Editor’s Choice: The day poetry came alive
From the Archives: Colm Tóibín celebrates the riches of Irish verse
Colm Tóibín: “Irish poetry over the past 100 years has maintained its roots in song and prayer”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
First published: Saturday, December 9th, 2000
Colm Toibin’s introduction to The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems, as suggested by readers of the newspaper in a poll
I have a memory of a misty day on the strand in Curracloe. It must be the early 1960s. A neighbour is there with her husband and he is from Clare. My mother is there and my auntie Maeve. Maybe my father, and certainly two or three others. The adults are sitting on rugs and the children are swimming or playing in the sand. We are not meant to be listening to the adult conversation and if we are noticed doing so we are sent away. It is one of those days when everyone is poised to make a run for it if the mist hardens into rain.
We watch the adults watching the clouds.
I don’t much like the sea, or the sand, or the other children but I know that if I sit even on the edge of a rug and draw the slightest attention to myself one of the adults will tell me to go away and play.
Nonetheless, I love listening to them and therefore approaching the adult rug stealthily is always worth trying.
My auntie Maeve is reciting poetry. She is sitting up and staring out to sea and her voice has the same stilted, serious and incantatory tone she uses when she is giving out the Rosary. All of the others have grown serious, each in a different pose, one lying back, one resting on an elbow, one sitting up. My auntie Maeve has tears in her eyes. The poem is long and it rhymes. I wish I could remember what it was.
No one talks when she is finished. I know never to talk when the adults leave silence, because the next thing said is often the most unusual and unexpected. The next thing now is my mother. She is reciting The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I have heard her doing this before. Her voice is much softer and more dramatic than her Rosaryvoice, but, like auntie Maeve, she does not take her eyes from the far distance when she recites. And something else too: for both of them, reciting these poems evokes a terrible sadness which is far from the light, funny talk they normally have on the strand.
And then Pat Sheehan starts. He is a captain in the Army and they have rented a house just beside the Winning Post. He is from Clare so his accent is different. He knows poems that they all seem to know, but they allow him recite them and join in only at the end of verses. He too stares out to sea when he recites. He recites the words slowly and carefully.
Then, the poetry fades, or my memory of it fades, and the scene melts back to ordinary talk. I don’t know how long this lasts, but it is broken by my auntie Maeve, who in mid-talk without warning has started to recite another poem. The others all stop and pay attention, but she doesn’t seem to mind about the others; she is reciting the poem to herself or to the sea or to some other power and all of the others recognise this and pay special attention. Once more she has tears in her eyes and I cannot stop looking at her.
My mother had two great mentors: a Mercy nun called Sister Catherine who taught her English until she left school to go to work at 14, and Anew MacMaster, whose troupe came to Enniscorthy when my mother was young and performed Shakespeare in a way that she never forgot. So for the rest of that holiday in Curracloe, once she discovered that Pat Sheehan liked poetry too, she could not stop reciting speeches from Othello or Julius Caesar as though she was Anew MacMaster on the stage of the Atheneum in Enniscorthy. At other times all through her later life, for no reason, she would begin to describe something Sister Catherine had said and then start reciting again from Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, Keats or Yeats.