Maurice Hayes, ‘A Tract for the Times: Lynch’s poem on the North’, review of Pity for the Wicked
in The Irish Independent (21 May 2005)

Details: Maurice Hayes, ‘A Tract for the Times: Lynch’s poem on the North’, review of Pity for the Wicked by Brian Lynch, in The Irish Independent (q.d.) Available on Brian Lynch website - online.

Satire is a necessary purgative for the health of any democracy. It is even more necessary in a dictatorship, but harder to get away with.

Brian Lynch in this reprint of his long poem about the North, originally published in 1998 and now republished with an added preface by Conor Cruise O’Brien, an introduction and appendices, preserves an ancient and necessary verse form. His poem burns with anger and outrage, with the savage indignation that lacerated the heart of Swift. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption, to rage, to caricature and to lampoon. We do not expect them necessarily to be fair. In this long poem Brian Lynch does Irish society a service by tearing the mask from murder and terror, by dispelling the fog of romanticised amnesia in which horror is embalmed as history is rewritten to justify a campaign of murder, by trying to restore the meaning of language. Like Juvenal, he does not spare the reader the farts and belches, the sauce of sacrilege, the blood on the abattoir floor, the entrails scattered in the air, the filth, the dirt, the horror. A female figure (Eire?) from the aisling genre acts as interlocutor and challenges the poet to face facts. The poem takes three incidents to cover the spectrum of terror - state inflicted, in Bloody Sunday, the murder of Margaret Wright by Loyalists, and the horror of Patsy Gillespie, shackled to a bomb and sent to his death by the Provisional IRA.

The satirist is not required to be fair, but there is at least a structural imbalance in dismissing Bloody Sunday in 25 lines on the grounds that Thomas Kinsella had already done it (in a piece which it must be said, proves that political poetry is often very middling poetry). The Bloody Sunday sequence also extends to an attack on the British Embassy, revenge murders of cooks and bottle washers in Aldershot, and a truly revolting scene in Dublin as ‘The newsroom rang with howls of joy - They’d murdered us, we’d murdered them!’ Northern Catholics, too, will wonder at the editorial stance which can say ‘Poor Margaret lost her life by accident, And those who murdered her were ignorant’ The only accident was that she, whom they killed as a Catholic, turned out to be Protestant. The lines on Margaret Wright are almost unbearably moving, powerfully emotional with shocking images which stunningly convey the horror of the deed, the terror of the victim and the lust for blood which drives a mob to murder. The Gillespie murder, on the other hand, is carefully planned to be destructive, retaliatory, intimidatory and symbolic, a second run to punish a man for the crime of earning a crust as an army chef.

‘The stink of gas and ruptured drains compete / Against the scent of roasted human meat. / The sun comes up, the highest dust falls down, / Uniting Patsy with his native town.’ Unlike Swift who ‘looked at vice / and spared the name’, Lynch names names with great specificity. There is one difficult passage in the poem which points the dilemma for many in the Republic: how to dispute the claim of the modern IRA for historic legitimacy against the fact that some very terrible things were done by earlier generations too. The ghost of Collins is invoked who ‘drew the line at violence / against civilian targets’, and though ‘he used the axe / he never wielded it in such attacks’. One does not have to be a complete revisionist to find that hard to accept, or that fearful atrocities were not perpetrated by both sides in the Civil War.

The poet’s response, born out of justifiable rage, is to unleash the full force of the law, to ‘Give them such a kick / Their arses shut, inducing them to shit /Upon themselves instead of stirring it!’

The poem proper ends with Canary Wharf, although the argument is carried on up to date in the introduction. A Satirist is often a disappointed idealist. The poet reflects a wider disillusionment at delay and duplicity. There is enough conspiracy theory to keep a rumour factory going ‘Before the bomb went off, a deal was made’. Those involved in the peace process are either naive or knavish. The dilemma for democratic states of how to protect themselves from terror without sacrificing their own democratic values and quality of life is scarcely noted, or the historic difficulty that to deny the reformability of former gunmen could be to question the very basis of the emerging Irish state post independence. Satire, although proper and necessary does not have to be right. Poets have a relatively poor track record as legislators. The situation in Northern Ireland, which has improved remarkably for those on the ground, does not yet necessitate a total withdrawal of hope, especially if all the poet has to offer, after all the rage, is pity as a substitute for silence.

This is nevertheless a powerful piece, a necessary mirror held up to nature, a tract for the times.

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