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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Stepping Stones: the arts in Ulster 1971-2001....
Mark Carruthers and Stehen Douds (eds.)

Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 2001 304 pp. HB, 20, ISBN 0-85640-705-4

After reading Stepping Stones, a comprehensive guide to arts activities in Northern Ireland between 1971 - 2001, I found myself going back to an article I once read by the English artist Catherine Thick who said ? In many societies, human beings are considered to be the heart or conscience of the universe, art is seen as one of the most magnificent and valuable things human beings can create, where it represents, or seeks to represent, the spirit?. For me, this reflects the essence of Carruthers and Douds book.

Divided into twelve chapters the reader is offered contributions from artists involved in film, multi-media, poetry, theatre, fiction and classical, traditional and popular music, all writing against the backdrop of the Troubles. The Troubles is by no means the main focus of the book, yet because it chronicles arts activities between 1971 - 2001, the effects of the conflict permeate each writer?s reflection. The principle aim of Stepping Stones is to look at Northern Ireland?s broad arts sector and highlight the highs and lows it experienced over this time, and from the artists and arts administrators perspective I can only guess that it does that comprehensively.

As a peace researcher interested in the arts, I was fascinated by the book?s insight into the cultural activities over this unsettled period and how the society articulated its deep frustration to the surrounding chaos through the less confrontational medium of the arts. Carruthers and Douds enforce this point in the introduction by commenting: ?In the context of Northern Ireland and the past 30 years, that is perhaps what artists have contributed most ~ they have chronicled the individual stories. Their work has been a crucial counterpoint to the notion that society here has contributed nothing more than a collection of warring tribes, hell-bent on destruction? (px).

Examples of this are plentiful. In David Grant?s chapter on ?Theatre ~ the playwrights and their plays? he offers numerous examples of plays which both challenged and lifted audiences. He comments ?The Northern Ireland public clearly had an appetite for plays that could speak to them of their lives and they were prepared to turn out in large numbers to prove the point...after a decade of terrorist attrition, members of the public were rediscovering how live drama could be a unique forum for finding out about themselves? (p35). Similarly Stuart Bailie?s chapter on ?Popular Music? (p191) looks at the influential roles of Van Morrison, Phil Coulter and The Undertones in both raising the profile of the popular music scene in Northern Ireland, and giving its residents a confidence that there is more to their identity than that of a society at war with itself.

In all, this book is a celebration of Northern Ireland?s cultural history, a story seldom acknowledged in the conflict hungry media world.

Sarah Alldred, Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconcilliation, Coventry University

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