Treasured Father-Son Memories Recounted at Opening of Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018

FullSizeRender (12) Niall Hartnett

Michael Hartnett’s son Niall gives the keynote speech on the first night of this year’s festival. “Poetry is my life and my life is poetry,” the words poet Michael Hartnett wrote in a letter to his son, Niall in 1998, the year before Michael died.

 

Niall read excerpts from that treasured letter on the opening night (Thursday 12 April 2018) of Éigse Michael Hartnett, the literary and arts festival which takes place each year in his father’s hometown of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

In a keynote speech which took its title from a line of Michael’s, The Possibility we have overlooked is the futureNiall Hartnett spoke movingly about his father and his work:

“He could weave a tapestry of a small town or an epic struggle at the highest level so seamlessly, you could not always tell which was which. Neither could he, I suspect, and did not see the point in separating the two: there is as much drama in Salad Sunday as there is in Sibelius! As much intrigue in Maiden Street as there was in Inchicore.”

“We need to honour this son of Newcastle West and the road less travelled he took to bridge many worlds early on. I feel we can best do this by encouraging ourselves and especially the young to choose unpredictable paths and unexpected destinies. Break the mould and proudly show others that you did. Invite the young, your family and friends to this festival and encourage them to nurture this legacy which will someday will be theirs. The future belongs to the young and they will carry all of this on we hope, but only if we engage them now! As the poet himself said: the Possibility we have Overlooked is the Future!” Niall added.

Officially opening the festival Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary said: “It is heart-warming to see that Michael is being celebrated in his hometown. Michael was loved by everyone in Newcastle West, who knew him through his words, as the poet, and I’m delighted that his son Niall is here this evening giving us an account of Michael as a father. There are many sides to people, such as Michael and it’s invaluable that we get an insight into these so that we can understand and appreciate the works of Michael Hartnett even more.”

Creative Writing Workshop
Creative Writing Workshop with Dr Robyn Rowland (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

The opening night of Eigse also saw the joint winners of this year’s Michael Hartnett Poetry Award honoured: Macdara Woods for Music from the Big Tent (Dedalus Press 2016) and Mary O’Malley for Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016).

“Music from the Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort,” the judges Jo Slade and James Harpur said in their citation.

In accepting his award Macdara Woods said: “It is delightful to share with Mary O’Malley an award given in memory of my old and dear friend, Michael Hartnett. We had many wild times, and some quiet times, and adventures together, from Dublin to London to Kilkee, but what remains most clearly, and has become even more apparent with the passing of time, is his genius for poetry and the translation of poetry. I intend to take this award as a personal nudge from Michael.”

His fellow award winner Mary O’Malley added: “I am delighted to receive the Michael Hartnett Award, I too knew Michael and he had kind things to say about my young poems, he has remained a touchstone for me.”

Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus was described by the judges as “a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.” This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowly like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental.”

Éigse Michael Hartnett also highlighted readings by authors John Boyne and Mike McCormack, who has just been shortlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award and young Limerick poet Edward O’Dwyer.

Professor Declan Kiberd delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture on Saturday 14th, entitled, Honey I shrunk the kids, in which he raised the question of whether there is a children’s literature, or whether the classic works from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter are written by adults, published by adults, often to promote adult agendas.

“It will then raise an even deeper question–whether childhood, as we know it through literature, is an invention of recent centuries, perhaps even an image constructed in the age of print and now fast disappearing with the spread of electronic and digital media. These are troubling questions,” Professor Kiberd said.

Declan Kiberd
Dr Declan Kiberd delivering the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Honey I shrunk the Kids!’ – Is there a children’s literature? (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

Éigse takes place each year in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Hartnett’s home-town and is supported by the Arts Council and Limerick City and County Council.  The continuing support received from Sheila Deegan and her team of Aoife Potter Cogan, Dr Pippa Little and ‘the real boss’ Lizanne Jackman was acknowledged at the opening ceremony.  The local organising committee is Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, John Cussen Rachel Lenihan, Rossa McMahon and Vincent Hanley.

The Michael Hartnett Poetry Award is awarded in alternate years to books of poetry in the Irish and English language.

For full details of the 2018 programme please check out www.eigsemichaelhartnett.ie

Norma Prendeville
Norma Prendeville at the launch of Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s Milking the Sun – Ag Crú na Gréine (with illustrations by Gabriel’s wife Brenda). The book is a translation of Gabriel’s favourite poems by Sean Ó Riordáin from the Irish.(Picture by Dermot Lynch)

 

Shared with the permission of Limerick City and County Council  Newsroom

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Study Notes on ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

 

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The cover photo was given to Claire Keegan by Madelaine Greene, wife of John McGahern. It was taken at a funfair in Brussels.

In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:

“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”

More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level.  Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story.  Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.

 All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition

 

About Claire Keegan

 

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Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.

Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.

Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award.  Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.

She is a member of Aosdána.[3]

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After the Rain – Repairs at Ballymore Farm, Co. Wexford.

THE STORY

The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel.  Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family.  Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family.  The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.

Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East.  The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown.  Claire Keegan explains:

“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”

Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.

“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”

The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless.  Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.

The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children.  She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home.  Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll.  By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.

Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism.  It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.

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Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford by Tony Robinson on ArtClick.ie Irish

THEMES AND ISSUES

There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course.  The main themes dealt with here are:

  • Growing up/Childhood
  • The Theme of Family

 

The Theme of Growing up/Childhood

This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family.  She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story.  We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her.    Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella.  We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.

The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy.  As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.

As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:

The man will be her size.  He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps.  Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).

She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact.  They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6).  She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).

She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving.  She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10).  She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch.  She tells us that her mother is always busy:

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).

She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17).  Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’.  This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.

One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid.  Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21).  The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).

She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28).  It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child.  This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story.  Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact.  Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting.  She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion.  The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’.  She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE.  She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore.  Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).

The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting.  We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).

It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team.  Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day.  She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever.  One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue.  As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).

Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake.  She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas.  It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house.  Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’!  The narrator  is left aghast:

I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).

When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret.  Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:

‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)

Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items.  The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school.  She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76).  Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade.  Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:

I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree.  Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).

She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also.  They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home.  Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care.  Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).

She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold.  She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold.  She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:

This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).

Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:

It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).

The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home.  She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:

Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).

The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic.  She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her.  She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’.  She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:

‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).

This is, in effect, the climax of the story.  Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal.  However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.  She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.

 

The Theme of Family

Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families.  The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family.  She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.

The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’.  He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds.  We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname.  We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister.  Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3).  He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14).  The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.

Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end.  Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing.  The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different.  The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).

Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name.  We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival.  After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son.  She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end.  It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways.  She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores.  She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.

John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’.  He grows in stature as the story develops.  Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected.  There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father.  He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:

Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock.  When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver.  On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).

He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving.  He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.

He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading.  When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit.  During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:

‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says.  ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do.  Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).

This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel.  Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’.  It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame.  The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.

Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:

          “You must have carried me there” (p.66).

As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind.  He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.

The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.

Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car.  The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief.  After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred.  We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.

The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.

It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years.  She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:

It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).

We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!

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Lavender Farm, Coolnagloose, Inch, Co. Wexford

CULTURAL CONTEXT

The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981.  The setting is rural County Wexford.  There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time.  The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation.  The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea.  There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.

The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland.  The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there.  In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’.  In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them.  Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.

The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.

The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report.  The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.

Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.

The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess.  The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life.  Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.

Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella.  We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981.  We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations.  It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year.  The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.

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 LITERARY GENRE

This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice.  It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles.  These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.

It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect.  She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor.  In effect, this is a short story with chapters added.  The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.

As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University.  During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen.  She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books.  This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark.  She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.

All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense.  This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present.  Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families.  She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).

The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me.  Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here.  For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside.  Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.

 The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator.  This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.

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Eve’s Blog N Stuff – WordPress.com

 GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981.  The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood.  Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.

We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them.  One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident.  This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all.  Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.

Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism.  The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it.  The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive.  However, Kinsella will have none of it:

‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.

‘We didn’t really think – ‘

‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).

The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next.  It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad.  Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader.  There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator.  As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments.   There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl.  This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.

The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed.  Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:

.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves.  Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.

 

 

Derek Mahon – An Overview

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Mahon’s poetry does not flinch from exposing human inadequacy, especially, but not exclusively, the pathology of the Northern Protestant people.  Oates’s heroic gesture in ‘Antarctica’, the naked aggression in ‘As It Should Be’, the narrow bigotry in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and Bruce Ismay’s self-absorption in ‘After the Titanic’ – all are testament to human shortcomings.  However, while Mahon deplores the ‘stiff rhetorical intransigence’ of his people (as Seamus Deane puts it), he also sympathises with them in their isolation and fading presence.

For Mahon poetry is essentially an artistic activity: it is more concerned with shape and form than with content or politics.  Like the great modernist poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, he takes pleasure in and is consoled by the order and formality of poetry – an order that is notably absent from many of the livers he describes.  This might suggest that his poetry is removed from everyday concerns, and indeed he sometimes yearns for what he calls poetry’s ‘palace and porcelain’ – a place or state that is elegant, decorative, and decorous.

However, this desire is only one of the warring instincts within him.  Mahon has also suggested that poetry is capable of improving humankind.  He has invoked Shelley’s claim that poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination, which is ‘the great instrument of moral good.’  Looked at in this way, poetry is an unacknowledged legislator of the world, not isolated from it.

In the opinion of one critic, Gerald Dawe, Mahon’s primary concern is to understand the imagination and find a place for it in the modern world.  Mahon himself maintains that poetry can contribute to the creation of a life that is nearer the ideal.  ‘A good poem is a paradigm (model or example) of good politics,’ he has written – ‘of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level.  It is a light to lighten the darkness.’

Seamus Deane remarks that Mahon’s poetry ‘expresses a longing to be free from history’; but his poems on civility and barbarity (the greatest of which is probably ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’) contradict that longing.  He has had good reason to yearn to be ‘through with history,’ since he belongs to a country that has violently enacted its versions of history, with deadly effect.  However, history is not his only preoccupation.  His themes also include the age-old conflict between the individual and his community.  In Mahon’s case, poetry is also especially a statement about what it means to be a poet today, distanced from, but implicated in, the historical world.  So he does not escape from history; instead it is incorporated or woven into the oasis of peace and aesthetic order that is each poem.

What are the main characteristics of his style?  He displays a combination of brevity and detail, and this is achieved with a cadenced precision.  How effective and economical a description is ‘a writhing glimmer of fish’ in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, for example!  In addition, his elegant and playful rhymes and adroit control of assonance are impressive.  He endorses traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, and yet subverts them.  His pared-down vernacular idiom is combined with a prodigious learning, which Mahon wears lightly and which makes an oblique and understated appearance in the poems.

The voices of his poems – and they are many – are sophisticated yet possessed of a heartfelt, if weary, empathy with their subjects.  They are often still, small voices, educated but understated, learned but not pedantic, always self-aware and often self-mocking.  They are the voices of men of conscience who are implicated in the guilt of being human beings.  (Women figure only in a small, marginal way in the selection of poems by Mahon on the modern Leaving Cert course, for example.)  Their agonised intelligence is often close to despair, but they still go on.  The critic Terence Brown uses the phrase ‘terminal pathos’ to describe this distinctive note in Mahon’s poetry, which can also be found, incidentally, in the work of Samuel Beckett.  Brown is referring to that quality of poetic speech that can excite in the reader extreme pity or sorrow.

However, the poems are not all delivered in a tone of mortal sadness.  Central to Mahon’s poetry is the use of irony.  Often his meanings have a different or opposite tendency to that expressed by the words used.  When he rails against bigotry and hatred in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and against violence in ‘Rathlin’, he is severely critical, but his gentle mockery in ‘Grandfather’ is impish and mischievous.  He tempers the cruel precision of his observations with compassion, amusement, and pain.  Witty and darkly humorous, he relishes the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously, as this extract from ‘After the Titanic’ illustrates:

                                    a pandemonium of

                                    Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

                                    Boilers, bursting and shredded ragtime.

The settings for his poems range from the readily identifiable Portrush and Belfast to the metaphorical sites of past political failures and violence, like Kinsale and Rathlin Island, and the psychic wasteland of Antarctica.  Harshness predominates.  Surfaces are unyielding, climates are bracing.  Even cities may be empty, as in ‘Ecclesiastes’, or their citizens voluntarily withdraw into isolation, as in ‘Grandfather’.  We sense that, although the poems are set ‘in one place only’, the feelings they evoke are universal.  Always there is a consciousness of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of human struggle.  The reader is aware that, whatever the setting of a particular poem, it engages in dialogue with or provides a foil to, that desperate, barren place, Belfast, which so informs Mahon’s imagination.

Frequently places are viewed from elsewhere, from a distance that may be historical, geographical, or ironic.  The titles of the first and last books from which the poems on the Leaving Cert course are taken, Night-Crossing and Antarctica testify to his shifting ground.  Frequently too the speaker is a traveller, a tourist or a reporter, traversing difficult country.  The unyielding terrain becomes a metaphor for the existential, regional or global anxieties from which he suffers.

In certain poems there is an inkling of an ‘elsewhere’ that is nearer the ideal state than that now inhabited.  That place or state is suggested by, for example, post-historical Rathlin Island, now a bird sanctuary, or by the glimpse of Co. Donegal beyond the shores from Portrush, or by those faraway places where a thought might grow.  It is beyond reach, and the speaker is often aware of its fictional nature, as he is in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’.

Estranged loners crowd the poems.  In works such as ‘After the Titanic’ and ‘Rathlin’ their distance from other humans, whether temporal or spatial, gives some idea of the extent of their isolation.  Sometimes, as in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ and ‘A Disused Shed’, their alienation is suggested by his comparing them to fish or fungi.

Mahon holds a special affection for scapegoats and failures, such as the murdered dreamer in ‘As It Should Be’, or Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’, seeing in their particular brand of failure a kind of successful avoidance of the mundane.  As he writes in a 1997 poem, ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’

A distinctively Mahon outsider is the detached observer, at one remove from reality yet part of it.  He is to be found, for instance, in ‘A Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, and ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’.  His role is to interpret and comment on the poem’s action, as would the chorus of a classic Greek play, or to lament man’s inhumanity, as did Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah.  Unlike a Greek chorus, however, Mahon’s outsider is implicated in the conditions and predicaments the poems express.  His watchful presence also ignites an inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the historical world around him.

Mahon has a special gift for selecting telling images of the commonplace, material world and investing them with resonance.  Tied-up swings, Peruvian mines, burnt-out hotels, a red bandana – the images are acutely visual and activate a series of associations in our minds.  Mahon is at pains to catch the quality of light that falls on his landscapes and has a visual artist’s awareness of shape and colour.  ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, for example, is replete with precise visual detail – such as open doors, the girl swinging her bag, the chow mein, the photograph of Hongkong, the yacht – which he then invests with significance.

Derek Mahon is one of the most important poets writing in Ireland today.  His poetry is memorable because his technical excellence, contemporary idiom and serious subject matter combine with an urbane yet passionate sensitivity.

At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime... www.likesuccess.com
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime… http://www.likesuccess.com

DEREK MAHON – A MODERN DAY ENIGMA?

‘There must be three things in combination, I suggest, before the poetry can happen: soul, song and formal necessity’ writes Mahon, and his own work most surely meets these requirements.  Mahon’s poetry has the sensibility of a thinking, feeling self, a music and a mastery of construction; ‘Grandfather’ is a sonnet, ‘Antarctica’ a villanelle and, in general, his organisation of his stanzas, his line length and rhyme are very impressive.  He is a formalist, he believes in pattern and structure and has said: ‘Look at rap – that’s the best poetry being written in America at the moment; at least it rhymes.’

Derek Mahon writes about landscape, seascape; he writes about what Edna Longley calls the ‘conflict between poetry and the ethos of Protestant Ulster’ (this is very evident in ‘Ecclesiastes’).  He is very much a poet of place (Donegal, Co. Wexford, Portrush, Rathlin, Antarctica, Kinsale), he is also a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas and a poet with a broad literary background.  The literary, philosophical aspect of his work can be seen in his poem ‘Heraclitus on Rivers’, when he writes:

 The very language in which the poem

                                      Was written, and the idea of language,

                                      All these will pass away in time.

‘For Mahon, the past is significantly present’ says Thomas Kinsella and this can be seen particularly in ‘Rathlin’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co, Wexford’.  His sympathetic nature is evident in ‘After the Titanic’, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, and ‘Antarctica’.  In these three poems Mahon demonstrates his ability to enter into the lives of others.  In one he speaks in the voice of Bruce Ismay; in another he imagines what the owner of the restaurant is thinking, feeling, dreaming and in ‘Antarctica’ he recreates a scene from an Antarctic expedition where an individual makes an extraordinary choice for the benefit of others.  He is drawn to solitary, forgotten figures and in his poetry Mahon often reveals himself to be a solitary, observing figure.

Sean O’Brien points out that, ‘For the most part Mahon’s world exists outdoors’ and the, ‘wide-open spaces are, naturally enough, rather thinly populated, but even when Mahon writes about the city … it is somewhere whose population is hardly to be seen.’   Belfast, for example, in ‘Ecclesiastes’, is ‘the / dank churches, the empty streets, / the shipyard silence. The tied-up swings’.  There is also, however, a sense of beauty and celebration in Mahon’s response to the physical world, as in his description of Donegal, (‘the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world’) or Kinsale (‘sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun’).

He is a very visual poet, as captured in such details as

  • ‘the grave / Grey of the sea’,
  • ‘the empty streets, / The shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’,
  • ‘a pandemonium of /Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches / Boilers bursting’,
  • ‘Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator’,
  • ‘a flutter / Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft’,
  • ‘one / By one the gulls go window shopping’,
  • ‘The whole island a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’,
  • ‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime’,
  • ‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay’.

‘The strongest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon’ says Eamon Grennan, ‘is the sense that I have been spoken to; that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech … What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to speech itself, to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft’.  The poems on our course speak to us in a voice that is calm, reflective, self-aware and never self-important.  The speaker sometimes uses ‘I’, sometimes ‘we’ or ‘us’, and all the time the reader is invited into the poem.  Mahon’s poems ask us to reflect on a range of themes:

  • the dispossessed and neglected in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’,
  • loneliness and longing in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’,
  • history’s legacy in ‘Rathlin’,
  • the solitary selflessness in ‘Antarctica’,
  • changing times viewed optimistically in ‘Kinsale’,
  • from an individual’s mystery and elusiveness in ‘Grandfather’,
  • uncertainty and failure in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’,
  • guilt and suffering in ‘After the Titanic’,
  • cultural inheritance and community in ‘Ecclesiastes’,
  • threat and violence in ‘As it Should Be’.

His best known poem, seen by many as his greatest masterpiece, is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’.  There the mushrooms become a symbol of lost voices struggling to be saved and the poems references to Peru, India, Treblinka and Pompeii allow the poem a huge historical and cultural framework and create what Hugh Haughton calls ‘a wonderful long perspective of historical time’.  When Declan Kiberd says that Mahon ‘has the mind of a conscience-stricken anthropologist’, we can see what he means when we read this particular poem.

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 In his recent poetry (not on the course!), especially in The Yellow Book, Mahon casts a cold eye on our consumer driven society and our image-obsessed world.  He writes of how now ‘Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / the whole noise of late-century consumerism’ and of how our lives are affected by ‘road rage / spy cameras, radio heads, McDonalds, rowdytum, / laser louts and bouncers, chat shows, paparazzi, / stand up comedians and thug journalists’.  But the same poet can also write a poem called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ where he offers the following heartening lines:

The sun rises in spite of everything

                             And the far cities are beautiful and bright.

In the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Declan Kiberd describes Derek Mahon as ‘the most underrated Irish poet of the century’ and Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Mahon’s work has been ‘consistently undervalued for fifty years, not that neglect has seemed to bother or inhibit him.’  Derek Mahon is more interested in his poetry than in his reputation.  He knows that,

  The lines flow from the hand unbidden

                        And the hidden source is the watchful heart.

Derek Mahon by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d'Irlande
Derek Mahon by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d’Irlande

SAMPLE ANSWER:

‘Derek Mahon’s imagery is vivid, evocative and striking.’

Discuss this statement using some of the poetry you have studied to support or refute this viewpoint.

 

In his poetry, Derek Mahon engages with the ordinary, sometimes the unique, always the actual experiences of life.  His observations are of real places and real people; he refers to real events in an outdoor world of shorelines, rocks, hills, moorland, and island.

Mahon is a very imaginative and perceptive poet.  He responds to objects and landscapes in ways that are surprising and at times remarkable.  Usually he communicates his very personal observations in imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking.  In his poems, however, the use of landscape transcends the mere descriptive.  Landscape and seascape frequently reflect the poet’s insight, his hope, his frustration and his despair.  Much of this deeper resonance is achieved through imagery.

Mahon is a very visual writer.  His images vary from the domestic, where his grandfather bangs ‘around the house like a four-year old’, to the sublime where ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole. / This is the one star in their firmament’.  One of the principal functions of his imagery is to evoke moments of private and public suffering that have been ignored or forgotten.  On of the most striking images in his poems is that in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ where mushrooms wait ‘in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil war days’.  For those who have not yet shed their ‘pale flesh’ into the earth, their long, tortuous existence, has almost destroyed their hope of ever being heard, ‘so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture’.  The extended image encompasses words such as ‘nightmares’, ‘prisoners’, ‘rached by drought’, to portray the chilling misery and despair of thousands who have died or survived in squalor.  These vivid images also evoke the terrible realisation that the poet is speaking of human suffering and torment, displacing their lives and their hurt on to the mushrooms in a striking association of men and object.  The power of the image is unquestionable, for it leaves us with diverse feelings of revulsion and of guilt for what has occurred in our history, the history of humankind, and for the unforgivable way in which the plight of the innocents has been forgotten.

This ability to use natural objects, such as mushrooms, to represent the human experiences and the poet’s own feelings and perspectives on those experiences, is also evident where Mahon evokes the elements of the Irish landscape.  In ‘Rathlin’, the poet once again recalls historical violence on an island that is now a ‘sanctuary’ of peace and ‘through with history’.  However, this refuge also witnessed ‘unspeakable violence’ and ‘screams of the Rathlin women’ when blood was shed in territorial battles.  Mahon connects the past with the present, and Rathlin with Belfast in the image of the bombs that ‘doze in the housing estates’.  It is a chilling reminder that violence has shattered the ‘dream-time’, the lives of men, women and children.

Mahon’s concern for the future helps us to understand his frustration in ‘Ecclesiastes’ when he witnesses ‘tied-up swings’, and listens to Godspeak from people who ‘love the January rains’ when people ‘darken the dark doors’ of ‘dank churches’.  Mahon deplores those who can ‘promise nothing under the sun’.  These vivid images of a bleak, oppressive urban landscape reflect the poet’s desolation, and his anger that ‘people still await’ understanding, forgiveness, and encouragement to embrace the ‘heat of the world’.  Sadly, the elemental rain beats down relentlessly.

Or does it?  In one of his later poems, ‘Kinsale’, there is a welcome and long-awaited moment of light and hope.  The poet himself seems to savour the parting of clouds in the opening lines when he says, ‘The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past – / Deep-delving, dark, deliberate.’  The image of the yachts ‘tinkling and dancing’ is not only striking in its beauty but it is also positively uplifting.  There is a renewal of energy, of possibility.  It has come as a welcome respite, and not just to the reader, for the poet too utters his relief in the phrase ‘at last’.  The sun, that eternal image of hope, promises ‘a future forbidden to no-one’.

Derek Mahon is, therefore, a poet with a precise and imaginative eye.  He is capable of creating imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking.  His images reveal for us the bleak condition of society and of man yet the final note is more hopeful.  Like his mushrooms, perhaps, Mahon’s poems ‘have come so far in darkness’; but ‘contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no one’.

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FINAL WORDS ON MAHON’S POETRY

  • His Themes include the darker side of life where Mahon reveals private and public suffering, pain, and violence. He also examines landscapes and seascapes and the way people interact with such placesAlienation is another recurring theme.  Some poems also explore the area of personal sacrifice while in ‘Kinsale’ a belief in the future concludes the selection on a more hopeful note.
  • Mahon can explore subjects that are not usually considered material for poetry, such as mushrooms, a derelict shed and a Chinese restaurant. His observations are very precise without being pretentious.  He also delves into the mindset of those who suffer, those who fail, and those who are fanatical in their politics or their religion.
  • Mahon employs a range of poetic forms. He can create very precise short stanza forms or longer, quite formal stanzas.  In the poems on our course he uses the couplet, tercet, quatrain, sonnet and villanelle.  Many of his longer stanzas are written in blank verse.
  • Rhyme is often internal although end-rhyme is also used. Mahon can make very effective use of alliteration and assonance.
  • The atmosphere that emerges from his poems is threatening, violent, and intimidating but there is also a definite feeling of love, sincerity and hope in other poems.
  • Mahon’s imagery shows his precise observations and gives a painterly quality to his poetry. Images are frequently related to the poet’s own experiences.  Colloquial language is another feature of his style.

An Analysis of the characters of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

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CHRISTY MAHON

Christy:  At First Weak, Timid

When we first meet Christy it is by way of report.  He is presented as a tramp, “a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch groaning wicked like a maddening dog”, or a “queer fellow above, going mad — “.   When we first see him he is, according to the stage direction, a ‘slight young man – very fired and frightened and dirty’.  The first impression we get is one of timidity and fear: in short he is a coward but not totally lacking in spirit.  His retort to Michael’s accusation that maybe he is wanted for “robbing and stealing” is given with a flash of family pride: ”And I the son of a strong farmer”.  He relaxes as the others convince him that he is in a house safe from the ‘polis’, and begins to respond to their interest in the curiosity about his origins.  Was he the victim of bailiffs, agents, landlords; did he indulge in alchemy, marry three wives, fight “wars for Kruger”?  Pegeen’s impatient “you did nothing at all” provokes the required confession: “I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week”.

The “lie” Begins

He is now definitely to be feared and respected, simply by what he has said. The hero in Christy is about to emerge; he is ‘a lad with the sense of Solomon’: “the peelers is fearing him”, he ‘should be great terror when his temper’s roused’, brave enough to “face a foxy divil — on the flags of hell”, and to stand up to “the loosed khaki cut-throats, or the walkin dead”.

The “lie” Takes Effect

Christy can hardly believe his ears: “Well glory be to God!” is all he can exclaim at the character the others are building for him.  When he is left alone with Pegeen who describes him as a “fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow” his amazed reply is: “Is it me?”.  She further likens him to Owen Roe O’Sullivan (Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain) the greatest of the Kerry poets, ‘a fine fiery fellow with great rages’ and passions.

Synge’s Sympathy For The” Lie”

The local response to Christy’s appearance on the scene highlight for us the drabness of such rural living, where the imagination has been starved, and there is longing for some excitement. Behind the obvious comedy in this scene we see a certain pathos: Synge was most definitely not out of sympathy with such peasant people (After all he had forsaken his own kind for their company).   

Christy Given Romantic Image

Pegeen’s mention of Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain reveals much about her character: he was a rather rakish fellow, a womaniser and an eloquent poet.  She wants excitement and is prepared to defy the ‘priesteen’ and the powers of Rome to get it.  Maybe Christy is a re-incarnation of the poet – that is what she wants to believe.  Self-deception it is but understandable in the circumstances.  She and the others want a hero and Christy wants to be that hero.

So Christy has now progressed from tramp and coward to poetic hero, which brings us to the end of Act 1.  By this stage it is obvious that Synge has created a mock-hero, a parody of the hero of Celtic epic literature.

Christy Settles in To His New Image

At the start of Act II Christy feels quite at home and would be prepared to remain here ‘his whole life talking out with swearing Christians – never a day’s work’.  The emphasis is on talking rather than working.  He is aware now that his talent is verbal with a licence to lie or, at best, to bend and decorate the truth.

Heroes Must Prove Themselves

His status as hero is confirmed at this point by the arrival of the local girls bearing gifts, and by the Widow Quin’s announcement that she has entered him ‘in the sports below for racing, leaping, pitching’.  All heroes must be put to the test: it is a feature of the epic poem that the hero must prove his prowess and strength in epic combat.  For Christy this is to be done in the more humble local sports.

Comedy In Parody

The girls get their reward for bringing presents when Christy once again tells the story of his homicide (‘da-slaying’).  His new found confidence is reflected in the telling.  Now we have mime to enhance the comic absurdity.  There is even comedy in the “weapons” used; a chicken bone and mug replace the mighty weapons of the traditional hero.

Temporary Set Back For Christy

This comic episode ends with the return of Pegeen who bristles at the sight of other women, especially Widow Quin, making free and easy with her man.  They are dismissed imperiously and Christy receives a verbal punishing for his vanity.  “You’ll be shut of no jeopardy no place if you go talking with a pack wild girls”.   This provokes a great outburst of self-pity from Christy which softens the heart of Pegeen, making her realise how lucky she is to have found a lad with “a mighty spirit in him and a gamy heart”.

Power Of The “Lie” Again

Once again she is under the spell of Christy’s poetry, its rhythms and imagery: “it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways, when the night is down”, “ drawn to the cities where you’s hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch”, “but I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I’m thinking as the moon of dawn”, “the way I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us do arise to hope or judgement with the saints of God”.

Comedy Of Christy’s Victory’ Over Shawn

Christy is now given and opportunity to act the hero.  Shawn Keogh, that representative of ‘respectability and conformity’, has to be confronted and humiliated.  Our new hero enjoys inflicting this humiliation on Shawn Keogh: he himself had often suffered similarly at the hands of his own father.  At the height of his heroic success Christy is suddenly brought back to earth with a bump when he sees “the walking spirit of my murdered da”, “that ghost of hell”.

Another Side To Christy By His Father

Ironically Christy in hiding has to suffer the humiliation of hearing his father sarcastically describe the real Christy:

“An ugly young streeler with a murderous gob”

“a dirty stuttering lout”

“a lier on walls, a talker of folly, a man you’d see stretched the half of the day in the brown ferns with his belly to the sun”.

“he’d be fooling over little birds – or making mugs at his own self in the bit of glass – – -“.

“if he seen a red petticoat coming swinging over the hill, he’d be off to hide in the sticks… “

“a poor fellow that would get drunk on the smell of a pint”

“the laughing joke of every female woman”

“the loony of Mahon’s”

This is not exactly the character reference that Christy would give and had given to himself! An interesting point to note, however, is that the father has a ‘power’ of words himself!

Christy Becomes ‘The Playboy’

Once again Synge deglamourises the peasant and his lifestyle, reality keeping a firm grip on fantasy.  The cult of the hero needs to be exposed for what it is; gratuitous violence masquerading as bravery.  (Synge was a pacifist and was appalled by the violence of his own day and the false image of Ireland and its people that was being manufactured to support political ideas).  The Widow Quin dubs Christy sarcastically ‘the walking Playboy of the Western World’.  Christy is now in the hands of the Widow Quin and she being the practical person she is cashes in on his fear of exposure.  Since she cannot have him for herself she will demand a fee for his silence: ’give me a right of way I want, and a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas’.  The Act ends with Christy half-reassured that he has bribed the Widow into silence, and off he goes to his greatest test as hero, indeed the traditional test of all heroes.

Christy: Proven Hero At Last without ‘Lies’

In Act III Christy successfully proves himself at the races winning all before him, so when he returns to the Shebeen in triumph he is master of all.  There is no limit to his courage and confidence now.

Pegeen Abandons Herself To His Power

He quite overpowers Pegeen – the first time she has ever softened, she ‘the fright of seven townlands for my biting tongue’.  He raises her to such a level of passion that she is prepared to abandon everything for this ‘raggle-taggle gipsy man’, who according to Father Reilly would ‘capsize the stars’.  Pegeen becomes a ‘heathen daughter’ and renounces her engagement to Shawn Keogh ‘that quaking blackguard’.  Christy obliges by chasing him off and Michael gives his approval and blessing to both Pegeen and Christy.

Fantasy is Finally Driven Out By Reality

At that point Christy’s final test begins.  His father, ‘a raving maniac’, bursts in and attacks Christy with a stick.  The spell, which had mesmerised them all, is suddenly broken.  The hero becomes the victim who is to be sacrificed for the people.  Pegeen dismisses Christy with ‘Quit off from this’.  After he has chased his father outside and apparently killed him, he returns to find that the Widow Quin is the only one who still wants him.  This he passionately rejects with the infamous line – ‘What’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts’ – (Cue: Riots!).  He mistakenly thinks that the ‘killing’ will restore him to Pegeen’s favour but he soon learns that there is a world of difference between a ‘gallows story and a dirty deed’.  Humiliation, as the women try to put petticoats on him, is followed by final rejection by Pegeen who places the rope on him.  Shawn is triumphant, ‘Come on to the peelers till they stretch you now’.  Respectability, self-interest – the usual social norms return.  Christy now realises that he is finished here, his future is elsewhere and when his father comes back from the dead again, the two are re-united in a new relationship which makes them independent of the society that had made Christy into a hero and a poet.  Like the bard of old he is destined for a higher, if lonelier, existence, one preferable to village respectability.  ‘The thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime ….’

The Cuchulainn Parallel

One commentator on Synge, Declan Kiberd, in a very interesting book Synge and the Irish Language, sees a parallel between Christy and his story and the legend of Cuchulainn.  He sees it as mock-heroic satire that the  ‘Godlike Cuchulainn should re-appear in a feckless peasant’.  For Pegeen Christy evokes the ancient world of the poet and its heroic virtues, ‘it’s the poets and your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages ‘;  ‘You with a kind of quality name, the like of what you’d find on the great powers and potentates of France and Spain’; ‘the like of a King of Norway or the Eastern World’.

In youth Cuchulainn was athletic, handsome, articulate, attractive to women, a leader of men.  Christy is the opposite, ‘cowering in a ditch’, ‘a lier on walls’, ‘a slight young man’, ‘a talker of folly’, ‘the laughing joke of every female woman’ – all of which is to change through the power of a lie.

Christy’s father tried to marry him off to the Widow Casey.  The men of Ulster wished to marry off Cuchulainn to protect their own women from him.  Cuchulainn is victorious using the sword of King Conchubair just as Christy is victorious in the borrowed clothes of Shawn Keogh.  Cuchulainn woos Emer against her father’s wishes.  Emer has another suitor just as Pegeen has Shawn Keogh.  Both these suitors retire afraid of their opponents’ strength.  Cuchulainn and Christy triumph at games and win their loved ones.  Christy’s ‘great rages’ echo Cuchulainn’s great battle-rages.  Cuchulainn meets the warrior druidess to advise and prepare him for his struggle; Christy meets the Widow Quin, who also advises for a ‘fee’.

Comedy And Satire In The Parody

But Synge’s purpose is to make a mock-hero of Christy, probably a response on his part to the determined efforts of his contemporaries to manufacture super-peasants for a political ideal.  The only relic of the real hero left is the ‘gift of the gab’ upon which Christy is solely dependent.  The ancient hero is reincarnated in a ‘feckless peasant’ struggling to escape the grinding poverty and dullness of life in the West of Ireland.  For Synge there is no glamour in such harsh reality but a little fantasy can bring humour and escape, if only temporarily, so that not only Christy but the people of Mayo can go ‘romancing’, he for ‘a romping lifetime’, they for a few days at least.

The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike.
The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike.

 PEGEEN MIKE

At First, Realistic and Strong

Like all the other villagers Pegeen is trapped by rural convention which declares self-interest and respectability to be the social norms.  It is ironic that when we first meet her she is preparing for her marriage to Shawn Keogh who most typifies this self-interest and respectability.  She is going to make the best of the world she finds herself in.  From the start we can see that she is strong-willed and dominant.

Latent Romantic

She has no love for Shawn Keogh whom she addresses contemptuously as Shawneen.  Indeed she laments the lack of eligible and romantic young men in the district which can only boast of such as “Red Linahan, has a squint in his eye, the Patcheen has a limp in his heel, or the mad Mulrannies …”  Her idea of a man is one who has the courage to break the law and tell stories of Holy Ireland – a Daneen Sullivan or masrcus Qwuin.  The absence of any romance in her life and the absence of any fire or passion in Shawn Keogh are facts that she had had to live with and, God help her, will have to continue to live with fore the future.  She is hard-headed enough, however, to accept Shawn as a poor substitutue for a real husband but he is better than no man at all.

Character of a Heroine

So the first part of Act I establishes her strength of character and her spirit: she can handle all the men, from her father, Michael, to Shawn Keogh.   She has no fear of authority, ecclesiastical or civil: ‘Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly’ she sneers at Shawn, and ‘Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler’ shows her admiration for one with courage enough to stand up to and get the better of authority.

First Meeting With Christy: Contempt Turns to Admiration

Into such a world ruled by self-interest and respectability stumbles Christy, young, tired and frightened.  Their interest is immediately aroused (a ‘strainseir’ is always an object of great curiosity in an Irish village.)  Pegeen’s contempt for men is still evident when she contemptuously challenges Christy: ‘You did nothing at all’, ‘Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of the broom?’  Christy’s confession that he had killed his ‘poor father’ for striking him takes her aback.  Suddenly her attitude changes: here is a man at last, another Daneen Sullivan or Marcus Quin, who has had the courage to challenge and overcome authority by killing his father.

Pegeen Falls Under Spell of The ‘Lie’: Romance Stirs

Christy’s ‘lie’ begins to work its magic on them all except Shawn Keogh (he isn’t the type that needs some excitement in life so he remains outside the spell).  This gauche, (awkward), young man is beginning to appear as a potential knight-in-shining-armour or hero come to snatch her from the jaws of her fate.  So, unwittingly she becomes an agent in the build-up of Christy into something larger than life.  Fantasy is at work.  The strong-willed, sharp-tongued young woman begins to melt as romance at last enters her life.  All thoughts of self-interest and respectability are abandoned as she loses her head to the stranger.

Pegeen’s Jealousy Evident

It is ironic that Christy is affected differently at first: at the end of Act I and the start of Act II he relishes the new found respectability and comfort.  But this isn’t allowed top last for long.  Pegeen’s jealousy temporarily breaks the spell when she finds other women tampering with Christy, and she sadistically enjoys his terror at her mention of him ‘swaying and swiggling at the butt of a rope – in great anguish, getting your death’.

Romance Continues To Hold Her

The spell re-establishes its hold over her when Christy responds with his self-pitying yet unwittingly passionate poetry: ‘it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns’ – ‘the cities where you’d hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch’.  She even further builds up his character, attributing to him ‘a mighty spirit and a gamy heart’, which he shortly afterwards displays before the Widow Quin and Shawn Keogh when the latter comes to bribe him to leave.  ‘For what is it you’re wanting to get shut of me?’ he arrogantly asks Shawn.  Pegeen is not present  to see Christy’s cringing reaction top the appearance of his ‘murdered da’.  This must give Christy the necessary, if subconscious, incentive to prove himself at the sports to consolidate his position with Pegeen.

 Pegeen Abandons Herself To New Christy

After his successes at the sports Christy returns to the Shebeen with Pegeen positively aglow with admiration and love.  In the love sequence that follows she abandons herself completely to Christy’s verbal hypnosis.  She can hardly believe her own ears when she speaks, ‘And to think its me talking sweetly …. Well, the heart’s a wonder – there won’t be our like in Mayo for gallant lovers….’  Even the dispensation ‘in gallous Latin’ can’t dissuade her now – she belongs to the ‘young gaffer who’d capsize the stars’ and who indeed had capsized her world.  To her father she is a ‘heathen daughter’.  In her ecstasy she really enjoys humiliating Shawn Keogh and when Christy chases him out she passionately announces to her father: ‘Bless us now, for I swear to God I’ll wed him, and I’ll not renege’.

Pegeen: The Woman Scorned

With the re-entry of Old Mahon and his claim that all Christy had given him was a ‘tap of a loy’, suddenly Pegeen snaps out of her trance and turns impetuously on Christy, ‘And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all’.  Her pride has been hurt and she feels publicly humiliated and in her rage she abandons him to fate.  ‘Take him on from this or I’ll set the young lads to destroy him here’.

Fantasy At The End

Ironically she does not realise that she has just provided Christy with his greatest opportunity yet to prove himself a hero.  Old Mahon’s ‘dying’ yell finally dispels that last trace of fantasy.  Reality returns: the villagers are one again against the intruder that would bring the law and trouble to them.

Pegeen: Tragic Figure

Pegeen must lead in purging the community of this menace and to her eternal shame she realises too late what she had done: she has freed Christy from any last ties that would have impeded his progress ‘to the stars’.  He doesn’t need her now, whereas she does need him, but she has lost and he has won.  She is indeed almost the tragic heroine at this stage; the Dido deserted by her Aeneas.

Note: The character of Pegeen is said to have many of the qualities of Molly Allgood (Maire O’Neill), Synge’s fiancée, with whom he had a rather tempestuous relationship.  She played the part of Pegeen in the first production and, like her, was independent and wayward, temperamental and warm-hearted, restless and very ambitious, and in the end lost her Playboy to death.

The Widow Quin
The Widow Quin

THE WIDOW QUIN

The Widow Quin (Is there a Newcastle West connection?!) is presented as a worldly, materialistic woman whose life is governed by shrewd opportunism rather than passion.  Though she does put her eye on Christy it is not passion but rather self-interest that motivates her.  She has ‘buried her children and destroyed her man’ and has few illusions left about life.  She is the least affected by the spell of Christy’s charisma, except for Shawn Keogh of course, who is deaf to the magic of Christy’s words.  For a short while she does fancy herself as a rival to Pegeen, and the only ‘fault’ in her character is that she underestimates the strength of Christy’s love for Pegeen, it is a love to which she could never aspire.

Fit Rival To Pegeen

When we meet her first she is obviously someone to be reckoned with: Pegeen bristles at her entry and feels threatened.  Whereas any of the men in the play would have been easily subdued with a few sharp words from Pegeen, the Widow is impervious to her scorn.  Though Pegeen does best her in their first encounter, the Widow doesn’t leave without a good parting shot that unsettles Pegeen, reminding her in Christy’s presence of her engagement to Shawn Keogh.

Widow As Comic Agent

When we meet her she has Christy to herself with the chorus of village girls.  With a few direct personal questions she has found out from him all about his background, his father, and the reason for the ‘gallous deed’.  Her comic sense encourages Christy to tell his story this time with mime, which puts them all into such good humour that Susan and Sara suggest that he would make a fine second husband for the Widow Quin.

Further Challenge to Pegeen

The comedy abruptly ends when a jealous and frosty-faced Pegeen enters.  Once again as she leaves the Widow Quin has another fine parting shot for Pegeen as she reminds Christy that she, the Widow Quin, and not Pegeen had thought of entering him for the sports.  She certainly has the ability to bring out the worst in Pegeen!

A Woman of Action: Understands Human Nature

She deals with the three principal male characters in one short period: she barters with Shawn Keogh for her services in rescuing Pegeen from Christy, she flatters Christy, and then she coaxes Old Mahon into leaving but not before getting information about Christy from him.  This episode shows what an important role she has in the play: her main function is to initiate action and to keep it going.

  • Her threat to take Christy spurs Pegeen into action thus declaring her interest in Christy.
  • She enters Christy for the sports thus giving him the opportunity to prove himself a hero.
  • She controls Old Mahon thus keeping the action going as she wants it.
  • She manipulates Shawn Keogh which results in Christy looking a fine fellow, and she better off with his bribes.
  • She again sends Old Mahon off as Christy hasn’t yet been fully established as hero.
  • When Christy is finally exposed it is she alone who tries to save him from the anger of the village men and Pegeen, and this is ironic considering her reputation for being self-centred and heartless.

Widow has her Good Points

When Christy describes the Widow Casey in such horrific terms with her ‘limping leg’ and ‘blinded eye’ and her ‘noted misbehaviour’; she is ‘a hag with a tongue on her has the crows and seabirds scattered’, the Widow Quin seems positively angelic by comparison.  Earlier Christy had remarked on the ‘two fine women fighting for the likes of me’.  So the Widow Quin is a very presentable-looking woman even though her character is assassinated by the jealous Pegeen who slanders her with rearing ‘a black ram at her breast’ and ‘shaving the foxy skipper from France for a threepenny bit’.  Never does the Widow’s language take on the venomous tone and brutal imagery of Pegeen’s, though she can hurt when she wants to: Pegeen she says is ‘a girl you’d see itching and scratching – with a stale stink of poteen on her’.  In a way she is proved right in the end – Pegeen is not fit company for the new Christy, and it is Pegeen, not the resourceful Widow, who will tragically weep at his departure.

christy mahon (1)

Study Notes on the Poetry of W.B. Yeats

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THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF W.B. YEATS. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

 THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN YEATS’ POETRY: ‘SEPTEMBER 1913’, ‘EASTER 1916’, ‘SAILING TO BYZANTIUM’, ‘THE SECOND COMING’, ‘IN MEMORY OF EVA GORE-BOOTH AND CON MARKIEWICZ’, ‘THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE’, ‘A STARE’S NEST BY MY WINDOW’, ‘THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE’.

HE SAID HIMSELF THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF!  

 YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

YEATS AND THE NATIONAL QUESTION

Among the issues explored by the poet are:

  •    The heroic past; patriots are risk-takers, rebels, self-sacrificing idealists who are capable of all that ‘delirium of the brave’ (see ‘September 1913’).
  •    How heroes are created, how ordinary people are changed (‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of violence in the process of political change; the paradox of the ‘terrible beauty’ (see ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of ‘fanaticism’ and the human effects of it – the ‘stone of the heart’ (see ‘Easter 1916’, ‘September 1913’).
  •    The force of political passion (see ‘Easter 1916’).

YEATS’S NOTIONS OF THE IDEAL SOCIETY 

  • The vital contribution that both the aristocracy and artists make to society; the importance of the Anglo-Irish tradition in Irish society (see ‘September 1913’, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’).
  • His contempt for the new middle class and the new materialism (see ‘September 1913’).
  • Aesthetic values and the place of art in society (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
  • The yearnings for order and the fear of anarchy (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  • His views on the proper contribution of women to society (see ‘Easter 1916’).

THEORIES OF HISTORY, TIME AND CHANGE

  •  His notion of thousand-year eras, ‘gyres’, etc. (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  •  The world and its people in constant change and flux (see ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  • Personal ageing, the transience of humanity (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The yearning for changelessness and immortality (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The timelessness of art, or the possibility of it (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

 CONFLICTS AT THE CENTRE OF THE HUMAN BEING

  • The conflict between physical desires and spiritual aspirations (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The quest for aesthetic satisfaction (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The search for wisdom and peace, which is not satisfied here (see ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’).
  • A persistent sense of loss or failure; loss of youth and passion (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’); the loss of poetic vision and insight (see ‘An Acre of Grass’).

wb-yeats-poetry

W. B. YEATS – AN OVERVIEW OF HIS POETRY

Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.  So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’.  Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here!  But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist.  We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three.  The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.

Yeats (like Joyce and others) lived in a time of extraordinary change.  A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of civil war; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times.  Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap.  He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision.  He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’.  In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes.  ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.

While it is obvious to us, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself.  In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments: ‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives.  He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.

Poets frequently write on similar themes.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Morrissey? Eva Cassidy even?).  When he writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique.

Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work.  Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of’ the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in god’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.

In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one.  All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this.  Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’.  His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.

‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats.  As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body.  He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death.  His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.

yeats

SAMPLE ANSWER

 ‘Yeats’s poetry examines a powerful series of tensions between youth and age, and order and chaos.’  Discuss this statement and use a selection of poems from your course to support your answer.

I fully agree with this assessment of Yeats’s work.  Indeed, it is easy to find evidence for the opinion that he is ‘a poet of opposites’.  His poetry explores many diverse conflicts at both a personal and national level.  One of the strongest impressions created by his poetry is that of searching.  Sometimes he searches for a means of escape, sometimes for a solution, but the presence of numerous rhetorical questions throughout his poetry reveals a man who was sensitive to the world around him, encountered it with intellectual vigour while remaining true to his heart.

One of the major conflicts in his work is that of youth and age.  Yeats can become melancholic in his awareness of life’s brevity as we see in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ where he reflects rather dolefully that ‘The nineteenth autumn has come upon me’.  Time refuses to stand still for a poet who realises that ‘All’s changed since ….  Trod with a lighter tread’ along the autumnal shores of the lake at Coole Park.  A similar acceptance of time’s inexorable progress occurs in ‘Easter 1916’ where horses, birds, clouds and streams ‘Minute by minute they change.’  In the opening stanza of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats presents a dramatic affirmation of youth where the young are ‘in one another’s arms’ mesmerised by the ‘sensual music’ of love.  This poem establishes powerful conflicting claims between the younger generations who live in the sensual world and the more sedate singing of the old scarecrow, reincarnated into an eternal art form of the golden bird.  The bird has transcended the decay and infirmities of the transitory world; it may claim to be superior to the ‘Fish, flesh, or fowl’ who have been ‘begotten, born’ but must also die.  However, the rather cold, mechanical song of the golden, immortal bird does not quite match the passionate, vibrant music of the young.  And yet, they too are the ‘dying generations’.  In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the old poet, a figure of fun in his own country, leaves the sensual world for the changeless world of Byzantium that is beyond time and passion.  His appeal is to be reincarnated.

A second significant conflict in Yeats’s work is that between order and chaos.  Yeats admired the aristocratic tradition in eighteenth-century Ireland.  The world of the Great House was aligned to his own sense of identity with that particular class.  He felt at home in Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park and in his poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ he remembers in the opening stanza the tranquil, serene and orderly world of that eighteenth-century estate.  The graceful living of Lisadell is beautifully evoked in the opening images of ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’ as he describes ‘The light of evening, Lisadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both /Beautiful, one a gazelle’.  Using an image of nature, Yeats makes the transition from the refined, elegant youth of the girls to their turbulent adult lives when he says ‘a raving autumn shears / Blossoms from the summer’s wreath’.  The remainder of the poem seems to lament the passing of such an ideal world of youth in the women’s futile attempt to find ‘Some vague Utopia’ that aged their beauty until it was ‘skeleton-gaunt’.  The references to conflagration at the end of the poem point to the destruction of the traditional values that were cradled in places such as Lisadell.

In place of such values Yeats presents the birth of ‘mere anarchy’ in the poem ‘The Second Coming’.  This poem is a stark and terrifying vision of disintegrating social order and ominous evil that has been born and ‘loosed upon the world’.  Images of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ and a ‘rough beast’ slouching towards Bethlehem show how troubled the poet is by the increasing violence and the annihilation of cultural and aristocratic values.  The conflict between order and chaos is the focus of more local manifestations of violence and murder in ‘A Stare’s nest by my Window’.  In the poem, which details the negative impact of civil war, the poet fights his own inner battle against chaos in calling for renewal, rebirth and regeneration in ‘the empty house of the stare’.  However, the hope of a return to some order is filled with ‘uncertainty’; the predominant images in the poem are of destruction where ‘A man is killed, or a house burned’.  The house could well have been a Lisadell or a Coole Park.

Yeats did attempt to resolve some conflicts in his poems but in many cases he had to accept that such a synthesis was not always possible let alone probable.  But he did remain in contact with the world, however imperfect it seemed, and encountered it with his complex temperament that could whisper of grace, youth and beauty or clamour against injustice, old-age and decay.  Perhaps we should be grateful that many conflicts were never resolved, for it was they that evoked his most difficult struggles and his most poignant poetry in granting him ‘an old man’s frenzy’.

 

An Overview of Yeats’s Poetry

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Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.  So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’.  Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here!  But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist.  We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three.  The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.

Yeats (like Joyce) lived in a time of extraordinary change.  A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of the Civil War; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times.  Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap.  He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision.  He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was, ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’.  In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes.  ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.

While it is obvious, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself.  In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments:

‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives.  He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.

Our poets and songwriters frequently write repeating similar themes and styles.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Eva Cassidy? Morrissey even!).  When Yeats writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique.  He once described this process memorably as, ‘the stitching and unsticthing’ of old themes.

Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work.  Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of ‘the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.

In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one.  All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this.  Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’.  His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.

‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats.  As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body.  He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death.  His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.

 

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