Director of Communications and Public Relations
College of Arts & Sciences
ATLANTA — For over three decades, a period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles claimed the lives of thousands of people. In 1998, after years of tense negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement paved the way for a new age of peace and hope.
In her new book, “Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland,” Georgia State University English Professor Marilynn Richtarik draws on years of research and conversations with writers and readers to demonstrate how literature played a crucial role in the peacemaking process, and that literary works offer insight into this pivotal time in history.
Since her first visit to Northern Ireland as a Rhodes Scholar in 1989, Richtarik has been fascinated by Northern Irish literature and its relationship to contemporary politics. In “Getting to Good Friday,” she uses texts by authors including Deirdre Madden, Bernard MacLaverty and Brian Friel to show how creative writers both responded to and attempted to influence the peace process. She argues that literature can be a valuable tool for understanding history, as it can offer personal perspectives that formal historical accounts may miss. Her hope is that better understanding of history might help younger readers appreciate what has changed and open conversations between generations.
Q. How did you come to take what you’ve called an “accessible narrative” approach when studying history?
A. My undergraduate training was a joint degree in American history and literature. It’s informed everything I’ve done since then.
Literary critics will often have some kind of historical backdrop, and historians have been known to illustrate a point with reference to literary texts. But I think what’s different about this book is the extent to which I use literary analysis of texts — consideration of their formal properties, not just what they have to say about a specific subject matter, but how they’re put together — to try to help readers understand what was going on politically in that particular historical context.
I wanted to write a book that someone who didn’t really know anything about Northern Ireland (and certainly nothing much about Northern Irish literature) could read and come away with a better understanding of what happened in those years leading up to 1998 — and why it mattered, and how it allowed peace to be made. My goal with this book was to reach a wider readership, not just academics.
Q. Can you speak more to the importance of combining literature and history? What do we miss when we look at history without addressing the literary work from the time?
A. I examine them together for a couple of reasons. One is that the two are very closely intertwined. Ireland has a long history of writers being politically active and involved, and writers often write about historical developments. Nationality has been such a contested theme in Irish history and in modern Irish life. Some of the writers I discuss in the book were close friends with some of the prime movers of the peace process. Others were simply following events, but actively responding to them. There are lots of different ways in which the two connect.
Q. What did the research process look like for this book?
A. It looked different for each writer. As I tell my graduate students, professional literary criticism is all about putting literature into a context. That’s what the researcher brings to it. And that can be different things depending on what their interests and expertise are. It could be historical context. Maybe you know a lot about the history at the time and knowing that helps you to show why certain details in the text are important. I do a fair bit of that kind of contextualization. Some of it might be theoretical. Although I don’t do much of that, it’s what some people do.
Biographical research is also an important element of this book. I know most of the authors I write about, so partly it’s the personal connection. Conversations with them helped to shape the way I read their books, as did library archival research. Brian Friel’s papers, for example, are in the National Library of Ireland, including his notes and early drafts of his plays.
Q. When you were looking at these pieces of literature, they were written — in most cases — by people who were still alive. What is that experience like?
A. Once you’ve written about living people, you can’t be careless about anything you say about any writer ever again. You’re definitely conscious of that. Sometimes I had the opportunity to show this work to them, and in some cases, sadly, they died before I could do that. I was working on the Brian Friel chapter, but he died before I finished it. I did show Michael Longley and David Park what I wrote about them. And, luckily, they liked my analysis of their works. It would be difficult if they didn’t. But it’s wonderful being able to ask questions.
Q. Has your work at Georgia State with undergraduate and graduate students played a role in writing this book?
A. My teaching informs my work. Many of these texts I have taught, either at Georgia State, at Queen’s University Belfast, or both. When you’re teaching the texts, you’re talking about them with a random group of people. And I’ve talked about these works with lots of different kinds of people. I have an Irish studies book group that I run, and some of my former students are in it, and some members are just friends — people in the community who are interested in Irish literature or Irish culture. So, we’ll meet and talk. I had many of these books on the reading list, so I got lots of different perspectives. And that’s very helpful when you’re trying to decide, “What do I think about this work?”
Q. What do you want readers to take away from your new book?
A. I want them to understand what went into making the Good Friday Agreement. And I hope to inspire people to keep working toward a more cohesive society, as well as to appreciate the role that the arts play in political development.
When someone who didn’t know or care anything about the peace process reads this book and says, “Wow, I see this in a whole new way,” that’s what I’m going for.
Q. What advice do you have for those interested in learning more about world events and looking at them through a historical lens?
A. You can read history, or you can read literature. You can learn a lot about a time that way. I think of literature, in many cases, as a kind of emotional history. There’s a book by Anna Burns called “Milkman.” It won the Booker Prize a few years ago, one of the biggest prizes for an English-speaking writer. It’s set in Belfast in 1979. Burns never names the place, but she captures the feeling of it in a way that a history book probably couldn’t. It helps you understand what it felt like to live in a claustrophobic situation. I’m a big fan of historical fiction.
Q. Recently, Northern Ireland has been in the news regarding Brexit. How might these historical events and the work of literary experts relate to current events?
A. There’s a bit of a tendency nowadays, 25 years on while Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided society, for some younger people to feel like the Agreement didn’t matter that much, that it hasn’t solved the underlying problem. But I think it’s wrong to disparage the Agreement. You have to understand what things were like before to appreciate what the Agreement did.
And there is, of course, a difference between cold peace, like we have now, and true reconciliation. But there’s also a huge difference between a cold peace and a hot war. I wanted people to appreciate this achievement and to understand what a painstaking process it was to get there, how hard it was to get there and how significantly certain people had to change their ideas of what they were after.
The relationship between peacemaking and writing is that both involve constant revision. There’s so much work still to do. As I keep saying, especially to Northern Irish people, Northern Ireland does not have a corner on political dysfunction.
— Interview by Stella Mayerhoff. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.