May the Eighth 2007
Poem by Robin GLENDINNING
11 April 2011

This poem (below) was inspired by the by my conflicting emotions when the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements were activated and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were launched.

I had two main reactions: immense relief and and a growing rage that such an agreement had been so long, and so tragiacally delayed.  I was faced by the classic conundrum of peace making that a critical mass of  the people must support the settlement which often means that those who did most to oppose previous attempts at peacemaking become the new leaders of the community. This outcome carries with it certain problems that are bound to linger and make further progress slow and difficult. Therefore they must be spelled out and faced. If my poem seems somewhat negative or critical I would say that such unblinking looks at events and personalities are necessary.  I have shown the poem to many people who have assured me that it sums up many of their feelings too.  I welcome this blog to give my thoughts in these verses a wider circulation.


Lines on May the Eighth 2007[i]

1

Come surly Muse and me inspire;

An Ulster Muse, or witch maybe,

Who’ll kindle wrath and stoke my ire

And flame despair to poetry.

Help me to use a metre, rhyme,

Grant me silence and grant me time

To tell this story properly

And not the way it ought to be

Or should have been: too used to those

Long practised lies, hand me, oh Muse,

A pen of steel that wont abuse

The truth but surgeon like expose

Us to our shrinking selves. Too weak

My pow’rs, your aid I humbly seek.

2

“Why trouble me?” I hear you ask.

“The past is gone and peace is here

Why set your mind to such a task

Re-opening ground in fields of fear?”

Some-one must play the ingrate’s part

The cynic’s role; assist my art

Reluctant Muse:  I want to call

Us back to where a low stone wall,

A hedge and wet Fermanagh lane

End at a common road and there

A member of the U.D.R

Lies dead.  Grey churns of milk drip rain

Sheep are indifferent in pens,

A wife, unknowing yet, feeds hens.

3

A neighbour by his neighbour shot?

Is this the way it had to be?

Tell me, oh Muse, if this is what

The poet meant by ‘utterly,’[ii]

When first he ‘wrote it out in verse’[iii]

That Connolly and Padraig Pearse

‘Where ever green is worn’[iv] should stand

As icons in this saintly land?

Is that why blood of this poor man

Must seep? His widow weep? His farm

Be sold? His children flee from harm?

In truth I do not think I can

Believe it so. Oh truthful Muse

Tell me if terror has excuse.

4

So many dead and so much grief,

So many half forgotten wrongs

That fester on without relief

In lonely breasts; where little things

Survive for now: a photograph,

Remembered words, a smile, a laugh,

A way of walking to the door,

When came the knock, the knock before

An end.  And there are certain spots

Unfound as yet: the disappeared

Have graves unmarked and not revered…

No tricolours, no graveside shots,

No thronging of  the press in packs,

No coffins draped in Union Jacks.

5

And all the work the bombers did:

The Rose and Crown and Abercorn

And Poppy Day and Shankill Road

And Oxford Street and Monaghan…

If craven readers pick through this

And find delight in what I miss

They will no doubt a bias claim

For which the poet’s much to blame

And so dismiss the rest… but no

I won’t be forced to gather up

More horrors for you all to sup;

The troubles in my kit-bag grow

Until they bulk so much it sags

As body parts swell plastic bags.

6

For, Muse, I cannot write or sing

Of all of it, and lists of names

Have lost their old historic ring

And no-one now agrees on Fame’s

Inclusiveness: they died, they’re gone

And we who fail them here live on.

Oh maybe time will heal old wounds,

I hear men say and though the sounds

Of platitudes beguiling are

And I half hoped that trust might grow;

Remind me Muse it’s seldom so

And make each one of us aware

That all these dead, yes all who died,

And we must now be reconciled.

7

And why so long?  Oh Muse why did

We need such seas of blood?  Such hate,

Such bitterness? Why such divide?

What purpose does the sorry state

We’re in fulfil?  To get a deal?

Why what was wrong with Sunningdale[v]

That justifies so many dead?

Not much ‘for all that’s done and said.’

And you? The other one who signs

Today?  “O’Neill must go,” You cried,

And Faulkner too and others tried

And went at your behest.  The lines

I write down here record the shame

That is not felt by those to blame

8

For wasted years.  You wished to see

The loyal, resolute and armed

If not beneath the Crown then “We

Ourselves” [vi]in charge; a Third Force[vii] raised

And hill top trysts[viii] and red berets

And men with staves and crisis days

And ranting to huge crowds you bayed:

Beware, We are Sold Out, Betrayed!

Then prophet like you prayed to God

To smite your foes.  No wonder then

The gun was used by certain men

Who thought they took you at your word…

Oh never mind they’d lots of time

To count the costs of bloody crime.

9

And You well knew that blood has use

And all is changed when blood is shed:[ix]

Then blood is politics and news

And politicians use the dead

For they can never change their coats

And martyrdom is good for votes

And thin young men[x] so sadly late

Will furnish forth a fat mandate.

Oh watch with me, my Muse, my Witch,

I stand an hour on hallowed ground[xi]

And wonder if these dead sleep sound

Memorialised in Celtic kitsch.

Good God look down on ‘all these dead’

But please don’t ask us why they died.

10

And your  religious zeal was such

That where you pitched your tent[xii] was rough

With argument. I heard you preach:

The voice was vast, the language tough;

You mocked the Pope, the man of sin,

And cursed apostate clergymen

Enamoured of the Romish whore,[xiii]

With pimples, boils and cancer sore

Of disbelief.  How could the meek

Inherit there where words would fright

The tented air and ‘clash by night?’[xiv]

And did you turn the other cheek?

And did your faithful set their store

By Matthew five and forty four?[xv]

11

What’s wrong with us we could not make

Things work? Of moderates I’ll talk:

Why could we not advantage take

Of kindliness in Ulster folk?

That helping hand, unworldly care

A neighbours grief or luck to share,

The softly spoken word, the deed

Transcending politics and creed?

Too few, too few stood up and we

Are guilty all, for doubting hearts

Restrained our best intentioned starts

And left us paralysed, unfree;

Oh Muse, make clear there’s no defence

For those who failed through reticence.

12

‘We are closed in,’[xvi] and people poll

To keep the other side at bay

And it remains the basic role

Of Ulster leadership today

To maximise the tribal vote

And then employ De Hondt[xvii] to tote

For place.  Oh Muse it gives me pause

To think there’s not some better cause

That will subvert such status quo.

The system suits you both so well

The slogan’s safe on ev’ry wall,

Your flags secure. I can’t say no

And must be glad you’ve changed your ways

But don’t expect my fulsome praise.

13

I’ve done, my Muse, I’ll break this pen

And take my rest from all that’s gone

And is to be, so haste you then

With all my thanks to Helicon[xviii]

Or to the place the witches go…

“Oh drop this pose of Prospero[xix]

Don’t ‘drown your book’ but grasp the plough

For Ulster needs a clearance now

That plants might stir and breathe fresh air.

Of love, I speak, and tolerance

And simple truth and common sense;

So poet rise and with Voltaire

Into the tangled garden[xx] go

And with you bear the ready hoe.”

Robin Glendinning


Notes

[i] The date on which, power over local matters was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

[ii] W.B. Yeats: ”All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born.” A repeated refrain in Yeats’ great poem, Easter, 1916.

[iii]  Yeats: Easter, 1916.

[iv] Yeats : Easter, 1916.

[v]  Power sharing agreement between the moderate parties of Northern Ireland in 1973.  These were the majority Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, the leaders of the Catholic Nationalist community, the SDLP and the non sectarian Alliance Party. This early experiment in pwer sharing was destroyed by continued IRA violence and a Loyalist strike supported by paramilitaries and wide spread intimidation.

[vi] English for Sinn Fein.

[vii] Quasi military force raised by Ian Paisley supposedly to protect the border and then quietly forgotten.

[viii]  A Paisley inspired demonstration in which a group of men formed up in military fashion and on a given command displayed their legal gun licences.

[ix] The Easter Rising 1916 was seen by participants, notably Pearse, as a necessary blood sacrifice.

[x]  Republican hunger strikers.

[xi] The Republican burial plot in Milltown Cemetery Belfast.

[xii] Paisley began some of his first congregations with evangelical missions in tents.  One of his tactics was to split the congregations of more liberal Protestant clergy whom he accused of apostasy.

[xiii] Many early Protestant reformers identified the Pope with The Great Whore of Babylon from Revelations. Paisley revived this 16th century practice.

[xiv]  Mathew Arnold. Dover Beach:  ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

[xv]  “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

[xvi] Yeats. From The Stare’s Nest at my Window a poem about the Irish Civil War in 1922.

[xvii] The proportional system by which the executive is elected in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

[xviii] Mountain sacred to the Greek Muses

[xix]  Shakespeare: The Tempest. At the end of the play Prospero signs off by declaring that he will break his staff and drown his book.

[xx] In the final sentence of Voltaire’s Candide he insists that despite everything we should busy ourselves the garden.

One comment

  1. Great poem. Robin taught me English literature from 1983-1990 and inculcated a love of language which has been my abiding joy ever since.

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