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Other Voices

Mícheál Ó hAodha

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’ Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, Jenny Farrell (ed), Culture Matter Co-operative, ISBN: 978-1912710256

When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
John F Kennedy

While it may be something of a cliché to say that poetry is an art form that has always been associated with the societal “establishment” or elite, it is nonetheless a cliché which contains a great deal of truth. On this front alone, the appearance of this unique volume of Irish working people’s poetry is very timely. Working-class concerns are to the fore in every aspect of our society today – from issues of widespread corruption to the decline in working conditions; from unemployment to the legacy of institutional abuse by both church and state; the terrible vista of the direct provision system, climate change, feminist concerns, homelessness, trafficking, racism, the integration (or lack thereof) of new communities and ethnicities among us and educational inequality – to name but a few. Underscoring all of these questions, many of which are very ably addressed in this volume is the feeling among many of us that the political system is broken. Worse still is the pervasive sense that ordinary people have very little power or ability to influence or impact change or reform in many areas of our society.

This is where the power of this new volume, so excellently collated and edited by Jenny Farrell, comes in. Working people’s concerns and experiences have been hopelessly-neglected and ignored of late and nowhere more so than in the artistic sphere. Where are the working people and the working class experience reflected in Ireland’s artistic and cultural sphere? Where are the struggles of those who have no permanent roof over their head and who are shunted from one room to another described? Where are the experiences of those on the margins, the homeless, the old or mentally ill, those who’ve been abandoned or those who’ve been forced into crime and prostitution at the behest of traffickers and money-lenders? Where are the experiences of the many thousands of working people across the country, both urban and rural, who never have enough money to cover their monthly bills and who (with their children) spend their entire lives in that precarious and constantly anxious state that is a hand-to-mouth existence? This is the glaring lacuna that this exciting new volume seeks to redress.

In the cacophony of bugles, trumpets and platitudes that accompanied our recent centenary celebrations, one crucial aspect of our communal history was forgotten to a large extent. This was the fact that it was radicals and revolutionaries, the majority of them artists and poets – who underscored Irish independence and who encompassed the energy and idealism behind the sought-for “new Ireland” referenced in the title of this volume.

And poets have always been involved in the most radical of artistic and socio-political movements right back through the centuries. One thinks of England’s Pope, Spain’s Lorca and Chile’s Neruda to name but three. In the so-called “developing world” poetry is a very real and active energy-force in a way that may not be as true of the West any more. And one thing, that each of the aforementioned poets had in common was that they saw poetry as a form of “action”, a new catalyst for the development of cultural consciousness and a source of ideas and debate.

This is something that has never been more crucial in our society today. Because poetry levels the playing field and validates the thoughts and feelings of anyone and everyone; and most especially of those people who’ve never had that artistic outlet or opportunity before. Poetry can function not only as a form of healing but also of liberation. And it can draw on the older “poet as craftsman” tradition too. As the poets gathered in this volume demonstrate, the way we handle words and “work” them, the more intimately we engage with language and ideas, the more we reflect on the people who came before us and grow in their skills and craft.

With nearly seventy poets included in this volume and such a wide range of voices and perspectives on the working class experience, it would be impossible in a brief review such as this to do justice to the myriad of concerns and subjects as explored by these writers. Suffice to say that there is something for everyone and for every taste in this volume – poems concerning the plight of the homeless, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the victims of institutional abuse or those who sought to speak out and were silenced by their local community. And in true Irish style there are poems that engage with serious or difficult societal and class-related issues in a light-hearted and engaging style as underscored by the acerbic wit which characteried writers such as Kavanagh and Swift in a previous generations. Gabriel Rosenstock’s “Lucht Oibre/Working Class”, for example, uses wit and humour to look at the thorny issue (that always lurks beneath the surface) of who can be defined as working class in reality.

Witness too Rita Anne Higgins brutal yet acerbic exposition of how people are made redundant at the drop of a hat while their new-found unemployed status is slyly veiled beneath a skein of “fine words”.

No One Mentioned the Roofer
(for Pat Mackey)

We met the Minister,
we gave him buns, we admired his suit.
The band played, we all clapped.
No one mentioned the roofer;
whose overtime was cut
whose under time was cut
whose fringe was cut
whose shoelaces were cut
whose job was lost.
We searched for his job
but it had disappeared.
One of us should have said
to the Minister,
Hey Minister, we like your suit
have a bun, where are our jobs?
But there was no point;
he was here on a bun-eating session
not a job-finding session.
His hands were tied.
His tongue a marshmallow.

Karl Parkinson’s meditation on what poetry means to him combines a similar humour with elements of biting social commentary and would ring a bell with many of us:

Poetry Class

In secondary school
there were A classes
and B classes,
I was in a B class,
where they put the dumb kids,
crazy kids,
weirdos,
all from the same
class —
working class …

And there were scraps,
thumbtacks on chairs,
chewing gum in your hair,
wedgies on the stairs,
bullies and the bullied,
laughs and howls,
smashed windows,
hundreds of lines to be written,
detention, torture, intimation,
horrible grey uniforms,
chaos, madness,
diesel hash and butane cans in the jacks.
Oh, and some education,
and poetry,
‘O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved.’
I liked it secretly,
I still like it,
and now I’m proclaiming it,
proudly.
I’m a rhythm man,~
I’m a rhyme man,
I’m a poet.

Poems in this volume which simultaneously encompass emotion and social protest and commentary include Moya Roddy’s exposition of urban poverty, “Feeling the Cold”

I convinced myself you didn’t feel the cold,
out and about in tee shirts in all weathers.
When the rest of us were knee-high in fur boots,
I’d see you push the pram bare-legged in sandals.
You didn’t seem to own a decent coat,
bother much with bobble hats or scarves.
It never dawned on me until late one night,
to get a breath of air I pulled the curtains,
in time to see you running from your house,
hair flying, in nothing but a nightie.
You hadn’t even time to put on shoes.

and Liam O’Neill’s exploration of the changing face of social  protest and the death of youthful idealism in the increasingly state-oriented, media-managed or “controlled environment” that is the “spin culture” of modern-day Ireland:

The Railings of Government Buildings

We had different shadows in those days;
they cast out long and thin, but that
was under a different Sun, before the
weight of the universe shifted, and we found
ourselves, less humble, less altruistic,
and less significant — than we previously thought …
… Occasionally though, when I find myself in the city,
and passing the railings of government buildings,
a pang rises up inside; a longing to return to the days
of that younger Sun, and to march beside and in-step
with you my trusted friend, and bathe once again,
in the fantastic light of youth, purpose,
and the demonstrable truth.

In terms of the exposition of pure craft, or the lifting of the veil from that which is the hidden beauty of this world, there are a number of fine examples in this collection and Tomás Mac Siomóin’s “Anaxagoracht/Anaxagorism” is one of them:

Anaxagoracht

In anam dubh an tsneachta
tá rún gach samhraidh
breacaithe
glascheadal fras
gach earraigh
is fómhar
an chaoinspioraid leacaithe
rún
nár scaoileadh fós
dá bháine

Anaxagorism

In the black heart of snow
all summer secrets
are inscribed~the generous rains
of distant Springs
frail Autumn’s
russet secrets
all unsuspected
by your whiteness

Echoes of the labourer-poet that circumvented the older Gaelic traditions of Micheál Mac Suibhne, Colm de Bhailís and the recently-deceased-craft-related poems of Liam Ó Muirthile can be found in poets such as Patrick Deeley and Kiera McGarry. The latter’s poem on sheep-shearing is rendered all the more stark and beautiful by the simplicity of its language:

Clipping

Behind the clatter of mechanical teeth
the clipper tosses you your first fleece of the day …
... to hunch over
the clipper’s table like a knuckle
for hours. In the days after
the clip is done, you find white hairs
on your clothes, the sprung wool strands
uncoiling like a sprig of cloud —
you feel the ache of exhausted muscles
that still twitch to roll and fold again,
hands still smooth from the oils
of the fleeces, the work that softened all edges.

Some of the best poems in this volume explore the experiences of another group frequently deemed marginal to the Irish experience – the migrant Irish whose departure for England and elsewhere meant not only the tearing apart of families but also the death of local communities – something which continues unabated in the present day, particularly in the poorer areas of the north and west of the country. It is only a matter of time, hopefully, before many migrants to Ireland elucidate their own experiences and give them artistic form. Mike Gallagher’s beautiful lament for a friend is a case in point:

Stick on Stone

We knew each other only as men
Emigration saw to that:
Him in London, me in Achill
Me in London, him in Luton.
Even living together, we remained
Strangers in a rented room,
Speaking, not talking,
Robbed of our relative roles …

… Nights in Castlebar hospital
After the emigrant’s dreaded summons:
“Come now, while he still knows you”…
… I almost made it, that last time —
Got to Westport before news
Of our final silence.
Now, as I walk in Dromawda,
His gnarled stick, a stolen spoil,
Taps the unsaid
On the tarstone road.

For those of us who understand poetry as the pure distillation of feeling ‑ or of what has been left unsaid ‑ it is difficult to look past poems such as Emer Davis’ searing critique of community secrecy in “The Whistleblower”; Patrick Bolger’s “We are all Beasts” – (a poem that explores social justice, male solidarity and masculinity in a marginalied rural community); or Pete Mullineux’s haunting exposition of the deaths of low-paid Chinese migrant workers in “Free Range”:

Free Range

The Chinese low-paid workers
who roasted in the fire
that speedily engulfed their factory,
who were cooped-up
along with the chickens they handled,
who like their feathered companions
had little choice in the matter,
who threw themselves
at the peeling paint, padlocked door,
scratched at windowless walls,
tried to leap above the flames —
who were not free range,
who were —

Such themes and tropes bring an enormous richness to the work of the poets in this volume – this gathering of writers who clearly identify with the disregarded and those whose voices have been deemed marginal to the discourse of modern Ireland for far too long. For anyone seriously interested in contemporary Irish literature, this beautiful anthology is an essential text.

1/4/2020

Mícheál Ó hAodha’s translation of Galway-born writer Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s novel Deoraithe, entitled Exiles, chronicling the working class experience of Irish migrants to England during the 1950s, will be published by Parthian, UK, in April, 2020 - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Exiles-Translations-Donall-Mac-Amhlaigh/dp/1912681315/


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