A novel about a female composer struggling with depression after the birth of her child does not, on the face of it, seem to have much to do with war or peace in Northern Ireland. But appearances can be deceiving, as I discovered through researching and writing about Bernard MacLaverty’s novel Grace Notes, which features in a chapter of my book Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.
When I reviewed Grace Notes shortly after its 1997 publication, I paid most attention to its themes of female creativity and the relationship between religion and art, and to protagonist Catherine McKenna’s challenges as a lapsed Catholic from Northern Ireland and as a woman in one of the most male-dominated branches of the arts. Though Catherine does not recover her faith, I wrote, she decides that the ends of art and religion are really the same: “communication, communion, between people.”
Working on a commissioned essay about Grace Notes in 2013, I resolved to look more closely at its politics. Other critics had already explored the political implications of Catherine’s music, so I researched events in Northern Ireland while MacLaverty was writing the novel. This exercise revealed that, although Grace Notes was written after paramilitary ceasefires in the summer and autumn of 1994 signalled an important development in the peace process, the two years that elapsed between these ceasefires and September 1996, when MacLaverty sent a complete draft of the novel to his agent, were filled with tension, uncertainty, and scant political progress. The contemporary lack of resolution influenced the form of the book, which has a “happy ending” that occurs, chronologically, halfway through the events depicted in it.
“Grace Notes testifies to the time in which it was written (1994-1996) through its portrayal of strained and broken relationships.”
Set at some unspecified time in the 1980s, Grace Notes does not hint at any foreseeable end to the Troubles, but it testifies to the time in which it was written (1994–1996) through its portrayal of strained and broken relationships and awkward conversations. These personal interactions serve as metaphors for the tense political situation and what would be required to improve it. In my essay on Grace Notes as a “peace process novel,” I focused on scenes in the first half of it depicting Catherine’s return to Northern Ireland for her father’s funeral and her tentative rapprochement with her mother, from whom she has been estranged. I argued that, in this section of his book, MacLaverty offers readers “a subliminal primer on the means of resolving differences.”
Revisiting Grace Notes yet again as I worked on Getting to Good Friday, I examined MacLaverty’s notes and manuscripts, held at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. Among other things, these revealed his visceral reaction to repeated standoffs between Protestant and unionist Orangemen and law enforcement officials who, in response to protests by residents, attempted to prevent them from parading along a Catholic and nationalist stretch of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown at the height of Northern Ireland’s annual marching season. MacLaverty’s response to this unedifying spectacle, entirely in line with contemporary nationalist opinion, was to deplore “A race of people whose ambition it is to march unimpeded down streets where they are despised.” Even at the time, though, he had enough distance from his own gut feelings to add the note that “Maybe this could be in the novel in the voice of her father.”
In the published version of Grace Notes, MacLaverty transcends his own sectarian resentment to show a positive side of Lambeg drumming, still regarded as a symbol of unionist oppression by many Northern Catholics. Despite her father’s disdain for it, Catherine as a child is “thrilled by the sound, could distinguish the left hand’s rhythm from the right.” Years later, she includes Lambeg drums in her first major symphonic work, Vernicle: a sign of what critics Liam Harte and Michael Parker term her “refusal to be defined solely in terms of her native interpretive community.” Performing the work requires the participation of actual Lambeg drummers, in the shape of “four Orangemen from Portadown.”
“MacLaverty offers readers a memorable illustration of how artists can contribute to the ongoing enterprise of creating a more inclusive sense of Northern Irish identity.”
Grace Notes ends with a vivid description of Vernicle’s premiere, in which Lambeg drums participate to two dramatically different effects. In their first appearance, the drums drown out the other instruments, which try in vain to rise above the “din” as the “black blood of hatred stains every ear.” In the piece’s second movement, the music rebuilds to a climax, at which point “the Lambegs make another entry at maximum volume.” This time, though, the effect “is not one of terror or depression, but the opposite”: “The Lambegs have been stripped of their bigotry and have become pure sound.” Thus, MacLaverty offers readers a memorable illustration of how artists can contribute to the ongoing enterprise of creating a more inclusive sense of Northern Irish identity.
Recent correspondence with Don Carleton, a reader from a Protestant and unionist background, has helped me to appreciate, once more, aspects of Grace Notes I had not fully grasped before. He especially admires the way in which Catherine’s composition achieves “a counterpoint in which people get to make their own tune in a way which creates an overall orchestral harmony” because “Only when we can see each other presented in our own terms and have those terms accepted by other parties can we find reconciliation.”