You’ll have noticed that, over the last few days, I’ve lapsed into a bit of poetry. This has been inspired by a friend and fellow writer Yvonne Heavey who has never spurned an opportunity to bash out a few lines of verse to suit the occasion.
Yvonne is from County Westmeath in Ireland. That country has a long history of culture and, in the so-called Dark Ages, Ireland was a shining light when it came to literature, song and art as well as promoting an advanced set of common laws – the Brehon Laws. At the end of the 19th century we had the Gaelic Revival when there was much renewed interest in the Irish language, culture and sport, a kickback against centuries of Anglicisation.
The best of these Revival poets are legends – Yeats, Heaney, Joyce, Beckett etc. It is not these giants I talk of today but more the common man of Ireland. In these decades we had growing discontent with English rule and the War of Independence. And also there was growing interest in Gaelic sports, hurling and football in particular, and growing allegiances to parish, town and county teams. All this seems (to my unscholarly eye) to have bred very many hack poets in Ireland. At the drop of a hat, out would come a rhyming verse to commemorate the occasion. Examples:
The Boys of Kilmichael – commemorating an ambush by a rebel flying column over a two-vehicle column of British Auxiliary troops in Cork in 1920.
And over the hills came the echo
The peal of the rifle and gun
And the flames from the lorries brought tidings
That the boys of Kilmichael had won
So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael
Those brave lads so gallant and true
They fought neath the green flag of Erin
And conquered the red white and blue
This is a prime example of the sort of verse that can popularise within hours. I can almost see a chap in a bar in Dunmanway (my father’s home town, not far from the ambush site) hearing the news, buying himself a pint, borrowing paper and pencil and sitting in the corner. An alternate rhyming pattern, a bit of rhythm in the lines, you have a verse. Along comes a musically-inclined friend who gives it a bit of a melody. That night the bars in the area are all singing it, and it is being played and sung 100 years later.
Come Out Ye Black and Tans from the same era made a surprise comeback in 2020
Come out ye Black and Tans
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders
And how the IRA made you run like hell away
From the green and lovely lanes of Killashandra
What a great, sneering bit of mockery with all three elements – rhyme, rhythm, melody.
Also from those times, a lament for Kevin Barry, best sung solo over a Guinness.
In Mountjoy Jail one Monday morning high upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his life for the cause of liberty
Just a lad of 18 summers yet there’s no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning he proudly held his head on high
And finally, again from County Cork, the story of a less successful ambush, The Lonely Woods of Upton
Let the moon shine out tonight along the valley
Where those men who fought for freedom now are laid
May they rest in peace those men who died for Ireland
Who fell at Upton ambush for Sinn Fein
At a local level there are thousands of well-recorded examples. Many are little more than doggerel which anyone could dream up. They were written far from Dublin’s literary pubs – Gogarty’s, Davy Byrne’s, McDaid’s etc. where the literati were wont to gather, debate and argue. Brendan Behan was at one time-hard-pressed to find a bar which would serve him. WB Yeats, on having been persuaded into Toner’s on Baggott Street was said to have declared, “I have now been into an Irish bar and I have no wish to see another.” No, there is a sea of verse written by the common man (and woman), much of it lost and forgotten.
The lesson is, bad or not, anyone can knock out a poem and who, other than literary critics on high, is going to judge them? They might be sung in bars a hundred years from now.