Of War and War’s Alarms, Reflections on Modern Irish Writing, by Gerald Dawe, Cork University Press, 194 pp, ISBN-9781782051763
Ireland is small. Writers not only know of each another but often they actually know each another socially too. So in the spirit of glasnost let me start with a disclosure: I know Gerald Dawe, the author of the book here under review. I know him well: he’s also a colleague when I work at Trinity where he teaches, which I do occasionally.
You’ve guessed where this is going: can this review be trusted? Well I could say I never allow friendship to cloud my critical judgment but I doubt if you’d believe me. So how about this?
Had I not liked Of War and War’s Alarms I’d have passed on reviewing it (I only review what I like, you see, as reviewing what I don’t like makes me peevish and sullen) and frankly, passing on reviewing it would have been easy as well as preferable because then I wouldn’t have been obliged to write this long fumbling paragraph which tells you not whether my judgment can be relied upon but that my favourable opinion preceded the invitation to describe it in writing.
In other words, all you’re getting here is what I’d already concluded, expressed with a bit more clarity and rigour than would have been the case if I’d been talking to you in person in the pub, say, about this book.
In 2004, Gerald Dawe gave the Francis Ledwidge Annual Lecture in the poet’s home village, Slane, Co Meath. Ledwidge, born in 1887, was a nationalist, a trade unionist and, I think, a socialist. He joined the British army in 1914 and was killed on the Western Front in July1917. During his difficult life, he never had much money. He wrote poetry mostly and though he did not produce an enormous quantity (he hardly had the time) what he did produce was remarkable. He was also an Irish artist (which is why he is so interesting today, to us) who embodied and lived with contradiction. He believed in Ireland yet served in the British army, and he did not see these two things as mutually exclusive.
In the course of his lecture Gerald Dawe noted “that, as a result of my reading around Ledwidge’s life and times, it had struck me as strange that there was not a collection of poems written by Irish men and women who, like him had either experienced war at first hand or who had written about their sense of war”.
And by wars what he had in mind, Gerald Dawe went on to explain, were not only those that one might expect Irish poets to write about (“the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the civil war in Ireland”) but those other twentieth century wars, including the Great War, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The text of the talk was republished in The Irish Times and this suggestion (which was really an aside) provoked several readers to write saying, “Yes, please.”
Despite partition and neutrality in World War Two these correspondents posited – preaching of course to someone who was, so to speak, a believer, and in language that was probably more opaque than I’m allowing – these correspondents posited that a great many Irish poets had written about war, only their poems were scattered through their works. However, bringing all this material between covers, if nothing else, they said, would demonstrate the depth and the variety of Irish poetry and demonstrate that Irish poets responded to all human misery, and not just the Hibernian variety.
In 2008 Gerald Dawe published the work to which he’d alluded in Slane, Earth Voices Whispering, An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914– 1945. The title comes from the last line of “Nocturne” by Thomas MacGreevy, Great War veteran, modernist and ally of Samuel Beckett – “About my feet, earth voices whispering” – while the collection it names presents poetry about wars and associated catastrophes, mostly of the twentieth century, by Irish writers born before 1945. The earliest-born contributor is Katherine Tynan (b 1861) and the latest Van Morrison (b 1945) and the poets in between include some you would expect because they are associated with the Irish revival and/or the national struggle, WB Yeats, and the Proclamation signatories Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse for instance, alongside others one might not typically associate with poetry about war, including Seamus Deane, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Eavan Boland.
“Books come out of books,” as the novelist Cormac McCarthy observed in an interview in the New York Times in 1992. He was specifically talking about novels, but he could have been talking about any branch of literature, for all texts have the capacity to engender further texts, and that includes anthologies, or at least that is the case here, for now, seven years on from Earth Voices Whispering and arising both out of it and Gerald Dawe’s wider reading, we have a collection of essays about some Irish writers, Of War and War’s Alarms, Reflections on Modern Irish Writing, and their responses to the very same conflicts that the poets in Earth Voices Whispering responded to in verse.
There are ten chapters, each devoted to a writer or writers. The mix is eclectic as well as idiosyncratic but never less than surprising and interesting. Some of the subjects are poets met previously in Earth Voices Whispering, WB Yeats (well he could hardly be omitted, not with the title “Of War and War’s Alarms” being a line in his last poem, “Politics” and the girl in that poem probably being Cora Hughes, whom the poet and socialist Charles Donnelly – who also gets an essay – left behind in Ireland when he went to fight in Spain), Thomas MacGreevy, John Hewitt and Padraic Fiacc, for instance, as well as some poets not met in the anthology, such as Robert Graves. (Dawe’s exploration of Graves’s Irishness is revelatory). There is also a slew of prose writers, including Christabel Bielenberg, the contemporary novelist Paul Murray, William Trevor (with The Story of Lucy Gault, Trevor’s great novel on the fall of the Big House, being the focus of his essay), and Benedict Kiely (the focus in his essay being Proxopera, Kiely’s critique of Republican violence).
So what sort of an animal is Of War and War’s Alarms? Every chapter is rich, detailed, focused, lean, and comprised of multiple elements (history, biography, criticism, memoir and so on), all of which are deftly and ingeniously woven into a seamless whole. The chapter on Christabel Bielenberg (and her husband Peter; they were very much a pair) is a good example of the book’s schtick. Primarily, it is historical (but narrated in a fluid, numinous language): we get her life, her marriage to Peter, a career German diplomat, in 1932, her life in Nazi Germany, her connection with the anti-Nazis who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb in 1944, her husband’s incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp because of this connection, her decamping with her husband and children postwar to Munny House, near Tully, Co Carlow, her devotion to farming, her writing (when not farming) two marvellous memoirs – The Past is Myself (about her life in Germany) and The Road Ahead (about her life in Ireland), her mentoring of Northern Ireland’s Peace People (this was the organisation founded by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams to promote peace and reconciliation in the North) and finally (which is both the beginning and the end of the narrative) her attending the first National Writers’ Workshop in Galway in 1976 when she was sixty-six, where she met the twenty-three-year-old newly graduated Gerald Dawe from Belfast.
They became friends, which Dawe represents with the following story: she gave him a cutting from her bay tree, from which the poet grew a tree in Galway, and when he moved to Dublin later the tree or a cutting from it went too. The chapter ends with an exploration of an out-of-time experience Christabel has. Sitting in the sun in her garden in Ireland, a boisterous grandson not far from her side, she senses in the shadows of the nearby trees, alert, vivid, and exactly as they were when they were alive, all the major figures from her now vanished
and very distant pre-war past, “Her father, her mother, a much loved brother, Freda, Adam (Von Trott, one of the those who tried to kill Hitler), Lexi, Frau Muckle …” What the chapter’s end shows (which is one of the “messages” of the collection) is that though lives are lived and suffering is endured in specific geographical places the reverberations of those lived suffering lives goes on being felt everywhere for a very long time, possibly forever.
The Bielenberg essay (like all the essays) is also a meditation on the canon and who is and is not “in”. Though I don’t think many today would think of Christabel Bielenberg as an Irish writer, she lived here, she knitted herself in to here and she thought of herself as being of here and what Gerald Dawe, by writing about her, is doing is enabling us to see not only that she is one of our own but that if we fail to accept her we will be the poorer.
Irish literature (the burden of the book’s argument) is an infinitely more diverse and complex ecosystem than we might like to think, or have been taught to believe for that matter. It’s number includes not only those, obviously, who fit, WB Yeats for example, but all sorts of other characters who, for one reason and another but principally our chauvinism have not been admitted to the Pantheon, or, if they have been let across the threshold have been corralled in the vestibule and kept out of the main hall, which is reserved for our Greats.
And this polemic in favour of breadth and depth and openness and inclusiveness really matters – or at least to me it does. I am writing this in my study in Co Fermanagh at the start of 2016, anuminous year if ever there was one in Ireland, and already it’s not looking rosy up here. I know there will be a lot of official state-endorsed culture throughout the island over the year ahead but that isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, what’s required. What I crave is a
Non-state-endorsed culture throughout the island that energetically, enthusiastically and indefatigably embraces and reveres the awkward, the atypical, and the untypical, the work in short that’s made by artists who lie outside the pale of our two traditions, our hobbling orthodoxies.
The creation of this kind of open culture, despite their protestations, will not be the work of our politicians, or our states and their functionaries. They’re not capable of it. The very fact of having power disables them from this task. The establishing of the kind of culture I want to see can and will only be done by those who have nothing to do with our political elites and their structures and Gerald Dawe, with this exceptional essay collection, Of War and War’s Alarms, is clearly one of those who is striving to do exactly this and to make Ireland a warmer house for everyone on the island.
Carlo Gébler is a writer and teacher. The Projectionist, the story of Ernest Gébler was published in 2015 and the short story collection TheWing Orderly’s Tales will be published in 2016, both by New Island.