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

Colm Tóibín: “Irish poetry over the past 100 years has maintained its roots in song and prayer”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sat, Oct 19, 2013, 01:03

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.

When she died, I found all her notebooks beside her bed, the first one dated 1941 when she was 20, with poems written out in that beautiful hand-writing that Irish women of her generation had from nuns. She kept it up to the end of her life. The last notebook had poems by Sean Dunne, Michael Coady, Paul Durcan, Derek Mahon, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Anthony Cronin, Seamus Heaney, Pat Boran and others cut out from the newspaper or written out in longhand. At her funeral, one of her school-friends began to talk about what a great teacher Sister Catherine was. Sixty-five years later, her old English-teacher’s presence was as vivid to her as it had been to my mother.

Such Irish writing begins in song, as does so much Irish life.

Joyce’s work is full of song. He had a beautiful tenor voice. Beckett loved the Schubert lieder. And the Irish theatre in the 20th century is full of song, from Yeats’s plays to the plays of O’Casey, and later the plays of writers such as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Sebastian Barry and Billy Roche. You feel that much Irish writing for the theatre, or even for the page, is a rich substitute for singing. And beside song there is prayer, the formal language of incantation and supplication. Irish poetry over the past hundred years has maintained its roots in song and prayer; it has, unlike poetry elsewhere, kept faith with its audience, it has been written for readers to be cut out from the newspaper or copied out by hand, to be kept beside the bed, close to the prayer-book and the list of important telephone numbers. To be learned off by heart and recited in such a way that anyone listening, child or adult, could never forget the voice, the tone, the moment when the line ended and the rhyme hit home, and the strange, awed silence when the voice stopped reciting.

In Ireland, in the 20th century, the best and the brightest became teachers. A career in teaching was considered then like becoming a computer millionaire is now, a natural choice of profession for someone with brains. For my mother and her school friends, Sister Catherine offered a sort of lasting inspiration. In the late 1960s much of the school curriculum changed in the Republic of Ireland and a new set of poems and poets was added to the masterpieces of Shakespeare and Keats and Shelley and Yeats. It is remarkable how many of the poems chosen here [in The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems] are poems that were, or still are, part of the school curriculum. Thus, poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, F.R. Higgins and Thomas Kinsella entered the national imagination.

Of the non-Irish poets in the new curriculum, perhaps the one who puzzled and intrigued most was T.S. Eliot. In St Peter’s College in Wexford, in Father Larkin’s class, we studied The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Most of us were from rural Ireland, many from farms; most had more interest in the GAA than T.S. Eliot; but everyone wanted to, or needed to, get the Leaving Certificate. And it was now clear that learning poems by rote would not help you, you had to understand the poems and know how to interpret them, make arguments about them. Father Larkin took us through the poem line by line. For most of us, this was a new sort of poem. None of us associated “a patient etherized upon a table” as a subject for poetry, and none of us had come across this veiled irony and knowing modernity before.

Slowly, the entire class became fascinated by the poem, and we must have studied it in class after class. What was “the overwhelming question”, Father Larkin asked us, which the narrator was leading her to? Could it be named? One of the reasons why these poems learned in classrooms stay in the mind and in the affections is the way we were forced to concentrate on them like no one has ever forced us to concentrate on poems since. Father Larkin asked us to write out the possible words that such an overwhelming question might possibly be framed in. He made it clear that there was no right answer. And this is another reason why the study of poetry remains so powerful: there is no right answer.

We all wrote out our version of the question. And the next week Father Larkin came into the classrooms with our copybooks. Only one of us had come near, he said. Only one of us had understood what such a question might imply. I remember that the winning student had used the word “existential” and our teacher asked him to prepare a paper on existentialism for the following week. None of us in that class, as far as I know, went on to study philosophy and I was the only one, I think, who went on to study poetry. It was the only time in our lives, then, when we would pay attention to the language of philosophy and, for the rest of them, it was one of the only times they would attend to the language of a modern poem. For all of us, and clearly as this list of favourite Irish poems shows, for students of poetry in secondary schools all over Ireland, these classes were memorable and the poems learned then stayed in the mind.

Recently, I have been going through the photographs that my mother kept beside her bed, close to the poems and the missal and the list of important telephone numbers. So many of them were taken on those beaches on the Wexford coast, black and white photographs of moments when she and her sister and their friends were young or when their children were young. It seems unbelievable that almost all of the adults who sat on that rug that day in Curracloe are dead. They were all as happy that summer, let us suppose, as they ever would be. They were on holidays. At night they went to the bar of the Strand Hotel; during the day they lay on the beach and swam and watched the sky in case the sun might come out once more. The women wore slacks. There was a lot of laughter. They had all known each other for years. And yet, at times, something else came to them, something brought them close to the strangeness and the mystery of things, away from their jokes and their stories and their easy talk and their holiday mood. At times poetry came to them. It came easily and naturally, but when it took over, it was not ordinary. It changed everything, like a new element, or a small opening in the sky. Everything about them then, how they spoke and listened, how they looked out at the grey-blue sea, seemed ready to make the most of the gift of poetry, take it on board, use it and remember it, allow it to offer a swell of resonance and meaning to the moment.