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The Troubles: Peace and The Future of Irish Writing

I consider it a privilege -- although it came as a big surprise to me to learn about it -- to have written one of the very few novels that exist about the Irish in San Francisco. It was a surprise because the familial conversations in the book, the Catholicism, the manner of expression, the worrying about The Troubles in Ireland, the humor about the Irish, The Church and The Drink. . . all that simply came from my childhood and what I heard at the dinner table.

My Father in the Night was published in hard cover by Mercury House in 1991 and in soft cover by Ballantine Books a year or so later. It tells of eleven-year-old Patrick Pearse, known to everyone simply as Pearse, and his conflicted relationship with two men, his grandfather MJ and his father Michael.

TheTroubles in Ireland are at the center of this novel. The differing points of view toward this ages-long conflict on the part of the two older men supply the emotional tension that the boy Pearse (named by his father for one of the leaders of the Dublin Post Office takeover of 1916 that began the Irish civil war against the British) must negotiate.

The center of the novel is a political issue, and a novel should never be a political tract. Those that exist principally for reasons of politics are soon forgotten, because they are so often poorly written and, far worse, irrelevant to the central purpose of the novel, which is to be an exploration of the soul’s progress from ignorance to revelatory knowledge. I hope it’s that kind of novel that I wrote. Novels as political manifestos are meaningless because they are always so short-sighted.

But at least in part, this novel was an exercise for me in determining what I felt about the relationship between the British, the Irish, and the diaspora of Irish to the north American continent. When I wrote it, that entire process was still a major theme in the United States in what was being written about Ireland. It was the very subject itself of at least one hundred and fifty years of Irish-American writing and, for me, essential to my own book.

Now things are changing. If you write a novel about Ireland in 2008, I wager that it will contain little about The Troubles, except as something in the memory.The Celtic Tiger, as Ireland is now sometimes called, is among the fastest growing economies in Europe, if not of the world. Ireland is — imagine this! —an economic power. Had politicians such as the Anglo-Irish Ian Paisley and the I.R.A. man Martin McGuinness appeared together ten years ago in the same place, it would have been to engage in a shoot-out. Now they are working together —albeit testily — to further Northern Ireland’s future, and therefore that of the entire island.

To be sure, there remains a big difference between the Irish Republic in the south and the British colony in Northern Ireland, and it’s in the north that the old conflicts may continue. The peace there is a fragile one. If you go to Belfast, you still see politically charged murals from both sides, that are clearly intended to foment a fight, and bulwark-like fortresses that were once the redoubts of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British police force in Northern Ireland. The whole thing could fall apart in a moment. The fortresses could be re-armed. But at least in this moment, the peace is holding and one hopes that it becomes a permanent feature of the cultural landscape in Ireland.

But I worry, in a perverse sort of way, about what the Irish will write about if Paisley and McGuinness in fact bury their swords and Ireland and the British succumb to — would you believe? — mutual respect. If so, Irish writing may be in trouble because it will have lost the theme upon which its writers have based their greatest work for eight hundred years.

The risings against the British have been one of the most fruitful and happy fields for Irish writers ever to till. This has been a very violent, but very private, haunted, and self-observant sort of struggle. Therefore it’s been perfect for fiction. Indeed there is almost an affection in Irish literature for TheTroubles. For a writer — be you Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faolin, Frank O’Connor, Benedict Kiely, Edna O’Brien, Marie Jones, Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Brian Moore, John McGahern — the constant plots against the British, and the failure of those plots, have been a source of love, heroism, mad bravery, sadness, and comedy that has almost no equal in literature anywhere. It came as a surprise to me recently, when I saw a production of John Millington Synge’s astonishing 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World, that there is apparently no mention of the British anywhere in it. This is certainly a rarity in important Irish literature of the last several centuries.

What will the Irish write about then if, Lord help us, there’s peace in our time?