May the Eighth 2007
Poem by Robin GLENDINNING
11 April 2011
This poem (below) was inspired by the by my conflicting emotions when the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements were activated and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were launched.
I had two main reactions: immense relief and and a growing rage that such an agreement had been so long, and so tragiacally delayed. I was faced by the classic conundrum of peace making that a critical mass of the people must support the settlement which often means that those who did most to oppose previous attempts at peacemaking become the new leaders of the community. This outcome carries with it certain problems that are bound to linger and make further progress slow and difficult. Therefore they must be spelled out and faced. If my poem seems somewhat negative or critical I would say that such unblinking looks at events and personalities are necessary. I have shown the poem to many people who have assured me that it sums up many of their feelings too. I welcome this blog to give my thoughts in these verses a wider circulation.
Lines on May the Eighth 2007[i]
Come surly Muse and me inspire;
An Ulster Muse, or witch maybe,
Who’ll kindle wrath and stoke my ire
And flame despair to poetry.
Help me to use a metre, rhyme,
Grant me silence and grant me time
To tell this story properly
And not the way it ought to be
Or should have been: too used to those
Long practised lies, hand me, oh Muse,
A pen of steel that wont abuse
The truth but surgeon like expose
Us to our shrinking selves. Too weak
My pow’rs, your aid I humbly seek.
“Why trouble me?” I hear you ask.
“The past is gone and peace is here
Why set your mind to such a task
Re-opening ground in fields of fear?”
Some-one must play the ingrate’s part
The cynic’s role; assist my art
Reluctant Muse: I want to call
Us back to where a low stone wall,
A hedge and wet Fermanagh lane
End at a common road and there
A member of the U.D.R
Lies dead. Grey churns of milk drip rain
Sheep are indifferent in pens,
A wife, unknowing yet, feeds hens.
A neighbour by his neighbour shot?
Is this the way it had to be?
Tell me, oh Muse, if this is what
The poet meant by ‘utterly,’[ii]
When first he ‘wrote it out in verse’[iii]
That Connolly and Padraig Pearse
‘Where ever green is worn’[iv] should stand
As icons in this saintly land?
Is that why blood of this poor man
Must seep? His widow weep? His farm
Be sold? His children flee from harm?
In truth I do not think I can
Believe it so. Oh truthful Muse
Tell me if terror has excuse.
So many dead and so much grief,
So many half forgotten wrongs
That fester on without relief
In lonely breasts; where little things
Survive for now: a photograph,
Remembered words, a smile, a laugh,
A way of walking to the door,
When came the knock, the knock before
An end. And there are certain spots
Unfound as yet: the disappeared
Have graves unmarked and not revered…
No tricolours, no graveside shots,
No thronging of the press in packs,
No coffins draped in Union Jacks.
And all the work the bombers did:
The Rose and Crown and Abercorn
And Poppy Day and Shankill Road
And Oxford Street and Monaghan…
If craven readers pick through this
And find delight in what I miss
They will no doubt a bias claim
For which the poet’s much to blame
And so dismiss the rest… but no
I won’t be forced to gather up
More horrors for you all to sup;
The troubles in my kit-bag grow
Until they bulk so much it sags
As body parts swell plastic bags.
For, Muse, I cannot write or sing
Of all of it, and lists of names
Have lost their old historic ring
And no-one now agrees on Fame’s
Inclusiveness: they died, they’re gone
And we who fail them here live on.
Oh maybe time will heal old wounds,
I hear men say and though the sounds
Of platitudes beguiling are
And I half hoped that trust might grow;
Remind me Muse it’s seldom so
And make each one of us aware
That all these dead, yes all who died,
And we must now be reconciled.
And why so long? Oh Muse why did
We need such seas of blood? Such hate,
Such bitterness? Why such divide?
What purpose does the sorry state
We’re in fulfil? To get a deal?
Why what was wrong with Sunningdale[v]
That justifies so many dead?
Not much ‘for all that’s done and said.’
And you? The other one who signs
Today? “O’Neill must go,” You cried,
And Faulkner too and others tried
And went at your behest. The lines
I write down here record the shame
That is not felt by those to blame
For wasted years. You wished to see
The loyal, resolute and armed
If not beneath the Crown then “We
And hill top trysts[viii] and red berets
And men with staves and crisis days
And ranting to huge crowds you bayed:
Beware, We are Sold Out, Betrayed!
Then prophet like you prayed to God
To smite your foes. No wonder then
The gun was used by certain men
Who thought they took you at your word…
Oh never mind they’d lots of time
To count the costs of bloody crime.
And You well knew that blood has use
And all is changed when blood is shed:[ix]
Then blood is politics and news
And politicians use the dead
For they can never change their coats
And martyrdom is good for votes
And thin young men[x] so sadly late
Will furnish forth a fat mandate.
Oh watch with me, my Muse, my Witch,
I stand an hour on hallowed ground[xi]
And wonder if these dead sleep sound
Memorialised in Celtic kitsch.
Good God look down on ‘all these dead’
But please don’t ask us why they died.
And your religious zeal was such
That where you pitched your tent[xii] was rough
With argument. I heard you preach:
The voice was vast, the language tough;
You mocked the Pope, the man of sin,
And cursed apostate clergymen
Enamoured of the Romish whore,[xiii]
With pimples, boils and cancer sore
Of disbelief. How could the meek
Inherit there where words would fright
The tented air and ‘clash by night?’[xiv]
And did you turn the other cheek?
And did your faithful set their store
By Matthew five and forty four?[xv]
What’s wrong with us we could not make
Things work? Of moderates I’ll talk:
Why could we not advantage take
Of kindliness in Ulster folk?
That helping hand, unworldly care
A neighbours grief or luck to share,
The softly spoken word, the deed
Transcending politics and creed?
Too few, too few stood up and we
Are guilty all, for doubting hearts
Restrained our best intentioned starts
And left us paralysed, unfree;
Oh Muse, make clear there’s no defence
For those who failed through reticence.
‘We are closed in,’[xvi] and people poll
To keep the other side at bay
And it remains the basic role
Of Ulster leadership today
To maximise the tribal vote
And then employ De Hondt[xvii] to tote
For place. Oh Muse it gives me pause
To think there’s not some better cause
That will subvert such status quo.
The system suits you both so well
The slogan’s safe on ev’ry wall,
Your flags secure. I can’t say no
And must be glad you’ve changed your ways
But don’t expect my fulsome praise.
I’ve done, my Muse, I’ll break this pen
And take my rest from all that’s gone
And is to be, so haste you then
With all my thanks to Helicon[xviii]
Or to the place the witches go…
“Oh drop this pose of Prospero[xix]
Don’t ‘drown your book’ but grasp the plough
For Ulster needs a clearance now
That plants might stir and breathe fresh air.
Of love, I speak, and tolerance
And simple truth and common sense;
So poet rise and with Voltaire
Into the tangled garden[xx] go
And with you bear the ready hoe.”
[i] The date on which, power over local matters was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
[ii] W.B. Yeats: ”All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born.” A repeated refrain in Yeats’ great poem, Easter, 1916.
[iii] Yeats: Easter, 1916.
[iv] Yeats : Easter, 1916.
[v] Power sharing agreement between the moderate parties of Northern Ireland in 1973. These were the majority Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, the leaders of the Catholic Nationalist community, the SDLP and the non sectarian Alliance Party. This early experiment in pwer sharing was destroyed by continued IRA violence and a Loyalist strike supported by paramilitaries and wide spread intimidation.
[vi] English for Sinn Fein.
[vii] Quasi military force raised by Ian Paisley supposedly to protect the border and then quietly forgotten.
[viii] A Paisley inspired demonstration in which a group of men formed up in military fashion and on a given command displayed their legal gun licences.
[ix] The Easter Rising 1916 was seen by participants, notably Pearse, as a necessary blood sacrifice.
[x] Republican hunger strikers.
[xi] The Republican burial plot in Milltown Cemetery Belfast.
[xii] Paisley began some of his first congregations with evangelical missions in tents. One of his tactics was to split the congregations of more liberal Protestant clergy whom he accused of apostasy.
[xiii] Many early Protestant reformers identified the Pope with The Great Whore of Babylon from Revelations. Paisley revived this 16th century practice.
[xiv] Mathew Arnold. Dover Beach: ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’
[xv] “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
[xvi] Yeats. From The Stare’s Nest at my Window a poem about the Irish Civil War in 1922.
[xvii] The proportional system by which the executive is elected in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
[xviii] Mountain sacred to the Greek Muses
[xix] Shakespeare: The Tempest. At the end of the play Prospero signs off by declaring that he will break his staff and drown his book.
[xx] In the final sentence of Voltaire’s Candide he insists that despite everything we should busy ourselves the garden.