In Defence of Derek Mahon

While I can’t speak to Andrew’s comment on Ulysses, I think both poems point toward a source of xenophobia which goes a little deeper than an immediate distinction between the insider and outsider.  Fear of the other and ignorance in both poems emerge as symptoms of xenophobia, but it is the paradoxical othering of the Irish speaker from his own homeland that produces this xenophobic sentiment.

In “Night Thoughts” the place has been transformed into a “Georgian theme-park for the tourist.”  It has been built up for the travel and tourism industry so that it is actually the tourist who belongs in this space rather than the Irish speaker.  What’s more the speaker must be all too aware of this irony, describing the place sardonically as an artificial “theme-park.”  In several ways this line points back to the “Georgian Dublin houses” in “Herbert Street Revisited” by John Montague.  The Georgian Dublin nature of the space sounds equally paradoxical to me and both point back to the colonial past in which the colonial subject is excluded from power within his/her own homeland.  A temporal distance also seems to be at work in both poems (and “The Chinese Restaurant”: “the place is as it might have been”, “as if the world were young” ), further removing the speaker from the space.  The alienation from the space begins with an alienation from the past, a communal sense of the past and the persistence of a place through time necessarily producing an ideology of belonging.  This is not the Ireland of “Yeats and Wilde,” this is the “new world order” and we need a new way of defining belonging.  The speaker achieves this in the end by “read[ing] the symbolists as the season dies” but there’s an acute pain in the inevitable and irreversible passing of the seasons.

Now look to “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” where another Irish speaker sits in the resort town of Portrush eating Chinese food.  The juxtaposition of “prawn chow mein” with the morning paper, iconic of the western world, again highlights the disjunction between speaker and place.  The “framed photograph of Hong Kong” reads to me as a generic and artificial representation of China that someone could find in any Chinese Restaurant, and probably would never find in a typical restaurant in China.  The Chinese man (who is actually never referred to as a man or specifically Chinese funnily enough) stands looking out at the sea rather than at the photo.  Neither the speaker nor the proprietor belong in this space, but multiple frames within the poem create a second distance between these two “foreigners.”  First the Chinese Restaurant which the proprietor can at least claim ownership over is framed in the larger lens of the Northern Irish town of Portrush, which is again framed in the even larger lens of the authentic Irish space invoked by the hills of Donegal.  I’m unsure whether to read the “light of heaven” as ironic or indicative of the speaker’s actual belonging to this pastoral place cast in the distance.  Furthermore, though the proprietor stands “dreaming of home,” the doorway creates a second frame around him through which the speaker can only watch.  He himself is unable to participate in a similar escape because his own home has been colonized by tourists.

It may sound, after this reading, like I have a personal issue with tourists, which I do.  While it may be a bit problematic and xenophobic to refer to people as “space invaders” I can at least understand where Mahon is coming from.  My own island in the Puget Sound was recently mentioned in an article in the Seattle Times encouraging folks to take a trip over to scenic Bainbridge Island to see the “historic Lynwood theater” and other incredibly uninteresting sites.  I spent many days this past summer downtown watching tourists walking around confusedly, maps in hand, stumbling into random stores to ask for directions to even more uninteresting sites.  Development has also increased rapidly in the past few years and the beautiful row of poplar trees that used to line the other side of the street outside my house were all chainsawed down to make room for some ugly multi-million dollar box mansion.  Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of tourists or local change.