This column is called The Stone in homage to a poem by WB Yeats written one hundred years ago. The poem is called Easter 1916, and represented Yeats’ attempt to come to term with the Irish uprising of that year and the subsequent execution by British military tribunals of the sixteen ring-leaders. Here is the passage in which the ‘stone’ appears.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
The ‘stone’ here is the obstinate, unyielding energy of the revolutionary which remains unshaken by the ‘living stream’ around it. And, of course, stones have always been a weapon in resistance to power. The Comunards made barricades of cobblestones, and in 1968 the students said ‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’. A stone is a useful weapon if you have nothing better to hand.
In this column I hope to bring to the attention of Italy a stream of Irish writing that is largely unknown outside of Ireland, and even there scarcely acknowledged in the polite circles in which poetry circulates. I’m talking about political poetry.
Of course Yeats himself wouldn’t have liked the writing this column will highlight. In particular he was against women engaging in politics, especially left-wing politics which he called ‘ignorant good-will’.
Until perhaps ten years ago Irish writing was studiously un-engaged politically. There were some notable exceptions, of course – one could mention Thomas Kinsella’s Butcher’s Dozen after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in Derry, or John Montague’s excoriating The Rough Field. The work of Eiléan Ni Chuileannain, Rita Ann Higgins and MacDara Woods, for some examples, was intensely political. But by and large Irish writing was safe and middle class. It did not lack a social conscience, but did not take political sides. In particular there were no avowedly left-wing writers whose politics was reflected in their work. If anything Irish writing was safely liberal and where a writers’ politics were undeclared the assumption is that he or she subscribed to the liberal line.
However, something has changed. Together with a new left movement of well-organised and effective street protests that have centred on the opposition to the privatisation of water and the ‘austerity’ programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the succession of right-wing governments, a new kind of writing has begun to emerge, often taking root first in the spoken word scene – poetry slams and pub readings – but emerging also onto the printed page ably supported by a number of daring established or new small presses. I hope to bring some of these writers to these pages in the coming months.
Sarah Clancy is foremost among the poets who responded to these new conditions. She is an activist who writes poems and a poet who is an activist. She has the singular honour of being asked to read her work at mass demonstrations. If such a protean thing as a mass movement can have laureates, Sarah Clancy must be among them. Her work is political, often viscerally so, but also deeply moving because it expresses the experiences of ordinary people in an accessible way – a strength that comes directly from her background as a spoken word poet. To hear her read is an experience that will not be forgotten. She is also, not accidentally, a love poet of the first order.
Her poem ‘Cherishing For Beginners’ is prefaced by a quotation from the proclamation issued by the rebels of Easter 1916, the insurrection which began Ireland’s War of Independence. The poem takes the proclamation as its starting point and attacks the Irish political and economic establishment (the IFSC, for example, was set up to make Ireland a tax-haven for foreign multinationals such as Apple and Google). ‘Dev and Pearse’ were two men who fought in 1916 – Pearse executed for his part, Dev (Eamon DeValera) later going on to be prime minister and later president of the Republic, both on the nationalist side rather than the left, by contrast with James Connolly who was a communist and who represents a strand of Irish politics submerged in the Catholic-dominated society that emerged after the struggle for independence.
‘Commemoration’ is set on the day of the recent 100 year commemoration of the Easter 1916 rebellion. The commemoration events were carefully stage-managed by the right-wing parties in power to exclude any radical interpretations of the events and the Proclamation.
‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil
liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to
all its citizens, and declares its resolve to
pursue the happiness and prosperity of the
whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all
of the children of the nation equally…’
– The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916
Cherishing for Beginners
Cherish the meek
cherish the ranchers
cherish the Guards
cherish the bankers
cherish the virgins
then ride them and cherish their sisters,
cherish tax exiles and entrepreneurs
cherish the rewards of intergenerational privilege
or if that’s too hard for beginners
sure cherish the Rose of Tralee for starters,
cherish the goal and the point and the foul
cherish the priest’s dirty sheets
but not the woman who washes them,
don’t mention her
or what she might need,
go on and cherish the IFSC
and its type of laundries-
those ones are fine, they are grand sure.
Cherish the men
because they couldn’t help it
if the women and girls went and fell pregnant,
cherish the foetus, the heartbeat,
but not the person it’s in
then cherish the small graves
in their undisclosed wastelands
cherish the shovels
and boot soles that dug them-
let there be no doubt about it-
Yes We Can!
cherish the children
if they’re from the right class
aren’t travelling people
and are not for god’s sake
don’t forget too that we must
cherish the mute
and cherish the sheepish
but hate those in need,
worship Fr Peter McVerry himself,
go ahead make him an icon
but don’t hear what he’s saying
Cherish the poor
for how you can use them
to frighten those who are just one rung above
cherish the people
who learned early and often
what happens to those
with big mouths,
cherish your local TDs,
and the crowd in Listowel
who didn’t care that he raped her
sure wasn’t he one of their own?
Yea cherish the rapist,
why don’t you?
Cherish the golf course
and its sprinklers
sure Irish Water will save us
cherish piece work and internships,
and zero hour contracts
aren’t you lucky you have a job at all?
Do you not remember the coffin ships
and are you not grateful?
Yea cherish your own exploitation
cherish the school board,
for our lack of gay teachers,
cherish women’s place in the home
then cut their allowances,
sure they don’t deserve them
having all of those children
repeat after me- Cherish Privatisation;
and if you don’t then you better learn
to cherish the knock on your door
in the morning.
Consider this a warning.
Cherish Dev and Pearse
and blood sacrifice
but don’t mention James Connolly
who said until Ireland’s women are free
none of us will be, most of all though
cherish outsourcing and remember
your call is important,
you too will be cherished equally
if you can afford it
as soon as an operator
which may well take
another hundred years.
It’s a still day and its only getting calmer
there’s not even a desultory seagull squawking
or a fly buzzing that I could summarily dispose of
and I am out this morning bristling in full battle regalia
with nowhere in particular to march to and no one to fight with.
Yesterday I looked at old photos though I know I shouldn’t
and it left me feeling like there’s too much time behind us
for my mind to cope with and this morning as if in answer
I’ve assembled all my medals for you and am standing to attention
I have laid out every scalp I’ve ever taken
as if the past could ever teach the present something
as if I knew what it wanted.
On the morning of the hunter’s moon, I stay in bed.
Light leers over this gaudy autumn morning
and lands on the trees outside my window
with their almost has-been leaves,
a just-weaned foal calls
for a mother that won’t ever come
and no-one’s heart breaks,
our river is full and lively and beside it
with one shut eye the white heron plans another death,
on the distant roadway unseen cars hum past
always going somewhere,
down on the lawn our neutered tom cat picks
his soft foot way across the grass-
even he is prowling this morning
though he has no idea what he wants
and me, my bed is light soaked and all too empty
the white quilt is stark and unnaturally brightened;
on this type of morning, I feel harmless
I am lazing when I should be moving
when everything around me is urgent
when every living thing is hunting
and if you were here I would reach over to wake you,
and in this rare sunlit morning
we could salvage something.