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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