The ghosts of 1916 get up and walk

A Terrible Beauty: Poetry of 1916, edited by Mairéad Ashe Fitzgerald (The O’Brien Press)

Pádraic Pearse.

Pádraic Pearse.

THERE HAS been much quiet paranoia among the political and arts establishments on the subject of how to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. The difficulty is the Rising was a revolutionary event to which most of our political class, and your average arts sector salary drawer, are spiritually opposed.

Their objection is not tactical, like that of Sean O’Casey, who has a poem in this new collection of A Terrible Beauty: Poetry of 1916, edited by Mairéad Ashe Fitzgerald, and published by The O’Brien Press, despite the fact he thought the Rising a mistake, resigned from Connolly’s Citizen Army, and sat the match out on the side-line. No, these are people instinctively opposed to anything which steps beyond worthy expressions of parliamentary concern.

Ten years ago it would have been easy; we could have all gathered together, in the presence of Seamus Heaney, to celebrate our ever growing prosperity and the outbreak of something approaching peace in the North. But Seamus is gone, and Irish poetry has no single figure who can paper over the politics in quite the way he could. The issue of our sovereignty is once again alive.

Back then John Redmond told our great-grand-parents that, if they were good, and enough of them went happily off to be extinguished in the British ruling elite’s scrap with their German cousins in WWI, Ireland would be rewarded with Home Rule. Today we are assured that, if we do everything Herr Schauble tells us, those nice people at the ECB won’t strangle us the way they tried to strangle Greece last month.

One result is the poems here disturb in a way they would not have a decade ago. The first three contributors - Pádraic Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett - were all executed for their part in the Rising. The courage they showed amplifies their words. It is impossible not to be moved by Pearse’s ‘The Wayfarer’, written the night before his execution: “The beauty of the world hath mad me sad,/This beauty that will pass…/…children with bare feet upon the sands/Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets/Of little towns in Connacht."

Also included is Francis Ledwidge’s ‘Thomas McDonagh’, a heart tearing tribute to his friend who “shall not hear the bittern cry/In the wild sky…” Ledwidge was himself terminated by a German shell during the third battle of Ypres.

This is a complex collection of poems, including five by Eva Gore Booth who, despite her pacifist tendencies, showed solidarity with the rebels in the Rising’s aftermath. Her ‘Roger Casement’ – “I dream of one who is dead,/As the forms of green trees float and fall in the water” - was written at the end of her campaign to have Casement’s death sentence commuted. These were days when poetry was unavoidably political, and it is interesting to speculate to what extent we might be moving into similarly political times now.

The two best poems here are Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’, in which he takes an ambivalent attitude to the big event, and ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, where he addresses the two women in his rather superior way: “Dear shadows, now you know it all,/All the folly of a fight/With a common wrong or right.” The book finishes with Canon Charles O’Neill’s great ballad, ‘The Foggy Dew’, best sung by the late Luke Kelly.

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