St. Patrick’s Day came early for me when I attended a Scottish-Irish poetry event during the week. One of the poets was a young Dubliner called Stephen James Smith. Without reference to paper or book, he delivered a long, lyrical, swiftly paced poem called, ‘Dublin You Are.’ He captured us. It was a love poem to his homeplace – the capital – delivered in a strong north-of the-Liffey lilting accent, with layered and detailed references to Dublin past and present. Like all true, deep lasting love, it is accepting of failings; Smith is not blind to his city’s flaws. His poem explores a changing Dublin, struggling with its identity as it modernises and becomes multi-ethnic, shrugging off old prejudices and out-dated practices, whilst remembering not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He chides Dublin for losing the run of itself over the years; selling it soul for the punt then the euro – show me a country that hasn’t. But my heart was filled when he said (I paraphrase), for all your messing, I’m so proud of you, Dublin. He says, “All other places pale in comparison. Dublin, I cry for you, you are full of the softness of all of the people on your streets. Dublin, you are all talk, yet you have my attention. Dublin, you are me.”
Introducing his poem, Smith spoke about Louis MacNeice as an important inspiration, a trailblazer for all Irish poets. MacNeice died 20 years before Smith was born, but I for one believe in the immortality of poets, and (please indulge me on the day that’s in it) Irish poets especially. Now, living away from Ireland, I am increasingly drawn to words that were either hewn in Ireland or inspired by Ireland. And, whilst Smith has a new fan in me, today my poetry compass points north.
In ‘Autumn Journal’ Louis MacNeice is focussed on the North. He sounds angry, one might say jaundiced, looking back at the land that formed him. To me he seems tired, recalcitrant, fed up. Even through he wrote this poem pre-Troubles, he seems to know what is bubbling in the north, that there is worse to come.
Autumn Journal,by Louis MacNeice (extract)
“Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, education and domiciled in England,
Thought her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an under-water belfry.
Why do we like being Irish? Partly because
It gives us a hold on the sentimental ….
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?
The blots on the page are so black
That they cannot be covered with shamrock
MacNeice died in 1963 and didn’t live to witness even more blots on Northern Ireland’s page. Many felt the same as MacNeice – that need to be, ‘well out of it’, they ran from or were run out of Ireland. John Hewitt, another Northern Irish poet, did the same. In, ‘An Irishman in Coventry’ Hewitt is torn by the mix of qualities he has been seeped in and inherited from his nation. In that poem, Hewitt writes about:
“….the glory and the grace
which ribbons through the sick, guilt-clotted legend
of my creed-haunted, Godforsaken race.”
Today is a day of shamrock and song; of celebration and ceilidh swings; of Irish eyes smiling and heads of Guinness rolling down the side of clinking glasses – sláinte! Everyone’s welcome – Johnny, pull up to the fire. At home and abroad, the Irish are more confident now. Across the island we are slowly unpicking old pains and putting the best of ourselves back together – the glory and the grace. ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ – no more. For it hasn’t always been easy to carry an Irish name or accent, either could trigger negativity both at home or abroad. It’s different now. Would Hewitt and MacNeice write different words if they were alive? I hope so. Ireland is changing, on Stephen James Smith’s part of the island, and on mine. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Áine and Aisling, Caoimhe and Clíodhna, Eithne and Eimear (C), Mairead and Meadbh, Soirse and Siobhan. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.