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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The Voice of Many Men

(by Anne Devlin, Fortnight Magazine)

Anne Devlin attends the re-commemoration ceremony at Sam Thompson's graveside and ponders on his legacy

Friday 30th July 2010, one month short of three years since I left London, I am driving on the Falls Rd., towards the gates of the City Cemetery. It's raining very hard. And I have never actually been into the City Cemetery before; when I was growing up Catholics weren't buried there. And I haven't even been back to this part of the Falls around St James's road and the corner of the Whiterock since my return.

My family was forced to move from West Belfast to North during the Hunger Strikes of 1980 over my father's refusal to support them. Even now the painted gables around the streets at the entrance to the City Cemetery remain a visual tribute to the dead blanketmen. Across the road I don't drive through the gates to the Cemetery because I don't know if I can park, and I haven't overcome my reluctance to crossing the threshold of this other burial ground. It takes a second attempt before I decide to drive into the cemetery and ask the way to the playwright Sam Thompson's grave, where a re commemoration ceremony is to take place at noon.

In a recent e-mail exchange with the writer Patricia Craig in April I have written: "My father had been Sam Thompson's election agent after the success of Over The Bridge; he ran the election from my grandmother's parlour below the Royal Hospital... My father was threatened with the sack from the flourmill for running an election campaign while he was supposed to be at work. His employers opted for suspension for a week instead. When Thompson died suddenly a few years later, my father sat us down in front of Sam's posthumous TV play Cemented With Love, and I learned what he had been up to. It dramatised the lives of people trying to win an election. Thompson even appeared as an actor on screen. I was young enough to wrest an ambition from my father's loss. I may even have decided to be a playwright."

Through the gates, at any rate I am driving in the rain, I pass The Cross of Sacrifice to the back wall of the cemetery to find a small canopy fluttering at the side of a grave. I am early, I stay in my car until I see others arrive. I am led to believe that James Ellis is to give the graveside oration, Jimmy is an actor I have worked with many times, and like many actors he is also a writer of poetry.

I expect the event to be attended by many old Labour Northern Ireland stalwarts. The remnants of the party whose agenda was coterminous with the civil rights demands and completely non sectarian had a fatal flaw; it lacked the courage of its convictions.. This was a party so desperate to avoid sectarian conflict it walked away from its own agenda. Moving between the bi-polar extremes of catholic/republican and protestant /unionist wings it played right in the centre; until it's public representative for Woodvale voted to lock the swings and it became more associated with Sabbatarianism than Socialism. Sam Thompson, the shipyard playwright was an earlier exemplar of this old Labour Party but he was dead before the Civil Rights movement took off. One never knows what might have been had he survived. There was a question of influence.

The cemetery is beautiful, it's a new perspective on the surrounding hills and the shape of the fields. Why do we have to stand in a place where the dead are buried to see how beautiful this city is? Brain Garrett gets out of his car, he is Thompson's literary executor. He introduces his sister Jenny. Where you the girl who was deaf? No. My sister, Moya. She was a lovely child, she adds. This conversation walks us back to her clinic on Mulholland Terrace opposite the Children's Hospital in 1958: we didn't wear white coats and we had toys in the room for the little ones so as not to make them conscious of being tested. She mentions at that time my father not being able to make some of the appointments at the clinic and how she upbraided him until she realised he was a shift worker in a mill and she felt mortified. It is something I had forgotten, that in getting elected as a public representative for Falls in '69, my late father was taking control of his own time.

At first I only notice the political people and then it becomes clear that there are other writers present, Danny Morrison approaches me, it is the first time I've met him. I cannot exclude from my mind the remark attributed to him: Does anybody mind if with the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other we take power in this country? I have rephrased this: does anybody mind if with a biro in one hand and an Armalite in the other we take power? Because of course Morrison is a writer now. He has organised this event under auspices of the West Belfast festival. And the only reason I have turned up on these terms is the fact that he has stood up for Patricia Craig's book. Asking For Trouble, her girlhood memoirs which involved the inevitable clash with the nuns over a reported kiss during a school trip to the Donegal Gaeltacht and resulted in her expulsion.

She is reading in the festival from her book and he has asked the school if she could read at her old convent thus bringing closure to everyone. But the school has refused, proving their obduracy once again. His defence of her free speech has changed my attitude to him. Until he winds me up: and I hear the words: you wrote a lot in the eighties. What was it Robert Kennedy used to say: if you write, you don't shoot. If you shoot, you don't write. Or was that the guy in the bath in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? At any rate I'm tongue tied around Sinn Féin, there's no other word for it. At that moment I see Marie Heaney who has been chatting with Tom Hartley, and out of the corner of my eye I note that Seamus Heaney is also there. And I'm relieved for Sam Thompson as much as for myself. And then I remember that Heaney is giving a lecture on Michael McLaverty in another part of the festival in about ninety minutes time. An event I'm preparing also to attend.

I haven't seen Marie since I worked in Dublin in 2004, and we talk about Cancer treatment. I understood from an interview Seamus gave a year ago she has been having chemotherapy. She looks extraordinary Marie, great skin and hair. Luminous. A survivor of vigorous chemotherapy which she is in favour of, she adds: and my body looks just the same naked. She might as well have said, I look great naked. The impact is the same; Danny Morrison steps quickly away. She calls to Seamus, but the introduction is interrupted by the arrival of Jimmy Ellis.

He leans in enquiringly. He is one of our oldest friends, who sat in my garden in Hammersmith the night before we left the house, about seven years ago. It was our last summer party. I left the bowl glass candles hanging in the trees not wishing ever to take them down. But he seems distracted. And I have to say my name. Which isn't odd for me, I am so aware of my constant changes of appearance that I assume no one recognises me from time to time. Because I do this, and I tell him my mother remembers his visit to her house when he read to my father, his poem about Sam Thompson, and the neighbours assembled. Jimmy adds, no one ever talks about that. And Tom Hartley calls the ceremony to attention and order.

When Jimmy steps up to the mike, I notice Gerry Adams has arrived. Then I see the playwright Martin Lynch who's recent adaptation of Over The Bridge has kept the play current; often seen as prescient about the sectarian conflict that was to overtake us; his adaptation makes of the play an elegy. And Patricia Craig herself arrives with JG Devlin's daughter. This makes three Devlins: me, Marie Heaney and JG's daughter. I went to school with Una his youngest, I haven't met his older daughter but once briefly. Bill Rolston, whose father the late Louis Rolston is a much missed Lyric actor, will photograph us three together afterwards. A woman from the Andersonstown Gaeltacht appears she used to be my mother's neighbour. And I thank her for her courage and kindness when my parents were leaving Greenan. The unexpected gift in returning is that faces from childhood come forward as if they've been waiting to be recognised.

But at this moment as Jimmy begins to speak, I'm thinking what would Sam Thompson make of this gathering. Brain Garrett has remarked you and I, Anne, are what's left of the Northern Ireland Labour Party here. And I'm thinking about all the recent interviews I've read with ex Prisoners and ex Sinn Féin members, and indeed active ones, who claim to have always been socialists. And I'm wondering how if all those people were so convinced about socialism in the sixties and supported Labour why didn't we have a landslide here?

Jimmy has announced he hasn't prepared a speech. I have to say my spirits sank. So I wait for a rambled soliloquy. Instead what he says is hard to credit. He says we are gathered here to bury Ireland's greatest poet. Seamus Heaney. Then he goes on to talk about the Nobel Prize for Poetry. I look at Seamus who is standing at Gerry Adams shoulder, with his head down and hat on and looking at his shoes. I turn to Patricia, we catch each other's eye. Jimmy continues to bury Ireland's greatest poet.

At this point when I need someone to stop me, Bill for example whose shoulder I am behind, I step forward, but he moves back. I step towards the microphone and realise that Tom Hartley is repeating a mantra: itdoesn'tmatter, itdoesn'tmatter, itdoesn'tmatter. If I could put sound to my thoughts: I would say out loud: it bloody does. And you people have just confirmed for me you are going through the motions without understanding why or the reasons because if you did you would find words for this. Danny Morrison on the other side of Jimmy is holding his face in his hands. I have taken Jimmy by the elbow, and I find I am saying: Jimmy it's important to remember that you are here today because you as an actor took Sam Thompson's banned play Over The Bridge and fought to get it on. That showed such courage as an actor, to do that for a writer, for a play that was banned. And it inspired me as a playwright because I learned that Culture was a form of resistance. And that is why we are here.

I hope that's what I said: it was what I meant to say. Because at least it stopped Jimmy throwing away an opportunity and got us on to the proper footing. My trembling limbs were giving me trouble so instead of leading the applause for the dead at the graveside, which is what theatre people do when someone dies, I stepped away again from the mike. Leaving Jimmy, as soon as he was free, from this puzzling intrusion, to return to the subject of burying Seamus Heaney...Eh...Greatest poet...Nobel Prize. I direct my attention to Heaney. He resolutely shakes his head. I turn to Patricia, who knows Seamus well enough; her husband has just painted his portrait.

Go and ask him to intervene now, to say something. It is clear that only Seamus Heaney standing in front of Jimmy will contest his delusion. Patricia approaches Seamus. It works as soon as Heaney steps under the canopy beside him, Jimmy stops...retreats.

Seamus even manages to say something impressive about Sam Thompson and how his commitment to non sectarianism is filtered through his plays. And everyone is relieved. Tom Hartley picks up the theme of the banned play, observes that everyone remembers the name of the play but not the names of the people who banned it. And its over.

Sam Thompson's son comes up to me: I loved Paddy he says. I loved him. Martin Lynch had said one word when the cleaned gravestone was unveiled: May.

Thompson's wife had died more recently, she is named on the stone along with some words of the writer Sam Hanna Bell, in a tribute to 'the people.' Danny Morrison bounces up to Marie and says thank god Seamus was here. She bites his head off. Thank God Anne was here; thus saving me from joining the ranks of invisible women. I am saying good bye to Brain Garrett's sister whose sympathetic vigorous nodding while I was in front of the microphone kept me going from word to word, when I find Gerry Adams holding out his hand: thank you for stepping up there. I shake hands with him over Sam Thompson's grave.

When I was in Dublin in 2004, Seamus Heaney spoke at the Royal Irish Society in what had been Sir William Wilde's library, about his first contact with the theatre in childhood. A group of travelling players appeared in his home village in South Derry. A prop became necessary for the performance in the village hall. The small jug or pitcher used was from the family dresser and on the night the play was performed they all found a special delight in recognising it; so that when it was returned to them, it was different. Having been through the pubic gaze the jug was hallowed.

I have always loved this anecdote, it reminds us that it is childhood attachments that have made us, and from such small pitchers is great drama wrought.

December 26, 2010

This article appeared in the October/November 2010 edition of Fortnight.


This article appears thanks to the Fortnight.

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