Green Martyrs

Patricia Craig

  • The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse edited by Thomas Kinsella
    Oxford, 423 pp, £12.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 211868 4
  • The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry edited by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 415 pp, £10.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 571 13760 1
  • Irish Poetry after Joyce by Dillon Johnston
    Dolmen, 336 pp, £20.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 85105 437 4

Each of these books – two anthologies and a critical study – is notable for its exclusions, among other things; each takes a strong line over questions of definition and evaluation; and each contains much to applaud. Thomas Kinsella’s New Oxford Book goes right back to the beginning, to a rath in front of an oak wood singled out for comment by some anonymous poet of the sixth century, and cherished as a survival from an even more distant past, while the Faber book takes as its starting-point (as the blurb has it) the death of Yeats. The American publisher and critic Dillon Johnston plumps for Joyce, rather than Yeats, in his title: not on a whim, he tells us, but in acknowledgement of certain literary procedures sanctioned by Joyce, and afterwards available to poets, no less than prose-writers. The lofty tone perfected by Yeats didn’t do at all when it came to the bleakness and piecemeal quality of the post-Yeats world, so many poets found. Joyce’s more variable manner showed a way to take in every aspect of the new social conditions, and keep the end-result tricksy.

With the death of Yeats, in other words, came something like a full stop, and then with the death of Joyce a new beginning, as back after back was turned on all approaches to poetry not in keeping with the realities of the day. In that year, 1941, Patrick Kavanagh was writing a 757-line poem on the charmlessness of Irish country life, which nevertheless manages to encompass a good deal of its pungency:

The potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill ...

Austin Clarke was moving on from the kind of social criticism, lyrically expressed, which we get in ‘The Straying Student’, to a knottier and more derisive manifestation of the same drive (though it took him 17 years to get together a volume of poetry in the new mode – Ancient Lights came out in 1955, while 1938 was the date of its predecessor Night and Morning). Social criticism: this is one of the two major preoccupations of Irish writers in the 20th century, whether the tone is glum, angry, ironic or ebullient.

The other notable enterprise in contemporary Irish writing is the retrieval, or acknowledgement, of some facet of the past, generally for the purpose of savouring the sense of national distinctiveness. Such a past needn’t be beyond one’s own recall, as we find in Louis MacNeice’s enumeration of the egregious inheritances of Ulster:

The linen mills, the long wet grass, the
ragged hawthorn.
And one read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man’s damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save – as you prefer – the King or Ireland

However, one of the most important reclamations of recent years is the group of translations, by Thomas Kinsella, of poems assembled by Sean O Tuama, and brought out in a dual-language anthology called An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981). During the three centuries covered in this book, the destruction of Gaelic Ireland was deplored as it was taking place, in the mordant verses of poets like O Bruadair and O Rathaille, and also in the more mellifluous aislingi (vision poems) which proliferated in the 18th century. Kinsella has included a good supply of the Duanaire translations in his New Oxford Book. Some of these are of greater merit than others – O Rathaille’s lovely ‘Gile na Gile’ (‘Brightness Most Bright’), which defeated Mangan in the 19th century, and Frank O’Connor in the 20th, doesn’t prove manipulable by Thomas Kinsella either – but all are of the utmost interest and signficance in denoting the cultural resources of the unregenerate Irish.

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