Sebastian Barry, ed. & intro., The Inherited Boundaries: Younger Poets of The Republic of Ireland (1986)

Contents Introduction


The Inherited Boundaries

Younger Poets of
the Republic of Ireland


Edited with an Introduction by
Sebastian Barry


for Liam Millar

‘It is only in the exceptions, in the few minds where the flame has burnt, as it were, pure, that one can see the permanent character of a race.’
W. B. Yeats

Introduction 13
Thomas McCarthy  

from The First Convention


Stranger, Husband
State Funeral
Last Days in the Party
Daedalus, the Maker
The Rarest Thyme
Greatrakes, the Healer


from The Sorrow Garden


De Valera, Lindberg and Mr Cooper’s Book of Poems
The Sorrow Garden
A Neutral State, 1944
The Phenomenology of Stones


from The Non Aligned Storyteller


Claud Cockburn
Shopkeepers at the Party Meeting
Party Shrine
The Chairman’s Widow
The President’s Men
Question Time
Hours Ago, 1973
Mr Nabokov’s Memory


New Poems


The Canadian Diplomat, 1942
Seven Orange Tulips
The Dying Synagogue at South Terrace
The Gathering of Waves

Aidan Carl Mathews  

from Windfalls


To a Child
Returning to Kilcoole


from Minding Ruth


A Landing
At the Wailing Wall
The River’s Elegy
Minding Ruth
Elegy for a Five Year Old
Letter Following
Keeping Pacific Time
Two Months Married
Descartes at Daybreak


from The Small Hours


How Words Meet to Make a Poem
Handbook for Revolutionaries
Lawrence O’Toole
Adam’s Commentary after the Fall

Harry Clifton  

from The Walls of Carthage


The Walls of Carthage
In Whom We Trust
Strange Filth
Upstairs Child


from Office of the Salt Merchant


The Niger Ferry
Plague and Hospice
Government Quarters
Latitude 5°N
Trial Marriage
Loneliness in the Tropics


from Comparative Lives  

Death of Thomas Merton 89
Monsoon Girl 91
The Seamstress 92
Apropos of the Falling Sleet 93
Ireland 95
Sketches from Berlin 96
Droit de Seigneur

Dermot Bolger  

from The Habit of Flesh


The Woman’s Daughter
Captain of a Space Ship


from Finglas Lilies


The Country Girl
Finglas Lilies
The Singer


from No Waiting America


My Head Buried
Stardust Sequenc


from Internal Exiles


The Man Who Stepped out of Feeling
The Ghosts in the Ark
Frankenstein in the Markets
Bluebells for Grainne
Dublin Girl, Mountjoy, 1984
Snuff Movies

Michael OLoughlin  

from Stalingrad: The Street Dictionary


The City
Copenhagen Dreaming of Leningrad
The Irish Lesson


from Atlantic Blues


The Fugitive
A Letter from Barcelona
Two Women
Declasse Memory
Venus in Concrete


from The Diary of a Silence


The Shards
An Irish Requiem
The Diary of a Silence
Summer in Monaghan
On Hearing Michael Harnett Read His Poetry in Irish
The Real Thing
In the Suburbs
Latin as a Foreign Language

Matthew Sweeney  
from A Dream of Maps  

Winter Story
Dream of Maps
The Permanent City
No Welcome
Last Supper
The Statue

From A Round House  

A Round House
The Return
Lili Marlene
Imagined Arrival
New Year Party
The Dancehall
The Shoplifter


from The Lame Waltzer


The Lame Waltzer
Simultaneous Stories
Split Level
A Scriptwriter’s Discipline
The Night Post
Cuba Street
The Submerged Door
Entries in a Diary
A Surrey Morning
The Bats


Sebastian Barry  

from The Water-Colourist


Sketch from the Great Bull Wall
An Ending
A Seasonal Aunt
The Visions
The Return
Ropley District
The Walk
Two Brothers Up
Casibus Impositis Venor


from The Rhetorical Town


The Wounds
The February Town
The Winter Jacket
The Young
The Wrong Shoes
The Room of Rhetoric


from The Grammatical History of Everiu


The Indian River
The Pardon of Assisi


Contents Introduction

The History and Topography of Nowhere

In 1962 The Dolmen Press published a miscellany of Irish writing, called handily The Dolmen, meant as the initial issue of a magazine, and in the upshot the first and last of it. But it still managed, under the editorships of John Montague and Thomas Kinsella, to be a remarkable gauge to that generation. As well as prose writers, it presented seven poets: Pearse Hutchinson, Valentin Iremonger, Thomas Kinsella. James Liddy, John Montague, Richard Murphy, and Richard Weber, and claimed them as a proper group, bar the second poet, who was older. Apart from the exclusion of, say, Desmond O’Grady, it stands as a percipient choice.
 All of the poets were connected one way or another with The Dolmen Press, which was single-mindedly and single-handedly creating the means to a literature of the Republic, at least in poetry. The generator of this condition was Liam Miller, running on unusual belief and an extraordinary relationship with the stuff and apparel of books.
 This present volume then is the first anthology of younger poets from The Dolmen Press in twenty-three years. The poets here could be children of young marriages of the writers above. By accident there also happens to be seven of them, and less accidentally they are a generation of a particular sort: all born in the Republic of Ireland in the nineteen fifties, when the contributors to The Dolmen were just beginning to make their reputations.
 The point of an anthology often shifts rapidly, but initially, in this case, it is this: to clear up a misunderstanding. No one in Ireland, or England for that matter, imagines that there is only one political sensibility on this island. And yet a unified poetic sensibility is presumed, easily, to exist, and it is not so. It can not be the same to grow up within the inherited boundaries of the Republic, as to manage a like feat inside the markers of the Northern province, and this is clearly reflected in the two poetries. Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Gerald Dawe, Medbh McGuckian, and their confreres and consoeurs, do not share a [13] sensibility with these poets of the South, unhappily or otherwise.
 This is a poetical condition, not a political one, but in the politics of poetry it has had a bad effect: the work of the younger Northern poets has received a (due) prominence, partly because of its excellence, partly because of the Troubles, and partly because of Faber and Faber; and they have come to seem, in England and probably elsewhere, the full story, or most of it. They are a fine part of the story of an island, but they are no part of the story of the Republic. This anthology is the latest report on an increasingly neglected progress - the poetic of a separate, little-understood place. None of the poets here had anything to do with the setting of topographical or impolite boundaries - indeed, all cross borders with relish - and yet, first and last, whether they like it or not, they come from here.
 One of the quickest Welsh-Normans into Ireland, Gerald Cambrensis, who was a Barry, wrote a book about the new wild place, called in its English translation The History and Topography of Ireland (Dolmen Press and Penguin Classics), and Topographia Hiberniae in its first Latin. Yet another well-dressed tongue and body had come to possess the oily scales of a shocking country.
 Gerald of Wales was not bowled over by the native Irish: “They know only of the barbarous habits in which they were born and brought up, and embrace them as another nature.” Perhaps he is not to be relied on for his facts, but his attitude is plain — the Irish of the twelfth century were to him other and lazy and barbarous. Yet his family remained and increased and eventually was absorbed into the accepting blotting-paper, and dried there, till only a faint mark remained to show its point of entry. The new foreigner become the new native in time, and if his metamorphosed face registered shock, it was the merest shock — and so Ireland embraces her critics, if they linger on. And so we are all foreigners gone to native, whether we belong to this invasion or that, since Ireland is the sum of her intruders.
 It is sometimes more simplifying to feel a foreigner in the Republic than a native. But, though the notion of being outsider hangs on after everything else, the condition disappears. You are native, native with a vengeance. The only way to wrestle with it is, to try and make sure you are never foreign to yourself, and this can reasonably be done by proceeding like Gerald [14] Cambrensis, and mapping and talking about the visible and and invisible country, crudely or faithfully, whatever is your temperaament. The protection is argument, whether in Latin, Irish, Hiberno-English, and this argument with ourselves, in order to make ourselves in summation a country, has been going on for more than a thousand years, in a number of languages, and at a number of stages of those languages.
 Nothing is so native as a toppled opinion. The worried place needs it and lives by it. On an island where everyone is an exile from some previous, however remote, culture or wildness of
Europe or the East, argument, as a means of definition, must preoccupy each bewildered head, a radio for survival and description.
 The true Ireland, the real Ireland, some professional traditionalists say, is that of the seventeenth century, before the final triumph of the seventeenth-century English, and when, for instance, the Gaelic order was in good kick, and chieftains and princes and earls and tribesmen were mainly untouched, and for that matter, poets were an aristocratic hereditary caste all to themselves, and the forests were still standing, and basically, things were Irish and words were Irish.
  It would be more truthful to say that the real Ireland is that treed-over island with a few peaceful communities of proto-fishermen and shell-fish eaters that would appear to have been the first inhabitants, and yet not indigenous at that. These were the first, the only group of arrivers who did not have to choke and murder and even mate with an earlier people. God knows what language they spoke those eight or nine thousand years ago (how recent the Celts are, with their swollen millenium of possessive history), and God knows what god they curried favour with. It was the true Ireland though, all the same, as far as human arrivals go. Everyone else, from the Tuatha de Danainn to the German and Dutch in West Cork today, is an unwanted intruder, not Irish and with no claim to the environs accept by force of sword or latterly and better, money. Irish then, is everyone or no one, and obviously the choice should have been made years ago, or could conveniently be made soon.
 Each invader, after a proper interval, has imagined he is the real Ireland, because the years pass and the new gate-crashers turn up, and he does not like their strength, much less their attitude to him. Sometimes, very early on, the people that some [15] new race got rid of became the mythology for the new race – an old history and character and resource of tall-story given respectability by way of turning into a religion. A genocide with one hand and a celebration with the other.
 There can also be complex variations on this: the men of nineteen sixteen, who were disapproved of by the middle-classes of their time, and who lost their lives while finding their country, have become the icons of the present middle-classes, thus preventing any worthwhile description of Ireland – an integral view of a place can not really appear on such a hypocritical canvas. Some of the nation’s most fervently-held views of politics are thus mythologised propagandas.
 A country without definition is nowhere at all. That is where this poetry collected here comes from – not from the wishful coloured toy that some Americans brood about, nor from the wild, rebellious colony that some English people still complain about. Neither of these conceptions arguably exists. And an educated man in Switzerland once expressed the view that Ireland must be an unhandy place to visit, because a civilised person could not bring himself to live in a cabin made of mud, even for a holiday – so perhaps it is better not to stray for worse opinions into the rest of the world.
 Gerald Cambrensis found one element in Ireland worthy of praise – the music and musicians in it. That was in the twelfth century, and presumably he missed any number of other qualities which he was too civilised or haughty to penetrate, or too blind with his fold of foreignness. In the twentieth century, after a royal paradox of a revolution, and decades of censorship and fright, Ireland, whether she likes it or not, and very often she does not, has begun to find a few more reliable histories and topographies. The ancient practise of denigrating the invader, which survived even into the fifties in our history books, has been put aside in the absence of a fresh target. The Republic of Ireland does not seem likely to be taken over by anyone for a while, at least not in the old aggressive, murderous, celebratory manner, unless one counts the invasion ofdisembodied cultures, such as the surface totems of America.
 Therefore we are given a breathing space at last, and whoever is here, and has a bureaucracy to give him a piece of paper to say he was born locally, and is a citizen, should he need it, is probably, tentatively, Irish, or, as some strainedly say, Southern [16] Irish. It is these people that the poetry of this anthology belongs to.
 When the Anglo-Irish tradition ended politically with Yeats, and the Gaelic tradition to all large-scale purposes, or national purposes, with the seventeenth-century poets (though there is an important neo-Gaelic matter to be discussed a little later), the Hiberno-English tradition, having been an element alongside the other two traditions, found itself abruptly and and horrifyingly on its own. The Protestants were out, the Gaelic smothered, and it, difficult to define too, and extremely nervous of definitions, was in – or at least there, the astonished survivor. the adjectives Irish (which the universities rather mindlessly persist with still, as a description of material written in the mother-tongue of Ireland), native, Gaelic, ascendancy, fell away as indicators, just as the adjectives Norman, Norse, Fir-Bolgian and so on, had to in the past. It was the very first chance to call everyone here Irish, the spoken language Hiberno-English (which has a history of at least seven hundred years in the country, a respectable length of time, no matter how much it smacks of empire to speak it. After all, the French speak a sort of Franco-Latin, and they feel little shame about it at this distance to Rome. Is Hiberno-English what we will someday call more simply Irish?), and the country the Republic of Ireland.
 There are some who still think Ireland must step back before it can step forward and be itself. This is a fine notion, but if it were to be done honestly, and rigorously, then many would have to relearn their ancestral Norman-French, and a salad of other languages. The poets assembled here, the first uncluttered generation, free from justified anger about England, free from justified enthusiasm for revolutions, free from residual hang-ups about these matters after their solving, seem to disagree with the philosophy of the cultural back-track. They examine themselves and their country, grateful to find reason in some things, sever with the meannesses. They are not colonial, provincial, or even what Patrick Kavanagh praised, parochial. They are Irish, the first Irish poets ever in a way, because that adjective has meant so many things in the past that it meant nothing. If poetry is honest and integral as it strives to be, and if this is poetry (and this anthology demands judgement), then this is a first if fragmentary map to a new country. Everything has been [17] dismissed except what each poet sees around him. Nothing is trusted till it is tried by hook and crook, with all the parsimony and affection and courage of ragged military scouts. And if some poems deal with Europe, even with Africa and elsewhere, it is because a sensibility must travel - for comparison and self-creation. Even a country surrounded by water is eventually surrounded by other land and other foreigners.

So, to be born in the fifties in the Republic of Ireland was to be born, with no great ceremony, nowhere. It was a country without definition, because it was a new place. But all the acceptance of foreign rule, the dominion of priests, the isolated desire for revolution – islands inside an island – had metamorphosed quaintly into dullness, dismay, and inaction. Everything was done by way of freedom, nothing by way of peace.
 The great feeling growing up then, through the sixties and seventies, was that the Republic was run by jobbers and gombeenmen, who could not be taken seriously, and much less admired. It was impossible to look up to government, unless you were a minister – then the claptrap sounded. Within the country aspirations were low, and if not low, defeated and frustrated – some parents went to England with their ambitions, and carried off their children with them. There, a thoroughly foreign race – that an Irish school, out of sheer intellectual idleness it seems now, taught one to abhor – was miraculously ordinary and efficient. It was much more accepting of individual difference than the guffawing, nasty desire for sameness that Ireland housed. To be other than Catholic, third-class – a very bready form of an excellent religion, characterised by a Sunday morning piety and a Sunday evening vulgarity – and small-minded to boot, was traitorous to the strange new emblems of one untroubled country.
The only simple colour in the place was the cheerfulness of the Dublin parks in summer, and the Walt Disney cinema in Grafton Street. It is an exaggeration, but not a greater one than the exaggerated lowliness of what your fellow countrymen wanted for themselves. There was to be nothing only mediocrity – superiority was English, possibly.
 Under all this watery cover, the wily were moving like deepsea sharks on all possible prey – land, position, rights to this and [18] that. In the great chattering monotony of this unusual land, people were rising up like gray dough, explaining wordlessly the ’difference between them and former colleagues – in other words, the new classes were clumsily forming. The English had been intolerable as a crust (and they were, doubtless) – now an intolerable cupidity was to take their place.
 To be aware of that at the back of your head was to be sick in your heart. You moved carefully. You found some members of your family to revere – it was a good category of accident that brought Aidan Carl Mathews to revere Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, as that statesman was his godfather – and for the rest, you ignored it or gave it the conspiratorial smile that it demanded. Smile, a chara, or leave.
 Born into this bloodless flat catastrophe, being “Irish” without being welcome, undefined, the wrong sort of Catholic, the wrong sort of Protestant (one that hadn’t left), the wrong sort agnostic (any agnostic), it is a wonder in a way that anything his been achieved at all. And yet, for poetry, it seems to me a special generation had its glimmer in that decade, and represents a crazy justification for it. Any generation that throws up my six confrères can not be called wholly mean.
 And I think that between these six men there is a particular bond, unusual among worried Irish poets. If they did not know each other personally, they were aware of each other’s work. Here was a form of excellence that was allowed, if only because it was almost completely ignored. Poetry! No one in Ireland reads poetry – most of the inhabitants think it is something to do with school-children. Poetry is not for children. Sooner give poteen to children than poetry. It can not be a wholly benign thing in a country that is always finding new ways of poisoning itself There must be something dangerous in it to stand against all mean dangers. In other words, it must have honesty, a fighting, critical, uncompromised, paradoxical honesty, half-good and half-evil. If it must talk of death, it must talk of your death first. The new poetry of this country is the poetry of everyone – few want it. Perhaps the abstainers do not want to risk any explication of themselves.
 Nevertheless, the poets here have gone on writing, increasing in their purpose as surely as their audience remains the same. The earliest poems in this anthology were published in book form in 1977, the latest are due for that sort of publication in [19] 1986. So this anthology represents somewhat less than a decade of endeavour. It seems to me a good-hearted decade in Irish poetry, to say the least, and it is time the poets here found their audience, even if their audience proves to be the “enemy” or the “funny” Then perhaps an Irish audience might follow. An Irish poet prefers his own people, despite their indifference.

The grave question of the official national language, Gaeilge, was unanswerable by most Hiberno-English poets, even into the generation under the light of this anthology. Irish schools for the most part are famous for their extraordinary work in the toxification of an ancient, clear alphabet. English-language poetry rarely survives its school-time reading. With no direct reason to embrace it, many Irish poets have ignored or run from Irish as clean-heeledly as anyone else.
 But just in the last few years a powerful reinstatement of the attractions of the language has felt its beginnings in the charismatic courage of Michael Hartnett — the language as a friend to poets, I mean. This is something fresh and is not reflected here. Of all the collections that have been cannibalised for this book, none contained any significant translation from the Irish. Micheal O’Loughlin’s poem Babel expresses something of the difficulty of such attempts. Aldan Mathews’ The Death of Irish says:

The tide gone out for good,
Thirty-one words for seaweed
Whiten on the foreshore.

The real translation would appear to be from European and otherwise writers. Allegiance had to shift there, or remain there, because most good European poets are translated into English, and this entices a kinship and alternative glosses. A language is desired in proportion to the susurrus of its writers. But it is easier to penetrate the sign-posted wilderness of Vallejo than the new roads of Hartnett. This is unprettily odd.
 When The Dolmen Press published An Duanaire, they rinsed this long-standing obfuscation of a betrayed language, and Thomas Kinsella’s passionate retrieval of the Tain some years earlier arranged the mind for An Duanaire’s wider adventure, as did Desmond O’Grady’s Gododdin in a Welsh/Celtic context. [20].
 These over-the-shoulder rescues, voyages back into the interior of a ruined patrimony, have done something to the sensibility of younger poets. Irish has beaten off the direful fainne-sporters - Onans obsessed by omega - and its summer-school vulgarisation. The essential nobility of the pursuit of poetry in tongue has come as a shaking, even preferable quality. There is nothing in English like it since a remote, guiltless Chaucerian innocence and confidence. So it is we who are the real dispossessed, and part of the future belongs to Hartnett and and anyone who has this new faith in an eager, back-from-the-dead arsenal of expression, and the gift to tax that faith. That these two expeditions, the Hiberno-English and the neo-Gaelic, might join thoroughly, at least through translation — and not just Gaeilge into Hiberno-English, but the darker language back into the white too — is a wish more wished now, I would say, than at any stage since the brilliant killing of Irish in the nineteenth century. Michael O’Loughlin, for instance, in Irish, woul be one holiday of a metamorphosis.

When Penguin published their Contemporary British Poetry recently, the editors were at pains to establish the influence of Seamus Heaney on their anthology, and yet it would be tricky to detect his influence on the younger poets of the South, at least in this pattern of them. It is not all that surprising, given that the Northern Irish sensibility forms within different boundaries, and is preoccupied with a struggle in quite another manner than the way Southern poets only hear of and rarely see that struggle. The main influences in the Republic have been those older poets who have talked about the swathe of extraordinary land that is contained by an old political decision: Thomas Kinsella and Richard Murphy, for instance, and more distantly now, Yeats. An exception to divisions has been the cross-border work of John Montague, who has powered the beginnings of many young poets in the South. He is less known in England than Seamus Heaney partly because of this: he belongs somehow to the Republic, or is an aspect of it, and has therefore not always been blessed by British fashion. This is not to say that the achievement of Seamus Heaney is due to vogue — far from it, but the excellence of the Northern work has certainly occluded the equal quality of the Republic. Strange that a poet of Northern origins should see this fate, but the situation will [21] improve and has improved. If a similar figure were to be placed as older confreres to this anthology, as Seamus Heaney was to Contemporary British Poetry, then it would have to be Montague, arguably, and fruitfully.
 Of course, taken individually, there are other poets both Northern and Southern who have been valuable to writers here - Derek Mahon, Anthony Cronin, Desmond O’Grady, and Paul Durcan, for example. The point is, if there has been rebellion, it has been against the tawdriness of the country, not its older poets, and on the whole a necessary, allied relationships exists between the generations, at least on the common, deserted ground of paper.


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