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The Virtual Republic

Gerald Dawe

In John Hewitt’s A North Light, his memoir of twenty-five years in a municipal art gallery, edited by Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White and published in 2013 in a splendid edition by Four Courts Press, there is a wonderfully revealing moment when he recalls attending, as a delegate from Northern PEN, the reinterring of WB Yeats’s remains in Drumcliffe cemetery in Sligo on September 17th, 1948. Yeats had died on January 28th, 1939 in France and had been buried there, according to his own wishes. “If I die here bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.” (Roy Foster, W.B.Yeats, A Life II: The Arch-Poet). The delay was due of course to the intervening war. Behind the scene various Irish writers, including Thomas McGreevy, diplomats and Yeats’s family and friends, were involved and the occasion itself was by all accounts a neatly staged, poignant and dignified one, attended by many of the leading figures of the time, including Louis MacNeice, Austin Clarke (“that scrupulous poet”, as Hewitt calls him in A North Light), Frank O’Connor, Lennox Robinson, Maurice James Craig and Maud Gonne’s son, Seán McBride. Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse light, was absent, “afflicted with arthritis” and “remained in Dublin” according to Foster. McBride was the Irish government’s Minister for External Affairs, and one-time chief of staff of the IRA.

Hewitt’s setting of the scene shows a keen eye for detail and also a sense of uncertainty about what to expect as the cortege approaches Sligo town on its short journeys to the Church of Ireland burial ground five miles northwest of the city so much identified with Yeats, his poetry and his family connections:

Newspapers were folded away, like two waves of breaking foam, as the feeling of an approach ran down the street. Children were hoisted on shoulders. In the stillness, for the first time, I could hear far away the cry of pipes, wild and sad, and the slow distant thump of drums. Soon they rounded the corner and came down the hill towards us. (A North Light)

Ever vigilant for the telling moment or hint of tension in the air, or possible indiscretion, Hewitt remarks on the accompanying music as “the pipe band of local lads in their blue serge Sunday suits, tense and tall with dignity … came forward slowly step by step, the drums crepe-wrapped and anonymous”. The choice of “Oft in the Stilly Night”, in spite of “what Yeats had written of Tom Moore” is praised by Hewitt, along with the band: “it seemed,” he writes, “decorous and just, a tune we could all share.” So the sense of community is underpinning the commemorative moment as Yeats is finally laid to rest in his own home. Hewitt’s gloss on the occasion is worth quoting in full:

And somehow, I was glad that it was the local civilian band and not the brass and braided uniforms of the state. It was enough that the old poet’s body had been brought back from the Mediterranean sunshine in an Irish gunboat called Macha, for he had been, maybe chief among them who had made that gesture possible.

Hewitt then quotes the (in)famous lines from Yeats’s poem “The Man and the Echo” (1938):

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

reflecting Yeats’s extended obsession with 1916, inscribing his 1902 Cathleen ni Houlihan (“that play”) into the narrative of what had happened, post-event; a kind of “get the commemoration in first” ploy, not unknown in Irish political history to this day.

The story continues with the sighting of the hearse itself “with a very bright coffin, the largest I have ever seen, half-covered by the Irish flag, next, followed on foot, by the Mayor of Sligo, public representatives, cabinet ministers, men from Galway university [the frigate bearing Yeats’s coffin had docked in Galway harbour] capped and gowned in their degrees … [and then] a long file of creeping cars, with, here and there, a profile behind glass and its passing reflections, that I could recognise”.

Hewitt goes through the choreography of the event between the crowds, the ceremony outside Sligo Town Hall, where Irish defence forces stand with bowed heads and arms reversed in a guard of honour; before the whole cortege moves off slowly to Drumcliffe; where Hewitt spots “de Valera, head and shoulders above the rest” and runs into Austin Clarke again, who “inquired if one might smoke at a Protestant funeral”. As an observer, maybe even with the hint of being the outsider, Hewitt “could only look around”, and, as he recounts, “peer up at the tower which seemed too high for the Church, and watch men with a movie-camera recording the scene, look at the rain, slanting through the trees, and find names celebrated in twentieth century Ireland for the backs ‑ and the backs of heads, the actor, the poet, the man of letters, the politicians”.

Yeats’s burial was an act of repatriation. It was also, crucially, a statement of the soon-to-declared Republic’s efforts to identify Yeats, the internationally renowned poet, Nobel laureate and one-time Irish senator, with the relatively young state’s being open and, in some form or other, inclusive of its Protestant minority, personified by the first inter-party government minister’s attendance. It was a commemorative act, one can say, although in the years immediately after his death Yeats’s legacy was hotly debated in Ireland and became ensnared in some dreadful invective, as Roy Foster notes in his magisterial biography, “predictably violent attacks by the Catholic Bulletin and ‑ from an incensed Aodh de Blácam ‑ in the Irish Monthly, describing [Yeats] as satanic, atheistical and, above all, unIrish”.

“I could hear the sound of spaded earth,” Hewitt concludes, as “the mourners round the grave dispersed and others pushed forward to look. There was a general loosening of tension, an easy standing around. According to Foster’s account, “the Yeats family held out against a state funeral”, and though Frank O’Connor had been asked by them to “make a graveside oration this was vetoed by Jack [B Yeats, the poet’s artist brother] who disapproved of O’Connor’s politics”. So Reverend James Wilson, the local rector, conducted the Church of Ireland service, though Bishop Hughes (Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Armagh) privately “felt a little doubtful as to Yeats’s claim to Christian burial”.

What happens next is, in my book, astonishing. In Hewitt’s account, written some years later in 1963-64, fellow-poet and diplomat Valentin Iremonger “came over and said that Seán McBride would like to meet me”. Hewitt, let us remind ourselves, was in 1948 a man in his early forties (born in 1907), roughly the same age, give or take a few years, as McBride (born in 1904 in Paris). Hewitt was about to see in print No Rebel Word (published in November 1948). He had been politically active as a left-winger throughout the Thirties and during World War Two and into the postwar divided states of Ireland, North and South. As WJ McCormacks’s study Northman: John Hewitt (1907-87): An Irish Writer, His World and His Times makes abundantly clear, both John and Roberta Hewitt were no strangers to the arts and literary scene in the Irish state and kept well-informed on social and political developments south of the border too. In the crisis over the “Mother and Child” welfare scheme of 1951, Roberta’s journal of April 12th, 1951 notes “the great story” when the Catholic Church “denounced” the Noel Browne-inspired scheme of health care. According to McCormack, “she and John thought the Minister ‘very courageous’ and felt that his party leader, Seán McBride, has been shown up  as a bogus radical”. “I am becoming more and more afraid of the R.C. Church,” Roberta confided in her journal.

But back barely three years to that encounter in the thronged Church of Ireland churchyard in Sligo as “small boys and girls threaded through the groups, autograph books open and pens tilted forward butt foremost”. This is how Hewitt retells what happens next:

I was introduced to the Minister, a pale intense man with light hair. Son of Maud Gonne, he had a right to be there. But while I was explaining that the only hope for a united country was in federation with firm guarantees for the north in regard to censorship, divorce, birth control and the place of organised religion in the constitution, I could see a few feet away Micheal MacLiammoir, the actor, walking past …

The scene closes, neatly enough, with “people gathering or making small circles round us, other folk who wished obviously to shake the Minister’s hand, so we drifted to the waiting cars.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid.

But wait a minute here. Let’s just rewind this scene. Hewitt is standing in a churchyard of a small, somewhat remote Church of Ireland church and, undoubtedly, tactfully but nevertheless forthrightly, identifying four key areas that the Irish republic needs to address before the possibility of a “federal” Ireland can be considered! It’s 1948 remember. Debate and schism has been ongoing about the constitutional changes to the Irish state, which is about to leave the Commonwealth of Nations and declare itself a Republic in 1949. So this conversation was wedded to current hot-wired political realities and issues. And look at the wish list Hewitt shares with the pale and intense young(ish) minister for external affairs: one: censorship; two: divorce; three: birth control; four: the special place of the Church in the new constitution.

It may be relevant here to note that censorship was officially still in place in one form or another until the late 1980s; divorce, originally prohibited by the 1937 constitution, was legalised in spite of huge opposition in 1995 after an earlier failed referendum in 1986; birth control was officially illegal in the Irish Free State and subsequent republic from 1935 until 1980 and a series of subsequent legal reforms and challenges up to 1992, while the special place of the Church in the Irish constitution remained until 1973 when it was removed by an overwhelming (85 per cent) vote in a referendum.

So the list John Hewitt brought to that brief encounter with the Irish government minister remained elusive for almost half a century from that churchyard ceremony in September 1948 to ‑ if you like your history neat ‑ April 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement which, in a sense, left on the table a possible, virtual federal Ireland such as Hewitt’s with the collective support of the people – 71 per cent in the North and almost 95 per cent in the South.

Hewitt died in 1987, before this important civic statement of cultural inclusiveness came about, and what has happened in the twenty years since 1998 is well beyond my brief this morning. What we do know is that the last fifteen or so years of Hewitt’s life, after he had returned from Coventry in 1972 to live in Belfast, were marked by the enduring tragedy of political violence similar to that which had attended the birth of two states on the island and the partition which underpinned the division of the country; reminiscent but much worse and lasting far longer. Hewitt’s intellectual and cultural engagement with the Irish Free State and its successor, the Republic, was ongoing, very much in keeping with his generation of Northern writers and, particularly, with Northern artists’ broad interests. The divided island did not mean a divided culture, as younger scholars such as Tom Walker, Guy Woodward and Conor Linnie are showing in some detail in recent research.

From quite an early age Hewitt wrote poems (and prose) about his sense of Ireland’s history and mythology, even though it was his restless probing of ideas about regionalism with which he would become much more identified. His discomfort with the Northern state is well-charted ground and his critical sense of not making contact with an audience here pained him ‑ or maybe frustrated is a better word. “I am not speaking to my people,” he was to remark in an interview in 1980 … “it is inescapable. But linked with it is the important fact of the total lack of literary interest amongst unionists of the north, the lack of any fixed literary tradition.” Hewitt’s verse from Conacre (1943) and No Rebel Word all the way through to the final collections such as Kites in Spring: A Belfast Boyhood (1980) and Loose Ends (1983) are inflected with a growing consciousness of the damage done by the political exploitation of division and by a nostalgia for a different past, often embodied in the personae of his father, as in his poem “Going Up to Dublin”.

His sketches of local life lived under the shadows of violence as in “The Troubles 1922” have a stern resonance for all involved in the sometimes sanitised revisiting of Irish history, particularly in this decade of commemorations. Even the youthful enthusiasm for James Connolly finds its expression in the elegy published in 1928 as well as in an unpublished sonnet, identified by Frank Ormsby in his editing of the grand Collected Poems of John Hewitt (1991) with the title “To the Memory of James Connolly, patriot and martyr, murdered by soldiers, May 10th 1916”. (Though, as Ormsby reminds us, Connolly was executed on May 12th).

Alongside these simple examples one can place so many Hewitt poems whose concern ranges from the Great War, the Spanish Civil War, WWII and its bloody aftermath both for the victorious Allies and the cities of defeated Nazi Germany, and what Edna Longley described as “other twentieth century shocks and changes”. Hewitt’s cultural bearings were at a very early stage of his development earthed by the Thirties excitement with politics, as Bill McCormack’s Northman biography relates in regard to his contact with leading figures of the Republican Congress such as Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan, writing under a pseudonym (Richard Telford) for The Irish Democrat and much else. Hewitt was back and forth across the border on visits to Dublin and elsewhere regularly, as much as he was visiting in London and all the other very many places both he and Roberta holidayed in throughout their lives together. On December 16th, 1949, just a year after that conversation with Seán McBride in Sligo, the Hewitts are on the Enterprise bound for a dinner organised by the PEN Club in Dublin. “Complex feelings of resentment, relief, guilt and confusion shuttled across the border,” McCormack remarks, as the Hewitts leave behind postwar (and blitzed) Belfast for a brief stay in post-Emergency and neutral Dublin:

On board the train they met friends, including the painter Daniel O’Neill: the journey passed quickly. They had booked into Jury’s Hotel – “posh” by their standards. On Saturday evening, Hewitt was surprised and pleased by Roger McHugh’s knowledge of his work, less impressed by Professor HO White’s pretences. Kenneth Reddin, a minor literary figure and a judge, brought them to the Hermitage, near Rathfarnham, an eighteenth century mansion where Patrick Pearse had conducted a school. Roberta was moved by the romantic history of the place ‑ it had been the home of Robert Emmet’s beloved; somebody had been hanged there. “I became a bit of an Irish Republican in the atmosphere,” she records in her journal.

The other reason for visiting Dublin was “to buy goods still scarce inside the United Kingdom, several pairs of nylon stockings which Roberta smuggled inside her corset”, we are told. On New Year’s Eve that year (1949) the Hewitts “again attended Mass with neighbours” in the Glens of Antrim and John Hewitt would compose perhaps his best-known and most controversial of poems, “The Colony”. Maybe it is too much of a leap of imagination (or faith) to suggest that the overshadowing of this uncomfortably independent Northern voice , which John and Roberta Hewitt and their like personified during the critical founding years of the Irish Free State in the 30s and 40s, is a story yet to be told.

Told for its own sake, yes, but also for the sake of being just to all our histories and not just to the one that is most fashionable and therefore worthy of commemoration.


This is a very slightly edited version of the text of a lecture given to the John Hewitt Summer School, Marketplace Arts Centre, Armagh on July 29th, 2016. Belfast-born poet Gerald Dawe’s most recent collections include Selected Poems (2012) and Mickey Finn’s Air (2014). Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing was published last year by Cork University Press. He is professor of English at Trinity College Dublin.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is David Blake Knox’s 2011 essay “Missing”, on the fate of Irish merchant seamen interned during the Second World War in Germany. Here is an extract:

There is much to admire in the skill, determination and flexibility with which Irish politicians, civil servants and diplomats pursued the policy of neutrality – sometimes, in very difficult circumstances ‑ and, as [Pádraig] Murphy notes, “all this makes for very gripping reading”.

However, I would argue that it is possible to acknowledge that neutrality was the best option open to the Irish government during World War II but still question some of its legacy to succeeding generations. Irish diplomats were not the only Irish citizens to find themselves behind German lines, so to speak, during the war. There are other viewpoints and other experiences that are still missing from what has become the dominant narrative of that period. I would suggest that such omissions still affect us, and will continue to do so until they have been properly acknowledged as an integral part of Ireland’s history in the war years.

Like many Southern Irishmen, my father crossed the border into Northern Ireland shortly after war was declared in 1939 and enlisted in an Irish regiment of the British army. He ended up in Burma, arriving in Rangoon just two days before the decision to evacuate and burn that city was taken. He became part of the longest forced retreat in British military history, but was also part of the counter-offensive, when defeat was turned into victory. He returned to Ireland in 1946: to a country that had little direct experience of the global war.

When he died three years ago, he left a mass of papers. Sorting through them, I came across some faded press cuttings. One of these, from The Irish Times, was dated May 17th, 1945. It described the homecoming of a small group of Irish merchant seamen who had just been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, where they had been part of a slave labour force. My father had mentioned that his cousin, William, had died in Bremen in 1945. I had assumed that William was an Allied soldier who had been killed during the invasion of Germany ‑ like one of my uncles. Now I discovered that he had served in the merchant navy, and that the circumstances of his death were much darker than I had imagined.



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