Gerald Dawe: ‘The Belfast I left behind doesn’t exist anymore’

Poet’s new collection of memoirs and essays includes early poems capturing Ireland north and south on cusp of change

Gerald Dawe: ‘The recalling of life in the west of Ireland in the 70s sounds again like a “sheltering place” from the travails and troubles of the Belfast I had in part left behind.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Gerald Dawe: ‘The recalling of life in the west of Ireland in the 70s sounds again like a “sheltering place” from the travails and troubles of the Belfast I had in part left behind.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

 

In the autumn of 1974 as a 22-year-old, I took the Ulsterbus to Monaghan town, and from there boarded the CIE coach that wound its way through several counties before arriving at Eamonn Ceannt Station off Eyre Square in Galway. It was a little over 40 years ago. The Belfast I had left behind doesn’t exist anymore, except in people’s minds and memories. The republic I was travelling through has also been transformed, including the somewhat sleepy market town that was Galway.

How can one ever remember the tone and timbre of the 1970s and the values of the republic that really were on the cusp of lasting change? It was a different world, for sure, but some things remain lodged in the memory of that time. Like the grotesque disfiguring violence inflicted upon ordinary people by the paramilitaries; like the long and arduous battle women of all classes and backgrounds had to endure to achieve basic civil liberties in their own country; like the demeaning deference expected by a male-possessed Church and the preening patronising of many (male) politicians.

But I also have a lasting sense of the edgy, challenging focus of the culture that was calmly self-confident and productive of counter images and contrary views.

I have no nostalgia for that time, although in The Stoic Man, the new collection of essays and memoirs I have just published with Lagan Press, the recalling of life in the west of Ireland in the 70s sounds again like a “sheltering place” from the travails and troubles of the Belfast I had in part left behind. So The Stoic Man is accompanied by a collection of Early Poems written during those years in Galway’s old city, around the streets and canal-ways, the bridges, Lough shore and harbour where we used to live.

It is hard to think of how things could have been so different without making it seem as if things turned out not as well as one had hoped, which is not the case. The fact is though that no one back then that I knew really planned a future. It sort of just happened. Maybe that is the biggest change I can spot between then and now.

Targets, outcomes, graphs and statistics, the numerical volumes of which we seem to be increasingly addicted in post-“Celtic Tiger” Ireland, forecasting everything from weather to economic predictions to just about every facet of social life. These strainings after certainty certainly did not exist. We lived more in the moment. That may have been unwise, I don’t know, but what I can say is that the not knowing about these matters did not halt our growth or stunt our enthusiasm for life.

The petulance, complaint and unceasing quest for factoids and percentages, faults and failings, blame and admonishment which characterises so much of Irish life today did not play any significant part in our life back then, or if it did it hasn’t left any trace behind in my memory. Politics was cut and thrust; business was precisely that, business: nothing more, nothing less but nothing like the current fad for elevating it to a new religion.

There was an intelligent debate going on about literature and art, among many other things, that weren’t in hock to the market-place or the mantra of economy. Perhaps, surprisingly too, there was an openness and appetite in brashly engaging with European ideals, probably because we had only recently joined the European family. This act would prove critical in underpinning the modernisation of our infrastructure like roads, and the liberalisation of our codes of conduct. But also, critically, the opening of our minds as well; no longer being obsessed with England started to take root sometime around the 70s.

The Stoic Man sorts some of these bass notes into a record of personal time. From growing up in a vibrant 60s Belfast, through the blunt decades that at times followed, before the republic soared economically and then crashed unceremoniously leaving the ordinary “Joe” to pick up the tab.

And now what? The book ends with a few more questions than it can possibly answer.

I hope The Stoic Man is a good read, alongside those Early Poems written by a young lad who I kind of remember disembarking from the dewy CIE coach one crisp late afternoon many moons ago.

MEMORY

in memory of Bridget O’Toole

It is a desert of rock
the rain has finally withered
till we are left black
dots on a shrinking island.

We come like pilgrims
wandering at night through
the dim landscape. A blue
horizon lurks behind whin
bushes and narrows to pass
the pitch-black valley.

We are at home. A place as
man-forsaken as this must
carry like the trees a silent
immaculate history. Stones
shift under the cliff’s shadow.

Nearby the tide closes in,
master of the forgotten thing.

Gerald Dawe and traditional singer Eleanor Shanley will be marking the publication of The Stoic Man and Early Poems with HOME THOUGHTS, a reading with songs at Cuirt on Thursday April 23rd at 5pm in the Galway Town Hall Studio Theatre. see cuirt.ie

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