Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism - Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017.

 

The Gael becomes Irish: the long-term consequences of colonisation
Tuesday, 19 May 2020 07:55

The Gael becomes Irish: the long-term consequences of colonisation

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Tomás Mac Síomóin's The Gael Becomes Irish: An Unfinished Odyssey, Nuascéalta, 2020.

“The Gael Becomes Irish”is Tomás Mac Síomóin’s latest publication, and it continues his epic effort to detail the almost unfathomable effect that colonisation has had on the Irish psyche and culture. By doing so, he must be seen as on a par with the ground-breaking work of Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who revealed the disastrous psychiatric and psychological effects of such colonisation. While Memmi and Fanon wrote their revolutionary studies at a time of liberation struggle from physical occupation, Ngũgĩ and Mac Síomóin trace the minutiae of the long-term consequences of colonisation.

Both highly respected writers of fiction and non-fiction share a particular interest in the linguistic and cultural aftermath of colonial domination. By doing so, they tread on many toes, especially of those who have accommodated themselves with the status quo, deeming it the modern and rational thing to do. These people, in such diverse places as Kenya and Ireland, share an astonishing similarity of wishing to emulate their oppressors.

Mac Síomóin’s “The Gael Becomes Irish” is a companion volume of his 2014 landmark study “The Broken Harp”. In this, the author presented the decline of Gaeilge as one of the most sinister outcomes of colonisation, aided by the Catholic Church. This thorough destruction resulted in a post-colonial trauma, which, according to the author, transmits the colonial condition via DNA structures and has given rise to something akin to Stockholm syndrome. The loss of language and all that this entails  in terms of history, culture, and world-view leads to the adoption instead of the coloniser’s Weltanschauung, in which the victim remains a ‘loser’. Such denial of ancestral language echoes Ngũgĩ’s writings, to whom such rejection seals the accomplishment of the imperial goal. Mac Síomóin also applies Albert Memmi’s thinking to Ireland’s inability to assert itself internationally, as exhibited by Ireland’s catastrophic surrender to EU austerity.

Mac Síomóin links all this to class. Language, culture and identity stand most in the way of those who need to ape the coloniser. In a profit-driven world, language revival “would receive short shrift, being seen as totally ‘surplus to requirements’”. Cultural disinheritance of entire peoples is aided by removing history from school curricula, paralleled by an indifference to natural heritage, destroyed with equal zeal.

Central to Mac Síomóin’s Socratic style of debate is the future of language and literature. Interestingly, while Ngũgĩ started out writing in English, having been educated in the British tradition, and as a matter of profound protest turning to his native Kikuyu, Mac Síomóin’s trajectory has been different. He started out writing in Gaeilge. However, like other Gaelic authors before him, such as Liam O’Flaherty, for a political writer audience matters and to reach a wider audience, indeed to circumvent a certain disdain on the part of the administrators of Gaelic literature for ‘dark’ stories, Mac Síomóin has translated some of his work into English.

In “The Gael Becomes Irish”, Mac Síomóin investigates the rapidly decreasing value of Gaeilge and the Gaeltacht in contemporary Irish life. One of the main obstacles as he sees it is Official Standard Irish, a storehouse of archaic forms, foisted on hapless learners. In this context, he puts forward the need for a simpler modernised Irish, based on current Gaeltacht usage, an approach that has been successfully used to revive other endangered languages such as Hebrew. Indeed English itself lost its genders and many of its inflections in the historically short transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English during the time of the Norman conquest, when French was spoken by the upper classes and English by the ordinary people. Absence of grammatical rulebooks boosts the speed of language development. Mac Síomóin gives the example of the Belfast’s tiny Bóthar Seoighe Gaelteacht as an example of success. An appendix details suggestions for a simplified grammar. However, he is not confident about the implementation of such new rules, or indeed the survival of Gaeilge.

Charles Dickens and working-class literature
Monday, 11 May 2020 09:09

Charles Dickens and working-class literature

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses Charles Dickens, the first English novelist to put ordinary people at the heart of the story

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, who was born in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. Although his authorial perspective was always rooted in the petty-bourgeois class he was born into, he never forgot how his father was imprisoned for debts, and how the financial circumstances of his family forced him to leave school at the age of 12 and work a 10-hour day in a shoe polish factory. This experience led to his lifelong conviction that no child should ever endure such suffering.

Apart from witnessing poverty and child labour, Dickens also experienced the efforts of the petty bourgeoisie to keep up some kind of facade in the face of financial hardship. Despite his incredible early literary success, Dickens never became complacent – instead his radicalism deepened over the course of his life.

Dickens’ first journalistic jobs were as a parliamentary reporter for radical magazines, and thus moving in radical circles. He was also instrumental in organizing a strike by the reporters of the newspaper “The True Sun” and successfully acted as their spokesperson. At the same time, his love of writing developed. In 1836, he gave up his job as a reporter and started to earn his living by selling his books and writings.

He was born into the rapidly accelerating period of the Industrial Revolution, which powered the transition of British capitalism into its imperialist phase. His first creative period from 1836 to 1842 coincided with the rise and peak of the Chartist movement. His second phase covered the temporary revival of Chartism and the upheaval of 1848/1849, ending with the final triumph of the European reaction in 1850, a triumph that marked his third creative period.

Dickens’ development as a writer, from a basic outlook of optimism to one of pessimism, thus reflects the sensitivities of English radicalism in those same years. His productive literary work falls into the period between the collapse of the English socialist movement under Robert Owen, and its revival under the International Workers’ Federation by Karl Marx in 1864. In France, the painter Courbet developed realism during this epoch, depicting people at work in an unromanticised way. This tells of the spirit of the times, the context in which we must seek the significance of Charles Dickens.

Dickens always regarded himself as one of the common people, sympathising with them as working people and exposing injustice against them. This made him lastingly popular with the ordinary folk. His stance that the poor, and socially excluded groups like children be treated as human beings was in itself a revolutionary demand.

Taking this stance led Dickens to develop a new type of novel. His novels take the focus away from characters in the wealthy classes and towards the lives of ordinary, mostly urban  children, men and women, who grapple with everyday challenges. With his strong sense of individuality, he made these people extraordinarily vivid. He shows his readers the darker side of society in the first great industrialised metropolis in the world. His most interesting and valuable characters are usually people from the lower social classes.

In 1842 Dickens travelled to the US as a committed supporter of American independence, seeking to find the democracy of his dreams. Not only was he disappointed in this, but the existence of slavery and its enthusiastic defence by many he met also outraged him.  After his return, he wrote “American Notes for General Circulation” (1842), which strongly criticized American society and its values, especially slavery and violence, as well as its extreme individualism. In the novel “Martin Chuzzlewit”, published shortly afterwards, he also described the conflict he experienced between expectations and reality in the USA.

Until his visit to the US, Dickens’ perspective was directed exclusively towards southern England, while the main impulse for Chartism came from the industrial Midlands and the North. Not surprisingly, Dickens’ radicalism in his earlier novels was more moderate, and initially represented incidental ills. But as his writing developed, the entire social system that he depicts increasingly proves to be deeply rotten and unreformable.

Great Expectations

By way of example, let us turn briefly to one of Dickens’ later novels, “Great Expectations” (1860-61), in which the title-giving expectation is borne by a boy from the working class, and is attached to the hope for  a wealthy patroness’s  goodwill. The novel describes Pip’s development, and the shock of disillusionment.

In this book there is absolutely no hope that conditions could be put right by the benevolence of the ruling class. Instead, it is the outcast Magwitch, cheated, exploited, and brutalised by the law, who shows gratitude and generosity to Pip. Just as the bourgeoisie owes its wealth to the exploitation of the working classes, so Pip owes his wealth to Magwitch – and Pip is just as ungrateful as the bourgeoisie.

Dickens’ depiction of the two lawyer characters, Jaggers and his employee Wemmick, is also noteworthy. They are ruthless in their working lives, but they lead a completely different, compassionate private life, showing that success in business is only achieved at the expense of one’s own humanity. To underline this metaphorically, Jaggers always washes his hands following a particularly dirty job. Pip also changes during the time of his “expectations”, at the expense of his humanity, as is painfully expressed in his shameful treatment of Joe Gargery and Biddy.

The novel shows the folly of indulging in illusion, and how the lure of great expectations leads to disaster.  Dickens’ original ending underlined Pip’s complete break with his aspirations for social advancement and his insight into the heartlessness of ‘better’ society.  However, Dickens let himself be dissuaded from his planned, mercilessly consistent novel ending. Under pressure from the novelist Bulwer Lytton, he changed his intended ending in favour of a less likely, happier outcome. One is inclined to agree with Shaw who stated that Dickens’ original conclusion was the true happy ending. The logic of the novel contradicts the changed ending. Its most admirable characters are the blacksmith Joe Gargery and the teacher Biddy, Gargery’s second wife. Pip himself, as the main character, begins and ends as a working person.

When Charles Dickens began writing in 1836, the literacy rate in England was under 50 percent. More than any other writer of his time, Dickens must have helped inspire a desire for literacy among the ordinary people, by publishing stories – mostly serialised in magazines – that people really wanted to read because they could relate to the characters.

Dickens has had a great and continuing influence on subsequent writers. For example, in Robert Tressell’s “Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” not only does Tressell expand on Dickens’ focus by depicting a panorama of working-class people, he is also clearly steeped in the Dickensian tradition in his use of names or motifs, which contain the power of social generalisation. In this sense, Dickens’ increasingly fierce and pointed satires help prepare the ground for working-class literature.

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets
Tuesday, 28 April 2020 09:33

'The life I lived was a woman's life': Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's finest poets

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell remembers the life and work of the late Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland died on 27 April 2020. She ranks among Ireland’s finest poets, and was one of the foremost female voices in Irish poetry. She was born in Dublin in 1944, her father a diplomat and her mother a painter. She published the first of many collections, 23 Poems, in 1962 while still a student at Trinity College in Dublin. Her early work tells of her experiences as a young mother, and her growing awareness of the role of women in Irish history. She commented in an interview:

I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’….I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.

So Eavan Boland wrote about the many subjects that she experienced, as a woman and as a human being – and this included historical and political themes. She worked as a poet, editor and teacher. In later years, Boland was Professor of English and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University. In 2017, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards.

A favourite poem of mine is one written in 1975, at the height of the Troubles:

The War Horse

This dry night, nothing unusual
About the clip, clop, casual

Iron of his shoes as he stamps death
Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth.

I lift the window, watch the ambling feather
Of hock and fetlock, loosed from its daily tether

In the tinker camp on the Enniskerry Road,
Pass, his breath hissing, his snuffling head

Down. He is gone. No great harm is done.
Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn –

Of distant interest like a maimed limb,
Only a rose which now will never climb

The stone of our house, expendable, a mere
Line of defence against him, a volunteer

You might say, only a crocus, its bulbous head
Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.

But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Of fierce commitment gone; why should we care

If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted
Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?

He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge
Threatening. Neighbours use the subterfuge

Of curtains. He stumbles down our short street
Thankfully passing us. I pause, wait,

Then to breathe relief lean on the sill
And for a second only my blood is still

With atavism. That rose he smashed frays
Ribboned across our hedge, recalling days

Of burned countryside, illicit braid:
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.

 “The War Horse” is an ominous title, especially when we place ourselves in the time it was written. The Troubles brought daily deaths and terrible suffering. This poem challenges Southern Irish society’s turning of a blind eye across the border. This is one of several poems  where Boland tackles Southern indifference during these years.

 The title suggests power, masculinity and military force. War horses were usually stallions, bred and raised from foalhood to meet the needs of war. In contrast to the unease created by the title, the reader is told there is: “nothing unusual/ About the clip, clop”, something that alerts the reader to there being something “unusual”. Clip, clop enacts the sound of the hooves on the street. Run-on lines throughout poem somehow seem to contradict its rhyming
couplets. They suggest that what is being related is not neat and tidy, but bursts out of this apparent control.

The “casual// Iron of his shoes as he stamps death”, evokes violence, heightened in “coinage” suggesting carnage. The level stress in “stamps death” suggests a horse or a soldier in battle. At the same time, the image is linked to the making of money and the violation of the earth. The rhyming of death and earth emphasises that all is not is well.

The speaker opens her sash window, exposing herself to the experience. The horse comes closer and more into focus. The description moves from the general distant appearance to more specific details: “the ambling feather/ Of hock and fetlock” – the long hair on the lower legs, ‘hock’ referring to the hind leg knee and ‘fetlock’ being the horse’s ankle. The horse, the reader is told, is freed from being tied up in the “tinker camp”. The speaker focuses first on the animal’s legs, then its freedom and his “breath” and “snuffling head”.

The horse passes. And apprehension changes to relief. Yet, the proximity of this war horse has had an effect on the speaker’s space, even in suburbia. Two caesuras slice the line. “No great harm is done” alerts reader to harm! “Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn”. The choice of the leaf, “laurel”, connotes triumph, glory and peace but also funeral wreaths. The next line initially continues the idea of distance to the horse: “Of distant interest” but as the line progresses, this distance cannot be maintained. War in a remote place suddenly becomes vivid and fighting: “maimed limb” comes as a huge shock. It contradicts “distant interest”.

The reader is forced to reflect. This absence of emotional distance is underlined by the next image, the “rose” that “will never climb/ … our house”: the rose signifies beauty and a life destroyed before its flower and “our house” is more than the immediate home of the speaker.

It comes to represent Ireland. The promise of life and beauty stamped out is given the specific 20th century Irish reference “volunteer”. This one rose, the speaker states, is “expendable, a mere/ Line of defence against him, a volunteer/ You might say”. However, the reader is unconvinced. The emotional weight of the imagery is on the side of this victim who is anything but “expendable”.

This emotion is greatly intensified in the next image: “only a crocus, its bulbous head/ Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.” Again, the word “only” belies the speaker’s empathy. The “bulbous head” evokes human heads, even skulls, and “Blown from growth” the violent killings of very young people, not even fully grown, by guns and explosives. The image of “screamless dead” seems to suggest the opposite – terrible screams. It adds sound to an already horrifying image.

Developed from the apparently small damage done by the war horse to the speaker’s hedging and garden, there has emerged a build-up of intense feeling for the youth and the dead of Ireland, indeed the world affected by war. Neither the rose nor the crocus will flower. O-sounds dominate, communicating deep sadness.

Following this intensity of feeling, the speaker addresses in similarly ironic tone her fellow dwellers in suburbia: “But we, we are safe, our unformed fear/ Of fierce commitment gone”. Neighbours hiding behind curtains, pretending not to know what is going on, afraid of the commitment and sacrifice made by others involved in conflict and war, and believing that turning away from suffering will somehow protect them from it. The speaker has opened the window and thereby herself to this experience and the grief it brings to her, while the others hide behind “curtains”.

Now the voices of neighbours are brought in: “why should we care// If a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted/ Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?” Boland exposes these people’s indifference by recapturing the terrible violence. This highlights suburbia’s attitude, where nothing matters unless it affects their own gardens. The speaker points out how the horse, by passing her garden does affect it; and this becomes an image for Ireland. The flowers are depicted as a very fragile line of defence against a powerful horse.

The speaker, too, is grateful that war has passed her house, but “atavism” reminds her that war has damaged Ireland: “for a second only my blood is still// With atavism”. The word “still” has two meanings here: still with shock, and still in touch with the past (atavism). What was sensed before now becomes explicitly clear to her: the rose that was crushed is scattered across the hedge and reminds her of the violence past and present in Ireland.

The final images bring us back to the “rose” that “frays/ Ribboned across our hedge”. The past (the Ribbonmen, an agrarian secret society who burned the countryside) and the present come together here surrounding “our house”. Ireland, and indeed the world cannot and must not ignore the devastation war brings. In the long run, nobody can pretend not to know.

Easter Rising 1916: The Wayfarer, by Pádraig Pearse
Friday, 10 April 2020 09:41

Easter Rising 1916: The Wayfarer, by Pádraig Pearse

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell presents the final poem in the series of poems written by the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. It is Pádraig Pearse’s “The Wayfarer”. It is Pearse’s last poem, his last statement, written on the eve of his execution in Kilmainham Gaol.

The Wayfarer 

by Pádraig Pearse

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy

To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;

Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
Sorrowful.

A wayfarer is a wanderer across the countryside, akin to a vagabond. It suggests that Pearse views his short life as a time spent wandering, perhaps restless, an observer of life. The fact that he knows he is facing the end of his life, that the world’s beauty “will pass”, has made him “sad”. Explaining this sadness, he states that this beauty has at times been so overwhelming that “my heart hath shaken with great joy”. This physical image, combined with the emotion it describes, is very moving.

The beauty Pearse recalls that has shaken his heart is that of the Irish countryside and people. He evokes this for readers in very vivid and varied images. There is fantastic movement in the “leaping squirrel in a tree” in the mid-distance, to the close-up of “a red lady-bird upon a stalk”, adding a beautiful red touch to the green vegetation. The view pans out further away as the day progresses to evening and evokes “little rabbits in a field” which is lit “by a slanting sun”. The run-on line seems to extend that gloaming.

Next, the eye moves up to take in the solidity of a “green hill” which is not still, but has clouds trailing over it, “shadows drifted by”. In this image of a “quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown / And soon would reap”, nature and humankind merge in the purposeful activity of “mountainy man”, as do present and future blend in “sown / And soon would reap”. Again, movement and process are enacted in a run-on line. It is a ripening Pearse will not live to see. Perhaps the anticipated reaping on the hilltop “near to the gate of Heaven” allowed for some consolation for Pearse. On a more metaphoric level, this sowing and reaping (in the future) also refers to the Rising and that in future, there will be a reaping.

Next, there is a movement from adult to “children”, again suggesting the future. The image is very vivid and tactile: readers can see the children but also feel the sand under their “bare feet”. The fact that the children are barefoot underlines their connectedness to nature. The highly visual “ebbed sea” contains both the present and the future, as the ripples on the wet sand speak of the tide having gone out and turning again. The ebb and tide suggest the everlasting renewal of life and beauty.

In the middle of the line, the image changes away from the seascape to “the streets / Of little towns in Connacht”. Both the sea and the town images expand by enjambment and suggest continuity and perpetuity. Pearse ends these images from the nature and people of Ireland with “Things young and happy.”

The concluding six lines reflect on this evocation of Ireland as a happy and beautiful place and return to the emotion of the poem’s first line “sad”. Pearse’s “heart” has told him that all this beauty will “pass and change, will die and be no more”. The images of the poem however tell the reader while this is true of individual life, there is continuity that outlives individuals. However, Pearse will not be a part of this natural cycle, he will be “gone upon my way”. Pearse poignantly speaks of himself in the past tense at this point, just before he ends the poem on its shortest line – ending his life prematurely on the solitary word “Sorrowful”. The movement we felt in the run-on lines describing vividly the beauty and people of Ireland, are over, the line is cut short, as Pearse’s life was. He was executed the following day, aged thirty-six.

Easter Rising 1916: Die Taube, by Joseph Plunkett
Friday, 10 April 2020 09:41

Easter Rising 1916: Die Taube, by Joseph Plunkett

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell presents the third poem written by the poet-leaders of the Irish Easter Rebellion in 1916. It is Joseph Plunkett’s “Die Taube”, written in 1915.

Engagement with German literature was not unusual for the Irish revolutionary poets and leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. One of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Thomas MacDonagh, for example, translated Goethe’s famous “Wanderers Nachtlied” into English. It is an indication that the insurgents of 1916 were internationalists in their outlook.

Joseph Plunkett, the youngest of the signatories – all of whom were executed after the Rising by the British military – wrote the sonnet “Die Taube” on 4 March 1915.  This was just days before leaving Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day on a secret mission to Germany. He was to rendezvous with Roger Casement and convey a verbal message from the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. It is therefore a little surprising that Plunkett’s poem suggests he regards Germany at war as abhorrent.

The first clue to reading this poem as a comment on Germany is its title. This is striking, as Plunkett did not speak German. The title draws the reader’s attention to the likelihood that this poem refers to Germany. “Die Taube” means “the dove”, a bird that symbolises love and peace. The fact that Plunkett uses the dove to represent Germany is significant. It immediately suggests something positive. It is pointedly not the German eagle of victory and imperial power.

In addition to this, Plunkett composes a traditional love poem – a Petrarchan sonnet, comprising of the initial octet, rhyming abbaabba, which states the problem, and the concluding sestet rhyming cddcdc, resolving it.

Die Taube

by Joseph Plunkett

To-day when I beheld you all alone
And might have stayed to speak, the watchful love
Leapt up within my heart, — then quick to prove
New strength, the fruit of sorrow you have sown
Sank in my stormy bosom like a stone
Nor dared to rise on flaming plumes above
Passionless winds, till you, O shining dove
Far from the range of wounding words had flown. 

The speaker spots a single dove, addressing it familiarly as “you”. He establishes a personal relationship, “might have stayed to speak”, but “the watchful love” that springs up in the speaker’s heart prevents closeness that he would have welcomed otherwise. The entire poem is defined by this ambiguous feeling for Germany, a mood conveyed from the very beginning.

While the bird represents what he feels is good about Germany and therefore his love for it, the dove has sown “the fruit of sorrow”. Given the date, March 1915, nine months into World War I, this can only refer to the hostilities. However, sorrow does not destroy his love; “watchful” merely constrains it. Sorrow over Germany’s war has produced a tangible “fruit” that oppresses the speaker.

The speaker’s sorrow over Germany’s aggression “sinks” in his chest “like a stone”. In the past, Germany had clearly not burdened his heart. The phrase “stormy bosom” suggests turmoil and underlines the double-edged emotion. On the one hand, the speaker has a positive feeling towards Germany, but “sorrow” has gained the upper hand.

His “watchful love” did not dare to ignore the pillars of fire, the rising columns of smoke from burning cities that this war has brought to Europe. It does not dare to rise into the “passionless winds”, the neutral, uninvolved winds of Ireland, until the dove had flown away from the “wounding words” of war propaganda. In contrast to German literature, German war propaganda speaks in “wounding words”. The word “range” connotes a firing range as well as reach. There is no room for loving Germany while it is at war.

Plunkett’s phrase “O shining dove” underlines once more his affection for Germany, something he never loses sight of in the poem. Peace and anything good, worth loving in Germany, symbolised by the dove, has flown far away from Germany.

The poem’s concluding sestet comments on this predicament. The sestet divides into a quatrain and a concluding couplet:

Far have you flown, and blows of battle cease
To drape the skies in tapestries of blood,
Now sinks within my heart the heaving flood
And Love’s long-fluttering pinions I release,

Bidding them not return till blooms the bud
On olive branch, borne by the bird of peace.

The dove has flown to a place where skies are free from the blood of war - to Ireland, where the speaker resides. The speaker renews the image of a heaviness in his heart: “heaving flood” is a very physical image, as palpable as the fruit of sorrow, but even more forceful. A different kind of sensation is evoked, a repeated welling-up. The speaker lets go of the dove, releasing it. The beautiful, tactile adjective “long-fluttering” wings once more emphasises a long love for Germany.

In keeping with the sonnet form, the final two lines arrive at the conclusion. The dove is not to return until it brings peace. The image is both tangible and vivid: “till blooms the bud / On olive branch”. The line break enacts a momentary delay and builds up to the emphasis on “peace”, the last word of the poem. What the speaker loved about Germany is no longer there. He hopes it will return some day, but it cannot come back unless it brings peace. There can be no love on the basis of war.

This reading of Joseph Plunkett’s “Die Taube” reveals his very ambiguous feelings towards Germany at war, the place he was about to travel to. While using a traditional love poem form ironically, he makes his position abundantly clear that he has no illusions about the militarist nature of Germany at that time. There is no suggestion that fighting in this war is heroic. Plunkett was going on a peace mission of a different kind: one that he hoped would bring Ireland her independence from both King and Kaiser.

die taube

Easter Rising 1916: The Man Upright, by Thomas MacDonagh
Friday, 10 April 2020 09:25

Easter Rising 1916: The Man Upright, by Thomas MacDonagh

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell presents the second of the four poems written by leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, the first anti-imperialist uprising in Europe. Here is Thomas MacDonagh’s “The Man Upright”, written in 1911/12, which reveals MacDonagh’s view of the crippling effect of colonialism.

The Man Upright

by Thomas MacDonagh

I once spent an evening in a village
Where the people are all taken up with tillage,
Or do some business in a small way
Among themselves, and all the day
Go crooked, doubled to half their size,
Both working and loafing, with their eyes
Stuck in the ground or in a board, -
For some of them tailor, and some of them hoard
Pence in a till in their little shops,
And some of them shoe-soles - they get the tops
Ready-made from England, and they die cobblers -
All bent up double, a village of hobblers
And slouchers and squatters, whether they straggle
Up and down, or bend to haggle
Over a counter, or bend at a plough,
Or to dig with a spade, or to milk a cow,
Or to shove the goose-iron stiffly along
The stuff on the sleeve-board, or lace the fong
In the boot on the last, or to draw the wax-end
Tight cross-ways - and so to make or to mend
What will soon be worn out by the crooked people.
The only thing straight in the place was the steeple,
I thought at first. I was wrong in that;
For there past the window at which I sat
Watching the crooked little men
Go slouching, and with the gait of a hen
An odd little woman go pattering past,
And the cobbler crouching over his last
In the window opposite, and next door
The tailor squatting inside on the floor -
While I watched them, as I have said before,
And thought that only the steeple was straight,
There came a man of a different gait -
A man who neither slouched nor pattered,
But planted his steps as if each step mattered;
Yet walked down the middle of the street
Not like a policeman on his beat,
But like a man with nothing to do
Except walk straight upright like me and you.

 This is a very easy, entertaining poem with a serious point. It begins almost like a limerick, sets jocular tone, rhymes aabb etc. It is an observation by an outsider: “I once spent an evening in a village”. The people in this village work in farming or small business. All day long, they walk crooked, doubled over “to half their size”. Increasingly we get the impression of colonial subjects in Ireland, who do not have the confidence to stand upright, nor, it seems, have they a vision of where their lives are going: “with their eyes/ Stuck in the ground”. Those who work in small trades receive their materials from England, rather than Ireland, increasing their economic dependence. Cobblers, for example, “get the tops / Ready-made from England”. MacDonagh’s description of the villagers is uncomplimentary to say the least: “a village of hobblers / And slouchers and squatters, whether they straggle / Up and down, or bend to haggle / Over a counter, or bend at a plough,” … He depicts them as people who are utterly crippled in their humanity. No matter what they do for work, they are obliged to bend down. Rather than work expressing their humanity, it acts as their master.

Midway through the poem, we hear that there is something visibly straight in this village of the damned: “The only thing straight in the place was the steeple”. This may well refer to the additional control by the Church over these people. The contrast is very striking to the humbleness and lack of confidence described up to this point. The next line extends this initial surprise into something more significant. It contains the poem’s only caesura and turns the whole flow of the poem around: “I thought at first. I was wrong in that”. The reader’s expectation is heightened as the speaker for the sake of emphasis returns for a moment to the crooked villagers and then exclaims: “There came a man of a different gait - / A man who neither slouched nor pattered”. In fact, this man is said to be “like a man with nothing to do / Except walk straight upright like me and you.” Walking upright is the main purpose of this man’s life - like struggling for an independent socialist republic, it's the obvious and straightforward thing to do.

Following the defeat of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh was court martialed and executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916, aged just thirty-eight.

Easter Rising 1916: Mise Éire / I am Ireland by Pádraig Pearse
Friday, 10 April 2020 09:18

Easter Rising 1916: Mise Éire / I am Ireland by Pádraig Pearse

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces a short series of poems and commentary to mark the Easter Rising 1916

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ireland will for the first time in its history be unable to publicly remember the Easter Rising of 1916, its aspirations for an independent socialist Republic, and its heroic leaders.

As a number of these leaders were poets and writers, this is an opportunity to look at one or two of their poems, to see what kind of people they were, how their emotions live on in the poetry and how it speaks to us today.

For this Easter, I am going to look at four poems by three of the leaders, Pádraig Pearse, who wrote the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, and his comrades and signatories Thomas MacDonagh and James Plunkett.

We’ll begin with the most famous poem, Mise Éire/ I am Ireland, written by Pádraig Pearse in 1912.

Mise Éire / I am Ireland 

by Pádraig Pearse

I am Ireland:
I am older than the old woman of Beara.

Great my glory:
I who bore Cuchulainn, the brave.

Great my shame:
My own children who sold their mother.

Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemy who harrasses me continually…

Great my sorrow
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, died.

I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the old woman of Beara.

Pádraig Pearse wrote this poem in Irish. The title is a bold statement of identification with Ireland. At the same time, it is Ireland herself speaking.

The “old woman”, in the original “cailleach Bheara”, is a mysterious figure in Irish myth and folklore. Cailleach in Old Gaelic means ‘veiled one’, suggesting ancient origins of the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian, possibly pre-Celtic times. The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is regarded one of finest surviving examples of early Irish verse. She was famed to be mother and foster mother to at least 50 children who went on to found tribes. Pearse makes that connection and echoes the tone of this  9th c lament – speaking as a female  ‘I’, like in the Lament – only this I is older, she is Ireland.

The tone is reminiscent of an incantation: “Great is my” will be repeated four time. The first time Ireland refers to her “glory”, because she gave birth to Cuchulainn, champion of the early 1st c Ulster Cycle, celtic foundations myths about the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster. These legends had been all but forgotten by the 7th c when bard, Sechan Torpeist, revived them.

Ireland is placed in the context of a wondrous past that is past – of having once had a flowering and vibrant culture. An example of this culture is the great saga of Cú Chulainn. Pearse makes a statement which contradicts the British colonial narrative of Irish cultural inferiority; Irish literature is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe.

The rhetorically powerful repetition “Great my” next presents the polar opposite to “glory” – “shame”. Ireland’s glory lies in the past, conflicting with her “shame”, referring to more recent times. The contrast is continued in the parallel between Cuchulainn and “My own children who sold their mother”. The verb “sold” underlines that these are not ancient but modern times. This contrast highlights the shameful reality of Pearse’s time, of a nation on its knees, ashamed of itself and accepting its conquerors’ narrative.

The children who sold their mother refers to the new Irish establishment, which accepted its inferior place in the British scheme of things – the people now known as Redmondites. They strove for Catholic rights, not Irish nationhood.  They wanted the Catholic middle class to have an equal access to power and influence, but within the safe harbour of Britishness.

The third repetition “Great my” – expands on “shame”, intensifying it. While shame is opposite of pride/glory, it hurts emotionally, pain hurts physically. The enemy, with whom no peace is possible, dominates and inflicts injury in this woman’s own place

The final repetition of “Great my” refers to “sorrow”, which follows this pain. The old woman/ Ireland has suffered betrayal by “That crowd, in whom I placed my trust”: The Redmondite politicians who took over from Parnell, who pretended to be the champions of national freedom but worked to keep Ireland part of the Empire.

The speaker finally returns to opening statement, with a change from “older” to “lonelier”, resulting from her experience, as revealed this poem. The cailleach Bhéara ended her days in loneliness because she was left alone, lamenting the disappearance of her glorious past.  In Pearse’s poem Ireland had no one to turn to after her leaders (Redmond’s crowd) betrayed her. However, the fact that the Pearse wrote this lament on behalf of Ireland is a call for new leaders to take on the cause of Ireland.

The deep and realistic humanism of Raphael
Sunday, 05 April 2020 11:42

The deep and realistic humanism of Raphael

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell presents the life and some of the work of Raphael, who died 500 years ago 

The great Italian painter and architect, Raphael, died on April 6, 1520. He lived at the time of the Italian High Renaissance, one of the most progressive periods of history. As Engels put it:

It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants – giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning.

The High Renaissance

Raphael was one of the three greatest masters of the High Renaissance, the brief period between 1500 and 1530 which was the heyday of early capitalist art in Italy. First beginnings of capitalist production arose in the 14th and 15th centuries in Florence and Genoa; artisanship and banking flourished in the cities of northern and central Italy until the 15th century. Wealth and luxury expanded, and the power-seeking ruling classes gave the arts great representative and decorative tasks, to express and legitimise their own importance.

The High Renaissance witnessed a highpoint for the visual arts. Even in the turmoil of the Italian wars from 1494 to 1559, when French and Spanish troops ravaged the country and the economy, the arts did not lose their importance. Florence had developed into a cultural metropolis under the rule of the Medici family, from 1450 to 1494. In the first decade of the 16th century, Rome took over this role.

 By the time Renaissance art reached its peak, Italy’s economic decline had begun, the Italian states were facing economic and political difficulties, and the Italian bourgeoisie withdrew from banking and usury, investing their capital in land. This ultimately led to a revival of feudal conditions in Italy. The successors to the powerful early capitalist dynasty and patrons of the arts, the Medici, made themselves dukes of Tuscany, as absolutism replaced republican control.

However, the progressive thinkers and artists of the 16th century all remained committed to the defence of the people and even democratised the philosophy of humanism, which had originally been limited to a small group of intellectuals. Their works appeared in the vernacular and emphasised national and democratic ideals. This made the Italian High Renaissance a significant and unparalleled event.

Raphael

Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. At the age of 17, he joined the Perugino workshop. Here he first learnt to give expression to psychological delicacy, which arises with the Renaissance discovery of human beings as this-worldly individuals.

From 1504 to 1508, Raphael worked in Florence. When Raphael arrived in Florence he was only 21 years of age, and yet he was quickly regarded one of the giants of the High Renaissance, along with Michelangelo, aged 29 at the time, and Leonardo da Vinci, who was 52 years old.

900px CAPPELLA SISTINA Ceiling

Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512

As Raphael’s fame spread, Pope Julius II called him to Rome. Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the time. Leonardo da Vinci was at the height of his creativity. Leonardo and Michelangelo had both studied the anatomy of the human body and its movements, and created their compositions from the action and interaction of living bodies and moving faces.

So Raphael went to Rome at the behest of Julius II, nicknamed the Warrior Pope or the Fearsome Pope of the Rovere family. During the Renaissance, the popes were not only ecclesiastical leaders, but also princes of Roman territories.

Julius participated personally in wars and famously stated he preferred the smell of gunpowder to that of incense. He sought to construct magnificent buildings with monumental decorations, as witness to his power and that of the Church. In the Vatican, Julius II brought in artists to paint rooms and other spaces. In 1509, he commissioned Raphael to decorate some rooms, with monumental frescoes on the ceilings and walls. The most famous of these is the Stanza della segnatura (Signature room).

The School of Athens

Set in a great architectural illusion, the “School of Athens” portrays an entirely male ancient world. Curiously, Christian thinkers do not appear, although it is the Vatican. Although many of the figures lived at different times, they are shown together as part of the Athens school.

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino 1000x500

The School of Athens, by Raphael, 1509

The two main figures in the work, centred under the archway, in the fresco’s vanishing point, represent two schools: Plato, to whom Raphael gives Leonardo’s features, pointing upwards into the realm of ideas, his student Aristotle gesturing to earthly, physical experience. Each of these philosophers holds his book representing his thinking: Plato holds the “Timaeus”, Aristotle his “Ethics”, both in modern binding of Raphael’s time. Their clothes support their stances: Plato is dressed in the colours of air and fire, Aristotle is in those of earth and water.

The painting divides into two halves along these lines. Philosophers, poets and thinkers on Plato’s side, and physicists, scientists and more empirical thinkers gather on Aristotle’s side. On the left, along with Plato, you can see the Greek philosopher Socrates, talking to Athenians.

Socrates famously expounded his philosophical thinking in conversation with people. He was Plato’s teacher. Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia and pupil of Aristotle, is shown listening attentively to Socrates, who is emphasizing arguments on his fingers. In the foreground, Pythagoras, who pre-dates Socrates, sits with a book and an inkwell, surrounded by students. Epicurus, on the other hand, lived after the other philosophers, is the chubby fellow with a crown of vine leaves. He taught that happiness lies in the pursuit of pleasures arising from freedom from fear and absence of pain.

Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off charity, lies happily on the steps with his drinking bowl, his body pointing to the Aristotle side of the painting. On the right in front, appears Euclid, explaining the laws of geometry with a compass. He is demonstrating the measurability of actual things – concrete theorems with exact answers show why he represents Aristotle’s side. His face is modelled on the great architect Bramante, whose design of St. Peter’s was based on a geometrical pattern of circles and squares.

Raphael was entrusted with the completion of this building after Bramante’s death in 1514, the largest ecclesiastical construction project in the West. Interestingly, the pope permitted German Dominicans to sell indulgences to pay for it, which ultimately helped spark the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The classical statues on either side of the picture also reinforce the two philosophies. On Plato’s side we have Apollo, the god of the sun, poetry and music. On Aristotle’s side, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, the arts in general, and later on, war – perhaps more earthly concerns.

The foreground is less peopled than the rest of the painting, making way for the two philosophers. Two figures are, however, placed here in isolation, while the others engage with groups of people. They are Diogenes and Heraclitus, the latter being the first great European dialectician, wearing the clothes of a stonemason. Interestingly, Raphael appears to have given him Michelangelo’s features.

The great mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, wearing a yellow robe, holds a terrestrial globe in his hand, facing the Persian Zoroaster showing a celestial sphere. Interestingly, the young man standing amongst these scientists, and the only figure looking directly at the viewer, is Raphael himself. Incorporating this self-portrait into a work of such intellectual history was a confident stance for the artist. Placing himself, and the portraits of some of his contemporary artists in this fresco along with the greatest thinkers in European history, elevates the significance of the arts in the High Renaissance.

The Sistine Madonna

Raphael is one of the great discoverers of the feminine in painting; his lifelong preoccupation with the Madonna that guided him to this subject, the love between human mother and child, indeed one might say that ancient mother cults live on in this theme.

Around 1512/ 1513 he created his three large Marian altars, among them the “Sistine Madonna”. Alongside the frescos of the Vatican, the “Sistine Madonna” (1512/1513) is considered Raphael’s main work.

RAFAEL Madonna Sixtina Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister Dresden 1513 14. Óleo sobre lienzo 265 x 196 cm

The Sistine Madonna, Raphael, c.1512

In this work, Raphael continues his effort to make Mary appear more maternal and human. The model is assumed to be Margherita Luti, the daughter of a Roman baker named Francesco. It’s believed that Margherita was Raphael’s partner for the last twelve years of his life.

Her person expresses a depth that cannot be found in any other of Raphael’s Madonnas. She comes barefoot, carrying her child like a peasant woman. Her left arm, his right arm and her flowing veil form a protective circle around the child. The child echoes his mother’s apprehensive expression, as he snuggles up to her. It is a profoundly human and this-worldly depiction.

The two angels at the bottom of the painting appear to have escaped from the heavenly hosts in the background but also look exceedingly human. The very original host of ghostly angels’ faces crowding the background add to the forward drive of the Madonna, who seems to be walking right out of the painting.

Raphael died on his birthday, aged just 37 years on April 6, 1520 after eight days of illness from pneumonia, and was buried the following day in the Pantheon.

Callout: Working People’s Stories in Contemporary Ireland
Thursday, 02 April 2020 14:21

Callout: Working People’s Stories in Contemporary Ireland

Published in Fiction

Culture Matters is taking an initiative in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis to compile a second anthology of working-class writing. We hope it will be one way for working people to creatively express their anxieties, experiences and thoughts about various aspects of their lives in these troubled times.

Our first anthology of working people’s poetry from contemporary Ireland, The Children of the Nation, was a success in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Ireland. This second volume, again supported by Irish trade unions, will focus on short prose: flash fiction, short stories, anecdotes, epigrams, memoirs and other kinds of life writing (diary, letter/email, essays, blogs, and black and white images).

Relevant themes that come to mind include the Climate Emergency, the Coronavirus Crisis, Working Women, More Than Profit, and Community and Global Solidarity – but also quite simply your everyday experience as a working person in contemporary Ireland. We are unable to offer fees for publication, but will supply free and discounted copies to contributors.

Here are the rules and guidelines:

1. One or two submissions per person, unpublished in print

2. Maximum of 2,500 words per submission

3. In English or Irish (if in Irish, our international readership will appreciate your English translation, please)

4. Black and white images should be jpegs of photos, drawings, cartoons etc., no bigger than 1MB.

5.A brief biography outlining your connection with the working class, 150 words max.

6.Deadline for submission: 31 July 2020

7.Submissions to be sent to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

8. You retain copyright on any submissions but your material may be published in print and online by Culture Matters.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Page 1 of 7