The Importance of Reading Fiction
Martin Burns, Masters degree student: Conflict Transformation and Social Justice
As you might have guessed, in my work in the Conflict Transformation and Social Justice Masters Degree program at Queens I have read much history, political science, international relations and sociology. I have delved into many fascinating works that have truly expanded my intellectual horizons. My work has also been enhanced by reading fiction which in some ways tells us important truths that we don’t find in even the best non-fiction.
The conflict in Northern Ireland can sometimes be understood through works of fiction. Anna Burns’ 2018 novel Milkman, which is based on her experiences growing up in a Republican area of Belfast, has been a critical resource for my work. The novel, which is set during the height of the “Troubles,” paints a harrowing picture of what it was like live in Northern Ireland during the conflict. Her prose allowed me to experience the hopes, dreams, and fears of someone living in Belfast in the 1970s. Burns’ novel provided the vital, human perspective necessary to even begin to understand the time we refer to as the Troubles.
Another important fictional window into Northern Ireland’s political universe for me has been the works of Jan Carson and in particular her novel The Raptures which is set in 1993 in the fictional town of Ballylack which is at least to me a stand in for Carson’s hometown of Ballymena. Though Carson does not deal directly with the conflict, her work helped me understand the political dynamics in Northern Ireland because she paints a vibrant and eloquent picture of the Unionist community. There are no stereotypes in her portrait of the Unionist community – only pictures of real people.
Last, but certainly not least, my understanding of the conflict has been informed by poets. A large part of my work at Queens has focused on the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. In understanding what things were like in Northern Ireland in 1998, there has been no better guide than Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (a version of Sophocles' Philoctetes). Heaney paints a picture of suffering at the end of the Trojan War with a protagonist who has a wound that will not heal. Yet despite all the pain, there is hope.
As Heaney puts it in the lines that President Clinton quoted in his visit to Derry in 1995:
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Heaney’s words, which resonated with many of those who hammered out the Good Friday/Belfast, offer as good a picture of politics in Northen Ireland in the late 1990s as any history.
Though not as well-known as Heaney, John Hewitt’s work also have given me valuable insights into the politics of Northern Ireland. I stumbled on one of the blue plaques for him in Belfast. The blue plaques note the residences of famous individuals. This made me curious to learn more about him and it was a fascinating journey. Hewitt explored the many identities of Northern Ireland in a forward and direct manner. Hewitt’s place in the literary cannon defies easy characterization. He is best known for contributing the lines for the memorial to the victims of the Omagh bombing: “Bear in mind these dead.”
My message to my fellow conflict transformation and social justice students is to keep reading all the history, international relations, political science, and sociology works you can, but somehow find time to sneak in some poetry, plays and novels.
Fiction sometimes tells you more than non-fiction.
Martin is a postgraduate student on the Masters degree programme: Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. His dissertation focuses on The Politics of Persuasion: How the Irish Republican Leadership Sold the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to their Constituency.