A poetic response to the pandemic

Ian Duhig on a Leeds Irish poetry project and research into the racialisation of epidemics

Leeds Irish Health and Homes is funded by the Irish Government with an explicit cultural as well as a social mission. It was given a one-off increase in funding to step up its activities in these areas during the Covid-19 lockdown when many of its clients were isolated in their homes.

The charity was quick to organise volunteers to bring its clients “craic packs” of supplies and good humour, at the same time arranging broadcasts of music and poetry on BBC and local radio, then social media cookery and exercise shows which have proved a lifeline to many.

LIHH’s second poetry competition has just been launched and there will be another pamphlet anthology of crisis responses – their last, The Trojan Donkey, was made into a banner by LIHH artists and is still on display in Leeds Museum. However, the city emerges from lockdown considering the closure of all its museums and libraries due to the financial crisis brought on by the epidemic.

The fabric of civic life here, threadbare after austerity, will be left in rags from such new cuts. We were well aware that we worked against the background of a disaster unprecedented in generations, but as I write this, I learn that the estimated cumulative excess deaths in Britain this year stand at 65,700, more than all its civilian deaths in the second World War.


“Death fills the air we breathe now. Among the writing prompts we sent was this moving entry from the final pages of John Clyn’s diary, the 14th-century Irish friar in plague-stricken Kilkenny: As I have truly heard and examined, so have I reduced these things to writing. And lest the writing should perish with the writer, and the work fail together with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, if haply any man survive.”

This legacy of blank pages put me in mind of the spaces Claudia Rankine left in Citizen for the dead to come, like George Floyd, victims of the same disease in white minds that killed so many people of colour in Britain and uncountably more in its days of Empire, a vast plague to its subjugated nations, with its own blank pages in UK curriculums.

If Clyn could take a long view, our crisis seemed to call for something similar and a possible solution offered itself when historian Don MacRaild approached us regarding a research proposal into the racialisation of epidemics with the working title From Irish Fever to Wuhan Flu (or “Kung Flu” as Trump would have it, underlining the point.)

Don wanted creative responses to be a feature of this project so, though based in London it will take in a northern sweep from Liverpool, where one linchpin will be Jennifer Lee Tsai, whose award-winning poetry shows historical depth and insight, to Yorkshire, where LIHH and I will be involved. Jennifer and I will launch a pamphlet of our work in early 2021, reacting to research discoveries but through the lens of our strangely-appropriate art, thinking of Jorie Graham’s acute remark, Poetry wants to be a contagion.

In Don MacRaild’s essay ‘Irish Fever’ in Britain during the Great Famine: Immigration, Disease and the Legacy of ‘Black ‘47’, he comments: “This outbreak remains exceptional in the annals of modern British history as the only epidemic to be universally associated with mass immigration”, which explains its role as a benchmark, but I want to dwell on the passage where he notes:

“Some of the classic studies on the Irish in Britain have described individual cases, offering insights from contemporary accounts of particular rookeries, courts, alleys and yards, such as those in the Walmgate area of York where in 1847 a local surgeon, William Proctor, recounted fear at the risks of typhus spreading among and beyond the Irish who ‘swarm together in the lodging houses, the word ‘swarm’ conflating its principal victims with the disease itself in an area I knew something about.”

Before I became a writer, I worked with homeless people and in one job was responsible for a local authority hostel, now closed, near Walmgate, where a long-term resident called Fred Kilmartin was the despair of resettlement staff. Recently he’d been moved into a care home for the elderly from which he’d promptly been evicted for fighting.

Fred came from an old Walmgate Irish family who ran a lodging house like those that horrified Proctor, where he recalled with malicious glee in his childhood undoing the rope across which the poorest slept in the mornings so they woke by crashing to the basement floor.

Fred was a mine for local oral historians and I also learned much, as of the notorious vulturine undertaker Billy Wainman – Fred told me a joke from the time: “What’s the difference between the Chinese Laundry and Wainman’s Undertakers? One stiffens collars and the other collars stiff ‘un’s.”

Billy did good business from diseases of the poor he seemed immune to, hanging around the pubs and, when anybody coughed, ostentatiously measuring them up for his wooden overcoats. During what was then called Spanish Flu in Britain, Billy put a sign in his window that read SALE NOW ON!

Similar black humour informs The Song of the Microbe by Tom Maguire, the second-generation Irish socialist poet, taken by lung disease at 30:

… I shall swarm in myriad millions
On the banks of the River Aire,
And your old acquaintance Typhus
Will be present with me there.

I shall raise the good old odour
In the gout at Tenter Lane,
And the papers will be screaming
In their customary strain

But the tanner and the skinner
And the City Council too
Will protect me from the mercies
Of the sanitary crew.

I'm a merry little microbe 
Quite a microscopic thing,
So just warn the undertaker
To be ready for the Spring.

As lockdown is lifted in England, our sanitary crew fear that with Westminster replacing Maguire’s Leeds City Council, serving commercial interests risks the disease’s return to provide more work for our time’s Billy Wainmans. I found out after more investigation that the Chinese woman from the laundry in Fred’s joke eventually died by suicide. The blank page of such despair, of a woman from a community often despised and scapegoated at diseased times like these, as the Irish once, is a challenge we hope we might rise to with new research and contagious poetry when we return next spring.