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

26 Postcodes: SA33 4SD

26 Postcodes pairs writers with postcodes from across the UK, and asks them to make a response to the place and its significance. SA33 4SD is the postcode for the Boathouse in Laugharne – the last home of the poet Dylan Thomas. You can read my sestude (it’s a piece of writing exactly 62 words long) below. You can also read its creation story and click the link to the 26 Postcodes site to explore some of the other pieces. I hope you enjoy it.

Dylan Thomas Boathouse and Taf estuary Laugharne Carmarthenshire South Houses Hoistoric Sites

The Boathouse, Laugharne – home of Dylan Thomas. Crown Copyright, Visit Wales

On another birthday
For Ethna

There are no boats
Bobbing on the sea
Of yellow cabs.

The estuary is 222 West 23rd,
Not Taf. The Chelsea Hotel,
New York, is not south west Wales.

Its zip 10011, binary,
Makes SA33 4SD
Luxuriant and lush.

Alliteration is his thing:
Bible-black, blithe birds,
Birthday bell.

‘Come and be killed,’
The city says. And death
Lures him from his shed.






Dylan Thomas

Creation Story

The sestude was written as the Perseids threw themselves to their deaths in the August sky. It was my birthday. I’d spent the day at the bedside of my mother who died a few days after the completion of the sestude. I understand the true meaning of the word rage in Dylan Thomas’s lament for his dead father. She did not go gentle, and I dedicate the sestude to her.

I had not expected her to die, but death, and loss and tragedy were in my mind the moment I discovered the postcode I had been given. A visit to Wales was not an option. I visited Laugharne through Thomas’s verse – an Everyman Paperback from my student days whose glue threatens to crack every time I open it. The internet was little use to me. Google Street View ends maddeningly at the beginning of Dylan’s Walk. He’d hav

liked that though. My other reference point was a vintage BBC documentary on the Chelsea Hotel, New York. It was there Thomas went into the coma he never emerged from. The sestude quotes a number of poems written in the Laugharne Boathouse and shed, and the title draws its inspiration from Thomas’s Poem on His Birthday.

  • To see the 26Postcodes project as it unfolds, visit the website. A new sestude is posted every week.