Violence as the Performance of Waste in Northern Irish Poetry

This semester, I am taking English 403 with Dr. Robert Doggett and the course is about northern Irish poetry during the Troubles. The Troubles was a multiple decade long time period of horrendous, terroristic sectarian violence in northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Examining the works of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and others, a central, recurring theme found across their poetry was a comparison of beauty and atrocity on the same spectrum when writing about corpses and the violence during the Troubles. I couldn’t help but relate the ideas discussed in Engl 403 with Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone” as giving meaning to dead corpses through artistic performance has been central to discussions in both classes.

A constant issue these poets seem to grapple with is balancing appreciation for the individuals’ lives who are lost without creating a rallying cry for further violence. The poets literally objectify the dead corpses and make artifacts out of memory through performance. Roach would note that the attempted closure these poets look for in light of their catastrophic realities (men, women and children died everyday in random explosions and shootings based solely on religious associations) is Eurocentric as the poets recall the past memory of the individuals lost, while emotionally turning to the future as “God’s will be done.” This final line, found in Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone,” is most pertinent as the violent performance of wasting lives resulted entirely from religious hate and cultural misunderstanding. People felt that they were absolved of accountability because their violence was collateral damage resulting from a Holy War that had to be waged.

The random killings, led by groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Defence Association (UDF) felt random and especially devastating as most of the lives lost were those of completely innocent, everyday civilians. The violence was direct and intentional as hundreds of lives were wasted over arbitrary, cultural distinctions and the poets’ works relating to the Troubles served as “both quotation and invention” through artistic performance. The memory of individuals were brought to the forefront then manipulated by the poets to create a work of art that attempted to properly remember the lives that were wasted. Roach includes a quotation that “Spirits always addressed humans as bodies.” (Echoes in the Bone, p. 35) In many of the poems we read, they view the dichotomy of beauty and the sublime, or what humans can understand, compared to what they cannot. This further connects with Patricia Smith’s “Ethel’s Sestina” found in Blood Dazzler. In that poem, Smith introduces Ethel Freeman’s body while alluding to her “wait for salvation.” Dealing with Ethel’s dead body sitting in the middle of the street for days is difficult, but glorifying her life through her connection with God, and more importantly her sorrowful son, creates a sort of beauty in the absence of life within her body, or eventual corpse.

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