Paul Muldoon: ‘Pearse and his fellow rebels were not terrorists’

When asked to write the text for a choral piece for the centenary of the Rising, I was determined not to gloss over the past or present a bogusly upbeat future

 

About 30 years ago, a mischievous BBC producer invited me to adapt The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a 20-minute radio script. Never one to turn down a challenge, I accepted his invitation.

In some ways, the difficulty of writing a choral piece that is at once reasonably clear and concise while mindful of the complexities of Irish history is even greater. Most sane souls would pass on it.

When I accepted the commission, therefore, I was determined to give an account not only of the past 100 years but of the several thousand leading up to our first century of nationhood:

from glen to glen a great stag roars
and rattles its horned head
a yellow bittern booms once more
by turf bank and stream bed
for once again Finn and his men
are following from glen to glen
the doe with one white ear
and setting their sights on the sun
where work on Newgrange has begun
our civil engineers
Hibernia might be a byword
only for hibernation
had hawthorns not themselves been spurred
to gleaming proclamations
while praise is heard from all the birds
one hundred years a nation

I was determined, too, not to gloss over some components of our past that are less than glorious and not to present a vision of the future that is bogusly upbeat:

incensed by censors and the rest
the parish parasites
to whom we’d said Ite Missa Est
and given the last rites
we traded up the Islands of the Blest
for a kitchen island
we sighed for the augmented breast
and broader wifi bands
we tried to grasp what it had meant
to say the temple veil is rent
when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn MacCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers
for a great stag may be dragged down
by flimflam and stagflation
then ghost estates boarded up towns
still marked mass emigration
and ruins still brought us renown
although we’d built our nation

The fact is that a focus on the idea of singularity that is at the heart of any concept of the nation is neither philosophically sound nor practicable. In the first place, it’s only a matter of time before an insistence on the purity of a race morphs into the building of concentration camps in which to house the “other”.

After that, a sense of the total interdependence of the people of the world is the one constant in an era of climate change, which will see a redrawing of the map of Ireland’s coast over the next 100 years. In the longer term – 50 million years, say – it’s likely that the continents will have shifted substantially and that Ireland as a land mass simply won’t exist.

For now, though, we are well within our rights to celebrate a particularly defining moment in Irish history, one best understood in the context of the widespread European nationalist and unification movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

In his recent study, 1916: A Global History, the Queen’s University Belfast historian Keith Jeffery writes succinctly of the Great War: “The two most significant moments of the war for Ireland were Easter Monday 1916, when separatist republican nationalists launched a rebellion against British rule, and July 1st, 1916, when the infantry assault at the battle of the Somme began, and men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, representing unionism in Ireland, went over the top and suffered grievous casualties. Both of these experiences quickly became sanctified in their respective Irish political traditions and they have been stitched into the creation stories of both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.”

We are certainly within our rights to reclaim the significance of the Easter Rising from some of the gangs that have hijacked it. The fact that blood was shed in 1916 may have been enough to support the idea that the “armed struggle” of recent memory was a continuation of the Easter Rising. One thing is clear, though: whatever else they were, Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries were not terrorists:

the boreen runs from rath to rath
the boreen often is a path
from which it never veers
some march back down a cobbled street
yet never would beat a retreat
flute bands and bandoliers
the slogan heard above the slew
bloody assassinations
the red hand’s lámh dearg abu
the bomb’s abominations
some didn’t live to see it through
one hundred years a nation

From a technical point of view, One Hundred Years a Nation is a text that derives as much from the hip-hop tradition of “spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics” as it does from anything in Tadhg Dall Ó hÚigínn or Gerard Manley Hopkins. The music serves sometimes as a backdrop upon which the words inscribe themselves, sometimes as an FX track. Even the melody of the anthem is defined by the intrinsic musicality of the phrase “100 years a nation”, a phrase I trust will resound over the distant grinding of tectonic plates.

  • One Hundred Years a Nation will be performed by a 1,100-strong choir and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on Easter Sunday at the A Nation’s Voice concert at Collins Barracks, Dublin. The piece was composed by Shaun Davey, with text by Paul Muldoon. The concert will also feature works by Seán Ó Riada and Bill Whelan, under conductor David Brophy. It will be broadcast live on RTÉ1, RTÉ Radio 1 and rte.ie/1916
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