WB Yeats ‘showed Ireland wasn’t just about the Famine’

DVD of Bob Geldof’s documentary on poet has been released

A DVD of Bob Geldof's documentary on WB Yeats has just been released in which Geldolf pays tribute to the man "who showed Ireland wasn't just about the Famine".

It has been two years since Geldof's documentary was broadcast on RTÉ as part of its programming marking the centenary of the Easter Rising.

The original documentary was a rhetorical tour de force by Geldof in which he passionately extolled Yeats’s genius but also expounded at length on a few of his favourite shibboleths - in particular the clerical-dominated Ireland that emerged after independence and the illegitimacy, as he sees it, of the Easter Rising.

The DVD of the documentary has just been released. It contains the original documentary, which is an hour-and-a-half long, but also another three hours of recitation and commentary.


Geldof’s renowned powers of persuasion went before him when he was making the documentary. Who else would attract such a cornucopia of A-listers?

Bono, Noel Gallagher, Sting, Shane MacGowan and Van Morrison from the world of music; actors Bill Nighy, Richard E Grant, Dominic West, Colin Farrell, Damian Lewis and Tom Hollander; and writers Joseph O'Connor, Roy Foster, Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright are among the contributors.

“London is small place really if you’re in that sort of game just like Dublin is a small town. I bump into these people at dos and stuff,” he says. As you do.

One of his favourite readings is Noel Gallagher's version of Remorse for Intemperate Speech which contains the famous lines "Out of Ireland have we come. Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start. I carry from my mother's womb a fanatic heart."

Gallagher, Geldof says, understood the real significance of those lines having grown up in 1970s Manchester during the IRA bombing campaigns in Britain.

The DVD arose from Geldof’s desire to have something tangible and physical for his efforts.

“There are no DVD sales anymore, but I insisted on a physical thing,” he said. “It is like the [Boomtown] Rats are bringing out an album in September, and I want it physically to exist.

“Unless I personally hold it, it doesn’t seem real to me. I also want to have it on my bookshelves along with the other stuff I have done.”

He is also hopeful the DVD will command an international audience. “I’ve just spoken to the San Francisco Chronicle, and they’re not Irish-Americans. This guy [Yeats] travels for whatever reason.

He showed Ireland wasn't just about the Famine

“His achievements for Ireland are immense. He showed Ireland wasn’t just about the Famine. This wasn’t a beaten people. This wasn’t a people from nowhere. This was a prelapsarian people with Homeric legends just as good as the Greeks in case we had forgotten.

“From that you build a state. Unless you know who you are and from whence you come, you can’t understand what you are going to be.”

Yeats, he maintains, is to Ireland what Shakespeare is to Britain. Geldof’s central thesis is that a nation state is as much a work of the imagination as it is a political entity. In that regard, he believes, Yeats stands supreme.

Originally Geldof conceived the Yeats documentary as a tribute to the poet, but also to “offer a corrective to the kitsch view of Irish history which is mythology in my view” relating to the Easter Rising.

Geldof blames the Easter Rising for the “pietistic” state that emerged after independence contrasting that with Yeats’s vision of a pluralistic society in which his own ascendency class could feel comfortable. “We are no petty people,” Yeats wrote after the new Irish state banned divorce despite the objection of the Protestant minority most notably Yeats himself who was a senator in the Irish Free State.

The DVD contains further musings on the Easter Rising. In it Geldof argues with Liam Neeson, who narrated the documentary 1916: The Irish Rebellion, and with Professor Roy Foster, Yeats's biographer, about the morality of the Rising.

At one stage Foster tells him: “I think Yeats’s views on the Rising are a good deal more ambiguous than yours are Bob.”

The documentary begins with Geldof’s reflections on the 1966 50th annivesary commemorations of the Easter Rising and how as a teenager he felt alienated by them. What did he make of the Easter Rising commemorations of 2016?

“I thought it was dignified and I thought the usual suspects tried to make it into some sort of messianic blood fest. That was defeated. I like that,” he said.

That moment [the Rising] is the original sin of the Irish State

“I still think though there is a terrible misleading. I don’t think the Easter Rising is the foundational moment of the State. I know it is enshrined as such, but not for me. I don’t care if that doesn’t work for anyone else. That moment [the Rising] is the original sin of the Irish State.

“Had I been alive then I would have been with Willie [Yeats] and the boys. I would be arguing strenuously against taking on the greatest military power of the last 2,000 years and saying, ‘where’s the plan?’

“I’m not into the ‘vertigo of self-sacrifice’ as Yeats brilliantly put it. I’m not into the cheap spilling of blood.”

He doubles down on his highly contentious, if not historically inaccurate, suggestion that Ireland had already achieved independence through the Home Rule Act of 1914.

Ireland, he believes, would have achieved independence “one way or the other” and preferably through peaceful means.

Home Rule was put on the statute books in September of that year but suspended for the duration of the first World War. It never came into being.

Home Rule offered Ireland a measure of self-government, but the Irish parliament would still be subservient to the imperial parliament and foreign affairs and defence would still be the preserve of the British Government.

The Irish Free State established Ireland as an independent state, but Geldof does not see it that way.

“It is not up to a bunch of geezers to tell us what their version of independence was when democratically we had achieved the first stage - Home Rule,” he maintains.

“We didn’t get independence until 1949 when we declared a republic. That’s what the republicans wanted. Not until 1949 did we get it.

"In 1922 we got a nominal independence. It's a dominion status - the same as Canada so the end result was precisely the same as Home Rule. We got it [Home Rule] through democratic means."

The Easter Rising, he adds, was a "delusional enterprise"; James Connolly a "failed atheistic revolutionary"; and Pearse a "messianic Catholic leader". Not a lot of people would agree with these portrayals, but he carries on.

“If I had been around at the time, I would have seriously questioned it. I would have said: ‘I don’t go along with this, but I do go along with a free country’.

“[John] Redmond in 1914 would have led to the same consequences in my view. We might have not have had partition if we had gone down the Redmond route.”

Geldof recommends Roy Foster's Vivid Faces as a book that made him want to be around 100 years ago. The book tells the story of the revolutionary generation with their incredible characters and stories - Yeats and his great muse Maud Gonne being among them.

The sense of social revolution was unavoidable

“The sense of social revolution was unavoidable. It must have been so stimulating at that period. They were completely out there,” he says.

“There was a rejection of their parents. They were anti-materialistic. There was no fucking around. Forget the hippies. These were amazing people. They were totally people we would understand and argue with in the 21st century.”

A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B Yeats will be available in shops next week. It can be purchased online at https://www.wienerworld.com/a-fanatic-heart-geldof-on-yeats.html

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times