Rhymes and reasons: Verse records our troubled history
One hundred years ago, two events changed the island of Ireland forever — the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. They’ve been remembered in song, poetry and music ever since — something that’s been highlighted during this year’s centenary commemorations. The journey to reconciliation has been a long and twisted one, but performers at Belfast International Arts Festival will be charting its path next week in a special event called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Some of Ireland’s finest artists will be exploring the impact of those events from 1916 to the current day. Weaving together works by poets like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and John Hewitt, the evening aims to shine a cultured light on our unique history.
Actors and poets will read some of these works, while musicians like Liam Bradley, Bronagh Gallagher, Arty McGlynn and Nicky Scott will provide music during the evening.
We decided to ask some of our leading MLAs to choose their favourite writings from Irish poets and tell us why. Others have left it up to the reader to decide why a certain politician has chosen a particular verse.
Heaney, Longley and Derek Mahon feature strongly in their selection, along with a newer voice, Elaine Gaston, who was chosen by both the First Minister Arlene Foster and Green MLA Claire Bailey. Hewitt is also on the list.
The poems our MLAs did choose reflect their roles as public representatives as well as private citizens. Aspirations for a better future and reminders of a darker past feature alongside poems about familial ties and responsibilities. Here’s what they chose:
The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Why this poem? The second half of verse three sums up what politics should be in a divided society emerging from a troubled past.
(DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast)
The Ice-cream Man by Michael Longley
Rum and raisin, vanilla,
butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the
flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
Why this poem? It’s one of the few well-known poems which gives recognition to the impact of the Troubles through an actual killing. It’s a poem of contrasts — the child’s excitement at the ice-cream flavours, the stark killing of the shopkeeper and the response of the adult, listing a list of wildflowers. There’s a resonance between the wild flowers and the red carnations that the child laid outside the shop, as if nature sharing in the lament, may be a source of comfort and healing.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP)
A Solider’s Grave by Francis Ledwidge
Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
Why this poem? Because of the year it is.
First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP)
Seasoned by Elaine Gaston
He cannot bend to tie his shoe.
I stoop to make the knot
that takes me back
to when he carried fully grown men
down stairs in the middle of the night
Why this poem? While the temptation is to opt for one of our world-famous poets, I thought, instead, I’d pick one of our newer voices. I was particularly moved by the imagery in Seasoned. If we are lucky enough to still have our parents and grandparents, we will be familiar with the subtle changes to the roles we play within those relationships.
Service to the community and close family ties and themes which resonate very strongly are something I identify with.
Seasoned by Elaine Gaston
His back, a solid Irish oak,
bent, moved, straightened
to each particular need.
Now its knots tell the years
of a thousand people who leant on him
shoulders that carried other
as well as his own.
Why this poem? The story the poet tells of her father in flashbacks is incredible and I enjoyed the themes of family, ageing and mortality throughout the poem.
The transformation from being a child to a parent is something we all go through and, with my daughter heading off to university, this is something that is particularly poignant for me.
Steven Agnew (Green Party)
The Spring Vacation by Derek Mahon
There is a perverse pride in being on the side
Of the fallen angels and
refusing to get up.
We could all be saved by
keeping an eye on the hill
At the top of every street, for there it is,
Eternally, if irrelevantly, visible.
Why this poem? Perhaps the poem speaks to Steven’s green credentials, with its reference to the hill at the top of every street.
Nicola Mallon (SDLP)
Wee Hughie by Elizabeth Shane
He’s gone to school, Wee Hughie,
An’ him not four.
Sure I saw the fright was in him
When he left the door.
I followed to the turnin’
When they passed it by,
God help him, he was cryin’,
An’, maybe, so was I.
Why this poem? In hearing this poem, memories come flooding back to me of my paternal grandmother, who used to recite this at all family gatherings. Now, as a mother, I understand why it meant so much to her.
Martin McGuinness (deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein)
Clearances, by Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
Why this poem? Martin McGuinness is a well-known fan of Heaney’s, poetry and this beautiful evocation of a domestic setting, conveying the poet’s relationship with his mother, may remind him of his own familial relationships.
A Disused Shed in Co Wexford by Derek Mahon
Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
Why this poem? I find this poem quite extraordinary and, every time I go back to it, I find something new. The last stanza, in particular, is immensely powerful and I think a meditation on oppression, injustice, violence and sorrow. The poem starts off with a very ordinary title, but in a magical way opens up to a global place in history and, in the last stanza, confronts us with the plight of those who have known suffering over the centuries.
Mairtin O Muilleior
Cul a Ti/The Back of the House by Sean O Riordan
Is ann a thagann tinceiri
Go naofa, trina cheile
Why this poem? It reminds us that “the least of us” has as much worth as anyone else and that, as our time here is short, let us appreciate the beauty of the everyday and the mundane, even at the back of the house.
The Coasters by John Hewitt
And you who seldom had time to read a book,
what with reports and the colour-supplements,
And you who never had an adventurous thought
were positive that the church of the other sort
And you who simply put up with marriage
for the children’s sake, deplored
the attitude of the other sort
You coasted along.
Why this poem? Mike Nesbitt’s determination to break the status quo in Northern Ireland (he’s now leading the newly formed Opposition at Stormont) is reflected in Hewitt’s poem, which highlights the dangers of complacency and discrimination.
Wounds by Michael Longley
Here are two pictures from my father’s head — I have kept them like secrets until now:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with ‘F*** the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ’em one for the Shankill!’
‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
Why this poem? This poem has implications for my own personal life story. (Andy Allen served in the military and is a strong campaigner on veterans’ issues. The images in this poem about those who have died, from soldier to bus conductor, will have struck a strong chord with him.)
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: A Journey in Words and Music, The Mac, Tuesday, October 11, 7.45pm (http://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com)