Irish poetry is unavoidably shaped by its historical, social, and political context. The Troubles have infiltrated poets throughout several generations, permitting unique artistic insight into the conflict. Younger poets writing about The Troubles in Northern Ireland understandably have a different point-of-view than poets from a previous generation. Their personal experiences were different, and the historical events they witnessed or were surrounded by in the media likewise differed from their predecessors. Yet there are also shared themes that provide the inextricable cultural links between all poets of Northern Ireland. Some poets, like Seamus Heaney, rely heavily on literalism and a direct political commentary in addition to poetic tropes like symbols of colonization. Likewise, Derek Mahon does not hold back in terms of diction related to The Troubles. When examining poets from an earlier generation, who wrote during some of the most violent occasions of The Troubles, allusions and metaphors seem to be buffers between the poet and the visceral realities of war; whereas younger poets often seem as if they are in a position to comment more directly on tangible or literal matters. Poetry from the younger generation differs from the older in terms of personal identities and politics, but all the poets of Northern Ireland capture the paradoxes of sectarian violence.
Issues of identity are central to the poets of Northern Ireland, as personal alliances and allegiances define how one perceives, and how one is perceived by others. Core schisms in identity formation and maintenance in Northern Ireland go far beyond the simplistic Catholic/Protestant designations and stem back to specific events. Poetry capitalizes on the verbal value of specific events, like the displacement of Gaels for the Scottish planters. With regard to personal identity, there is often a conflict between whether the poet is writing for self and personal reflection, or for their broader community as a representative. This is especially apparent with poets of the younger generation Thus, poetry has a political dimension and the poet possesses responsibility for representing the voice of the people. Montague says, often the poet serves “as the conscience of his race” and “part of the poet’s job” is “to warn and try to heal,” (Kearney, Hewitt, and Montague p. 88). Hewitt, on the other hand, warns of the problems of writing as a spokesperson for others because poets can too easily become “victims of people’s expectations of what they should be talking about” (Kearney, Hewitt, and Montague 88). Yet for the poets of Northern Ireland, being Ulster or Gael has a direct, strong, and unavoidable bearing on word choice, diction, and tone.
Stalwart poets like MacNeice, Hewitt, Mahon, and Heaney often rely on a combination of metaphorical imagery and literalism to convey central concepts of the Troubles. Like many Northern Irish poets, Louis Macniece straddled multiple worlds, studying and spending much of his life in London. His being geographically distanced from Ireland had no real bearing on the content of his work. For example, the autobiographical “Carrickfergus” details a life in which the son of an Anglican rector born in Belfast later moves with his family to “Smoky Carrick in County Antrim,” which would later become a hotbed for The Troubles. Yet MacNiece’s generation knew of wars that extended beyond the borders of Ireland: World Wars I and II weave their way into MacNiece’s work in ways that anchor the Troubles as part of a broader Irish history. The younger generation lacks the perspective of historical context, frequently focusing on the present and possible futures instead. MacNiece, like other older generation poets, extend their reach deep into the past, including references to the Norman invasion and even to ancient Rome.
Seamus Heaney employs metaphors related to colonization, which is a trope that many other Northern Irish poets use when describing the uneasy relationship between the Crown and its captives. The second stanza in “Act of Union” is quite overt in this respect: “And I am still imperially / Male, leaving you with pain, / The rending process in the colony.” Heaney also uses the metaphor of patriarchy, a universal symbol of social, political, and economic oppression. To be “imperially male” is almost a redundancy in this respect. Phallic imagery including “The act sprouted an obstinate fifth column” enhances the theme of patriarchy as a metaphor for Britain’s role in the conflict. Britain is also likened to a brutal, bellicose “battering ram,” which causes a “boom burst from within,” referring to the Troubles,” (Heaney, “Act of Union,” Stanza II). The stubborn Unionists create a “unilateral” political force, and here Heaney writes with a more literal punch (“Act of Union”). Bitterness remains a core tone of Heaney’s political poems, too. Phrases like, “conceding your half-independent shore,” for example, describe the rendering of Ireland with potent imagery of division leaving “inexorably” painful wounds (Heaney, “Act of Union”).
A strong sense of place and geographic anchoring provide other important literary devices for the older-to-middle generation Northern Irish poets. In Heaney’s “Act of Union,” imagery related to bogs provides a metaphoric as well as literal landscape. To be bogged down in a conflict parallels the nature of the contentious land. “As if the rain in bogland gathered head / To slip and flood: a bog-burst, / A gash breaking open the ferny bed,” (“Act of Union,” Stanza I). A separate poem entitled, “Bogland” allows Heaney to explore the metaphor of the bog in greater depth. Here, Heaney uses the image of the “skeleton / Of the Great Irish Elk” and the “kind, black butter” of the boggy mud which has no bottom. One of the most outstanding features of Seamus Heaney’s work is the ability to link politics with place, without delving too deeply into the politics of self and personal identity. Rarely does Heaney refer to his background in ways as obvious as other poets of his generation.
Likewise, Derek Mahon writes without self-conscious explorations of his Protestant Ulster identity. Mahon is among the more optimistic of the Northern Irish poets, in spite of having written much during the heat of the Troubles. “The sun rises in spite of everything / and the far cities are beautiful and brightâ€¦Everything is going to be alright.” Likewise, “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” imparts a positive outlook in spite of references to war. Mahon calls for political action in a direct way, referring to the ways “they are begging usâ€¦in their wordless way, / to do something, to speak on their behalf / or at least not to close the door again,” (“A Disused Shed in County Wexford”). Through the grim realities of death emerges new light and life, for “even now there are places where a thought might grow,” (“A Disused Shed in County Wexford”). The desolation, ironically reminiscent of “Ozymandias,” pays homage to the eternal beauty of Ireland that cannot be destroyed in spite of war. Like several other poets of his generation, Mahon includes imagery of nature, geography, and place. Dampness and moisture, mushrooms and bog, all appear throughout the poems related to Northern Ireland. Mushrooms in particular seem to be a motif that transcends generation, as both Heaney and Muldoon refer to fungi.
Michael Longley and Medbh McGuckian both incorporate imagery of flowers as symbols of hope and rebirth. One of McGuckian’s anthologies is entitled The Flower Master. In 1960, Michael Longley published a poem called “Marigolds,” with strong imagery of death. The narrator repeats the line, “You are dying” as they drive to Belfast, “to your death.” Longley’s obsession with death repeats itself in “The Stairwell,” in which he contemplates his funeral music.
John Hewitt has been hailed as a “tolerant but heroically isolated figure working courageously at the margins of a savagely divided society,” (Walsh 341). Yet oddly, more than most Northern Irish poets, Hewitt imbues his poetry with references to his Ulster upbringing and personal identity and describes the importance of ancestry and family ties (Walsh). Especially in “Ulster Names,” Hewitt “takes a stand” with those of his community.
A few of his poems assert the Ulster perspective in the Troubles, coming close to bitterly challenging notions of victim and oppressor. For instance, in “The Colony” Hewitt writes, “this is our country also, nowhere else; / and we shall not be outcast on the world.” In spite of the potentially contentious assertion of Ulster identity, Hewitt’s “Planter and the Gael” project was designed to engage Nationalist and Unionist poets, in an attempt to use poetry to forge political alliances and mitigate suffering. For Hewitt, poetry has a definite political importance and poets a responsibility to tell the story of their people, defending the right to “not be outcast on the world.” As Walsh puts it, Hewitt was “caught between two worlds” (Walsh 343). Like all poets from his generation including Longley, McGuckian, Mahon and Heaney, Hewitt remains firmly anchored in place. Geography and landscape provide potent imagery and metaphors for a veiled discussion of The Troubles, as when Hewitt refers to the multitude of Ulster place names and their attendant mosses and hills. Occasionally, nature provides some of the most violent metaphors, as with the line, “violence breeds like thistle blown over the world,” (Hewitt, “The Bloody Brae”).
“The Bloody Brae” also captures the sense of paradox and irony that accompanies any astute analysis of the Troubles. As Hewitt puts it, “Heaven is here, and Hell is here beside it.” Hewitt’s generation of poets seems literally and figuratively bogged down, as it is not only Heaney using mud as a metaphor for inertia. In “The Bloody Brae,” Hewitt writes, “Whenever the Irish meet with Planter’s breed, there’s always a sword between and black memories for both.” Hewitt and poets from his generation seem resigned to the Troubles as being a permanent part of the Irish landscape. The “metal has cooled and set and is harder to break,” (Hewitt, “The Bloody Brae”). McGuckian would also write about the inevitability and endless cycles of war that have become part of the Irish identity and reality: ” am going back into war, like a house / I knew when I was young,” (“The Albert Chain”).
For Hewitt, memory holds sway over the present as the Northern Irish live under the sword of Damocles. “Hate follows on hate in a hard bitter circle — our hate, the hate I give, the hate I am given,” (Hewitt, “The Bloody Brae”). Yet like many of his colleagues, Hewitt takes it upon himself to use poetry as a call to political action and alterations in personal identity. It is not enough to champion the cause of social justice for one’s own kind, but each person must also take responsibility for breaking the cycle of hatred. All Irish — the planters and the Gaels — need to participate in order for peace to take root in the bog and sprout new flowers of hope. “I only need a lamp to guide my landing — that lamp is forgivenessâ€¦ And the hand which could hold that light would lift it up, If I could throw my voice above winds and water; but I cannot alone; I need your help in the asking,” (Hewitt, “The Bloody Brae”).
Many of the middle generation poets like McGuckian write directly about The Troubles in terms of the immediacy of violence and war. Images of smoke and gunfire are evident in some of the more literal poems like “Smoke” and “The War’s Ending.” McGuckian describes a fateful encounter between Irish and British troops: “There you have my head, / A meeting of Irish eyes / With something English: / And now, / Today, / It bursts.” The meeting of eyes evokes Paul Muldoon’s poem “Meeting the British,” written about a decade earlier. In “The Albert Chain,” McGuckian uses the word “terrorist” to anchor the poem squarely within a more modern context using words laden with propaganda and political meaning. “Like an accomplished terrorist, the fruit hangs / from the end of a dead stem, under a tree / riddled with holes like a sieve,” (McGuckian, “The Albert Chain”). Like Hewitt, McGuckian recognizes the role of the poet as politician: “Unjust pursuit of justice / That turns one sort of poetry into another,” (“The Albert Chain”).
During the most tumultuous times, war becomes a feature of the Northern Irish landscape and personal identity. This is why middle generation poets weave imagery of blood and death with their sentimentality. McGuckian and Muldoon, writing slightly later than poets like Heaney, have almost lost track of the past as they comment heavily on the present and the seemingly endless scourge of violence. Yet Paul Muldoon anchors The Troubles within a broader spectrum of Irish nationalism and the concept of sovereignty. In “Meeting the British,” Muldoon describes war in a more universal human context, referring even to the use of smallpox-infested blankets used to kill Native Americans in the New World. Oppression and invasion of sovereign territories has been a theme of British empire-building. Like Heaney, Muldoon does not shy away from grander commentary on colonialism, using metaphors of rape and patriarchy to describe the British actions in Northern Ireland. There is, for instance, is gross “lemon stain on my flannel sheet,” (Muldoon, “Aisling”). Muldoon also refers to the hunger strikes that took place during the height of The Troubles, first by using the term “anorexia,” a body dysmorphic disorder usually impacting women and then by outright mentioning the hunger strikes (“Aisling”).
What is lacking from many of the Northern Irish poets is the integration of Gaelic into their verse. Muldoon takes note of the lack of Gaelic instruction, and the fact that oppression of Gaelic has been a great hallmark of colonization and oppression. “You were meant to call back Anseo / And raise your hand / As your name occurred. / Anseo, meaning here, here and now, / All present and correct, / Was the first word of Irish I spoke,” (Muldoon, “Anseo”). In “Anseo,” the use of the Gaelic word for “here and now” is used to refer to the political pride and personal empowerment of Gaels in Northern Ireland.
Muldoon is also one of the few poets from Northern Ireland that occasionally whispers of the New World and the Irish diaspora. In “Cuba,” for example, Muldoon is sure to connect the importance of the Kennedy election in America with the revitalitzation of Irish nationalist pride in the old country. There is an ironic self-deprecation in Muldoon’s work, too, as in the line: “But this Kennedy’s nearly an Irishman / So he’s not much better than ourselves,” (“Cuba”). The use of propaganda to dismantle and denigrate Irish culture is more a theme in younger generation vs. older generation poets.
The poets of the younger generation draw much from their older generation counterparts in terms of a development of strong national identity, regardless of their personal stance on unionism vs. nationalism. Sectarian violence during The Troubles makes its way into the poems of both younger and older generation poets, in literal and metaphoric ways. Some poets choose to use imagery of blood, gunfire, and death; others refer more to plants, landscape, and place names. Regardless, there is a similarity in these poets’ approach to their political role. Writing about the conflict using poetry as a medium, Muldoon and McGuckian reflect on perceived stangation and possible futures. Older generation poets present the conflicts along a spectrum of violence that has been taking place over successive generations. Colonization and patriarchy are alluded to in regards to the Crown activities. Nostalgia and sentimentality are likewise esential components of Northern Irish poetry. Paradoxically, there can be no nostalgia for a past bathed in blood.
The differences between younger and older generation poets in Northern Ireland are not as important or apparent as their similarities. As Hewitt suggests, linking the visions of both planter and Gael shows that both sides need to take repsosibility for forging a new future without violence, resentment, or oppression. Clearly, the younger generation finds the need for new seeds of hope, even though ther eis a quiet resignation that older generations cannot let go of the mistrust that has plagued the nation. All Northern Irish poetry is poignantly political, and the personal is often used more as a means of inspiring action than for reflection. Whether in diaspora or Derry, Northern Irish poets are caught between two worlds: the nation and the Crown; the person and the political.
Kearney, Timothy, Hewitt, John and Montague, John. “Beyond the Planter and the Gael: Interview with John Hewitt and John Montague on Northern Poetry and The Troubles.” The Crane Bag. Vol. 4, No. 2 p. 85-92, 1980/1981.
Walsh, Patrick. “Too Much Alone.” Irish University Review. Vol. 29, No. 2, 1999, p. 341-357.
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