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The trouble with recalling the Troubles

May 10, 2009

In a recent Vacuum Colin Graham reflects upon the absence of ‘troubles nostalgia‘ in Northern Ireland, given that other conflicts have inspired fond recollections. He says:

Northern Ireland is not overwhelmed by Troubles nostalgia, but that is not because it is impossible to be nostalgic about a ‘war’ – it’s because there is no clean break with the past and no clear winners or losers who can indulge their nostalgias.

MBoAndMe320xIreland’s past is commonly seen as tragic, and not just because of the thousands of deaths and casualties sustained in violent struggle. Ireland is considered tragic because despite its revolutions and periodic conflicts, none have been ‘the origin of a people’ – as Colin Graham says, there are no winners or losers here. As a consequence there is no unified position from which to regard the past.

Colin Graham concludes by saying that: ‘If we get to a full-blown Troubles nostalgia industry then we’ll know that it’s all over.’ The reference to industry is significant because it isn’t just governments and educationalists that have a vested interest in producing a consensual version of the past that they can add to the curriculum and exhibit in public. The commercial interests would no doubt prefer an agreed version of the Troubles that can be commodified for popular consumption.

Despite its contested nature, the film industry has made a number of forays into Northern Ireland’s past but only to illustrate the difficulties of making any sense of it for paying audiences. Some of these films have been set in the 1970s, the most violent period of the troubles:  like Titanic Town (1998) about Bernie McPhelimy, a housewife who is concerned to protect her home and family from the encroaching violence in her neighbourhood by attempting to broker a ceasefire between the IRA and British soldiers. The film presents the decade in realist detail and in sharp contrast to the 70s noir of films like Resurrection Man (1998) and Nothing Personal (1995) that imbue their loyalist killers with a degree of 1970s gangster chic, similar to that exploited by Quentin Tarantino. Leatherjacks, sideburns, Capri cars and contemporaneous soundtracks render the decade exotic.

On the other hand, Mickybo and Me presents the 70s in almost pre-lapsarian terms. It’s a rite of passage, buddy movie about two young friends from either side of the sectarian divide in early 1970s Belfast. Modelling themselves on their screen idols, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two go on the run, in the mistaken belief that they have shot an elderly neighbour dead in his bath with a gun found in his house. Pursued by the law and reported by the media, the boys live-out their ‘outlaw’ dream unaware that in a real sense their cross-community friendship makes them ‘outlaws’ from the sectarian society they are growing up in.

Determined to escape to Australia like their heroes the boys head south looking for a boat and leap off a pier into the sea to avoid capture. There is of course no plausible means of escape within the context of the film’s realist diegesis, although a freeze frame suspends them in mid-air for a moment, briefly preserving their innocence. When they are returned to Belfast, Mickybo discovers that loyalists have murdered his father and the boys’ friendship disintegrates.  However for a moment the freeze frame holds out the tantalising possibility of arresting time and denying history. There is a similar conceit in Wild About Harry (2000) where Harry, a TV chef going through an acrimonious divorce gets mugged, banged on the head and wakes up with amnesia. With no memory of the previous 30 years, he is transported back to a time when he was teenager, adored his wife and, of course, before the troubles.

Ultimately though Northern Ireland’s violent past is simultaneously disputed and undeniable. Films that have sought to deal with that past have often done so with an eye on the ideological needs of the present but some films have projected forward to possible futures. There old animosities still prevail but stories are not determined by historical record or the obligation of contemporary conditions. Instead sectarian antagonisms can be transplanted into a fictitious social context that typically emphasises their ridiculousness or dystopian potential. One example is the black comedy Divorcing Jack (1998), which is set in a not too distant future when Northern Ireland is an independent state and on the threshold of electing its first Prime Minister. Michael Brinn, the favourite to win, is an ex-republican paramilitary who feels it necessary to conceal his violent past from the electorate in a way Northern Ireland’s current Deputy First Minister never has.

Another example of futurology is the screwball romantic comedy The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (1999), in which Belfast bachelor, Eamon Manley discovers he is the antidote to a crisis in male fertility. Blessed with extraordinary sperm he becomes a ‘one man service industry’ but the promiscuity that this new career necessarily entails threatens his own fledgling romantic relationship with Rosie. However retirement is out of the question since Eamon’s fertility has brought him to the attention of competing Protestant and Catholic leaders, determined to enlist Eamon to help them out-breed each other. Ultimately though Eamon rejects the sectarian labelling of his many children, insisting that he has bred ‘faithless little Eamons’. The point is given visual emphasis at the end of the film when he is pictured against a white background surrounded by children (which are surely his own, given that they share his distinctive red hair), the blank mise-en-scene offering an assurance of semiotic and political neutrality or social limbo.

In these films the past is circumnavigated: sometimes with recourse to generic conventions that exoticise it, sometimes by forgetting it, or denying it, or by fantasising about simply arresting time and avoiding the harsh reality of the troubles. On occasions it is apparently even preferable to leap-frog the present into the future.

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