Study hatred, and healing might follow

February 1, 2002

I was recently reading the essays of the great Argentinian Jorges Luis Borges, and I came across a remarkable piece titled The Concept of an Academy and the Celts , which outlined the curious propensity, as he saw it, in the Irish - and the Celts - for the creation of academies for the formalisation of learning.

He was writing about the ancient Irish bardic academies and I began to wonder if there was any connection between our resolve to found and develop an academy devoted to contemporary concepts of multiculturalism and the plurality of identities and the bardic instinct to categorise and classify learning, in particular those branches of it related to language and power.

There is a satisfying appositeness in placing the headquarters of our new Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at Magee in Derry/Londonderry, because the bardic order was a survival, into the Christian era, of the pagan druids. "Druid" means something like "finding the oak tree", and the name Derry means "oak grove", indicating that the site had a special druidic significance.

But I would not like to give the impression that we are going to go all numinous and mystical. Although we are committed to exploring varieties of tradition we are convinced that tradition, like culture, is not "always something that was", in the words of that unlikely bardic inheritor, Patrick Kavanagh.

Heritages - the word is deliberately plural in the title: somehow the awkwardness of that fits because it makes people think - are constructed in the here and now; the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about "those others" derive from emotional and political needs that influence profoundly how we see, even what we see. Our academy is dedicated to an interdisciplinary exploration of the ways in which need, prejudice and anxiety create those stories that we tell ourselves and imprint their stamp on the memories that we cherish.

The academy, launched in October, combines subjects from history and geography - its director Brian Graham is a cultural geographer - folklore, language and music. It is intended to be a laboratory for cultural inquiry into how heritages are formed and reformed as history presses forward into the past. Based alongside the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies - headed by John Wilson - it has begun a number of joint projects, including an anthology of Ulster-Scots writing.

My colleagues and I would argue that there could be no more salutary form of intellectual inquiry in Ireland, north or south, than the investigation into how cultures construct their belief systems about identities, traditions and territories. We know only too well the appalling consequences when culturally opposed ideologies engage with total ferocity; when a territory or a route is claimed as belonging exclusively to one side; or when one theology demonises another. What we are trying to interrogate is the process whereby hatred opens up a gulf between one side and "the other". That process, as William Blake told us, "grows in the human brain", and nowhere else.

The kind of learning to which the academy is devoted has to do, therefore, with the growth of self-awareness in respect of how heritages are formed, which implies analysis of how identities define themselves by means of opposition. Self-consciousness becomes sterile and violent if it does not admit the other. And that is what we believe the academy can achieve: through close interrogation and analysis to create an open space to belong in, where belonging sheds any connotation of "this place belongs exclusively to us", whoever the "us" might be.

The split condition of the city in which the academy has its headquarters is reflected in the binomial ambiguity of its naming: "Derry" implies the Gaelic tradition, the "London" prefix carries the burden of the planter heritage. The naming and the territory can imply possession, no-surrender, dispossession, surrender.

In the aftermath of the New York cataclysm in September, such concerns may seem self-centred, insular, myopic, what Louis MacNeice described as Ireland's "assumption that everyone cares/Who is king of your castle". That's from Autumn Journal (1938), where he also wrote: "There is no immunity in this island either."

The contemporary Irish experience of the difficult accommodations inherent in peace-building may provide a relevant field of inquiry into how hatreds are formed. Learning must translate into actuality. One aspect of that relevance, in the arts, has to do with seeking to understand the dynamics of power and their relationship with languages, traditions and heritages. And that, indeed, as Borges knew, was what the Irish bards focused on: power; how it gets handed on; how it can be expressed; and how it can be transformed, by exercise of the will and intellect, into justice.

Robert Welch is professor of English and dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Ulster.

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