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

In the beginning was the Tweet

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The Reverend Richard Coles: more tea vicar?

I think we need to revise the notion that there are, at most, six degrees of separation.

The theory is that we are no more than half a dozen steps from anyone else on the planet through the introduction of a friend, friends of a friend and so on. It’s an interesting idea, and a fun parlour game. I know someone who claims to have uncovered familial links to Liam Neeson and Sinead O’Connor – now that would be an interesting family gathering.

With the arrival of the internet, I suspect we need to reduce the number of degrees of separation. That came home to me last night during a brief conversation with Radio Four’s resident vicar, the Rev Richard Coles. A former member of the Communards, he is one of the more prolific contributors to the micro-blogosphere. You can find him at @RevRichardColes.

With some 87 thousand tweets to his credit, and some 66 thousand ‘followers’ (such an appropriate term for a Christian clergyman), he is a reasonable sized beast in the world that is Twitter. Quite how he gets time for vicaring and broadcasting is anyone’s guess.

As vicars go, he comes across pretty chilled. He has a brilliant voice for radio; and I imagine his parishioners find comfort in it too. “Please don’t shout at me,” he says in his Twitter profile.

There’s a lot of shouting on Twitter. For some reason it seems to bring out the worst in some people. I have seen people I know and respect turn into foul-mouthed bigots in the course of less than 140 characters. Not, it must be said, the Reverend. His Tweets are the model of propriety. Today, he tells us, is the day dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux – The Little Flower – my granny’s favourite saint.

Anyhow, other than hearing him on the radio (not quite religiously) on Saturday mornings, and seeing his occasional contribution to the BBC’s other broadcast output, I have never met him, never mind had a conversation with him – until last night that is.

He had tweeted a picture of a sunlit interior of a church where he had been ministering to a grieving widow. I’m sure the moment had moved him, and he wanted to share it with the world. I am less sure why I was uncomfortable about that. Perhaps I felt I had unwittingly intruded on someone else’s grief – become a voyeur during a private moment between a woman and her minister.

I should have put my phone down, and snuggled under the duvet, but instead I tapped out a Tweet. “Somethings may be best not tweeted Richard,” I said.

The “Richard” is much too familiar, and reading it now, the sentiment is high-minded. Patronising. Pompous.

You don’t normally expect a response. But a few moments later my phone pinged at me. “I don’t follow,” the reverend typed back – breaking the glass wall between performer and audience. “Private moments often best left that way,” I wrote. “Just a thought.” You could see I was feeling guilty. “Hope she got some solace. Am sure she did.”

In the face of celebrity I, like most of the rest of us, tend to crawl. “Picture taken later,” he replied – as indeed he had mentioned in his initial Tweet. “And a nice picture too,” I fawned. My phone did not ping again. Like me, I imagine he decided bed was a better bet than a row about nothing with a complete stranger.

I will never really understand what drives us to confessional moments, opening out worlds to the views of others; or why others become judgmental presuming to give a gentle ticking off to someone we do not know in a public forum.

Let he who is without sin cast the first Tweet.