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“Bubbles of joy”: Moments of Pleasure in recent Northern Irish Culture

Caroline Magennis
p. 155-168

Résumés

Cet article s’intéresse à la représentation du plaisir dans trois textes nord-irlandais « post »-conflit : le roman de Glenn Patterson The Rest Just Follows (2014), la pièce de Billy Cowan Still Ill (2014) and le recueil de nouvelles de Lucy Caldwell Multitudes (2016). Il s’écarte du cadre théorique de la théorie du trauma souvent privilégié pour l’étude de la culture nord-irlandaise et plaide pour la reconnaissance de la pluralité d’expériences que représentent ces textes. Il emprunte des outils théoriques à Lauren Berlant, Heather Love, Laura Frost et Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick et aborde la spécificité de la topographie affective dans laquelle les écrivains du Nord de l’Irlande inscrivent leurs plaisirs. Ces textes récents montrent des rencontres sexuelles queer et non-reproductives sur fond de régulation socio-politique des mœurs et de la morale. Cependant, cet article démontre que ces textes n’ont pas seulement valeur de métonymies, mais qu’ils présentent des expériences sensuelles complexes qui enrichissent notre compréhension du paysage émotionnel de l’Irlande du Nord.

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  • 1 I would like to thank the London Irish Seminar at the Institute for English Studies, Senate House, (...)
  • 2 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, New York, Colombia Universit (...)

“Pleasure1 can get out of hand2.”

  • 3 Recent examples include: Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem”s The Literature of Northern Ireland: Spectral B (...)
  • 4 Recent examples include: Bill Rolston, “Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland: The Current Stat (...)

1It might be stating the obvious to assert that Irish literary and cultural criticism is in thrall to trauma, violence and a reconsideration of the most contested elements of the past. Critical texts often use psychoanalytic and deconstructive frameworks, including the work of Cathy Caruth and Dominic Le Capra in their analysis3. There are intellectual and institutional imperatives for this focus, and comparative perspectives are often thought to yield a way out of Irish exceptionalism, but an over-deterministic focus on a painful past has come to dominate criticism on Northern texts. In this age of the academic funding imperative, particularly in the British climate with the impact agenda, many projects have sprung up to discuss “dealing with the past” and the commemoration of violent events.4 There is a danger that literature and culture have come to be used in instrumental ways, to discuss what they can tell us about the politics of the author or a particular historical moment and they are often read as palliatives for perceived ethical gaps in a flawed process. The frustration is palpable and understandable; critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do. But, quite often in these analyses, literature is not set within its formal contexts and culture is expected to do transformative ethical and political work. This impulse has also led to those texts which are seen to engage most directly with political violence receiving not only disproportionate critical attention, but also being widely taught to “sex up” courses on Northern Irish culture. Through this process, trauma texts come to dominate the focus of Northern Irish literary scholarship, while texts which speak to broader political questions are elided from the cultural landscape. Of course, this goes to the heart of a fundamental issue of academic value: what critical objects are worthy of study and why? What is considered to be a “serious” object of academic inquiry in this area and who gets to speak for these objects?

  • 5 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, op. cit., p. 25.

2While a focus on trauma is perhaps natural in this political and social context, it is not sufficient to explain contemporary Northern Irish culture’s engagement with history, politics and sexuality. Consequently, this essay advocates for something of a critical turn – a turn towards the representation of pleasure in Northern Irish texts. Moments of pleasure within literature and culture will be examined as a space for exploration and contestation of hegemonic ideas of home, sexuality and political life. However, while undertaking this reassessment we must be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between a “pleasure text” and a “trauma text”: Northern Irish literature and culture has moments of both, often situated side by side. The issue here, then, is not with texts but with readings, and the aim is not to replicate one over-deterministic critical practice with another. Instead I propose we seek out moments of pleasure and let them stand beside moments of pain, to do justice to the myriad of affective states expressed by Northern Irish writers. This essay will consider depictions of pleasure in a selection of recent texts which are written by authors from Northern Ireland and which engage directly with both this geographical context and also with pleasure in the “post”-conflict era: Glenn Patterson’s novel The Rest Just Follows (2014), Billy Cowan’s play Still Ill (2014) and Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection Multitudes (2016). The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate, or whether the sexual charge still lies in the fissures of unresolved conflict. On this, I follow Laura Frost’s reading of “pleasure as a bodily, individual experience that is simultaneously located in a social field as well as, most importantly, a textual one5”.This essay will situate Northern Irish pleasure in its social and textual contexts and suggest that there is a “new pleasure” that has emerged in Northern Irish texts.

  • 6 Alexander Beaumont, Contemporary British Fiction and The Cultural Politics Of Disenfranchisement, B (...)
  • 7 Eve Sedgwick, Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, Duke University Press, 2 (...)

3Alexander Beaumont discusses how a representational burden was felt on British fiction during the decline of leftist politics in the 1980s as “the expectation placed on expressive culture to do the work of political action”. However, he notes that “today, the British novel is frequently marked by structures of failed utopianism, frustrated or incomplete experiments and even withdrawal and quietism6”. Beaumont’s identification of the consequences of critical expectations on British fiction can be compared to the current situation in Northern Ireland, and we must guard against the ossifying effects of wanting literature to fit into our critical and political paradigms. The distinction should be drawn between this sort of broad, political utopian project and the generative possibilities espoused by Eve Sedgwick in her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” (2003)7. As Robyn Wiegman summarises, Sedgwick’s approach to reading and recovering is:

  • 8 Robyn Wiegman, “The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism And The Reparative ‘Turn’”, Feminist T (...)

about learning how to build small worlds of sustenance that cultivate a different present and future for the losses one has suffered. You could say that it’s about loving what hurts but instead of using that knowledge to prepare for a vigilant stand against repetition, it responds to the future with an affirmative richness8.

  • 9 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, op. cit., p. 12
  • 10 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Durham, Duke, 2010, p. xvi.
  • 11 Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Oxford, Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, p. 27.

4In what follows I will consider how contemporary Northern Irish culture can create these “small worlds of sustenance” and how writing about the past also has the potential to foreground intimacy in a body of work more normally associated with trauma and violence. In this context, the writing of mutually enjoyable intimate encounters, which will be broadly conceived of as “pleasures”, has the power to realign traditional cultural narratives of sexuality, family and the domestic. These representations stand against what we might call the “melancholic erotic” in Northern Irish writing: where intimacy is asked to repeatedly stand in for the politics of the Troubles. Examples of this include Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades series, where Kevin and Sadie’s cross-community relationship is set up as a paradigm of political co-operation, or in Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, where the ceasefires are met with a surge of sexual activity among Jake Jackson and his friends. However, there could be the suggestion that this is merely replacing one set of ossifying representations for another, and expecting the erotic to be a political agent. Instead, we can think of the experiments of pleasure as moments which do not have to stand for anything else but themselves. Pleasure is an easy metonym when it is written in purely orgasmic terms, that is as an end in itself. As Laura Frost notes “in the same way that an orgasm-centred theory of sexuality does not account for vast registers of eroticism, the idea of pleasure as a performance that has ended or a dam that has burst imposes false borders on the experience9”. The space between desire and the traditional ideas of satiation (through climax) can be written as an experimental place of connection and collaboration. A criticism aware to the powers of pleasure in Northern Ireland will be alert to the imposition of these “false borders” in more ways than one. This essay will argue that beginning to account for these “vast registers of eroticism” (devoid of false borders) is exceptionally powerful in Northern Ireland if we want to loosen the representational stranglehold on sexuality. These moments cannot be forced into dominant reading paradigms but can, instead, be aberrations in texts which have been read as straightforwardly political. I want to follow what in Time Binds (2010), Elizabeth Freeman describes as “the unintelligible or resistant moment” alongside how Virginia Woolf uses the idea of the “moment” in Mrs Dalloway (1925), to convey a variety of temporally constrained pleasures10.While Woolf’s repeated use of this term varies, it is in her iconic encounter with Sally Seton (“Only for a moment; but it was enough”) where the moment of pleasure has the sort of power Freeman discusses11. For Woolf’s characters, these moments are as much about the realisation of pleasure as being lost in a moment, the pleasure is one of recognition. Of course, the spectre of World War One recurs throughout Woolf’s novel, and this pleasure/trauma representational bind is also prevalent in Northern Irish cultural context.

  • 12 Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love, New York, Punctum Books, 2012, p. 5.
  • 13 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure Of The Text, New York, Hill and Wang, 1975, p. 19.
  • 14 Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love, op. cit., p. 59.

5Pleasures may be politically incorrect, we may find pleasure in trauma, the meaning of an event may shift and change over time, what once gave us pleasure may no longer hold appeal, particularly under scrutiny. Lauren Berlant reminds us that, in criticism, there “is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disputed by someone with a theory12”. Literature and culture are sites where we consume for pleasure but also see pleasure represented. That is, to follow Roland Barthes, both the pleasures in the text and the pleasure of the text. In The Pleasure of the Text (1973) he distinguishes between Plaisir/Pleasure as “euphoria, fulfilment, comfort” from jouissance/Bliss as “shock, disturbance, even loss13”. However, this term is also used by French feminist thinkers to unpack what they see as the radical power of female sexuality, such as in Helene Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror as “that sublime affect which shatters or overwhelms the subject’s stability in language, identity and therefore also in society. In this conceptualization, women are positioned to generate a radically different kind of language, law and desire14”.

  • 15 Frost, The Problem with Pleasure, New York, Colombia University Press, 2013, p. 7.

6However, Barthes, Cixous and Kristeva foreground the more extreme sensation rather than explore the symbolic potential of “euphoria, fulfilment, comfort” to be politically transgressive. To write about bliss can be radical, but to examine everyday intimate life in culture might also reveal a great deal. Frost notes that pleasure is “semantically unconstrained and apparently ahistorical, although close attention to the way the word is deployed will reveal that one era’s pleasure is not the same as another’s15”. It is this ambivalent historicity of pleasure that I want to draw out: how it lives in the place between cultural construction and “pure” feeling. One encounter can waver between these modes and as we slip in and out of our heads and bodies. A “moment” of pleasure, then, can be powerful indeed, particularly in its relationship to ideas around analysis: we have a developed psycho-critical apparatus to discuss desire and a physiological language for orgasm, but less debated is the broader construction of erotic pleasure with and without the assumed end.

  • 16 Heather Love, Feeling Backward, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 1.
  • 17 Fintan Walsh, “Saving Ulster from Sodomy and Hysteria: Sex, Politics and Performance”, Contemporary (...)
  • 18 Tim Hume, “Farmer orders Rihanna to cover up during risqué video shoot”, The Independent, 28th Sept (...)

7If pleasure is something which is difficult to critically discuss, or resistant, this process is even more fraught in a society where the dominant critical paradigm is the discussion of trauma. The challenge for this criticism is how to attend to the present moment and also gesture towards futurity. This paradox is well expressed by Heather Love in Feeling Backwards (2007) where she argues that a “central paradox of any transformative criticism is that its dreams for the future are founded on a history of suffering, stigma and violence16”. To consider how culture might represent Northern Irish intimate life we can bear in mind Love’s ideas about how queer culture responds to its painful past. Culture can respond to this imperative: it can move beyond this paradigm, be haunted by it or develop new forms of writing about intimate life. It is, of course, complex to foreground pleasure while still acknowledging and respecting the years of suffering in Northern Ireland. Ireland, North and South, has a complex judicial and cultural relationship to pleasure in addition to the mainstream biopolitics by which populations are managed. Fintan Walsh, for example, notes “the centrality of gender and sexual power dynamics to the maintenance of social and political stability in the North17”. Indeed, instances of the perceived danger of sexuality are not hard to find in Northern Irish public life, whether the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign or the recent controversy around Rihanna’s clothing when filming in Clandeboye.18 However, this is obviously an over-simplistic stereotypical view of Northern Ireland as a sexually repressed society which does not necessarily map on to either culture or people’s lived experience.

8Instead of thinking that all people in Northern Ireland are under the yoke of unassailable prohibition, we can turn instead to cultural representations where sexuality was so often used metonymically for sectarian politics – metonyms where the language of sensuality was not often co-opted. Turning towards pleasure as a critical practice should not negate anyone’s lived experience of violent conflict and the continuing legacy of the conflict. These two ideas do not have to compete: discussing pleasure in culture does not lessen anyone else’s experience of victimhood, but it does raise some questions about why, politically, pleasure is a taboo. In Northern Irish political discourse, the language of desire/want/demand occurs quite frequently, but the language of bliss/satiation/fulfilment is less common. The Good Friday Agreement inaugurated a consociationalist political economy that relies on the tacit agreement that neither community has their political wishes fully satisfied. More so than most political settlements, the terms of Power Sharing in Northern Ireland have relied upon leaders from both communities claiming victory when, in truth, it was impossible to fulfill both national desires concomitantly. The status quo is maintained as long as both parties are satisfied with being dissatisfied. To describe positive, contented feelings can feel inappropriate to the political moment; to claim that you’re experiencing pleasure can limit your political bargaining in the discourse of truth and reconciliation.

  • 19 Clair Wills, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry, Oxford, Clarendon Pres (...)

9In addition to this frustrated body politic, the language of desire has a complex relationship with religious and national ideologies. The political power of sexuality in the Northern Irish experience has been detailed by Clair Wills, in Improprieties (1993). Wills notes that “maternal sexuality, prostitution, homosexuality, or simply explicit sex, sex for pleasure and adolescent sex – become ways of questioning the propriety of political processes, nationalist and unionist concepts of community, and the very basis of the idea of home19”. When the denial of sexual autonomy and bodily rights is one of the few things Northern Irish political parties have in common, small worlds of sustenance, small intimacies, can be radical. This is not to say that the people of Northern Ireland must “fuck for peace” but rather turn towards cultural representations of sexuality that resist the over-deterministic focus on one type of experience. As critics, we must embrace these improprieties as moments of pleasure that can refute totalising narratives of power and rethink the power of cultural depictions of intimate life.

  • 20 I address the history of sexual violence against women in Northern Ireland in “‘That’s not so comfo (...)

10Literature written during the Troubles used the love plot as a political metonym or used the erotic charge of the conflict in a way which often drew its sexual energy solely from asymmetries of power or the charge of the cross-community taboo. Widows were often fetishise, particularly by men who were implicated in their husband’s deaths, such as Marcella in Cal (1983), and female combatants on screen were depicted as highly sexualised, such as Jude in The Crying Game (1992). In particular, the Troubles novels of Eoin McNamee feature sexual encounters that have a complex relationship with the idea of pleasure, such as the ill-fated brothel in The Ultras (2004) or Victor Kelly’s relationships in Resurrection Man (1994). While that is in keeping with the highly stylised noir aesthetic of his crime fiction, the representational optics are clear: in these fictions, it is often the historical context that is imbued with an erotic charge. When it has occurred, Northern Irish textual pleasure has had a distinct focus on the male orgasm. Women’s writing such as Mary Beckett’s Give Them Stones (1987) and Anna Burns’ No Bones (2001), often, and for understandable reasons, equate sexuality with forced reproduction, abuse and traumatic pregnancy. This responds to the legacy of moral conservatism and silence around sexual violence in Northern Ireland20. But, to draw attention to representation of politically-charged sexuality is a certain kind of exceptionalism which ignores kinship with the exploration of this topic by both British and Irish authors. For example, Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (2004) and Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing (1992), directly contrast homosexuality and the AIDS crisis with their political context, Thatcher and Haughey respectively. Similarly, Jeanette Winterson’s depiction of lesbian sexuality is set against the evangelical community in the North of England in Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985). Anne Enright’s novels often juxtapose sensual and erotic pleasures against the constraints placed upon women in their public and private lives. Compared to Northern Ireland, then, authors from Britain and Ireland are equally engaged in placing pleasure alongside political and social concerns.

  • 21 Billy Cowan, Smilin” Through & Still Ill, Portsmouth, Playdead Press, 2014, p. 138.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 158.

11The interplay of politics and pleasure is explored in the work of Billy Cowan, a playwright from County Down whose plays have been performed in London, Birmingham and in theatres in Greater Manchester, including in the Contact theatre in Manchester and the Lowry in Salford. Cowan’s play Still Ill, follows the return of a gay exile to Strangford to find his brother, Dave, and sister-in-law, Elaine, running a sex shop with proceeds from drug dealing. Elaine claims she bribed the local “Ulster says No brigade” with pornographic magazines and that “We’re now the sex an’ drugs capital of the North. We have swinger nights down at The Oul Cross. And you’ll love this… there’s even a cruising ground for dirty old queers like yourself21”. In this play, Cowan clearly sets out to excavate the secret pleasure seekers from suburban Northern Ireland and to expose the hypocrisy of the way in which the repression of sexuality is used for political gain. Tommy details his happy, bourgeois queer life in Manchester – he even has an allotment – but cannot resist the lure of his former teenage crush, Gary, and this despite the revelation that Gary is involved in the intimidation of Tommy’s brother. Here, the traditional Troubles erotic of the “sexy hard-man” is queered to the soundtrack of The Smiths, but as Gary sings “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, Tommy resits this nostalgic imperative: “The hunger strikes. The bombings. The Riots. The unemployment. Great stuff22.” The tension in this encounter is between Gary wanting to unravel the minutiae of the past – re-enacting it in their adolescent outdoor adventures – and Tommy wanting to forget the past, a past linked with his mother rejecting him before her death. Finally, the rational, restrained Tommy breaks down his reserve and shares a tactile erotic memory:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 182.

I remember you lifting me up and kissing me on the forehead when I agreed that I Know It’s Over was a far superior song to There’s a Light That Never Goes Out. I remember the reflection of the fire in your pupils and thinking how fucking beautiful you were23.

12It transpires that during that fateful summer Gary slept with nearly everyone they knew, but it is the legacy of paramilitary gang structures in Northern Ireland, rather than the homosexual love plot, that leads the play to its tragic dénouement.

13Cowan’s depiction of Northern Irish pleasure is complex, then, and demonstrates the continued hold of the Troubles taboo over the depiction of eroticism in Northern Ireland. Tommy and Gary are each other’s fetish: Tommy as the bourgeois queer migrant offers Gary the promise of a different lifestyle while Gary as the queer hard-man allows Tommy to reconcile his sexual awakening in Northern Ireland to the present moment. As noted earlier, it was not that politically transgressive erotic encounters, such as Gary and Tommy’s, were not happening, but that they were not culturally depicted. Not every Loyalist enforcer was rigidly heterosexual: former UDA hitman Sam “Skelly” McCrory is now a Gay Rights Campaigner and Jim “Doris Day” Grey was widely regarded to have been bisexual. However, the taboo over homosexual relationships is strong in both communities. Writing about the Save Ulster from Sodomy (1977) campaign, Sean Brady notes that for Ian Paisley:

  • 24 Sean Brady, “Ian Paisley (1926-2014) and the “Save Ulster From Sodomy!” Campaign”, Notches Blog [ht (...)

Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people at the very least would be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives, freedom of action and sense of agency24.

  • 25 Billy Cowan, Smilin” Through & Still Ill, op. cit., p. 171.

14While conflict taboos are still at the root of sexuality in Still Ill, the tension between Tommy and Gary can be read as symptomatic of a wider conflict: those who left Ireland during the Troubles and those who stayed. The story of the Irish homecoming is, of course, common to the point of cliché, but Cowan allows this story of domestic, intimate life to play as a queer melodrama. In many ways, the structure of the play is fairly conventional: Cowan employs realism in his short scenes over experimental techniques. This serves to contrast the play’s queerness against the more straightforwardly “political” realism of the usual “Troubles” play. The pleasures in Cowan’s text contrast strongly with the rest of the narrative: they are punctures and interruptions in an otherwise standard Troubles drama plot about enforcers and conflicts of family loyalties. The queer sex in the play begins aggressively and fits in with traditional representations of sexuality in Northern Irish writing: “they start to make passionate, almost violent love25”. However, this initial violence is transformed into something approaching real intimacy or, at least, as much as the stage allows. The violence of the Troubles keeps intruding after intimate interludes, as public political life steps on private intimacies.

  • 26 Ibid., p. 196.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 202.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 227.

15The sexual other that engenders the intimate encounters in the text is the presence of the North of England, through Tommy’s homecoming and the continued references to Steven Morrissey. Specific moments of pleasure (lyrical and acoustic) from Morrissey’s oeuvre are eroticised when Gary uses their adolescent charge in his seduction of Tommy: “a few crates a beer, my Smiths CDs and a couple a hundred of condoms26.” In this sense, Morrissey becomes a way for them to navigate their erotic lives, to make sense of their moments. The play represents a host of small intimacies from play wrestling to playing cards and bawdy jokes (“Nah, my taste is in your arse27”). However, these moments of pleasure and queer potential with the narrative do not signal queer futurity. In Cowan’s drama, queer representational politics and the conventions of the Troubles drama intersect: the fatalistic catalyst is the spectre of the Troubles rather than of the AIDS epidemic. The play’s final moments sees the lovers torn apart by the threat of political violence, and an ambiguous, possibly fatal, conclusion. Gary’s final cry is high melodrama filtered through the language of The Smiths: “My eyes were closed and all I could see was you […] It’s always been you. […] Tommy don’t walk away! […] Tommy! To die by yer side28…” Before this, Gary had expressed intimacy to Tommy through sexual jokes, but here he expresses a painful vulnerability. This is filtered through that most fatalistic song, “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, but instead of a double-decker bus, the legacy of the Troubles appears to be the agent that intervenes in intimacy. As we will see in Patterson’s work, popular culture can offer a language for intimacy that is otherwise inaccessible in this political context.

  • 29 Laura Pelaschiar, “Transforming Belfast: the evolving role of the city in Northern Irish fiction”, (...)

16Glenn Patterson has represented bodily and emotional intimacy throughout his writing life. His novels are almost exclusively set in Northern Ireland and deal with various periods of history, whether the decades long sweep on Number 5 (2003), the birth of the Civil Rights movement in The International (1999), 19th-century shipbuilding in The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (2012) and the DeLorean factory in Gull (2016). Yet, despite these ambitious engagements with history, all of these novels have been replete with intimate moments. All of these novels, even when they deal with the violence of the Troubles, feature characters who experience pleasurable moments. Patterson also co-wrote the screenplay for the film Good Vibrations (2012), one of the most notable expressions of Northern Irish joy on screen. Patterson’s body of work, then, allows histories of pleasure and trauma to weave together but his work is often read over-deterministically for what it can tell us about a liberal Protestant tradition of writing29. This, however, is to miss the texture and the complexity of his writing, which treats pleasure with the same narrative power as political violence. The Rest Just Follows (2014) deals with a broad swathe of history from the 1970s to the present day and offers a variety of pleasurable encounters. The novel spans the adolescence to middle age of Maxine, St John and Craig and is filled with nostalgic detail, from cigarette brands to fashion and film. Rather than a literary quotation, the title and epigraph is from Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen (2013) about the nature of adolescent friendship. While diverse sexual encounters are woven throughout the narrative, other connections are also foregrounded. This is not the heightened, politically symbolic coupling of earlier novels but the smaller intimacies of, for example, teeth brushing before sex or tea and biscuits in front of an electric fire. The significant events in the lives of the characters are their relationships, from family illnesses to new parenthood and infidelity.

  • 30 Glenn Patterson, The Rest Just Follows, London, Faber, 2014, p. 58.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 57.

17Patterson’s fiction is significant for the representation of the sort of improprieties that Wills saw as being so significant in poetry. But it is not the thrill of transgression but rather the deep ordinariness of sexual life that is remarkable in Patterson’s writing. Gay characters in his novels are not a plot device, or symbolic, rather they are just getting on with their erotic and quotidian lives. This is plaisir not jouissance. However, his novels are unique in male-authored Northern Irish writing for their representation of potent, active female desire. The adolescent sexuality in The Rest Just Follows positively crackles, particularly the sensory stimulation of Maxine’s first fashionable haircut. The jukebox in the hairdressers “was playing a song she had never till that moment heard but would ever associate with that day, that whole period of her life30”. The song is Magazine’s “Shot by both Sides”, which in a more traditional Troubles novel would be a loaded reference, but in this case functions as an ironic commentary on the expectations of popular culture references in Northern Irish fiction. Patterson details life in the hairdressers with relish: every song, every outfit and the “cocktail” made in the hair-washing basin. As the male stylist Max circles Maxine, she takes pleasure in the details of his appearance: “He wore a T-shirt ripped at the shoulders (his arms looked to have been knotted together from the discarded material) and a pair of red-and-black-striped jeans so tight you could see the shape of him like something on the butchery counter31”.This intimate encounter is full of tactile, aural and visual pleasure, and the intimacy of the moment is carefully constructed: Maxine glimpses a nipple or an Adam’s apple or catches Maxʼs scent, she lets him completely reshape her appearance, to her eventual pleasure. It is significant that the last pleasure is Maxine’s, as she stands in that iconic hairdressers and relishes her independence.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 119.

18However, as well as these aesthetic pleasures, the novel also features some connections which carry the charge of a more well-worn Northern Irish history. Craig, our revisionist historian turned Unionist politician, rolls a joint on RF Fosterʼs book on Lord Randolph Churchill and also takes on his own dead mentor’s work as the starting point for his PhD. He begins an affair with his former teacher’s partner and this is part of a long tradition of what one might call the “sexy widow” in Northern Irish fiction, where a young man is sexually initiated by a woman whose partner has died during theTroubles. Patterson’s language to describe their encounter is similar to Cowan’s: “It was frightening the way they went at one another, scratching and biting […] and for a long time after they had rolled apart neither of them could bring themselves to speak32.” This charge of history is further extended in Craig’s encounters throughout the novel, with his infidelity to Maxine arising from his speaking engagements at peace-building conferences. However, this is not to say that representing pleasure linked to the Troubles is wrong, or regressive, or that people who experience such pleasures are inapposite. What is significant is that Patterson gives us a range of pleasures and desirous engagements with history: all of his characters suffer missed connections or loss; they are affected by the political context to a greater or lesser degree, but all of them know intimate connections that cannot be read easily as political metonyms.

19As new generations of writers emerge in Northern Ireland, new variants of pleasure have been explored. Lucy Caldwell is the author of three novels, Where They Were Missed (2006), The Meeting Point (2011), and All the Beggars Riding (2013), which was chosen for Belfast’s and Derry’s “One City One Book” initiative. Her novels, like Patterson’s, are often dense with sensuality: Where they Were Missed has moments of heady teenage obsession which are observed in careful detail. All the Beggars Riding presents a daughter imagining her mother’s seduction of her absentee father, right down to the negligee. This novel is deeply concerned with the power of connection and disconnection, and Lara’s visceral identification with the city of Belfast as a sensual object is a central narrative catalyst. Under consideration here, though, will be a story from her 2016 collection Multitudes. The short story, formally, can be better equipped to consider moments of pleasure, since it does not always have the same narrative baggage as the novel where pleasures can often feel like interludes within the prose. The short story can be read as a self-contained unit, an enclosed structure that can carry the intensity of a pleasurable moment in a manner which would be unsustainable if held over 300 pages.

  • 33 Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes, London, Faber, 2016, p. 113.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 129.

20Lucy Caldwell’s short story “Here We Are” demonstrates both the possibilities of this genre as well as the power of the representation of female desiring subjects. The story centres around two schoolgirls who fall in love after being asked to perform a duet at a school concert. Angle’s father is a staunch Unionist councillor whose opprobrium eventually separates them. However, rather than focus on the ways in which the story carefully traces the structural operations of homophobia, the narrative concentrates on Belfast as a site of pleasure. The title, “Here We Are” functions as the loversʼ refrain, grounding their romance geographically. The city becomes another character in the loversʼ tale, providing long walks from Cutters Wharf “along the Lagan and through the Holylands; Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Damascus Street, Cairo Street […]. The tide is turning and a two-person canoe is skimming downriver, slate grey and quicksilver33”. The story, then, is replete with Belfast pleasures. Indeed, the narrative’s most significant specter is not historical or political but rather an afternoon over coffee in The Other Place on Botanic Avenue where “I felt as if my blood was singing – that sparks were shooting from me34”. This encounter is rendered in intimate detail, where the girls imagine an unselfconscious future where they can express their intimate desires.

  • 35 Ibid., p. 126.

21When our narrator first begins to feel desire for Angie, she is unable to fully express her longing as anything other than a bodily sensation. Their exchanges before their sexual intimacy are fraught with sensual power as Caldwell deftly explores the all-consuming nature of adolescent desire and the power of moments of pleasure. Throughout the story, she represents lesbian sexuality as a joyous, unselfconscious pleasure: “We started giggling again, ridiculous bubbles of joy35.” She repeatedly uses words like “easy” and “free”, which is directly contrasted with their eventual shaming and break-up. Following the Marriage Equality March, she considers looking up the now-married Angela but, walking the streets of East Belfast in her dreams, decides that her desirous memories are enough. These moments are reminiscent of Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Sexton’s carefree adolescent flirtation and are written by Caldwell as snapshots of possibility. Their moments of desire are playful and temporarily unconstrained by political forces. As critics, we do not want to render the pure, unconstrained joy that leaps off the page tawdry with an over-deterministic political reading of the politics of Unionist lesbianism. For Caldwell, pleasure and desire are utopian spaces where experimentation can flourish.

  • 36 Berlant, Desire/Love, p. 43.

22It is clear that, in these fictions published in the 2010s, certain key themes predominate. Adolescent sexual awakenings are set against the morally repressive political regime in Northern Ireland. Queer and non-reproductive sex occurs frequently, and it is difficult to make any one act among many symbolic of political allegiance. Representations of sensuality, whether interpreted as improprieties or resistant moments, are rampant in recent Northern Irish writing but critical work has yet to catch up with this “new pleasure” or to reclaim the texts from the past’s limiting paradigms. Cowen, Caldwell and Patterson demonstrate, at times, markedly different approaches to the interplay of sexuality and recent history. When set against a cultural and critical climate where sexuality is used in over-deterministic, instrumental ways these representations can challenge representational and interpretive norms. Berlant notes that “even if desire fails to find objects adequate to its aim, its errors can still produce pleasure: desire’s fundamental ruthlessness is a source of creativity that produces new optimism, new narratives of possibility, even erotic experimentality36”. With these directives in mind, we must not treat Northern Irish culture as an instrumental tool to do the ethical work of politicians. Instead we must listen out for small words of sustenance these texts contain, be it in new forms, new desires or new pleasures. Our critical work must take on the same impulse as this erotic experimentation.

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Notes

1 I would like to thank the London Irish Seminar at the Institute for English Studies, Senate House, for inviting me to present this work and to Christopher Vardy and Jane Kilby for their comments on drafts of this piece.

2 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, New York, Colombia University Press, 2013, p. 8.

3 Recent examples include: Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem”s The Literature of Northern Ireland: Spectral Borderlands, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; Shane Alcobia-Murphy, “‘Snared by Words’: Trauma and the Shoah in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian”, Études Irlandaises, 36-1 (2011), 109-120; and Robert F. Garratt, Trauma and History in the Irish Novel: The Return of the Dead, New York:, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

4 Recent examples include: Bill Rolston, “Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland: The Current State of Play”, Estudios Irlandeses, 8 (2013), 143-149; and John D. Brewer and Bernadette C. Hayes, “Victimhood and Attitudes towards Dealing with the Legacy of a Violent Past: Northern Ireland as a Case Study”, The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 17.3 (2015), p. 512-530.

5 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, op. cit., p. 25.

6 Alexander Beaumont, Contemporary British Fiction and The Cultural Politics Of Disenfranchisement, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2015, p. 2.

7 Eve Sedgwick, Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 123-153.

8 Robyn Wiegman, “The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism And The Reparative ‘Turn’”, Feminist Theory, 15 (2014), 11.

9 Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, op. cit., p. 12

10 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Durham, Duke, 2010, p. xvi.

11 Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Oxford, Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, p. 27.

12 Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love, New York, Punctum Books, 2012, p. 5.

13 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure Of The Text, New York, Hill and Wang, 1975, p. 19.

14 Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love, op. cit., p. 59.

15 Frost, The Problem with Pleasure, New York, Colombia University Press, 2013, p. 7.

16 Heather Love, Feeling Backward, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 1.

17 Fintan Walsh, “Saving Ulster from Sodomy and Hysteria: Sex, Politics and Performance”, Contemporary Theatre Review, 23.3 (2013), p. 292.

18 Tim Hume, “Farmer orders Rihanna to cover up during risqué video shoot”, The Independent, 28th September 2011.

19 Clair Wills, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993, p. 3.

20 I address the history of sexual violence against women in Northern Ireland in “‘That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?’: The spectre of misogyny in The Fall”, in Fionnaula Dillane, Naomi McAreavey and Emilie Pine (eds.), The Body in Pain in Irish Culture, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2016.

21 Billy Cowan, Smilin” Through & Still Ill, Portsmouth, Playdead Press, 2014, p. 138.

22 Ibid., p. 158.

23 Ibid., p. 182.

24 Sean Brady, “Ian Paisley (1926-2014) and the “Save Ulster From Sodomy!” Campaign”, Notches Blog [http://notchesblog.com/2014/09/16/ian-paisley-1926-2014-and-the-save-ulster-from-sodomy-campaign/] [Accessed 8th April 2016].

25 Billy Cowan, Smilin” Through & Still Ill, op. cit., p. 171.

26 Ibid., p. 196.

27 Ibid., p. 202.

28 Ibid., p. 227.

29 Laura Pelaschiar, “Transforming Belfast: the evolving role of the city in Northern Irish fiction”, Irish University Review 30.1 (2000): 117-131.

30 Glenn Patterson, The Rest Just Follows, London, Faber, 2014, p. 58.

31 Ibid., p. 57.

32 Ibid., p. 119.

33 Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes, London, Faber, 2016, p. 113.

34 Ibid., p. 129.

35 Ibid., p. 126.

36 Berlant, Desire/Love, p. 43.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Caroline Magennis, « “Bubbles of joy”: Moments of Pleasure in recent Northern Irish Culture »Études irlandaises, 42-1 | 2017, 155-168.

Référence électronique

Caroline Magennis, « “Bubbles of joy”: Moments of Pleasure in recent Northern Irish Culture »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 42-1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 29 juin 2019, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/5183 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.5183

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Auteur

Caroline Magennis

Caroline Magennis is a Lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century ­Literature at the University of Salford. She is on the executive boards for the British ­Association for Irish Studies, the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies, EFACIS, and the editorial board for the Irish Studies Review. She has published widely on theoretical approaches to Contemporary Northern Irish Literature and Culture.

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