Poem for Ireland-Guest Post-Dr. Derek Coyle

From ‘Making Love Outside Aras an Uachtarain’ to ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’: Ireland’s Poem of the Century.


First we must congratulate RTE on this great idea: to select a poem that stands out as Ireland’s poem of the century. You might say the idea is corny, you might say it is impossible to choose, but you cannot deny that the contest has seen some great poems dusted down and read on radio, discussed on television, and in living rooms, streets, and bars across the country. Poetry is the ancient art of elevated speech, of raising language to a pitch such that it captures an important thought or emotion in a way that no other form can. It was practiced in ancient Greece, Sumeria, China; and, indeed, in ancient Ireland. More importantly, great poems are still being read and written today. It is a worthy enterprise to be reminded of the value of this art in an age where we are bombarded from all sides by visual and aural snippets of trivia and advertising, here one moment and gone the next; from television, internet, and radio. It is refreshing to just hear a voice speaking well-chosen words in an artful and thoughtful way.

What to make of the shortlist? So many great poems: from the historically resonant W.B. Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’; to the panoramic scope of Derek Mahon’s poem which starts from ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and concludes with the lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii; to the heartfelt simplicity of Paula Meehan’s ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’. The big names are there: Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh – it is impossible to imagine a list of great Irish poems without these poets being on it. We also have the popular work of Paul Durcan. The Irish language is well represented, the modern classic and the contemporary, Sean O’Riordain and Ailbhe Ni Ghearbhuigh. Of course, so many great poems are not there too: ‘Stony Grey Soil’ by Kavanagh, ‘The War Horse’ by Boland, ‘Amongst School Children’ by Yeats, ‘The Harvest Bow’ by Heaney, could all stand shoulder to shoulder with the poems chosen. However, it is a shortlist, much has to be left out by necessity.

Who do I place in my top three, and why? In third place I go for Yeats great pronouncement on the figures who offered their lives for the noble cause of Irish freedom, ‘Easter 1916’. I admire this poem, as so often in Yeats, for his mastery of poetic form. Look at the very basic pattern of the poem, inspired by the date of the Rising, two stanzas of 16 and 24 lines respectively, and where you never feel that a single line has been put in just to keep the numbers balanced. You also have to admire Yeats’ mastery of memorable phrasing; who in Ireland could not finish these lines once you start them: ‘all changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born’?

For second place, I opt for Kavanagh’s magical evocation of a child’s perception of a rural Irish Christmas, a poem that could have ended up sounding sentimental but never once hits a cloying note, and a poem and a poet who occupies a unique place in the imagination of Irish people. At his best Patrick Kavanagh captured in resonant word and phrase what seemed to be the experience of so many of the country’s people; life in small country farms, villages, and towns. His ‘A Christmas Childhood’ has its fair share of memorable lines: ‘The light between the ricks of hay and straw/Was a hole in heaven’s gable’, to ‘In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,/The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.’ After reading the poem we can almost hear the melodeon music his father played that morning, the music to which the stars of the east got up and danced; a very visual and striking image.

However, for my number one, I opt for Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.’ Not only one of the best poems written in Ireland in the last fifty years, but quite possibly one of the greatest poems written in the English language in that period. The poem is immense in its scope, starting from a small, forgotten shed in Co. Wexford, Mahon builds his poem into an extended metaphor, with the mushrooms finally coming to stand by the poem’s conclusion, for all lost, forgotten, struggling people. The poem concludes, calling on the reader to listen and intervene, having suggested many of the great tragedies of twentieth century history; from the local catastrophe of the Irish civil war to the global catastrophe of the death camps of Treblinka. The poem has many eloquent and memorable lines, typical of the phrasing of the Mahon voice; the mushrooms left for so long waiting in the dark, ‘have been so long/Expectant that there is left only the posture’; ‘they lift frail heads in gravity and good faith’; ‘let not our naïve labours have been in vain!’ Of course, such wonderful phrasing, and the magnificent poetic conceit that lies behind the poem, the mushrooms as a metaphor for all patiently suffering and waiting people, allows us to overlook one significant weakness at the heart of the poem, mushrooms are a fungi that do not need light to grow: ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.’ Regardless of this oversight, the poem is utterly memorable, expressive of so much that needs to be said, and thereby very moving; what we want from the greatest of our poems.

Dr. Derek Coyle lectures in English Literature and Irish Studies at Carlow College. He has published poems and reviews in The SHOp, Ceide, The Texas Literary Review, Revival, Wordlegs, and the Irish Literary Supplement. Recently, he has had poems published in Mexico, in Cuadrivio, in their Irish issue. He was commended for the Patrick Kavanagh Award(2014), shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award (2010), and the Bradshaw Prize (2011).

A poem for Evelyn O’ Connor

A poem for Evelyn?

There is, perhaps, an inevitability about defaulting to the familiar. I look at the list of 10 and instantly, certain poems leap out off the page like fish desperate for some flip tail glory. I see Mahon first, and my gut wrenches as his plea echoes in the deepest chambers of my soul “Save us, save us” they seem to say, “let the God not abandon us who have come so far in darkness and in pain”. Here is a poem that entirely reworked my sense of past and present; that reaffirmed my passion for history, that reawakened my sixteen year old self, who believed that identifying the roots of Hitler’s anti-antisemitism was a worthy course of study, for after all, as the clichés tell us, we must understand the past or we are destined to repeat its mistakes and how sad that the past has now become the province of a “light meter and relaxed itinerary” instead of a frightening vista screaming at us ‘never again’. Yet, “even now there are places where a thought might grow”. The time to despair is not yet nigh.


My eye line shifts and Yeats swims into my consciousness. How many times did he save me the agony of trying to explain the essence of paradox with his “terrible beauty is born”? I think of his poem and am immediately greeted by the haunting stone in the midst of all that cannot simply proceed while the present is so imperfect, so flawed. And yet life goes on, in “the rider, the birds that range, from cloud to tumbling cloud”. And suddenly the spectre of pointless sacrifice rears its head, for “England may keep faith for all that is said and done” and my heart aches for their sacrifice, for “what if excess of love bewildered them till they died?”.

It seems I am rooted in the past, rooted in what might have been, and yet, my emotional connection to “A Christmas Childhood” is less intense. I connect to “the winking glitter of a frosty dawn” having witnessed it first hand this Christmas in my Mayo county home, but give me any day the epic tragedy of The Great Hunger, of “the man who made a field his bride” left with “three legs hanging between wide-apart legs”. A more difficult poem, for sure, but a more worthy one, without question. My reaction, similarly, to the Heaney offering on the list, is one of dismissal. Yes, When All the Others were Away at Mass, he was never closer his whole life to the woman who gave him life, but there is no wisdom in this poem that I could not have reached myself, alone in my thoughts. Any number of Heaney masterpieces are more worthy, not least The Republic of Conscience. Now there is a poem that calls upon us to be greater than that which we already are. Give me a call to action over nostalgia any day.

So is there some light of imagination in these wet clods, or why do we stand here shivering? I find myself reaching for the less familiar. I love Boland. The Famine Road speaks to me in the aching pain of infertility I have endured, so I reach for her now to see if she can speak of similar pain in other circumstance, and yes, I see an epic simplicity in her evocation of “what there is between a man and woman, and in which darkness it can best be proved”. But, like Heaney above, while the echo of the familiar gives rise to a certain connection, I am not challenged enough. This, to my mind, is what poetry is for. Else, give me song lyrics and I will be sated.

And so perhaps Louis MacNeice gets my third vote, after Mahon and Yeats, as he holds my mind with Dublin’s seedy elegance as the “sun comes up in the morning like barley sugar on the water”? Or Seán O’Ríordáin as he seduces me with his entreaty to “cleanse your mind and cleanse your tongue which got tied up in a syntax at odds with your intellect”. The plot thickens, the choice becomes an impossible one as I am caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, drowning in the beauty of poetry I wish I could have composed myself.

No, it would seem a woman has won my heart. Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s “neon lights light up the foreign corners of my heart” and I am hers, even in translation.

Durcan, Meehan, I apologise.

This then is my list.

A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford by Derek Mahon

Easter 1916 by WB Yeats and

Filleadh ar an gCathair by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh

Evelyn O’ Connor is a post-primary English teacher who is also passionate about technology in education. She runs her own, highly popular and successful blog called leavingcertenglish.com which is a resource for all Leaving Certificate English students.

She is currently working for the JCT (Junior Cycle for Teachers) as an English advisor. 







Poem for Ireland:My Top Three:Guest Post by Simon Lewis

Poem for Ireland – my top 3 – Simon Lewis


Of the ten poems in the shortlist, I’m not sure if I’m heading into Rick O’Shea territory by admitting I had only read 6 out of the 10 of them before. I think I get away with this as most of these 6 were not on the Leaving Cert syllabus. Also, I can’t think of any reason why I would have chosen to read the two poems in the Irish language so I’m giving myself a pat on the back before I even get down to business. (As an aside, I have to begrudgingly admit, I liked Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuaigh’s poem.)
It was quite difficult to choose my top 3 poems from the list as some of them are so good in different ways. I loved the clever rhyming in Louis MacNeice’s Dublin, and I found myself a bit emotional reading Séamus Heaney’s When all the others were away at Mass. To make my task easier, I don’t like Paul Durcan’s poem at all. Eavan Boland’s poem isn’t my scene either. The other Irish poem, well, it was a bit too Irish.
This wouldn’t be a blog post without giving out that my favourite poem wasn’t in it. In fact, every Facebook status about this list seems to question the exclusion of certain poets or poems. Patrick’s Kavanagh’s A Christmas Childhood is in the shortlist. I was surprised it wasn’tStony Grey Soil, Inniskeen Road: July Evening or In Memory of my Mother. My favourite one of his is Epic. In any case, the chosen poem on the shortlist fell outside my top 3 so I’m sure Patrick Kavanagh is very disappointed and rolling in said grey soil.
From the shortlist, it was hard not to choose Disused Shed in Co. Wexford. There’s very few poems that are able to capture everything and Derek Mahon does it so well. The first line:
Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
sets us up from tiny insignificance to the seemingly equally insignificant shed in Wexford and then it just goes nuts and takes off! Somehow, Mahon manages to take in everything in the poem and, I guess, it was always going to be number one.
My second favourite poem from the list was Heaney’s. I have no idea why I didn’t want to like this poem so much – maybe I was subconsciously trying not to pick him – but, as I said above, it made me quite emotional. Very little makes me like this, especially poetry, but I found myself in his world and connecting my own experience of losing my mother. Heaney and I couldn’t come from two more different Irish cultures but for this poem, we shared a feeling.
The third poem in my top three was Easter 1916 by Yeats. I don’t know why but I just like it a lot. I’m currently editing an online magazine called Sixteen, which explores themes from the 1916 Rising and this poem was the stimulus for its second issue so maybe that’s one of the reasons why. I’m not at all nationalist in my own outlook in life and there’s little of the poem that I relate to on a personal level. I do however love the clever rhyming scheme throughout. I like the form and the repetition of A terrible beauty is born. It’s a great poem and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it competing with Mahon’s poem in the national vote.
I was thinking that if the poets remained the same but a different poem was chosen for each of them, what would my top three have been? I think Paula’s Meehan’s Death of a Field would have easily made it. As I said Kavanagh’s Epic would have got the top spot. I’d probably still have Derek Mahon in there and it probably would be the same poem or maybe Antarctica.
It’s great to see that poetry is getting an airing on the national airwaves and hopefully it will continue and give some of our newer poets the space to showcase a more modern Ireland.
Simon Lewis is a primary school principal in Carlow Educate Together. He is has been listed for the Hennessey Prize for Emerging Poetry 2014 and is awaiting the results at the end of February. He has also been listed for the Listowel Poetry Prize, Dromineer Literary Prize and a special commendation in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards 2014. He has also been published in many literary journals and magazines to name a few- Boyne Berries, the Blue Max Review, Irish Literary Review Silver Apples, Black Water and RTE’s Arena New Planet Cabaret book.

Under Thirty writing project to be launched

Under Thirty Writing project

Stephen Doherty had an idea. He contacted me a while back to tell me about this idea. As you know, I am part of the Carlow Co-operative Writers’ Group and we love writing, reading and giving feedback. Stephen was looking for reviewers to help aspiring writers under 30. I was very excited and honoured to be asked so we started a conversation up!

In my first guest blog, he answers some questions about his new project

What is the project about?

Under Thirty is a new and unique non-profit project that nurtures and showcases young Irish fiction at home and aboard. It provides writers with access to a panel of experienced writers, literary scholars, editors and publishers who work entirely voluntarily to review submissions and provide feedback and encouragement to the country’s aspiring writers.

Where did the idea for the project originate?

The idea originally came from my experience working with young people over recent years. Although coming from very different backgrounds, a commonality was that many of them used creative writing as a means of communicating their own internal worldview to the outside world – be it to a psychologist, a friend, a parent, or even to a stranger. Expressive writing can have a powerful cathartic effect for a writer, especially in a therapeutic setting. Coupled with the added dimension of fiction, such a process allows a writer the freedom to take a step back from the situation, and to share it with others without feeling embarrassed or exposed – a form of: “my friend has a problem”. Others would also use examples from their favourite stories to relate their problems to what the characters in the stories are going through, and to express their emotions through a third party.

This concept of book therapy, or bibliotherapy, is employed as a psychological method and has a range of uses, and an important factor of its success is the perception of the writer of the attentiveness of the person they are sharing their story with. In a time where we have been encouraged to listen to the younger generation, to our children, it seems that many of them, at least in my experience, feel listened to but not truly heard.

In retrospect, this was the planting of the seed for the Under Thirty project. I wanted to find a way that these people could express themselves to the world and feel that they were really being listened to. By having established writers and scholars reading their stories, this adds a strong element of support, mentorship, and community to budding writers all over the country and abroad.

What do the panel do?

The panel consists of over fifty volunteers who offer their time and expertise to the project and its writers. After a blind preview process, all entrants are given back their manuscripts with suggestions and advice from the panel. The most promising submissions are selected for publication in a bi-annual journal, the first of which will be published in December. In this way, writers can be assured that their work speaks for itself, and the panel of reviewers have the freedom to truly feed back into the development of new writers, and provide them with the constructive criticism and motivation to go even further with their work.

The panel have been very supportive and helped the project reach out into many networks around the country and abroad. We have heard from schools, universities, writing groups, libraries, broadcasters and politicians, who are keen to be involved, and in this way it has grown from strength to strength.

How can submissions be made?

The project homepage www.under-30.org is the base for the project. Writers can make submissions via the website, and we also use it and social media channels to provide information about funding opportunities in the arts, connect writers of all experiences with one another through events and online fora, and to add to our growing pool of freely available resources for new writers. The deadline for the first issue is midnight on November 7th, 2012, but the bi-annual nature of the project means that the next deadline is never too far away and we can provide a very reasonable turn around to the entrants. The inaugural issue will be published in December as a soft-bound book and also as an e-book at a special event at Dublin City University.


Stephen Doherty is a post-doctoral research fellow in Dublin City University, where he researches and lectures in areas of psychology, cognition, and language. He has several years of experience as an editor, writer, and translator, and smattering of publications.

Website: www.under-30.org

Facebook: www.facebook.com/underthirty

Twitter: @underthirty