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Finding Contemporary Ireland in Irish poetry

The Ireland of flamed haired children bringing turf home from the bog with a little help from the family donkey probably never exactly existed. But these days, the donkey is definitely dead and the traffic jams in Galway rival any in Europe. And small town and rural Ireland is not now primarily a place of isolated bachelor farmers in the manner of Kavanagh’s Patrick Maguire. I have no doubt that in the homesteads of Kerry and Mayo more hours are spent sampling the delights of internet pornography, or on online gambling, than saying the Rosary. In their way, these new activities are a different kind of Rosary.

One poet who does re-plough the land once worked by Patrick Kavanagh is Mayo born poet, , whose first collection, Maiden Names, was published last year by Arlen House. Although Dyar is a less reckless, more consistently polished poet than Kavanagh was:

From ‘Wild Salmon’ by Martin Dyar

Wild salmon, that’s what Peter used to call

the Charlestown girls,

the few that would appear in the small pub

a few times a year.

And just as we couldn’t keep up with him in his swift



we could never hope to match his handling of these



Elaine Feeney’s debut Where’s Katie? (Salmon Poetry 2010) speaks in a voice that is altogether more savage. In ‘Urban Myths and the Galway Girl’ she makes cutting satire out of the rubbish spoken in a Celtic Tiger era aerobics class:


She tells me about all the pills the husband is taking

for the cough and the limp dick and all

nothing is working


Now she couldn’t care if he went in his sleep. 

People have been talking rubbish in Ireland for centuries. Yet little enough effective poetry had been made of it. Not since Swift and Oliver Goldsmith. And they’ve both been dead since before the French Revolution. In many of Feeney’s poems – and in the work of other poets, such as Sarah Clancy, who’ve lately emerged from the now very vibrant live poetry scene – rubbish talk is finally being given the importance it deserves. Good news for me, as it’s one of my own favourite subjects.

Another thing we Irish are excellent at is holding a grudge. Apparently the “local row” between the two farmers referred to in Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ continues to the present day. Dave Lordan puts such long-harboured grudges into poetry in a way that is beautifully vicious. In ‘Bullies’ (Invitation To A Sacrifice, Salmon 2010) the narrator receives a phone call from his mother. She tells him of the suicide of a local man. This man had been one of the narrator’s tormentors at school. He says nothing much about it to his mother but when he puts the phone down:

I let out a screech of delight. I was alone in my bedroom

and no one was listening. Save him, I like to imagine.

I’d like him to know exactly what I said.

I said You’re dead do you hear me you’re dead.

Apart from talking rubbish and holding grudges, the other thing we like to do is build houses. Although, in the years leading up to 2008 we built more than we could ever possibly need. During that period Adam White worked as a carpenter. In his debut Accurate Measurements (Doire Press 2013) he writes with quiet formality about his work, but also about many other subjects. The title poem opens:

No one ever got the hanging of a door right

first time around.

And so it is also with writing a poem. Though Adam White is a quieter, less angry, much less overly political poet than either Elaine Feeney or Dave Lordan, he has emerged from more or less the same live poetry stable. His publisher, Doire Press, has been at the centre of the very vibrant poetry reading scene for which Paul Durcan was perhaps a lonely pioneer during the 1980s & 90s. The first time I heard Adam White read – it was at a poetry slam at Galway Arts Centre on a freezing December night in 2010 – I suspected that he might be some sort of genius. So when Accurate Measurements was shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection I wasn’t that surprised.

White and Lordan and Feeney each, in their way, challenge the traditional idea of the ‘Irish’ poem. The Irish poem is increasingly a space in which iPhones, vibrators and skill saws are as likely to turn up as fiddles, turf fires and tweed caps. Indeed, more likely.


Kevin Higgins’s poetry features in the anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010). His latest collection, The Ghost In The Lobby, will be launched in April 2014. Blog:

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I like this poem, but the ending is very drastic It’s like puting a dagger is one’s heart. any way it’s ok.

  2. Don’t forget Tom Duddy, Kevin. A second book from him is imminent, in which he brings together past and present inimitably. And yet he’s part of the tradition, from bootlace to neuron, from Yeats to Kavanagh. It will be titled ‘The Years’ — from HappenStance, I hope, this coming December. Not a good thing for a poet to be dead, on balance, when it comes to plaudits and prizes. But Tom Duddy’s poems will live, and Galway in them.

  3. Kevin, this is great and a long overdue look beyond the picturesque turf stack to a long overdue modern European country with all that’s good and ill about it. thanks.

  4. I’d heard Dave Lordan’s name before but never read his work. Will definitely be checking it out now!

  5. I think Martina Evan embodies this process in her work, Partly because she moved from rural Ireland tto London, her work spans the traditional and the contemporary.

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