Rose lynch

AS History student Rose Lynch, recently achieved a very impressive third place in the St. Hilda’s, Oxford essay competition. Her essay “Irish History and Poetry after 1800: Is verse ever a useful source of evidence to historians?” received lavish praise for its structure, content and the impressive research it contained.  The competition was open to students across the UK and Rose received a prize of £100.


Poetry and Irish History after 1800: Can verse ever be useful to historians as a source of evidence?


Ireland has a long poetic tradition spanning two languages, two states and numerous world-famous figures. Irish literature is integral to the culture and politics of the country and cannot be ignored by historians as a primary source. However, it must always be subject to the same scrutiny to determine its reliability, as well as its usefulness for a particular purpose.


Much Irish poetry is actually written by key historical figures such as politicians or rebel leaders, making it seem an ideal source of evidence. In the 19th century, it was a key means of communication for Nationalist groups like Young Ireland and it was often the leaders themselves who wrote this verse. Thomas Davis (1814-1845) was the leader of Young Ireland, a small but significant Nationalist pressure group made up of educated Protestants who wanted to achieve Irish independence. They were revolutionary in their use of literature as a way to do this. They tapped into a wider 18th century literary movement of sympathy to the Gaelic language and legend, characterised by Thomas Moore’s ‘Irish Melodies’(1807). Although this volume was important in galvanising Irish nationalism after the 1800 Act of Union, its “conciliatory style” (Seamus Heaney)[1] lost favour as the 19th century progressed. Its romantic images of Tara’s harp, the swift sword of Erin and Arranmore demonstrate in detail the Celtic imagery of Irish myth that became so potent in Ireland’s relationship with England. However, by the 1890s William Hazlitt dismissed his work as turning the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff box. It seemed impotent against the raging campaign for Home Rule and tenants’ rights. It is,however, a useful example to historians as the epitome of the language and imagery of the Celtic Revival.


The Young Irelanders combined these approaches, using this cultural enthusiasm for political ends. Their weekly newspaper, ‘The Nation’, reached a quarter of a million people at its peak of circulation in Ireland. Its declared aim was to “create and foster a public opinion in Ireland”. They created reading rooms where one copy of the newspaper was passed around a large group to widen its appeal beyond those who could afford it. The poetry published in the paper is useful in giving historians insight into how the Young Irelanders aimed to associate Nationalism with Irish culture and the rhetoric associated with one of the earliest mass movements in Irish politics. In ‘A Nation Once Again’, Davis writes:


“That hope has shone a far light

In forum, field and fane

Its angel voice sang round my bed

A Nation once again.”

Poetry was a propaganda tool for their cause “to promote and foster a sense of nationality among the people” (Boyce)[2].


However, it should be remembered that at this point, poetry in Ireland was written almost exclusively by members of the Protestant Ascendancy “Irish writers in English were generally of the professional classes and tended to be part of the world of power”[3]. Since the Penal Codes of the 18th century outlawed Catholic schools and decreed children should not be sent abroad for education, much of the peasantry were still illiterate. The Irish were still viewed by many in England as ignorant and uneducated as a people. Those who could read and write were unlikely to be published. As a result, at this point poetry was being written almost exclusively by upper class, wealthy men who were most likely to be Protestant. The Catholic peasantry were simultaneously emerging as a crucial political force under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell. It was the 40 shilling-freeholders, those peasantry who had enough wealth in property to be able to vote, who publicly defied their landlords to vote for pro-Catholic Emancipation candidates in the 1826 elections, resulting in four such MPs being elected to Parliament. Robert Peel wrote at the time “the instrument of deference and supremacy has been converted into a weapon fatal to the authority of the landlord”[4]. In 1828, when Vesey Fitzgerald was elected to Cabinet and forced to contest his CountyClare seat again, O’Connell himself ran against him and won with 2057 votes to Fitzgerald’s 982 thanks to this support base. As a Catholic, O’Connell could not take his seat in Parliament, prompting a crisis for the Conservative government. They were forced to pass the Emancipation Act. Yet none of these voters could become published poets or leaders like Davis. Historians must always be mindful when studying this period that the most significant political group had little influence in literary circles.


It is not that verse did not exist among the Irish peasantry; there was a thriving oral tradition of ballads and songs passed down by seanchaithe, often in Irish. In this way, poetry was a major form of expression for the masses, if not published in anthologies and journals. These stories are a vital source for historians looking at Irish culture as they often reveal the values and beliefs of the ordinary people. In the 19th century, many songs were also being preserved in ballad sheets. These were often topical and give another insight into public opinion in Ireland. Ballads would be printed on single sheets and distributed. They worked in a similar way to the reading rooms; one person would read or sing the words to a group, who would learn it by ear. One example, ‘Erin’s Lovely Home’, describes the impact of emigration on Ireland because of pressure on the land due to the practice of subdivision and then the Famine:

“Our lands too small to rear us all, some of us had to roam

And leave the land where they were reared, called Erin’s lovely home”.


Any historian wishing to use poetry as a source to investigate Irish history must consider the poetry of W.B Yeats (1865-1939). Often seen as the greatest poet Ireland has ever produced, he was also a hugely significant figure publicly and politically. At first, he seemed to adopt the style of Thomas Moore and write about Ireland’s ancient symbols and culture. In ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’ (1893) he wrote:


“I would accounted be

true brother of a company

That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,

Ballad and story, rann and song”


However, he would move on to allow his politics to enter his poetry, writing explicitly about specific historical events. ‘Easter 1916’, written only a few months after the Rising, is seen as the standard commemoration of the event, a tribute to the men who were executed after the fighting. Yeats work also had great influence in Ireland as his fame grew and his works became widely read as commentaries on events. He was later uneasy with the effects of this. Of the play ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ (1902) he wondered “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” (‘A Man and the Echo, 1938) Chris Agee says of ‘Easter 1916’ that “Yeats memorialises the meaning of the violent genesis of Irish independence for those, like himself, whose aspirations had long lain in this direction.”[5]


However, this presentation of Yeats as a traditional Nationalist representative of a large section of the Irish populace is deeply flawed. His politics changed throughout his lifetime. By 1900 he was disillusioned with revolutionary nationalism and left the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He described the same rebels of ‘Easter 1916’ thus in ‘September 1913’:


“But fumble in a greasy tillAnd add the halfpence to the penceAnd prayer to shivering prayer, untilYou have dried the marrow from the bone”

Rather than representing Ireland, Yeats despised the new Catholic middle class that was emerging, as well as the powerful Catholic Church. He was often against public opinion in his attitudes, showing “a readiness to identify himself with variously anti-establishment and anti-populist causes”[6]. He always had broadly Nationalist sympathies, seeing himself as in the vein of 19th century poets like Mangan and Davis “but he was intent on avoiding their propagandist rhetoric”[7]. Although he took his seat in the new Senate in 1922 it was more out of duty to the old image he still held of Erin and Cathleen ni Houlihan than to the new Free State. Yeats’ complex relationship with Nationalism extended into his personal life. He was in love with Maud Gonne, a figurehead of the movement. He proposed to her on numerous occasions and apotheosized her as Helen in ‘No Second Troy’ (1916) and casting her as Eire herself in ‘Cathleen ni Hulihan’. When Gonne married the Republican leader Major John MacBride, then divorced him and made accusations of domestic violence, Yeats attacked him as “A drunken, vainglorious lout” in the elegiac lines of ‘Easter 1916’. It should also be remembered that Yeats was a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry and he spoke predominantly for the more liberal members of that class, like his patron Lady Gregory. In the poem ‘CoolePark and Ballylee, 1931’ he mourns the loss of his generation of artists and their upper-class Protestant sponsors “we were the last Romantics”.

Ultimately, Yeats’ poetry is too significant to be dismissed completely as an historical source. Yet his personal opinions and background must always be taken into account when using his words as evidence. He is too much of a public figure, his work too personal, to be of much use in reading the opinions of the time. Heaney notes that even poems like ‘Easter 1916’, written about specific, tangible events, “did not arise from any immediate stimulus of happenings or from any desire to set down the story”[8]. They came from the resonance they had with him personally and “his imagination did not function like an obedient seismograph”.[9]

However, Yeats did inspire further generations of Irish poets from a range of backgrounds. The sheer scale of their output, as well as its variety in content, attitude and style, makes Irish poetry of the second half of the 20th century of great use to an historian. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Northern Ireland and the poetry written about The Troubles. Edward Larrissy said Belfast has seen “the most important flowering of poetry in the Anglophone world of the last fifty years”[10]. In the 1960s, the first significant generation of Catholic poets began to emerge in Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michel Longley all met in ‘The Group’, a gathering of young writers in Belfast organised by Philip Hobsbaum of Queen’s University. They were the first Catholic graduates, benefitting from the 1947 Education Act  which brought in grants for third-level education in Northern Ireland as part of the wider creation of the Welfare system. These poets came from a background of discrimination against Catholics as “for the whole of its existence until 1972, Northern Ireland was a one-party Unionist state of highly authoritarian hue, ruled with large measures of sectarian callousness”[11]. By the sixties, Catholics were roughly 40% of the Northern Irish population but practices like gerrymandering and housing and employment discrimination were rife. Many of these poets address the underlying tensions of this time in a few crucial lines of their poetry. In ‘Docker’ from Seamus Heaney’s first collection ‘Death Of A Naturalist’ (1966) he says:

“That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic- Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again”

Before this generation, the poets of the 1940s like John Montague and John Hewitt were exploring the implications of their respective pasts. This was fully explored on their joint reading tour in 1970 titled ‘The Planter and The Gael‘ “highlighting the extent to which poetry reflected and explored the predominant traditions”[12]. Montague represents the Catholic viewpoint and explores his Gaelic past in ‘The Rough Field’ (1972), whereas Hewitt was more interested in the liberal Presbyterianism of the 18th century which he found attractive. His poetry is about coming to terms with being conscious of being ‘planted‘ in another community.

As poetry in Northern Ireland flourished “historical consciousness had collided with the lyric”[13]. Poets became more and more considered social commentators on The Troubles and then the Peace Process. Michael Longley’s poem ‘Ceasefire’, published in The Irish Times the week after the IRA agreed to lay down arms in August 1994 “captured for many the intense but ambiguous emotions of that moment. Seldom can a poem have such instant public meaning”[14]. The line

“I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”

has been quoted often in reference to the release of prisoners under The Good Friday Agreement as a way to convey the ancient nobility of the sacrifice of forgiveness. When President Clinton visited Ireland he quoted the Seamus Heaney play ‘The Cure at Troy’ “when hope and history rhyme”. This connection between poetry and politics, the almost immediate response of writers to events and the sheer breadth of commentary available makes Northern Irish poetry an invaluable source for historians studying The Troubles.

However, many of these poets have also spoken of their difficulties in addressing the conflict in their work. It comes down to the question of exploitation or evasion. Longley says it “would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community”[15], Heaney speaks of “a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament”[16]. He ultimately acknowledges that poets should address the political situations of the time; “There’s no reason why a poet shouldn’t be upfront and explicit in a poem about any political position or issue. All that’s required is that the position or issue should suffer some little bit of a sea change”[17]. This idea of concentrating or altering events in writing about them is acknowledged by Heaney elsewhere. He admits that writing about the murder of his second cousin Colm McCartney by loyalist paramilitaries in ‘Station Island’ (1984) was “set up”[18] to discuss the idea of public poetry.


In conclusion, when using Irish poetry as source of evidence, historians should always remember that verse is never simply an account of an event, or even just commentary on it. It is a distilled impression of what happened that takes into account broader, fundamental themes, often from the poet’s own life. There is no one Irish opinion, or one Irish voice, on any subject. Ultimately, a poem can only give the view of the poet.