Literature and the process of peace: a talk by Marilynn Richtarik

Marilynn RICHTARIK. Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Literature and the process of peace: a talk by Marilynn Richtarik
by Madison POULTER
16 March 2023


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears

Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king

Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and

Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.


Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles

Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,

Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry

Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.


When they had eaten together, it pleased them both

To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,

Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still

And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:


‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

— Ceasefire by Michael Longley 

On 16 March, Professor Marilynn Richtarik of Georgia State University in the United States, spoke at the Linen Hall Library about her book, Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Her book details the fifteen years of literary contributions preceding the peace agreement, emphasising the ways in which different Northern Irish literary figures used their writings to comment on and to influence the political developments of the day. 

Reading an excerpt from chapter two of her book, Richtarik delved into the famous poem ‘Ceasefire’ by Michael Longley. The poem, written in the early 1990s, was born out of the possibility of the cessation of violence. Longley — inspired on a train ride from Dublin to Belfast — reimagined the Iliad in a message to IRA leadership. Mirroring the secret meetings occurring between the IRA and the UK Government, Longley focused on the Iliad’s secret meeting between Priam and Achilles. He isolates this private moment to expand each character’s humanity and amplify what was already there — the loss and futility of war. 

For a moment, both Achilles and Priam stop their performances as leaders and are connected by their shared humanity and the futility of war. Achilles sees his father in Priam. He also sees his future in the deceased body of Hector. While both men are fighting for different futures, their stories — and fates — are the same. 

Richtarik noted that some scholars read Longley’s poem as laying the groundwork for reconciliation. But, as she pointed out, forgiveness and reconciliation are absent in the Iliad, and therefore in Longley’s poem. For both Longley and Homer, there is no indication that the war will end; this is a momentary pause ripe with the tension and knowledge that the violence will continue, but, also, that it doesn’t have to. 

Perhaps, though, one of the most interesting points made by Richtarik was an aside she made during the Q&A where she shared that the Good Friday Agreement was a form of creative writing, “performed by civil servants and elected officials”. 

One could argue, strongly, that it’s not just political actors playing out this creative script — everyday people are too. In fact, aren’t we the true performers — the politics provide us the set-up and context? But if text is performance, then where does that leave us today as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement and simultaneously wonder about the precariousness of peace? With the meaning of text dependent on our contextual interpretation — how does — and how has — our understanding of the peace agreement evolved? 

For example, Richtarik cited more recent work, such as Milkman by Anna Burns and Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. Yet these are still narratives set during the Troubles. Where is the creative writing of our ambiguous present — our desire for a better future while living with a legacy of hurt?

The duality Richtarik underscores in Longley’s reinterpretation of the Iliad also underscores our reinterpretation of peace. The gross violence has abated but enmities remain. The contradictory emotions holding us in limbo — a ceasefire persists. 

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