Another fine issue of Boyne Berries, edited by Orla Fay. This is a themed edition, centered around the Easter Rising of 1916 and it reviews that cataclysmic event from a variety of angles with an extensive range of poetry and stories/articles. I can only deal with a few and the fact that I leave some out of my reckoning is absolutely no reflection on their quality.
Michael Farry’s ‘John Gormley’ is based on the death of a 25-year-old RIC constable shot dead at Ashbourne on Friday 27 April 1916. It is a fine combination of the usual humdrum life of a policeman transformed by the chaotic arrival of the Rising:
Back in the barracks that evening news
of the Dublin rumpus unsettled us.
I was sent to Slane to guard the castle.
Robert Tully’s ‘Flags’ with its down-to-earth assessment of patriotism appeals to me. The question in the final triplet demands an honest answer:
We’ve come such a way
In a hundred years.
‘Conversing with Our History’ by Stephen O’Brien is a fine poem, and is also given in an Irish language version by the poet. Both versions work well but I have to say that the Irish reads and sounds better. The poem picks up on Robert Tully’s question quoted above:
How would they react,
Our nation’s heroes,
If they could see our
An outstanding poem in the book is Clare McCotter’s ‘Epsom, 1913’. Based on the death of suffragette Emily Davidson, which resulted from her falling under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Epsom derby. It is a poem that one can read again and again and still be moved, especially at the way Emily was force-fed in hospital afterwards:
I cannot breath
I am not breathing
I am drowning
and will drown forty-nine times
My own contribution, ‘I fought for King and Country in My Boyhood’, is a poem of Ireland’s ‘eastern seaboard’, that territory where I grew up reading about how the bravery of the European pioneers wrested the lands of North America from the savages who deserved no more than to be shot on sight, and how the British had single-handedly defeated Hitler. That is to say, my head was filled with the exploits of comic-book heroes like Kit Carson and General Montgomery rather than with the sacrifices of the 1916 insurgents. I admired them too but, because of my family background (and I do not blame everything on my family!) the more recent World War Two and the epic stories of the Wild West were more in my mind:
I Fought for King and Country in My Boyhood
I fought for king and country in my boyhood,
surveyed the trenches from an R.E.8
in constant danger from marauding tri-planes,
was saved a hundred times by Sopwith Camels.
I flew Spitfires too, downed Messerschmitts
in flames with no regrets, though he was I.
At Alam Halfa and at Alamein
Montgomery owed his victories to me.
At school by day I learned about the men
who shook the Empire. Momentarily
I faced the bullets with them in Kilmainham
and admired their sacrifice and yet
by evening shells exploded all around me
in block lettering, and speech balloons
above me shouted orders to my troops
to make the final push for Anzio.
Many other poems bring alive or commemorate that 1916 triumphal failure: Orla Fay’s ‘First Frost in the Park’ concerns an insurgent raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park on Easter Monday 24 April 1916, and Andy Jones in ‘An Easter Visitor in 2010’ has a a person from 1916 having a look at present-day Ireland. He/she doesn’t feel entirely welcome and sardonically observes that it is
Just as well I’ve become I’ve become invisible.
No one would have bought me a pint!
And now I must risk the ire of my fellow poets when I say that the most striking piece in the magazine is, for me, a prose piece by Noel French, ‘Remembering 1916: A United Ireland’ is a bewildering read for the first page or so until one grasps that Noel is indulging in what is called ‘speculative history’. That is to say, his piece centres around the idea that the Rising had never happened. It is a highly unusual and imaginative piece and very thought-provoking.
Finally, remember the great illustrations that William Blake designed to accompany his poems? No? Let Rory O Sullivan remind you. Every Boyne Berries has one his extraordinary illustrated poems. ‘Ashland’ and its accompanying design has chilling echoes of Edgar Allen Poe. Rory’s regular contributions are an art-form in themselves.