Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Selected Poems

by Derek Mahon
Viking/Gallery in association with Oxford University Press, 194 pp., £14.99

Madoc: A Mystery

by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $19.95

How is it that Northern Ireland, a little state within a state with fewer than two million souls, a not inconsiderable portion of whom, split into two tribal factions, spend much of their time and energies at each other’s throats, has managed to throw up a volume and variety of poetic talent which countries twenty times the size would, and indeed do, find hard to match? This is not a rhetorical question; over the past decade or so it has been a topic of continuing and at times passionate debate, within Ireland, and sometimes outside, too. Even as I write, the opinion columns and the letters pages of The Irish Times are crackling with a furious exchange of fire over an essay in a recent edition of the newspaper questioning Seamus Heaney’s right to his pre-eminent position in the Irish—and international—pantheon. Poets still matter here—more, alas, than poetry does.

There are those, especially in southern Ireland, who hold the view that the “Northern School” does not exist at all, that it is a spurious and even fraudulent concept, invented by journalists and academics with the enthusiastic cooperation of a few canny Northern versifiers, most of whom, significantly, have removed themselves from the troubled land of their birth to take up lucrative posts in the balmy groves of academe beyond the western ocean. According to this view, the Northern poets have scrambled to prominence over the rubble left by twenty years of internecine warfare, which in the late 1960s caught the attention of the world, or at least of the world’s press, with the birth of the civil rights movement and a renewed outbreak of the pogroms which had been going on with more or less ferocity for decades; meanwhile poets in the south, as good as or better than their Northern counterparts—Thomas Kinsella, for instance—were ignored or underrated because they were not entitled to wear the dashing red sash of insurrection.

It is true that in those early days of the present sequence of the Northern Ireland “troubles” there was much talk of a terrible beauty being born, and in a famous television speech in 1970 the then taoiseach (prime minister) quoted a line from the poet John Montague to the effect that “old moulds are broken in the North.” The fact that what was being born was not beauty but another rough beast, and that the old molds were still as sound as gunmetal, was beside the point. Voices were being heard that had for long been suppressed, and many of those voices spoke in verse.

It was not all romance and rebellion. The poet and critic Seamus Deane has pointed out the irony that it was the postwar British education system that trained the young (nationalist) men and women of Northern Ireland to understand the oppressive nature of the regime under which they were living, and to stand up and challenge it; that same system presented to the sons and …

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