Don’t be afraid. The words shine in a dark space at the end of the Seamus Heaney exhibition. The words he texted to his wife shortly before he died in August 2013
In fact his text message was in Latin: Noli timere. But the meaning inspired the Dublin street artist Maser to paint the words in English as a mural ‘For good people in hard times’ closer to Christmas that year.
I hold on to the words. The door leading out of the Seamus Heaney exhibition in the newly refurbished Bank of Ireland museum in Dublin is right beside the one leading in. The journey through the beautifully designed space in between reaches a turning point at the Good Friday Agreement. I am probably not the only visitor to read the newspaper cuttings on display through a smir of tears.
The words follow me home. They emerge again at the start of this peculiarly unnerving general election. The outcome could have so many troubling or downright dangerous consequences across the whole of Britain and Ireland. And who knows how much further it could spread.
There is good reason to be fearful. That’s a harsh unavoidable fact to face in the resignation of so many women from politics because of verbal abuse and physical threats. And yet. That’s good reason to defy the divisive populist manipulation of fear, anger and distrust.
With that in mind, here’s a selection of five poems for this general election in hard times. To shine a light on our better nature, to remember how many different people are responding to the urgent issues of 2019 with human kindness, concern, and courageous conscience.
1: From the Republic of Conscience
At their inauguration, public leadersSeamus Heaney
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
Where better to start than From the Republic of Conscience? The poem – written for Amnesty to mark International Human Rights Day 1985 – is finely balanced between the personal and public identities of a great poet. The ‘dual roles’ of a man “born between two cultures: Irish and English”.
Two buckets were easier carried than one
I grew up in betweenSeamus Heaney from The Haw Lantern
Significantly, in 1985, the poet returns from his visit to the ‘frugal republic’ as a ‘dual citizen’, his arms ‘the same length’ – connected and accepted between points of difference.
Writing on what would have been Seamus Heaney’s 8oth birthday this year, Rory Carroll notes that many of Heaney’s poems dealt with borders. Yet, Home Place, the visitor centre dedicated to the poet, offers respite from Brexit and the backstop; a kind of oasis. As the manager, Brian McCormick, who happens to be a nephew of Heaney, puts it: “We’re seen as a neutral space. There’s a tranquillity within the building.”
2: Here lies our land
Small folk playing our part.Kathleen Jamie
‘Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.
That same sense of respite is echoed in the poem which greets visitors to Bannockburn.
Kathleen Jamie’s three-verse poem was written as a commission for the 700th anniversary of the battle. It is carved at the base of the Bruce statue on the battlefield – and included in this year’s Best of the Best Scottish Poems anthology edited by Jim Naughtie for the Scottish Poetry Library.
“I sought a tone which suggested shared experience and quietude” writes Kathleen Jamie explaining her influences and intentions. The tone, she insists, “didn’t want to be didactic and certainly didn’t want to be triumphalist… people who had been through the visitor centre before approaching the rotunda would have been subjected to a lot of medieval battle-clamour; their minds would surely be loud with nationhood and self-determination.”
The poem ends with a tribute to Hamish Henderson and a powerful last line: “Scots may have won Bannockburn,” says Jamie, “but not the land itself. The land endures, belonging not to those who ‘own’ but to those who love it.”
3: The Freedom Come All Ye
Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawinHamish Henderson
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o the warld the day.
Hamish Henderson’s song has rung through campaigns for peace and human rights for more than fifty years. Written for the peace marchers at Holy Loch in 1960, it is sung – to an adaptation of a challenging World War One pipe tune, Bloody Fields of Flanders – with passion at political gatherings, protest marches, and independence rallies.
Yet, as with Kathleen Jamie’s Bannockburn poem, there’s nothing triumphalist about the message renouncing Scotland’s part in colonial oppression. Like Heaney, Henderson wore a diverse identity. Moving between Perthshire and Somerset ensured that the young Hamish …”heard and sang the folk songs of three nations [in five dialects and two languages] long before I had the faintest knowledge what a folksong was.”
To Donald Smith, The Freedom Come All Ye, is “the anthem of an as yet unrealised Scottish socialist republic”. To Hamish Henderson it was an alternative International Anthem.
Of many versions, there’s none more moving than the recording of Hamish Henderson singing on Tobar an Dualchais.
4: The Ark
They sent out a dove: it wobbled homeSimon Armitage
wings slicked in a rainbow of oil,
a sprig of tinsel snagged in its beak.
a yard of fishing-line binding its feet
Climate change fires poetry and prose. As the International Panel on Climate Change published its latest warnings, Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, read his poem written to mark the launch of the UK’s new polar research vessel: The Sir David Attenborough.
The Ark, an elegy with song-like refrain – Bring back, bring back the leaf – ended the Today programme that September morning a few weeks ago with more than usual resonance.
How long will it take? It’s sobering to remember that Carol Ann Duffy, the previous poet laureate, also campaigned for action and awareness before it’s too late. Her Parliament was filled with the sound of birds crowding the ‘leafless trees’ to whistle and croak their warnings. That was when the Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign. In 2015.
5: April Sunshine
You would have struggled there with your new grey stick!Jackie Kay
You would have walked with your poppy red Zimmer
What do we want? You say? Peace in society.
Time has not made your politics dimmer
So to Scotland’s Makar, Jackie Kay, and a tender tribute to her mum and dad who recovered from ‘bleak midwinter illness’ and a long spell in hospital. Who would think anything of them as they lay in bed. “You were just an old man…you were just an old woman.”
It’s a rousing rejection of stereotypical reaction to ageing at a time when some seem keen to pitch old against young; a warm and stirring celebration of long lives lived whole-heartedly to the full. For peace but not passively. For democracy and human rights and tireless courageous campaigns against injustice everywhere.
When people who have lived all their lives
For democracy, for democracy
Live to see the spring, April sunshine
It’s a blessing; it’s a blessing.
A gem thank you Fay Young.
Clare Meredith says
Five breaths of much needed fresh air. Thank you Fay.
Clare Meredith says
Five much needed breaths of fresh air. Thank you!
Fay Young says
Thank you Clare!
florian albert says
I found Fay Young’s commentary on these poems more than a little unsettling. She refers to ‘dark times.’ I do not think that – by any historical or universal comparison – these are particularly dark times. In Syria today, yes. In Scotland or the UK, not really.
The reference to the ‘divisive populist manipulation of fear, anger and mistrust’ suggests that there is in our politics one side which represents light and another which represents darkness.
I disagree with this representation.
Fay Young says
I agree that there is a scale of human distress we do not experience in Scotland. However, we are aware of the suffering of others – and my fear is that our political leaders, so fixated on Brexit, are not enabling a wider, more compassionate engagement with global issues. We might agree to disagree about whether or not these are relatively ‘dark times’ in the UK. In fact, I don’t use the phrase ‘dark times’ and I don’t actually ascribe divisive populism to any one side or another. I am distressed to see fear and anger manipulatively exploited by all political parties. I find comfort in the great human wisdom and understanding of writers like Seamus Heaney. The five poems are selection ‘for this general election in hard times‘, it’s an invitation to remember and celebrate how many different people are responding to the urgent issues of 2019 with human kindness, concern, and courageous conscience.
florian albert says
Populism, as a word, is overwhelmingly used to describe right wing political movements. Jeremy Corbyn, though much criticized, is rarely, if ever, called this.
I am also a little sceptical of your contention that feelings are being ‘manipulatively exploited by all political parties.’ This strikes me as creating an opposition between politicians, on the one hand, and ordinary people on the other. Politicians behave as they do, at least in part, because they assume they will be rewarded. Right now, that means rewarded by votes in the upcoming election. The major parties are promising to spend large sums of money beyond what is raised in taxation. Were there no election on the horizon, it is likely their behaviour would be more restrained.
Fay Young says
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities 1859
Lovely. Thank you. xjk
Roberta Buchan says
A case for reforming our political system if ever I saw one.