Would You Say that Your (Artistic) Practice is Political?

Annemarie Ni Churreain, June 2016

Even as a child I was aware of a political atmosphere, a particular tension underlying the everyday. I grew up in northwest Donegal in the 1980s, flanked on one side by the Atlantic, on the other by a troubled political border. It was by most standards a wild, free experience of the world, though I remember what it meant to cross the border at night and see a gun over the rim of a car window. I remember the queue halfway out the door of the local job center on dole day and the pale, almost dreamless faces of bored young men. I remember how the local women, my mother among them, sat up on many nights knitting Aran jumpers for a white van that came in the morning from an American retail company. I remember what it was to have a father in London, working in the tunnels, sending back money each week, handwritten letters from a bedsit.

What is poetry, after all, if not the pursuit of a source, the wellspring? So, yes my nature is political.

Where I come from has, for a long time, suffered a degree of social and economic voicelessness. It’s the island’s edge, a bogplace slowly being robbed of its own language. To not acknowledge that this landscape has of course shaped my practice, how I think, and what I choose to write about, is to disregard the relationship between social power and consciousness; everyday living and art. In my work, I’m quite interested in the concept of »home,« and how our earliest experiences form identity. What is poetry, after all, if not the pursuit of a source, the wellspring? So, yes my nature is political. Yes, my work is concerned with the environment outside itself. In my poetry, even a cow in a field, or the way a ray of light moves across a sill speaks of my history, and the lens with which I see things. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and my ideas, whatever they might be, are formed in a country that still imposes massive restrictions on female reproductive rights and allows 6,000 children to exist in a dysfunctional care system. How can I write about love or loss without considering all this or the fact that I myself am a granddaughter of the Irish Catholic church mother and baby homes?

Ireland this year celebrates the centenary of the 1916 Rising, a revolution against British rule in the country. Among the small group of poorly-armed rebels were artists, writers, musicians, actors, and intellectuals. On the day of the main political events, the incendiary play Cathleen Ni Houlihan by Yeats was due to open on the national theater stage. I’ve heard it said, and eloquently argued, that the role of poetry or artists in this revolt has been romanticized, overestimated. But neither should it be dismissed. In Ireland our sense of dreaming remains intertwined with the arts, our sense of place is paralleled with a longing to recreate ourselves. We’re islanders after all. As our national program of centenary events draws to a close, I ask myself: what role do artists continue to have in effecting social and political change in Ireland? How are we activated (or not) by the political climate? What moments of beauty and meaning can we bring to the arena of power? For me the answer is simple: artists provoke the world.

Annemarie Ni Churreain is an Irish poet and essayist. More information about her work can be found here.