Irish history have intersected: "We need not give up our own claims on Irishness in order to conceive of it as a flexible definition. And in an age of exclusivist jihads to east and west, the notion that people can reconcile more than one cultural identity may have much to recommend it."

There is nothing extraordinary about the challenge to be in two minds. If, for example, there was something exacerbating, there was still nothing deleterious to my sense of Irishness in the fact that I grew up in the minority in Northern Ireland and was educated within the dominant British culture. My identity was emphasised rather than eroded by being maintained in such circumstances. The British dimension, in other words, has been given of our history and even of our geography, one of the places where we all line, willy-nilly. It's in the language. And it's where the mind of many in the republic lives also. So I would suggest that the majority in Northern Ireland should make a corresponding effort at two-mindedness, and start to conceive of themselves within - rather than beyond - the Irish element.

Obviously, it will be extremely difficult for them to surmount their revulsion against all the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of Ireland, but everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, but not necessarily constitutionally.

In other words, whatever the possibilities of achieving political harmony at an institutional level, I wanted to affirm that within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical and the poetic; to affirm also that each form of knowledge redresses the other and that the frontier between them is there for the crossing.

This is an edited extract from 'The Frontiers of Writing' from 'The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures' by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber on 18 September, at pounds 15.99.