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How poetry is helping us preserve our past - and question our assumptions of history

Lucy Collins introduces Grief’s Broken Brow, 10 poems commissioned for the Poetry as Commemoration project

Grief’s Broken Brow, a volume of 10 poems commissioned as part of the Poetry as Commemoration project, is now available in libraries across the island of Ireland for all our communities, and for future generations, to read.

Generously funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Poetry as Commemoration project fosters engagement with the material culture of the revolutionary period, drawing people of all ages into Ireland’s libraries and archives and supporting their creative exploration of the items they found there. Grief’s Broken Brow, designed and handprinted by Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press, is not just a work of art but a symbol of the shared values of the Poetry as Commemoration project and the collaborative ethos that shaped it from the start.

Though the 10 poems presented are available online, and are recorded for the Irish Poetry Reading Archive, they live in a special way in the pages of this book, where the careful process of printing and the design of each page honours individuality of response, while recognising the close links between texts, visual imagery, materials and design that make this a unified work of art.

In selecting the poets for this commission, we aimed for diverse voices, for writers with different styles and preoccupations who would offer us new and unexpected ways of reading the past, of navigating the relationship between the world of a century ago and our world, with its own bitter conflicts.


The book contains work by Seán Hewitt, Nithy Kasa, Paul Muldoon, Aifric Mac Aodha, Martina Evans, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Stephen Sexton, Victoria Kennefick, Bebe Ashley and Padraig Regan, with artwork from James Earley. Each poem offers unique perspectives on a complex and difficult period of Ireland’s past, on its documents, photographs and reported events, as well as on larger questions concerning the materiality of history and the act of commemoration itself.

The poets were free to explore any archive of their choosing, and the texts that emerged from this experience are grounded in this encounter with the past yet also extend each poet’s existing body of work in interesting ways. Though the poems are unique creative works, they are connected to one another – and to the many other texts written in archival workshops during the two years of the project’s existence: poems from schoolchildren and their teachers, poems from local communities, from immigrant groups and from the Irish diaspora. All are now, in their turn, part of our shared national memory.

Ireland’s revolutionary past occupies both a public and a private space in our imaginations, connecting us to earlier generations by offering vital insights into their lives and experiences, but also helping us to explore our own relationship to these events.

Engaging with the material culture of the past is both a stimulating and daunting process – it reveals previously untold stories and prompts us to think more deeply about our angle of view on the past, our mistaken assumptions and our prejudices. For this reason, Grief’s Broken Brow is as much about the present moment as it is about the past, and its aesthetic – combining traditional book arts with bold typographical choices and striking illustration – expresses this powerfully.

The commissioned poems reflect the vision and preoccupation of the individual poet, as well as the ethical questions that are raised any time we enter the lives of others. Several poets choose to engage with forgotten or neglected aspects of the national past, focusing especially on the experiences of women, who have so often been excluded from sustained consideration in the histories of state formation. From the revolutionary life of Máire Comerford, rendered so movingly by Martina Evans, to Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi’s striking exploration of a young woman’s punishment, these poets extend the boundaries of form to tell challenging stories, and to record their own complex relationship with the chosen material – as Victoria Kennefick’s combination of experimental form and direct personal reflection demonstrates.

Others choose familiar poetic modes and stable verse structures to bring a feeling of authority, and clarity of thought, to the work. This juxtaposition of established and surprising forms makes us recognise the power of poetry to demand that we rethink the received narratives of the past.

The poems in Grief’s Broken Brow are often preoccupied with acts of looking. Through the motif of the photograph, and the video, Aifric Mac Aodha and Padraig Regan explore the relationship between what we see and how we see it, between the eye of the witness and the imperfect process of capturing its vision. Instead of emphasising the archive as a source of new knowledge, many of these poems use it to question the boundaries of shared memory. Why is some material preserved in our national repositories and other material abandoned or destroyed? How do our family stories intersect with the historian’s perspective. How do absences shape our reading of the past?

Stephen Sexton’s poem The Head of a Man examines this question obliquely, through an object indirectly connected to the revolutionary period: an 18th-century book burned in the Four Courts. This disfigurement of a printed work has implications for how we understand the continuities of the archive – it signals the accidental erasures of history and, by extension, the implications of extreme violence for our integrity as individuals and as a community.

Over the past decade, our sustained, collective attention to the past has revealed intense and often traumatic experiences. Writing about them is not an act of closure, but rather the beginning of a process of sustained engagement that will deepen our understanding of both shared and conflicting memories on this island.

– Lucy Collins is Associate Professor in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin

The Head of a Man

by Stephen Sexton

Then among the final years of the horse,
cannon are horse-drawn along the river
into position at the edge of June.
The day is hot, the Capels are abroad,

so azimuths are set, trajectories
approximated, an eighteen-pounder
bombards the Four Courts and its garrison.
Public records rain over the Liffey.

What this thing is is too massive to rain:
Pleadings Made to the Law Exchequer,
a few fragments whose outer edges are

ash forever, whose centre has been fused
into new species of vellum and ink.
Where intimate skin wizened in the heat,
denatured to flame-dark carbon, gnarled bark,

here emerges the gurn of a man’s face:
a double pout of parchment rolled and pursed,
a severe pointed nose, the papery
wasp’s nest complexion of the mummified —

a distended and eyeless head still stunned
by the shock of its disturbance, a cheek
tattooed with all that remains legible
from the quill of the king’s remembrancer.


What occupies his thoughts is gone for good.
The ordinary, tedious disputes
landlord and tenant farmer brought before
nodding justices and their magistrates:

libel and taxes, the proper keeping
of geese or the right to drive one’s cattle;
the nearly inconsequential legends
by which names outlive their custodians?

Even Noah, the world’s first archivist,
drunk on the wine of the greenest vineyards
must have wept in his tent some afternoons
for every neighbour he had forsaken:

the people tending to their earthly sins
who saw, but didn’t recognise, history
vanishing into the flood on cubits
of gopher wood and faith, bleating and straw.

Is it the ark and all that survived it
that constitutes our civilisation,
or the sailed away from collateral
innumerable under the water?

After the ark, the first thing Noah did
was make an altar and burnt offerings;
animals unknowable to language,
some unique beasts of whom there once were two.