Reading ‘Us’

By Mia Gallagher

“It feels like my wish for more collaborative global communication has been answered, at a (literally) devastating cost. There’s still talk of borders and sanctions but nobody can deny that we’re all in this together. What’s more, fish are swimming again in the canals of Venice. The formerly polluted skies over Wuhan are blue. Perhaps Covid-19 is a Gaiac message? Perhaps I’m delusional. To anyone reading this: stay safe, and well, and creative, and love the ones closest to you.”—Mia Gallagher

This is an edited version of an essay commissioned by the Leuven Centre of Irish Studies as part of Mia Gallagher’s writing residency in Leuven, Belgium, in 2019. A PDF of the original essay can be found on:

NB: Click footnote links in brackets for additional information.

In May 2018, I began an email conversation with Hedwig Schwall, Director of the Leuven Centre for Irish Studies, based in the Irish College in Belgium. Hedwig was curating the Kaleidoscope project, a collection of writings by Irish writers on writing process, and had asked me to take part. The upshot of our conversation was twofold. I wrote an essay (“Answering Annie,” published by Arlen House in the print edition of the project, The Danger and the Glory), and Hedwig also invited me to Leuven for a month the following year to be the first official LCIS Writer-in-Residence. I accepted with alacrity. My paternal grandmother was German and I’ve always enjoyed visiting mainland Europe. Once there, I feel a wordless sense of connection with a wider community, like I’m getting nourished deep in my rootstock. And it’s always great to go somewhere new, exposed to influences that can work on my unconscious and, hopefully, trigger new stories.

During my stay in Leuven, I did a reading at the Centre as part of the Irish College’s Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. The reading took place on March 14, 2019; this piece is a personal response to questions the reading threw up, and the wider context in which it took place.

What is it to be Irish, in a place close to the administrative heart of the EU, at a time when that relationship is most under threat? What might it mean to talk about Irishness on our national holiday, in a building founded by the same Franciscan monks who went to Rome to make the ultimately successful case that Saint Patrick’s Day should be held on the 17th of March?

As I began my introduction on the night, “A national holiday like Saint Patrick’s Day offers us, collectively, a chance to celebrate what being ‘us’ means, or might mean. It gives us a chance to open up our origin stories—the tales we tell ourselves about where and how and who, as a collective, we’ve come into being. Besides celebration, this process can reveal layers and difference [my emphasis] that, ordinarily, we might prefer to avoid.”

I make that emphasis because in March 2019, some of these differences were closer to the surface than they’d been for years. This was due, to a large extent, to the Baroque drama then—and, with the benefit of hindsight, possibly indefinitely—dominating Irish and British news: the problematic negotiations around the exit of the UK from the European Union.

I’ve never been keen on the term “Brexit.” To me, it sounds too much like an adman’s jingle, turning something with a significant and potentially negative impact on people’s lives into a cuddly brand-name occupying the same place on the glamour/approachability axis as J-Lo or Brangelina. What’s next? Portmanteau terms for genocides, coups, or wars? Except, I’m forgetting: we’ve already done cuddly. We’ve had our “Troubles.”

On the night of the reading, a crash-out no-deal was looming, Westminster was in a state of escalating chaos, and Andrew Sparrow’s politics feed on the Guardian website had me glued to a borrowed smartphone for hours. On crunch days I would tap “View Earlier Updates” repeatedly, to read who had done what in the order it happened.

How many times had Theresa May, then the UK prime minister, repeated her stock phrases: respect result, deliver Brexit, no deal better than bad deal, my deal only deal? How had the hard-right Eurosceptic Tory faction, the European Research Group (ERG), responded? What World War II metaphor had gung-ho ERG poster-boy Mark Francois come up with now to show “we” / “they” were not going to be bullied by “us” / “them” / “the Germans”? What was going to happen to the backstop, a mechanism designed to avoid a hard border with customs controls on the island of Ireland?

Would Ireland’s ministers for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee, keep up their (to a non-Fine Gael voter) [1] impressive tag-team media act in subtly rebutting suggestions that “we” should simply ease ourselves back into a British Empire Mark II? Were the EU negotiators and mandarins Tusk, Juncker, and Barnier going to stand firm defending the backstop? Or, under the Westminster threat of no-deal, would the EU soften on the backstop to protect the single market and—despite exhortations to the contrary—end up feeding either the Republic of Ireland’s status in the EU, or the Good Friday Agreement and the people of the North-South border, to the hard-Brexit wolves?

“Right now,” I said in my introduction, “we are living through what feels like a very potent moment of history. In the last hour, in Westminster—”across the water” as the narrator of Anna Burns’s extraordinary novel Milkman might put it—the UK Parliament is attempting to identify how it collectively wants to frame a new origin story for itself, for Europe and for the archipelago of citizenship that encases the Irish Sea.”

I also flagged the fact that earlier that day there’d been an official judgment on Bloody Sunday—the event in January 1972 when members of the Parachute Regiment of the British army opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry, killing 14 unarmed people. Forty-seven years on, news had just come through that one ex-soldier, out of the 18 investigated, was to be charged with the murder of civilians on that day.

During my talk in Leuven, I didn’t talk about the implications of the Bloody Sunday judgment, or the response to it by the families of those killed. Nor did I say anything about Karen Bradley, the UK Secretary for Northern Ireland, and the comments she’d made a week earlier, where she’d publicly stated that “the fewer than 10 per cent [ killings during the ‘Troubles’ ] that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes. They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way.”

I’m not a journalist and there are big gaps in my knowledge, so talking about this material in a public forum felt out of my comfort zone. Moreover my role on the night was not to be political commentator, but to represent “Irishness” via “Irish culture,” specifically “Irish writing.” And not just any “Irishness,” but as a guest of LCIS and by extension, EFACIS, [2] I was representing “Ireland-in-Europe-ness”—Ireland’s presence as both part of and dialogue partner with that big, diverse community clustered around politics, economics, trade, regulation, and culture we call “Europe.”

With representation, as with power, comes responsibility. I knew the night was meant to be one of celebration and connection. But like all cultural practitioners, my work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’m a citizen as well as a writer, and the world I live in can’t help seeping into, and out through, my work. Context isn’t neutral. Saint Paddy’s Day in any year is a charged time. Leuven itself is a city that was bombed and burnt, scarred by wars; in one of our email conversations, Hedwig suggested this damage itself may have influenced Leuven’s thriving international academic reputation, making it “all the more open to supranational democratic structures, [to] cooperating with the whole world. We have 177 nationalities living in Leuven.” In the context of Brexit, Leuven is only 15 minutes away from Brussels, the powerhouse of the EU and the symbolic geographical locus for many Brexiteers’ ire.

In light of all this, I felt it important to perform pieces that would both celebrate a sense of Irish identity and open up questions about what that identity has been or might be, how it includes and how it can be used to exclude. The texts I read would be “my contribution to the many collective conversations taking place all over the world this weekend, wherever two or more people, who even partly identify themselves as Irish, are gathered.”

Because I’ve worked as an actor, at public events I like to read work where there’s a strong sense of character, action, and subtext. Something that allows me to play with voice and accents, that gets me to work intuitively at connecting with what’s going on under the surface and—hopefully—elicit sensation, emotion, and insight in the audience. For the Leuven reading I chose two pieces: one from my first novel, HellFire, the other from my second novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland.

Both touch on aspects of Irish identity, both are narrated by outsiders who don’t feel aligned with the world they are moving through, and both employ a narrative voice that is visibly (audibly?) different from the one I am primarily identified with as a middle-class southside Dubliner.

HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006) is narrated by Lucy Dolan, a young Dublin woman from the north inner city. Most of the novel takes place in the 1980s when Lucy is in her teens, but it dips back into the earlier 20th century to excavate Lucy’s family history, and forward into the 1990s and early 2000s to follow the consequences of Lucy’s teenage actions on her early adult life. I’ve always seen it, in some ways, as a love-letter to Dublin—a city in which I, like Lucy, came to my maturity at a time when recession was draining the country of its youth and talent, exporting them to the UK, the U.S., and Europe, and where, in the inner cities, the heroin industry was already taking off as “our” first great growth economy.

For me, HellFire is a Dublin book, more even than an Irish book. Is it an “Irish-in-Europe-ness” book? I’m not sure. I can identify some mainland European influences—Zola, Maupassant, Brecht, Fo, the Spanish and Gypsy traditions of the Tarot. But I can see British influences too (Dickens and Angela Carter), American ones (John Irving)—and of course, Irish ones, especially Roddy “the Irish are the blacks of Europe” Doyle. I’d read Doyle’s A Star Called Henry the year before embarking on HellFire and loved how his tenement characters crashed so energetically into the mainstream, often vainglorious, versions of the Rising their real-life models had been enlisted to mythologize. From working in a prison and an addiction treatment center in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was aware of how people from disadvantaged backgrounds were misrepresented in Ireland’s happy clappy Boomtime media culture. A Star seemed to suggest an alternative, “bigger” way forward to examine these themes, and I followed Doyle’s track with as much diligence and gusto as I could.

For Leuven, I chose a piece near the start of the book that explores some of Lucy’s own origin story: her great-grandfather’s beginnings as a foundling, runaway, and Traveller, culminating in his first encounter with Lucy’s great-grandmother on Easter Monday, 1916. I can’t remember consciously writing that encounter, actively deciding to make Lucy’s origin myth chime with that of “our” nation. It’s a dubious chiming—Lucy’s Granny, who tells the story, is an exaggerator, fabricator, and master of tall tales—but Lucy still chooses to repeat it, to mesh her formation with that of the nation she only sometimes feels she belongs to.

I say “she;” I mean “I.” All novels, it’s been argued, are autobiography. The novel is the great capitalist artifact of the individual voice, the ultimate celebration (and deconstruction) of the ego in reified form. Fetish, icon, projection, shadow. I—like Doyle via Henry Smart—chose to let Lucy, my fictional alter, claim the Rising as part of her DNA while simultaneously not fully believing in it. Is that a metaphor for how Irish people view their Europeanness? Through my shadow-self, I offered these questions to the audience in Leuven, to make of them what they would.

My second novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), is composed of several storylines taking place across different timeframes and places. The piece I chose for Leuven centers on Lotte Bauer, an Anglo-German woman who, for personal and political reasons, has relocated to Ireland in 1976.

The extract takes place on a November night when, on a date with a young Dublin man she knows only as “the Poet,” Lotte ends up in a pub in Dalkey. She meets the Poet’s friends, a gang of angry young men who identify as political activists—militant “renouncers of the state,” as Anna Burns’s taxonomy might put it. Lotte comes under attack as she’s thought to be English; the Poet defends her as Welsh, but she reveals herself to be Other, a descendant of the Saxons—Saxony being the German principality where many Sudeten Germans (including, in the novel, Lotte’s mother) fled following their forced expulsion after World War II from their homelands in what is now the Czech Republic.

The piece ends with a collective roar to arms by the young men, a renunciation of partition, capitalism, unionist privilege, and imperialism. Bloody Sunday and 1916 are both referred to. Alienated, Lotte stays quiet and drinks too much.

This piece spoke to my need to represent “Ireland-in-Europe-ness” on a very personal level. My granddad Roland and two great-uncles were Irish Republican freedom fighters in the 1910s and 1920s—upholders of the tradition that Lotte’s Poet and his angry young cohort insist they belong to. My great-uncle Jim died during maneuvers, while Uncle Frank and Roland were imprisoned by the British. Frank was one of the first editors of the Irish Press and went on hunger strike while incarcerated in Mountjoy Jail. Meanwhile my grandmother Lisa, Roland’s wife, left her German homeland in 1933 and became, like Lotte’s mother, an exile, never returning to live there. As with Lucy, I was offering up shadow-selves to the audience. Ancestor-shadows with layered, multiplicitous identities: Irish AND European, insiders AND outsiders.

The extract’s setting—1976, a time when the radical left were fragmenting and polarizing across Europe, including the island of Ireland in the context of a post- (or more accurately, vestigial) colonial war—seemed also key. By proposing it to the audience I wanted to ask how, if at all, is that 1970s story, those polarizations, those wars, relevant to Europe in a “post-fact” Trump, Bolsonaro, and Brexit world?

Performance is never a monologue. It’s always a conversation with that significant other, the audience. The audience at the Irish College came not just from the Republic of Ireland and the North, but Britain, mainland Europe, Mexico, and China. They included diplomats, civil servants, local politicians, literature students, students of architecture and physics, musicians, retired academics, LCIS and Irish College staff, and a troupe of young Belgian Irish-dancers.

Also present were many young interns on placement at the College for degrees in catering and hospitality, most of whom hailed from the border counties or the North—the places most likely to be affected by Brexit. Many of these came from communities traditionally linked with nationalism or Catholicism, though there were others from communities traditionally associated with Ulster Protestantism, loyalism, or unionism.

It’s impossible to know how my work lands with every reader or listener. Usually I hope a reading entertains, engages, stimulates and—for those more attuned to the nuances—perhaps offers a deepening of emotional or visceral experience. On the night in Leuven, some interns from traditionally nationalist areas told me they’d been affected by the second piece I’d read. They’d wanted to cheer, particularly when Bloody Sunday was mentioned.

I rarely ask people what they think about my readings. But this felt like an unusual situation—that idea of representing something more than myself, Ireland-in-Europe-ness, in a resonant place and time, in the middle of an international political crisis. So the next day I sought out one of the interns who came from a traditionally loyalist area and asked how he had felt about the performance, especially that second reading, with its collective roar to arms. He said he was fine with it. Maybe he was. He’s of a younger generation who didn’t grow up in that euphemistically branded war, and it was just a reading and I’m just a writer. But still.

Towards the end of my Leuven stay, a “flextension” (gah, another portmanteau) was cobbled together by the EU, granting the UK a delay to Brexit. A collective sigh of relief. But now, at the time of writing, it’s nearly August and the shit is hitting the fan again. Boris Johnson, the new UK PM, talks about his “friends” in Europe while refusing to negotiate until his terms, i.e., drop the backstop, are met. Leo Varadkar, “our” Taoiseach [prime minister], and Simon Coveney have fired warning shots, saying the backstop is not up for barter. An opinion piece today in the Guardian explores the subtle cracks between French and German attitudes to fiscal regulation and international balance within the EU. Will this mean subtle cracks in attitudes to Ireland-in-Brexit, to Ireland-in-a-post-Brexit-Europe?

As Hedwig argues, “a bigger consortium’s framework gives small countries more confidence and resilience; it is the EU that broke open that close antagonism [between Ireland and Britain], and we hope that the writers in residence will sense that.”

To which I say, yes. We’re all interconnected. But the connection goes wider than Ireland or Britain, than Northern Ireland or the UK, wider even than the EU or its mother-place, Europe. A week of record heatwaves has been followed by a day of record rainfall. Under our layered, confusing, connected identities what are we but animals, living on a planet that in Greta Thunberg’s unavoidable words we have set “on fire?” Perhaps it’s that dangerously close one-way antagonism, between life form and life-support, that “we”—whether island-Irish, Republic-Irish, Northern Irish, Irish-Sea-Archipelagan, Irish-in-Europe, greater European or global citizens—need to break open most, if we want to broker a continuing relationship with that unseen conversation partner, our future.


[1] Fine Gael is one of the center-right parties, along with Fianna Fáil, that has dominated Irish politics since the Civil War (1920s). The differences between the parties are historical rather than ideological on any economic level. My dad’s family was traditionally Fianna Fáil, my mum’s veered towards Fine Gael, but I vote for neither of the two big parties.

[2] The European Federation of Associations and Centres for Irish Studies