Reading between the political lines

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Literature is being used to address issues of conflict and help pupils in Northern Ireland consider opposing points of view

Reading stories and poems about the Troubles can help break down sectarian divides between pupils in Northern Ireland.

Researchers at St Mary's University College in Belfast developed a project in which local sixth-formers were encouraged to read and discuss literature dealing with the political violence.

Since the outbreak of hostilities in the late 1960s, a significant body of literature has reflected the concerns of a community in conflict. The St Mary's researchers decided to look at selected texts with English A-level pupils at nine secondaries across Belfast. These included Catholic and Protestant schools, as well as one integrated secondary.

Each pupil was provided with a mini anthology of texts, including poems, a selection of Irish short stories and excerpts from novels, by writers such as Seamus Heaney, David Park and James Simmons. They reflected a range of political, cultural and religious perspectives.

Lessons began with an exploration of pupils' views of the Troubles. Each text was then considered for at least half an hour, with pupils encouraged to reflect on its artistic qualities and political implications.

So, when they read Heaney's The Toome Road, in which a Catholic farmer describes soldiers approaching down a country road, pupils were asked to consider the poem's perspective. Was Heaney writing as a Catholic and a nationalist? Had he been writing from a Protestant Unionist perspective, would the poem have been different? Is there a subtle political subtext to the poem's imagery?

In the past, Northern Irish teachers have been reluctant to introduce potentially divisive material to classes as they felt it would exacerbate existing community divisions.

Indeed, the teenagers' initial responses tended to fall along predictably sectarian lines. Most of the Protestant pupils described the British soldiers as "protectors", needed to hunt down "terrorists". In contrast, Catholic pupils spoke of "an army of occupation", intimidating the nationalist community.

However, as discussions progressed, pupils were gradually able to concede the existence of alternative viewpoints. For example, some Catholic boys suggested that, to Protestant ears, Heaney's phrase "my roads" might sound offensive. One boy suggested that Protestant farmers might even find the soldiers' presence reassuring. And a Catholic girl argued that the poem was more relevant to the politics of her parents' generation than to those of her own: "Everything's not so bleak now, nor so black and white," she said.

The researchers commented: "A crucial factor in encouraging pupils to be more open-minded and questioning about received political attitudes is the sheer aesthetic power of the text under consideration."

One Protestant girl suggested: "Having read the poem, I'd feel sympathy for the farmer in a way I mightn't have before ... Heaney's way of writing has won me over."

There was a significant difference in the way that girls and boys reacted to the literature. Girls tended to take a humanitarian, human-interest approach.

A Catholic girl, reading David Park's short story Killing a Brit, about a British solider who is killed by a Republican gunman, said: "I've read lots of newspaper reports but, for some reason, when I read that story I felt, 'Oh my God, we're horrible.'"

The researchers commented: "There was a general consensus about the moral benefits of having, as it were, a literary mirror held up to one's prejudices and preconceptions."

By contrast, boys tended to default to an "us and them" mentality. Catholic boys reading the same story initially suggested that its Protestant author must be biased against nationalists.

Eventually, however, they were forced to reconsider. The Catholic boys ultimately conceded that Park was not biased in his portrayal of their community. They agreed that the narrator of the story had been brutalised by the violence he had witnessed, and that the story was an accurate reflection of a particular time and set of circumstances.

The St Mary's researchers, who have just won an Pounds 88,500 grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to extend the project until August, believe that Troubles literature can be a particularly useful way to address issues of conflict.

"Given the right kind of literary stimulus and the opportunity for structured debate, the majority of the pupils involved in this study - perhaps girls even more than boys - had a strong sense of the need to look outwards, to think from a humanitarian perspective, to seek new understandings," they said.

"While the study of such literature obviously cannot be seen as an instant solution for the deep-seated cross-community divisions between Northern Ireland ... literature has the potential to be the stepping stone that invites you to change the terms of your understanding."


Some of the texts read by A-level pupils at nine Belfast schools:

- Seaumus Heaney: The Toome Road

- James Simmons: Claudy and Lament For a Dead Policeman Padraic Fiacc: The Ditch of Dawn

- Eugene Stranney: Sudden

- David Park: Killing a Brit

- Maurice Leitch: Silver's City.

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