Ireland’s Best Loved Poem

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At the weekend, RTE, the Irish national broadcaster announced the shortlist of 10 for their ‘Best Loved Poem of Ireland’ (of the last 100 years) competition. Members of the public nominated their ‘best loved’ poem online and a jury of Irish poetry aficionados cut the suggestions down to the final list shown below. You can now vote to influence the final choice of ‘A Poem for Ireland’ on the RTE Poetry website and the winner will be announced on Friday 13th March. It seems to be perfectly timed for the last weekend before St Patrick’s Day, but there’s something else about timing that bothers me slightly with regard to how ‘fair’ such a competition can possibly be.

The ‘last 100 years’ – mmm, if we count back that takes us to 1915. Well, there’s no poem from that year on the list – it starts the year after with W. B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. The Yeats poem commemorates the Easter Rising, a failed rebellion led by Padraig Pearse, in which a band of idealistic, if badly prepared, mostly young, Irish Volunteers ceased the General Post Office in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. Yeats’s poem is his unique reflection on this rising and it would be no surprise to me if it wins the RTE competition. Not only is every Irish student who studied English up to the age of 18 familiar with this poem, but preparations for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising are well underway at this stage, and the Irish Tourist Board is no doubt planning many events in Dublin and around the country to commemorate it. Irish literature has been used unashamedly for decades to bring visitors to Ireland, Yeats Country in Sligo being a huge draw, and so, not particularly jumping for joy because it’s the oldest poem on list and it’s author is long dead, I’m pointing to ‘Easter 1916’ as the favourite to win the Ireland’s Best Loved Poem title.

RTE 'The Works' Presenters go back to school

RTE ‘The Works’ Presenters go back to school

When the list below was announced, I wasn’t surprised by the poets on it (except perhaps by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh as I’d expected Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill as the Irish language female representative or perhaps Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin) but I was baffled by some of the poem choices. Of course this is not a competition to decide the best poem from Ireland in the last 100 years, but the best loved. The main thing bothering me was that in the cases of the poets I know well, the poems selected are not particularly representative of their work. For example, the Louis MacNeice and the Patrick Kavanagh, but the thing that bugged me most was the Seamus Heaney choice. ‘While the others were away at mass’ is just one of the sonnets from his moving ‘Clearances’ sequence written in memory of his dead mother and published in The Haw Lantern (1987). Disconnected from the rest, this sole sonnet, lovely as it is, feels inadequate, too short, too out of context, too light to sum up the career of our recently deceased and latest Nobel Laureate. And then it dawned on me. This is what people remember from school when they think of Heaney.

RTE themselves have made this connection as the picture above suggests – ‘Soundings’ is the poetry anthology put together for the Leaving Certificate English syllabus in Irish schools. I’m guessing that the two Irish language poems on the short list appear on the Irish syllabus too. I smiled when RTE tweeted that photo, confirming what I suspected, and then I got slightly annoyed (not enough to kick the cat mind you if I had one). So, the poem that will most likely be publicised around the world as Ireland’s best loved poem (excluding the Irish nominations because the winner is bound to be in English), will be selected from a limited list of poems chosen by the Irish government as suitable for teaching in Irish schools, a list then honed down by the Irish public, and further reduced by a jury selected by the government-owned broadcasting authority. Isn’t it grand to have freedom of choice?

Having said all that, there are some beautiful poems on this list and I encourage you to pop over to read them via the link above and below. Interested parties have had some fun discussing the list on Twitter and I particularly associated with one complainer who rightly pointed out that RTE choosing ‘Dublin’ by Louis MacNeice (born in Belfast) was a tad narcissistic. The two other representatives from my part of Ireland, the North, aka The Six Counties, are Seamus Heaney discussed above, and Derek Mahon, for his poem ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’ (ie, in the South). None of the poems have a title or subject matter involving the North in fact. Part of the island has been cut off when it comes to Irish poetic content, just like the rest of Heaney’s ‘Clearances’. Interesting too, is the fact that of the Irish poets with multiple poems on the English Leaving Certificate syllabus, only Michael Longley (another Northener) doesn’t make the short list. Just saying …

One name I’m delighted to see honoured is Seán Ó Ríordáin, but thinking about why that is made me realise how subjective the process of choosing a poem to ‘represent’ the last 100 years of Irish poetry is. My supervisor at the University of Ulster, Frank Sewell, included Ó Ríordáin as part of his own PhD research on Irish poets, introduced me to his work, and recently edited Ó Ríordáin’s Selected Poems, a Yale University Press publication. Similarly, in the light of my own birthplace, my discussion above on the Northern poets, makes me lean towards voting for the only living Northerner on the list, Mahon (and I do love his poem too). As a woman I’m also drawn to the 3 women who made the last 10. So, taking all that into account, how can I just choose one based on the ‘best loved’ criteria? If I vote for the poet rather than the poem, I’m missing the point surely. And so back to Yeats – ‘Easter 1916’ it will be, but not because of the love of the Irish public for the poet or his poem, but for their love of the young men who sacrificed their lives for an independent Ireland after centuries of colonisation. Had they named this competition ‘Ireland’s Best Loved Poem Ever’, I have a feeling the result would be exactly the same.

We have until the end of February to vote here. I’d be interested to know, if you have time to read them, which one you fell in love with if there isn’t already a favourite of yours on the short list. I was reading MacNeice last night and I’ve just pulled a Derek Mahon volume off my shelf to visit that shed down south again. Despite my misgivings, I do appreciate that if everyone in Ireland read just one poem after listening to or watching RTE’s programmes surrounding this arbitrary competition, then surely it’s not such a bad thing.

The Short List for Ireland’s Best Loved Poem (in no particular order):

A Christmas Childhood: Patrick Kavanagh

A Disused Shed in Co Wexford: Derek Mahon

Dublin: Louis MacNeice

Easter 1916: W. B. Yeats

Fill Arís: Seán Ó Ríordáin

Filleadh ar an gCathair: Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh

Making Love Outside Áras an Uachtaráin: Paul Durcan

Quarantine: Eavan Boland

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks: Paula Meehan

When all the Others Were Away at Mass: Seamus Heaney

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