Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

No rhyme or reason to our cultural divide on the arts

Mourning glory: International tributes poured in for Bellaghy-born Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney
Mourning glory: International tributes poured in for Bellaghy-born Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney

Who owns culture? More specifically, who owns our culture? I'm not talking about culture with a small 'c', the ordinary minutiae of everyday life, like eating Tayto crisps and whingeing about the weather.

I'm talking about culture with a big 'C'. The poetry. The plays. The music. You know, the art. Who owns all that stuff?

There's a perception out there that Culture belongs to one community, much more than the other. You know which one it is, don't you?

I don't need to spell it out, it's just one of those underlying assumptions that characterise life in this strange northern outpost.

One side is seen to embrace the tang and savour of words, their power and majesty and rhythm. One side is seen to be alive to the rich cultural history of this island, that curious felicity with language, the seeds of imagination sown and regrown within each new generation.

One side is seen to be at ease dancing and singing and painting and performing; it knows that art is like good bread, essential to a fully-realised existence.

And the other? Well, the other side mainly likes to march.

This kind of folk mythology is woven right through our culture (small 'c', this time), right back to the days when, it's said, loyalists imprisoned at Long Kesh pumped iron, while republicans immersed themselves in books and studied for their PhDs.

It's a travesty, of course; a lazy lie. There are – and always have been – plenty of Protestant unionists who read and think and respond deeply, who know the enlivening taste of that good, sustaining bread, just as there are – and always have been – heaps of Catholic nationalists who wouldn't know their Sophocles from their Sam McBride. And vice versa.

Philistinism knows no boundaries; you can be a gormless gombeen under any flag.

Yet such cliches continue to hang around, because, in spite of their restrictiveness, their falseness and crudity, they also contain a morsel of truth.

Earlier this week, Seamus Heaney was laid to rest and the sense of loss was tremendous.

Public figures – some with more eloquence than others – spoke with great feeling about the distinctively clear, warm and humble light that had gone out with Heaney's passing. But, when it came to the northern response, I noticed a definite lack.

Martin McGuinness, speaking with evident affection, recalled asking Heaney to handwrite an extract from his play The Cure at Troy as a present for the departing First Minister, Ian Paisley.

The Deputy First Minister was present at the funeral, alongside Gerry Adams, John Hume and Mark Durkan. Yet the reaction from within unionism was muted.

Expressing his condolences to the Heaney family, Peter Robinson said something bland about a "significant contribution to literature" and Michelle McIlveen, DUP chair of the Stormont culture committee, put out a statement to the same effect. UUP chief Mike Nesbitt had some clunky line about Heaney's "insight and artistry".

But that was about it. And it wasn't enough – not nearly enough.

For all the bleat and empty twaddle talked about a shared future, this was one occasion – now missed forever – where we could have seen a really strong and emphatic united response from the two big parties.

We could have seen a true demonstration of shared pride in this great poet and the luminous, humane values that he stood for.

Heaney belonged to us – indeed, in many ways, he never really left us – and, in the evening, he was brought back to us.

Yet through a failure in imagination, the chance to honour both the man and ourselves was lost.

So the public face of Heaney's passing was a one-dimensionally green affair. Unlike the popular response, which was a glorious rattlebag of colours, tributes from all kinds of unexpected people, who had experienced the quiet power and honesty of Heaney's words.

This is what it comes down to. Art is more than something nice to look at on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the museum. It is more than a mawkish splodge of public art, intended to embody trite wishes for the future. It is certainly more than a means of bringing 'troubled communities' together.

Great art, like Heaney's, is transcendent: it wakes us up, makes us look at the world differently, renders the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

Who owns it? We all do. It belongs to all of us. But only if we claim it, only if we make that choice.

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