Saturday, February 18, 2006


Dear Reader

Yesterday, on Friday 17 February I attended a Bank of Ireland lunchtime poetry reading in Foster Place, Dublin where the human warmth of Michael Longley was on display, and I will post up something on his reading another day. I started this post with the intention of writing about the Longley reading, but ended up musing on the eternal question of what it means to be Irish; not to the degree or depths commentators such as Fintan O'Toole do, but from my own perspective as a second generation "plastic Paddy brit"

The Friday event goes under the banner Out to Lunch, takes place every other Friday at 1.15pm and lasts for around half an hour. The man who runs it and introduces the poets is called John MacNamee, who is a bit of a local legend here. He is a Dubliner, early sixties and behind the old school gruff mask of being too cool to chit chat or shoot the breeze with anyone who has less than two books published, I detect he is actually a very warm man with a good heart. His own book The Man in the Hat is a memoir of short anecdotes sketching an autobiography of traipsing the globe as a tortured poet and living hand to mouth in the warm pool of crocodiles that is literary Dublin.

The idea that literary Dublin is founded upon a very healthy tradition of hostility and hatred, with groups of individuals bonding through mutual bitterness towards those who acheive any degree of artistic or material success, is a cliche I detect holds some comedic truth. I have witnessed this darker part of human unkindness in the famed celtic rapier wit and it can be summed up in a Bono anecdote, which goes along the lines that in America people see the guy who done good with a mansion on the hill and say -

"One day, I'm gonna be that guy."

Whereas in Dublin and Ireland they say -

"One day, I'm gonna get/kill that guy."

And whilst this is obviously a stab at black humour it does illustrate an aspect of the Irish pysche which, I think, ultimately roots back to the warlike nature of the celt, and the notion that an Irish person could have a fight in an empty phonebox. The whole mythology of the land centres on the idea of war as sport and warrior bands cattle raiding, with various petty kings forming military alliances to invade other petty kingdoms for booty and mutual profit; and when the tide of events and politics changed, alliances would dissolve and new ones be made. One year two political and social units could be united in arms and the following year, facing each other on opposing sides of the battle.

This traditional behaviour was normal commercial practice, as the whole corpus of gaelic fenechas civil law testifies to; and whatever was the most opportune alliance to make at the time were the ones that came into being. This translated into there being a robust set of customs condusive to fostering long standing animosity and enmity between groups at constant squabble or fight, whose leaders were well versed in adopting theatrical posturings to whip up a frenzy of indignation and outrage as an appropriate pretext to embark on raids whose whole purpose was the material seizure of goods from their neighbours.

But when Cromwell came at the start of 17C and the "in house" "war as sport" fighting turned its focus outward to a "common brutal foe" (which exploited local politics by enlisting the aid of one tribe against another) a long process began which telescoped all greivance towards the English crown, culminating in the modern tradition of hating the brits; a public enemy number one who the Irish were taught to hate from birth up until the recent economic boom, when their minds tuned into putting euros in their pocket rather than verbally sticking it to the absent brits at all available opportunities. This whole area is still a can of worms, but since the 1994 ceasefire and resulting reletive stability the average young person in Ireland today is not being brought up in the same way as many of their parents and grandparents were; to blame the brits for all of Ireland's, and by extension their own personal, ills, long after majority independence had been gained and when most of the protaganists of the civil war are dead. A few months back I overheard a Dubliner in a pub blaming a brit bloke for him being unable to speak the Irish language. In a completely serious and straight faced register the man told him it was his country's fault, the brit's, that he the Dub had been denied his linguistical birthright.

The brit looked lost, all he was after was the craic he'd seen on the adverts, the smiling Irish with a 1000 welcomes, and he hadn't bargained on paying through the nose for the fun of standing trial in front of a one man international court of humanity wanting to know what he, the brit, had to say about him, the Dub, not speaking Irish. The brit said he was born in 1965, nearly forty three years after independence, and anyway, pre-1922 when he and the Dub were in Tir nOg awaiting their brief return to mortality, all four of his Irish grandparents were in Ireland fighting the brits; but if it helped he would take the blame and buy the next round.

Ok, Ok, I didn't overhear it at all, you guessed right, it was me getting the third degree. But this question of hate runs so deep it is difficult for the outsider to understand or someone in my boat to coherently express in a way which does not lead to cliche or invoke danger.

Trying to accurately trace what many believe to lie at the very centre point of the Irish understanding is a difficult task, as I beleive that the kernel resting there is something which is the essence of poetry itself; the two opposing forces of war and peace which characterise the Irish, the Plato's egg of saints and sinners or scholars and bandits mentality of two contrasting things within the whole which seem more obvious here than elsewhere.

But ultimately, what I am trying to get across is the nature of Dublin poets, whose lineage leads back to Yeats; a masterful and magisterial poet, as well as being a first rate snob, toff, complete spacer, one of the most significant poets of the 20C and someone who was the embodiment of all the these conflicting differences; but who I also think, shoulders a fair amount of responsiblity for the tradition of Dublin poets being stand-offish.

When, in the words of Patrick Kavanagh, "Yeats handed in his gun," and figures such as Austin Clarke, Anthony Cronin, Brendan Behan, Flann O'Brien and Kavanagh himself filled the topography, the Yeatsean role model of the poet as a distant, removed and frosty mystic had taken firm root, which has resulted in a legacy of Dublin poets cultivating a remote, disinterested and incurious bearing when out and about.
An essence of this persona is captured in the famous cartoon of AE (George Russell) and WB Yeats, so absorbed in their own contemplations as they gaze skyward that they do not notice each other as they cross on the pavement when journeying to one another's respective gaffes a few houses apart on Merrion Square.

And when Kavanagh died and his shadowy laurel tiara fell into the Dublin literary ring for the current crop of pensioners to sing possession of, his behavioural legacy of being snappy, brusque, bluff and dismissing all competition who entered his orbit with a throwaway quip was taken up by the new (now old) crop of mainly university educated wannabees hoping to become head Oollamh.

Many Dublin-centric poets in their late summer years have a stock Kavanagh anecdote that takes place in the learning temple of a pub where the Monaghan magus plays up the role of a man bored with their presence and barking out one-liner maxims in between studying the form of the gee gees. It is ironic that this most superficial, uneducated Kavanagh in the boozer vibe is the one perpetuated by the first wave who benifited from education, and I recognise this snippy, bearish and gruff habit of social non-intercourse as being a prevalent common denominator within the various stratal groupings. From lightweight open micers to the magus heavyweights of contemporary verse the main feature in the bearpit of writerly interaction is, that many are expert ignorers and deploy this tactic as the main weapon of choice.

From the humblest scribblers gathering to the glitziest of talks and book launches a strict heirarchy of behaviour operates, which is not immediately obvious to the naked eye; so Paul will talk to Michael but not John, unless it's a low grade do where Michael is absent and the only others in attendance are non-members of the public (the lowest currency of all in literary Dublin) who don't count as they are blind to the subtleties of literary politics and aren't in the loop of gossip to publicise any untoward relations. In Irish life appearances are highly important as the veneer of normality which drape the real machinations, and even if you are a moral bankrupt behind closed doors, being seen in an exchange with those beneath you in the poetry pecking order is considered bad form in a land where nod and elbow languages rule supreme.

And the example given contains only three variables. Once the full compliment of wafflers congregate and all the various performers and factions go to their various lengths to ignore or catch one another's eye, the acting that occurs is on a par with a student pantomime. The sorriest sight is lone writer A sniffing round the personal body space of writer B as s/he converses with someone else they consider being at least their equaly stature, in a deeply fascinating chat initiated for the sole purpose of ignoring A.

Most Dublin poets I have come across have a very keen sense of their own status within the milieu, as a pack of lettered humans sniffing, wagging tails and growling at the underdogs and runts to keep outside the territory or deferring submissively to those with bigger barks, and this is the tradition John MacNamee was born into. A culture where even the corner boys measuring their spits have a strict ethical policy of who's who. However, lurking buried beneath the grave fronts of tombstone posturing I strongly sense the eternal child wanting to play; swap ideas, smile, laugh and make friends over a bit of daftness. But the Yeats legacy, compounded by Kavanagh and coupled with the traumatic Dublin heritage of booze sodden learning and the clerics of fear who warped the nation's pysche has left its mark in the form of a mask worn as armour which, once seen through, allows the alert bystander a full view of the Dublin poets common humanity we all possess.

The social plating which is so prevalent in other poets I have met was gloriously absent from Longley and his aura was that of a benign grandfather, which he is four times over to grandsons, and he stated that he was going on "grandfather strike until I get a grandaughter," a gag which raised a titter in the mixed audience of middle aged surburbanites, leaving cert students, the ne'r do well usual suspects (myself included) and the odd spattering of nuns. His capacity for making an immediate human connection was apparent from the off when a succession of latecomers straggled in during the first ten minutes, and Longley stopped his reading, beckoning them in and pointing out vacant seats; acting with an essential kindness conspicous by its absence at other gatherings I have attended.

His behaviour affirms my belief that often the larger the artist's reputation, the more approachable and down to earth they are, as they have discovered their own truth and exist and survive as an artist in the way Heaney so eloquently states, in their "own esteem," undriven by the ego of "moi." Paula Meehan echoed the first part of this sentiment during the 2004 Kavanagh prize award to Joe Horgan when she said that poets starting out storming the entrance to an exclusive literary citadel they imagine exist, climbing over the walls and launching all sorts of assualts of entry; once inside the walls, realise that there is no "there" to get to; that the artist or poet has to construct that mental reality themselves. As well as the author, they are the printer and publisher of their own passport and artist's ID card, which does not manifest itself as a physical document of valedation, but as an impress of the mind only they the creator can stamp through belief. The art of faith that is poetry.


Anonymous Poet said...

Fascinating. There is so much in all this to ponder and digest.

Thank you for sharing.

So, who is your favorite Irish wrter or poet? Mine is Yeats.

Also, you are invited to stop by my site and say hello. I have visitors from many parts of the world. But I could use someone from Ireland.



Yeats is the daddy of them all and the master to learn from, so he's my favourite for that side of things. Kavanagh for giving us the licence to be outrageously drunk and alcoholic poets and Seamus the Mossbawn magus for being the U2 of contemporay verse.

So to become Ireland's national poet you should be in contact with the otherworld and all the deeply magic and mystical elements Yeats possesses. You should take hash, drink loads of booze and have the brain of an industrial strength computer, full of learning.

I read a writer last week in one of the Sunday papers and his name is Eamon Sweeney, a novelist, who is very funny. Also, have you read the poet Anthony Cronin's "Memoir"? This is the funniest factual book I have read.

Anonymous said...

i've experianced the sort of moron you've described on various occasions,the irisher-than-thou uber paddy who thinks anyone with an english accent is a direct descendent of cromwell.

these diivys are oblivious to the fact that that people like us are decendent form the same people who fought in 1916,suffered the famine,etc,etc,the list goes on.

as the late,great Bill Hicks said when questioned on how he felt on being American 'well,my parents f***ed there'