Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Damn Borders

Everyone knows the horrors that have arisen from the existence of borders: Cambodia/Thailand, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland. The list is long; borders always impinge on someone’s sensibilities.

My problem has arisen since since undertaking the compilation of a Roscommon Anthology. Criteria for inclusion in some respects can be simple enough; I’m using literary writers, they must have be published by a publisher of standing, they must have a significant connection with Roscommon etc. Not to have clear criteria is a recipe for a disaster, and disappointment to a lot of writers. (As it is, disappointment to some is inevitable.)

But those damned borders. Born or reared within spitting distance of Roscommon are Vincent Woods, John Broderick, Desmond Egan, Jack Harte and others. It would be tempting to call it Anthology of Roscommon and Environs but I’d have to draw the borders myself then and that would put me right up there with some serious trouble-makers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Poems from childhood

Certain poems, songs, certain scents are very evocative of childhood. Just the a few words: “Oh to have a little house……………”, “Underneath the spreading chestnut tree………………….”; it all comes back.

The high windows, two-seater benches with ink wells, heavy radiators, wall chart with the 32 counties of Ireland, May altars. The poems were in the Young Ireland Readers along with stories of Cú Culainn, Crocks of Gold, etc.

I had a happy childhood and enjoyed my time in Roscommon CBS. Most of my teachers were very dedicated to their jobs and I liked them; a few were bullies. Almost all exercised corporal punishment; it was part of the time, normality. Hard to explain now why it was accepted.

One poem in particular has stayed with me from those days. “Young and Old” by Charles Kingsley. It was a wonderfully crafted poem with words that really flowed along and so was easy to learn. There is a pleasure to singing out, as you do in primary school, those old 19th century verses. But, oh my God, did he go for the maudlin (as was the fashion of his day). Is there a poem in the English language that matches its bleak outlook. Read the second verse and search for a rope.

Young and Old

When all the world is young lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
When all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

- Charles Kingsley

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Fancy dress and mask wearing are associated with fun but my poems in “Felos ainda serra” are not. I think it goes back to childhood memories of Halloween, but I’ve never really been comfortable at masked functions. Once donned, a wearer has license to carry on in a way completely out of character,or in character but a less pleasant part of it; a non-wearer is at a disadvantage. To take my point to the far extreme, (only to make the point) a balaclava is mask for a criminal.

Apart from the above there’s the mask we all make of our faces when circumstances require it, and for some the mask becomes essential - to cover what? I started writing this with a view to introducing one of those poems but as I went on Janice Ian’s “At Seventeen” came to mind. So here’s the poem and I feel like hearing the song too.

My head is an eggshell
intact, hollow.

Left on the ground
weather leaves its stains;

on the outside I smile that smile
which passers-by notice less and less.

All I can do
is keep widening the smile;

wider and wilder,
eventually grotesque;

they start running,
I am left alone.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Word Power, Obama and Poetry

Rhetoric has returned with Obama. More than anything else it was his careful, intelligent and incisive use of language that got him elected. It had the effect of electrifying not only fellow Americans but millions of people across the world.

Yes, of course, it was the substance of his speeches; but it was his ability to convince that made the difference. This power of words is something one might expect to appear occasionally among poets, but it has largely disappeared from poetry in this part of the world at least.

Certainly it’s an ability that comes to the fore in times of strife, (Yeats’ phrase “a terrible beauty is born” from “Easter 1916” has this essence). So one might argue that it’s the absence of outright war on our soil, but I think a majority of poets have avoided engagement with hot issues or are not sufficiently affected by the horrors of our time to write in this way. (I count myself among these.)

It’s an engagement that should be re-ignited,perhaps best done with students in secondary schools, for the sake of making poetry more relevant(and therefore more popular),for deepening the feeling and understanding that people have for what’s happening around them.

Who should instigate or lobby for such an initiative: Poetry Ireland? publishers? Association of English teachers? Amnesty Int? I don't know.

Monday, April 13, 2009

At Naomh Einne's Well

One of the strangest looking holy wells in Ireland is very close to Father Ted’s house in the Burren. The frames of old electrical appliances are nailed onto trees serving \as frames for religious pictures. At least that’s the way it was a number of year’s ago when I visited.
Naomh Einne’s well is on Inis Oirr. It was probably a youngster supplementing his pocket money. The matchstick ladder was a quirky little addition. I wonder if the clear circles left behind fazed him. This poem was included in “Turn Your Head” (Dedalus Press)

At Naomh Einne’s Well

Kneeling down, the jacket off,
shirt sleeves rolled to the oxter,
he slipped his arm into the water,
scooped out the price of a pint,
then thought the better of it
and decided he’d have two.

Then again the following Tuesday
and the following Tuesday too
till there were only clear circles
and coppers on the green bottom,
a bowl in a gap in the wall,
a cross in another with a ladder
of matchsticks and thread.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ballyshannon and William Allingham

It’s wet, wet, wet. The Erne estuary is below me. The clouds are low to the water so it disappears into white mist this side of the bar. Ballyshannon was Allingham’s town. It straddles the Erne before the river opens its mouth for the sea. On in its west side are gently rounded drumlins and southward are the spectacular Ben Whiskin and Ben Bulben mountains. It’s a landscape that can inspire with spectacular mountainscapes,tumultuous seas and quaint tracts of countryside nestling between the drumlins.

His autograph, carved on his bedroom window is on display in the local AIB bank; it was my wife’s bedroom window at one time. He lived from 1824 to 1889,son of the local bank manager. He was a fine poet, highly regardly in his time; the title of WB Yeats' article on Allingham 'A Poet We Have Neglected’ says it all. His best known poem is "The Faeries"

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.


but he carried his fondness for home with him, and everyone brought up in these parts knows "Adieu to Belashanny"

Adieu to Belashanny! where I was bred and born;
Go where I may, I'll think of you, as sure as night and morn.
The kindly spot, the friendly town, where every one is known,
And not a face in all the place but partly seems my own;
There's not a house or window, there's not a field or hill,
But, east or west, in foreign lands, I recollect them still.
I leave my warm heart with you, tho' my back I'm forced to turn
Adieu to Belashanny, and the winding banks of Erne!

No more on pleasant evenings we'll saunter down the Mall,
When the trout is rising to the fly, the salmon to the fall.
The boat comes straining on her net, and heavily she creeps,
Cast off, cast off - she feels the oars, and to her berth she sweeps;
Now fore and aft keep hauling, and gathering up the clew.
Till a silver wave of salmon rolls in among the crew.
Then they may sit, with pipes a-lit, and many a joke and 'yarn'
Adieu to Belashanny; and the winding banks of Erne!


His ashes are buried in Saint Anne's graveyard beside Saint Anne's Church which stands high above the town.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Colm Ó'Snodaigh in Rathmines Festival

Colm Ó'Snodaigh will perform in "Festival under the Clock", part of Rathmines Festival at 3.30pm, 25th April in the Town Hall (Adm free as are all the events in the Town Hall).Expect a great gig, he's a great musician and performer; Kila fans will gladly confirm. And expect a nnumber of songs from his album "Giving"

"'Giving' is really a delightful album, rich in atmosphere and melodic beauty; neither a Saturday night album nor a Sunday Morning one, rather somewhere between midnight and dawn."

Allan Wilkinson

If you still haven't seen Kila, here's what you've been missing:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poetry in Strokestown

I’m looking forward to reading again in Strokestown. It’ll be a night full of poetry including a prize-giving ceremony and an open-mike session. I’m doing a guest spot. The gig is in Strokestown House on Saturday night, April 4th . It’s part of the Siarsceal Festival.