THIS ADMIRABLE LITTLE BOOK consists of six essays, written between 1973 and 1979 and presenting, directly or indirectly, some personal experiences of the most recent Troubles -- a distracting and distracted congeries of religious, political, social and ethnic issues -- which have beset Northern Ireland since 1969.
On the Cover of Acts of Union we are told that Anthony Bailey evokes a land where "history seems doomed to repeat itself endlessly." The proposition that history repeats itself is tempting and plausible: but if one applies it to these recent troubles (or to any other historical moment for that matter) it really doesn't work. The civil rights element in the troubles of 1969 was unprecedented -- here history obviously did not repeat itself -- and may well have been triggered (as the historian A. T. Q. Stewart suggests) by events in Paris the year before. On the other hand, how true it is that when these novel troubles had begun, certain old patterns of behavior were seen to emerge.
Here, however, we might examine Bailey's statement that one of the shaping factors in Northern Irish character is "a widespread belief that historical events are of contemporary importance." In other words, he is referring to the immanence of the Irish past: not a past that repeats itself but something radically different -- a past that won't let go.
In one of Bailey's essays we are introduced to the fine Irish poet and teacher, Seamus Heaney, whose poetry is presented here in terms of union -- "combining the national language which is Irish and the mother tongue which is English: making the declaration non serviam to the oppressive demands of the Irish patst" and at the same time "seeking out a native mode."
Heaney found that bogland, such as bog near his native Mossbawn, had a "strange assuaging effect on him." He saw the quiet bog as a "landscape that remembered everything that had happened in and to it." To the outsider these are indeed striking words. They constitute a liberating or unifying metaphor for a cultural past which in reality still provides a home for memories that won't stay quiet but, rather, continue to exhort, admonish, separate, warn, curse and gibber, arising as they do from centuries of cruel misgovernment and calculated division.
Bailey holds that the two most divisive issues in Northern Ireland are education segregated along religious lines and mixed marriages. His opening essay, "On the Oldpark, Belfast," describes the daily routine in a Protestant primary school in Belfast -- a school run by a principal of genius, partly occupied by British soldiers, and lying close to a wedge of housing which dangerously extends a Catholic district into its Protestant neighborhood. This lucid, unsentimental essay displays the author's exacting eye and deep empathetic imagination -- a combination which absorbs the reader and is, indeed the "note" of the whole book.
The issue of mixed marriages is dealt with in "Matthew and Marie," the story of the cruelly thwarted betrothal between a Catholic girl and a Protestant boy. The scene is once again Belfast and only the names are changed. Since mixed marriages are sure to provoke fanatics in both religious camps, they may possibly end in a murder or a maiming, and will almost certainly invite insult, intimidation and ostracism. Thus the Here becomes even more perilous than the Hereafter. Indeed, "Matthew and Marie" offers a domestic glimpse of the workings of Northern Irish politics.
On the one hand, the Catholics see themselves as an oppressed minority, fear Protestant politicians, and advocate a nationalism which, in the unlikely event of success, would turn them into a majority. The Protestant majority, on the other hand while nourishing a Calvinist hostility to Catholicism, is actually more concerned with the thought of itself becoming an oppressed minority in some nationalist all-Ireland Republic --- a distant fate perhaps but one from which (it believes) only a maintenance of the British connection could save it.
Thus division reigns. In "The Stony Ground" -- the most powerful of all these essays to my mind -- we see how division arises from the working-class distress. The stony ground is the Creggan, a Catholic ghetto in rain-washed Derry. The Creggan is a dreary, IRA-haunted, British-patrolled, dysfunctional area which somehow brings to mind those great despairing lines in Tennyson's In Memoriam -- "And ghastly through the drizzling rain/On the bald street breaks the blank day."
The Catholic workers immured here, says one of them, pretend that the Creggan is good because to face the reality would drive them mad. They are somewhat worse off than the Protestant workers outside: but the Protestants are, next to the Catholics, the most underpaid and underemployed workers in the United Kingdom. This engenders not a working-class unity, as the civil rights movement of 1969 had rationally if unrealistically hoped, but irrational bitterness; and it is upon bitterness that the murder gangs, Catholic or Protestant, feed and flourish in Northern Ireland.
Bailey is no futurologist. He offers no solutions; he predicts no outcomes. He tells us what is: this gives his book an intimacy, humanity and directness for which it may well be long remembered and studied, even if Utopia should actually materialize, and Ireland become a whole nation and the Troubles pass away.