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Issue #1896      November 27, 2019

The Children of the Nation

The first anthology of working people’s poetry in contemporary Ireland

In our heyday of Identity Politics, this very first anthology of working people’s poetry in contemporary Ireland highlights another kind of identity – the working class, the marginalised, those whose concerns are most often ignored: people in precarious employment, unemployed, homeless. The title of the collection is The Children of the Nation and recalls the pledge made by the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, all executed by the British, who had declared:

“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 the children of the nation equally.”

This anthology makes a significant statement. Most of the literature we read deals in comfortable middle-class lives, rarely about those whose lives are a struggle. The anthology is political with a small p. The authenticity of sixty-seven working lives unfolding before our eyes makes for a genuinely unique volume whose contributors hail from the whole island of Ireland, North and South. And in the former, on both sides of the sectarian divide.

It includes poets from the rural and industrial working class as well as those in traditionally middle-income jobs, forced into short-term contracts by a neoliberal economy. Working class has come to encompass all these groups. A non-standard biography for each contributor highlights his or her connection with the working class, demonstrating that poetry is not an elusive and exclusive domain.

The themes of this anthology are easily recognisable for all the working class of the “First World” and by extension for the Third World. This condition is by no means limited to Ireland.

Homelessness is a main theme, casting dark shadows in manifold manifestations. One of these is an overarching feeling of alienation from mainstream society:

“The greedy/ rub their hands/ with glee in much the same/ way now as/ they did back then. Over/ a hundred/ and seventy years changed/ nothing. The/ rich get richer and the/ poor grow more/ poor, and most of us have/ nowhere to/ live. For there ain’t no home/ in Dublin.”

Some poets reflect on being victims of abuse in a society that has relinquished its duty of care for many of its children, its women, its men. Jennifer Horgan and Noel Monahan write heart-rendingly about the recent find of almost 800 children’s bodies in the septic tank of a Church-run “mother-and-baby-home”.

Others, like Patrick Bolger, about clerical abuse:

“The offer is put to me, I should/ accept, I am told as they will never go/ higher, without proof of penetration./ Without proof of penetration./ The eight year old boy, me 23 years/ before this day, should have collected/ evidence. Evidence. My blood. Or his/. Semen.”

Then there is the very real social violence against over 10, 000 homeless people. Sarah Boyce evokes this for Belfast:

“Its brick-bled and rain-wept heart,/ whose municipal vision cuts through/ its public benches;/ no space here for homeless bums/ Meanwhile, down a high street entry/ great black-backed gulls/ span a crumpled sleeping bag/ in search of carrion.

Tim Dwyer, who grew up in Brooklyn, observes in “Outside the Garden of Remembrance”:

“overshadowed, in a curve in the/ Garden’s stone border, in plain view yet overlooked, a grey sleeping bag/ camouflaged against the foundation. A person is hidden, except for the/ crown of the head, some strands of red hair.”

Along with others, Jessamine O’Connor highlights hidden homelessness in “Notice”, which ends:

“So my children don’t know what it’s like yet to move, be insecure,/ to not know where you’re going to be, or for how long/, to keep everything always half unpacked –/ but I will never forget.”

Other writers, like Rita Ann Higgins, address unemployment with unrepentant sarcasm:

“Hey Minister, we like your suit/ have a bun, where are our jobs?/ But there was no point;/ he was here on a bun-eating session/ not a job-finding session./ His hands were tied./ His tongue a marshmallow.”

These themes and countless others emerge from the poetry of people who identify with the disregarded and dispossessed.

One of the great neglected areas in mainstream Irish literary discourse is the Irish language tradition. Although this is defined by the experience of the most exploited and a stark reflection of a colonised people, it is recklessly ignored. In this collection, Irish and English stand side by side, with the Irish language poets having provided a translation into English for the benefit of an international audience and non-Irish speakers.

Two contributors write from the perspective of the immigrant or New Irish – one Greek, the other Polish. Unsurprisingly, their experience parallels that of several emigrant writers in the anthology, reflecting Ireland’s long and inglorious tradition of emigration. Untold numbers fled Ireland hoping for a better life in the USA, England, Australia, often contributing to the working-class struggle on these new shores. Anne Casey, who now lives in Australia, Aidan Casey, or Mike Gallagher voice this experience. Peggie Caldwell, from rural Donegal writes of this practice continuing:

“Fallacies echo: Live Register lowest it’s been since 2008.// But in these hills the white noise rebounds,/ the absence of fledgling song deafening us.”

Emigration is not only reflected in the poetry but also the lived experience of Anne Casey, Aidan Casey, or Mike Gallagher, for example.

Internationalism is at the heart Francis Devine’s poetry. In “The Steamship Hare”, he commemorates an act of international working-class solidarity, when the SS Hare, at the time of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, brought food parcels and other necessities for distribution among the families of striking workers in Dublin. The British Trade Unions funded the ship and its cargo. Pete Mullineaux writes movingly of low-paid workers in Asia in “Free Range”.

Along with the British socialist publisher, Culture Matters, the Irish Trade Union Movement was instrumental in bringing this anthology about.

The Children of the Nation. An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell, is published by Culture Matters. It is available online from http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/shop-support/our-publications/item/3184-the-children-of-the-nation

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