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What we remember, what we choose to forget

Cork reading posterOn Easter Monday 24th April, 1916, a group of some 1,000 Irishmen and women came into Dublin and occupied a series of buildings around the city. Their aim was to overthrow the British Government in Ireland by military force and to proclaim an Irish Republic. Over the next seven days, over 450 people died, 2,000 were wounded and the centre of Dublin largely destroyed by shelling. 15 of the leaders of the uprising were executed; a 16th was executed later that summer.

On the same day in April 1916, the second Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers was stationed in France, awaiting orders for the next big push that was to become the Battle of the Somme later that summer.

There’s no real information about how soon the news of events in Dublin filtered through to Irish troops serving in France, or what impact it might have had on their mood. There are few reports of mutinies in the weeks that followed the Easter Rising; indeed the first that Irish soldiers may have been aware of the changed sentiment at home that followed the mass executions and internment was during their next leave home. Writers such as Sebastian Barry (in novels such as A Long Long Way) have vividly evoked that change in sentiment, as men who’d left Ireland as heroes returned to a hostile and embittered response.

Included in their numbers was my grandfather, Michael McCann, who had enlisted in the British Army in November 1915 and who had transferred to France some time in April 2016. It’s probable that he had been put to work as part of the Pioneer Battalion of the Munsters, providing the hard labour that created roads, tracks, emplacements and dugouts in the Loos-Marzingarbe-Les Brébas area (source Fourteeneighten Research). But by July he had been involved in the action that became the Battle of the Somme, one of the Great War’s bloodiest conflicts.

Afterwards, hundreds if not thousands of returning Irish soldiers left the British Army and joined the ranks of the Irish Republican Army where they became active in a campaign against a Crown that they’d been defending only months before. My grandfather was one such; he discharged from the British Army in March 1918 (he’d been treated for shrapnel injuries in 1917) but joined the IRA in England in October 1917, possibly having first joined an organisation such as the Irish Self Determination League or the Irish Labour Party. By 1919 he was on active duty with the IRA, taking part in arson attacks and munitions raids; by 1921 he was arrested during an attempted raid on an explosives magazine in Middlesbrough, and sentenced to five years penal servitude in Parkhurst. The subsequent Treaty and amnesty led to his release and return to Ireland in early 1922, just in time for the Civil War where he fought as a Free State Army commandant.

The Civil War had its own share of atrocities, but here too we’ll never know how battle-hardened veterans like my grandfather reacted to them. He kept it bottled up; even his own children knew little of his exploits, other than those reported on by a frequently partisan press. My aunts and uncles described him as a ‘quiet man’ who kept his thoughts to himself. Fragments of his story came down from my grandmother; over the last few years I’ve tried to research to fill the gaps. My collections Trapping a Ghost and Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon Poetry 2014) include some of the poems that resulted.

It’s clear that my grandfather was typical of a whole generation of Irishmen who experienced utter horror and were unable to find an outlet for those experiences. Irish society had embraced another mythology; the narrative of Irish nationalism left no space for other Irishmen who also believed they were fighting for their country.

One of the best elements of this current decade of commemoration has been the re-emergence of their stories. Works like Lia Mills’s marvellous novel, Fallen (which will be the Belfast-Dublin Two Cities One Book choice from April) are exploring the reality of lives for the thousands of individuals and families whose lives were transformed for ever, both by violence at home, and violence on those distant green fields.

I’m incredibly lucky to be reading alongside Lia, and the marvellous Mary Morrissy, whose own novel The Rising of Bella Casey captured that tumultuous period of Irish history so well, as part of The Women and the Rising series at University College Cork on Thursday 3rd March. Further details on http://creativewritingucc.com/www/women-writers-remember-the-rising/.

I’ll also be leading a free creative writing workshop for the Open University on exploring family history  at Castletown House in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, in late April. Details on how to book a place are on http://www.open.ac.uk/republic-of-ireland/events

Blog, Features

Beat up little seagull – old tunes and new in Baltimore and DC

IMG_4058 IMG_4047 IMG_4048 IMG_4049 IMG_4051 IMG_4052 IMG_4054 IMG_4057 IMG_4060 IMG_4061 IMG_4062 IMG_4064 IMG_4066 IMG_4070 I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing writers and teachers over the past number of years. One of my happiest collaborations has been with the amazing faculty of the Armagh Project, a US-based outfit that brings undergraduate students over to Armagh for the month of July to experience the life, culture and politics of that extraordinary part of our island. Some of the faculty members of the Armagh Project are based at the University of Baltimore, in Maryland, and many of their students participate in the programme each year, so I was especially thrilled when UB-based playwright Kimberley Lynne invited me over to perform my work at the UB Spotlight’s Charles Wright theatre during the month of April. Culture Ireland kindly agreed to support the trip, which also included a reading in Washington DC.

Kimberley also suggested that, while in Baltimore, I might like to meet some of the class groups to talk about Irish culture and poetry, so the reading tour took on a whole additional dimension as I cast about for subjects that would suit the different class groups, who study 20th century culture and ideas, creative writing and Irish studies. I felt rather privileged to get a chance to talk about my country, its writers and history, to groups of American students, and also rather daunted. I wanted to get the balance right – to be informative and accessible without being simplistic. In fact, many of these students turned out to be far more informed about Ireland and its history than I was, down to the expertise and dedication of teachers like Kimberley and Joan Weber, a writer and theatre in education specialist, who have immersed themselves in Irish culture over the years.

The reading at the Wright Theatre was great fun; the audience was attentive and informed and there was an excellent question and answer session at the end during which I was asked about my predilection for water-based imagery. It’s marvellous when readers notice something one hadn’t previously.

One of the best parts of visiting Baltimore was to get the chance to see it through the eyes of people who’ve lived their all their lives, or much of them. It is a beautiful city: a huge stretch of water (Chesapeake Bay) at its heart and extraordinary Victorian architecture at its centre. And I had wonderful tour guides. Both Kimberley and Joan are proud Baltimorians, and they taught me a great deal about its history, both distant and recent. The riots over the death in custody of Freddie Gray hadn’t happened yet (in fact, they broke out just a day or two after we left the city) but he had already died and both Kimberley and Joan had been speaking about the tensions simmering in a city where the ethnic divide stretches back to the ‘White Flight’ of the post MLK assassination- troubles of 1968 and beyond to the legacies of the Civil War itself. Indeed Joan and I had been discussing the difficulties caused by the failure to face up to Civil War legacies, both in her country and on our small island. So it was very distressing to see reports of the trouble flaring up in the days after our departure. Baltimore is just the latest in a long line of similar events, with the same issues at their core. I just hope that some longer term solutions can be found, if Americans are prepared to do the sort of ‘soul searching’ that President Obama was recommending in the aftermath of Gray’s death.

Throughout my visit, I referenced Randy Newman’s song ‘Baltimore’, which I’d heard constantly growing up in a Churchtown house with a brother who was one of his greatest fans. Oddly enough, Newman’s name rarely got more than a quizzical grunt when I mentioned him. Perhaps Baltimorians took his line ‘It’s hard to live’ at face value; in a place where the cannon on the hill is aimed directly into the centre of the town (another Civil War legacy) they do tend to have a long memory.

Features

Kind Words and Coronets

Like many writers with new books out there, I’ve been living in the suspended animation of anxiously awaiting the first book review to appear. While there have been many nice comments about the collection in person, via text, twitter, facebook direct messaging, there’s nothing quite like the gravity of the printed word to concentrate the mind.

I’d love to claim a lofty disdain to all reviews, good and bad. But I’ve never been much of a liar – I lost my first book dedication in a poker game, after all. So I will admit that I cherish every nice thing said about my work, and promptly forget every single positive word uttered and written in the face of a negative notice. I’m not sure if that’s human nature or simply my own neurosis at play, but it’s a fact either way.

So I’m pleased to report that the first review in print appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday, and that poet and critic John McAuliffe had some nice things to say. You can read the full text of the review, which also discussed new books by Kerry Hardie, Theo Dorgan, Gerard Dawe and Jess Traynor, here.

But before you click the above link and disappear away from this blog, I thought I’d reproduce (with his permission) the stunningly kind introduction that the marvellous poet Damian Smyth gave to my work at the recent launch in No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast. It still stuns me that anyone would pay me so great a compliment as to notice what I’ve been up to, poetically. But Damian, as anyone who knows him will attest, is a very special kind of person. Anyway, here’s what he says:

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Grandad_2
Features

Uncovering a Hidden History

For much of my life, I had absolutely no idea that my grandfather, Michael McCann, had fought in the First World War. I grew up with the image of him as the archetypal Irish nationalist hero of the first decades of the twentieth century. A brooding photograph of him in Free State Army uniform and flat-topped army cap dominated the dresser in my mother’s kitchen; stories of his escapades in the War of Independence and the Civil War were an integral part of family lore. But there was no mention of the earlier conflict my grandfather was involved in, as a Lance Corporal for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. His experience, like that of so many of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought in World War I, had been quietly obliterated from the official narrative. There was no room in the nationalist mythology for any stories about those who fought for other causes.

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Features

Back to School Time 2014

It must be the chiller winds and browning leaves, not to mention the crab apples ripening on the tree outside my window, but thoughts turn to the new academic year, and the various courses I’ll be teaching.

As I write, there are still some spaces available on the 10-week Finding the Story Course which I facilitate at the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square. It’s a day-time course, running from 11am to 1pm and starting on Wednesday 24th September.

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