“And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

C P Cavafy

These are the closing lines of a poem written in 1898 by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The poem is in the form of a conversation between at least two people gathered with the citizenry of an unnamed city (maybe Rome, maybe Constantinople) caught in the downward spiral of civic decline. The entire population, it appears, has gathered in the vast city square awaiting the appearance of the barbarians.

In the meantime, all civic life ceased. The citizens seem immobilized, no debate takes place in the senate, no business is transacted in the markets, even the Emperor himself, arrayed in his finery, is up early and wearing all the symbols of his power. Everyone awaits the advent of the barbarians.

A certain disdain for the barbarians is on display The citizens believe that the visitors can be bedazzled by displays of wealth and privilege. But exactly why the city state grinds to a halt at the prospect of the appearance of the barbarians is unclear. Is it from disabling fear? Is it resignation to an inevitable fate? Or is it boredom and disaffection with the status quo? The coming of the barbarians holds out the prospect of a re-invigoration of civic life. After all the local legislators are not doing anything; instead they intend to give over law-making to the barbarians when they appear.

But at the end of the day the barbarians do not appear, and the citizens make their way home in the dark, confused and restless. Their uncertainty is made worse by the appearance of a rumor that the barbarians no longer exist.

In the poem's closing lines, confusion is replaced by fear. The paradox is that the coming of the barbarians holds out the possibility of some antidote to the lethargy and apathy of civic life. If they don’t come then change won’t happen. The barbarians are needed. There is no active, healthy, invigorating civic life without them. Or maybe, still deeper, with the benefit of history we realize that the disappearance of the barbarians was not because they had been defeated, but because they were already among us, inside the city walls, absorbed into our community. We are all the barbarians now, which means that responsibility for the renewal of civic, cultural, and political life lies with all of us.

But, then again, it’s just a poem.

As I write this, Northern Ireland is digesting the results of our second national election in ten months following the collapse of our always fragile shared government arrangements. That collapse, on the surface, is about alleged corruption and the perceived cultural arrogance of the largest party. Underneath that surface, however, the historic nationalistic divisions remain relatively untouched. The divisions we had hoped to rise above still bedevil us.

Over the course of our conflict we’ve built our walls, physical and metaphorical, to keep communities apart. In fact, Belfast has about 50 walls and barriers which by one estimate, stretch to about 26 miles in total length, and running through streets, parks, backyards and even a school. Their purpose is to keep communities apart.

We’ve skillfully honed our language to a surgical blade by which we easily to slice open the thin skin of identity. We’re not so crass though as to actually ask if you are a Protestant or a Catholic, or whether you consider yourself British or Irish. There’s no need. Instead there are any number of other verbal and cultural clues, like whether you speak of "the mainland" and mean Britain or Europe; whether you "say prayers" or just simply "pray". Even whether or not you aspirate the eighth letter of the alphabet can give a reasonably accurate assessment of what "we" think "you" are.

In Northern Ireland we know all about barbarians. And it’s always them (or, in the local vernacular, "them’uns"). Everyone else is a fanatic, but not me, or my tribe.

I’ve been a bit of an outlier for a while. You see, I’m a Protestant, but I’m from the Republic of Ireland (or the South). I’m Irish; for me the mainland is Europe; I aspirate the eighth letter. But I’m a Protestant. Moving to “the North” of Ireland was quite a shock. Even that sentence is another cultural linguistic clue; generally speaking Protestants say "Northern Ireland" and Catholics say “the North,” but I’m a Protestant who says ‘The North.” Confusing, I know.

At the time, in the late eighties, I was escaping joblessness and the economic and cultural malaise of the South. In Northern Ireland, on the surface at least, people seemed to dress more expensively, and had better roads and infrastructure. The downside was the apparent normality that people were killing each other on the basis of national identity. Though I had moved only 100 miles up the coast, and didn't use a time machine, I might as well have been moving to another country and another era. As far as the South was concerned, they were barbarians up there.

I wish I had known then how corrosive labels could be. I learned though, through long engagement in peace-building and community development in Belfast, that labels too easily applied tend to imprison people in an irreducible ethnic, cultural, or political identity. I know myself to be more than the label "they" try to apply to me, so why can’t "they" be more as well?

This is what I discovered: I needed the other to know who I was. Indeed without my "other" I wasn’t quite sure who I was. Freud wrote that the smaller the real difference between any two people or people groups, the larger it must loom in their imagination. He called this the narcissism of minor difference. And one of its consequences is that two enemies need each other to remind themselves of who they are. For me, working in Belfast between two warring sides, this piece of information was seismic.

In his book Blood and Belonging, the writer and former politician Michael Ignatieffargued that nationalism is most violent where the group you are defining yourself against most closely resembles you. The barbarians are within the gates.

Was it possible that we Protestants in Northern Ireland, deep down, feared that if somehow the conflict was ended then without a traditional enemy we would lose any sense of ourselves? Worse, would "we" become one of "them"? And vice versa on the other side? Too few had dared to imagine the possibility of some new identity, shared by all, emerging from the peace. 

Instead we surrendered to something worse. Having scoured the political landscape with our corrosive language towards one another, so that civil conversation was almost impossible, we slowly woke to the realization that our ethnic nationalism had weakened the structures and institutions of civic nationalism. These were the very structures and institutions which were necessary to protect us from the violence of our divisions and the barbarians we had invented.

We have come close to complete breakdown a few times in Northern Ireland. Close enough to learn a few lessons and I want to offer just a few.

First, we had to learn here, and are still learning I think, that we cannot shout down those with whom we differ. We cannot compel them, we must woo them. Early analysis of voting patterns in this latest election in Northern Ireland appears to suggest that the traditional Protestant Unionist vote is declining in part due to the failure to reach out to the "other" community. In his chapter on Northern Ireland, Ignatieff wrote, “The liberal virtues—tolerance, compromise, reason—remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance.” Both sides bear some responsibility for driving the others mad. The extent to which our actions or our words have contributed to making the others mad with fear or mad with vengeance, is the extent to which we have, willfully or otherwise, misunderstood the other.

Secondly, we had to learn, and are still learning I think, that we must develop the skills and the language to address our own tribe first before we assume to speak to the other. A wise teacher once advised that we remove the plank in our own eye before attempting to extract the speck in that of our brother or sister. That means acknowledging "we" have failed here. Our tribe has been wrong. (Yes I know "they" have as well, but that may need to wait a while until we develop the humility needed to address the differences as well as the similarities.)

On Friday, 10th April 1998 (Good Friday as it happens, which was somehow appropriate for a country still in a conflict in which religion was an identity marker) the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as well as the main political parties in Northern Ireland reached an agreement that brought an end to what we called, with classic Irish understatement, the “Troubles.” Later that year simultaneous referendums were held in the Republic and in Northern Ireland to end the Republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland and to ratify the agreement, and both passed.

There is some genius in that Agreement in relation to identity. For the first time in the history of the state equal status in law was granted to both political identities in Northern Ireland. In fact, uniquely in the world I think, the Agreement allows for multiple national identities. People born here can be two nationalities at once, they can hold both an Irish and a British passport, and can choose one or the other, or both. People can move seamlessly between identities. The answer to who “I” am and who “you” are becomes less clear. Indeed the question of who “we” are is also less clear, that is, the question of who we are on this part of a small island to the west of a small island to the west of continental Europe.

My friend the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, like me a native of the South living in the North (but unlike me, a Catholic), suggests that the proper answer to the question “What country are you from?” is “Let me tell you a story…” Identity is much more complex, and potentially much more compelling and exciting, than that imposed on me by my erstwhile enemy. And we do well to resist the imposition of a one-dimensional identity on us, but also to refrain from doing the imposing.

The citizens in Cavafy’s poem seem to believe that their national malaise could only be addressed by the barbarians. They believed they needed barbarians, even if only to convince them again of their own civility and superiority despite the national decline. If they didn’t have barbarians they would have to invent them as sometimes we have done—Protestants, Catholics, Communists, Republicans, Democrats. 

The Northern Ireland experience also raises the imperative of talking to one’s enemy. It was not so long ago that many Protestant leaders utterly refused to engage with leaders of violent Republicanism. It seems silly now, but there was a timewhenever members of Sinn Féin, known as the political wing of the IRA, appeared on TV their interviews were voiced by actors. As if simply hearing them speak would have a corrupting influence on the general populace. Now though, conversations across these previously unbridgeable divides take place every day.  In fact, earlier on the day I wrote this I agreed a date for dialogue on the current impasse in the political process. There will come a day when dialogue with representatives of ISIS will need to happen. In fact, if the Northern Ireland experience is anything to go by, these conversations are already taking place.

What if we began to think, not in terms of "us" and “them," but of "we the people"? What if we were to recognize both our capacity for greatness, and adventure and creativity as well as our own barbarian tendencies? What if we began to imagine that those barbarians are more like us than we care, or dare, to imagine? What if we addressed first our tribe’s tendency to barbarianize the other? How would that change the tone and content of national debate?


Waiting for the Barbarians - C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.


Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.


 What laws can the senators make now?

 Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.


Why did our emperor get up so early,

and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate

on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?


 Because the barbarians are coming today

and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.

He has even prepared a scroll to give him,

replete with titles, with imposing names.


Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today

wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?

Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,

and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?

Why are they carrying elegant canes

beautifully worked in silver and gold?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and things like that dazzle the barbarians.


Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual

to make their speeches, say what they have to say?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.


Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home so lost in thought?


Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.

THEY ABIDE - Abby Olcese

THEY ABIDE - Abby Olcese

HIS NAME'S NOT DAD - Steve Daugherty

HIS NAME'S NOT DAD - Steve Daugherty