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The Sound of Women's Voices in the North of Ireland : I AM OF IRELAND : Women of the North Speak Out by Elizabeth McNelly Shannon (Little, Brown: $17.95; 320 pp.; 0-316-78279-3) : A BELFAST WOMAN by Mary Beckett (William Morrow: $12.95; 142 pp.; 0-688-08221-1)

March 05, 1989|Mary Conroy | Conroy, who has traveled widely in Ireland, often writes about relationships and women's issues. She is at work on her second novel. and

If you're like most Americans, most of your knowledge of Northern Ireland has been filtered through the newswires. And because journalists hunger for hot news, we've come to see Northern Ireland as a country of guerrilla actions and government reactions.

Indeed, Northern Ireland is all of that. But it's also so much more. In many ways, life in Northern Ireland is like life anywhere: Parents cuddle their babies, children clamor for ice cream and friends share tears over a cup of tea. Yet the war has throttled the economy, made battlefields of tree-lined streets, and brought personal hell to those whose only crime was being baptized.

A paltry few authors have investigated this terrain of everyday life in Northern Ireland before. Now Elizabeth McNelly Shannon and Mary Beckett do so from a new perspective. Shannon's interviews and Beckett's short stories take us to the quiet parlors of the North, where the women--the silent majority--explain hate, hearth and homeland.

Shannon viewed these struggles from a unique vantage point as the wife of the ambassador to Ireland during the Carter years. Her memories of that time were chronicled in her diary, "Up in the Park." To write her latest book, "I Am of Ireland," Shannon returned to Northern Ireland seven times, interviewing actresses and activists, homemakers and high school students.

Shannon's work is an ambitious undertaking. She skillfully sketches the history of the North, weaving it between interviews so that readers understand the background but don't get bogged down in it. Because her subjects often use terms that may be unfamiliar to Americans, Shannon thoughtfully provides readers with maps, a glossary, and a chronology of recent events in Northern Ireland.

She appears less thoughtful in her interviews. Although she rightly questions IRA supporters about the need for violence, she rarely questions the loyalists about Protestant violence. Likewise, she often proposes school integration as a step toward peace, but skims over the difficulties inherent in such a move. In fact, children who have been expelled from Catholic schools in the North find that their education comes to an abrupt halt: When they enroll in what Americans would call "the public schools," they are beaten up.

They are beaten up because they are recognized immediately as Catholics. This Northern Irish ability to pinpoint someone as being Catholic or Protestant continually mystifies Shannon, but it shouldn't. Language betrays the child who attempts to pass for Protestant. First names such as Bernadette and Patrick are a dead giveaway. Catholics talk about "the six counties," "the British queen," and "Catholic;" Protestants refer to "Ulster," "the queen," and "R. C." or "Roman Catholic." You can also tell religion by a person's neighborhood, alma mater, or favorite local tap. Even sports provide a clue: Catholics play hurley; Protestants play cricket.

Some natives claim that you can tell a person's religion by his or her looks. In fact, a British sociologist, who was skeptical of these claims, found that after spending some time in the North, he knew which bus to take--not by reading the vehicle destination sign, which would identify a Catholic or Protestant neighborhood, but by looking at the passengers boarding the bus.

Despite these problems with perspective, Shannon's book is a worthy undertaking. Her own writing style has wonderful rhythms, and she has a genuine fondness for her subjects. When she stopped two schoolgirls on the street and asked if she could take their picture, "They deflated with shyness. All their animation went, and they looked around frantically, anywhere but directly at me. They giggled helplessly, covered their faces with their hands, totally destroyed." More of her prose would be a welcome way of summarizing the important information gleaned from conversations that now ramble on without focus.

Focus also hampers the book's structure. In interviewing an admirable range of subjects, Shannon dilutes her own work. Some of her most compelling interviews are buried toward the end of the book, and leave one hungering for more. "Annie's Story," the chapter about an apolitical single woman who was harassed, firebombed and finally forced out of a home she had painstakingly restored, is a stellar example of Shannon at her best: focusing on one woman's story until it becomes a symbol of life in the North. That sort of structure--one woman, one chapter--would enhance the book.

It's a structure that certainly serves Mary Beckett well in her collection of short stories, "A Belfast Woman." Beckett observes women of the north of Ireland with the eye of a native and the words of an accomplished novelist. (Her novel, "Give Them Stones," was published here in 1987.)

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