A visitor to Northern Ireland might notice how much the history of the Troubles is on display through murals on city streets. The protagonist of Fiona Barr’s short story “The Wall-Reader” is fascinated by the murals. But she learns, as have many Northern Irish people, that speaking to people on the other side of the Protestant/Catholic divide can be dangerous. How does Barr suggest both the longing for uninhibited communication and the dangers of speech amid the political turmoil of the North? What is the role of language in both crossing sectarian divisions and in reinforcing them?
I can only imagine walking down the streets, in awesome wonder of the environment; yet also afraid of what circumstances I might run into. With the bombings in Ireland at the time of “The Wall-Reader;” it is fascinating that the protagonist in the story felt a net of safety to embark on her daily walks throughout the city as she did, especially with her baby. The character looks forward to the exercise of her walks, which I can totally relate to, having been a stay-at-home mom with two children under the age of four. Walks are an excellent reprieve during the day and an absolute for fresh air and even sanity. However, I can only imagine how the character felt in the midst of political warfare. “A whole range of human emotions splayed itself with persistent anarchy on the walls.” (Barr).
The character was truly driven by the opportunity to get out of her home for the fresh air and for the opportunity to utilize her imagination. Perhaps she thought of better times. Or, perhaps she looked at the walls with uncertainty at the political situation she was in the midst and hoped for a better life for her family. She teases herself during her jaunt looking at the walls, thinking; “Respectable housewives don’t read walls!” (Barr). She seems to acknowledge the fault in her statement, which seems to propel her visits to the park.
The dividing line between Protestant and Catholics seems ill-equipped. Our character has befriended over the course of time an English gentleman whom she visits in the park. It is clear that this character is lonely and seeks attention. She states: If only someone noticed her from time to time or even wrote her name on a wall declaring her existence worthwhile, ‘A fine mind’ or ‘I was once her lover’. That way, at least, she would have evidence that she was making an impact on others (Barr). She obviously felt that she was gaining some attention by her friend John in the park, despite the fact that she would truly never meet him face-to-face, and communicate through the divide. In spite of the political dangers of their friendship, they continue meeting in their designated spot in the park, “….the voice and the women knew the folly of such innocent communication.” (Barr).
The craving for intimate relationships put John and our protagonist in a precarious position. The warfare around the protagonist’s family escalated, and someone caught her in the midst of her walks to the park. They painted a message on her home, which stated, Tout. “It clanged in her brain, its venom rushed through her body. Suspicion was enough to condemn. What creature had skulked to paint the word? Whose arm, dismembered and independent, had swung from tin to wall to deliver judgment?” (Barr). The one word painted on her property changed her life forever. Her relationship with John that was so innocent and random became the demise of the family. Our character burns with embarrassment as her husband asks her if she realized the fault of her actions. They have to prepare to depart from their family home, to live with family and others. They cannot risk staying in their home, since the suspicion can result in death. Our character has stated her high emotions for her child, and her deep love of her life that she has no other choice but to leave for her safety.
In conclusion, one relationship, banned by the government has resulted in a great change for this family. I imagine it would be quite difficult in today’s society to have individuals that you could not speak to — a gentle smile, a polite hello, that would be restricted. Jesus tells us in the Bible to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. “This is my command. Love others. John 15:17. (NIV Bible). I cannot imagine living in a world where communication is a barrier to personal safety and/ or to an individual’s existence. This is obviously a freedom we have been granted in America. Let alone, it would be a different world when a simple gesture of kindness resulted in loss of life and political justice.
Barr, Fiona. “The Wall-Reader. http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/20century/topic_3_05/fbarr.htm. Acquired November 30, 2009.
Wall Mural. http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/20century/topic_3_05/illustrations/IRE_9.html. Acquired November 30, 2009.