Irish Diaspora

Ailbhe Darcy on the Irish Diaspora Poets
Photograph © Conor Friel

In 1866, the story goes, the Irish invaded Canada. The plan was to grab land along the St. Lawrence River, then use it to annoy the British so much they would cede us independence back home. Despite being smack-bang in the category of “that’s so crazy, it might just work!” it did not work. The Irish have never stopped quietly invading Canada. Today, Toronto is among the most popular destinations for a new wave of the Irish Diaspora.

Emigration has been part of Irish identity for as long as Irish literature in the English language can remember, but the generation born after the 1970s is different. These are people who came of age during an extraordinary period of prosperity, when Ireland was a brief success story. Unlike previous exiles, many know what it’s like to feel entitled,to the pursuit of pleasure, material goods, or a prosperous future. They new Irish Diaspora is different, too, by dint of the unprecedented mobility and access to information bestowed on them by new technology, illustrated last May when thousands returned to Ireland to vote on gay marriage and went away again.

Because this generation of the Irish Diaspora—of which I am a part—is different, reading backwards into the literature of Ireland’s past can only take us so far. We must read around us and learn from writers in other places. Because our own writing cannot assume a local readership, as it might if we had stayed home, we have to hope that it reaches out to readers beyond the Irish. In this spirit, let me introduce to you three among this generation’s most exciting poets, Eoghan Walls, Miriam Gamble, and Dylan Brennan. All three grew up in Ireland in the 1980s and all live abroad. Their work is excellent.

Walls’ The Salt Harvest (2011) is endlessly surprising, making magic from a vision of the Virgin Mary in plankton, Angry Birds, and a zombie epidemic. It transforms air travel in which “great machines fathom the clouds to open their alloyed bellies, / taking us from where we were to where we need to be.” An air steward making safety announcements becomes “the repentant thief upon the crucifix.” As the plane takes off, the whole “braceletted planet tilts under the weight of Birmingham.”

Walls is compelling on fatherhood, which draws from him inklings of the apocalypse and the fear that today’s parents cannot promise a full-length future to their children. “The Long Horizon” asks:

When all has been said and done and what remains is submergence
tell me whose fingers will indent our daughter’s ribs as her heels
dance the mad dance of the Jesus Christ lizard, hurdling the troughs

and the waves in the settling night, down onto her ramshackle cot
with two handfuls of sushi?

In “Bird Strike,” flight and anxious fatherhood cross paths on the way to the airport. His baby restless in the back seat, a father’s fretful mind connects a flock of rooks to the snow geese that snagged the engines of US Airways Flight 1549. His infant’s blue eyes become the blue eyes of that pilot who “skimmed down on the icy Hudson.” The daydream culminates in the prayer-like vision of a future where the child has defied death and finally defies her father, “bold and upright, / staring out from a torrent of feathers in the wake of a pillow fight.” It’s a tiny tour de force.

Professor Fran Brearton has said of Miriam Gamble’s poems that they “understand the relation between form and violence, understand that craft and control can be acts of brute force too—against the other, even against the self.” In Pirate Music (2014) the poet rails against compromises made in an ordinary life and the miseducation handed down by social convention.

Why am I learning? Why are you yielding?
I want to drive smack into a concrete wall
singing I am an Antichrist, I am an Anarchist
at the top of my unacceptable lungs.
I never wanted to be in it for the long haul.

Gamble seeks images for reined-in potency in animals tainted by civilization: the feral cat, the urban fox, the whale who wandered up the Thames. The animal to which she returns most wholeheartedly is the horse: groomed, broken, ridden by “fat children.” “As lines are steered through language,” she tells the riderless thoroughbred, “… Someone is surely steering you.” In only one glorious poem does a horse break free, and so does Gamble’s writing from the exquisitely crafted lyrics in which it ordinarily resides:

spikes a glassy
and then
she crashes
into it

Dylan Brennan’s Blood Oranges (2014) is set in Mexico, but Irish history haunts it. Brennan has remarked: “I think the human brain functions by constantly making correlations … Seeing the comparisons and the contrasts at all times seems to strengthen the synapses.” An Irish Diaspora poet who writes about Ireland might risk pontificating on matters he misunderstands. He might risk nostalgia, but by writing about Ireland through the place he’s in—with keen attention to that place—Brennan maintains clarity. He keeps his synapses strong.

“Bones of Anonymous Children” is about a Tlachihualtepetl pyramid, but also about Ireland’s history of institutionalizing unmarried mothers and “illegitimate” offspring. It recalls the outrage in 2014 at the revelation of a mass grave for babies born at a mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, run by Catholic Bon Secours nuns. A local spokesperson for the Church offered this sound bite: “I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”

These words float into this poem about Tlachihualtepetl, where “two sacrificed children / were unearthed.” A child asks the tour guide why the site of the burials is concealed. He is told:

Excavation would untangle the muscular roots
of millennial trees, upsetting the soils of gods
and men. An unholy mess. The spiritual and physical
constructs of all those years would come crashing
down around us. We’d never clean that up.

Brennan’s poem weighs up the implications of letting the past be, without a pat conclusion. Though satirical, it isn’t merely satire because it doesn’t let the reader feel self-righteously right about anything, nor does it obey the dictates of good taste, which would disallow our comparing the horrors of separate places and times as though each tragedy deserved its own reverence. Rather than dignifying Irish history with particularity, Brennan’s poem suggests analogies across nations, as each society is called upon to uncover the roots of its own bloody history and fearfully utters its own inadequate platitudes.

Poetry has always been promiscuous by crossing borders and rummaging in other cultures. Part of what’s exciting about each wave of the Irish Diaspora, each generation leaving or arriving, is the renewed possibility of learning from one another, and a fresh genius imbuing each of our literatures. So by this brief volley, all I really mean to say is: Dear Canada, we have to talk about how we might deal with the past and the future, and here are three poets who are talking, with talent and vigor.

Ailbhe Darcy, born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1981, has a PhD from the University of Notre Dame, focusing on contemporary Irish poetry. Imaginary Menagerie (2011), a collection of her own poems, is available from Bloodaxe Books. She lives in Germany.


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