On Easter Sunday, Ireland celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising. Walking the dog, I passed houses with Tricolour flags draped from windows and bunting suspended between chimneys.
I couldn’t get into the spirit of it.
I tried to write a patriotic blog post but failed. I was planning to write about the many occasions, on holidays or living abroad, when I corrected a mistaken waiter or nurse or student with the phrase, ‘Io non sono Inglese, io sono Irlandese’, ‘I’m not English, I am Irish’.
It seemed to me an important distinction and I was willing to make it over and over again. When I looked at it written down it just seemed petty and childish. What does it mean anyway? I kept thinking about how proud we all were when Queen Elizabeth came over and we all showed her around like eager Grandchildren. Your Majesty, we cried, come and look at the fort we made out of your dining chairs and embroidered cloths. I was irritated by an embarrassing feeling of not quite understanding my homework.
My patriotism thwarted, I decided to just let it pass.
And then last night, along comes Bob Geldof to sort me out.
Husband and I were entranced by this programme. You can watch it on the RTE player where it was shown in two parts and called A Fanatic Heart or on the BBC player where it was shown in one epic session and titled Bob Geldof on W.B. Yeats.
Bob Geldof chronicles the life of Yeats and a A-list line up of golden voices read the poems. Richard E. Grant weeps, Colin Farrell wets himself (ok, he doesn’t but he does look scared) Shane mcGowan slurs incomprehensibly and Van Morrison takes like a natural to the role of ‘grumpy oul’ fella’. Damien Lewis was good, Tom Hollander was very good, Bono read as though he wrote it himself and Liam Neeson, ahh, that voice just went through me, straight to the heartstrings.
Yeats was drummed into us in school, drummed all the way in. As Geldof puts it, Yeats is in our DNA. If you put your foot on an Irish person’s beachtowel they are likely to tell you that you are treading on their dreams. God help the man who doesn’t hold a door open for you; he’s damned to join romantic Ireland with O’Leary in their over-crowded grave.
To be honest, most of Yeats’ poetry sailed right over my head. But there are lines that move me in ways I can’t understand.
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.
Poets feel in words and, if the words are right, the reader translates them back to feelings. I don’t think you need to understand all the words to experience the feelings.
Yeats was as confused as the rest of us about what it means to be Irish, not English. The woman he idolised scorned him in favour of a republican hero, John MacBride. Following the 1916 rising, the British made a martyr of MacBride and a martyr’s widow of Maud Gonne. Poor Willie with his poems didn’t really stand a chance. How’s that for conflicted?
Yeats was clearly a bit of a fruitcake. You only have to see his proposed costumes for the judiciary to know that ( it really was worth watching the programme just for that bit). The thing is people who don’t walk around wearing a veil of conformist normality might just see world with more clarity.
As Geldof points out, Yeats was paid to be a poet. Think about that. He got up in the morning and sat at a desk and thought about things and searched for the perfect words and pared them down and distilled them over again. He kept at it until he got it right. He must have been good at it. They did give him a Nobel prize, after all.
His poems were served to us like a draught of cultural identity. Drink this and know who you are. We knocked them back. We got drunk on Yeats.
A nation of veil-wearing conformist fruitcakes.
No Second Troy
We could do with Yeats now. The bits of him in the South of France and the bits of him in Drumcliffe would all be rolling over if he could see us. Our democratically elected members of parliament are feck-arsing around since February 26th and we still have no government. They are like a crowd of kids on a see-saw, all trying to get the other kids in the playground to add weight to their side. It’s stuck. We need a grown-up to stand up in the middle and get the thing moving. Hey Bob, are you busy?
You might like to read about our visit to Coole Park, here.