March 13, 2016

Gerald Dawe speaks to the #NorthernIreland2016 Interview Project

Gerald was born in north Belfast. He grew up there with his mother, grandmother and sister in the 1950s. He went to school in Orangefield and studied at Ulster University before moving to Galway in 1974 under a major state award where he wrote a thesis on William Carleton. Gerald lived and worked in Galway for twenty years before moving to Trinity College where he have taught since 1988. Gerald now lives on the coast a few miles south of Dublin. He published his first book of poems, Sheltering Places, in 1978 and his most recent, Mickey Finn's Air, in 2014. He has also published several books of literary and cultural studies and edited various anthologies including Earth Voices Whispering: irish poetry of war 1914-1945.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Gerald Dawe:
"At school. Orangefield was ahead of its time and the teachers included some of the very best of their generation. Jonathan Bardon and Ken Stanley, taught history and the headmaster, John Malone was a Cambridge educated liberal progressive. We were given full access to 1916 as historical reality and its political significance in the context of WW1 and the wider implications for the country."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" GD:
"I think of the proclamation as a list of wishes, honourable wishes, and ideals. What happened to these as the grotesque self-justification during the 'Troubles' is a tragic story that threatened to eclipse the ideals themselves. You can't for a second imagine Thomas MacDonagh ordering the bombing of a school bus or sinking into the mire of sectarianism. When you think of what happened to the ideals inside the Republic such as the cherishing of the young, the reality as we have discovered was utterly different - the dreadful clerical abuse of children and the blind eye to the state institutional abuse in schools. But the belief in a better society should not be overlooked."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" GD:
"In the fifties my grandmother had a friend whom we called 'Uncle' Oswald. I remember him well.  When I asked her why he wheezed when he played the piano, did he have asthma, she said he'd been 'gassed'. I found out it had happened at the Somme."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" GD: 
"Of course. It was a very brave generation but their destruction in such squalor indicts the whole civilisation they were sacrificed to preserve. I recall in the fifties lots of veterans heading off to the British Legion. I think of them now as belonging to a lost world of imperial power and cultural hegemony."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" GD:
"Not really. Its significance is purely historical.I have written about some of the signatories and I admire them but they left behind more questions than solutions and of course, as we know, the greatest and enduring legacy was the inability to relate to the different circumstances of northern Irish life. There was a kind of simplicity and hopefulness in what they did but it lacked any hard-wired political programme based upon economic and commercial reality. And in that disconnect a nightmare was brewing."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" GD:
"Not personally but I understand its significance to those who had family members killed or damaged in the slaughter. To base your identity upon mass killing and commemorating the sacrifice is ethically questionable but many obviously see it differently, particularly among the unionist community in the north."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" GD:
"I will be contributing to several literature events, readings from the 1916 poets, and discussing the cultural legacy of 1916 as well as the meaning of commemoration itself, based around a book of mine which has just been published called 'Of War & War's Alarms'."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" GD:
"There's so much going on commemorating the events surrounding Easter 1916 one could be forgiven for thinking that 1916 marked the foundation of the Irish state (which of course it doesn't). But it makes sense to put all these events into some kind of historical narrative. My abiding reservation is that we ALSO need to recognise that this is history; not today. We really need to kick on from the past and turn our gaze much more creatively to the future and where this small island is actually going to be in 20 or 30 years time. The dependency on the past to generate cultural self-worth is all very well but there's a possibility of its being overkill and will switch off a younger generation from actually engaging with the politics of the here and now, the present. When you hear words like 'my culture' being banded around,'my' identity, it seems as if we're stuck in a rut and are simply going over and over the same old ground without any development or growth into new ideas."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" GD:
"I was indeed happy abut the way things were developing but increasingly over the last few years there seems to be a reversion to the inward-looking that damaged so much of life in Ireland. During the recent floodings throughout the country it amazed me that not until the very end of the coverage was anyone from outside the country asked for their advice on how ,for instance, the problem had been addressed in a country such as Holland! And in more general terms too, the self confident critical engagement with political and cultural matters that marked debate and discussion in Ireland seems to be flagging as the obsession with visibility (celebrity) intensifies. On a more immediate level, racism is etched under the surface of Irish life. The dynamic possibilities of a multicultural society stalled during the crash here and what has emerged is a much more self-obsessed culture, rehearsing the same narratives of the past, somewhat indulgently at times too; this might well turn off the very outward looking people we need to move the society forward, not backwards."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" GD:
"I'd love to see a much more open and dynamic culture engaged by being part of the world society rather than continuously reheating issues of political nationalism and really tired old ideas about identity. I think there are lots of really exciting possibilities for the country to explore with flair and imagination such as our marine history, our connectedness with different parts of the globe as a positive rather than being rendered always as a negative thing. And I think there's a real NEED (though I can't see it happening), a moral imperative for honesty about what happened and why in the northern conflict. The fact that so many ordinary people were sacrificed for what never fails to shock me. On a wider context, there are going to be some very big ecological challenges ahead but maybe we can see these as opportunities as well; technological challenges."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." GD:
"I don't think there's anything else to add really."
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