POETRY WITH AN IRISH ACCENT
‘Empty vessels make the most noise’, my mother said, improving on
Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fifth,
when I rattled the bars of my childhood in protest at something I disapproved
of. Now the vessel I possessed was making a profane whisper, a noise in my head
that hissed, what would my father think? A descendent of the cockney Black and
Tans he killed mocked my accent when I asked for a box of matches in a
newspaper shop, repeating my words back at me with a leer. ‘Bauks and ashes’
ameliorated by a ‘
I hadn’t lost my Irish accent. It wasn’t just a matter of pride but also of morals. Irishmen who change the way they speak are either cowards (fear of being different) or knaves (up to no good). I enunciated my words loud and clear, and didn’t need to ask myself ‘What is my nation’. In the late nineteen sixties it went down better in the East End of London than the received pronunciation of the other survey interviewers. Recruited from the BBC, they sounded as though they had silver spoons blocking their nostrils. The cockneys slammed their doors on them, fearing undercover agents from social services come to spy on their living arrangements.
However my accent presented problems when I wanted to write poetry for people other than those who shared it. Even in
Gaelic, my other language, was all but dead as everyday speech. But my poetry had inherited my father’s ideas on the influence of Gaelic on Irish English, and hadn’t lost its prosodic accent. Bardic syllabics rather than metrics, which is the heartbeat of English poetry. The syncopation of syllabics allows the stresses to vary line by line according to the emotional sense. Metrics were too regular for my poetic temperament, which was aleatory by English standards.
Rhyme is the essential topping and tailing for both English metrics and Irish syllabics. It raised the question of pronunciation and what was received by an accent other than mine. For instance, ‘IKEA’ might rhyme with ‘idea’ but not ‘idear’. So the choice was between talking to another nation in an accent that was not my own, or giving up. I kept my accent and diversified into plays in dialect. As the dialogue degenerated into post-Synge cod Irishry I gave that up too.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were my father’s model of what poetry in vernacular English should be. I listened to recordings made by researchers on his rhymes, intended to establish how Shakespeare himself spoke. To my ears, he had a pronounced brogue. Not surprising, since Warwickshire is closer to
Four centuries ago, Shakespeare would have listened to the bards from the rump of the Irish chief Shane (The Proud) O’Neill’s entourage begging in the streets of
Shakespeare had many gifts but catching realistic speech patterns is not one of them. His French characters sound like Welshmen. They speak in Shakespeare’s own voice. Moreover, his blank verse varies the stresses line by line to interpret the emotional sense, and chimes more with syllabics than strict metrics, since he doesn’t rhyme as in his sonnets.
I reworked Macmorris’s speeches into ‘Shakespearean’ English, including many of Shakespeare’s words, but re-ordered them to give a different emphasis - less stage Irish than an Irishman on stage. Captain Macmorris is the only Irishman in Shakespeare’s plays. He is accorded 25 lines, in all 226 words. I modernised the spelling. English would have been Macmorris’s second, or third language, but Shakespeare patronises him with a stage Irish brogue, even though his own differed little from Macmorris’s.
And so I was back writing poetry again, in my own accent. The accent of an Elizabethan actor-playwright. We had an audience.
Captain Macmorris’s Apologia‘I do not know you so good a man as myself;
so Christ save me, I will cut off your head.’
Enter the forest
of pain, and go search out the clearing
with a cruel-to-be-kind knife.
Who wants a comfortable life
when you can know the extreme in human experience
for yourself alone?
Christ save me. Our defence
has failed. The siege is over. And it shames us all. You speak
of ‘The Disciplines of War’, having sounded the retreat,
blithely as the Dukes and King. It’s ill-done. Mere standing still,
fencing wits, doing nothing. But the day’s too hot for discourse.
Before the men get too far, we must call back the brute force.
By my hand and father’s soul, I would have blown up the town
in an hour, gone for the kill. What is my nation? The clean-
cut moment of truth when faith in damnation must decree
that ‘there is throats to be cut, works to be done’. Eliminate
the bastards for their own good. Every man jack’s head, caput
The severance pay off is for your own state
of mind, not the enemy’s, only there to expiate
for our lost tribe with a good fight. Peace of mind’s a clean slate
to renew reasons for hate and work up our annoyance
to want those heads on a plate. So after the victory,
swing a hammock on a tree and, Christ-la, sleep your own weight.