“It’s beyond language.” So speaks ex-clergyman Christopher Roulston in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. For McGuinness, the limitations of language are both restriction and liberation, something to be railed against as much as it is to be manipulated. Language itself becomes a subject for discussion as much as it is a method for communication, and McGuinness’ writing embodies both the beauty of words, and the political implications of them for a nation overshadowed by a language not its own.
For the Irish, the issue of language is historically complex. English, the first language of McGuinness and the majority of his contemporary countrymen is, at it’s source, a received language, the language of colonialism. And yet - perhaps because of this ‘removedness’, the Irish literature of the 20th Century (born from campaigns and disdains for the Gaelic language and cultural revival) is recognised as some of the most stringent and beautiful of the English language. For MCGuinness, this removal from language manifests as aesthetically beautiful words as much as a brutal depiction of reality. When asked why he wrote Godot in French, Beckett replied that “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.” Perhaps in claiming English as their own, the Irish poets have transcended the baggage of language and made it their own. For McGuinness certainly, ‘Language is not only the tool, but also the subject for discussion and performance’. The language, as the history of the Irish, is often seen as ‘a nightmare from which [they] are trying to awake’. Beckett’s Krapp is caught in an obsessive cycle of remembering, of reliving his own history through his own words, and McGuinness’ Elder Pyper falls into the same cycle - “Again. As always, again. Why does this persist? What more have we to tell each other? I remember nothing today. Absolutely nothing’.
In part because of their consistently turbulent history, and in part because of the affinity bias of the English, Irish poetry has been often overlooked with reference to the Great War. July 1916 came all too soon after the blood sacrifice of the Easter Rising, April 1916, and many of the great Irish poets - Yeats for example - have been often misrepresented as taking a Joycean non servium attitude to the war. Yet one of Yeats’ most famous poems, ‘The Second Coming’, carries with it the unavoidable stench of impending war:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; T
he best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
AE, another of Ireland’s great poets, takes an equally bleak view of the War - and this lack of jingoism is characteristic of Ireland’s take on the Great War, a war which ‘simultaneously united and divided the Irish people’. AE was infact a prolific war poet, contributing enough poems to the London Times to make a booklet 39 pages in length. In ‘Reflections’, AE writes
O outcast Christ, it was too soon
For flags of battle to be furled,
While life was yet at the hot noon.
Ireland is a nation formed by war, by domestic conflict, and the First World War was used as a tool in the battle between commitment to and rejection of the Union as much as anything else. Interpretations of the poems have been pulled this way and that, but at least for McGuinness, the divide is one to be straddled rather than serving as another trench to fall into. Ireland’s literature is intrinsically laced with conflict, and it was arguably only in the 1970s and 80s that writers such as McGuinness drew the perspective to manipulate this advantage, before the critics could manipulate their writing. In 1988, Brendon Kennelly asserted that ‘One would hardly think that a rather impoverished insularity would help to breed a world-renowned drama, but is has, because drama thrives on that trouble and conflict which are as much a tragic part of Irish life today as they have ever been.’
It is from this heritage of literature which has had politics thrust upon it that McGuinness began to write. Born in 1953 in Buncrana, County Donegal, McGuinness grew up just 14 miles from the North/South border, developing with ‘a split between a southern training and a northern temperament’. In an interview with Carolyne Pollard in 1987, McGuinness explained that
‘I think that sectarianism of any kind is stupid and I feel then, to go around describing myself as a Norther or a Southern writer is stupid. I’m both, actually. I was born in the North, which is politically classified as the South, so I’ve got that lovely confusion - I like confusion a lot.’
McGuinness’ writing exists also in the liminal space within which he places himself. In Observe the Sons, the characters exist between the polarities of Catholic and Protestant, Nationalism and Unionism, Masculinity and Femininity, Heterosexuality and Homosexuality, the Somme and the Boyne… the list goes on. For the characters of the play, identification with Ulster is paramount, because Ulster is just about the only thing they see that unites them. And yet, even ‘Ulster’ becomes just a word for McGuinness, repeated into meaninglessness. Like Beckett, McGuinness’ characters must look beyond their language to find truth. Purportedly a play about war, Observe the Sons is comprised purely of discourse -and it is this discourse which is doing the marching, which is moving them forwards in their relations with each other and their understandings of themselves. The battle is one of connection - connection which must be made through the tangle of the said and the unspoken - as much as it is one of trench warfare. One of the many tragedies of the play lies in the faith the characters place in language - from Roulston’s tentative ‘Any word?’ as they wait for instructions from ‘top brass’, to the prayer which unites the men - prayer itself the purest exemplification of belief that life can be transformed by words. Only the Elder Pyper, sole survivor of the Battle - and here I give no spoilers, as McGuinness makes it deliberately clear in the opening scene - is aware of the futility of faith in language, accusing the audience - ‘You are the creator, invent such details as suits your purpose best’.
Pyper is the bitter embodiment of McGuinness’ message. Language cannot change history. The retelling of events cannot erase the tragedies of the past. The English language could not decimate the native Gaelic, nor could Gaelic maintain supremacy. Yet - and in this, McGuinness bypasses Pyper and speaks to us directly, with words as powerful as tanks - language can change our understanding of the past, and that is as good as changing the future.