My name is Vithuya Sivakolunthu. I am currently a social science student in the Law, Society and Justice profile. I love English, history, and sociology, so I was not particularly surprised when I enjoyed a play about the Troubles this much. I hope to continue overanalyzing creative works of all kinds and to make some of my own.
In Your Head, They Are Fighting:
Gerry Adams’s Metaphorization in Cyprus Avenue
By Vithuya Sivakolunthu
In Cyprus Avenue, Northern Irish playwright David Ireland explores the lingering effects of the decades-long sectarian conflict known as the Troubles. His protagonist, Eric Miller, is an affluent protestant that lets his residual trauma take over his life in the form of hatred towards Irish Catholics, who supposedly continue to threaten his identity. Satirizing his extremist if oblivious mentality, Ireland details how Eric’s resentment devolves into a delusion in which his “wee baby” (Ireland 11) granddaughter “looked like Gerry Adams” (15), the former President of Sinn Féin and an alleged IRA member. After all, malevolently disguising himself as a baby is “exactly the kind of thing he’d do” (52), according to the character. Eric ultimately kills his entire family because of his misguided belief that it would save Ulster, and he ends up in a psychiatrist’s office, still mostly ignorant of the absurdity of his thought process. Being the motivating factor for all the needless violence that ensues, Mary-May’s embodiment of Gerry Adams serves as a metaphor for Eric’s inability to overcome his irrational intolerance and conservative inclinations.
Indeed, his hatred of Mary-May, who he unironically believes is Gerry Adams’s reincarnation, indicates his rejection of Irish Catholics despite their “common humanity” (80). With her “squinty little Fenian eyes” (18), in Eric’s mind, the baby resembles the politician, and by extension, all his kin. His treatment of her, then, can be generalized to his mindset regarding that entire group. Although he previously refuses to explicitly recognize his contempt for minorities, assuring his psychiatrist that he has “no idea what [she is] talking about” (27) when she questions his bigotry, he especially fails to hide it from Mary-May. What little pretense he maintains of accepting everyone collapses when he tells his wife that the child is related to Gerry Adams and therefore unwanted: “I have reached out the hand of friendship to our Catholic neighbors. But I cannot have Fenians in our house, Bernie” (25-26). Moreover, he is adamant about Irish Catholics’ innate inferiority in relation to Protestants, telling Bridget that “they’re not the same as us” (60). Eric expresses his unfiltered disdain for them when explaining that Gerry Adams has “successfully infiltrated [his] home” (52) to Slim, who is initially eager to end a young life because of her supposed background:
SLIM. Nothing you could tell me would make me want to kill a new-born baby.
ERIC. She’s Gerry Adams. (51)
However, upon seeing Mary-May, Slim states that she bears more of a resemblance to her grandfather than to Gerry Adams, underlining how Catholics are no different than him: “She looks like you” (69). This reality is one which Eric refuses to confront, even if his consciousness is the one raising it in the form of an imaginary UVF terrorist; if she could be Irish, so can he, and that is “the most terrifying thought of all” (36). Thus, by debasing his granddaughter for being Gerry Adams, he reaffirms that Irish Catholics are not his equals.
Further, by virtue of being a blank slate whose beliefs can be molded, the baby symbolizes the potential to live without the biases towards others so intrinsic to the traditionalist values Eric upholds. To elaborate, unable to “live in the moment” (64), Eric is keen on transmitting his regressive ideals about how Catholics to her because “she carries [his] heritage” (21) as his legacy. In his argument with his daughter, Julie, about the state of the world, he expresses his worry about Mary-May’s yet-to-be-formed political beliefs, for she “does not look like a Unionist!” (25). The possibility that his “descendants will be Irish” (44) appalls him. Later, he claims that discriminatory tendencies are essential to Protestants’ subsistence:
JULIE. I’ll raise her as nothing. I’ll raise her to respect all people and not judge a person on their religion or their race.
ERIC. You’ll raise her as nothing! She’ll be nothing?! (61)
Because Eric is so hyperbolic in nature, he believes that this possibility for acceptance means that she could succumb to violence like Gerry Adams. He fixates on the older man’s facial hair, stating that without it he would seem “innocent” and “irrelevant” (16), the same way a kid would. The fact that he ends up drawing a black beard on Mary-May to “extinguish reasonable doubt” (19) implies that he envisions that she too could come to be dangerous as Gerry Adams’s reincarnation. Additionally, Slim compares her to a celebrity and claims that killing one is the “worst thing a human being can do” (66). It is a euphemism for assassinating innocent people because of what they characterize: “When you murder a celebrity, you murder not just a person but the idea of a person” (66). In executing her despite how “it’s not an easy thing to kill a baby” (79), Eric puts an end to all hope that she would break the cycle of hatred among certain Protestant communities. The fanatic loyalist that he is, he would rather brutally end his bloodline than let Mary-May live to be accepting of everyone, specifically Irish Catholics.
In short, by convincing himself that his granddaughter “has to be” (71) Gerry Adams and consequently legitimizing his outdated narrow-mindedness, Eric exemplifies extremists’ tendency to justify atrocities in the name of securing illusory safety. Dehumanizing Mary-May and clinging onto the past allow him to irreversibly hurt others: “What does this baby’s life matter, if its death saves Ulster” (81). In the pursuit of a homogenous society, one is expected to “make peace with the violence inside” (79) and do whatever is necessary. Anything, including infanticide, can be rationalized when attempting to establish ethnonationalism. Following this rationale, Eric becomes “a puppet” (37) to what he deems to be a greater cause and even genuinely believes that to kill Gerry Adams is to “love him” (80). Yet, “there can be no doubt” (69) in his flawed thinking, hence why he gets rid of his conscience, Slim, when he questions his actions. Ireland thereby highlights a haunting, excessive notion integral to radical thinking: “We can choose to destroy life, if the choice is moral” (81). Extremism in all its forms is as ridiculous as infant Irish politicians, but it remains extremely dangerous due to how it is used to defend wrongs. Eric says that “we must protect what we have” (26), but at what cost?
Ireland, David. Cyprus Avenue. E-book, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.