A modern fable: Deirdre of the Troubles

Eamon Carr’s verse play is an account of his time as a reporter in the North told via an old Irish fable

Eamon Carr: ‘I found the cumulative effect of the horror stories I was reporting on from the North difficult to shake off.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

'Yer man. Who does he think he is?" asks Eamon Carr, parodying possible reaction to his new book. A verse play, it occupies the Deirdre of the Sorrows fable to give an impressionistic account of his experiences as a reporter in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. The blend of Troubles and myth shows how humanity is helpless in the face of timeless violence.

Carr has long been a stencil on Ireland’s cultural cave wall through his sports, news and arts work for newspapers and radio. He has made a deep mark on music as a drummer and producer, and the Celtic spirals of his band, Horslips, have never stopped twirling.

Using dramatic infrastructure from Greek theatre and Japanese Noh, Deirdre Unforgiven: A Journal of Sorrows confronts emotional responses to socio-politics that are often withheld from journalism.

“I’d found the cumulative effect of the various horror stories I was reporting on from the North over six or seven years difficult to shake off,” he says.


“There was something so intensely profound about the landscape in so many of those awful situations that I had to convey something of that sensation. Plus there were a series of coincidental correspondences between the old Deirdre myth and the contemporary reality that struck me as meaningful.”

In the mid-1980s, Carr was working as an A&R man for WEA records. Horslips, with whom he had been a drummer and driving force, were defunct, and his energies turned to producing records by garage bands, managing The Swinging Swine and writing the tongue-in-cheek Street Guru and Seven-Day Weekend columns. Since then there has been journalism across the news and entertainment spectrum.

Deirdre shows he has mutated again. But the rock'n'roll energy is there. Carr fondly recalls Seamus Heaney turning up to Horslips gigs. Heaney had been a shining light around Carr's Tara Telephone poetry collective in the late 1960s. "Heaney was the relatively new, recently published poet then, but already he was the main man."

In Carr's Deirdre, a stark landscape is stalked by the ghosts of the doomed heroine and Conor the king, an old woman and a masked chorus. Through the eyes of a reporter horrified by sectarian beatings and killings, he sketches a bleak world. His language is cut to the quick: "Black leather coat, gleaming like a carrion crow, he swooped into a side street/as if rushing from the scene."

When Carr read excerpts in Dublin’s Freemasons’ Hall in late September, simple harp music underlined the Celtic myth around which the narrative is woven. The result is a very moving take on the past, both that of the ancient tale and that of the Troubles. At times in the text, there is no doubt as to which he means: “No birdsong to be heard as cameras/Whirring and clicking, recorded the lonesome sight and sound of a young mother sobbing./The children died when their home was petrol-bombed in the night./Grief will resound through these fields for centuries.”

Carr talked to Heaney about writing The Origami Crow (Carr's 2008 book of haikus and prose centred on journalistic work in Saipan six years earlier). "I told him that for it to make sense I had to own up and tell the truth. And that personal stuff was painful. Seamus was delighted. He came very much alive to the conversation with a knowing chuckle and a sort of 'Ah, you've got it!' and said something like, 'The truth won't let you down.' It had only taken me 40 feckin' years."

As Carr’s play is published and his fingers are crossed for a future staging, his role as facilitator and artist is clear.

"For me, from helping run those early Tara Telephone workshops to funding The Radiators' demos, releasing the debut album by Agnes Bernelle, encouraging the Stars of Heaven, teaming the Golden Horde with Robert Anton Wilson, producing the Stingrays and so on, it's always been about contributing to a discourse that might help in some small way to change things for the better."

Deirdre Unforgiven: A Journal of Sorrows by Eamon Carr is published by Doire Press