Documentary filmmaker John Stanton has a film project underway in Belfast, Northern Ireland, exploring the connection between Irish poetry and peace and reconciliation efforts needed to push the peace process forward. Stanton, whose films, including WOOD SAILS DREAMS, LAST CALL, and WITCH CITY, are narratives on the shifting idea of community, has been visiting Northern Ireland since 2009 collecting oral histories and getting to know the people in both Nationalist and Unionist communities.
The story flows from a murder. It was a quiet Tuesday night in October of 1988. Two men walked into an ice cream shop on the Lisburn Road. They were IRA gunmen. They killed the man behind the counter and wounded two teenagers on a date at one of the tables. They walked out of the shop and were never connected to the murder.
The murder of the ice cream man was one of 104 killings in Northern Ireland in 1988. But this one stood out, even at the height of the sectarian war called the Troubles. The man behind the counter was an off-duty RUC constable named John Larmour. He was filling in behind the counter for his brother George, who owned the shop but was away on vacation.
The great poet Michael Longley lived nearby. Every Sunday he would stop by the shop with his young daughter for an ice cream cone. She would rhyme off the list of flavors, as if it were a psalm. After the murder he wrote a simple, lovely poem called “The Ice Cream Man.”
Today in Northern Ireland the power-sharing government at Stormont has closed its doors for the past two years and the coming storm of Brexit keeps people anxiously looking at the border. The peace process, which began with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 21 years ago, is stalled. There are many reasons for all of this, but one reason is the continued inability for people to see each other, and in fact themselves, by anything other than sectarian terms.
Poetry, even in the Irish culture where it has long been valued, is not a direct language. At its best, it comes to you from the corner of your eye, like a small shift between sunlight and shadow. The goal is for this film to reach an audience with the idea that poetry can provide a language to begin to cross those sectarian lines, to see a future they can share.
At an observance of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the poet Gail McConnell read a poem about the murder of her father, called “Typeface.” The writer Claire Mitchell wrote that McConnell’s poem, “forces us to engage as human beings instead of peddling cultural certainties.”
She continued: “After the Good Friday Agreement we thought we might look at narratives of the past, to explore finding empathy with people whose views exploded our brains. But we didn’t.” Woven into the narrative will be a discussion with six poets whose work was affected by the Troubles; whose work might today create some of that “empathy with people whose views exploded our brains.” We will also interview people who have lived much of their lives in the shadow of the Troubles. We will create a way for them to share the work with the poets.
In his poem “Ceasefire,” Longley looks to the ancient Greeks to suggest what sometimes needs to be done to come to grips with a war that has become personal. “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/I kiss Achilles’ hand, killer of my son.” Longley’s work has been called, by the poet Paul Muldoon, “an imaginative domain in which we can all move forward.”
This film will be a joint U.S./Northern Ireland production. Shouldered Oar Film will work with Northern Star Pictures, of Belfast. We will hire a Northern Irish crew, and edit in a Belfast production house. In that way, it will create Northern Irish jobs.