‘Where the earth was soft for flowers’

There was warmth in the air – one of those rare April days in Ireland. The primrose-sprinkled verges were crowned with golden whin blossom, alive with birdsong. It felt like spring had resurrected Nature. A perfect afternoon to take photos. I’ve never had much patience with a camera, but my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted a few snapshots for her school project. She and her classmates had been given a history assignment to occupy them over the Easter break. The students could choose their own topics on condition that these had some ‘local’ relevance. Being a bit footloose in our area, my daughter found herself stuck for inspiration. Her Bosnian dad’s idea of the First World War as a possible theme was initially met with interest… then teenage scorn. While she was aware of WWI’s significance from her summers in Sarajevo, wasn’t the link to our locality rather tenuous? Or was this due to Ireland’s selective amnesia?


An online search and a visit to the town library suggested the latter. A local historian had documented recruits from our county who had fought, across Europe and beyond, between 1914 and 1918. Many were killed in action in France and Belgium. Lads from along the coast, who’d joined the navy or who’d served as mercantile marines, perished in German torpedo attacks. Others faced death at Gallipoli. Or they succumbed to disease – pneumonia and, in one case, ‘malaria in Greek Macedonia’. Most were in their twenties, some in their late teens. Those who made it back to Ireland returned to a different country. Irish Volunteers who’d enlisted in the British army, in pursuit of Home Rule or adventure or just to escape poverty, didn’t get much of a welcome in a nation that, by then, was striving for independence. As their stories show, the experiences of the demobilised were often hushed up – the trauma they’d endured became their own dark secret. In keeping, perhaps, with a culture in which men didn’t talk about psychological problems. But, in the Ireland of that time, it was also politically prudent. Remembrance was something of a taboo. Still, there were reminders – graves and plaques etched in memory of the fallen.


In the village down the road from us, a stone cross stands at the junction of the short-cut to the motorway. At a glance, it looks last century but its Celtic style harks back to an illustrious era of Irish ‘saints and scholars’. Although I pass it regularly, I’d never known that this monument is inscribed with the names of locals who were slain in the circumspectly entitled ‘Great International War’. Guarded terms were typically used for conflicts involving Ireland’s nearest neighbour. Gaelicised sculpture was a means of repatriating home-grown warriors whose imperial service, at a time of insurrection, left them in history’s limbo. Irish tradition is more associated with commemorating rebels. But the complexity of any attempt at national recollection is emerging. It’s almost one hundred years since the ‘Easter Rising’ – an event which came to define modern Ireland. And already there’s debate as to how it’ll be portrayed, revised, and ultimately branded, in advance of the centennial shindig in 2016.


This anniversary will, no doubt, provoke controversy. During our president’s recent state visit to Britain, it was confirmed that a ‘senior member’ of the English monarchy will be invited to attend celebrations in honour of those who proclaimed an Irish republic, from the GPO in Dublin, on Easter Monday, 1916. The queen’s forebears would’ve likely disapproved and some revolutionary ghosts mightn’t be too impressed, but things have changed. ‘Changed utterly’… to recycle Yeats’ oft-repeated words. Aside from the pomp and media hype, the deepening royal and presidential rapport marks another step towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation. But achieving peace has proven an arduous process. And there have been brutal decades in between.


Not only in Ireland. The incident deemed to have started the First World War – the assassination of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie – took place in Sarajevo. Through the subsequent century, that city has been dealt an unfair share of suffering. Although intrigue still surrounds the teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who secured an infamous spot in history on 28 June 1914. Was he a terrorist or a nationalist, an idealist or a just a hapless misfit? His posthumous labels have blurred. Like those ascribed to the Irish soldiers caught up in the ensuing carnage. Fusiliers such as Francis Ledwidge – the poet who, in Heaney’s tribute, struggled with a torn identity ‘from Boyne water to the Balkans’ before he was blown apart, in Ypres, in 1917. Traitors, heroes, suckers for propaganda… or were they mostly young guys who had few other chances? And those who’ve ‘died for Ireland’ – or anywhere else – in the years since then? Should they be viewed as freedom fighters or fiends? It always seems a question of perspective.


Whatever the ‘cause’ of conflict, youth gets conned or is conscripted into it. Young people are ruined in the resulting violence. But their lives are seldom remembered in jingoistic tales. Syria’s children are the forgotten ones of this millennium. There are no cenotaphs to these unknown juveniles. Only the heartbreak of families plunged into a human-created hell. Senseless… Or does it follow some evil logic? History tells us that war’s puppeteers are those who tend to gain from it. And, irrespective of its outcome, they can be tenacious – clinging to power, even chuckling with their former enemies. Often that’s how truces are agreed and treaties signed. The past, though, teaches more than this. It urges us to listen to the survivors. To those who defied the hate-stirrers, those who resisted oppression. To support all who take risks for justice today – the unsung history-makers of the world.

The title of this piece is taken from ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ by Francis Ledwidge.

For more poems and information please see the website of the Francis Ledwidge Museum: http://www.francisledwidge.com/

See also: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-francis-ledwidge/

 ‘Easter, 1916’  by W. B. Yeats: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/247616#poem

‘The Unreturned Army: County Louth Dead in the Great War 1914-1918’ by Donal Hall, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005.


Verses / War

‘Mad Ireland’, as W. H. Auden called it, has been mourning. It keens well at the death of oracles. As seen this week in the gush of obituary that marked the passing of Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. Social media flooding with banal tributes – legend! The commentariat striving to out-elegise one another, adding their spake to the national wake which followed a bard back to his country churchyard. To restful peace in an erstwhile troubled region… I wonder how the great man would’ve regarded it. Perhaps with wryness? But even in leaving, he was generous – the gift of his poetry tuning the airwaves and glistening through the columns. His presence on the time-lines and tongues of everyone who’d recited his verse at school. Thank you, Seamus.


He reminded me of my father. He wasn’t much older, born into a Europe on the brink of self-destruction in the tense spring of 1939. My dad was a child of World War Two. His family moved from Belfast, away from a blitzed city whose shipyards were Luftwaffe targets. An hour or so down the road there was no war. The then ‘Free State’ of Ireland had only an ‘Emergency’. A gem of understatement, but anything stronger would’ve breached neutrality. Back across the border, my father grew up among the flax-dams and sheep-grazed drumlins of rural Ulster. He still speaks the dialect. A bog language native to Heaney, who alchemised it, imbued it with the wisdom of antiquity.  A true saoi, almost a seer, he may have ‘escaped from the massacre’ but he never evaded its burden.

One of those writers of witness. Some of them can’t help it. Days before Heaney died, I found a poem flurrying through the cybersphere. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. A curriculum classic, learned in quotable quotes, barely imagined because it’s unimaginable. The trenches of Flanders, the primitive masks, blood ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ of a comrade. These are the sights and sounds Owen foists upon his readers. Divided by a century, history tinges it with the patina of aesthetic. But today, it’s far too palpable. The children of Syria afforded less chance than the soldiers of the ‘Great War’ to avoid killer gas. The images are clear, beyond unverifiable. So, instead, there’s hugger-mugger to verify whom to blame. Late August, given heavy shelling and sarin… to paraphrase the opening of Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’. Though even his bramble fruit, with its taste of innocent pleasure, rots to waste. The world these days seems steeped in ‘rat-grey fungus’. Not a poetic place.

WW1 (b)

Yet, perhaps, a place for poets? Maybe the subtleties of verse offer more than political bombast. From the tortured cris de coeur to the onlooker’s unease. Can poets rake the no-man’s land that lies between the poles of intervention/isolation? Stubbornly, I still believe they can. Poetry led me to Bosnia, via the not-so-scenic route. Remembered lines niggled while my eyes absorbed newspaper photos, video footage. The ghosts of stanzas lingered as my ears heard the reports. It forced contemplation, provided a context for thought. A student of English, I was the type who always veered from the reading list. A literary nerd, I suppose. But the volumes I opened felt red-hot. They chided against apathy. From Martin Niemöller’s incantation ‘first they came for the Jews… the communists… the trade unionists’ to the Holocaust horrors in Elie Wiesel’s ‘Never shall I Forget’.

A collection which I read and re-read at that time was called Klaonica – an international anthology put together as an ‘immediate if inadequate response to the suffering in Bosnia’. Its title, appropriated from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, is translated as ‘slaughterhouse, abattoir, butchery, shambles’. I dusted it off yesterday. It’s easy to dismiss it now as well-meaning arty-fartiness which, apart from the contributions of a handful of bona fide former Yugoslavs, was just an outlet for wordsmiths to say their erudite penance. And get on with their intellectual, privileged lives… possibly reaping kudos for their ‘engagement’. Reading with an older, more cynical eye, I flick through the pages. A lot of the poems still move me. Some ring too true. They may not be the cleverest or best crafted, but their themes are as fresh as twenty years ago. Connie Bensley’s description of a restaurant discussion among the chattering classes:

‘the air-strike supporters

were at odds with the pacifists…

The humanitarian-aid-only

contingent banged the table.’

This stingingly humorous piece ends with the waiter asking ‘what are you fighting about?’ The question may as well be ‘what country are you talking about?’ And this poem brings a little light relief. Most of the entries in Klaonica are written from, or looking into, the darkest depths of terror. Many are by those who survived past wars and sieges, those who knew dissidence and exile. Their voice of experience seeps beneath their challenges to the reader. Like Czesław Miłosz’s ‘Sarajevo’:

‘Now that a revolution really is needed, those who once were fervent, are quite cool.

While a country, murdered and raped, calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.’

And Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Bosnia Tune’ – so impactful, it must be read in its entirety. I’ve added a web-link below to its audio-recording. Please listen to what could be a hymn for Syria.


Yes, often the most powerful are the words of those who’ve endured. From my limited dabbling with Bosnian poetry – something I’d love to have more time to explore – I’ll mention just one of its voices. My sister-in-law once gave me a collection by Abdulah Sidran, a poet of Seamus Heaney’s generation. An established writer in Bosnia before the war, he lived through the conflict and inscribed it in his verse. His ‘Planet Sarajevo’, written in 1994, breathes an endless struggle between good and evil, asking with its whispers of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden:

‘How many times have we


in tears

our ardent prayers for peace?’

Sidran captures the world’s indifference – how we watch and allow ourselves ‘become poorer by a whole people’. Years later, his work tells of aftermath – searing words that touch the pain of the survivors of Srebrenica. Their search for ‘a crumb of justice and a grain of truth’ is expressed, to the reader, as an imperative.

There’s much exhumed by poems like these… and much response demanded. Perhaps their meditation is an alternative to the present barrage of media opinion – ‘debate’ in which we too readily participate. Though our input ‘makes nothing happen’… to rob from our old friend Auden, cited inappropriately, ad nauseum.


But where are the poets now? What Syrian Akhmatova will emerge to pierce our hearts? Will she live to share her verse? What lines of ours will join hers in a tome that may never be written? For who would read them? Does poetry have any currency in an age defined, more than ever, by those who ‘fumble in a greasy till’ as Yeats lamented in ‘September 1913’. Will only the dead remember our silence and our words? And the dead, Tadeusz Różewicz warns, ‘will not rehabilitate us’.

This post is penned, with raw emotion, in a world starved of tranquillity. I’ll end with no sense of amen, more a plea for misericordia. With last words that have been repeated, reprinted and retweeted maybe a million times in recent days. But they haven’t lost any of their potency. Seamus Heaney here relates the poet’s return, as an ambassador, from the ‘republic of conscience’. One whose role is a life-long call

‘to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.’

Link to audio/text:

‘Bosnia Tune’ by Joseph Brodsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4n7rDbwuYM