There is great irony in the fact that I am putting the finishing touches to this blog post the morning after the dreadful terrorist attack on Paris on Friday 13th November 2015. The great sense of outrage and helplessness described in this poem after the events of 17th May 1974 transcends time and place. All Irish thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims of this barbaric premeditated attack on the people of France.
Child of our Time
Yesterday I knew no lullaby
But you have taught me overnight to order
This song, which takes from your final cry
Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;
Its rhythm from the discord of your murder
Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.
We who should have known how to instruct
With rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep,
Names for the animals you took to bed,
Tales to distract, legends to protect
Later an idiom for you to keep
And living, learn, must learn from you dead,
To make our broken images, rebuild
Themselves around your limbs, your broken
Image, find for your sake whose life our idle
Talk has cost, a new language. Child
Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.
Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.
– Eavan Boland
‘The Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland in the Summer of 1969 and during the early Seventies the violence escalated. It was a time when, as Eavan Boland herself says, ‘the sounds of death from the television were heard almost daily’. Attitudes in the Irish Republic were at best ambivalent, with many remaining detached and turning a blind eye while others became involved and active.
On the 17th May, 1974 a coordinated series of four car bombs were detonated during rush hour traffic in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 34 civilians including two infants and a full term unborn child and its mother. In all, 27 died in Dublin as a result of the three car bombs detonated there and 7 died as a result of the Monaghan bomb. This poem, ‘Child of our Time’, from the collection The War Horse (1975), is Eavan Boland’s response to this barbaric event.
Eavan Boland herself describes the genesis of the poem:
I wrote it inspired – and I use the words with care – by a photograph I saw two days later on the front of a national newspaper whose most arresting feature was the expression on the face of the fireman who lifted that child, an expression of tenderness as if he were lifting his own child from its cradle to its mother’s breast.
Further on in this article entitled ‘The Weasel’s Tooth’ (Irish Times, 7th June, 1974), she writes of, ‘that greatest of obscenities, the murder of the innocents’ and refers to the poem as, ‘one among many other statements of outrage’.
The infant victims of the bombings include Anne Marie O’Brien (5 months) and her sister Jacqueline (17 months) along with their parents John (24) and Anna (22) – the entire family killed in the Parnell Street explosion. Baby Doherty, was the full term unborn child of Talbot Street bomb victim, Collette Doherty. Three months later in August, 1974, Baby Martha O’Neill, the stillborn daughter of Edward (39) and Martha O’Neill was delivered. Edward was killed, and his two sons seriously injured in the Parnell Street bombing.
So, it is obvious that there is heartbreak and unbearable loss at the centre of the poem and to further expand this notion of bereaved families, the poet dedicates this beautiful poem to Aengus, a friend’s child, the victim of a cot death. So, although the poem is rooted in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the overspill of that conflict south to Dublin and Monaghan, the poem is addressed to all families who suffer loss and it highlights the damage inflicted on children in all wars and all situations and obviously from a casual look at our local and international news stories today, it is as relevant now as it was then in 1974.
This is a beautifully constructed formal lament or elegy and because the victim is a child it is couched in the language of a lullaby, suitable for a young child. The words used eloquently pinpoint this: it is a ‘song’, ‘a lullaby’ which has a ‘rhythm’ and a ‘tune’. Bedtime is that sacred time which Boland refers to in many of her poems when parent and child are never closer. Here bedtime is conjured up with ‘rhymes’, and ‘tales’ and ‘legends’. Despite the focus on musical terms the poet wants to point out the horrible juxtaposition of the child’s ‘final cry’. The poet’s outrage at this meaningless terrorist act is stated unambiguously at the end of the fifth line with her use of the word ‘murder’ which jolts us into outrage as well. Death is final and the child cannot ‘listen’ anymore to our feeble justifications for political violence.
The second stanza evokes a stereotypical happy childhood lived in a secure home, safe in the natural ‘rhythms’ of life, waking and sleeping, playing with favoured soft toys. The child is protected by language, ‘tales to distract, legends to protect’ – indeed much of the poem is couched very cleverly in language terminology. Indeed it is normally the adults, the parents, who develop and teach the young a language they can use to explain the world that surrounds them. This natural cycle has been subverted here and it is now the child who instructs us:
And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.
The sound patterns and structure of the poem illustrate the chaos and confusion that reigns within the poet after such an atrocity and tries to mirror the immediate aftermath of a car bomb explosion in a busy rush hour street. The poet manages this by creating opposing tensions within the poem: waking/sleeping, adults/child, the ‘living’/’dead’, ‘song’/‘cry’, ‘tune’/’discord’. The poet struggles to impose some sort of order on the chaotic aftermath and so there are three stanzas with six lines in each. Each stanza seems to represent a phase, a stage in the process of coming to terms with the awful events which have occurred:
Stanza 1: This death is meaningless
Stanza 2: We are responsible
Stanza 3: There is an urgent lesson to be learnt
The poem can, and should, be read as a comment on the failure of communication. The only way forward from this conflict and violence is described as a ‘new language’. Our ‘idle talk’ about Nationalism and Unionism, North and South has given us this ‘broken image’ of a dead baby being carried from the carnage of a street bomb by a fireman and used the following morning in the newspapers to encapsulate the tragedy. The dead child becomes, for the poet, an emblem of hope as her eternal sleep is juxtaposed with the world waking up to the absurdity of indiscriminate violence. The poet ends with an exquisite metaphor of ‘robbing the cradle’, an image that sharply contrasts violence and the innocence of childhood. ‘Our times’ have done this, we are all responsible. Our ‘tales’ and ‘legends’ and our interpretations of history have created quarrels and division and the hopeful plea from the poet is that the child’s needless death will encourage us to ‘wake up’ and think differently.
As I said at the beginning this poem is an elegy and traditionally the functions of an elegy were to lament, to praise and to console. The tone of the poem oscillates between tenderness and outrage throughout. There is also another important dimension to this poem which is also in-keeping with an elegy and that is its political dimension. In hindsight, this powerful poem has become, like Longley’s “Ceasefire”, a clarion call for change. The poet’s anger is not directed at the bombers but at society in general who have allowed this situation to develop and fester and get out of control.
This is why we need poets like Boland to act as our trailblazers and as Mark Hederman has so eloquently put it, ‘to express what they perceive in a prophetic and irresistible rhythm, shape and form.’ Our poets and artists are forever busy, whether in their studios or their nurseries, ‘writing the icon of our future face, preparing the skins that can carry the new wine, digging the trenches into which the waters can flow…’ Boland wrote these game changing verses in her suburban home where she was busy raising her young family. However, it still took some time for her voice to be heard, for the critical mass to tip things in favour of peace; it took an Enniskillen, a Shankill and an Omagh atrocity for the penny to drop that we in Ireland needed ‘a new language’, a new way of communicating with one another that does not include violence and murder of innocent children and pregnant women. From her suburban vantage point, this woman has done the state and our republic some service.
Hederman, Mark P., (2001), The Haunted Inkwell: Art and our Future, The Columba Press, Dublin.