It is a difficult choice but, what are the best poems set in Ireland? Years ago I heard that the Emerald Isle was known as the “land with the best writers per square meter”.
And, the truth is, there is a lot of good literature spread all over the planet and, perhaps, the adjective “better” loses its meaning when we start to value something so subjective, but what cannot be denied of Irish literature is its rich cultural tradition. The Irish language, also known as Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Insular Celtic branch of the Celtic language family. It originated in Ireland and was considered the first language of most Irish people until the late 18th century. It is now used daily in: Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal counties, as well as in the smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath. Ireland having its own language has enabled the island to harvest its own culture.
Several of its great names are known worldwide: Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker… We owe that (apart from their genius) to the wonderful phenomenon of translation, which allowed these names to leave the 70,273 km2 that make up the island and spread across the globe, carrying with it the topics and concerns of the Irish people.
Books are mirrors that reflect in two directions: the one who writes them undresses, taking off even his skin, which serves as a blanket for the reader, who seeks to feel part of something. That is why literature deals with issues that concern us all such as loneliness, love, death… what will be the great topics that Irish literature deals with? We are going to analyze 4 of the great poems that best describe the Emerald Isle.
The setting for this poem is one of the Islands on Lough Gill, in County Sligo. William Butler Yeats had a great feeling for the island, his mother’s birthplace, and was greatly inspired by it during the creation of his poems. Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin, and raised in a family of artists: his siblings Jack, Elizabeth and Susan Mary were involved in the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1881, when he entered Erasmus Smith High School, he started to spend a lot of hours in his father’s studio, where he met many artists and writers. It is believed that it was this approach to the world of art and letters that made him start writing poetry. Only four years later, the Dublin University Review published his first poems and Yeats began attending the Metropolitan School of Art. In 1890 he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and, with Ernest Rhys, he co-founded the Rhymers Club.
Yeat’s topics of interest are: mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology. He is considered a symbolist poet since he always builds his work from images and symbols, ranging from mythology and Irish folklore to mysticism, theosophical beliefs and the occult.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree was written in 1888 and first published in the National Observer in 1890. It is made up of twelve lines grouped into 3 quatrains and is an example of the Celtic Revival style, which aims to imitate poetry of Irish origin. On the subject, the author evokes an innocent childhood memory that invades him as he walks down Fleet Street in London, during 1888.
This poem is part of his earlier lyric poems, and with it he wants to express the peace and tranquility with which one lives in Innisfree, away from the maddening crowd of the city. This theme alleges the literary topic of the Beatus Isle, which extols the beauty of nature: the bees, the sound of the birds’ wings… Many critics understand the division into stanzas as the division between body, spirit and memory.
With the body they refer to the tangible, the mud hut, the connection with the earth, the fact of growing beans and, also, the feeling of home using the image of the beehive. As for the spirit, peace coming slowly throughout the day signifies the transitional path that we have to get through to achieve tranquility of the soul. The end of the poem alludes to water, movement, transformation. The memory of a childhood that has marked his present and that will always be there.
Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin and Spraying The Potatoes – Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh is considered one of the most important Irish poets of the 20th century, his work deals with the everyday routine and simplicity of life. He worked as a journalist at the Irish Press, where he also wrote film reviews. In 1949 he began to write for the literary magazine Evoy, thanks to which he came into contact with a circle of young artists and intellectuals, that was so beneficial that it marks his so-called “poetic renaissance”.
It is known that his poetry is greatly influenced by his life experiences. In it we can see his love for the countryside, his inclination for mystique and the denunciation of the oppressive Catholic structures of the time. His great references were T.S Eliot and W.H Auden, who set out to write raw, real poetry, far from the idealization of nature (promoted by Yeats).
Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin is a 14-line poem written in a single stanza. Although due to the rhyme we could not say it is a sonnet, there are several elements in the text that may remind us of Shakespearean sonnets. With the repeated use of the word “commemorate”, the author seeks to connect with the reader, to give him that seat on the Grand Canal where he has spent so much time watching the city come and go, without any pretense other than to describe. We can also see another meaning in the text: the poet has written more than one piece related to the Grand Canal because for him it was an important place, where he could stop to breathe and think. In the last lines we can deduce that the poet was fabulating the type of memorial that he would like to have after his death.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Spraying The Potatoes was voted as one of Ireland’s top 50 favourite poems. As we can see in these lines, the author continues dealing with everyday issues, in this case: life in the countryside. Both the vocabulary and the concepts are often used when speaking about agriculture: potato-field, barrels, knapsack sprayer, root-locked cart… The aim of the poem is clearly to illustrate without any artifice, the daily life of rural people. Composed in quatrains of loose iambic tetrameter lines occasionally, and arbitrarily, extended to pentameter, the poem is characterized by memorably vivid imagery.
A name known in the Irish literature of today is Stephen James Smith. He is an Irish poet and playwright who has reached three million views online with his poetry videos. Smith has performed his poetry at high-level events and festivals around the world and in 2012 he was invited to perform for the Irish Olympic team in London.
He has been conducting poetry workshops in high schools and community groups throughout Ireland for several years. In 2018, he worked as an Artist in Residence with de Dunamaise Arts Center and Laois Arts Office, where he developed the county’s first Laoius Spoken Words Project for youth. In January-March 2019, Smith facilitated the cross-cultural poetry project “The Words That Unite Us” for the Festival of Saint Patrick and the Scottish Government.
Stephen’s debut collection, Fear Not, published by Arlen House, was released in September 2018 and he has recently published a Hear Now poetry booklet. His poetry is included in the Western Connecticut State University syllabus and his work has been translated into Irish, Spanish, Slovenian, Polish, Dutch and Italian.
The critic says of him: “Here are poems fed by the ray urgency of language that jumps out to meet the world, and here too there are poems of a tender heart, always ready to reach out, to try to understand. Stephen James Smith is a poet of unusual energy, absolutely alive in the here and now.”
Unlike the previous poems, we can observe how contemporary slang can slap us, transferring us to a conversation with friends in our usual bar. The poem is full of political references and opinion, it becomes a criticism cradled by humor. In conclusion, it is a continuous give and take, all that Dublin offers and robs from you, the eternal doubt, as Smith says in a verse: “Dublin, can I trust you?” The author makes such an incarnation of the Irish capital that he becomes confused with himself, ending with the verses: “I love you most of the time, you see… Dublin you are me”
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