Jenny Farrell introduces a short series of poems and commentary to mark the Easter Rising 1916
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ireland will for the first time in its history be unable to publicly remember the Easter Rising of 1916, its aspirations for an independent socialist Republic, and its heroic leaders.
As a number of these leaders were poets and writers, this is an opportunity to look at one or two of their poems, to see what kind of people they were, how their emotions live on in the poetry and how it speaks to us today.
For this Easter, I am going to look at four poems by three of the leaders, Pádraig Pearse, who wrote the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, and his comrades and signatories Thomas MacDonagh and James Plunkett.
We’ll begin with the most famous poem, Mise Éire/ I am Ireland, written by Pádraig Pearse in 1912.
Mise Éire / I am Ireland
by Pádraig Pearse
I am Ireland:
I am older than the old woman of Beara.
Great my glory:
I who bore Cuchulainn, the brave.
Great my shame:
My own children who sold their mother.
Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemy who harrasses me continually…
Great my sorrow
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, died.
I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the old woman of Beara.
Pádraig Pearse wrote this poem in Irish. The title is a bold statement of identification with Ireland. At the same time, it is Ireland herself speaking.
The “old woman”, in the original “cailleach Bheara”, is a mysterious figure in Irish myth and folklore. Cailleach in Old Gaelic means ‘veiled one’, suggesting ancient origins of the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian, possibly pre-Celtic times. The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is regarded one of finest surviving examples of early Irish verse. She was famed to be mother and foster mother to at least 50 children who went on to found tribes. Pearse makes that connection and echoes the tone of this 9th c lament – speaking as a female ‘I’, like in the Lament – only this I is older, she is Ireland.
The tone is reminiscent of an incantation: “Great is my” will be repeated four time. The first time Ireland refers to her “glory”, because she gave birth to Cuchulainn, champion of the early 1st c Ulster Cycle, celtic foundations myths about the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster. These legends had been all but forgotten by the 7th c when bard, Sechan Torpeist, revived them.
Ireland is placed in the context of a wondrous past that is past – of having once had a flowering and vibrant culture. An example of this culture is the great saga of Cú Chulainn. Pearse makes a statement which contradicts the British colonial narrative of Irish cultural inferiority; Irish literature is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe.
The rhetorically powerful repetition “Great my” next presents the polar opposite to “glory” – “shame”. Ireland’s glory lies in the past, conflicting with her “shame”, referring to more recent times. The contrast is continued in the parallel between Cuchulainn and “My own children who sold their mother”. The verb “sold” underlines that these are not ancient but modern times. This contrast highlights the shameful reality of Pearse’s time, of a nation on its knees, ashamed of itself and accepting its conquerors’ narrative.
The children who sold their mother refers to the new Irish establishment, which accepted its inferior place in the British scheme of things – the people now known as Redmondites. They strove for Catholic rights, not Irish nationhood. They wanted the Catholic middle class to have an equal access to power and influence, but within the safe harbour of Britishness.
The third repetition “Great my” – expands on “shame”, intensifying it. While shame is opposite of pride/glory, it hurts emotionally, pain hurts physically. The enemy, with whom no peace is possible, dominates and inflicts injury in this woman’s own place
The final repetition of “Great my” refers to “sorrow”, which follows this pain. The old woman/ Ireland has suffered betrayal by “That crowd, in whom I placed my trust”: The Redmondite politicians who took over from Parnell, who pretended to be the champions of national freedom but worked to keep Ireland part of the Empire.
The speaker finally returns to opening statement, with a change from “older” to “lonelier”, resulting from her experience, as revealed this poem. The cailleach Bhéara ended her days in loneliness because she was left alone, lamenting the disappearance of her glorious past. In Pearse’s poem Ireland had no one to turn to after her leaders (Redmond’s crowd) betrayed her. However, the fact that the Pearse wrote this lament on behalf of Ireland is a call for new leaders to take on the cause of Ireland.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.