Crossing the Narrow Water

A literary festival aims to bridge the gap between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

 At its nearest point Scotland is just eleven miles from Northern Ireland. When the sea was the motorway of the British Isles, cultural connections between the two countries were deep and multifaceted, including a distinct language that came to be known as Ulster Scots.

But for centuries, this connection has been buried in the broader, more fraught relationship between Britain and Ireland and has become much less visible, particularly in literature.

That’s the gap that a new festival, which opened in Glasgow in April, seeks to bridge. Crossways brings together Irish writers, musicians, film-makers and cultural figures together with their Scottish peers, and was launched by a clutch of senior political figures in Michael Russell, Brexit ministers with the Scottish Government, and Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir MLA, former minister of finance at Stormont. The programme spanned 24 events in Scots, Irish and Scottish Gaelic as well as English, focussing not only on Irish and Scottish literature, but also on the writing of the Irish diaspora in Scotland. It included readings by leading Irish novelists David Park and Bernard MacLaverty, (born in Belfast but based in Glasgow) Scottish poets Kathleen Jamie and David Kinloch, a panel discussion on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and screenings of four major Irish films.

The idea is the brainchild of the Irish literary journal Irish Pages, edited in Belfast by US born poet and literary impresario Chris Agee. He persuaded the Irish government to use some of its emigrant support fund to back the festival along with contributions from the two Gaelic language bodies in Ireland and Scotland Foras na Gaeilge, Bord na Gaidhlig and the University of Strathclyde.

The aim of Crossways is to foster and expand the rather weak literary links between Ireland and Scotland across the North Channel,” says Agee. “They are two cultures divided by a state, in this case, the United Kingdom. A forum for Irish, Irish-Scottish and Scottish cultural and literary interaction, dialogue and debate of real distinction and diversity is long overdue.”

In the context of Brexit, he suggests, its even more important that the two cultures start becoming more familiar with each other.

Nor is the festival the only sign of this closer co-operation. Scottish editors, Kathleen Jamie (Scottish editor) and Meg Bateman (Scottish Gaelic editor) will ensure a permanent Scottish dimension in every future issue of Irish Pages.

The journal is itself an unusual beast. Its the only literary journal published in Belfast, but is supported by arts bodies both North and South. It now publishes in three languages, English, Irish and Scots providing a platform for poetry, short fiction, essays, creative non-fiction, memoir, essay reviews, nature-writing, translated work, literary journalism, and other “autobiographical, historical, religious and scientific writing of literary distinction.”

It is unashamedly high-minded. “The sole criteria for inclusion in the journal,” says Agee, “are the distinction of the writing and the integrity of the individual voice.” He has described its audience as “the literary equivalent of an NGO audience: all those potential readers for whom ethical issues count.”

Now in its 16th year, it has succeeded in establishing itself in the notoriously fickle Irish literary world with a respectable print run of nearly 3,000 and has been lauded by a cluster of stars in the Irish firmament from poet Michael Longley to novelist John Banville.

Recent issues have been devoted to the work of Seamus Heaney, to Israel, Islam and the West and is not averse to iconoclasm. The current issue carries a scathing critique by critic Patricia Craig of recent experimental fiction by the likes of Eimear McBride.

And Irish Pages has now branched out into publishing its own books. Three titles have included The Other Tongues: An Introduction to Writing in Irish, Scots Gaelic and Scots in Ulster and Scotland, Balkan Essays, by the Irish essayist Hubert Butler; and The Divil Knows What, by Tom Mac Intyre, a selected edition of his poetry prose in both English and Irish.

Agee considers its only real rival to be Granta, at least its the only one he mentions. “Publishing in the UK is heavily London-dominated and this is somewhat unhealthy in the current cultural and political climate. We need perspectives of equal quality from the ‘dissident provinces,’ so to speak. But he not afraid to have a poke at that rival. Irish Pages mission statement points out that the journal does not “associate itself with any prize, award, competition, “best-of” ranking selection, fundraising initiative, or other literary promotion that vitiates against the independence of taste and judgement.”







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