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[Letter from Belfast]

Getting On With It

Art as civic repair

Illustrations by Barry Falls

[Letter from Belfast]

Getting On With It

Art as civic repair
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Throughout his political career, Joe Biden has frequently invoked his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney. Accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Biden quoted Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy,” an adaptation of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, which posits that “once in a lifetime / the longed-for tidal wave / of justice can rise up / and hope and history rhyme.” Months later, after the brutal attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden assumed office under the watch of fifteen thousand members of the National Guard. He did not quote Heaney, but he did suggest that his presidency might usher in one such rhyming moment, and he promised to end “our uncivil war.”

Biden’s work as peacemaker began with triage: he recommitted the United States to the Paris climate accord, cut off funding for Trump’s border wall, and ended the ban on transgender people in the military. We’ve seen only the merest downshift from the cycles of shock and outrage that characterized the past four years. Our wounds are far from healed.

Nevertheless, as we readjust to steadier governance, there has been some time to reflect on repair. If we must bind our wounds, how should we do so? If we have grown so uncivil, by what means will we find common ground? If we are to deprive hate of oxygen, where should we then redirect our air? A related and equally important question: In a country where enormous numbers of people cannot talk across partisan divides, even within their own families, how can we initiate interactions that are not purely political? What can we use as tools of empathy or reconnection? How do we create sites that disarm and invite us in? For indeed, we have also been asked to hope.

Heaney’s translation of Sophocles is beautiful, and it offers an alluring promise, but after the inauguration ceremony, I found myself instead remembering Heaney’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he described the Roman historian Tacitus’ view that “peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.” Tacitus portrays a ravaged peace rather than an enriched one, an exhausted rather than replenished soil. On many days, when hope and history do not rhyme, the description feels more apt. Having reached such a fever pitch of distrust, by what means do we come back from the brink?

I have spent the early days of the Biden presidency thinking about Heaney, and about the work of peace, partly because I spent the early days of the Trump presidency as a Fulbright scholar, teaching poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. When I arrived in Northern Ireland with my family during the winter solstice of 2016 for an eight-month term, Trump had been elected but not yet inaugurated. For many, myself included, the election still stung like a fresh injury. Back in the States, my friends were marching in the streets.

As our plane landed at a tiny airport outside Belfast, practically on top of the sheep pasturing near Lough Neagh, I entered a landscape I recognized from Heaney’s poetry. Our taxi climbed a stony road between hedgerows. Thick mists wove through tangled trees. We were crossing a terrain in which stories and histories fork, changing painfully depending on who’s telling them. During my first week, two cabdrivers—one Protestant, one Catholic—recounted radically different versions of the thirty years of violent unrest that became known as the Troubles.

It was an oddly fertile time for an American to arrive in a place that has long known such unease—one thousand years of uneasy relations between natives and colonizers. The Troubles had been followed by twenty-three years of carefully built, occasionally interrupted peace since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The people I met were both compassionate and baffled by the situation in the United States. “What’s up with your lunatic?” a colleague asked over tea, somewhere between a joke and an expression of deep concern, knowing full well what can happen when hate and extremism flare.

Most of the writers I worked with were in their forties, fifties, and sixties. They had spent half their lives amid conflict. Some had taught at high schools that were constantly receiving bomb threats; most had witnessed tit-for-tat killings; some had fled Northern Ireland out of sheer exhaustion and returned only after the agreement. Glenn Patterson, the director of the Heaney Centre, casually described a childhood in which he was never sure whether his parents would come back when they left to go out, teenage years spent scaling security gates for thrills, and the time in high school when the bar that served minors was bombed. Everyone could tell who had been out drinking, he said, because they turned up at school the next day with bandages. The story was told with some wit, so we laughed, but there was no mistaking the tragedy at its core.

As I walked through the city, I could not always feel the full force of the violence that had once filled it. Yet I began to grasp what it means to live in a place where people understand peace and civic life as earned and unstable things. It was not all rosy. Beneath the surface it felt molten. There was visible fury as the Brexit negotiations dragged on, largely oblivious to how the fragile accord in Ireland’s north might be affected.

But, by and large, I also found a city full of real jubilance, with music floating out of its bars. New museums had opened, arts centers offered free or inexpensive concerts and classes. Indeed, as I moved through Belfast—raising my kids, teaching poetry, joining in the occasional chance to sing over a beer at a former Republican bar—it dawned on me how many stitches of the urban fabric here seemed to be embedded in the arts.

Here is a story that Ali FitzGibbon, a lecturer at Queen’s who researches the relationship between the arts and the peace process, told me about one of Belfast’s first public festivals: On an unusually sunny day in September 1995, in a fragile moment of calm following a paramilitary ceasefire, 350 people dressed as flowers and bugs paraded through downtown. Some were drumming samba. Some were playing rock and roll. Some were walking on stilts. Some were wearing backpacks that held the bases of oversize bluebells, which towered above them, gently swaying, so that from a distance the crowd resembled a meadow ambling down one of the city’s main thoroughfares. On one float, costumed beetles sang—what else?—Beatles songs. “It was a mad, hallucinatory extravaganza,” FitzGibbon said.

It was also a deliberate intervention. Under the direction of the festival organizer David Boyd, local and visiting artists worked together for months in a former YMCA building in East Belfast. What emerged was the Hayfever Parade, a dizzying, dazzling alternative to sectarian marching. In other cities around the world—wealthier ones more confident in their civic life (think New York, London, or San Francisco)—such a parade might have been a diverting whiff of happy anarchy. But in Belfast in 1995, when the city center was empty by 5 pm, the downtown boarded up and strung with barbed wire, a parade of bluebells and singing bugs was perhaps the most delightful spectacle anyone had seen in a long time. The parade offered passersby a reason to stand around laughing with people whom they might have considered mortal enemies. It was, in an era of public trauma, a small opportunity for public joy.

I never encountered any parading flowers during my stay, or met any oversize bugs, though Boyd is still at work. But I did attend music festivals, science festivals, book festivals; the city offered such a stream of them—every weekend, all year—that Patterson, my friend from the Heaney Centre, joked that there was also a festival known as “the week with no festivals.” The lineup of actual festivals—roughly fifty per year—includes the Belfast Book Festival, the Pick ’n’ Mix Theatre Festival, the Open House Festival, the Children’s Festival, and the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics. The city has also filled up with brick-and-mortar arts investments: the Metropolitan Arts Centre; the Seamus Heaney Centre; and the Duncairn, a former Presbyterian church in North Belfast that now offers “an arts based model of engagement with disenfranchised, marginalised and disadvantaged communities.” Belfast’s Lyric Theatre has a new building, and the refurbished Crescent Arts Centre offers classes, concerts, and readings. Most museums are free; many have excellent offerings for children and families. There are also offerings from an array of working artists: At the Heaney Centre, the late Ciaran Carson (a dazzling poet and one of Heaney’s first students, who spent much of his life as an arts administrator) conducted a free workshop open to the public, because he believed in making a pathway to poetry available to anyone who wanted it.

Here is one way a city attempts repair after thirty years of inflammation. Here are the means by which a place can alter its narrative, recast its stories, and find meaningful ways to bring people together. Government sponsors, craftspeople, punk-rock bands, and traveling theater troupes all take part in this work to reimagine inclusive, nonsectarian spaces. The planning becomes an occasion for dialogue.

Indeed, the classes and festivals and museums of Belfast are not simply cultural diversions—they are lived alternatives to violence. In Belfast, with its constant festival thrum, I could also sometimes hear the not-so-distant counterfactual—a world in which it was not safe to walk very far at all. At regular intervals, someone’s laughter in a crowd would ring against the ghosts of the recent past. During my time in the city, I realized that art can feed a peace. Art is something that we can make more of when we’re not making war.

Our American troubles are not the same as Northern Ireland’s. That country is home to 1.9 million people, whereas the United States has a population of 330 million. Our inequalities and hierarchies are different. But before we discard all comparison, we should take notice of the troubles that have plagued us—the rampant police brutality, the violent attacks on voters, the epidemic of mass shootings, and the abandonment of huge sections of our population to addiction and poverty.

Our disagreements make us stagnant, even in the face of crisis. During the Trump years, America seemed to grind to a standstill over the simplest aspects of civic life—whether to have a post office, whether to make it safe and convenient for citizens to vote. In October, after record-breaking fires devastated California and filled the air with smoke for a month, the Trump Administration tried to deny the state federal aid, openly politicizing disaster relief. We also live inside the heat of our own parched outrage. Well before the Capitol riot, the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama pointed me to research by the Democracy Fund showing that before the 2020 presidential election, one in five people who identified as partisan felt that violence would be “a little” justified if the other party won. One in ten thought there would be a “great deal” of justification for it.

I’ve begun to wonder how we walk ourselves back from the edge we’re all on, how we build a country that is both more tolerant and more abundant. I’ve been thinking about the kinds of interventions I saw in Belfast. What if we began to treat art as a form of infrastructure? Investing in arts spaces could be a meaningful way to stem violence in the long term, and to build, community by community, pathways for repair. There is evidence from studies in both the United States and Northern Ireland that children who learn about art are more likely to have friends across ethnic groups, to graduate from high school, and to become mentors. Involvement in the arts can counteract some of the toxic effects of racism, and it has been linked to better health outcomes for veterans, for those overcoming drug addiction, and for those transitioning out of homelessness. Other research suggests that activities such as planning neighborhood festivals or building community hubs for music or art helped to bring people together across lines of difference and deepen participants’ sense of belonging. After an era of civic rupture and social distance, such strategies for social cohesion sound not only delightful but necessary.

At Queen’s University’s George Mitchell Institute, scholars document key relationships between art and community well-being. Fiona Magowan, an ethnomusicologist, has spent the past five years in Belfast studying the way that musicians improve the communities in which they work, gathering unexpected groups of people and building what she calls a cooperative structure. “There is a positive correlation between learning a musical skill together and the happiness and well-being of people and communities,” she told me. She added that this is true of other art practices as well: “It becomes not ‘let’s fight’ but ‘let’s make.’ ”

Victoria Durrer, of the University College Dublin, who has spent the past three years researching the relationship between art and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, explained: “Engagement with the narrative arts—painting or film or theater or poems—facilitates the reflective individual.” As Sinéad Morrissey, a poet from Belfast and one of the great voices of her generation, put it, “the work of art disrupts our binaries.”

No troubles (ours, theirs, anyone’s) can be resolved simply by investing in art. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland took years to negotiate and was predicated on the arrival of the European Union to demilitarize the border, easing the free movement of people across the island. Brexit, which removed Northern Ireland from the European Union along with the rest of the United Kingdom, complicates this arrangement in ways whose ultimate consequences are yet unknown.

And art is not a strategy unto itself: Ó Tuama made clear that changes to the culture of policing were the greatest driver of improved conditions in Northern Ireland—a point we in the United States should take to heart. But cultural investments have also served as pollinators, helping to rebuild the ecosystem. Even before the Good Friday Agreement, scholars and planners had begun envisioning the arts as a way to, as one report put it, “tap creativity in the area, bond civic culture, and promote cultural pluralism, which are key to a tolerant politics, and thus a greater stability.”

Peace is an active process. There are blueprints for building it, and we might now examine them for clues. I’m not saying it’s not a delicate dance; I’m saying that angry people who can barely talk to one another don’t dance at all. I’m saying that dancing together sometimes is a lot better than fighting all the time. Thoughtfully and actively building an ecosystem of both the arts and civic life promotes pathways that can disrupt stagnant patterns of hate. One of the prime functions of art is to imagine such interruptions.

The artists, funders, and researchers I spoke to in Northern Ireland professed a range of opinions about the role their work plays in keeping peace. Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

Durrer shared with me her colleagues’ findings on how peace-initiative money has been spent on art. For instance, the International Fund for Ireland has put 713 million pounds into nearly six thousand art projects over the past twenty years. But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight. She remembered a hot weekend early in 2008 when nearly ten thousand people came together for a wind festival at the Belfast Waterworks Park. During the Troubles, several hundred people had been killed in the surrounding neighborhood, and the park was scarred by violence and evidence of drug use. But that weekend, it was decorated with thousands of paper windmills and wind chimes.

There was an art cart where people could learn to edit short videos, and there were free movies on the lawn. A pond in the park was dyed bright blue and featured a replica Viking ship. Hundreds of families spent the weekend lolling about, and as FitzGibbon put it, “the police had their vests off, and we were all there together, and the miracle was that nobody thought anything of it.” FitzGibbon and her colleagues had been planning the festival for months. When the day came, “as it happened, people didn’t even notice,” she says. This is also a story Belfast artists wanted to share: Peace is the moment when, instead of encountering a landscape of outrage or terror or police and guns, you are simply, forgetfully, floating on a replica Viking ship with your fellow humans.

“The arts and culture come and reoccupy a space where there had been violence,” FitzGibbon said. Conor Caldwell, who taught traditional Irish fiddle at the Crescent Arts Centre until 2018, noted that over the decades such moments have forged a less sectarian culture. At the Crescent, his students were Catholics and Protestants who would never have studied music together even ten years earlier. Caldwell said he believes in “art as an instrument of social cohesion”—but he doesn’t think about art only in theoretical terms: “While people are making music together, they’re happy. They’re not thinking about policy or any of that. They’re just getting on with it.”

There has been no formal truth and reconciliation process in the north of Ireland. Whether there needs to be, what form it would take, and what it would achieve are worth considering. But many people have mentioned to me that instead of a reconciliation process there has been a book: David Park’s 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner, which imagines the life of an official overseeing a fictional truth commission. The book delves deeply into the machinations of a single case—the disappearance of a teenage boy. A sorrowful, layered tale pits private loss against the possibility of public justice, even as the book explores the inner lives of four men who are implicated in the cruel event. A book cannot be a reconciliation, exactly. But it is an occasion to gain language, to see, converse, and reflect; to echo, divagate, and remember. A work of art triangulates, refracts, and offers the possibility for change. In reading, people cross divides and unsettle themselves. In doing so, they may shift their views.

It struck me that this is perhaps why Belfast invests in festivals. Not because they are a perfect or quantifiable solution, but because they offer a public place to do the inner work that can happen when we experience empathy, and recognize the people around us as our neighbors. Several years after that first parade in Northern Ireland, David Boyd arranged another event. This time it was a winter festival. In the long dark of that December, people again marched down a major Belfast street, this time carrying homemade lanterns. It felt new to march outside in the evening, rare to participate in a peaceful nonsectarian parade. “I could see then that this process of making art together had the potential to intervene in a way that other things had not,” Boyd told me. He said that in his experience it was most important to call people in, rather than to call them out. “I never said that whatever other march or parade anyone was marching in was not right. I simply also offered this place, for making lanterns.” People stood together in the dark as the lights passed by. Some embraced, others wept.

The peace in the north of Ireland is perched on fault lines, and twenty years later, there is a renewed interest in uniting with the Republic of Ireland. The two decades of relative stability have also allowed a new generation to grow up without the constant stream of violence. “What you build again after a trauma is not the same thing you had before,” said Damian Smyth, a poet who has worked for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for more than twenty years. “If you are lucky, it has a new tenderness to it.” Smyth has had a distinguished career overseeing juries and boards that disperse awards and funding to some of the north’s most accomplished artists. Yet his message to me was that it’s more important to invest in people and communities than to be hoity-toity about art. “Maybe a community wants to form a cooking club, maybe they want to knit,” he said. “The point is to keep an eye out for the areas where people are coming together, and then help them make a space of welcome.”

In Belfast this April, the cracks became too great, and there were setbacks. The pandemic has dragged on, and virtually everything about Brexit has been disadvantageous to Northern Ireland’s stability. On Good Friday, twenty-three years after the peace agreement, rioting broke out around the city and continued for a week. Depending on whom you ask, the riots were either spontaneous or orchestrated by paramilitaries; they were (or were not) in response to something called the Northern Ireland Protocol, which establishes customs controls between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain. It is particularly sad to note how many of the rioters were teenagers, youths, and children as young as thirteen.

In any case, the riots began in working-class Protestant neighborhoods and spread to some of the city’s peace lines (which, in contrast to their names, are walls meant to keep groups separated). Every night that week, hooded boys from different neighborhoods hurled petrol bombs at one another. One night of unrest took place on Sandy Row, directly opposite the Crescent Arts Centre. People used to moving freely through the city remembered the delicate high-wire act of navigating around places where trouble was bound to break out. Editorials churned about whether these nights signaled a return of the bad times. But on the ground, people I knew insisted that things had settled down quickly, and also that “the peace” exists on a spectrum. There is no support for a sustained return to violence, but in a place that has never fully rooted out its paramilitary presence, violence can always flare.

I told Smyth that I too was worn out by years of gun violence, by police shootings and the attendant riots, by a society that feels at once agitated and stagnant, by the hate that seems to have become our national pulse. He looked at me. “The thing is, Tess, when it gets like that, nobody wins. No one wins. Year after year, you have the same arguments, the same standoffs, the same frozen places. They get so you can even predict when the flares will go off.” He paused, and his voice grew quiet and gravelly. “And then it’s the fourth year, the eighth year, and the twelfth year. You’re stuck in it, and by God, it’s the twelfth year.” His voice drifted off.

Peace has always been an elusive concept. Patterson told me that on the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, he was returning home from an arts dinner with many notable literary figures. Belfast had been held up for the world as a shining example of reconciliation, but that night, across town, a twenty-year-old boy was kneecapped in a retribution shooting. “Even then, as we were toasting the twenty-year peace, a boy that very age was shot and crippled,” he told me. “That was the other truth of that night.”

And so the work continues. In addition to writing his novels and directing the Heaney Centre, Patterson helped to found Fighting Words Belfast, a center where young writers from different backgrounds can come together to learn the craft. Perhaps their writing will make them feel empowered and less susceptible to recruitment by paramilitary groups. “What’s important, maybe, is that word, center,” Patterson says. “A center is a kind of invitation; it’s a way of saying: here’s a light, here’s a landmark, here’s a place to come in for a bit and maybe come out a little bit changed. You go to a block you might not have visited, and then another, and another.”

There are new conversations being had about how the arts might bridge divides in America. In May, the California congressman Ted Lieu and the New Mexico congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández introduced the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, modeled after the New Deal program that put writers to work through the WPA. The project would hire writers laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic to “capture invaluable American stories that may otherwise go untold.” A group of actors and artists are lobbying for a bill they are calling the DAWN Act (Defend Arts Workers Now), which would create a Cabinet-level position to oversee sustained investment in the arts.

Matthew-Lee Erlbach, a playwright at the forefront of the group, is making the argument largely on economic grounds. The arts sector represents 5.1 million jobs; in the year before the pandemic, it grew by 4.2 percent, more than twice the rate of the U.S. economy as a whole. Arts organizations represent more than 675,000 small businesses, generating $900 billion annually. “The arts are an industry, not a luxury,” Erlbach told me.

The arts will not make our lives better in a vacuum. We must also find ways to return to civic life, to build stronger connections with one another. We cannot demand that art help us do this. But if we fund and encourage it, we may find that it does. I remember the great public joy after Amanda Gorman’s reading of her inaugural poem, and the way she modeled a way forward for both young people and poets alike. I wonder what fifty state festivals could look like, what new interventions artists could build across disconnected American communities.

Congress is currently considering a big infrastructure bill; it seems to me that artists could well make the argument that we should be included, that our mission is partly to build spaces for people to come together. I’d love to see what bridges and pathways artists could build, not only in Brooklyn or San Francisco, but in Green River, Wyoming; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Rapid City, South Dakota. I’m thinking of the work of the Ohio poet laureate Dave Lucas, who wrote a monthly column called Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry that ran for a year and a half in twenty small Ohio papers, many of which didn’t even have a book review section. I’m thinking of the work of rebuilding a hundred small-town newspapers across America so that people have stories of their own celebrations and sorrows, births and deaths. I’m talking about doing what the photographer Dorothea Lange called “daring to look.” We could commission new monuments and better contextualize the monuments we already have. We could fund emerging writers to write in and for communities, to gather oral histories and preserve Indigenous languages. We could fund meaningful arts programs at schools, inviting artists to mentor a new generation. Without demanding that artists create peace, we could value the way that art builds equity and common ground. We might entrust our national conversations about history and violence and race to our artists. Their work could be a site for both reckoning and joy. And—I know I’m dreaming big here—maybe both at the same time.

What lines must we cross to heal America? What festivals might bring us the most togetherness, empowerment, and joy? We are wildly diverse, a vast country in need of many, many sites of repair. One idea has stayed with me: Three days after the 2016 election, before I left for Belfast, I was on a road trip through rural Virginia. I had been assigned to write a travel article for an upscale magazine, which involved visiting boutique hotels and eating coconut cake at Mama J’s Kitchen in Richmond before heading up into the mountains. I had been excited for the work. But in the wake of the election I was shaken, as if I no longer understood the country I was writing about. I wanted to stay home, eat ice cream, and grieve. But my friend Alison and I made the trek, driving two and a half hours southeast from Charlottesville to Floyd to make a stop on the Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail. We arrived just in time for a Friday night square dance.

Floyd is a former mill town that has been a center for bluegrass music for the past several years. It is also a center for fiddle manufacturing, and Floyd fiddles are so fine that some people travel from Ireland to buy them. The town has a market that sells preserves and wooden bowls made by a gruff, bearded craftsman. There are a number of venues that host exceptional live music. It is a place where people come to make art.

In my grief and rage, I could not think of anything less appealing than square dancing. I felt suspicious of anyone who would square-dance at such a moment. The whole room felt threatening to me, full of people with whom I could only assume I vehemently disagreed. I was committed to my own anger. But there I was, promising to write this article, and here was a town, lit up against the November cold, packed into a room where fiddlers were making music and people were dancing. There were tourists from China and Vietnam who had come on buses to get a glimpse of our vaunted American life, for which, at that moment, I wished to apologize.

I took a breath and threw myself in. I began circling the room and tapping my feet. What I felt then was something extraordinary. It was not about the people, but about the form. I knew that as I danced I would have to touch many people in the ring, that I would have to switch partners several times. The shapes we danced were complicated. Everyone had to take a turn swinging and being swung. No one was left out. When I was done, I realized that I could be angry or I could dance, but I could not do both at the same time. I did not lose my resolve to fight for the things I care about, but I also noticed how the dance invited a small mountain community into a social contract: dancing together was a way of agreeing to care for one another. I knew my politics very well, but this bit of art surprised me.

If the fact that I am white, that this was a rural area, or that square dancing has historically been a white rural art stops you, just know that I am not saying we need this—I am saying we need more. I am saying more art, less war. Now you dream, too. Envision another room, another space lit up in the cold, where people are being invited to come in and make something together. Envision it as welcoming. I do not know exactly what we need in order to start repairing the country. Our fissures are many. But I think the answer involves interventions that surprise, dances that make us switch partners, songs that call us in.

 is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Rift Zone and the monograph Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange. She teaches writing at Ashland University.


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