In August 1969, Patrick Rooney, a nine-year-old boy, was struck by a tracer-bullet fired by the RUC as he lay in bed in the Divis Flats in the Falls Road district of Belfast. He was the first child to be killed during the Troubles. In helpless response I wrote “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs for Dead Children”, its title borrowed from Mahler’s great song cycle:
There can be no songs for dead children
Near the crazy circle of explosions,
The splintering tangent of the ricochet,
No songs for the children who have become
My unrestricted tenants, fingerprints
Everywhere, teethmarks on this and that.
Patrick Rooney haunts me to this day. In my new collection, Angel Hill, I remember him in a short poem called “Dusty Bluebells”:
Patrick Rooney, aged nine, was killed
By a tracer-bullet where he slept.
Boys and girls in his class resumed
Their games soon after: In and out go
Dusty bluebells, Bangor boat’s away
The songs from the children’s street games reverberate down the decades and sound, in my imagination, for the children killed in Manchester in May this year. The deaths of children – always “innocent victims” – epitomise the shame of political violence.
Northern Ireland is not a place apart. Its civil war, which killed more than three and a half thousand people, belongs to the dark history of European conflict. In writing about the Troubles the poets of my generation took their bearings from Yeats and MacNeice, from the poems of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis in the Second World War, from the Great War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Blunden, Gurney, Edward Thomas. We read Brecht, Célan, Apollinaire, Montale, Akhmatova, Rózewicz and reached back to Homer’s Iliad. But from the outset it has been (and still is) hugely difficult – impossible even – to find in poetry a voice, as Seamus Heaney put it, “adequate to our predicament”. In a poem called “Wounds” which I wrote in 1972 I ask the ghost of my father what he makes of it all: he had joined up as a boy-soldier in 1914 and fought in the Trenches. Here is the poem’s second section:
Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.
When the Bogside erupted in 1969 and West Belfast went up in flames, I was flabbergasted by the ferocity of it all. In the summer of 1969 Derek Mahon and I walked through the wreckage of the Falls Road. In a verse letter to him, I saw us as:
Two poetic conservatives
In the city of guns and long knives,
Our ears receiving then and there
The stereophonic nightmare
Of the Shankill and the Falls.
As I recalled in an interview I gave in 2003: “Part of me felt like an appalled outsider, another part – anti- Unionist, anti-establishment – felt exhilarated. The rest of me wanted to understand what I had hitherto ignored, the darkness and violence in my own community. From the beginning my poet-friends and I resisted the temptation to hitch a ride on yesterday’s headlines, to write the poem of the latest atrocity. We learned from each other how complex the situation was, how inadequate the political certainties – Green Ireland, Orange Ulster. We knew there was no point in versifying opinion and giving people what they wanted to hear.
We believed that poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves: it should appeal to their “generous instinct”, as MacNeice said in the violent 1930s. We hated what we came to call “Troubles trash”. We believed that, even when generated by the best of intentions, bad poetry about the sufferings of fellow citizens would be an impertinence; as part of an agenda it would be a blasphemy. We disliked the notion that civic unrest might be good for poetry, and poetry a solace for the broken-hearted. We were none of us in the front line.
So far as I can recall, we never discussed these dilemmas. We had no plans to face up to the crisis as a group, or to speak to the outside world about it. We continued to write the poems that presented themselves, no doubt hoping that one day we might produce something ‘adequate’ about the Troubles. I find that I wrote in 1971: ‘Too many critics seem to expect a harvest of paintings, poems, plays and novels to drop from the twisted branches of civil discord. They fail to realise that the artist needs time in which the raw material of experience may settle to an imaginative depth, where it can be transformed into art.’
We took our time. Paul Muldoon observed that if you didn’t write about the Troubles you might be dismissed as an ostrich; if you did, you might be judged exploitative. Ciaran Carson said that his poems were not necessarily about the Troubles, but might be of them. Medbh McGuckian chose as the epigraph to her 1994 collection Captain Lavender what Picasso said in 1944: “I have not painted the war… but I have no doubt that the war is in… these paintings I have done.”
Introducing his indispensable anthology A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles Frank Ormsby wrote: “It is arguable that any poem by a Northern Irish writer since 1968, on whatever subject, could be termed a Troubles poem, in that it may, consciously or unconsciously, reflect the context in which it was written.”
A French writer once asked me: “Which side are the poets on?” But the true poets resisted demands to take sides. They listened to one another. In “The Hill Farm”, a beautiful lyric written before the recent Troubles, John Hewitt recalls standing outside a Catholic neighbour’s home in the Glens of Antrim, too shy to intrude as they say the rosary:
At each Hail Mary Full of Grace
I pictured every friendly face,
clenched in devotion of a kind
alien to my breed and mind,
easy as breathing, natural
as birds that fly, as leaves that fall;
yet with a sense that I still stood
far from that faith-based certitude,
here in the vast enclosing night,
outside its little ring of light.
Written during the Troubles, Seamus Heaney’s “The Other Side” responds tenderly to Hewitt’s poem and, reversing the situation, speaks from inside the house, from inside the Catholic community. Heaney evokes a Protestant neighbour standing outside their home as the evening prayers are being said. I shall quote the last ten lines:
But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the moan of prayers.
He puts a hand in a pocket
or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to
lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping.
Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather
or the price of grass-seed?
These two poems explore the cultural intricacies of life in Northern Ireland. In “The Boundary Commission” Paul Muldoon wittily carries the question of “sides”, of identity and allegiance, even further:
You remember that village where the border ran
Down the middle of the street,
With the butcher and baker in different states?
Today he remarked how a shower of rain
Had stopped so cleanly across Golightly’s lane
It might have been a wall of glass
That had toppled over. He stood there, for ages,
To wonder which side, if any, he should be on.
There are delicate balancing-acts in this conversation between poems. Perhaps such open-heartedness, reflecting “generous instinct” elsewhere in the society, suggests why – despite the terrible violence – Ulster never quite descended into the nightmarish mayhem of Bosnia’s civil war. Poetic conversations continue to this day. When the Good Friday Agreement was painstakingly achieved I felt it had – as it needed to have – an almost poetic complexity. To quote Heaney’s metaphor, the Agreement was about “the price of grass-seed”. In a poem of my own I called it “a fragment from some future unimagined sky”. You might say that today Northern Irish politics more often resemble bad prose. But the Peace Process is a process. It is far from over. It will take generations.
In August 1994 it was rumoured that there might be an IRA ceasefire. At the time I was reading the passage in the Iliad where the old king Priam bravely visits the mighty Greek general Achilles to beg for the body of Hector whom Achilles has killed in combat. Priam in his fragility awakens in Achilles memories of his own father and rekindles the gentler emotions he has had to suppress in order to be a general. The Iliad is probably our greatest poem about war and death; and this episode is, for me, its soul. I wanted to compress its two hundred lines into a compact lyric and thereby make my own minuscule contribution to the Peace Process. I sent the resulting sonnet to the Irish Times. The then literary editor John Banville published “Ceasefire” on the Saturday of the week in which the IRA declared their ceasefire. Here is the poem:
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
In my imagination I gave Priam the face of Gordon Wilson, the Enniskillen draper who was injured in the 1987 Enniskillen Remembrance Day IRA bomb blast. Trapped under the rubble, he had clasped the hand of his daughter Marie until she lost consciousness. With his arm in a sling, Gordon Wilson appeared on television a few days later and said he forgave his daughter’s killers: he had prayed for them. Many people in the town and through out Ulster were not ready to share these forgiving sentiments. After “Ceasefire” was published I was shopping on the Lisburn Road when an acquaintance approached me. “I admired your Achilles poem,” he said. “But I’m not ready for it. My son was recently the victim of a vicious paramilitary punishment beating, and may never fully recover.” This made me question “Ceasefire”, its redemptive symmetries. I wrote a sort of lopsided corollary called “All of These People”. Its eleven lines rehearse earlier elegies:
Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war
Is not so much peace as civilisation? He knew
Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer who died
At Christmas in the arms of our Methodist minister,
And our ice-cream man whose continuing requiem
Is the twenty-one flavours children have by heart.
Our cobbler mends shoes for everybody; our butcher
Blends into his best sausages leeks, barley, honey;
Our corner shop sells everything from bread to kindling.
Who can bring peace to people who are not civilised?
All of these people, alive or dead, are civilised.
“Civilisation”, “civilised”. Earlier I called the Northern Irish conflict “civil war” – a term others might contest. “Civil war” is a kind of oxymoron, since it combines an idea of community with an idea of its fracture. It throws into question, to quote Derek Mahon’s poem “Afterlives”, “what is meant by home”. Northern Ireland has only a million and a half inhabitants. So those who died in the Troubles are always in some sense intimately known, even across the divisions.
In 1999 four writers – David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton – compiled an extraordinary dossier of everybody who had been killed up to that date. This unbearably sad book is called Lost Lives. Reading over poems by myself and others, I realise that “lost lives” have always been at the centre of what we write: that the dominant genre of Troubles poetry is elegy – protest elegy, perhaps. To refer back to “All of These People”: “Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer” – I note I use the pronoun “our” – was Jim Gibson, murdered at Christmas by UDA gunmen who entered his shop on the Stranmillis Road and shot him because, I presume, he was a Catholic prospering in a predominantly Protestant area. My friend Sydney Callaghan, the Methodist minister in the poem, happened to be nearby, and was able to administer the Catholic Last Rites. Here is the second part of my elegy for Jim Gibson:
Astrologers or three wise men
Who may shortly be setting out
For a small house up the Shankill
Or the Falls, should pause on their way
To buy gifts at Jim Gibson’s shop,
Dates and chestnuts and tangerines.
The first poem in the “Wreaths” triptych, “The Civil Servant”, should really be called “The Magistrate”. My friend Martin McBirney was a magistrate and well-known literary figure. As a barrister he had appeared in unpopular cases involving civil rights issues. The IRA shot Martin as he sat down to breakfast, at almost the same time on the same morning as Judge Rory Conaghan (a Catholic) was shot dead. Both men were liberals, a good advertisement for the law. The IRA claimed they had been killed for “collaborating with the British war machine”. I disguised Martin McBirney as “a civil servant” because I didn’t want to intrude on the family’s grief.
The third poem in the triptych, “The Linen Workers”, is about the Kingsmills massacre. In January 1976 ten workmen were taking their usual route home from the textile factory at Glenanne when their bus was stopped. The gun men asked each of them his religion. One man, a Catholic, was told to run away up the road. The other ten were lined up and machine-gunned. A policeman said the road was “an indescribable scene of carnage”. That scene was viewed on television screens around the world. By pure chance I met in a Belfast pub the following day the English cameraman who had filmed the bloody aftermath. I asked him how he managed in such a nightmare. He replied: “I take out my light-meter, and I focus the lens.” His stark honesty might provide a template for writers and artists.
After Bloody Sunday, Seamus Heaney and I drove to Newry to join the outlawed protest march. The roads and byways had been blocked by police and army. It took us an age to reach Newry and our fellow protesters. We had plenty of time to talk. If we were stopped by paramilitaries and asked our religion, what would we reply? We agreed we would sink or swim by what we were – in our eyes not so much Catholic and Protestant as honest and brave. In “The Linen Workers” I again enlist my father’s ghost. Here are the last two stanzas:
When they massacred the ten linen workers
There fell on the road beside them spectacles,
Wallets, small change, and a set of dentures:
Blood, food particles, the bread, the wine.
Before I can bury my father once again
I must polish the spectacles, balance them
Upon his nose, fill his pockets with money
And into his dead mouth slip the set of teeth.
“Each neighbourly murder” – Seamus Heaney’s devastating phrase – destroys family, poisons the futures of the bereaved, overwhelms small communities. On the Lisburn Road (where I live) the IRA murdered John Larmour who worked in his brother’s ice-cream shop. I had been botanising in the Burren in County Clare, and had written into my notebook all the wild flowers I could identify in one day. On my return to Belfast I learned of the murder from my younger daughter Sarah who had bought with her pocket money some flowers to lay on the pavement outside the shop. I arranged the beautiful flower-names from my note book into an aural wreath to place beside her bouquet. “The Ice-Cream Man” is addressed to Sarah:
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
I want that catalogue to go on for ever, like a prayer. When the poem was published, I received a heart breaking letter thanking me and pointing out that there were, coincidentally, twenty-one ice-cream flavours in the shop and twenty-one flower-names. The letter was signed “Rosetta Larmour, the Ice-cream Man’s Mother”.
Several poems with their roots in the Troubles happen to be masterworks. I would name, for example, Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”, Paul Muldoon’s “Gathering Mushrooms”, Medbh McGuckian’s “Drawing Ballerinas”, Ciaran Carson’s “Dresden”. Colette Bryce, Frank Ormsby, Tom Paulin, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Peter McDonald, Gerald Dawe, Nick Laird have all extended our imaginative estate in troubled times. From across the Border, Paul Durcan has paid by far the closest and most pained attention to Northern Ireland’s turmoil. And Alan Gillis has written a miracle poem called “Progress”. It goes back over the nightmare ground I have been trying to cover in this lecture:
They say that for years Belfast was backwards
And it’s great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
From the earth. I guess that ambulances
Will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
To be explosively healed. Given time,
One hundred thousand particles of glass
Will create impossible patterns in the air
Before coalescing into the clarity
Of a window. Through which a reassembled head
Will look out and admire the shy young man
Taking his bomb from the building and driving home.
This is an edited version of Michael Longley’s PEN Pinter Prize Lecture 2017, privately printed by Faber and Faber. Michael Longley has recently published a new poetry collection Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape) and a selection of prose, Sidelines (Enitharmon Press).The PEN Pinter Prize was judged by Antonia Fraser, Maureen Freely, Tom Gatti, Don Paterson and Polly Stenham.