About fifteen years ago I walked into a printing shop in Belfast with a pale pink T-shirt I had bought in Topman. I wanted a word printed on it in inch-high red flock. The young man at the counter baulked when I showed him it. ‘I don’t think we can print that,’ he said. ‘That’s the worst word.’ His manager came out from the back office. He looked at the word. He shrugged: on your own head – or chest – be it. The word was TOUT.
For the past three months I have had the good fortune to be the Heimbold Visiting Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, northwest of Philadelphia. Last night Villanova was in the final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship for the first time since winning in 1985. (I am not claiming there is a connection with my being here, but any American universities willing to take a punt on next year are free to give me a call.)
Carál Ní Chuilín, the Northern Ireland minister of culture arts and leisure, was interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Arts Show last Thursday. Asked what she thought was important about the arts here, the minister replied: ‘That people don’t see it as another whinge.’
I have recently had occasion to reread a piece I wrote in November 2007 following the beating to death of Paul Quinn in a shed on the southern side of the Irish border by – local people said – the Provisional IRA. I mentioned Gerry Adams’s categorical denial of IRA involvement, I noted that the British and Irish governments were reassured by his call for those involved to be brought to justice, and referenced the further calls, from the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin’s partner in the (then new) power-sharing executive to wait to see if there was evidence of ‘corporate’ IRA responsibility, a phrase whose ‘Blairite banality’, I suggested, masked ‘a volte-face to rival Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs better”’. Substitute the name Kevin McGuigan for Paul Quinn and the piece might have been written yesterday.
Saturday was one of those days in Belfast, if you didn’t have to be in two places at once then at least you had to get from one place to another pretty sharpish. (If you live in the east, as I do, you had to move pretty nimbly too, to avoid the Orange parades: marching season is already well begun.) The biggest event was a rally in support of marriage equality, organised by Amnesty International, the Rainbow Project and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Following the Yes vote in the 23 May referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now the only part of this island – and of the United Kingdom – where same-sex marriage is neither performed nor recognised. As many as 20,000 people took part and stood in good humour and good order (and sunshine) while speaker after speaker told them love stories and asked a simple question of our politicians: why can’t I be married too?
For the first time in longer than I can remember I agreed with Gerry Adams. It was political of course – calculated as well as choreographed – but that much photographed and much commented-on handshake with Prince Charles was a human, even – to unload the word – disarming moment.
I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own.
God knows, you don’t have to go too far out of your way to find reasons to be ashamed of this place. Last week served up several more, culminating in the spectacle of our one ethnic-minority member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, fighting back tears as she spoke of the racist abuse she has suffered on the streets of Belfast.
Sometimes the right play, or novel, or poem, comes along at exactly the right moment. Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’, published within days of the IRA’s 1994 ‘complete cessation of military operations’, springs to mind: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’ Quietly by Owen McCafferty, which has been playing for the past week in the Abbey Theatre, ahead of a month at London’s Soho Theatre, is a revival (it was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010), but it had never until last month been staged in McCafferty’s native Belfast, where it was received by audiences almost as a new play.