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The Sound of Women’s Voices in the North of Ireland : I AM OF IRELAND : Women of the North Speak Out <i> by Elizabeth McNelly Shannon (Little, Brown: $17.95; 320 pp.; 0-316-78279-3) </i> : A BELFAST WOMAN <i> by Mary Beckett (William Morrow: $12.95; 142 pp.; 0-688-08221-1) </i>

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If you’re like most Americans, most of your knowledge of Northern Ireland has been filtered through the newswires. And because journalists hunger for hot news, we’ve come to see Northern Ireland as a country of guerrilla actions and government reactions.

Indeed, Northern Ireland is all of that. But it’s also so much more. In many ways, life in Northern Ireland is like life anywhere: Parents cuddle their babies, children clamor for ice cream and friends share tears over a cup of tea. Yet the war has throttled the economy, made battlefields of tree-lined streets, and brought personal hell to those whose only crime was being baptized.

A paltry few authors have investigated this terrain of everyday life in Northern Ireland before. Now Elizabeth McNelly Shannon and Mary Beckett do so from a new perspective. Shannon’s interviews and Beckett’s short stories take us to the quiet parlors of the North, where the women--the silent majority--explain hate, hearth and homeland.

Shannon viewed these struggles from a unique vantage point as the wife of the ambassador to Ireland during the Carter years. Her memories of that time were chronicled in her diary, “Up in the Park.” To write her latest book, “I Am of Ireland,” Shannon returned to Northern Ireland seven times, interviewing actresses and activists, homemakers and high school students.

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Shannon’s work is an ambitious undertaking. She skillfully sketches the history of the North, weaving it between interviews so that readers understand the background but don’t get bogged down in it. Because her subjects often use terms that may be unfamiliar to Americans, Shannon thoughtfully provides readers with maps, a glossary, and a chronology of recent events in Northern Ireland.

She appears less thoughtful in her interviews. Although she rightly questions IRA supporters about the need for violence, she rarely questions the loyalists about Protestant violence. Likewise, she often proposes school integration as a step toward peace, but skims over the difficulties inherent in such a move. In fact, children who have been expelled from Catholic schools in the North find that their education comes to an abrupt halt: When they enroll in what Americans would call “the public schools,” they are beaten up.

They are beaten up because they are recognized immediately as Catholics. This Northern Irish ability to pinpoint someone as being Catholic or Protestant continually mystifies Shannon, but it shouldn’t. Language betrays the child who attempts to pass for Protestant. First names such as Bernadette and Patrick are a dead giveaway. Catholics talk about “the six counties,” “the British queen,” and “Catholic;” Protestants refer to “Ulster,” “the queen,” and “R. C.” or “Roman Catholic.” You can also tell religion by a person’s neighborhood, alma mater, or favorite local tap. Even sports provide a clue: Catholics play hurley; Protestants play cricket.

Some natives claim that you can tell a person’s religion by his or her looks. In fact, a British sociologist, who was skeptical of these claims, found that after spending some time in the North, he knew which bus to take--not by reading the vehicle destination sign, which would identify a Catholic or Protestant neighborhood, but by looking at the passengers boarding the bus.

Despite these problems with perspective, Shannon’s book is a worthy undertaking. Her own writing style has wonderful rhythms, and she has a genuine fondness for her subjects. When she stopped two schoolgirls on the street and asked if she could take their picture, “They deflated with shyness. All their animation went, and they looked around frantically, anywhere but directly at me. They giggled helplessly, covered their faces with their hands, totally destroyed.” More of her prose would be a welcome way of summarizing the important information gleaned from conversations that now ramble on without focus.

Focus also hampers the book’s structure. In interviewing an admirable range of subjects, Shannon dilutes her own work. Some of her most compelling interviews are buried toward the end of the book, and leave one hungering for more. “Annie’s Story,” the chapter about an apolitical single woman who was harassed, firebombed and finally forced out of a home she had painstakingly restored, is a stellar example of Shannon at her best: focusing on one woman’s story until it becomes a symbol of life in the North. That sort of structure--one woman, one chapter--would enhance the book.

It’s a structure that certainly serves Mary Beckett well in her collection of short stories, “A Belfast Woman.” Beckett observes women of the north of Ireland with the eye of a native and the words of an accomplished novelist. (Her novel, “Give Them Stones,” was published here in 1987.)

Each of these 11 stories is a polished jewel. Beckett is a miniaturist in the best sense of the word. Unlike short story writers who wring thousands of words from self-indulgent, trivial concerns, Beckett knows how to move quickly to the heart of a woman’s life, to the central conflicts that keep women awake at night. Her stories bristle with the pain and joy born of the quest to reconcile the push-pull between intimacy and identity. And from the quest, her characters summon sudden strength, shedding light that illuminates not just their situations, but the Northern Irish conflict, as well.

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Her range of situations mirrors all too well the plight of women in the North. Beckett turns a sympathetic eye to women in oppressive relationships, mixed marriages, marriages deadened by depression. Yet her sympathies are not one-sided; though she readily identifies with a woman’s pain, she endows her characters with unfailing honesty, allowing them to view a situation as a whole and understand another person’s feelings, as well as their own.

In some of these situations, war stomps in with a vengeance. In “Flags and Emblems,” a Protestant woman is horrified to realize that a momentary, impulsive act (picking up a dropped Unionist flag and handing it to their young son) causes her Catholic husband lasting shame. In “A Belfast Woman,” a young Catholic bride recalls her shock upon learning that Protestants don’t run out into the streets when they hear shots up the road. Forced to lie quietly beside her husband, only listening to the police, she feels far more frightened than she ever did in the streets.

Yet in other stories, war tiptoes in, or does not appear at all. “The Excursion” shows the torment of an older woman whose one hope to escape her dreary existence for a day is dashed by her husband. “The Pursuit of Happiness” tells the age-old tale of a young woman who has isolated herself at home after being jilted by her lover.

But no matter what the situation, Beckett moves quickly into the story with stunning prose. Her images of light and weather reflect broader concerns of clarity and conflict, as in this passage from “The Balancing of the Clouds,” when a woman who has pined for her lost lover for 30 years decides to make amends to the husband she has ignored all that time:

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“First she’d call in the shop at the head of the lane and buy a new globe for the lamp. . . . And then she’d polish it with crumpled newspaper till it was clear and shining on its own account. They could do with a new wick too. She’d put it in tonight even though she had to do it with her back to darkness, kneeling by the fire. The light would be thin to begin with, wavering on the ceiling, until the oil soaked through. Then the flame would grow broad and rich and the heartening brightness would come steadily down the walls, even though it must leave patches of shadow, soft natural shadow.”

It’s that rich, round light that endows Beckett’s characters with such courage--the courage to endure, to take the one step that may make a difference in their lives. Without offering simplistic solutions, Beckett’s fiction may give more women courage to find a flickering light and nurture it to a flame.


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