WINDHARP. Poems of Ireland since 1916

A book review by Frank O’Shea

WINDHARP. Poems of Ireland since 1916. Edited by Niall MacMonagle. Penguin Ireland. RRP: €29.50

9781844883189Niall MacMonagle was the man behind the wonderful Lifelines series 1985-1997, in which prominent people selected their favourite poem. With this, his latest collection, he has produced a kind of poets’ history of Ireland in the last 100 years. As you read the poems, you can’t help thinking that if this was all we had a thousand years from now, it would be the basis for a sound reconstruction of the political, social and economic life in Ireland in the century since 1916.

The second poem in the book is Francis Ledwidge’s lament for Thomas MacDonagh (“He shall not hear the bittern cry”); four from the end is a short nine-line poem dedicated to the young mother Savita Halappanavar beginning “The procedure complete, I wake alone”. In a sense, those two events bookend the last 100 years: a failed rebellion led by dreamers and a medical tragedy that owed more than a little to medieval beliefs about women’s rights.

Between those two you will read about Irish neutrality during World War 2, John McCormack, stern religion, Magdalene laundries, rural electrification, Mad Cow Disease, famous football games, Ann Lovett, talkback radio and the Troubles in Ulster when, as Macdara Woods puts it “the Devil walked / abroad / among the drums / and preachers’ / talk.”

The country presented here is a land described in a 1958 poem by Patrick MacDonagh as a place “where the mediaeval / Dread of the woman mutters in corners, / thunders from pulpits …”. It is the place remembered in exile by Derek Mahon, “A dream of limestone in sea-light / where gulls have placed their perfect prints.” It is Kavanagh’s “stony grey soil of Monaghan” and Donagh MacDonagh’s “Dublin of old statutes, this arrogant city.”

The three world class Irish poets of the century – Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney – have multiple entries in the selection, the non-Nobel prizewinner of the three being given eight poems, one more than each of the other two. There are more than two entries for Moya Cannon, Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and current holder of the title Ireland Professor of Poetry, Paula Meehan.

That there was no place for Sigerson Clifford is a personal disappointment rather than a comment on the competence of the editor. And I forgive that omission for the inclusion of the beautiful 1933 poem by journalist Liam MacGabhann about the execution of James Connolly: “The man was all shot through that came today / Into the barrack square.” It is a rarely anthologised little gem, the final lines showing life and death from the other side: “… and I was picked to kill / A man like that.”

Each poem is headed by a short note about the poet or an explanatory comment on the poem itself. The book can be opened anywhere and enjoyed; the problem is that once you start somewhere, it is impossible to stop.

Beautifully presented, this would make a splendid seasonal present for anyone interested in Ireland.

Frank O’Shea

Frank is a frequent contributor to Tinteán.