A century of poetic voices

A century of poetic voices
John Wyse Jackson
Windharp: Poems of Ireland since 1916

edited by Niall MacMonagle (Penguin Ireland, £20.00hb)

A plethora of poetry anthologies has appeared in Ireland over the last few years. This latest one takes as its starting point the date of our nation’s foundation myth, 1916. Its editor, a teacher and broadcaster, is an old hand at anthologising.

He masterminded the popular series, Lifelines, in which celebrities presented one favourite poem each, giving, as they say on exam papers, reasons for their choices. His own choices here are generally admirable, but it is sometimes a little difficult to understand some of his reasons.

A short introduction states that the poems in the book “speak in various ways of the country’s people and beliefs, its landscape, its passion and politics…” But after the opening pages, little or nothing here addresses without irony the religious beliefs of the majority of Irish people during most of the last century. Possibly the editor might argue that poems of faith or devotion tend to lack the sardonic spice that seems to be an essential element of poetry today.


As a selection from the last century’s crop of Irish poetry, therefore, this is evidently not intended to be a balanced one. Indeed, of the 170 poems here, only 67 were published in book form before 1980. There are just three from the 1950s, “not a very strong decade for Irish poetry”, says the editor; but he then explains that Patrick Kavanagh’s most recent work had appeared in a collection in 1960. In fact, Kavanagh has the most poems here – eight, closely followed by Yeats and Heaney with seven each.

Scattered through the book are verses that echo the 1916 Rising and its politico/military reverberations – by such as Longley, Muldoon, MacNeice, Richard Murphy, and of course Heaney and Yeats. I had never before seen ‘Connolly’, by Liam MacGabhann, a soldier of the Crown who had taken part in the 1916 leader’s execution: “I swear his lips said ‘fire’ when all was still / Before my rifle spat…”

For all its unevenness, MacMonagle’s application of a modern sensibility to his task has resulted in a fascinating and rewarding collection, which is greatly enhanced by the informative and sensitive headnotes that he provides for each poem.