Irish poets in time of war: the battle to be heard

Gerald Dawe discusses some of the background to his new book, Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing

Aine Miller reads at the  Francis Ledwidge commemorative festival at Islandbridge in 1997. Ledwidge, a nationalist poet, was in Dublin during the very week of the Easter Rising, having recovered in England from serious injuries incurred while fighting in the British army in the first World War

Aine Miller reads at the Francis Ledwidge commemorative festival at Islandbridge in 1997. Ledwidge, a nationalist poet, was in Dublin during the very week of the Easter Rising, having recovered in England from serious injuries incurred while fighting in the British army in the first World War

 

The history of recent conflict in Ireland is usually traced to the early years of the twentieth century, and the key figure who determined the way we view this period in literary terms is WB Yeats. During the Northern Troubles, his example and presence was a hotly disputed legacy when poets and critics debated the role that history, politics and cultural identity play in the creation of literature. Towards the end of his life, Yeats had prepared (“chosen” is the word used) an anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. In that somewhat controversial anthology, Yeats had stated in the introduction – dated September 1936 – the key reason for his omitting from the book those war poets of the 1914-18 war. The justification is not so very different from his argument with Sean O’Casey over The Silver Tassie, which Yeats had rejected for the Abbey stage in 1928. He wrote in the introduction to The Oxford Book of “a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the Great War; they are in all anthologies” and continued:

“The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; [they] felt bound in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems... passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced.”

Yeats actually did include some war poets, but not exclusively their war poems – a typical Yeatsian inconsistency wherein his critical priorities are subordinated to his powerful poetic instincts. Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Julian Grenfell (1888-1915), Edward Thomas (1878-1917) – all of whom died during the first World War – are included, along with survivors Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), Herbert Read (1893-1968) and Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967), who had twice been injured fighting on the front.

The two telling exclusions from Yeats’ anthology – Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) – are sufficient for Yeats to rest his case: passive suffering is no true subject for poetry. So, Earth Voices Whispering, the anthology of Irish war poems I edited in 2008, was (partly) a response to Yeats’, but not only in terms of the first World War. I wanted to take into account a definable, definite historical period (1914-45) in which to see how men and women from Ireland responded to the events of war and political violence during their own time, as soldiers, as citizens, as onlookers, as non-combatants.

If the post-independent Irish Free State of the 1920s and 1930s and, eventually, the Republic from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s averted for political reasons its critical eyes from the reality of its own history, dogma and illusion reproduced in Northern Ireland and Britain a baffling and willed ignorance as to the huge contribution of Irish Catholics from all over the country (and of course those already resident in Britain) to the British army. Éire’s neutrality during the carnage of the second World War was eagerly and widely seen as confirmation of the untrustworthiness of the relatively new state (a stab in the back), not as the understandably ambiguous strategy for democratic political survival that it was. This is how the Northern poet Robert Greacen described the mood of the time in his preface to Irish Harvest, an anthology published in Dublin in 1946:

“Dublin always seemed a city of comparative carnival, festive, bright, airy, and expansive. One arrived from the Northern drizzle, with its black-out and khaki and drab rationing, to find a brilliantly-lit, well- groomed atmosphere that appeared sinfully ‘normal’ in a stricken world.... Thus the War – or as they called it officially [in Southern Ireland] – the Emergency – has passed .... It is fact, not pun, to say that we have emerged, for neutrality within a total war was no politician’s picnic, whatever one’s opinion of De Valera’s Government.”

According to Clair Wills in That Neutral Island, for the mass of the population in Ireland the quality of life was not completely dissimilar to that experienced in wartime Britain, certainly as far as rationing and so on. However, the inherited ‘either/or’ condition (Irish = Catholic= nationalist / British= Protestant= unionist) dominated much of the popular political assumptions in postwar Irish life from the 1950s until comparatively recently, effectively placing into cold storage the complexities of Irish history, and with it the complicated literary witness.

Of War and War’s Alarms parallels this part of our history by taking the story on to the late 1950s, early 1960s and explores, sensitively I hope, some of these complications in the context of Irish writers who bring a hybrid self-consciousness to their work, from Thomas MacGreevy and Christabel Bielenberg to Charles Donnelly and Padraic Fiacc, together with my own growing awareness of war as a lived and imagined reality.

Acceptable myths repressed those writers who did not suit the meta-narratives of either nationalism or unionism, as they in turn further diverged into ideological underpinnings of two mutually exclusive states predicated upon the partition of the island since 1922. But the facts speak differently. For instance, what are we to make of a first World War historical record that includes the following:

“The best estimate for recruitment in Ireland after mobilization suggests that the [British] army secured about 134,000 men, the navy and naval reserve over 6,000 and the air force about 4,000 ... suggesting that Ireland’s male contribution to the wartime forces was about 210,000 ... the participation of over 200,000 Irishmen was proportionately the greatest deployment of armed manpower in the history of Irish militarism.

It should be pointed out that David Fitzpatrick’s figures include early 1916 – by Easter of which year the nationalist uprising in Dublin had taken place. Involving a few hundred men and women, mostly in Dublin, it was rapidly repressed by the selfsame British army.

Anne Dolan, in her study, Commemorating the Irish Civil War: history and memory, 1923-2000, states that 49,000 first World War dead (that is, Irish war dead) are commemorated in Islandbridge, Dublin. The site was, until quite recently, in such a bad state of disrepair, a physical reminder of a neglected past, that it could become such a powerful dramatic metaphor in Paul Murray’s challenging novel, Skippy Dies. But the numbers and arguments over them can also get in the way of the human dimension. What about the actual individual stories, plucked at random from history’s so-called “periphery”? For instance, Tom Kettle, academic at University College, Dublin, nationalist politician, poet and essayist, killed in September 1916 at the Somme, aged 36, or Francis Ledwidge, committed nationalist, trade-union organiser, poet, friend of several of those who actually fought in Easter 1916. This is how the latter’s biographer, Alice Curtayne, describes Ledwidge’s return to Dublin during the very week of the Rising, having recovered in England from serious injuries incurred while fighting on the front:

“In Dublin he mingled with the crowds who gathered in O’Connell Street every day to stare at the still-smoking ruins. The newspaper reports of the devastation said that from the Pillar to the quays on both sides, all the buildings were gone, leaving only a mass of rubble. The walls and portico were all that was left of the Post Office, but from the gutted interior smoke was still rising into the air. The Imperial Hotel opposite had also been demolished, but the name in gilt letters still remained on the front wall. The Metropole Hotel and the whole block of which it formed part had disappeared, leaving a debris of bricks and stones. The statues of Nelson and O’Connell remained intact.

Ledwidge wrote eight lines of verse on his brooding:

A noble failure is not vain?
But hath a victory its own?
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown.
And, more than Beauty understands
Has made her lovelier here, it seems;
I see white ships that crowd her strands,
For mine are all dead men’s dreams.

The ‘bright delectance from the slain’ of the Rising – whatever about being handed ‘down the generations’ – has a much more fatalistic turn of phrase as ‘dead men’s dreams’ in this soldierly reading of Ledwidge’s, rather than the ‘terrible beauty’ of Yeats’ famous poem Easter 1916.

Think also of Monk Gibbon, from the ranks of upper-middle-class Irish Protestantism – son of an Anglican minister, with a classic upper-middle-class Dublin background – who served in the British army until shell shock led to a breakdown; throughout his time at the front he carried with him the poems of Thomas MacDonagh, one of the executed leaders of 1916.

My point is that these (poets’) stories were not represented in any one anthology, so I wanted to bring together a selection of such poems in their depiction and response to ‘war’ in the process of identifying inclusiveness as a principle: of soldiering and reactions to war from both participants and civilians alike; from ‘professional’ poets, to those who have made poetic responses: an anthological statement that embraces the reality of the Irish experience, rather than one that reads such experience from an exclusively ideological position of either nationalism or unionism, the counterparts of Irish chauvinism or anglophone insularity. To go behind these representations is also the critical propulsion at the centre of Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing. Whatever ideological position this invokes is for others to decide.

Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing is published by Cork University Press on October 14th

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