Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

 

'Towards a social order worthy of the human race': Rosa Luxemburg's 150th anniversary
Thursday, 04 March 2021 11:42

'Towards a social order worthy of the human race': Rosa Luxemburg's 150th anniversary

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell presents and discusses Margarethe von Trotta’s film about Rosa Luxemburg

On 5 March 2021, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth. No one who wishes to get a sense of Rosa Luxemburg as a person, both political and private, will regret watching Margarethe von Trotta’s meticulously researched 1986 film of the same name. It is available with English subtitles here.

The film begins on 7 December 1916 with Rosa Luxemburg in Vronke prison, cutting back to this location again and again. Von Trotta uses Luxemburg’s prison letters to her good friend Sonja Liebknecht as a leitmotif throughout the film to paint a very sensitive and personal portrait of this Polish revolutionary. From this prison setting, the viewer relives many episodes of Rosa’s life as flashbacks. Some of these evoke the more personal aspects of the Polish revolutionary’s life. Early childhood is touched on, and some of the sequences are in Polish, adding greatly to the authentic feel of the film. Indeed, throughout the film Luxemburg occasionally speaks in Polish, especially to Leo Jogiches, her close comrade and lover of many years. It is also suggested she may have had polio, as Barbara Sukowa, the actress who superbly embodies her character, limps noticeably during the film.

Luxemburg’s deep love for nature is emphasised in many ways – in her letters and in her tenderness for animals, her pet cat, and her ‘garden’ in the prison. This garden comes as a surprise but is true to history. Luxemburg enthusiastically wrote to Sonja Liebknecht on 19th May 1917: ‘I can hardly believe my eyes, today I planted something for the first time in my life and everything has turned out so well right away!’ Luxemburg's collection of dried plants was long considered lost and only rediscovered in 2009 in a Warsaw archive, 23 years after this film was made. Her herbarium and nature drawings are an impressive document of her resilience during imprisonment in various gaols including in Vronke, where she tended the prison garden. Rosa’s tenderness and love of nature, of animals, so manifest in her letters, is also expressed towards children and her close friends, creating the sense of a profoundly humane person.

Luxemburg the private person and the political activist are presented as inseparable. Her uncompromising humanity motivates everything she does. Von Trotta does a magnificent job in bringing together important stages in Luxemburg’s political career, going back to earlier imprisonment in Poland for her involvement with the then strongest workers’ party in Europe, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). At times, it can be a little difficult to pinpoint the exact time of an event and von Trotta does not tell the story strictly sequentially. What emerges is a consistency of Luxemburg’s views.

The betrayal of the social democratic leadership

The main parts of the film focus on Luxemburg’s political activity in Berlin. Considerable time is devoted to Luxemburg’s growing disillusionment with the SPD. It shows her disgust at Bernstein, and her early alliance with Kautsky. Poignantly, the SPD leader Ebert says to Luxemburg at a dinner party that events in Russia have ultra-radicalised her, and chillingly says ‘we will hang you’.

From early on, she senses and tackles the reformism of the SPD leadership. The films shows her political break with Kautsky and other leaders of the SPD, although she remains a lifelong friend and correspondent of his wife Luise. The complete betrayal of the social democratic leadership becomes shockingly clear in the scene where Karl Liebknecht emerges from the Reichstag to tell her that all SPD parliamentarians have voted in favour of the granting of war funds. Liebknecht was the only member of parliament in 1914 to oppose these. National chauvinism as a direct result of this party’s reformism drives them into their disastrous support for WW1.

Luxemburg, keenly aware of the growing danger of war from very early on, unmasks the profoundly inhuman nature of war time and time again, as the senseless slaughter of working people in the interests of power and profits. She steps up her activities even more as the world war approaches, and increasingly, the anti-war struggle becomes a central focus of the film. All speeches quoted in the film are documented, and apply uncannily to our own times, over a hundred years and two world wars later:

Were we suddenly to lose sight of all these happenings and manoeuvres, …could we say, for instance, that for forty years we have had uninterrupted peace. This idea, which considers exclusively events on the European continent, ignores the very reason why we have had no war in Europe for decades is the fact that international antagonisms have grown infinitely beyond the narrow confines of the European continent. European problems and interests are now fought out on the world seas and in the by-corners of Europe. Hence the “United States of Europe” is an idea which runs directly counter both economically and politically to the path of progress.

Following her arrest for speaking at an anti-war rally in Berlin in 1913, she defended herself in the courtroom:

When the majority of working people realise … that wars are barbaric, deeply immoral, reactionary, and anti-people, then wars will have become impossible.

Faced with the betrayal of the SPD leadership, Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Zetkin discuss the need for a new party, the Spartacus League, which became the Communist Party. Luxemburg is put in ‘protective custody’, imprisoned again on 10th July 1916, first in Berlin and later in Vronke Fortress and then finally in Wroclaw in Poland. She was released on the 9th November 1918. During this time, she is allowed books, letters and secretly passes visitors her contributions to the ‘Spartacus Letters’.

On the day of Luxemburg’s release the Kaiser abdicates, and SPD politician Scheidemann proclaims Germany a republic, with SPD leader Friedrich Ebert taking power. He prevents the country from turning into a soviet, socialist republic, which Liebknecht proclaims on the same day. The Communist Party of Germany is founded on New Year's Day 1919. Uprisings in Berlin against the Ebert government follow in the second week of January. Luxemburg and Liebknecht do not see eye to eye in the analysis of the rising. They are now wanted persons. They are betrayed, tracked to their hiding place on 15th January 1919 and the rest is history.

A social order worthy of the human race

The film does not make clear Ebert’s final betrayal of his erstwhile comrades: General Staff Officer Captain Waldemar Pabst informed the Reich government at an early stage about the arrest of the two. Pabst took the decision to have Liebknecht and Luxemburg murdered, considering the executions in the national interest. Pabst lived until 1970 in West Germany and in old age maintained that the SPD leadership, in the person of Noske and in all likelihood Ebert, had agreed the killings.

Expressing her profound belief in the eventual and unstoppable liberation of humankind, Luxemburg declares:

In Schiller's drama, Wallenstein says on the night that was to be his last, as he gazes with inquiring eyes at the stars to unravel in them the course of things to come: “The day is near, and Mars rules the hour”. This also applies to today's times. Mars, the bloody god of war, still rules the hour. Power is still with those who rely solely on a forest of murderous weapons to thwart the working people in their just struggle. Wars are still being prepared, parliament is still being controlled, and more and more military bills are passed, the people are still being sucked to the last drop by the gluttonous Moloch of Militarism. Mars still rules the hour. But, as Wallenstein said, “The day is near, the day that is ours.”

So, too, the day approaches when we who are at the bottom will rise! Not to carry out that bloody fantasy of mutiny and slaughter that hovers before the terrified eyes of the prosecutors, no, we who will rise to power will be the first to realise a social order worthy of the human race, a society that knows no exploitation of one human by another, that knows no genocide, a society that will realise the ideals of both the oldest founders of religion and the greatest philosophers of humanity. In order to bring about this new day as quickly as possible we must use our utmost powers, without looking to any success, in defiance of all public prosecutors, in defiance of all military power. Our slogan will become reality: The people are with us, victory is with us!

Set Their Spirits Free! Callout for a new anthology of children's literature
Friday, 19 February 2021 21:13

Set Their Spirits Free! Callout for a new anthology of children's literature

Published in Fiction

Writing for the young has the potential to set their spirits free. It can encourage children to approach ideas and issues from new perspectives, and so prepare the way for social and political improvements. Imaginative, vividly told stories and graphic illustrations leave long-lasting memories and can inspire and liberate the imaginations of rising generations by exposing and criticising conventional ways of thinking and behaving. Alternatives to injustice, inequality, discrimination, and the climate emergency can be imagined, thus nurturing the seeds of transformative change.

Supported by the Irish labour movement, Culture Matters has already published two well-reviewed and internationally successful anthologies of poetry and prose by working people from contemporary Ireland: Children of the Nation, and From the Plough to the Stars, edited by Jenny Farrell. We plan to continue this project of collecting irish working people’s writings with a third volume, in the spirit of the Dublin Radical Club. This was founded almost 100 years ago by Liam O’Flaherty and other progressive artists, “to encourage all forms of progressive cultural activity in Ireland”. 

There is a long tradition of socialist and working-class writing for children. It goes back to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and continues unbroken to this day, including writers such as Mary Ellen Cregan, Pádraic Pearse, Brendan Behan, Liam O’Flaherty, and Linda Anderson. So the theme is children's literature: poetry, songs using well-known tunes, short stories, modern versions of traditional children’s stories, and non-fiction, aimed at children up to 12 years old. 

The volume will be dedicated to the disadvantaged and underprivileged children in Irish society, and we hope to particularly attract contributors in Ireland with a migratory or refugee background. As with our previous anthologies, we are grateful for the support of the Irish labour movement. The book will be professionally illustrated with complementary artwork. 

Rules and guidelines

1. You may submit up to three pieces of writing (new stories for children, modern versions of traditional stories, poetry, songs using well-known tunes, or non-fiction), unpublished in print. Please let us know if your submission has already been published online, so that we can give acknowledgements.

2. There is a maximum of 2,500 words per story.

3. Submissions can be in English or Irish (if in Irish, our international readership will appreciate your English translation, please). For contributors with a migrant or refugee background: a short extract of the text may also be printed in the original language, depending on space.

4. You must be either resident in Ireland or have an Irish emigration background.

5. Please also send a brief biography outlining your connection with the working class, 150 words max.

6. The deadline for submissions is 31st July 2021.

7. Send your submissions to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

While we are unable to offer fees for publication, we will supply free and discounted copies to contributors. You retain copyright on any submissions, but your material may be published in print and online by Culture Matters.

John Keats: Revolutionary Romantic
Thursday, 11 February 2021 13:05

John Keats: Revolutionary Romantic

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell marks the 200th anniversary of Keats's death. The image above is of Keats on his deathbed, by his friend Joseph Severn

G. B. Shaw stated that “Keats achieved the very curious feat of writing a poem of which it may be said that if Karl Marx can be imagined writing a poem instead of a treatise on Capital, he would have written Isabella.” Shaw’s view clashes with that of most mainstream critics, who deny Keats any political thought and declare him a worshipper of some unspecified ‘Beauty’. This month marks the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death and is an opportunity to spend a moment reclaiming this revolutionary romantic.

The English and then the American and French revolutions had demonstrated the irreversible arrival of capitalist society, in Europe and elsewhere. Conservative governments across Europe understood and feared the implications of these revolutions, and reacted with increased conservatism and suppression of democratic movements. Although Britain already was a bourgeois society, it now feared insurrection by the working classes, and became a repressive regime itself.

English and Scottish Romanticism is the first expression of radical self-criticism of post-revolutionary and increasingly industrial capitalist society. In its most advanced proponents, like Shelley, the vision reaches beyond bourgeois society and nurtures the first of the working-class movements, the Chartists.

When the Frame-Breaking Act of 1812 made the destruction of mechanised looms a capital felony, Byron used his 1812 maiden speech in the House of Lords to side with working people against this government tyranny. Wordsworth and Coleridge had joined the conservative establishment, arguing for repression, restoration and counter-revolution, for which Byron takes them to task in his opening stanzas of “Don Juan”.

Radicals and Dissenters

Keats stands alongside Shelley and Byron as an upright defender of humankind, against its enslavement and destruction. Born and educated in the Dissenter tradition, Keats became an apothecary, a doctor for the poor. When Keats left medicine for poetry, he entered the circle of the radical writer Leigh Hunt. Other members of this group were the brilliant critic, Dissenter and radical William Hazlitt, the painters Benjamin Robert Haydon and Joseph Severn (the latter would eventually accompany Keats on his final journey to Italy), John Hamilton Reynolds, who shared Keats’s religious disbelief, and Shelley.

Two of the poems written at this time, Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition and To Kosciusko - the latter co-written with Coleridge and Hunt - express themes that would be part of his continuing principled stand against the Christian religion and in favour of an international outlook on politics. While Keats’s most accomplished poetry contains these ideas in a less overt form, they are nonetheless present, and were easily understood by the Tory press, who dismissed him as a “Cockney poet”.

Here are the stanzas Shaw refers to:

XIV.

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip; - with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

XV.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

XVI.

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gush’d with more pride than do a wretch’s tears? -
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs? -
Why were they proud? Because red-lin’d accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years? -
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

Keats describes ruthless global exploitation, something we easily recognise today: in mines, in factories, in rivers, and at sea. While these stanzas are unusually direct for Keats, he evokes an aspect that becomes increasingly central to his poetic idea: how the human senses are destroyed in what he refers to as the ‘barbaric age’ of capitalism. He captures and depicts these times as inappropriate to humanity. “Ode to a Nightingale” is heartbreaking in its description of an unnatural world:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

‘Beauty’ evolves as Keats’s measure for a humane world. A profit-driven society that insatiably pursues money at all costs, including brutal repression and wars, destroys beauty. In a society like this, “the Ceylon diver … went all naked to the hungry shark; / For them his ears gush’d blood” and here “but to think is to be full of sorrow”. Yet, despite it all, Keats shows that beauty arises as human potential, over and over again with every new generation.

And beauty is felt through the senses. For Keats, fully realised human potential means humans can appreciate the world through their senses. Capitalism destroys these senses: loins and ears gush blood, eyes are hollow, eyes are leaden. While the reader has to activate mentally all senses to ‘live’ the images, the actuality of this potential lies in the future. The building blocks exist. Humanity has the ability to experience with all its senses the beauty of a humanised world. In the world as it is, this potential is thwarted; “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes”.

Keats focused his poetics on what defined a truly human world, a place where humans are at one with themselves and their environment. He believed that human beings could only develop their full sensuous potential in a world with which they were at one. In the world of 19th century Britain and Europe, this was patently impossible. Keats explores the nature of this beauty in his great odes of 1819.

Ode to Psyche is about the poet’s calling as priest of the human soul. The fact that the human soul has become the proper god and that the poet feels compelled to be her priest indicates Keats’s heightened awareness of the artist’s social responsibility. Art replaces religion as the sanctuary for the human psyche: “Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind”.

In Ode to a Nightingale, the speaker initially feels that beauty exists only in nature and in the integrated village community. These spheres clash with his life experience, where beauty expires. The beauty found in the nightingale’s world ought properly to exist in all of life. To seek beauty away from human life, charms “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”

Ode on a Grecian Urn examines the function of visual art and its relationship to poetry and life. Visual art can fix and freeze for eternity moments of the highest vitality and creativity. However, it lacks life’s pulse. Art sharpens awareness of life’s dynamism, but cannot substitute it: “never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal”. The implicit comparison between sculpture and verse in this ode reveals the poet’s growing certainty that his own art form is better suited to embody life’s processes.

Some of the images in Ode on Melancholy demonstrate the ability of verse to capture and preserve dynamic processes. The true culmination of beauty exists in natural life. Experiencing its highest intensity defines its passing: to “burst Joy's grape against his palate fine”. Here, in the dialectics of natural life, true melancholy is found, if one is prepared to face life in all its complexity and contradiction.

To Autumn brings the themes of beauty, and the function and possibilities of poetry, to their conclusion. Truth lies in natural life’s process and universality, in its material totality and total materiality. The life of nature is hence a paradigm for human life.

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Beauty and Truth

For Keats, beauty is intrinsic to life as it should be, where humans and nature are in complete harmony with one another, where beauty is dynamic, changeable, in process, and includes its fulfilment. Beauty is life in tune with itself. To achieve this, is the meaning of life. In this sense, beauty is truth. Keats’s affirmation of human sensuality, the ability to engage all the senses in appropriating the world around, is linked to his vision of a society, where nature and humankind are at one, as the true home for humankind.

Keats’s sensuousness is no escape into a fairyland. It is programmatic. It challenges the inherent asceticism of many monotheistic religions, with their promise of a better afterlife. His poetry is this-worldly, it enacts this-sidedness and joy-in-life. Keats implicitly contrasts Christian belief with the pleasure-affirming this-sidedness of the pagan beliefs, which is why they feature so strongly in his poetry. Like Shelley and Byron, Keats saw the reactionary role played by the Christian churches in 19th revolutionary Europe as conservative, controlling and intrinsically anti-life. This conviction marks Keats’s entire work.

At a time when denial of the physical senses and sexual pleasure was suppressed in 1920s Ireland, his programmatic sensuousness inspired Harry Clarke to create the stained-glass window illustration of “The Eve of St. Agnes”. But Clarke does more than illustrate the poem. He creates his own, striking sensuousness.

JF Picture2

The image of Porphyro in Madeline’s chamber stands out as particularly colourful, inspired by Keats’s intensely imaginative idea of a moonlit chamber, aglow with colour:

A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumberable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.

Clarke must have presumed familiarity with the poem:

Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.

The erotic nature of Clarke’s image is clear.

Keats died 200 years ago on 23 February, aged only twenty-five. He is one of the greatest writers in English, with a revolutionary vision that reaches far into the future.

Jenny Farrell is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism: Examining the Odes of John Keats (Nuascéalta, 2017), available from Connolly Books Dublin, Charlie Byrne’s and Kenny’s Bookshop Galway, or online.

The language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained: This Road of Mine, by Seosamh Mac Grianna
Monday, 04 January 2021 12:16

The language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained: This Road of Mine, by Seosamh Mac Grianna

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell introduces This Road of Mine, by Seosamh Mac Grianna, translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha. Published by The Lilliput Press, 2020.

One of several important, socialist Irish language writers of the last century, Seosamh Mac Grianna was born 120 years ago (15 January 1901) in Ranafast, County Donegal.

Due to the reluctance of the Irish literary establishment to embrace the strong socialist tradition in Irish literature, authors like Mac Grianna have become obscure. Mainstream culture and academia do not consider the voice of the class that creates the nation’s wealth as worthy. The ruling class determines the narrative through the cultural establishment, and this cultural hegemony complements its economic exploitation and political domination.

Prejudice against Irish language literature, which expresses the working-class experience, heightens this class prejudice and is an added reason why such authors are largely written out of the canon.

The decline of Irish as a living language brought with it a fall in readership and a number of writers ended up writing in English in order to reach an audience. Others refused to bow to the rapid destruction of their native tongue, aided by waning literary production.

One of these was Seosamh Mac Grianna. The great loss to the Irish and indeed international readership has motivated some enlightened publishers and authors to translate his work into English. In 2009 (Ben Madigan Press), A.J. Hughes translated Mac Grianna’s novel The Big Drum (An Druma Mór, finished 1930, first published in Irish 1969) and now, in 2020, Lilliput Press have published Mícheál Ó hAodha’s translation of Mac Grianna’s autobiographical This Road of Mine.

Seosamh Mac Grianna came from a large rural working-class family of Donegal storytellers. Having won a scholarship to St Eunan's College in Letterkenny, he was expelled shortly thereafter for possessing revolutionary writings. He fought in the War of Independence and then in the civil war on the Anti-Treaty side, for which he was interned, even going on hunger strike.

In 1924, Mac Grianna began his short but very productive writing career, which lasted about 15 years. He came to realise the authenticity of writing in Irish through the work of Galway man Pádraig Ó Conaire, who moved Irish language prose into the sphere of contemporary international literature, who created psychologically rounded characters and wrote realistically about the socially marginalised.  

The language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained 

Pól Ó Muirí writes about the Irish language in his Introduction:

English was, and remains, the language of the powerful and influential. Irish is the echo of other times: of wars, conquest and famine, of events and of people who are not to be discussed in polite society. It was the language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained...

Mac Grianna’s early short stories fed into his first book, Dochartach Dhuibhlionna & Sgéalta Eile (1925). He also worked as a journalist, publishing articles in many Irish papers. His contribution to Irish language writing is enormous. He published ten literary works of his own and translated twelve books into Irish for An Gúm Irish language publishers. He received the Butler prize for his final novel, An Droma Mór. An Gúm refused publication, saying it was libellous. Mac Grianna became very disillusioned with An Gúm, particularly with its censorship, and voiced his criticism in the press. The Censorship of Publications Act, which had come into force in 1929, had a serious effect on Irish literary production, with many authors forced to publish abroad.

His stressful lifestyle affected his mental health, and he spent a year in Dublin’s main psychiatric hospital at the time. This put an end to his writing career and he depended on friends for financial support. Shortly after his partner Peggy O'Donnell ended her own life in 1959, Seosamh was admitted to Letterkenny’s psychiatric hospital, where he lived for over 30 years, until his death on 11 June 1990.

Mícheál Ó hAodha’s wonderful translation of This Road of Mine (1940) affords an insight into Mac Grianna’s personality, humour and world view. It describes his unfulfilling work translating for An Gúm, about which he says:

The government was running a scheme for the promotion of Irish language books and I began working on this. Not that the government of the day was known for its promotion of poetry or art.

It evokes for the reader his restless movement from one lodging to the next in Dublin, and his quirky sense of humour, for example, where he comes up with a new business idea – fortune telling. He takes on the persona of an Arab seer, Eli Ben Alim, who claims to have told their fortunes to many fabled people, including the ex-King of Bulgaria. Other sketches of encounters with people from the political spectrum of the time are also at times humorous, other times they give a sense of Mac Grianna’s loneliness and frustration, indeed poverty.

Much of the book tells of his lonely rambles across Wales, where we meet an author who is keenly sensitive to the beauty of nature and literature. He introduces discussions of communism, a movement he was associated with from his Dublin days, to his conversations with occasional travel companions. However, they remain elusive and we rarely hear their names. This changes when Mac Grianna encounters the West Indian Matthews, the first Black person he ever met, who inspires him to investigate the Haitian anti-slavery uprising and to address a meeting in Cardiff  “where black men from all over the world (were) in attendance”.

Mac Grianna gets to know Matthews best in his rambles, and he takes the greatest interest in his cause. Poignantly, the memoir closes in the house.....

....Liam O’Flaherty lived in one time and the one where Pádraic Ó Conaire called in and made conversation on his last journey to Dublin where he died.

Mac Grianna is right to see himself in the company of those other two great Irish language working-class writers, all of whom were suppressed in one way or another for writing in Irish. A hundred and twenty years after Mac Grainna’s birth, we have the pleasure of following his Road.

A working-class voice from the Irish language tradition: Exiles, by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh
Monday, 04 January 2021 12:12

A working-class voice from the Irish language tradition: Exiles, by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Exiles, by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha (Parthian, 2020)

Awareness of working-class literature is only growing slowly in Ireland. This is not because it has not so far existed – far from it. Working-class people have known and cherished their tradition for a long time, as a source of inspiration, of comfort, of knowing, that here they find their own life experience reflected.

Mainstream culture and academia are simply not interested in the voice of the class that creates the nation’s wealth, assuming that the reading public is equally uninterested in these life stories. Middle-class experience dominates the mainstream cultural outlets. In mainstream culture, the ruling class, through the cultural establishment, determines the narrative. It exercises cultural hegemony, which complements its economic exploitation and political domination. Publishing working people’s voices takes a stand against the mainstream narrative, mainstream educational assumptions, and mainstream cultural sidelining.

In addition to this class prejudice, there is the prejudice against Irish language literature, which naturally expresses the working-class experience. Some of these writers are Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, who joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, worked as a wandering labourer, living in poverty for most of his life, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin. And still, there are writers like Tomás Mac Síomóin, who are vaguely acknowledged but not promoted, writing in Irish.

So here, with Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Exiles we have a voice coming from a doubly suppressed tradition – the working-class tradition, as well as the Irish language tradition. On top of this, I would add the establishment dislike of socialists, a category to which all the above-mentioned writers belong.

Mac Amhlaigh left school at 15, worked in a woollen mill, on farms and in hotels, finally enlisting in the Irish-speaking regiment of the Army, before emigrating to England in 1951. Here, he worked as a navvy. He took up writing and his first book Dialann Deoraí (1960; An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, 1964) was well received. Mac Amhlaigh also contributed prolifically to Irish and British journals and magazines, as well as being involved in the Connolly Association and a founder member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Northampton.

Poet Mícheál Ó hAodha has now beautifully translated his late novel Deoraithe (1986) as Exiles. The experience of emigration, unskilled labouring and culture shock for native Irish speakers landing on the English job market, all feed into a gripping read. This experience comes to life in the stories of two characters, Nano who works in a hospital and Trevor, a navvy. A third character, Niall, who has just left the Army and tries to find work in Ireland, acts as a reminder of what kind of hardships and deprivation these young people were facing in De Valera’s poverty-stricken Catholic Ireland of the 1950s. It is a grim picture, and the fact that the main characters lose their attachment to Ireland can be easily understood. At the same time, this cultural dislocation is felt deeply. Mícheál Ó hAodha sensitively renders the Irish vernacular into very readable, authentic Hiberno-English, which gives readers a sense of the rhythms and sounds of Irish.

Emigration has left a deep scar in Ireland. Having just recently edited an anthology of contemporary Irish working-class poetry (Children of the Nation, Culture Matters, 2019) and a companion volume of prose (From the Plough to the Stars, Culture Matters, 2020), I can attest that both emigration in the past as well as in the present is a theme never far from working people’s concerns. Very many of the young people for whom the Irish state has no use, never return. These working people’s anthologies include contributors who either were economically exiled from Ireland themselves, or indeed are the offspring of such emigrants. Their writing shows just how deep this experience goes and how it lives on in the next generation.

In this context, let me also mention J. A. O’Brien’s Against the Wind. Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner (Sid Harter Publishers, 2013) as an autobiographical book, set at the same time as Exiles. O’Brien worked as a bricklayer in London at the same time as Mac Amhlaigh went to England. Both went for work and they therefore share common experiences. O’Brien relates his time as a politically aware, left-wing Dubliner. Mac Amhlaigh’s characters are true to their rural backgrounds and less politically aware, although the author’s own political consciousness informs the novel. As an autobiography, O’Brien’s book is different to Mac Amhlaigh’s novel and yet the same ground and experiences resonate and each text reinforces the essential truth of the other.

A proclamation of universal human community: Beethoven's Ode to Joy
Friday, 04 December 2020 10:01

A proclamation of universal human community: Beethoven's Ode to Joy

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell discusses Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, on the eve of the 250th anniversary of his birth

Like few other composers, Beethoven expresses the will for freedom, the democratic longing of the people. His music is the continuation of the French Revolution through the means of art; his Ninth Symphony is a hymn to the humanist utopia of the equality of all humankind.

Between 1905 and 1933 Beethoven's Ninth was frequently performed in Germany to a large number of workers’ audiences, with the participation of workers’ choirs, including a concert entitled ‘Peace and Freedom Celebration on New Year’s Eve 1918’. The beginning of this concert was scheduled so that at the stroke of 12, the final movement began with Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’. These annual concerts were stopped by the Nazis in 1933.

Reaction, resistance and revolution

The symphony was composed in 1823, but Beethoven had planned from youth to set Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ to music. Schiller’s poem, expressing the aspirations of the age of revolutions, was close to his thinking all his life.

The years since composing his eighth symphony had been times of bitter disappointment at the oppressive reactionary political developments after the Congress of Vienna, but also of personal suffering. They were also years of growing resistance to reaction, and the revival of the revolutionary ideals which had been betrayed by the upper middle classes. The Ninth Symphony symbolises powerfully the struggle through night into light, of progress against reaction, to which Beethoven dedicated his whole life and work. It is often expressed in a struggle between a dark minor key and a brilliant affirmative major key. The finale of the Ninth anticipates and celebrates the victory of this ideal: a future society, in which freedom, equality, and universal fellowship is fulfilled, in which Joy can reign.

The first movement portrays a great battle, heroic resistance against adverse conditions. Beethoven described the reactionary state of Metternich as the “chaos and despair in which we live”. This is enacted in the dark opening bars and theme 1 is in D minor, the key of despair: a world without joy. Downwards plummeting, twitching motifs give rise to the increasingly vigorous theme of resistance.

This energetic battle cry is answered by a plaintive woodwind motif. Tutti chords express new, gathering forces that are extinguished in a downward-rushing gesture, as “despair” is brought back to mind. The heroic theme breaks through powerfully in B flat major, with a first anticipation of the ‘Joy’ melody. This polarity between minor and major represents the symphony’s two protagonists.

The threatening mood returns, a recurring suggestion of suffering, of falling from a great height. An energetic tutti insists on resistance. The rhythmic struggle motif is the driving force of the development. Its contrast with a soothing motif is characteristic of Beethoven. Above the softly throbbing timpani rhythm of the struggle motif, grows a longing for peace and joy. In the movement’s climax, the heroic theme resounds over a mighty organ point with booming winds and swirling timpani. This concentration of strength, raging with pain and defiance, heralds a major change. Above the thundering organ point, the heroic theme once again appears majestically in D minor, contrasted with a painful, sinking motif. The movement’s final section evokes friendly images with the soft horn melody, intensified by further woodwinds.

The struggle has not been resolved. The state of “despair” is challenged, not eliminated. A solemn funeral march in D Minor moves the movement to a dark ending, yet it finishes with a gesture of defiance and belief in victory with the heroic motif played in unison.

The second movement opens in D minor but transitions into a joyful dance in F major. The entire orchestra plays a stomping dance theme; the woodwinds then cheer a joyful tune in C major. The recapitulation increases the sense of busy tumult; the coda follows with lively movement. Oboes and clarinets play a cheerful tune, reminiscent of Slavic folk music. This powerful folk melody, the joy of the people, has entered the first movement’s joyless world, with the movement ending brilliantly and optimistically in D major.

The third movement contrasts with the second movement’s active participation in life, with a wonderful adagio movement, a dreamlike vision of longed-for human happiness and peace. The first violins sing the soulful main theme, its variations make the movement increasingly fluid. Suddenly signal-like fanfares promise victory, sounding into the dream. The melody swings upwards, offering beautiful glimpses of that world of longed-for peace and joy.

The crowning final movement evokes life in community, in happiness and peace, a utopian vision. Beethoven merged the instrumental and the vocal for the first time in symphonic music, to express these revolutionary ideals, won through struggle, with the help of human singing.

At the start of the final movement, Beethoven surveys the ground that had to be traversed in order to reach this utopia, the hard-won realm of joy and freedom. The wild, dissonant outcry in thundering D minor, with which the wind groups begin the final section fortissimo over swirling timpani, seems to destroy all the hopes that the adagio had raised. This recalls the gloomy opening of the first movement. However, the C sharp in the bass, pushes the motive into major. The recollected restless Scherzo theme is not yet a source of true joy, neither is the dreamy melody of the third movement’s adagio. Beethoven prepares the ground musically by having the low strings represent the hero who gradually rejects the main themes of the preceding three movements, until finally they embrace the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme and with it the message of universal humankind.

The awakening of the Joy melody in the woodwinds is sounded in D major as from a distance. Beethoven notes, Ha, this is it, it is found. Joy. The bass recitative rejoices and picks up the melody to complete it.

This simple melody is in the manner of a folk tune. The joyful movement now moves into the formerly “joyless” space, a melody of a completely different kind than the wild turbulent one of the Scherzo: a noble folk melody. It is a tune expressing human community, of people who have succeeded in the great feat, as Schiller’s poem says, and who are called to transform the world from a state of despair into a world of general peace, joy and freedom. Beethoven now sings his high, wordless song to Joy.

In a very lively orchestral movement, we hear the triumphal march of the Joy theme. At first, violas and cellos take over the melody, accompanied by the contrapuntal voices of double basses and bassoons. Then the Joy theme grows in the polyphonic choir of instruments to the triumphant march of the whole orchestra. A sudden pause, voices of doubt assert themselves. A cry of horror threatens to plunge everything into despair. Now the baritone singer, the voice of humanity enters.

The woodwinds play the theme. The solo baritone and the choir basses call out Joy to each other, with the soloist singing the Joy melody with Schiller’s words, accompanied by the interwoven sounds of the oboe and clarinet. The fully instrumented stream of the Joy melody swells, reaching a climax at the words: and the cherub stands before God! repeated three times fortissimo, revealing reverence for the greatness of the universe.

Communal joy and a better world

With a sudden turn to B flat major, Beethoven brings to light a new image: the triumphal march of joyful people, filled with the message of communal joy and a better world. From momentary silence emerges a march with the modified Joy melody, coloured by piccolo flute and percussion. The march swells to a mighty storm. Even the joy of the human community can only be achieved through struggle. Both peace and joy are inseparable. This victory has been attained. The choir triumphs with the Joy melody in the splendour of the full orchestra in D major.

There follows the solemn proclamation of universal human community: Be embraced, Millions! This kiss to all the world! These words are greatly enhanced by an extraordinarily vivid melody. Such community of nations calls for a change in the social order.  Beethoven combines with this his reverence for the cosmos, for the starry sky above. The composer’s fortissimo C major chord on world radiates splendour. The longed-for goal is presented as realised.

Thus begins the grand, crowning double fugue, in which the friendship of peoples and the joy of general human happiness are celebrated as an indissoluble unity. The polyphonic, choral multitudes are accompanied by undulating figures of the strings, by the brass groups with trombones and trumpets, and the enthusiastic shouts of Joy! Joy! of individual voices. The climax is reached on the long sustained high a on the word world.

Human community is emphasised. Beethoven sings of the gentle wing of peace and the understanding of all people. He lets the idea of peace shine once again in the great beauty of the solo quartet. A roaring orchestral epilogue with variations of the Joy melody concludes this powerful instrumental-vocal symphony.

Touring Syria in 2017, we visited a multi-denominational primary school in Homs. Suicide bombers had slaughtered 30 children and many parents. Here, young girls greeted us, movingly singing in Arabic the ‘Ode to Joy’: Alle Menschen werden Brüder/All people are joined in common humanity. The EU adopted ‘Ode to Joy’ as its anthem in 1985, yet its stringent sanctions upon Syria made it more difficult for foodstuffs, fuel, and healthcare to reach the people. Such measures fly in the face of Beethoven’s humanist message.

From the Plough to the Stars: The Launch
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 09:22

From the Plough to the Stars: The Launch

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell recently hosted the online launch of a new book. From the Plough to the Stars, an anthology of prose from contemporary Ireland is a follow-up to Children of the Nation, an anthology of poetry published by Culture Matters last year. Here, she introduces an edited video of the launch, made by Eoin McDonnell

History fails to record the experience of the working people. Instead, the thrust of history writing is determined by the paymaster's point of view, which excludes the perspective of those who fight and die, who do the work, who dream of and struggle for a better life. Apart from establishment history, there is the story of the working people, and so, distinct from the mainstream, there is a second culture, reflecting the working-class experience. What we find here are not the stereotypes of working people typical of ruling-class literature and art, but real characters: not the pastoral, but the anti-pastoral.

From the Plough to the Stars presents a diverse set of characters. It is a group that will ultimately rise above the inferior station assigned to them by society, and who will seek to create a just society for all. In the words of James Connolly describing the Starry Plough banner:

A free Ireland will control its own destiny, from the plough to the stars.


It is apt, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, that the true value and critical importance of workers' contributions to our communities, worldwide, takes centre stage. These contributions expose the parasitical captains of industry and their fellow travellers in global finance. 

- Gerry Murphy, President, Irish Congress of Trade Unions

From the Plough to the Stars is available here. The full video of the launch, with all the speeches and contributions, is available here.

From the Plough to the Stars
Sunday, 08 November 2020 22:01

From the Plough to the Stars

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell introduces From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland

“The cooks, the cleaners, the porters: unsung heroes on the frontline” cried an Irish newspaper headline in early May 2020. During the pandemic it has become clear that whatever else fails, a society cannot function without the working class. The underlying inequalities of our class-divided society have been laid bare by the coronavirus, including the ways in which working-class histories, experiences and values have never been adequately represented in Irish national cultural life. 

So it is particularly timely that Clare Daly MEP is about to launch a unique anthology of prose by Irish working-class writers.  There are 50 contributions from the whole island of Ireland, driving home the fact that their life experience as working people is the same, no matter where on the island they live, on which side of the border, rural or urban, female or male, younger or older, writing in Irish or English.

The common focus is on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working-class life in contemporary Ireland. The writers create a complex and varied image of Irish working people today, one that challenges conventional stereotypes of their class.

The anthology is edited by Jenny Farrell, has a foreword by Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and it has been generously supported and promoted by the Irish labour movement.

It is the follow-up volume to Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, published by Culture Matters in 2019.

From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland. ISBN: 978-1-912710-36-2  212 pps. Price: €12/ £11 plus p. and p., available here.

Lizzie Burns, Mary's sister
Saturday, 24 October 2020 10:33

A statue in verse for Mary Burns, Engels's partner

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell writes about Mary and Lizzie Burns. The image above is of Mary Burns

Friedrich Engels, whose 200th birthday falls 28 November 2020, had a very personal connection with Ireland. The moment he set foot in Manchester, in 1843, sent by his father to help run the family textile factory, he met the then 20-year-old Mary Burns, daughter of an Irish dyer, and herself a worker in the Engels-owned Victoria Mills. In 1845, Mary accompanied Engels to Brussels; by 1846 he refers to her as “my wife” in a letter. In Brussels, they both attended political meetings and met Engels’ friend, the revolutionary German poet Georg Weerth, who had a great interest in Ireland.

Weerth wrote the poem ‘Mary’, one of the few contemporary documents about her:

Mary

From Ireland with the tide she came,
She came from Tipperary:
“Oranges, fresh and good for sale”
So cried our lassie Mary.
And Moor and Persian and Brown,
Jews, Gentiles overwrought -
All people of the trading town,
They came and bought, and bought.

And with the money that she gained
For juicy, golden mandrines
She hurried home determined
Her face in wrathful lines.
She took the money, safe it kept;
Treasured ‘til January,
To Ireland fast and sure she sent
The money, so did Mary.

‘Tis for my land’s salvation,
I give this to your coffers!
Arise, and whet your weapons.
Stir up the ancient hatreds!
The Rose of England strives to choke
Shamrock of Tipperary
Warm greetings to the best of blokes,
O'Connell, from our Mary.

(translation Jenny Farrell)

According to Weerth, Mary was a street fruitseller, not a factory worker, but of course, she could have been both. She was a spirited young Irish patriot, whose family had crossed the Irish Sea to work in the 'satanic mills' of Manchester. As the 24-year-old Engels noted in “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845): “The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command.”

The Irish also brought a tradition of struggle. Many got involved in trade unionism and Feargus O’Connor, highly regarded by Marx and Engels for his class understanding, was elected to parliament in 1847, as the first Chartist.

There can be little doubt that Mary Burns was instrumental in introducing Engels to the horrendous conditions of the Manchester proletariat. She knew intimately the conditions of families at work and in their typhus and cholera-stricken shacks.

The situation in proletarian families led Engels much later to note in “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” (1884):

...now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labour market and into the factory, and made her often the bread-winner of the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household – except, perhaps, for something of the brutality towards women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy.

Engels understood marriage and family as directly linked to the propertied class system, whereby the accumulation of wealth led to formal marriage, strict monogamy on the part of women, and female subjugation:

…in proportion as wealth increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was.

The overthrow of mother-right was the world-historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.

Engels decided never to marry. He lived first with Mary Burns, and following her early death, with her sister Lydia (Lizzie) as his partners. In order to do so, he effectively led a double life. One, in an official residence as a factory manager, the other, in the suburban cottage he rented under an alias for Mary and Lizzie, his real home.

In 1856, Engels and Mary visited Ireland together. Following this trip, he wrote to Marx, “Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony” and “I never thought that famine could have such a tangible reality”.

Both Mary and Lizzie were very involved with Irish liberation and supported the Fenian struggle for an independent Ireland. Aged only forty, Mary died suddenly on 8 January 1863. She had been Engels’ partner for twenty years. He was deeply shaken with Marx’s inability to respond compassionately; it nearly broke their friendship.

Lizzie Burns

After Mary’s death, Engels and Lizzie (above) moved in together. This is the house where Marx visited a number of times, as did his daughter Eleanor. Eleanor struck up a deep friendship with Lizzie and through her became an Irish patriot. Lizzie was a member of the Fenian Society, and Engels describes her as an “Irish revolutionary”. There are indications that Lizzie joined the First International soon after its foundation in 1864.

In 1867, when two Fenians, Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, also veterans of the US Civil War, were captured by Manchester police to be brought to trial, Lizzie became involved in the ultimately unsuccessful plot to rescue them. Paul Lafarge suggests she may even have hidden them briefly. Following their execution, Engels wrote to Marx:

So yesterday morning the Tories … accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs.

Engels and Marx, while staunch supporters of Irish emancipation, were no devotees of the Fenians. In both the Marx and Engels/Burns households, the women expressed their support of the Fenians by wearing green ribbons with black for mourning.

In September 1869, Lizzie, Engels and the 14-year-old Eleanor Marx spent three weeks in Ireland. Their visit coincided with a revival of the liberation movement, sparked by the demand for an amnesty for the Fenians held in British jails. Tens of thousands of people were out on the streets of Dublin and Limerick. Lizzie and Eleanor “came back even hiberniores than they had been before they left”. Engels formed a plan to write a comprehensive study of Ireland and began researching its history.

Lizzie and Engels moved to London 122 Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill, in September 1870, just ten minutes’ walk from Marx. This house became a centre for the Socialist movement. Lizzie had been unwell for quite some time and died 12 September 1878. A measure of Engels’ love may be seen in his marrying Lizzie on the night of her death, to put her at ease. On her death certificate, her occupation is given as former cotton spinner. In a letter, Engels writes to Julie Bebel:

She was of genuine Irish proletarian stock and her passionate, innate feeling for her class was of far greater importance to me and stood me in better stead at all critical moments to a greater extent than all the pseudo-intellectual and clever-clever ‘finely educated’ and ‘delicate’ bourgeois daughters could have done.

Rathlin: In memory of Derek Mahon
Monday, 05 October 2020 07:14

Rathlin: In memory of Derek Mahon

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell memorialises Derek Mahon by presenting a reading of his poem Rathlin, bringing out its political message and artistic skill

Derek Mahon died on 1 October. Born into the Protestant Belfast working class, he was of a generation with Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. All three poets benefitted from the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1947, which allowed students who won scholarships to go on to secondary schools and from there to university. Both Mahon and Heaney chose not to live in the six counties for most of their adulthood, while the troubles nevertheless make themselves felt in their poetry.

Is there a better way to honour the life of an artist than to look at one of their works, which will capture their spirit, their person more accurately than any biography, and give access to their individual voice? And so, while there are many tributes to Mahon in the media at the moment, all outvying each other in honouring the non-political poet, we look at a poem that reveals what the poet felt about the violence of the English State in Ireland.

Rathlin

(published in The Hunt by Night, 1982)

The title of this poem refers to an island off the Antrim coast. It refers both to the nature reserve it is home to today as well as the scene of a terrible massacre in 1575, conducted by Elizabeth I’s marshal in Ireland, Essex, against a Scots-Irish chieftain. 500-600 people were murdered.

A long time since the last scream cut short –
Then an unnatural silence; and then
A natural silence, slowly broken
By the shearwater, by the sporadic
Conversation of crickets, the bleak
Reminder of a metaphysical wind.
Ages of this, till the report
Of an outboard motor at the pier
Fractures the dream-time, and we land
As if we were the first visitors here.

The poem’s opening lines refer to this massacre: it happened a long time ago, yet there is an immediacy about the last scream, which is underlined by the profusion of ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds in the line. The unnatural silence still carries echoes of the screams; nature seems to have been shocked into stillness over this atrocity. A natural one – an absence of human habitation – follows the unnatural silence.

Seabird sounds and the occasional chirping of crickets break this silence. These sounds, belonging to the natural world, put the speaker in mind of a metaphysical wind, perhaps echoes of conversations past. These natural sounds dominate the island until now, when the ‘man-made’ sound of a motorboat Fractures this peace. The speaker, along with others, lands on the island as though they were the first humans to set foot here. They realise, of course, that they are not, and that a dark and terrible history haunts the apparent peace of this place.

The whole island a sanctuary where amazed
Oneiric species whistle and chatter,
Evacuating rock-face and cliff-top.
Cerulean distance, an oceanic haze –
Nothing but sea-smoke to the ice-cap
And the odd somnolent freighter.
Bombs doze in the housing estates
But here they are through with history –
Custodians of a lone light which repeats
One simple statement to the turbulent sea.

The middle stanza consists of three sentences. The first one, (lines 11-13) evokes the whole island as a wonderful nature sanctuary. Mahon uses Latin and Greek terms, creating a certain distance to the world of nature, as though a scientist or historian is looking at it: Oneiric (dream-like: links to ‘dream-time’ in stanza 1), or Evacuating. Evacuating hints at wartime and the present, or recent past. However, the image is alive with movement, sights and sounds.

The next sentence and image continues this use of Latin words in Cerulean (deep sky blue). Line 14 gives a wonderfully complex visual impression of the sky over the sea and the hazy line in between. This haziness is continued in the beautiful image of sea-smoke, and in line 16 there is the first suggestion of human presence, albeit quite peaceful and out at sea, the odd somnolent (sleepy, drowsy – links to links to ‘dream-time’  and ‘oneiric’) freighter.

Sleepiness of a different kind shocks the reader in the line that follows, practically in the middle, or heart, of the poem: Bombs doze in the housing estates. This clashes with everything about this island – except for its history. Through this apparently unrelated image, one could argue that Rathlin becomes a symbol for the North of Ireland at least, if not for the whole of Ireland, with its tremendous potential for natural beauty but also its history of violence.

Interestingly, this image of bombs in a housing estate, i.e. in cities, is simply left there and followed by the comment But here they are through with history. Pre-history as the time before humans recorded events, post-history as post-human? All human involvement with this island is the light-house: a lone light that repeats/ One simple statement to the turbulent sea.

What is this simple statement? The need for peace? The stanza’s concluding image seems to attribute a certain symbolism to the sea as a place of turmoil, rather like history – the tables seem to be turned here – the lighthouse gives guidance to nature: or symbolically, the inhabitants of the nature sanctuary provide light to a ‘sea of troubles’.

A long time since the unspeakable violence –
Since Somhairle Buí, powerless on the mainland,
Heard the screams of the Rathlin women
Borne to him, seconds after, upon the wind.
Only the cry of the shearwater
And the roar of the outboard motor
Disturb the singular peace. Spray-blind,
We leave here the infancy of the race,
Unsure among the pitching surfaces
Whether the future lies before us or behind.

The poem’s final stanza consists of three sentences, two distinct parts. The first part relates to the most harrowing moment of the massacre for Somhairle Buidh, hearing the screams of the victims, carried to him to the mainland by the wind with a slight delay. This delay is enacted magnificently in the line, which causes the reader – through caesura – to stop briefly: Borne to him, seconds after. This description is supremely poignant; an image that is hard to forget. The auditory (screams) and tactile (wind) qualities that go into this image intensify the sense of the powerless horror of this unspeakable violence. This vivid image also connects the past with the present – such terror of the victims and the horror of the powerless onlooker could apply to similar situations at any time or any place.

The next two lines contrast with this shocking image and draw the reader into the present, connecting with stanza 1: the sounds of the shearwater and the motorboat. However, these sounds here echo the slaughter – cry and roar, they cannot be evaded. This ambiguity is magnificently resolved in the conclusion of this sentence, in the middle of line 27: Disturb the singular peace. ‘Singular’ is ambiguous: referring to the exceptional, the nature sanctuary, a place outside of history, and the situation in the six counties at the time of the Troubles.

In the poem’s final image, the visitors to Rathlin leave the island in their boat; the infancy of the race could refer to animals – before humankind.  Blinded by the spray, confused, unsure, on a turbulent sea, the pitching surfaces, as to Whether the future lies before us or behind. What is the future of the North of Ireland? Where will violence lead? Can there only be peace in a place empty of people, either before or after history? These are searching questions, to which recent history has provided an answer. The speaker in this poem, who sees himself on a turbulent sea, finds guidance in the simple statement provided by the custodians of Rathlin’s lighthouse.

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