‘Children of the Nation an Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland’ edited by Jenny Farrell
The introduction by Brian Campfield, General Secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance and former President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, acknowledges that, “the creative articulation of working-class experiences contributes to a more developed awareness and self-confidence among working people…The response in terms of the number and quality of submissions, and the variety of themes and styles represented, can only be described as phenomenal. At the same time, I am convinced that this response only scratches the surface and that there are many more poets, whose works shed important light and insights into the lives of ordinary people,” The editors relied on poets to self-identify as working class. The anthology’s title comes from the Proclamation of the Republic issued at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
The contents are organised in alphabetic order of poets’ surnames rather than by themes. The opening poem is Gary Allen’s ‘Cock Robin’ where the narrator is lying in bed,
‘my mother does not know yet that she has lost a son
laughing with the other fat girls on the chicken production line
their arms covered in bloody viscus
Funny, she thinks, how death is like birth
the boys in my class, even those who dislike me
and the solemn teachers too
will follow in lines behind my coffin
down familiar streets I hate
and then my father will sigh and pull apart the curtains
It’s not a literal death, but rather a death of spirit and ambition, the limitation of cultural and societal expectations. The title is a reference to the nursery rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’, a crime the sparrow confesses to while other birds offer a role in the funeral. The rhyme has been linked as satire on deaths of kings through rebellion. Here the boy/king’s metaphorical death comes about because the working classes carry on as usual.
Anne Mac Darby-Beck’s ‘Chlorophyll’ imagines a worker using a break time in the canteen when a leaf lands on a notebook page ‘life dried from the veins –/ but around the edges/ there are still a few specks/ of chlorophyll’. The image is someone drained by the demands of work but finding spots of time to write.
Patrick Bolger’s ‘Evidence’ explores the trauma of sexual abuse by priests and the long denial by the church,
‘I was assured that my voice, would never
be heard by the High Court of Ireland.
In the absence of compassion and
apologies, they bring forth money.
Trading in their own currency. The roman catholic church.
Where my bitten nails sit, I shake
The offer is put to me, I should
accept, I am told as they will never go
higher, without proof of penetration.
Without proof of penetration.
The eight year old boy, me 23 years
before this day, should have collected
Even when the church accepted abuse had occurred, their instinctive protection of wealth and reputation further damages the victims. But church can also offer a reassurance, a distancing from what’s going on outside, in Anne Casey’s ‘after the commission’ the narrator is invited to pray,
‘beyond yawning windows
a distant boom
light leaves the room
under the same clouds
a mother looking down
holds her dying son
the sodden air stirring
with a sudden chill
in some dark corner
a child is crying still.’
The Troubles and segregation still have an impact on those who might not see themselves as directly involved.
There are some poems in Gaelic, such as Celia de Fréine’s ‘Stórtha Arda’/’Tall Storeys’ is in Gaelic with an English translation, where a girl sees a chance to escape her dead-end life,
‘Dein dearmad ar mheáchan do choirp,
a deir sí, léi féin. Sín amach do ghéaga
ar nós curaidh céad méadar snámh brollaigh.
B’fhéidir gurb é seo an t-aon seans a gheobhas tú.
Ní theastaíonn uait fás suas i sluma,
fiche stór in airde. Gan chrainn. Gan jab.’
‘Ignore the weight of your body,
she tells herself. Arc your arms like
a hundred metre breaststroke champion.
This may be your only chance.
You don’t want to grow up in a slum.
Twenty storeys high. No trees. No job.’
Eoin Devereux’s ‘Cribbing’ imagines a homeless black man curling up in a church’s nativity display and is hauled before the court on charges of trespass and represents himself,
‘I did this for:
Those hosteled forever in Direct Provision,
Those young mothers on endless housing waiting lists,
Those sleeping in doorways, under bridges, in cars,
Those sleeping in skips, in LIDL tents above in the Phoenix Park,
Those queuing for food parcels,
Those hidden families imprisoned in cheap hotels,
The 198,358 empty dwellings,
Just waiting to be lived in.’
It takes a swipe at those who pay lip-service to charities without actually taking action. On the other hand, in Kevin Higgins’ ‘Hoodied Bridget’,
‘You’ve seen me doing my hours
in the two Euro shop and considered
offering me twenty quid
for a quick ride around the back
of the disused funeral parlour
next door. For you’ve no idea
what I am.
If you’d any sense
you’d wake screaming
every night in fear of me.’
Bridget and her cohorts will rise again and take their revenge on those who treat the working class as exploitable but ultimately worthless, somehow less than human.
Jennifer Horgan’s ‘Tuam Babies’ refers to the maternity home run by a Roman Catholic convent from 1925 – 1961 where unmarried pregnant women were sent to have their babies, who were then separated from their mothers while the woman did unpaid work as payment for their care during labour. The death rates of babies was high but local authority inspections recorded the nuns’ care as good. A mass grave was found on the site and research established that the remains were of babies who had died during the time the maternity home was in operation.
‘This no burial ground
to cover violence
Simple truth in unmarked silence.
Older clots still bleed anew;
I crawl inside the good of you.
Small hollow mouths
round out pain
To dig, dig, dig them out
Later Jessamine O’Connor brings motherhood up to date with a poem about being the daughter of a single mother and a second about the unsympathetic reaction of a nurse to a woman just after a miscarriage compared with the lack of judgement when taking an abortion pill at home.
Elizabeth McGeown notes ‘Poverty is pink’ and making perfume, stealing petals from neighbouring gardens,
‘in a green thumbed frenzy, mincing and shredding in bottles of water,
shaking the mixture and gently scenting the water. The scent never
lasted overnight. Nothing ever lasted overnight. Except the memories.
The sweet-scented, rose-tinged memories.’
That last line might suggest hagiography, a romanticisation of working class lives which is not present in Mícheál Ó hAodha’s poem of workers waiting for transport in ‘Ag Fanacht ar an Leoraí Oibre’/ ‘Waiting for the Work Lorry’ in Liverpool, England,
‘ag seasamh sa sneachta, ag seasamh i dtost
an toitín deireanach á shú síos go bun
smaointe grá is díoltais, smaointe díoltais is mó’
‘standing in silence, standing in the snow
last cigarette smoked to the butt
thoughts of love and revenge, mostly of revenge’
In Moya Roddy’s ‘Feeling the Cold’, the narrator initially thinks the woman she sees bare-legged in sandals in winter doesn’t feel the cold,
‘It never dawned on me until late one night,
to get a breath of air I pulled the curtains,
in time to see you running from your house,
hair flying, in nothing but a nightie.
You hadn’t even time to put on shoes.’
The woman is trapped in an abusive marriage.
There are a wide range of voices from poets who were born or grew up in Ireland, some of whom stayed, some moved away. All pick up on aspects of working class lives, poverty, manual labour, precarity, exploitation and stigma and prejudice. ‘Children of the Nation’ achieves exactly what it sets out to do: present working class voices with compassion and eloquence.