The man who saw the olives bleed
POETRY/BIOGRAPHY: HARRY CLIFTONreviews Heroic Heart: A Charles Donnelly Reader Edited by Kay Donnelly, with Gerald Dawe Lagan Press, 200pp. £9.99
THE IRISH POET Charles Donnelly died on February 27th, 1937, of “a bullet through the temple”, on the Jarama Front, fighting for the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Ten days later – “univ grad., stinking body, face fresh, naive looking” – he was buried beneath one of the trees of which he had remarked only days before his death that “even the olives are bleeding”. These words are now on a plaque to his memory in the school of English corridor at University College Dublin, where he had once studied.
Two poems found among his papers were posted, bordered in black, on the noticeboard at battalion headquarters. These were The Tolerance of Crows and Poem, the two by which he is now mainly remembered, and the second of which, written some months earlier in London, uncannily prefigures his own death.
Between rebellion as a private study and the public
Defiance, is simple action only on which will flickers
Catlike, for spring. Whether at nerve-roots is secret
Iron, there’s no diviner can tell, only the moment can show.
Simple and unclear moment, on a morning utterly different
And under circumstances different from what you’d expected.
The steely, tensile quality of that is unlike anything in the soft-centred pastoralism of 1930s Irish poetry, turned in on itself, immersed still in the Celtic Twilight. Donnelly, dead at 22, was already a schooled political activist since his teens, when he had wandered in and witnessed the poverty and degradation of the Dublin slums, with James Connolly dead and the power and pietism of the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil blocking any possibility of an international socialist movement in Ireland. The poetic and the political, he wrote, had to be lived as a single experience. He had drifted away from the student world of Earlsfort Terrace well before graduation, to jail, activism, escape to London – “I had to get out of that bloody place. It’s hard to stand the stupidity any longer” – and, to the dismay of his family, the decision to go to Spain. Not as one of those he called “romantic fools” but, as the above lines from Poem indicate, “to study military strategy”.
There is a quality of abstract detachment in Donnelly remarkable in a man so young (he was fond of the expression “a fine mind”). Not surprisingly, Ernie O’Malley, Trinity medical student, intellectual and freedom fighter of the 1920s, was a role model. But it is the English poet Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy aged 24, whose abstract-mechanical detachment from the elemental experience of death springs to mind. This is Douglas in How to Kill, peering through the gunsights of his tank in the western desert:
Now in my dial of glass appears
The soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
His mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW . . .
And this is Donnelly in The Tolerance of Crows:
Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction.
It is not exactly a lovable quality, not to say somewhat chilling, especially in O’Malley. Yet Donnelly was not only loved and lovable but also charismatic, unforgettable to the many who wrote poems to his memory, wrote memoirs of knowing him or, in the case of the Irish poet Ewart Milne, drove a supply truck to Spain so that they might meet again, only to find he had already died.
The presence in a family of a charismatic individual, in this case an elder son whose life and death were so singular, can send emotional ripples through the next half-century. This seems to have happened with Donnelly’s father and his brother Joseph, whose remembrance of him is, in a way, the emotional centrepiece of the present book, which is edited by Joseph’s widow, Kay. Without it, and the sense it gives of the complexities of the family background – their mother died young, their father remarried, not altogether happily – Donnelly might have come across as brilliant but less than human, a peg on which to hang this or that version of history or poetics. The sense remains, however, as with Stanislaus Joyce and Peter Kavanagh, of a younger brother in lifelong thrall to the heroic image of an older one.
The 1930s, “a low dishonest decade”, as Auden called it, was characterised, even in isolationist Ireland, by extremes of right and left. Donnelly, as prose pieces here reveal, had seen through both, to their shared totalitarian identity. In this and other respects he resembles the French philosopher Simone Weil, who was also the despair of her family, crossing class and party lines, getting involved in Spain. Like her, like Auden, Orwell, Silone and many another, Donnelly was hardly in Spain before his eyes were opened to the hijacking, by the Stalinist OGPU, of the idealism of the International Brigades. All we have, from his last weeks, are a few sad asides to this effect. Had he lived, it seems likely that his political internationalism would have evolved, as his comparison of the ordinary magnificence of the Spanish people with those of Achill Island seems to suggest, into a poet’s rather than an activist’s vision of human universality. “It’s two years since I’ve written verse,” he wrote to Cecil Salkeld two days before leaving for Spain, “and here I am now writing every day. I only wish I hadn’t wasted the last two years.”
Without the engagement, though, the sense of truths already tested in the field, would those last poems have their special gravitas?
The technique of the public man, the masked servilities are
Not for you. Master of military trade, you give
Like Raleigh, Lawrence, Childers, your services but not yourself.
Spain and its disillusionments might have led to an ever greater separation between the services rendered and the poetic self. We will never know. What we do know, with isolationist rant and Europhobia once more in the air – the blood-and-soil Penguin Anthology of Irish Poetry has no place for him – is that the 1930s are very much with us and that the life and spirit of Donnelly, never more than at present, is a small, crucial antidote to the narrowing of the Irish mind.
Harry Clifton is Ireland professor of poetry. His new collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, is due in May from Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books