For some 30 of those years – from around 1966 until around 1998 – Northern Ireland’s presence in world news was almost exclusively characterised by the records of political violence – most often intimate and inter-communal, but sometimes epic in scale, horror and global attention. In more recent times, the story has been about the painstaking construction of ‘peace’, brick by brick, a means of coexistence between vexed communities and their allegiances to language, religion, loyalty and spirit, which, though radically at odds, also have much in common.
But this is not to say anything at all about the people, whose intense history of conflict on a local level within Northern Ireland, has been a backdrop for vigorous social, entrepreneurial, cultural and artistic achievement which belies its relatively small population of 1.5 million. Nor is it to say anything about the narratives of resistance, accommodation, camaraderie, neighbourliness, stubbornness and fidelity, which the whole population share as common values. In spite of everything, and because of everything, the old phrase, much abused as a characterisation of the region, resurfaces again and again – ‘oul decency’.
Ours is a society still in transition; it is a culture still contested; it presents still a host of symbols and signals which are in question and do not sustain universal consent; it is struggling with its own past and the victims – the dead and survivors – within it; it is facing in to the big questions of what justice is; how the difficult past can be marked and remembered without being an occasion for hurt or a provocation of further conflict; what, in short, ‘peace’ is and how it works.
The French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida talking about the poetry of the Jewish Egyptian Edmond Jabès: ““Freedom allies and exchanges itself with that which restrains it, with everything it receives from a buried origin, with the gravity which situates its center and its site. … Provided that this Site is not … an enclosure, a place of exclusion, a province or a ghetto. When a Jew or a poet proclaims the Site, he is not declaring war. For this site, this land, calling to us from beyond memory, is always elsewhere. The site is not the empirical and national Here of a territory. It is immemorial, and thus also a future. Better: it is tradition as adventure.”
An Xpedition to Northern Ireland, especially one with a base in the extraordinary fulcrum of disquiet which is ‘Belfast’, and which includes stays in Derry/Londonderry and Enniskillen, must take its bearings from all these contexts of memory and location, place and elsewhere, the ‘here’ and ‘there’, the existing and the coming into being. The itinerary on offer for visiting artists will try to gather in much of what has been described here, but absolutely with clear and complex nuancing of the obvious. The experiences will encompass visual arts exhibition and practice, music traditional and contemporary, storytelling, social engagement, movies, bus tours, murals, poetry, bread-making, history, reflection, song, food, and – above all – talk and its many miracles.
While the obvious, in Northern Ireland, is everywhere, the subtleties and delicacies and generosities – and the hurt – are not always as immediately visible.
And it is, in some ways, the invisible which is the true focus of the Xpedition.