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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Nicola McCartney & the facts about history

Seaghán Ó Murchu • 19 October 2005

On 15 October, I heard Nicola McCartney speak at an Irish Studies conference at Oregon State University. In the surroundings of what could be a Platonic ideal of an American college campus, with autumn leaves dappling the skies and drifting down into the drizzle, her powerful, densely written theatre appears incongruous, if no less so than many Irish literary works addressing our past century’s traumas. You can find more information–including her detailed curriculum vitae–easily on Google. My purpose in this brief commentary merely will relate her comments upon the Troubles, which I found of interest due to her long reluctance to address these until well after a decade into her career, until she had to summon up voices that haunted her from her home town.

First raised around Sydenham, then Newtownards, McCartney (born in 1972), left for university in Glasgow and, with the exception of a year as writer-in-residence at the university in Coleraine (although–typical of her stance–she refused to live there, preferring the more idyllic Portballintrae, and who can blame her!) has not returned permanently to the North. Throughout her talk, she varied the appellations: the North of Ireland, the North-east of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. Semantic subversion--from a writer named McCartney--reveals her surprising parentage. Her mother’s family ranked among the highest of the Orange Order; her father, Norman, called for a workers’ strike in 1944 and agitated as a Communist in Belfast. She recalled running into a laborer who–after inquiring about her surname in standard conversational fashion among Belfast interlocutors– had remembered the strike and deemed her father ‘a right bastard’. Her parents removed themselves from sectarian labels, while fittingly their daughter’s doomed attempt to attend both chapel and church as a pre-teen soon ended any kicking with either foot.

Dogged by her accent, still undiminished after many years in Scotland, she successfully avoided in her theatrical work, begun in earnest as a student in Glasgow, the dreaded Troubles trap. She figured that many others had said it all--if not better than at least earlier. When, however, long after she had lived in Scotland, a post-victory taxi driver’s tape of increasingly pro-‘ra Celtic anthems irritated her enough to cut off his own ranting. The anecdote she told shut him up for the rest of the ride. She recounted how a relative had been befriended over a long period by two Protestant men who infiltrated his workplace with the express intent to lure him into letting down his guard, through not only on-the-job camaraderie, but diversions that included all of their children and wives. Quite a time passed, and he assumed he had found true friends. Only then did they lure him out on a bogus call in the middle of a night; his body was later found in the back of his car. McCartney realised, telling the taxi driver this tale, that she had to face and express the pain of her own loved ones over the past decades. While she left Belfast, she could not escape, as she spoke movingly, of the affliction of exile emblematic of each one of those who have left the North, by whatever name those departed may call their land of birth.

She summed up what both natives and exiles such as herself carry within. The afflicted ‘soul of Northern Ireland’ McCartney judges neither as religion or politics–but as ‘insecurity’. This dimension dynamises her determination to transcend sectarianism, the expectations raised by her surname, and the prejudices common to her maternal relatives. This emerges in her personal and dramatic decisions. Getting her perspective on the Troubles out on paper and then on stage (and soon we hope a feature film) resulted in a displacement into her recent play, Heritage.Set when the collapse of the flax trade and the linen industry around 1912 onwards forced many Presbyterians to leave Ulster (for as second sons or worse, the choice was emigration and more prosperity or penury and less wages) for Canada, the extension of tensions away from an immediate Irish locale allowed McCartney to explore from a distance the sectarian tensions that reify not only in the years of uprising, but as the ancient myth of Naoise. Parallels between the struggle for Irish independence and the pain inflicted by victims revenged as well as upon those engendered, even on the faraway plains of Saskatchewan, reflect the playwright’s own interpretation of how the personal tangles with the political for any who inherit an Irish origin.

In the Heritage selection that was declaimed by Oregon State students and faculty, a young man and woman from opposite sides again seem fated to follow the contentious ancestors whom they, hopeful emigrants and proud Canadians, thought were long buried. Reduced to this summary, its language and tension cannot thrive, but certainly this excerpt makes me want to seek out the edition of this play (published by Faber & Faber). Increasingly acclaimed if not easily labelled, McCartney had begun her talk by wryly reflecting upon her canonisation as a Scottish dramatist, after so many years of being branded as an Irish one. Still, she insisted, she remains an Irish writer--working from her Glasgow home. She plots her plays with exile and cunning–not silence.

Although time constraints prevented her explanation of other works, Belfast readers may know of her contribution for the Tinderbox company in a production of Convictions, when seven Northern Irish playwrights were commissioned to write a single-act drama each, assigned to one part of what was the Crumlin road prison. McCartney, allotted the jury room, concocted what I imagine is one among a inherently suspenseful collection (published by Tinderbox). In closing, she elaborated upon a comment that raised at least one eyebrow in the audience. A Belfast woman asked why McCartney had asserted in her talk: ‘Learn history, and then forget about it.’ By this, the dramatist elucidated provocatively, she urges that we become fully cognizant of the real history, the true facts. As with her comments to the cabdriver, she fights jingoism–the casual identification with a Celtic win--that degenerates into reflexive brutality via taped singalongs-- with hard evidence. The facts of her relative’s murder demolished, at least for the rest of her taxi trip, the driver’s smug invective. The republican chants clicked off. The glorification of violence stopped. Perhaps those moments stretched into hours for that driver. Maybe his own soul gained a measure of the insecurity McCartney finds endemic to her heritage–that loaded word, that title of her play, and her outlook that marks her as much as her accent, but also misleads and confounds those expecting to trap her flight away from their predetermined Belfast trajectories.

Although the excitement of Celtic’s defeat of Rangers that afternoon may have been untimely aborted by McCartney’s rejoinder, her speaking truth–not to power in that abstract phrase now cliched--but one of its myopic supporters, may show how a dramatist can expand consciousness beyond the confines of the stage and effect personal change along with political and religious conversion to a humanist creed. I don’t mean to pontificate (pun intended). But, as I listened to McCartney, I watched how our audience, gathered beneath idyllic groves of academe, if only for a day, learned from this young teacher. Unlike certain compatriots, as she opined, McCartney refuses to fetishise Northern identity or of its factions chose sectarianism ‘as a way to make a living’. Instead, she defended a common allegiance for Northern Irish, drawn apart from the rest of Ireland as from the rest of Britain into an inimitably stubborn defiance of sashes and slogans.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

23 October 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

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A Long Way Down
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A Party of Their Own
Mick Hall

Reid's Sectarian Slur
Eamon McCann

Repeal Anti-Catholic Section of Act of Settlement 1701
Fr. Sean Mc Manus

Nicola McCartney & the Facts About Irish History
Seaghán Ó Murchu

Usual Suspects
Anthony McIntyre

Socialism in Ireland
Francis McDonnell

Turning "Smoke ban" thing into ANTI-DIOXIN movement
John Jonik

From the Classroom to the Grave
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Yet More Voices Against Censorship
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The Death Fast Enters its 6th Year
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6 October 2005

A Bleak Future
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Provos Censor de Chastelain in Bid to Lie About Guns
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Taking Politics Out of the Gun
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Sinn Fein - The Shark's Party
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Live From Hollywood: The IRA Disarms
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Doris Dead
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Whatever Happened to... 'er, You Know... Whatshisname?
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The Dirty War Goes On
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Reject All British Institutions
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Apology to Dr Dion Dennis and CTheory website
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