(Apologies once again for my long and continuing absence from blogging. I am hoping to have more time soon, although it will be a gradual return. In the meantime, here is a blog post I wrote during the lockdown. I wrote it as a sample blog post for a work blog I was proposing, in which library staff would write articles drawing on the books and collections in the library. That idea sunk without a trace, so here it is.
As I had no access to any libraries at this point, and very little internet access, I had to rely on the books at home. That is why the selection is so eclectic.)
Themes in Irish Poetry since 1970: a Very
Selective Content Analysis
Poetry is both universal and particular,
private and public, timeless and ephemeral. Poetry has been an important part
of Irish culture from the days of the Irish filí to the time of Yeats
and beyond. The popular readership of poetry may have declined in recent
decades, in Ireland as elsewhere, but it remains a prestigious literary form,
and one which many people turn to in order to express their deepest feelings,
concerns and aspirations. Poetry is also an especially favourable medium for
examining the preoccupations of a culture; although a poet might well write
about trivial things, it’s generally used to explore the deeper currents of
This blog post is a very selective examination
of some Irish poetry written since 1970. The date of 1970 may be considered
fairly arbitrary; however, it seems a convenient starting point for
“contemporary Ireland”, coming as it does after the social upheavals of the
My sample consists of six books and six
periodicals published between 1981 and 2019. They are:
The Selected John Hewitt,
published by Blackstaff Press in 1981.
The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, published
by Oxford University Press in 1986.
Sweet Sweet Memories, self-published
by Fran Murphy in 1986.
Poetry Now Anthology 98,
published by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 1998.
Poems Through Ireland,
a poetry collection self-published by street poet Jamesa Kelly in 2000.
a collection of prose and poetry by Virginia House Creative Writers, 2007.
Six copies of Comhar, the premier Irish
language magazine, which range from 2011 to 2018.
I have only featured poems published after
1970, which amount to 207 poems in all. My sample includes poems in both Irish
and English, poems by recognized poets and by “ordinary people”, and poems
dating from the whole range of my chosen timespan.
One thing that is immediately obvious from
reading these poems is that the Celtic Mist had long evaporated by 1970; even
the “ordinary” poets (who might be assumed to be either above or below literary
fashion) do not draw on the romantic literary conventions associated with the
Celtic Revival. The closest we come to this is “The Hero’s Portion” by John
Montague, which takes as its subject the ancient Celtic custom of assigning the
best portions of meat to the mightiest warrior. But the vocabulary is far from
romantic: “Cracking and splitting down to the marrow stuffed bone where he
licked and sucked as clean as a whistle”. Jamesa Kelly’s express a strident
Irish republicanism, but one based on a solidarity with ancestral suffering and
struggle rather than on an idealized national heritage.
Irish history—the sort of history which fills
history books, that is—features in thirty-six of the 207 poems, most
prominently in the works of John Hewitt and Jamesa Kelly. Hewitt was an Ulster
poet, who was raised in the Methodist tradition. His poetry sought to transcend
the ethnic and religious divide of Ulster, and to identity with Irish history
as a whole, particularly in solidarity with its suffering:
careful words of my injunction
unrhetorical; as neutral
unaligned as any I know
propose no more than a thoughtful response;
do not pound with drum-beats
patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.
an Elegy Nor a Manifesto”, 1972
Kelly’s volume includes laments for the Irish republican hunger striker Bobby
Sands, and many denunciations of Britain’s role in Irish history. However, he
has no rosy view of Ireland’s traditions: the poem “Modern Ireland” is an
attack on the title subject, but concludes that the present is still better
than the past: “Goodness, how pathetic our past”.
poems in the selection—an excerpt from “A Farewell to English” by Michel
Hartnett, and “Gaeltacht” by Pearse Hutchinson, express a strong sense of loss
in the decline of the Irish language, and the culture associated with it. Other
than that, the corpus of poems analyzed here come close, at least by
implication, to agreeing with the famous words of Stephen Daedalus: “History is
a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
least this is true when it comes to history with a capital H. The other sorts
of history—family history, social history, personal history—are treated more
favourably on the whole.
is a major theme in these poems: in thirty-seven of the 207 poems, it is a
primary theme. The memories featured are very often painful, especially in the
works of John Hewitt. They are only sometimes nostalgic—most of often in the
volume by Fran Murphy, about half of whose poems are fond recollections of her
Italian-American childhood. (She moved to Ireland in 1968, but her poems
display very little interest in Irish culture per se.)
Occasionally they are
ambivalent, as in “Above the Pool” by John Montague, which describes a
childhood romantic encounter. What strikes the reader, when reading these
“memory” poems, is their intensity, their vividness—that, and how they tend to
be more concerned with personal and family life than with the “grand narratives”
of history. (John Hewitt, whose “memory poems” are often specific to the
conflict in Northern Ireland, is a counter-example.)
is rather less of a theme in the poems than I had expected. John Hewitt writes
eighteen poems on the subject, and Jamesa Kelly writes sixteen, but outside
that there are only twelve poems where Irishness is a prominent theme.
Kelly’s “For All Who Want to Be Irish” is one of the most explicit meditations
on this topic:
not as simple as it seems you see,
is a complex sort of treachery.
it possible to live here, but really part of it,
you are born in this land
spend your time in the womb of Mother Ireland?
tentativeness of this poem is quite representative. Few of the poems in my
sample posit any essence of Irishness, or meditate upon the national character per
also, is less of a major theme than I would have expected. There are few
“zeitgeisty” poems, few references to new technologies or social changes.
Jamesa Kelly has poems on Viagra and mobile phones, and The New Oxford Book
of Irish Verse includes “The Guttural Muse” by Seamus Heaney, in which the
poet envies a crowd of young people leaving the disco. The last poem in Tallaght
Soundings (“Demographics” by Patrick Sneyd) is a very matter-of-fact
acknowledgement of the new multicultural Ireland. Other than that, modernity is
more taken for granted than commented upon.
itself is quite a prominent theme. John Hewitt writes about Walter Savage
Landor. Jamesa Kelly writes about Michael Hartnett. Michael Hartnett writes
about Yeats. Cathal Ó Searcaigh writes about Ovid, and Marguerite Sneyd writes
about a poetry reading given by Paul Durcan. Altogether there are sixteen poems
in which poetry is a major theme.
|Dirk Benedict meditating on poetry|
might be expected, there are many poems about romantic love, although they tend
to concentrate on its pains and disappointments, rather than its joys. “Scaradh
na Compánach” by Caitríona Ní Chlėirchin describes the Countess of Donegal’s
sadness and anxiety as her husband leaves her for battle. “Another Cold Dinner”
by Fran Murphy laments a husband constantly late home, and expresses feelings
of abandonment. Jamesa Kelly’s volume contains poems addressed to several
different women, but the accent in these is upon pain and sorrow. It is
significant, perhaps, that the most purely romantic poem in the
sample—“Twilight” by Anne McGarth, one of the Tallaght poets—celebrates a
private moment of reverie, set against a cityscape with no mention of other
all the poems are written in free verse, or using a very loose metre and rhyme
scheme. John Hewitt is the poet who draws on traditional verse forms the most,
particularly the sonnet. On the whole, however, the forms used occupy a middle
ground between traditional verse on one hand, and the kind of dense, cryptic
verse favoured by High Modernists such as Pound and Eliot on the other.
overriding impression I take from these poems is one of melancholy. They seem
to evoke a human condition where—as Samuel Johnson put it—much is to be endured
and little is to be enjoyed. Personal experience is more real to these
contemporary poets than the backdrop of history and current affairs. Memory is
insistent, but is painful more often than not. Poetry itself is frequently a
theme, which fits well with the general atmosphere of interiority and
self-exploration. Ireland is a context rather than a subject matter. Religion
is rarely mentioned. There is little sense of broad horizons, new frontiers, or
enticing possibilities. The poet is thrown upon his or her own resources, navigating
fhe traumas of private and cultural memories, seeking personal meaning in an
often hostile or indifferent world.