Transgressing Contemporary Boundaries: The Narrator as True Custodian of Cultural Knowledge in Ulster Society

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Historically in Gaelic culture, the bard was greatly valued and admired as an important and integral part of society. Travelled, schooled and specifically trained in their art, the bard helped ensure identity and reassurance for Gaelic families by grounding them both temporarily and spatially into their landscape. Entrusted with the duty and responsibility of recording place and event, the bards worked without writing and by transgressing man-made boundaries, travelled throughout the land weaving their histories into the very fabric of society.

    Now no longer with us, we find ourselves without the distinguished chronicler to undertake this duty. Yet the responsibility of the Gaelic bard is one still shared by all artists today; to facilitate memory and identity, whether good or bad. Many Ulster writers, by happenstance and geography have found themselves located in a place of painful histories. An immediate difficulty for those local writers becomes manifest by being intrinsically implicated into those histories – whilst having first-hand knowledge and comprehension beyond that of the outsider, the local writer is automatically damned by association and relationship, thereby tarnishing their voice in comparison to the perceived impartiality of others.
    Some writers however have successfully sought ways to escape this limitation and have worked in ways that can transgress the restrictions of prejudgement. John Hewitt, by purposely becoming a self-imposed tourist was able to distance himself to write impartially about the past, recognising that ’the place without its ghosts is a barren place.’1 In ‘The Colony’,2 tradition, peoples and mapping of the land are all narrated by Hewitt in a similar way to the Gaelic bardic topographic poems of Sean O'Dubhagain and Giolla Na Naomh O'Huidhrin3 in compiling a rich cultural atlas.

    Similarly the Belfast poet and novelist Ciaran Carson also writes and records the city from an intermediary position; that of translator. Mediating between reader and aisling,4 Carson himself takes the reader on a journey into name, meaning, time and place, focusing primarily on the city of Belfast, familiar in name but impenetrable in depth to most.

    Furthermore, this once-forgotten tradition to chronicle is now being continued by the new breed of Irish crime writers where the likes of Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty can, by way of the crime novel, accurately record contemporary society. Thus, ghost estates, listed buildings, archaeological digs, street and city have all provided setting and subject matter for recent novels. Moreover by choosing the ‘outsider from within’ as their chief protagonist, whether detective or criminal, each author is able to transgress the boundaries of prejudice and preconception that hinder genuine understanding and knowledge.

    Looking in turn at the Gaelic bard, the twentieth century Ulster poet and the new breed of Irish crime writer, the authors will outline the real value of the narrator, by being able to act as cultural transgressor beyond the seeming and alleged as the true chronicler in society, and then with specific reference to city and countryside in Ireland, as a valuable custodian of knowledge in architecture and place.

    Architecture, Crime Fiction, Cultural Atlas, Place, Poetry.

    1 From ‘The Bloody Brae’, a one act play written by John Hewitt in the 1930’s.
    2 Hewitt, J. (1968) published in Collected Poems 1932-67. London:McGibbon & Kee.
    3 Lengthy and detailed medieval Gaelic poems composed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries first edited by John O'Donovan in 1862 for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society in Dublin.
    4 The aisling is the Irish song or poem genre when the poet is visited by their muse in a daydream or dream-vision state.

    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013
    Event10th AHRA Conference: - U.W.E., Bristol, United Kingdom
    Duration: 21 Nov 201323 Nov 2013


    Conference10th AHRA Conference:
    CountryUnited Kingdom


    • Architecture, Crime Fiction, Cultural Atlas, Place, Poetry.

    Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Transgressing Contemporary Boundaries: The Narrator as True Custodian of Cultural Knowledge in Ulster Society'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this