The Last Irish Question: Will Six into Twenty-Six Ever Go?, by Glenn Patterson, Head of Zeus, 283 pp, £11.99. ISBN: 978-1800245471
Very often, when writing from the north of Ireland was first gaining global attention, the generation of Sixties poets – who broke through the glass ceiling – was identified as the key critical force. And they were – for the 1960s saw the first books of Heaney, Mahon, Longley and others become both well-known nationally, but also internationally; their names established “the North” as an important literary hub.
But what about those writers who were born in the Sixties and whose early adult years were in large part lived without knowing a pre-Troubles Northern Ireland, as was the case with their older contemporaries born in in the 1940s down to my own generation born a decade or so later, in the ’50s. We certainly had a local life largely untarnished by violence, if only for a brief spell, unlike those who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s at the height of the Troubles. It’s a curious chronological point, with very many diverse and divergent differences of experience and destiny – of who lived where, produced what and when.
Following the thought through with a random choice of prose-writers – rather than poets, playwrights, visual artists, musicians – check out this “group” of Northerners (and I did say, random) whose fiction has achieved international recognition: Deirdre Madden (1960), Glenn Patterson (1961), Eoin MacNamee (1961), Anna Burns (1962), Kevin Smith (1963), Robert Mac Liam Wilson (1964) and Sean O’Reilly (1969). Of the seven – you could name another set including crime writers, YA fiction writers and so on – Glenn Patterson had maintained a steady run of non-fiction titles to set alongside his eleven novels, screenwriting (including the wonderful Good Vibrations), radio (most recently the politically fearless 2021 BBC series The Northern Bank Job on the 2004 Ulster Bank robbery) and various TV scripts. The non-fiction list is impressive too: Lapsed Protestant (2006), Once Upon a Hill: Love in Troubled Times (2008), Here’s Me Here: Further Reflections of a Lapsed Protestant (2015), Backstop Land (2019) and now The Last Irish Question: Will Six into Twenty-Six Ever Go? published by the influential and innovative Head of Zeus.
The Last Irish Question is a must-read for all those citizens, north, south, east and west, who have a real interest in how the country will be shaped politically in the decades ahead. By turns quizzical and questioning but thoroughly clear-eyed, The Last Irish Question brings a refreshingly sceptical tone to the bravado and determinism of much internal Irish discourse on issues surrounding the Irish border, post-Brexit planning and “reunification” – the quotation marks signify historical doubts on the idea of “re”.
I flew through this book because its readable, smart, accessible and (lordy, lordy) entertaining. Patterson has style. Let me quote a few examples. On his travels throughout parts of “the South” he ends up engaging with folks in local settings ‑ cafes, bars, streets, scenic routes – and asking questions about possible futures for the society if and when there’s a border poll. “I ask about the cultural implications. Would they imagine there might have to be a conversation at the very least about some of the place names and monuments, about how Ireland presented itself to the whole of itself?” To which one of his interlocutors replies: “I just hope it’s peaceful, whatever happens.” … “And she is not the only person that I talk to who does.” A recurrent theme is how far republican rhetoric about “parity of esteem” can be trusted. “A benign interpretation of Mary Lou McDonald’s playing to the gallery, as Bernard [one of his interviewees] styled it, is that she is caught like David Cameron in the early 2010s, trying to satisfy a constituency within the party, or wider movement, with the promise of a vote, one day, soonish.” But then comes the other angle: “Or maybe she more closely resembles the DUP in the North, cosying up to the tough-talkers, supporting a referendum [Brexit] that they never expected to win and the consequences of which they had barely even begun to think through.”
It is a sceptical dynamic which has largely evaporated from Southern Irish debate and civic discourse, which seems increasingly more introverted and preoccupied with self. Patterson again: “Might Northern Ireland in time, instead of being the thing that divided the rest of the island and the island next door, become the very thing that brought them closer together? Might Ireland – all thirty-two counties of it – be more settled by maintaining a little bit of difference between the twenty-six and the six?” The question hovers, like a raptor over the text, but Patterson is undaunted. “I keep thinking,” he writes of one those he met “about that thing Marina in the Village Shop said, that a lot of people in the North just do not want to know the rest of the island. It strikes me that as well as cutting both ways not wanting to know maybe runs sideways, too. Time and again these days I see evidence of adherents to one side of the referendum debate trying to thwart or dismay those on the other.” Agreed. Then the punchlines a few pages on: “There are a – very – few voices cautioning against schadenfreude, and about the less than veiled prejudice in some of the commentary, but in the main there seems to be a perception that Ireland has played this all pretty well, increasing its standing on the European and indeed the world stage, and has an opportunity now to profit from its nearest neighbour’s self-imposed exile.” Agreed.
Two memories came to my mind as I closed with gratitude this important book. My late mother’s comment, utterly without malice or any degree whatsoever of schadenfreude, when some time back in the mid-1980s, visiting in Galway where I had been living for over a decade, she asked me if our TV channels included BBC (she had been following some weekly series). Back then the answer was No. This remained with her clearly, as she inquired much later in a telephone call how did we manage without the BBC and was pleased as punch to discover it was now available, along with lots and lots of other channels (many of which she had never heard of): “You’ve passed us out!” was her response. The second memory from the Noughties concerns a few lads from the northern side of the border counties (their accents and sports gear being identifiers) in a pub in downtown Galway. They’d obviously been on a skite, as we used to call it, for the weekend but the barman was having none of their cheek and backchat and refused to serve them further, to which one of their number responded: “Fuckin’ Free state bastard”. The barman was from Connemara if memory serves me right. The concluding four words of The Last Irish Question say it all: “Wise the fuck up.” Otherwise there’s trouble ahead, no mistake. Big time.
Gerald Dawe’s sequence of poems Revenant, with images by John Behan, will be published later this year.