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Some Northern Poets

Gerald Dawe

On March 9th, 1981, Bobby Sands, the IRA commanding officer in Long Kesh, was twenty-seven and heading into what would become known worldwide as the Irish hunger strike. Various communications ‑ basically smuggled letters and notes ‑ between himself, his fellow prisoners in the “H Block” of the Maze Prison and the Sinn Féin leadership outside, were published in 1987 by David Beresford in his book Ten Men Dead.  It may or may not come as a surprise that the former “apprentice coach builder” from Rathcoole outside Belfast was, according to his own record, “very much involved in soccer, athletics, swimming and about ten thousand others sports” but “not really in any Gaelic football club. By the way, I used to run for Willowfield Temperance Harriers (real black [ie Protestant] place) in all the leading races in the north for boys.”

Sands then goes on to describe the first time he was caught, as an eighteen-year-old, in October 1972.  The communications explain how four years later, he “was snared again” in October 1976 “outside a furniture showroom in Dunmurray in which were four ticking bombs. You’ll get all the crack on that somewhere, it was pretty fierce  ‑ two or three comrades were shot, I was caught in a car with three others and a gun.” A little later he remarks: “I’ve no criminal record” and “I’m a great admirer of your dog and Ethna Carbery”. The note concludes with “I’m fairly fluent in Gaelige (big head).”

In the ensuing few exchanges (or “comms” as they are referred to in Ten Men Dead) reference to Ethna Carbery (real name Anna MacManus, née Johnston 1866-1902) recurs several times:

I was wondering (here it comes says you) that out of the goodness of all yer hearts you could get me one miserly book and try to leave it in: the Poems of Ethna Carbery ‑ cissy. That’s really all I want, last request as they say. Some ask for cigarettes, others for blindfolds, yer man asks for Poetry.

With the visible deterioration of his health as the hunger strike went on its relentlessly eviscerating way, Sands gave up writing and, according to Beresford, issued a valedictory note, quoting John Keegan Casey’s famous Fenian poem:

The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon.

In barely two months’ time on May 5th, 1981, Sands would be dead, his name broadcast around the world. In the immediate period leading up to his death other communications refer to his passion for poetry:

Bob was pleased you managed to get that book for him … But you know that while we were in H6, during 1979, he sent up to me and told me after reading some of Ethna [Carbery] work that he had written her a wee note and “you never know”, sez Bob, she might just do something on the block. Did he take a red face when I informed him she’d been dead for more than 10 years [she actually died in 1902]. He has been extra careful what he says to me since then. Anyway, will you do your best to get some more stuff like that for him. He’s mad about poetry as you know …

Who can tell whether Sands really did not know the biographical details of “Ethna Carbery”, the nationalist poet who grew up in the 1880s in Donegal Park and “Glencoe” near Cave Hill, a middle class suburb of north Belfast, sharing in the well-heeled and similarly Scottish-named neighbourhoods of Fortwilliam, Duncairn and Glandore. And as the crow flies no distance from blue-collar Rathcoole where the young Sands had lived and socialised.

Carbery would have a significant impact on Irish nationalist circles at the turn of the last century and also well beyond that community through the extensive popular readership for her Celtic Twilight poems. While Sands’s response in Beresford’s account might be fictionalised, it is possible that one of the poems the IRA militant had in mind was “In Glengormley”, another suburb on the upper northside of the city. This is an example of Carbery’s seven stanzas:

Though prison walls should sunder
   our hands, that clasped, a store,
though lonely years should weigh me down,
    and you come back no more;
though our bright dreams be unfulfilled
    no shameful tears shall rise
to mar the memory of the smile
    that lit my love’s brave eyes.
I’d rather see you cold, love,
   beneath the shamrock screen,
than know you traitor to your God
   and traitor to the Green!
I’d rather see your dear, fair head
   on spear-point of the foe,
than know when Ireland needed you
   you never struck a blow!

One can probably also see how the romantic nationalism ‑ which Seumus MacManus identified with his wife, “Ethna Carbery”, and the widespread response shortly after their marriage to her early death in 1902 (aged thirty-five) ‑ might have distracted Sands from the grotesque downward spiral of the Troubles into sectarian warfare. By the time of his own death in 1981, another decade and a half had to run its shatteringly divisive course before some kind of political resolution could be found instead of the mayhem of violence.

 “While she lived,” writes MacManus in “A Memoir of Ethna Carbery”, originally written for the posthumous collection Poems (1918), “she was a quiet strong nationalising force. Since she passed she has been every year an infinitely stronger nationalising force, she has won hosts of young Irishmen and women to nationality”. Across the generations, it seems, poetry is both the bind that mattered and the ties that bound.

It is a curious yet telling point to reflect upon that in the years after “the North began”, the partition of the country forced many families born and bred there to make some hard decisions and relocate elsewhere. As Máire Mhac an tSaoi, the Irish language poet, born in 1922, daughter of the leading Belfast republican, parliamentarian and sometime poet, Seán MacEntee, alludes to in her poem, “Fod an imris: Ard-Oifig an Phoist 1986” / “Trouble Spot: General Post Office 1986”: “I hear now the Northern accent / Of the elder man I loved with hard devotion”. Where this all leads to is at the core of her powerfully resounding conclusion to the poem in this version translated by Louis de Paor:

In later years, we tried again;
you learned to be charitable,
but we still had to tread carefully;
your intelligence and sense of justice
never practised deception;
I am the same age as the state
and neither turned out as you wished…
in this place, father, you are the unknown
youth who went missing ‑
neglect and awkwardness hide the key from my mind ‑
but I hear now the Northern accent
of the elder man I loved with hard devotion:
do you remember the rebuke you delivered
before it became fashionable?
You spoke thus:

I see no cause for rejoicing
that Irishmen once again
are killing other Irishmen
on the streets of Belfast!

The long life of the Belfast-educated Protestant friend of Carbery’s, the fiercely anti-partitionist Alice Milligan (1866-1953), was in large measure defined by her early involvement with the national movement in Dublin from the late 1880s and 1890s to post-1916. However, in her poem “Up the Falls: At the Rising o’ the Moon” she recalls the harsh conditions of the Falls Road by sampling, as Bobby Sands would, the reserves of Irish nationalism’s dramatic metaphors, this time, however, with a critically self-alert sense of distance, of how others may view her:

What can it be ‑ I thought, as I came in view,
they are staring at, and one is pointing to.
What wakes them from their state of stupor now?
A dog fight, or a vicious back-street row?
But all seems quiet,
And from the distance comes no stir of riot,
Yet from their wall-propped places
They all turned eager, forward-looking faces,
perhaps at some companion who has sunk
to the ground, dead drunk.
whatever it is he points to, and they see,
would scarcely edify me,
in this rapt, exalted poet's mood.
I’d better cross the street for fear they should
spit as I pass, or curse, and I should hear them[.]

If the reader wants to discover more the full length poem is to be found in Lucy Collins’s fine anthology, Poetry by Women in Ireland (2012).

Of the Northern literary voices of this earlier generation of political activists born in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, whose lives were in many way framed by their journeys south, undoubtedly the best-known outside of scholarly and political circles is Joseph Campbell (1879-1944). His songs were as popular as Tom Moore's in the drawing room soirées, church hall stages and public broadcasting programmes of Northern Ireland and further afield.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin points out in her introduction to “As I was among the Captives”: Joseph Campbell’s Prison Diary, 1922-1923 (2001), his “nationalism, like that of many of his colleagues was lofty, poetic, with a cult of heroism and a faith in the destiny of the Gael which has been seen as proto-fascist, but was often combined with a respect for democracy and a dislike for dictators”.

Campbell's literary influence is largely uncharted, as is generally the case with the heterodox nature of Northern nationalism and its contradictory, complicated relationship to both states in Ireland and to the British state. It shouldn’t pass us by, for instance, that the educational and class origins of a Milligan, Carbery and Campbell (and Mac an tSaoi’s Northern background for that matter) is in stark contrast to that of Bobby Sands and the mainly working class republican movement for which his death would have such a transformational political effect.

Joseph Campbell’s traces are apparent at every turn in By the Black Stream, published in 1969, the first book-length collection by Padriac Fiacc, a poet heavily identified with the poetry of the Troubles. Like so many others before him, including Campbell, of course, Fiacc’s IRA father had emigrated to the US in the wake of the failed revolution of the 1920s; a failure which dogged their emigrant lives in New York and led eventually to Fiacc’s return to Belfast; indeed to a temporary family life in Glengormley.

While Campbell’s poems sometimes give off the whiff of supremacist rhetoric, as in “The Planter” – “The grey past is dead /f or you, as Beauty is. Your head / is but a block, your filmed eye / blind to the vision and mystery / of Man’s progression thro’ the Northern Land / Since the first Niall threw the Bloody Hand” ‑ the characteristically imagistic Campbell is much more convincing as a poet.

In “The Ploughman”, Campbell’s poetic can be heard as clear as a bell ‑ a tone, landscape and nuance that masks his upper middle class east Belfast Catholic upbringing, as surely as the Belfast novels of the Volunteer leader Eoin MacNeill’s nephew Brian Moore slide back the shutters from that Northern world in post-partition Ireland of the 1940s and well into the late 1970s – in novels such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Emperor of Ice Cream and Lies of Silence.

The moral, artistic, political and cultural lives of the Catholic nationalist community in the North, but also its wider migrations and fate in the fledgling new Irish Free State and in Britain, North America and further afield is a fascinating history of adaptation and adoption as much as restlessness and disaffection. A story that has yet to be told plays underneath the mythologising of “The Ploughman” for sure:

The ploughman ploughs the fallow ‑
smoking lines
of sunset earth
against a clump of pines.

a flock of rooks and seagulls
wheel and cry
about him, making music
in the sky.

wings black and silver
in a sky of grey,
like shadows folding
between night and day.

Thro’ the pine-branches
lights a dying gleam:
the swingle creaks,
the ploughman turns his team.

not for himself he ploughs
the hill land tho';
he offers sacrifice
for me and you.

of earth, that in its time
will break to bread,
the sacramental veil
of Godlihead.

1/10/2015

Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection is Mickey Finn’s Air (2014). Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing will be published by Cork University Press in October. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin.

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