Poetry As Commemoration

deepening our collective understanding of a crucial period in Irish history 1912 - 1923

Angela Graham

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The Honest Ulsterman is produced by The Verbal Arts Centre, located on Derry’s walls. Until July you can find a Poetry Jukebox near its front door. The Chief Executive of Centre, James Kerr, has welcomed it because, “Poetry has the power to evoke emotion, spark dialogue and, most importantly, foster understanding. We are confident that this unique and innovative experience will not only engage our community in Derry-Londonderry but also inspire deep reflection and appreciation for the rich, complex tapestry of our past.’ 

This bright blue listening-post will let you hear 20 poems arising from a wonderful project, Poetry As Commemoration. One of them is mine.


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The years 1912 – 1923 were a momentous period in our island’s history. Poetry As Commemoration is run by the Irish Poetry Reading Archive at University College Dublin, supported by the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, under the Decade of Centenaries 2012-2023 programme.

The project has 3 strands in its approach to remembering those years. Poems arising from engagement with archival sources were commissioned from 10 established poets. These will appear as a limited-edition collection, contextualised by academics and archivists. They will also be recorded as a permanent addition to the Irish Poetry Reading Archive.

In addition, great energy has gone into encouraging people to explore archives and respond in poetry. Workshops have been held across Ireland. Maria McManus, for instance, who brought the Poetry Jukebox concept to Ireland, has worked with the terrific resources of Belfast’s Linen Hall Library.

And in a further wonderful act of access, there is a rolling process of publishing poems submitted to the project on the Virtual Poetry Wall. Reading material here is like looking through many windows onto an astonishing variety of experience and recollection which goes a long way towards letting us see who we were, who we are, what we might become. This material will also be archived.

I was instantly drawn to this project because I sensed it would open a door into a past that is still alive in me, in us; and that it would push me into writing about things previously unexpressed. In this way I might contribute something to an archive that would be consulted in the future. Something might be saved that would otherwise be lost. I could take something out of my personal closet and place it among the experiences of other people. I contributed three poems. 

As a Northerner, what springs to mind for me about 1912 is the signing of the Ulster Covenant, a dramatic pledge to maintain the link with Britain. It is also the year of my father’s birth. By the time my mother was born in 1915, the First World War was underway. Then came the Easter Rising, 1916; the Somme; the Irish War of Independence; the Irish Civil War and the founding of Northern Ireland. 

Though my parents were children during this period, their lives were shaped by those of their parents, whose actions and, importantly, memories (stretching back to a great-grandfather’s birth in 1801) were channelled to me. I cannot have escaped being shaped, to some extent, in turn. Poetry is a door into emotion and experience. I saw that, via Poetry As Commemoration, I could walk through it into the exploration of my own past and the past of other people.

Commemoration differs from Remembering by being something done in common with others; in this case, with other people on the island of Ireland. To remember with someone else confront us with the importance of point of view and of perspective. I may have ’seen’ something but how did it look when observed from a different angle? And how does what I recall compare to the memories of others?

To commemorate via poetry is to make room for imagination as well as memory. By linking poetry with archives, the project recognises the importance of accurate record. At the same time, the plethora of archived personal accounts, ephemera and cultural and political dead-ends and near-misses, offers many insights into the ways in fact is processed into memory and into how officialdom packages the past.

When the project invited submission of poems to be considered for the Jukebox selection alongside the 10 commissioned poems, I turned to my family’s ‘archive’: those photographs, letters and odds-and-ends that survived because my mother was a born archivist. She had an acute sense of her family being in the historical current. Although they did nothing of note and had few resources, she felt they had the right to be chronicled because it was lives such as theirs which were the stuff of which the country was made. She was a careful dater of photographs; did 5 hours of recorded interviews when in her nineties; insisted on being brought back, at that age, to places where there were unresolved difficulties and, most importantly, shared and re-shared accounts of key events. She also had a dramatist’s instinct for structure and for dialogue.

My mother died, aged 101, in 2016. I think she hung on just long enough to receive the Easter Rising commemorative medal given to all citizens of the Republic still alive at the centenary. Her mind was sharp almost to the end and still mulling over not only the what but the why of certain events.

It’s therefore of particular significance to me that the poem I wrote about something she witnessed in 1922 is in the current Jukebox curation and on the project’s Virtual Poetry Wall. ‘Proper order!’ she would have said.


 THE IRISH CIVIL WAR, COUNTY TIPPERARY, SUMMER 1922

in memoriam Mary Graham (née Martin) 1915 – 2016

For days afterwards the bullets dropped from the ivy-covered tack-room wall

like fledglings that couldn’t fly.

She gathered an apronful, marshalled them in the dust.

This one is the young man in shirtsleeves running from the road,

across the farmyard, right to left,

and in through the open stable door

and these are the men in uniform, pelting after him but scattering

to hide behind the pony-trap, the milk churns and the meal-bag stack;

and here is how they pop-pop up and down to shoot their guns

and the noise, and the noise

and now she puts her hand across her eyes

like Grandfather did when he yanked her backwards into the house

and she felt his heart bang-banging against her shoulder-blade

till he thrust her into another room – Get down!

where her little sister and brother are sobbing

but she, because she’s seven, climbs to the window-seat

and sees a tall man in a uniform and a smart peaked cap

come forward, with a small gun in his right hand.

He shouts, Don’t make me come and get you!

and here is Grandfather, very, very grim, stomping out of the house,

stomp stomp in through the stable door and − silence –

and he comes out, the young man close against his side.

She moves a pair of bullets left to right, halts them,

and Grandfather and the solider man are saying something

without any words so that the soldier puts away his gun,

and she walks the pair of bullets forward and the soldier bullet

takes the young man by the arm and marches him away

and here are the other bullets bunching up behind them

as they leave, not to be seen again.

And Grandfather is taking ten steps back into the farmhouse

and sitting down, for something has given way inside him

and she puts her head in her hands and says, as Grandfather had said,

Oh! Oh!

and she topples all the bullets down and hisses over them the bad words,

Civil War.

She plays the game repeatedly till she has by heart all it can teach her

of sorrow and ruthlessness; betrayal by your own; expediency; good faith and bad;

the land, its litany of owners, claim and counter-claim.

Ninety-four years on, her well-honed memory still watches

for the tell-tale rustle in the ivy leaves

and she can die knowing she had passed to me,

her Belfast child,

the skill of reading what the bullets said

in The Troubles of my time.


While this was happening to my mother, my father’s father was adjusting to life after four years at the Front. He served with the 36th (Ulster) Division from its entry into ‘the theatre of war’ in 1915 until his return to Belfast in April 1919. I have unearthed his war experience, but the following poem is not based on this but on a detail about other Ulster soldiers that struck me during my research.

On the first morning of the First Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916), General Nugent sent Armagh Volunteers into no-man’s-land before zero hour. They had to lie and wait till the whistle blew for the general advance at 7.30am, the idea being that they would be that bit closer to their objective (the Hun). The first of them were sent out at 7.10am and then in three further groups of at five-minute intervals. They had to lie under the ‘curtain’ of British shell bombardments. This was a horrifying experience in itself. On that first day, 2069 men of the Ulster Division were killed and there was so much more carnage to come. The Somme and its battles have become touchstones of Ulster Loyalism, proof of commitment to the Crown and the Union.

My grandfather was from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone. I wrote this poem in Ulster-Scots because he and so many of the men involved would have spoken like this.

A tiny glossary: Glar sticky mud; Sheeglin trembling; Nieve fist.


A-WAITIN ON THA WHUSSLE

36TH (ULSTER) DIVISION, 7.21 a.m., 1st July 1916


A’m liein here this brave while, 

yin o Genèral Nugent’s men,

oot in Nae-man’s Lan gye an earlie,

− that bit neardèr tae tha Hun −

aye readie, an mair nor readie,

fur whan tha whussle wheeps.


A’m liein here this lang while,

face-doon in tha glar, 

tha barrage up aheid.


Barrage,

a saft, saft wurd

fur a wile heavy thïng.


Barrage, Barrage – lik whut ye’d say

tae peacify an ailin baist,

straikin its sheeglin hide,

“Barrage, barrage, oul sinn,

yer pain’ll soon be bae ye.”


Barrage! Barrage! Barrage!

a wrathsome nieve, blargein,

duntèrin, poondin…

            … till tha delf leps frae tha boord

            an dings itsel doon agane.

            Agane, agane he’d dae it,

            a man fur murdèrin

            onie bit o peace.

            A’d lie, face doon, oot o his road,

            ma hauns tae ma lugs,

            keepin him oot o ma heid.

            Ma faither…


Aa tha wrathsome faithers o tha worl

is here theday,

blattèrin thair weans

in yin great stramash.

We ir sae smaa unnèr this lift o shells,

tha grun aneath iz swallaed up wi soon

an we its spu’ins! Thon scraich

wull split ma heid!


Struck deef…!

Nae… soon? Tha

guns hae

stapt.


Yin mïnit fur taetak a braithe …

Yin mïnit fur tae see, sae clear,

sae clear, thon lang-deid man,

his nieve aye clinchit

but, sae clear jest noo,

a luk o pain

flictèrin owre his face…


Yin mïnit mair

an A’ll be on ma feet

fur God an Ulstèr an tha Croon…


Ma Faither God, ye didnae spare yer sinn.

Inunnèr hemmer blows Ye lee’d him.

Yit an wi aa he sayed, “Intae Yer hans…”


Ma sperrit… can A trust Ye wi it?

An wi ma faither’s…?

… fur tha sake o his yin nekked luk o sorra,

eneuch tae mak ma hairt gae oot tae him


an thon’s tha whussle

an tha wurd

that haes me up

an forrit

intae yer hauns…


First published in ‘Yarns’, 2021 The Ulster-Scots Community Network


Poetry As Commemoration is open to submissions in any language. My poem was the first the project had received in Ulster-Scots. This is the speech that developed from Scots, Irish and English, especially following the Plantation of Ulster. Speakers of Ulster-Scots (with the rest of the population of Ireland) formed, and continue to form, our history. In my view, it is important that writers in Ulster-Scots take opportunities to be read in all-island context. And I hope that, given the current blossoming of Ulster-Scots writing, it will become common practice for literary projects to encourage submissions in Ulster-Scots.

The third poem I submitted took off on a path I hadn’t foreseen (as poems sometimes do!).

Throughout my childhood in Belfast, letters would arrive from relatives in the Republic of Ireland. The distinctive postage stamps carried messages of their own to me. They included the one below.

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It carries a translation into Irish of the opening words of the Declaration of the Republic of Ireland (or of Irish Independence), made during the Easter Rising of 1916:

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The phrase on the stamp, ‘na nglún d’imigh róṁainn’ means ‘the generations that have gone before us’. But what made an impression on me was the phrase in the English original, ‘the dead generations’.

I have always been aware of the dead as companions to me during my life. In this poem I am caught up in their ranks and confronted by the implications of the fact that it is I who am at the cutting edge of time, the present.


DECADE OF CENTENARIES, IRELAND 1912 -1922


Com-mem-or-ate      Com-mem-or-ate

My knuckles rapping on the coffin lids:

Wake, you generations of the dead!

In the name of God

open the locked boxes of your motivations;

unknot the ribbons binding up your wills;

unstop the wellsprings of your passionate mistakes,

your generosities;

account for yourselves,

for me

because my entry to this world

was made on the terms your deeds had set;

my very flesh and features

speak of you, who never saw my face.


You are alive, somewhere,

you peasants of Kildare; you rapparees;

you steward of the Tipperary absentee;

you urban spalpín, shovelling grain for Guinness’s;

and you who signed the Ulster Covenant

and then endured the Somme;

and you, the brides and maiden aunts and nuns,

the wooed, the wed and widowed…

all of you,

you must not leave me in the dark

among the rumours and the half-said things,

weighed down with the shame and guilt

you never had the courage, or the strength

or time to cauterise.

The wars you lived through or the wars you fought

are fighting still in me:

Mercurial Aunt Katy’s Irregular/Ex-British-Serviceman;

my mother blown from her parents’ bed

by the blast the Unreconciled set off among themselves,

draping the Naas Road railings with their own insides,

hanging like sausages, she said.

And all of you were pressurized to bow

to the god of Force,

to the belief that peace is made through war.


I want to gather up your wounds

as evidence in the countervailing scale

and I will reconcile you in myself

or what did you birth me for?


The current Poetry As Commemoration Jukebox curation is also sited in the People’s Park, Limerick. There will be a second curation in Galway and a third in Dublin later this year.

Maria McManus will host a Poetry As Commemoration workshop for adults at The Verbal Arts centre, Derry on 16th and 23rd August details.

You are welcome to submit your own work here or by email poetryascommemoration@ucd.ie.


Angela Graham is an award-winning producer in TV and film. Her collection of poetry, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere was published by Seren Books in 2022 and her debut collection of short stories A City Burning in 2020. It was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She won first Prize for Poetry in the inaugural Linen Hall Ulster-Scots Writing Competition in 2021.