Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism - Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017, and editor of Children of the Nation, An Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, Culture Matters. 2019.

 

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.

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

The Martyr: the last of Liam O’Flaherty’s banned novels to see the light in Ireland
Friday, 02 October 2020 10:54

The Martyr: the last of Liam O’Flaherty’s banned novels to see the light in Ireland

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell introduce Liam O’Flaherty's The Martyr, Nuascéalta 2020.

Liam O’Flaherty’s banned novel The Martyr has just been republished by Nuascéalta, eighty-seven years since its first and only edition in 1933.

With this sensational republication of The Martyr, Nuascéalta publishers complete their epic task of restoring the remaining three major O’Flaherty novels on the index of the Irish state. The other two novels reprinted by them were the first book to be banned under the Censorship of Publications act, the Galway novel The House of Gold, and O’Flaherty’s insightful and scathing Hollywood satire Hollywood Cemetery. This publication makes available, for the first time since the 1930s, the entirety of Liam O’Flaherty’s novelistic work and moves towards a restoration of a panorama of this author’s work for a global audience.

Banned writings were dangerous to come by for many decades, and the long-term effect of such an establishment ban on literary works radiates to this day, as once censored novels can still be rare on library and bookshop shelves. O’Flaherty’s novels, mainly written in the 1920s and 30s, address significant events in Irish history and the newly emerging Free State. He was the first Irish artist to seriously confront the realities of the Famine and he wrote the important anti-war novel Return of the Brute. He examined the emergence of a fundamentalist Catholic State his books were banned and a whole people systematically kept in ignorance by a state betraying the ideals of independence.

Nuascéalta’s return of The Martyr to the reading public comes at a time when we commemorate – controversially – the centenary of the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Martyr gives O’Flaherty’s take on the battle to control the country’s destiny. The novel, written just ten years after the Civil War, brings to life the nationwide Free State attack on the anti-Treaty forces. One such offensive was the landing at Fenit in Kerry. Liam O’Flaherty fictionalises this incident at “Carra Point” and “Sallytown” (Tralee). Events around the Free State troop landing and its sequel are seen through the eyes of Sallytown’s defenders and its townspeople, clerical and lay. In the author’s imaginative reconstruction, professional Free State troops face Sallytown’s ill-trained, badly led and poorly equipped volunteer defenders.

O’Flaherty’s point of view, here as in his other novels, is always informed by his understanding of class and class interests. He writes from the point of view of the ordinary people – fishermen, peasants, workers. As part of this perspective, he leaves no doubt on which side in the civil war the gombeen class stood:

Every one of these peasants felt that Tracy was fighting for Ireland and that Sheehan was not. Down in their souls they felt it, by instinct; … It was all very well for posh fellows in Dublin, he felt, to mock at these ignorant poor people; but all the same the poor people’s instincts were always right in the long run.

O’Flaherty presents the reader with the complexities of each class, as erstwhile comrades find themselves on the opposing sides of this tragic conflict: Sheehan

was about the same age as Tracy and he had an equally brilliant record as a guerrilla fighter. He came from a village on the coast of Cork and he had been a fisherman before he became a revolutionary. He had been admitted into the ranks of the Republican Brotherhood for a very skilful landing of some arms right under the eyes of a British gunboat.

This central conflict of the novel, that between Tracy and Sheehan, comments memorably on how differently the civil war could have ended: Sheehan refuses to kill Tracy and defies any military order to do so.

The group of revolutionaries around Tracy as their central player is diverse. Some, like Rourke are simply farmers, others like Crosbie are devout Christians, and others again have been soldiers, guerrilla fighters and imprisoned. There is also an informer among them.

The Martyr is a rare Irish Civil War novel that presents some fighters on the anti-Treaty side as informed by the socialism of Connolly, indeed declared atheists and communists, and Tracy and Sailor King have most in common with O’Flaherty’s own thinking. However, O’Flaherty combines all these diverse people into a group around Tracy to shape a group hero, as opposed to the idealised individual hero that dominates the bourgeois novel. This band of revolutionaries includes women, although there is a certain degree of stereotyping in these female characters, including the rather startling portrayal of Constance Markievicz.

Brian Crosbie, Sallytown’s ineffectual Republican leader, is also based partly on an historical character – Terence Mac Sweeney. Crosbie, who becomes the martyr after whom the novel is named, is central to the plot. Mac Sweeney was a deeply devout Catholic, who described Ireland’s struggle for independence as a religious crusade and his goal as a new Catholic state. Laid out in his coffin, he wore underneath his IRA uniform the rough brown habit of a Franciscan monk.

Crosbie’s ineffectuality arises from his Catholic nationalism, an issue of immediate relevance to O’Flaherty at the time he wrote the book. An extensive dialogue between Crosbie and his Free State army torturer Tyson, reminiscent of Satan and Christ in the desert, paves the way for the novel’s shocking ending.

This raw novel provides a gripping contemporary account of events that defined Irish history. It contradicts revisionist presentations of those times and suggests that, at a time when History is being removed from school curricula, one should read literature. It is unlikely to find favour among the descendants of the ‘Stater’ camp, and could make for an uncomfortable reminder for the modern offspring of the anti-Treaty movement. Following the recent general election, the media, along with the politicians of Fiana Fáil and Fine Gael, trumpeted about overcoming the divisions of the past, in an effort to exclude from government the party that aspires to achieve the goals of the anti-Treaty party of the Civil War. O’Flaherty reminds us of what this was all about.

The Martyr is available as an ebook from Amazon.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Tuesday, 15 September 2020 09:04

All Quiet on the Western Front

Published in Fiction

 Jenny Farrell introduces the famous anti-war book, as we near the 50th anniversary of Erich Maria Remarque's death. Image by Photofest 

World War I was termed the war that would end all wars, so great was the horror of this new, diabolical stage of industrial annihilation. We know now that without seriously addressing the causes of war – the imperialist greed for new markets and spheres of power – wars will continue, no matter what. However, WWI gave birth to a new genre of anti-war literature.

Mainstream cultural life in the 21st century largely ignores wars, nor has it embraced the anti-war cultural heritage of the 20th century. But anybody who reads the novels and poetry, listens to the music, watches the plays, looks at the paintings or hears the songs of those who lived through the horrors of WWI and WWII, cannot fail to be profoundly shocked and motivated to finally put an end to war. Perhaps that is why they are all but absent from mainstream culture?

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is arguably the most famous anti-war novel of all time. Published in 1928, the novel was one of the greatest book successes of the first half of the 20th century. The picture it paints, the inhuman reality of war, reflected the experiences of millions of soldiers.

At the heart of the story is a group of young soldiers who are sent from school straight into the battlefield. Their dehumanisation by adapting to industrialised slaughter becomes the turning point in their lives. They ask questions about who is responsible for the war, but have no answers. While Bäumer and his comrades do not believe the official propaganda, which blames the war on foreign powers, they turn their rage on the agents of power closest to them. These include teachers, officers, and armchair strategists at home, including Bäumer’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, who urged students to enlist, as well as the former postman, Himmelstoss, who torments new recruits. While the novel never exposes the imperialist interests which lay behind World War I, it nevertheless condemns the powers that criminally abused Remarque’s generation.

Bäumer’s group is primarily concerned with surviving the war. Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, a 40-year-old cobbler, becomes a father figure to them. He ferrets out food for them to pilfer, as the army provisions are abysmal. What holds them together is their camaraderie, a humanity they preserve. Ten years after the publication of this novel, this idea of camaraderie was to be exploited by the German fascists for their new war plans.

However, in Remarque’s book, this comradeship has nothing to do with leader and followers in an aggressive militarism. Rather, it is a sense of solidarity among those who need to support each other, even extending to the soldiers in the ‘enemy’ trench. They understand instinctively that the enemy is a victim of the same powers as themselves. In a memorable scene, Bäumer is caught in a shell hole along with the French soldier he has just killed. He says, “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy?”

In 1930, the Nazis disrupted screenings of the film adaptation and attacked the audiences. In May 1933, they burned copies of the book and revoked Remarque’s German citizenship in 1938.

Remarque’s next book, The Road Back (1931), follows soldiers from the same company during the 1918 revolutionary uprisings in Germany. It is first and foremost the story of the dissolution of the comradeship of the front. Their attempt to hold on to the idea of comradeship leads to the militarist Freikorps, suicide and eventually even to the murder of workers. Remarque shows that war was not an ‘emergency’ but remains at the centre of imperialist, capitalist society.

Remarque was born in Osnabrück in June 1898 into a Catholic working-class family. When World War I broke out, Remarque was sixteen. Like so many, he fell victim to the jingoist propaganda and joined the Youth Corps, a militaristic cadet organization. Aged eighteen in November 1916, he was conscripted. Shortly after seeing action on the western front, he was wounded, in July 1917 and spent over a year recovering and was not sent back to the front.

Finishing his education after the war, Remarque briefly worked as a teacher, before he began writing for a living. In late 1927, Remarque wrote a first draft of All Quiet on the Western Front. He offered it to the most renowned publisher in the Weimar Republic, Samuel Fischer. Fischer rejected it, claiming that ten years after the war, nobody wanted to read about it anymore. The manuscript then reached the Ullstein publishers and Remarque was asked to revise his text, especially to tone down any anti-war statements.

On 10 November 1928, the Vossische Zeitung, part of the Ullstein group, published the first instalment of All Quiet on the Western Front. Five days later Remarque was sacked from his job with the weekly Sport im Bild. However, the novel’s success exceeded all expectations. Thousands of readers’ letters reached the newspaper evidencing that Remarque’s book hit a nerve with the public: an unvarnished portrayal of the war. It became an immediate bestseller in Germany and internationally. In 1929, it was translated into 26 languages.

Today there are editions in 50 languages, with an estimated circulation worldwide of tens of millions of copies. It is considered the anti-war book of the 20th century, written by a German. The title has become synonymous with the senselessness of war, the senselessness of ordinary people dying in the interests of profit and power.

In May 1933, Remarque had to flee Germany for Switzerland overnight, having been warned by a friend that he was in danger. He left Switzerland for the USA on the eve of World War II, and became a naturalised US citizen in 1947. He wrote his last novel Shadows in Paradise while living at 320 East 57th Street in New York and his apartment building “played a prominent role in his novel”.

In 1943, the Nazis arrested his youngest sister, Elfriede Scholz. She and her husband had stayed in Germany with their two children. She was found guilty of ‘unpatriotic’ views and was beheaded on 16 December 1943. Remarque only discovered what happened to her after the war, and dedicated his 1952 novel The Spark of Life to her. West German publishers omitted the dedication, as Remarque was still considered a traitor by many Germans. Although Remarque’s German citizenship was reinstated after the war, he remained isolated from German cultural life and died in Switzerland 50 years ago, on 25 September 1970.

All Quiet on the Western Front has lost none of its power. It is an outstandingly sensitive depiction of the effect murderous warfare has on the human psyche. We need more books like this.

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Giovanni Boccaccio, writing at a time of plague
Tuesday, 04 August 2020 09:23

Giovanni Boccaccio, writing at a time of plague

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell gives the historical background to Boccaccio's work

The Black Plague was the most devastating pandemic ever recorded, resulting in the deaths of between 75-125 million people. It peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, having come on Italian merchant ships from Asia via the Silk Road. In fact, the idea of quarantine originates in plague-stricken 14th century Italy, when ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to wait offshore for 40 days before docking. The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta giorni, 40 days.

The Italian territories were the cradle of early capitalism. Lombardy and Tuscany were the most advanced cities. Trade and industry developed here in the 13th century, favoured by their trade routes to the Orient. Venice had possessions in Greece, Crete, Cyprus and on the Dalmatian coast. Venetian ships called at European ports, and Venetian ducats became an international currency. With 200,000 inhabitants, the city had a surprisingly large population.

The social order of the Venetian state was determined by its economic interests and the nobility, so its constitution remained aristocratic. This was different in Florence, the second most powerful city in Italy. Florence had a constitution since 1293, which excluded the nobility from the government and transferred its administration exclusively to the patricians. Its council, however, excluded small craftsmen and the common people. At that time, Florence was unique in Europe for a constitution based on bourgeois democratic principles.

This newly developing society brought with great changes in the way people understood the world and their place in it. In the arts, the humanists of this early Renaissance began to rediscover the books and art of the ancients, their focus on this world, the world that the new class, the bourgeoisie, were about to take on. This new focus on the merchants, artisans, patricians brought with it the growing importance of their vernacular. Dante (c. 1265 – 1321), who represents the transition from medieval to Renaissance writing, penned his “Divine Comedy” (1308–21) not in Latin, as might have been expected of a work of this scope at the time, but in Tuscan or Florentine Italian, which helped make that dialect the standard one for Italy. Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375), following Dante, are firmly established Renaissance writers, both of them also writing in the Florentine dialect.

Writing during the Plague

Boccaccio witnessed these momentous times and gave the world one of its most well-known and widely read books, “The Decameron”. This is a book written and set during the Plague and its introduction and frame story bring it to life. Given the present circumstances, I’ll refrain from delving into the gruesome details of Boccaccio’s introduction, but leave this to the interested reader to do for themselves.

The idea of a great many stories collected within a frame story was not altogether new. Centuries earlier, the Middle East had produced “One Thousand and One Nights” (in Arabic alf layla wa layla), the earliest manuscripts of which date back to the 9th century. These reflect a different kind of society, a feudal society, and yet they do this with as much vividness and cheekiness as Boccaccio would describe his world. The Persian poet Hafez (1315-1390), on the other hand, wrote satirical and love poetry that finds a parallel in Petrarca.

Boccaccio’s frame story goes like this: ten wealthy young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague, moving to a country villa, not without with some servants. They decide that they shall each rule for a day and preside over a set time every afternoon, when each one tells a story on a different theme. What unfolds is a panorama of 14th century Florentine life, with some of the stories told originating in different cultures. With Dante’s Divine Comedy in mind, Boccaccio’s has been called a Human Comedy. Many of the stories satirise clerical lust and greed, the adventures of traveling merchants – and their wives at home, tensions between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families. Quite a few of the stories are explicitly sexual. However, while this doubtlessly contributed to the book’s enormous popularity, it would be wrong to reduce the book to just its sexual theme.

In fact, it became a rich source for writers of world literature. One example is the third story of the first day, a story with origins preceding Boccaccio. The great German Enlightenment poet Lessing discovered the story and based his famous play “Nathan the Wise” on it. This play about the equal value of all religions and cultures was the first play staged in many German theatres after World War II.

The fifth story on the fourth day is the source for Keats’s poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”, a poem about which Shaw said that had Marx written a poem instead of Capital, it would have been this.

All this said, it does not do the work justice either to simply view it as a repository. In fact, the way in which it was most richly emulated was by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer had visited Italy on royal business and was very well read. His marvellous Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, take from Boccaccio the idea of a frame story – the ride from London to Canterbury with thirty pilgrims telling stories to pass the time. Indeed, they are similar in their often bawdy content and satire of the clergy.

The Canterbury PilgrimsPAINTINGSpaintingBlake, William (1757 - 1827, English)  Painting entitled 'The Canterbury Pilgrims', by William BlakePC.89

Canterbury Pilgrims, by William Blake

Yet there is a difference. Chaucer’s pilgrims come from three distinct classes of society (the nobility, the clergy and the common people), and all are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual concerns. Had Chaucer completed this project of thirty pilgrims telling two stories each on the way to Canterbury and two again on the way back, we would now have 120 stories. It was a very ambitious project, one Chaucer could not complete. He finished 24 of them, and others have come down in fragments. Nevertheless, the tales we do have paint a similarly vivid picture of 14th century England as Boccaccio’s do of Florence. And while it took the plague to unite the young Florentines in their country refuge, here it is the pilgrimage that unites these diverse English to be in the same place at the same time.

Writing in the language of the people

Chaucer’s plan differs from Boccaccio’s also in that the prologues to the tales characterise the teller of the story in detail, in particular linguistically. As pointed out, these come from the spectrum of classes in medieval England. For example, the Wife of Bath uses only Germanic adjectives, while the Prioress uses mainly adjectives with a French etymology, reflecting on the one hand a person from the ordinary people, on the other a woman from a noble background.

Like Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, Chaucer wrote his masterpiece in the vernacular. It is hard to imagine today just what a new departure this represented. For over 300 years, since the Norman invasion of 1066, English had not been spoken by the nobility, the upper classes in England. English, specifically Anglo-Saxon, was kept alive by the common people of England as their vernacular. Given that this was no longer a language of education, reading, etc, the English language developed like wildfire over the historically very short period of 300 years into Middle English, a form of the language that we can still understand, with some effort.

The “Canterbury Tales” is the first great work of English literature, establishing the artistic legitimacy of vernacular Middle English, as opposed to French or Latin. At around the same time, John Wycliffe, a very early religious reformer, translated the Bible into vernacular English (1384). This challenge to Latin as the language of God was considered a revolutionary act at the time, and the Church banned the translation. Access to the Bible in the vernacular was key to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, where one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon: “When Adam delved and Eva span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.”

The vernacular was crucial for social change. Using it meant identifying with the people, it meant standing up to an elitist and exclusive ruling class and empowering the people to understand the injustice of their situation, thus giving them a prospect for change. This use of the language of the people, which the Renaissance brings us, is deeply connected with the struggle for a new era.

The Gadfly: An Irishwoman’s novel about revolutionaries
Monday, 06 July 2020 07:19

The Gadfly: An Irishwoman’s novel about revolutionaries

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell remembers Ethel Voynich, who died 60 years ago this month, and who wrote The Gadfly – An Irishwoman’s novel about revolutionaries

Liam Mellows read this novel of revolution while awaiting his execution, along with the other condemned and his comrades. He had been imprisoned by the Irish Free State in the civil war (1922-23), for opposing the Treaty, which gave Ireland Dominion status within the British Empire, rather than establish an independent Irish Republic. Fellow prisoner Peadar O’Donnell writes: 

It is a curious fact, which many of the Mountjoy prisoners must be easily able to recall, that it was around the days that the Gadfly was being widely read in ‘C’ wing; it is a tale of Italian revolution with a ghastly execution scene. (…) MacKelvey … picking up the Gadfly … saying once more: ‘God, I hope they don’t mess up any of our lads this way.’ MacKelvey was to remember the Gadfly next morning.

What was this book so widely read, by Republicans in Ireland and the Labour movement in Britain?

The novel was published in New York in 1897 and a few months later in London, two years after its completion. It achieved cult status in the USSR and China, selling millions of copies. Two film versions were made in the USSR, one silent (1928), the other (1955) with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Its author, Irish-born Ethel Voynich, was closely associated with revolutionary circles in London, Berlin and Russia.

Ethel Lilian Boole was born on 11 May 1864 in Co. Cork, the youngest of five daughters of the renowned mathematician Professor George Boole and Mary Boole, who was a psychologist and philosopher. Ethel’s father died shortly after her birth and her mother took the family to London, returning to Ireland regularly during her childhood. It was on one of these visits to Ireland that Ethel first read about Giuseppe Mazzini, leader of the Italian Risorgimento movement.

Aged 18, she went to study music in Berlin for three years (1882–85). Here, she met Russian revolutionaries and when she returned to London, she learnt Russian from the exiled revolutionary Stepniak (Sergei Kravchinski) who had fled Russia after assassinating the chief of the Czarist secret police. Later, she travelled in Russia, staying with Stepniak’s sister-in-law Preskovia Karauloff in St Petersburg for two years (1887–89).

Preskovia was a doctor, whose husband was a political prisoner. Ethel helped Preskovia treat impoverished peasants. She also gave music lessons and associated with families of political prisoners whom she met through Preskovia.

Back in London, Ethel met a Polish political exile, recently escaped from Siberia, who anglicised his name to Wilfred Michael Voynich. Transported to Siberia for participation in the Polish liberation movement against the Czarist regime, he escaped to England in 1890. Ethel and Wilfred worked together with Stepniak, printing revolutionary literature and banned books including translations of Marx’s and Engels’ writing, and smuggling them into Russia.

Along with other revolutionaries, they founded the Russian Free Press Fund, and Ethel herself undertook a clandestine jouney to L’Vov in the Ukraine to organise the smuggling of illegal publications into Russia. Involved in these Russian émigré circles was another Russian exile and agent, Sigmund Rosenblum, alias Sidney Reilly, executed in 1925 for his role in a coup d'etat against Lenin and the USSR. Legend has it that he and Ethel had an affair in Italy.

From these experiences and circle of comrades, Voynich drew the events and characters in the novel. It is set in 1840s Italy at the time of the Risorgimento, its popular rebellion against Austrian domination.

The novel’s main characters belong to Mazzini’s underground party, Young Italy, active in the national liberation movement. A thrilling plot roots the reader’s sympathy with the author’s. It is understandable how this book captures the imagination of readers who sympathise with movements against oppression and domination, with such sentences as:

Several of them belonged to the Mazzinian party and would have been satisfied with nothing less than a democratic Republic and a United Italy.

It is obvious why the Anti-Treaty prisoners, captured during the civil war in Ireland, identified with the characters in the book.

This domination was not merely exercised by a foreign power. Reflecting historical fact, the novel criticises sharply the Catholic Church’s active opposition to the movement for a united Italy, expressed in a father and son conflict that deepens the import: an Italian reluctantly willing to sacrifice his son and the cause of freedom, and Italy’s future, for the sake of religion. The author leaves no doubt regarding her own stance. In fact, the novel’s declared atheism must have contributed to its being banned by the Irish State in 1947.

The spirit of revolution is not limited to members of the Young Italy movement. It has covert support throughout the population, evidenced in many scenes in the novel. Ordinary people help the movement smuggle arms across borders and come to their personal aid – even prison warders back them. In fact in the scene referred to by MacKelvey, the firing squad try to protect their secret hero. So, at the end of the 19th century, we see a new type evolving within the English novel, one whose hero and heroine are revolutionaries and part of a revolutionary liberation movement.

Written at a time of international suffrage movements, the central female character, Gemma Warren, is a woman the movement respects highly. She is inspired not only by Voynich’s own experience but also by other women revolutionaries around the author. Gemma is not merely an emancipated woman; she is also a revolutionary woman, at the centre of the movement. In this way, she goes beyond the literary heroines of the late 19th century and anticipates the proletarian women Gorky would write about:

Those who saw her only at her political work regarded her as a trained and disciplined conspirator, trustworthy, courageous, in every way a valuable member of the party, but somehow lacking in life and individuality. ‘She’s a born conspirator, worth any dozen of us; and she is nothing more,’ Galli had said of her.

Voynich brings not only the revolutionary group into the centre of the plot, but as a necessary part of this group, a new type of woman.

Given Voynich’s internationalism and experience, it is bewildering to find racist sentiments towards South Americans and black people expressed in this book. This racism also affects the portrayal of women of colour, as readers will discover. It seems that Voynich’s novel did not find much resonance in Cuba and other Latin American countries, nor in Africa, all waging heroic liberation struggles. Surprisingly, critics have not drawn attention to this aspect. Instead, if they dislike it, it is either due to its unashamed atheism, so unusual for its time, or for its partisanship for a revolutionary movement.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Wilfred Voynich became involved in the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom. He ran a rare bookshop in Soho, which he also used for money laundering and smuggling revolutionary and Marxist literature into Russia. Again, Ethel frequently worked as a courier for the organisation.

Ethel began writing full time, authoring three more novels: Jack Raymond (1901), Olive Latham (1904) and An Interrupted Friendship (1910). She also translated some poetry by Shevchenko and Lermontov into English, published in 1911.

She worked with the Quakers as a social worker in London’s East End during the War, and left Britain for good around 1920, when she joined Wilfred in New York. There is no further information about active political work. Wilfred died in 1930. Ethel returned to music, composed musical works including the ‘Epitaph in Ballad Form’, dedicated to the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, who was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London, on 3 August 1916. She also translated Chopin’s letters into English. She wrote some further novels, although none of them achieved the quality or the fame of The Gadfly.

Soviet literati in 1955 discovered that Ethel was still alive in New York, aged 91. This caused an enormous sensation in the USSR and resulted in the payment of royalties. Ethel continued to live quietly with her companion, Anne Nill, who had once managed Wilfred’s New York book business. They lived together for thirty years in the heart of Manhattan, in an apartment at London Terrace on West 24th Street.

Ethel Voynich died sixty years ago, on July 27th, 1960, aged 96.

The Gael becomes Irish: the long-term consequences of colonisation
Tuesday, 19 May 2020 07:55

The Gael becomes Irish: the long-term consequences of colonisation

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Tomás Mac Síomóin's The Gael Becomes Irish: An Unfinished Odyssey, Nuascéalta, 2020.

“The Gael Becomes Irish”is Tomás Mac Síomóin’s latest publication, and it continues his epic effort to detail the almost unfathomable effect that colonisation has had on the Irish psyche and culture. By doing so, he must be seen as on a par with the ground-breaking work of Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who revealed the disastrous psychiatric and psychological effects of such colonisation. While Memmi and Fanon wrote their revolutionary studies at a time of liberation struggle from physical occupation, Ngũgĩ and Mac Síomóin trace the minutiae of the long-term consequences of colonisation.

Both highly respected writers of fiction and non-fiction share a particular interest in the linguistic and cultural aftermath of colonial domination. By doing so, they tread on many toes, especially of those who have accommodated themselves with the status quo, deeming it the modern and rational thing to do. These people, in such diverse places as Kenya and Ireland, share an astonishing similarity of wishing to emulate their oppressors.

Mac Síomóin’s “The Gael Becomes Irish” is a companion volume of his 2014 landmark study “The Broken Harp”. In this, the author presented the decline of Gaeilge as one of the most sinister outcomes of colonisation, aided by the Catholic Church. This thorough destruction resulted in a post-colonial trauma, which, according to the author, transmits the colonial condition via DNA structures and has given rise to something akin to Stockholm syndrome. The loss of language and all that this entails  in terms of history, culture, and world-view leads to the adoption instead of the coloniser’s Weltanschauung, in which the victim remains a ‘loser’. Such denial of ancestral language echoes Ngũgĩ’s writings, to whom such rejection seals the accomplishment of the imperial goal. Mac Síomóin also applies Albert Memmi’s thinking to Ireland’s inability to assert itself internationally, as exhibited by Ireland’s catastrophic surrender to EU austerity.

Mac Síomóin links all this to class. Language, culture and identity stand most in the way of those who need to ape the coloniser. In a profit-driven world, language revival “would receive short shrift, being seen as totally ‘surplus to requirements’”. Cultural disinheritance of entire peoples is aided by removing history from school curricula, paralleled by an indifference to natural heritage, destroyed with equal zeal.

Central to Mac Síomóin’s Socratic style of debate is the future of language and literature. Interestingly, while Ngũgĩ started out writing in English, having been educated in the British tradition, and as a matter of profound protest turning to his native Kikuyu, Mac Síomóin’s trajectory has been different. He started out writing in Gaeilge. However, like other Gaelic authors before him, such as Liam O’Flaherty, for a political writer audience matters and to reach a wider audience, indeed to circumvent a certain disdain on the part of the administrators of Gaelic literature for ‘dark’ stories, Mac Síomóin has translated some of his work into English.

In “The Gael Becomes Irish”, Mac Síomóin investigates the rapidly decreasing value of Gaeilge and the Gaeltacht in contemporary Irish life. One of the main obstacles as he sees it is Official Standard Irish, a storehouse of archaic forms, foisted on hapless learners. In this context, he puts forward the need for a simpler modernised Irish, based on current Gaeltacht usage, an approach that has been successfully used to revive other endangered languages such as Hebrew. Indeed English itself lost its genders and many of its inflections in the historically short transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English during the time of the Norman conquest, when French was spoken by the upper classes and English by the ordinary people. Absence of grammatical rulebooks boosts the speed of language development. Mac Síomóin gives the example of the Belfast’s tiny Bóthar Seoighe Gaelteacht as an example of success. An appendix details suggestions for a simplified grammar. However, he is not confident about the implementation of such new rules, or indeed the survival of Gaeilge.

Charles Dickens and working-class literature
Monday, 11 May 2020 09:09

Charles Dickens and working-class literature

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses Charles Dickens, the first English novelist to put ordinary people at the heart of the story

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, who was born in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. Although his authorial perspective was always rooted in the petty-bourgeois class he was born into, he never forgot how his father was imprisoned for debts, and how the financial circumstances of his family forced him to leave school at the age of 12 and work a 10-hour day in a shoe polish factory. This experience led to his lifelong conviction that no child should ever endure such suffering.

Apart from witnessing poverty and child labour, Dickens also experienced the efforts of the petty bourgeoisie to keep up some kind of facade in the face of financial hardship. Despite his incredible early literary success, Dickens never became complacent – instead his radicalism deepened over the course of his life.

Dickens’ first journalistic jobs were as a parliamentary reporter for radical magazines, and thus moving in radical circles. He was also instrumental in organizing a strike by the reporters of the newspaper “The True Sun” and successfully acted as their spokesperson. At the same time, his love of writing developed. In 1836, he gave up his job as a reporter and started to earn his living by selling his books and writings.

He was born into the rapidly accelerating period of the Industrial Revolution, which powered the transition of British capitalism into its imperialist phase. His first creative period from 1836 to 1842 coincided with the rise and peak of the Chartist movement. His second phase covered the temporary revival of Chartism and the upheaval of 1848/1849, ending with the final triumph of the European reaction in 1850, a triumph that marked his third creative period.

Dickens’ development as a writer, from a basic outlook of optimism to one of pessimism, thus reflects the sensitivities of English radicalism in those same years. His productive literary work falls into the period between the collapse of the English socialist movement under Robert Owen, and its revival under the International Workers’ Federation by Karl Marx in 1864. In France, the painter Courbet developed realism during this epoch, depicting people at work in an unromanticised way. This tells of the spirit of the times, the context in which we must seek the significance of Charles Dickens.

Dickens always regarded himself as one of the common people, sympathising with them as working people and exposing injustice against them. This made him lastingly popular with the ordinary folk. His stance that the poor, and socially excluded groups like children be treated as human beings was in itself a revolutionary demand.

Taking this stance led Dickens to develop a new type of novel. His novels take the focus away from characters in the wealthy classes and towards the lives of ordinary, mostly urban  children, men and women, who grapple with everyday challenges. With his strong sense of individuality, he made these people extraordinarily vivid. He shows his readers the darker side of society in the first great industrialised metropolis in the world. His most interesting and valuable characters are usually people from the lower social classes.

In 1842 Dickens travelled to the US as a committed supporter of American independence, seeking to find the democracy of his dreams. Not only was he disappointed in this, but the existence of slavery and its enthusiastic defence by many he met also outraged him.  After his return, he wrote “American Notes for General Circulation” (1842), which strongly criticized American society and its values, especially slavery and violence, as well as its extreme individualism. In the novel “Martin Chuzzlewit”, published shortly afterwards, he also described the conflict he experienced between expectations and reality in the USA.

Until his visit to the US, Dickens’ perspective was directed exclusively towards southern England, while the main impulse for Chartism came from the industrial Midlands and the North. Not surprisingly, Dickens’ radicalism in his earlier novels was more moderate, and initially represented incidental ills. But as his writing developed, the entire social system that he depicts increasingly proves to be deeply rotten and unreformable.

Great Expectations

By way of example, let us turn briefly to one of Dickens’ later novels, “Great Expectations” (1860-61), in which the title-giving expectation is borne by a boy from the working class, and is attached to the hope for  a wealthy patroness’s  goodwill. The novel describes Pip’s development, and the shock of disillusionment.

In this book there is absolutely no hope that conditions could be put right by the benevolence of the ruling class. Instead, it is the outcast Magwitch, cheated, exploited, and brutalised by the law, who shows gratitude and generosity to Pip. Just as the bourgeoisie owes its wealth to the exploitation of the working classes, so Pip owes his wealth to Magwitch – and Pip is just as ungrateful as the bourgeoisie.

Dickens’ depiction of the two lawyer characters, Jaggers and his employee Wemmick, is also noteworthy. They are ruthless in their working lives, but they lead a completely different, compassionate private life, showing that success in business is only achieved at the expense of one’s own humanity. To underline this metaphorically, Jaggers always washes his hands following a particularly dirty job. Pip also changes during the time of his “expectations”, at the expense of his humanity, as is painfully expressed in his shameful treatment of Joe Gargery and Biddy.

The novel shows the folly of indulging in illusion, and how the lure of great expectations leads to disaster.  Dickens’ original ending underlined Pip’s complete break with his aspirations for social advancement and his insight into the heartlessness of ‘better’ society.  However, Dickens let himself be dissuaded from his planned, mercilessly consistent novel ending. Under pressure from the novelist Bulwer Lytton, he changed his intended ending in favour of a less likely, happier outcome. One is inclined to agree with Shaw who stated that Dickens’ original conclusion was the true happy ending. The logic of the novel contradicts the changed ending. Its most admirable characters are the blacksmith Joe Gargery and the teacher Biddy, Gargery’s second wife. Pip himself, as the main character, begins and ends as a working person.

When Charles Dickens began writing in 1836, the literacy rate in England was under 50 percent. More than any other writer of his time, Dickens must have helped inspire a desire for literacy among the ordinary people, by publishing stories – mostly serialised in magazines – that people really wanted to read because they could relate to the characters.

Dickens has had a great and continuing influence on subsequent writers. For example, in Robert Tressell’s “Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” not only does Tressell expand on Dickens’ focus by depicting a panorama of working-class people, he is also clearly steeped in the Dickensian tradition in his use of names or motifs, which contain the power of social generalisation. In this sense, Dickens’ increasingly fierce and pointed satires help prepare the ground for working-class literature.

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets
Tuesday, 28 April 2020 09:33

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell remembers the life and work of the late Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland died on 27 April 2020. She ranks among Ireland’s finest poets, and was one of the foremost female voices in Irish poetry. She was born in Dublin in 1944, her father a diplomat and her mother a painter. She published the first of many collections, 23 Poems, in 1962 while still a student at Trinity College in Dublin. Her early work tells of her experiences as a young mother, and her growing awareness of the role of women in Irish history. She commented in an interview:

I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’….I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.

So Eavan Boland wrote about the many subjects that she experienced, as a woman and as a human being – and this included historical and political themes. She worked as a poet, editor and teacher. In later years, Boland was Professor of English and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University. In 2017, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards.

A favourite poem of mine is one written in 1975, at the height of the Troubles:

The War Horse

This dry night, nothing unusual
About the clip, clop, casual

Iron of his shoes as he stamps death
Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth.

I lift the window, watch the ambling feather
Of hock and fetlock, loosed from its daily tether

In the tinker camp on the Enniskerry Road,
Pass, his breath hissing, his snuffling head

Down. He is gone. No great harm is done.
Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn –

Of distant interest like a maimed limb,
Only a rose which now will never climb

The stone of our house, expendable, a mere
Line of defence against him, a volunteer

You might say, only a crocus, its bulbous head
Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.

But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Of fierce commitment gone; why should we care

If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted
Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?

He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge
Threatening. Neighbours use the subterfuge

Of curtains. He stumbles down our short street
Thankfully passing us. I pause, wait,

Then to breathe relief lean on the sill
And for a second only my blood is still

With atavism. That rose he smashed frays
Ribboned across our hedge, recalling days

Of burned countryside, illicit braid:
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.

 “The War Horse” is an ominous title, especially when we place ourselves in the time it was written. The Troubles brought daily deaths and terrible suffering. This poem challenges Southern Irish society’s turning of a blind eye across the border. This is one of several poems  where Boland tackles Southern indifference during these years.

 The title suggests power, masculinity and military force. War horses were usually stallions, bred and raised from foalhood to meet the needs of war. In contrast to the unease created by the title, the reader is told there is: “nothing unusual/ About the clip, clop”, something that alerts the reader to there being something “unusual”. Clip, clop enacts the sound of the hooves on the street. Run-on lines throughout poem somehow seem to contradict its rhyming
couplets. They suggest that what is being related is not neat and tidy, but bursts out of this apparent control.

The “casual// Iron of his shoes as he stamps death”, evokes violence, heightened in “coinage” suggesting carnage. The level stress in “stamps death” suggests a horse or a soldier in battle. At the same time, the image is linked to the making of money and the violation of the earth. The rhyming of death and earth emphasises that all is not is well.

The speaker opens her sash window, exposing herself to the experience. The horse comes closer and more into focus. The description moves from the general distant appearance to more specific details: “the ambling feather/ Of hock and fetlock” – the long hair on the lower legs, ‘hock’ referring to the hind leg knee and ‘fetlock’ being the horse’s ankle. The horse, the reader is told, is freed from being tied up in the “tinker camp”. The speaker focuses first on the animal’s legs, then its freedom and his “breath” and “snuffling head”.

The horse passes. And apprehension changes to relief. Yet, the proximity of this war horse has had an effect on the speaker’s space, even in suburbia. Two caesuras slice the line. “No great harm is done” alerts reader to harm! “Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn”. The choice of the leaf, “laurel”, connotes triumph, glory and peace but also funeral wreaths. The next line initially continues the idea of distance to the horse: “Of distant interest” but as the line progresses, this distance cannot be maintained. War in a remote place suddenly becomes vivid and fighting: “maimed limb” comes as a huge shock. It contradicts “distant interest”.

The reader is forced to reflect. This absence of emotional distance is underlined by the next image, the “rose” that “will never climb/ … our house”: the rose signifies beauty and a life destroyed before its flower and “our house” is more than the immediate home of the speaker.

It comes to represent Ireland. The promise of life and beauty stamped out is given the specific 20th century Irish reference “volunteer”. This one rose, the speaker states, is “expendable, a mere/ Line of defence against him, a volunteer/ You might say”. However, the reader is unconvinced. The emotional weight of the imagery is on the side of this victim who is anything but “expendable”.

This emotion is greatly intensified in the next image: “only a crocus, its bulbous head/ Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.” Again, the word “only” belies the speaker’s empathy. The “bulbous head” evokes human heads, even skulls, and “Blown from growth” the violent killings of very young people, not even fully grown, by guns and explosives. The image of “screamless dead” seems to suggest the opposite – terrible screams. It adds sound to an already horrifying image.

Developed from the apparently small damage done by the war horse to the speaker’s hedging and garden, there has emerged a build-up of intense feeling for the youth and the dead of Ireland, indeed the world affected by war. Neither the rose nor the crocus will flower. O-sounds dominate, communicating deep sadness.

Following this intensity of feeling, the speaker addresses in similarly ironic tone her fellow dwellers in suburbia: “But we, we are safe, our unformed fear/ Of fierce commitment gone”. Neighbours hiding behind curtains, pretending not to know what is going on, afraid of the commitment and sacrifice made by others involved in conflict and war, and believing that turning away from suffering will somehow protect them from it. The speaker has opened the window and thereby herself to this experience and the grief it brings to her, while the others hide behind “curtains”.

Now the voices of neighbours are brought in: “why should we care// If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted/ Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?” Boland exposes these people’s indifference by recapturing the terrible violence. This highlights suburbia’s attitude, where nothing matters unless it affects their own gardens. The speaker points out how the horse, by passing her garden does affect it; and this becomes an image for Ireland. The flowers are depicted as a very fragile line of defence against a powerful horse.

The speaker, too, is grateful that war has passed her house, but “atavism” reminds her that war has damaged Ireland: “for a second only my blood is still// With atavism”. The word “still” has two meanings here: still with shock, and still in touch with the past (atavism). What was sensed before now becomes explicitly clear to her: the rose that was crushed is scattered across the hedge and reminds her of the violence past and present in Ireland.

The final images bring us back to the “rose” that “frays/ Ribboned across our hedge”. The past (the Ribbonmen, an agrarian secret society who burned the countryside) and the present come together here surrounding “our house”. Ireland, and indeed the world cannot and must not ignore the devastation war brings. In the long run, nobody can pretend not to know.

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