Poetry: A window into the past, a door to the future.

“Ainmhí mé, Ainmhí alta.” – Géibheann, Caitlín Maude. Words most of us would be familiar with from our study of Irish during the Leaving Certificate. Here, Maude defines herself, as an animal, a wild animal. It is only by defining herself that the poet can go on to define the world around her. Ireland’s emphasis on poetry, song, and spoken performance have been ingrained in our society from its very roots, with the fílí of the ancient tribal kingdoms of the Tuatha, being a member of the aós dána (the skilled people). Fílí, the Irish word for poet, occupied a key position in the court of the Rí, king. This may seem strange until one considers that fílí translates less as poet, and more as “seer”. It was considered an undeniable fact among the ancient Irish that the words of the poet had the ability to affect the outcome of the future. If a poet composed a ballad about the victories and virtues of the king, then his rule would be prosperous; however, if the king insulted the poet, he could compose a nasty rhyme about his faults and personal characteristics, the words of the poet could then affect the future and ensure the downfall of the king. This is the earliest known version of the ancient form of combat known as “a diss-track.”

One of the key responsibilities of the poet is to act as a voice of “communal memory”

Yet poetry is not only focused on imagining the future, but also in giving voice to the past. Paula Meehan once remarked that one of the key responsibilities of the poet is to act as a voice of “communal memory” and I believe this can best be seen with our national poet, W.B Yeats. September 1913 is seething with the frustrations of a generation who have watched their nation’s dreams be murdered in the interests of monetary gain, with Yeats remarking that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” But we can also see the past and future mingled in Yeats’ later poem, Easter 1916 wherein he documents the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion. Yeats gives mention to the rebels, such as Pearse and Markievicz, but also anticipates the bloody civil war between the Free State and the Republic; “A Terrible Beauty is Born.” Yeats himself was an avid supporter of the arts and would go on to help found the Abbey Theatre, and later he would even serve as ambassador to the Irish Free State.

It is not surprising that we have elected a poet to stand as the representative of our nation on the international stage

Yet Yeats is not the only poet to enter politics. Our own president, Michael D. Higgins, has enjoyed a successful career as a poet, as well as a keen human rights activist. It is not surprising that we have elected a poet to stand as the representative of our nation on the international stage, given the poet’s dual ability to give voice to the past, and embody our hopes for the future. Ireland is proud to be called home by a number of award-winning poets: Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B Yeats, John Montague, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Paula Meehan to name but a few. However, I would argue that no voice better embodies the present that is Ireland today than that of Emmet Kirwan, author of Dublin Old School among other works.

Originally running as a play before being adapted into a film, the work’s form evenly moulds old forms with new, as between conversations between characters about alcohol, drugs and plenty of profanity, the main character waxes an inner monologue which wouldn’t be out of place in The Divine Comedy. Regardless of your take on the film, one cannot deny that Kirwan has inherited the same role which Yeats occupied decades ago: giving a voice to his community, in particular, a generation who seem to have a phobia of being sober. To reiterate my opening statement about Maude, the Irish poet’s power lies in their ability to define themselves, and it is only by defining themselves that they can begin to give a voice to the world around them, and like their spiritual predecessors, the Fílí, even change it.