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Last week was sandwiched between St Patrick’s Day (Irish National Day) on Monday and World Poetry Day on Friday. The far-flung Irish diaspora often celebrates Paddy’s Day in style, creating images of what it means to be Irish. This in turn feeds back into Ireland in a kind of circular, self-perpetuating PR exercise. It’s ironic that the best events are usually abroad and most of Ireland’s TDs (Members of the Irish Parliament) jet off to take up invitations to celebrate outside their homeland. The 17th of March always gets me thinking about Irish identity. You can’t muse on that topic without considering Irish poetry, one of Irish culture’s most eloquent vehicles for negotiating questions of identity, race, nationalism, history, and politics.

With this in mind, I’ve chosen a simple but revealing poem by William Butler Yeats as my Irish Poem of the Week. ‘The Fisherman’ scrutinises what it means to be Irish and exposes the poet’s disappointment with Irish men, at least in 1919, shortly after the failed 1916 Easter Rising. Yeats had come to despise the revolutionaries and his line, ‘A terrible beauty is born’ from the poem ‘Easter 1916’ is perhaps his most quoted. ‘The Fisherman’ refers to an image Yeats had long harboured of the ideal Irishman, a freckled Connemara fisherman dressed in grey and casting flies in a remote mountain stream. Further commentary follows the poem.

The Fisherman by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Old John's Cottage, Connemara by William Orpen, 1908 (Private collection)

Old John’s Cottage, Connemara by William Orpen, 1908 (Private collection)

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ‘twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;

The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since,
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.

The poem is uncomplicated and follows a basic three stanza/verse structure. The first stanza suggests that Yeats has met the fisherman in the title, watched him fish and admired him for his ‘wise and simple’ ways. The unadorned language reflects what Yeats values in the man who represents the Irish ‘race’, ‘my race’ as the Anglo-Irish Yeats terms it. The reality is different though.

In the second stanza, the poet effectively rants about the Irishmen who have failed to live up to his idealistic expectations (as embodied in the Connemara fisherman). Some critics have deduced exactly who Yeats was referring to in this stanza, but what I find more interesting is his view of ‘The beating down of the wise/And great Art beaten down’. This reminds me of the controversy over The Playboy of the Western World, a play set in County Mayo in the West of Ireland (a stone’s throw from Connemara) by Yeats’s friend, John Millington Synge.

When the play was first performed, a large proportion of the audience vociferously protested about Synge’s gritty, realistic depiction of Irish men and women. Indeed, riots ensued on several nights in January 1907 and the final performances saw the audience vetted with a strong police presence in the theatre. ‘This is not Ireland. This is not the West!’ one man cried and it is still unclear what triggered this reaction. Was it the fact that the main character, Christy Mahon is revered by the Mayo locals because he claims to have murdered his father, or was it the mention of the word ‘shift’ (petticoat) and the suggestion that Irish girls would appear before a young man in theirs? In any case, it is well documented that Yeats considered himself at the centre of a movement to breathe new life into Irish culture by redefining Nationalism and presenting images of true ‘Irishness’ to followers of the Arts. He saw Synge and Hugh Lane (Lady Gregory’s nephew) as exemplars of the artist and the patron, but many Irishmen and women viewed them as an elitist gang of Anglo-Irish who were milking Irish culture to satisfy their own artistic ambitions.

Stanza three of ‘The Fisherman’ is full of disillusionment as the poet reveals the fisherman does not exist and is but a poetic ‘dream’. There is bitterness in Yeats’s use of the phrase, ‘in scorn of this audience’. I love the juxtaposition of ‘cold’ and ‘passionate’ in the last two lines. No matter how we feel about Yeats and his disgust with his fellow Irishmen, we cannot deny that this poem was prompted by passion and is a cold look at the state of the Arts in Ireland in 1919. I feel it’s highly ironic though that ‘The Fisherman’ laments the non-existence of an idealised version of Irishness. Wasn’t that precisely what prompted the patriotic protestors in The Abbey to stand up and heckle the actors in Synge’s Playboy?

Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and from 1922 to 1928 served two terms in the Irish Senate (the equivalent of the Upper House or the House of Lords). So, shortly after he penned this bitter homage to his imaginary fisherman, he saw his own ‘great Art’ honoured internationally and in Ireland, was elevated to a position which some might say acknowledged his wisdom.

Notes:

1. ‘The Fisherman’ is taken from Yeats Selected Poetry (Pan Classics, 1974), first Published in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919
2. William Orpen’s painting and a succinct history of artistic depictions of the ‘true’ Ireland and its people can be viewed at: History Ireland
3. J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World debuted at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1907. See Christopher Morash’s A History of Irish Theatre 1600-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2002) for an excellent summary of the Playboy riots.

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