Ireland deploys poetry in diplomatic offensive

Writer, Seamus Heaney, Poet, Author, Creative

Seamus Heaney: an inspiration

The Twitter-sphere is a pretty ugly place at times. It seems to bring out the worst in people.

Online some seem to think there is a freedom to say things they wouldn’t voice in person; and even those of us who are used to bar-room language can find it offensive.

I have been known to use the occasional expletive – generally when someone behaves ungraciously on the roads. But I don’t particularly want to be subjected to an unwanted stream of four letter words when I am trying to check out the latest on Brexit, the news from North Korea or the latest update from my daughter’s school.

But I can be pretty sure that a few scrolls of my Twitter feed in, someone will display the lack of imagination needed to use anything other than the f-word.

I can choose not to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. But other than leaving Twitter, I cannot switch these idiots off. They are invariably retweets and from people I do not follow.

But there is one oasis of calm amid the invective, and it comes from an unsuspecting source. The Irish ambassador to the United States, known online as @DanMulhall, sends a daily snatch of verse into the microblogosphere.

He did it religiously during his time as ambassador to the Court of St James, and new Twitter followers in the United States are now getting used to the tide of verse coming from the Irish Embassy in Washington.

As I type this column I am looking at four lines from Theo Dorgan tweeted by him:

Each word steps firmly out

And stands in time’s mirror.

I set these things down in silence,

Fire for the ice of our old age.

Yesterday we were treated to six lines from Thomas Moore’s The Last Rose of Summer. The ambassador is clearly going through a slightly melancholic phase, as well he might.

Once seen as the plumb job in Irish diplomacy, being sent to Trump’s America might well be the equivalent of being dispatched to Outer Siberia (no offence meant to the Siberians who are, by all accounts, a hardy and well-meaning crowd).

Might it be that the Irish Government is hoping Mr Mulhall’s approach to Twitter might rub off on President Trump – though only God knows what verse the president might resort to. America has many great poets, though I doubt Trump is acquainted with any of them – well perhaps the anonymous author of the bawdy ballad Eskimo Nell.

Trump, who offended his British allies last week with an ill-judged Tweet on the London tube bombing, could do with civilising. And Dan Mulhall is the man to do it.

I met him only once when he was a dashing press aide to Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring. A man with no airs and graces, he makes friends easily, and everyone he has met leaves his presence feeling better for having been in it – even if only for a short journey in a cramped taxi talking about the peace process.

London lamented his passing, as did Scotland where he was Consul General. America is a more difficult place to make an impression on, but the relationship is critical for Ireland – more so now ironically.

Britain’s retreat from Europe leaves a vacancy for a mediator between America and the European Union. Once again Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. And in the way jobs are leaching away from the City of London to Dublin, Britain’s place in the world is diminishing too. Europe needs a country that can talk to the USA, and Ireland is now clearly it.

The Irish have long known the importance of soft power. And poetry is a potent weapon.

Can poetry change the world? I asked myself when I sat down to write this piece. After the Peterloo Massacre, Shelley spoke for the British working class: “Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ Ye are many – they are few.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 spoke for the disaffected Beat generation; Pablo Neruda was a poet diplomat who stood against Pinochet and may well have been murdered on his orders; another poet diplomat Czeslaw Milsoz was admired by Seamus Heaney – a man whose own verse spoke eloquently for his country and community.

Ireland, as Mulhall knows only so well, is the creation of poets, and the better for it. If more diplomats and politicians spent time with their poetry books rather than their apparatchiks, the world would be a better and a safer place.

Keep Tweeting Mr Mulhall.

The article appeared in The Irish News on September 19 2017

Divided still, the unfulfilled dream of the 1916 rising

higgins

Irish President Michael D Higgins

History rewrites itself many times, and then it emerges as myth. The Easter rising is a case in point.

Today, Easter Monday, marks its centenary. That fact will not have escaped you. Easter is as important to the Irish and Irish history as the day it celebrates its patron saint.

Such is the pivotal importance of the rising that it needs no big-nought birthday to get attention. But the centenary is an opportunity for reflection and a time to evaluate the values that underpin Irishness.

It is also a moment to think about the journey we have undertaken as a nation over the past 100 years – and to decide whether we need to recalibrate.

If any nation needs to think hard about where it’s at, it is this one. Today’s Ireland is a far cry from that envisioned in the Proclamation.

It’s not difficult to find evidence for that. The commemorations themselves give a sense of our modern day priorities. It’s all about the money. Take a walk through Dublin and you’d be forgiven for thinking the leaders of the rising made the ultimate sacrifice to provide us with a marketing peg to sell, sell, sell.

Quite what Socialist icon James Connolly would have made of the tawdry money-making trade in memorabilia is anybody’s guess. The souvenirs are cheap tat made in China for an audience that cares little for the ideals of the 1916 leaders.

bar

Tasteless chocolate

You can even buy chocolate bars with wrappers emblazoned with images from the rising. Given some 500 people died – most of them civilians caught in the crossfire – this must qualify as the most tasteless chocolate in Ireland’s culinary history.

There was a day when myths were the stuff of song, when they were spoken of by poets and carved in stone. Today they are printed on plastic wrappers to be thrown away as litter.

But perhaps I am too cynical. Today is not a day for cynicism, but for reflection.

Violence is troubling, and it is unquestionably the case that Pearse acted without the endorsement of the people. The sovereignty he declared on the steps of the GPO was claimed without authority.

But it is important that we judge those who took part in this act of defiance by the standards of their own time.

It was only after the cack-handed British reaction – the executions (Connolly strapped to a chair), the imposition of martial law and the incarceration of many who had no involvement in the events of Easter Monday – that Ireland awoke. Legitimacy was conferred in retrospect.

But legitimised the rising was, and quickly too.

There is no doubting the idealism of the men who took up arms that fateful morn, or their bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. Pearse must have known Britain would mobilise its forces against him. His was an act of war in the midst of an even greater one.

Countless battles have been fought for power or wealth or other grubby motives. The Trojan wars were fought over a love affair, and Britain once went to war with Spain over a severed ear.

But this was noble. It was a poets’ revolution: a fight for culture and national identity. And it is hard not to be seduced by that, particularly from the distance of five score years.

There is truth in poetry, there is truth in the stories we create and tell one another. And there is truth in myth. This Pearse understood all too well. By tapping into that most potent of stories – the Resurrection – Pearse was consciously shaping the foundation myth for a fledgling nation.

It feels like heresy to articulate it, but in Ireland now the two stories are almost indivisible: the British the occupying legions in Palestine, the Redmondites, like the Pharisees, complicit in British rule, and Herbert Asquith Pontius Pilate to Pearse’s martyr.

“We are ready to die and we shall die peacefully and proudly,” Pearse wrote to his mother before his execution.

The unfinished business is uniting Ireland – a nation that transcends borders; a nation that embraces a global diaspora and, more important still, a nation that has yet to win the hearts and minds of a million or so people in the north east of the island.

“Cherishing all the children of the nation equally,” was the sentiment in the Proclamation, and that has not yet been realised.

That must be our ambition today. Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. In a world where national sovereignty is not about isolationism, and where borders are virtual and porous, the need to transcend petty sectarianism has never been greater.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on Easter Monday 2016, the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

 

 

 

A nation once again: Easter and the 1916 Rising

rising

A sovereign nation: leaders of the Easter Rising 1916

Easter Sunday is one of the most potent days in the Christian calendar, and for someone brought up as a Catholic in Ireland it assumes an even greater significance. In a nation where, for so long, Church and State walked hand in hand, the religious symbolism of the day was amplified by its association with an insurrection that is seen as the foundation stone of Irish independence.

Politics is dangerous when placed in the hands of poets, and the Easter Rising was shaped by people with a deep understanding of symbolism and its potency. That is one of the reasons why its memory has endured.

Resurrection

The Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One one level the rising itself was an abject failure. The British mobilised, and within a week it was quashed. Pearse surrendered, and his men followed suit. In a grim yard in Kilmainham prison, he and his fellow leaders were executed by firing squad. Soldiers shot by soldiers.

But Pearse forged a narrative that became the foundation story of the Irish State, a narrative that (for all the revisionism of recent years) persists – as we have seen in the commemorations in Dublin this week. And it is a myth from which successive generations have drawn sustenance. Irish paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists – call them what you will – justify their deeds because of what happened in 1916.

We will never know what went through the minds of the 1916 leaders in their final hours – though we do know what they wanted us to think.

It’s there in Pearse’s final letter to his mother. This a document every bit as considered as the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read on the steps of the General Post Office.

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own,” he wrote. “Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.”

The dignity he displayed in the face of death must be seen as evidence of his conviction that he had struck a mortal wound at the heart of the Union; that he was right and would be vindicated.

Remembered by posterity, he and his fellow leaders have been.

Quite what Pearse would have made of the Ireland which emerged is anyone’s guess. The political class that took power after the War of Independence and the civil war was not up to the task. Generations of Irishmen and women were failed by them – betrayed it could be said. The Church, pernicious and conservative, held the forces of progress at bay. It controlled education, health and social policy. The Archbishop of Dublin was a de facto member of the cabinet.

Poverty and discrimination was fine as long as it was Irish poverty and discrimination, not British.

And worse, the Republic turned its back on the north.

There is a passage in the Proclamation – redolent of the American Declaration of Independence – which says: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Republic’s failure (and the failure of republicans) to come to terms with the realities of Ulster Unionism, and to demonstrate religious and civil liberty in action, became a mirror image of unionist isolationism. Both – unionists and republican – fostered the conditions for the appalling violence that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late sixties, and which was ‘settled’ only after some 30 years on another Easter – Good Friday 1998.

History is full of what ifs – what if the first world war hadn’t happened, what if the British had not reneged on home rule, what if the rising had happened as planned on Easter Sunday, what if the British had not responded in such an insensitive way… but we only have the history we have. Brutal, messy, contradictory history. A history where fact and fiction are intertwined, and where the heart can often rule the head.

Emotionally it relatively easy for someone from my background and upbringing to see the Easter Rising as a noble act, and to be seduced by the poetry of the revolt. ” I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge/My two strong sons that I have seen go out/To break their strength and die, they and a few,/In bloody protest for a glorious thing.” And I feel the tug.

But in my head I know that – like most conflicts – the pain is more often borne by the innocent. The majority of those who died in Dublin that fateful week were civilians. I remain convinced that there are better ways of effecting political change.

And somewhere, in the mind of someone who finds it difficult to come to terms with the human notion of god, the Catholic in me is conscious that Easter Sunday marks the day when a good man – a revolutionary in his own way – demonstrated that life can transcend death. Blessed be the peacemakers.

 

 

Is Ireland still fighting its own 100 years war?

somme

Over the top: the Battle of the Somme 1916

They say history never repeats itself, but historians often do. Much the same can be said for journalists. We love a big story. Breaking news is still the stuff of newspapers, it sets pulses racing and fingers dancing across keyboards.

But not every day is a big news day, and needs must. In the absence of anything else we fall back on old news, repackaged. The anniversary is a brilliant excuse to fill the airwaves and to decorate acres of newsprint.

It will hardly have escaped your notice that, had he lived, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this month – inconveniently he died in 1998, but the marketers never let that get in in the way of a retrospective. The 80th anniversary of Elvis’s birth was marked with a ‘new’ release where he was backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra karaoke style.

This past year we were invited to remember the battle of Waterloo, VE Day and the anniversary of Churchill’s death.Those of a literary disposition will know that the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James has tweeted a quote from Yeats every day this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and  why not.

This coming year there are a couple of significant ones: the 20th anniversary of the Docklands bombing at Canary Wharf and the 25th of the release of the Birmingham Six among them. But the year will be overshadowed by two events that had a profound effect on history. In a strange way they are intertwined.

The Easter Rising exploited that familiar Irish republican political observation: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. With all its resources focused on the battle against Germany in France, England was certainly in difficulty in 1916.

The justness of the First World War is less clear-cut than the second, but the Kaiser was not a particularly pleasant man, nor was he a champion of the principles of the civil liberties we now expect of an enlightened modern leader. Right might well have been on England’s side, but we must remember history is suspect, it is written by the victors. (Irish history is the exception to that rule, ours is a victims’ narrative.)

For the mass of Irish people, while there may have been a general desire for independence, there was no imperative to strike a blow for freedom in 1916. The leaders of the Rising had no mandate (they earned it retrospectively).

Needless to say, there is competition for the position of ‘rightful heir’ to the legacy of 1916, and there is a risk that the commemorations of the rising will reopen some of the wounds in Irish society that appeared in its aftermath.

The greater risk is that they will exacerbate the rift in political cultures in the north of the island – a rift which shows little sign of healing it is sad to say. And here we come to the second great anniversary of the year.

Countless Irishmen lost their lives on the bloodied fields on the banks of the Somme in 1916. Their blood sacrifice is as entrenched in loyalist history and mythology, as that of the 1916 leaders in nationalism’s. The loss of so many in the Ulster brigades has fuelled the sense of betrayal at the actions in the GPO and done much to sustain the bitterness that underscores so much of our politics.

Yet many nationalists lost their lives in the same battle – Redmondites trusting their willingness to fight for the crown would secure home role.

Is it too much to ask that this year be seen as an opportunity to reflect on past events rather than glory in them; to recognise that events are usually more complex than we remember them; and to come to a realisation that history belongs in the past and not in the present?

***

In finishing, I would like to add my own tribute to the journalist Liam Clarke who died this week. I met Liam when I was a rookie working at the News Letter and the Sunday News in the 1980s. To me then he seemed like a seasoned hack but he cannot have been much older than me. He was intelligent and never afraid to challenge orthodoxies. In a political system where there is no real opposition, journalists like him are a critical part of the body politic and he will be missed.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 31 2015