Poetry that has social relevance need not depict contemporary situations, or real situations, but when it does, it can have an immediacy that appeals to an audience, or makes an audience feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Until recent times, many people – at least those who watch the news – if asked to conjure up a vision of Ireland, the unrest and violence in Northern Ireland would probably spring to mind. The poem that best describes that troubled society, in my view, is by an Irish-language poet, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Gearóid criss-crosses a lot between languages and his voice has been influenced by reggae, jazz, rap, traditional Irish music, Native American shamanism and Rastafarianism and he has revived the macaronic tradition in a curious way.
Poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson had a liberating effect on him, showing him the poetic value of the natural rhythms of street talk and the poetry of Padraic Fiacc paved the way for a questioning, urban vision. Gearóid’s poem Bus appears in the book Criss-Cross. Mo Chara (CIC 2011). Curiously enough, it appears in English, with my Irish-language translation.
The poem must be quoted in full. It manages to have a shattering effect while being quite understated, for the most part. At least, I find it understated. Some might find it frank, even rollicking or loud. For the uninitiated, let me explain that a ‘prod’ is a Protestant. A ‘fenian’ (or Fenian) is a derogatory nick-name for a republican or nationalist. ‘Shop ya to the dole’ means to report to the authorities that somebody is not entitled to social security/government benefit.
Liam Carson, a Belfast man, director of the Irish-language literature festival IMRAM, helped me to fine tune my analysis of the background to Mac Lochlainn’s poem: in order to imagine the social divide in Northern Ireland, picture a) the Protestant or Unionist community as similar in some ways to the Boers, and b) the Catholic or Nationalist (or Republican) community as the so-called kaffirs. (By Unionist we mean those who wished to maintain the Union with Britain while Republicans hoped for a 32-county united Ireland, but in each case one would have to ask, was the feeling mutual?)
Yes, the class divide was often as painful and as obvious and as totally unjust as the apartheid system, and the evil was compounded by religious animosity. A civil rights movement tried to tear the system apart by exposing the injustices, blatant injustices ignored by the Government in the South of Ireland as well as that of Britain. The violent response of Unionism and of the forces of the state to the not-unreasonable demands of the civil rights protestors created a political vacuum which was ready for the gun and the bomb.
Many people were looking over their shoulder a lot, as you can well imagine, or keeping the head down. Today, even after over fifteen years of relative peace and a power-sharing government, the city of Belfast has more ‘peace lines’ – reinforced barriers that separate working-class Catholic and Protestant areas – than ever before. 99 peace walls or interfaces exist in Belfast! Even in so-called ‘mixed’ middle-class areas, there is an invisible barrier that separates people of different religious backgrounds. Thank you Britain, thank you for the Ulster Plantation and for all of your other colonial adventures. Wonderful work!
Here’s the poem. It defines an era:
I left the house, said fuck all to her, just walked out, said Joe
And I’m hurryin for the bus all fuckn stressed out
I’m joggin’ down the fuckn hill and my ulcer’s on fire
And I can hardly breathe trying to catch this fuckn bus, man
And then I missed the fucker of a bastard bus by about ten seconds
I’m watching the fucker drive away
Blowing smoke fumes in my face
So I had to hang about on the Saintfield Road
Just hangin about like
Waiting on the next bus
Just waiting there, doin fuck all, dying for a pint
Just mindin my own business, like
When I see one of the middle class prods
From down the bottom end of the street
Walkin towards me. An I’m noddin hello
And bein polite an all, and hows it goin an all
Because I know his face
And we live in the same middle-class proddy street
And the war’s all over and all that crap
And then I’m thinkin
That maybe he even thinks I’m one of them
Cos I say fuck all and keep a low profile
And why wouldn’t ya?
It’s not like I wanna socialise with my prod neighbours
They might burn me out
Except they’re all middle class
And don’t do that type of thing
But they’d probably shop ya to the dole
For bein a poor fenian
But anyway, he’s walkin right up to me
And he’s gonna speak to me…
And I’m wonderin what’s goin on, like
And he stops and asks me for a light
And so I fumble about and dig out the lighter
And it’s like a wee bit windy, so I try to light the lighter
And I hold up the flame, and it goes out
And then I say sorry and light it again
And it’s still windy
So he cups his hands over the top of mine
And makes a wee windshield for the flame, see
And he lights his feg
And he thanks me
And he walks on down the road
And then the next bus comes
And I get on the bus
And I’m sittin on the bus
And I’m thinkin this was all really strange
I’m thinkin that he touched me
He touched me
Like his hands touched mine
when I gave him the light, see
And I’m rollin down the Ormeau Road on the bus
And I’m thinking it’s the first time
I’ve ever been touched by a Protestant
And I’m feeling strange
About the whole thing
He touched my hands, you know…
He touched me
That’s Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s Bus. For me it’s the poem that encapsulates the Northern malaise. It’s colourful, engaging, self-mocking, street wise and full of humanity, expressing a tenderness that tries to live and breathe and come to terms with itself in a toxic community. It perfectly describes the kind of apartheid that existed in Northern Ireland and that still lingers there, smouldering in the wasteland of history.
A fellow-poet in the Irish language, Liam Ó Muirthile, reminded me of the irrelevance of relevance:
“The world of composition is essentially a private one, but the poet himself, must of necessity share a language with his/her audience. Nevertheless the primary audience of the poet, his social sphere, is himself and the Muse. This has always been true, even though the social function of poetry has undergone many changes over the centuries. However, the status of the poet – the learned poet with an achieved body of work – is still quite high even in so-called Western society, which in itself may be a throwback to the ancient beliefs of the druidic power of the poet.”
Good point. Now let us move South, to the Republic. In the South, a literary apartheid (of sorts) has been in force but of course it would never call itself that! It is a division between the two languages, those who write in the older language, Irish (Gaelic) and those who write in English, among whom are many modern luminaries who fled the Northern troubles and were embraced by the South.
This cultural and linguistic chasm is not unique to Ireland, of course, and is much more prevalent than we are led to believe. One of the many poets I have translated into Irish, Germain Droogenbroodt, wrote to me saying, “All marginal languages, including Flemish/Dutch, have the same problem. The ‘imperial’ language is American; but it is not language alone which suffers the effects of capitalistic imperialism: what about music, habits, food, drink? However, as we have recently seen in Europe, capitalism has been eating itself and continues to eat itself, like that famous painting by Goya.” Yes, Germain, that opens up another can of worms, doesn’t it!
Arrive in Ireland and our literary reputation is there to greet you at the airport or on a poster in a pub, Goldsmith, Swift, Shaw, Lady Gregory, Yeats, Wilde, Synge, O’Casey, Friel, Behan, Heaney and all the others, smiling in a benign fashion or staring wistfully into empty space. And where are the Gaels? Swept under the carpet for the most part. (The fact that many of our well-known literati, O’Flaherty, Brian O’Nolan, Frank O’Connor, Behan etc also wrote in Irish is often coveniently forgotten).
And so, if you write in Irish, even if you’re writing about something as innocent as roses in moonlight, you are engaging in an act of defiance, you are challenging the literary map makers, redrawing the literary tourist trail, in short, you are being a revisionist: the trouble is, nobody knows what it is you are writing about except for a few of your peers because as a literary language, the oldest in Europe after Greek and Latin, Irish has now gone underground, largely ignored by the media, most of it untranslated and therefore unknown to the world. Standards of literacy in Irish among the general population are appalling. How can writing in Irish have social relevance if it is not being read? What is one to do? Is it too late? Have we missed the bus? If so, maybe now is a good time to look around and talk to our neighbour. (In his language, of course!)