From Amergin’s invocation of Ireland to those who are shaping its future

Cork Literary Review volume XV
Edited by Eugene O’Connell Bradshaw Books, €22

The result is a book that not only acknowledges the past and present, it also hints at the future. Many of the country’s most established and admired voices line up alongside a new wave of emerging talent, and each seems naturally comfortable in the other’s company

IN terms of ambition and execution, the 15th volume of the Cork Literary Review hardly misses a beat. The 300-plus hardbound pages boast an assuring heft that nevertheless pales in comparison with the relentless pitch perfection of its contents.

With a foreword penned by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the focus is laid bare: in the year of the Gathering an intent to speak to, and for, the voices of our scattered masses, using the literary skills that have helped define us as a people in the eyes of the world.

But if the theme is set, then the approach is unrestricted. In corralling the writers who populate these pages with their poems, essays and captivating conversations, acclaimed Kiskeam-born poet (and the Review’s editor), Eugene O’Connell, has thrown his arms wide open. The result is a book that not only acknowledges the past and present, it also hints at the future. Many of the country’s most established and admired voices line up alongside a new wave of emerging talent, and each seems naturally comfortable in the other’s company.

Through their words and measured lines, we can catch a sense of the "irrepressible spirit and tradition" that has shaped the nation and its diaspora, and we perhaps move a little closer to understanding the peculiar but undeniable "claim that Ireland has on the person".

We start, quite literally, at the beginning, with Paddy Bushe’s translation of ‘the Song of Amergin’, the Milesian bard’s spectacular invocation of the spirit of Ireland during the battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann and their druids. Robert Graves, in his poetic manifesto, ‘The White Goddess’, contends that "English poetic education should, really, begin not with The Canterbury Tales, not with The Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with The Song of Amergin." It is a master stroke of structuring to open proceedings with one of the high points of Irish poetry, one of the touchstones, instantly establishing the mystique and drama endemic in our ancient, fabled past.

And from here the standard is set.

An essay by Bernard O’Donoghue references Séamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Derek Walcott and John Clare in burrowing into the notion of poetic voice. James Harpur finds commonality between early medieval Irish poetry and the work of an 8th century Japanese poet, particularly with regard to a search for solitude and the recognition of its importance in a life of spiritual devotion. Moya Cannon scours the field of modern Irish poetry to unearth the magic in the mundane. O’Connell takes us to the Skelligs in one essay and offers a vivid reflection of 1950s Ireland in another. Some of these essays may tend toward the academic, but there is plenty available to the casual reader.

Poetry represents an essential portion of this book. Thankfully, it achieves an almost uniform excellence throughout. Still, the ones that seem to shine most brightly are those allowed to offer a precursory page or two of explanation, scene-setting or even just reflection. This is a lovely touch, a small but sensitive moment of storytelling that serves to sharpen the lens on the poem that follows.

Thomas McCarthy, ahead of his superb contribution, ‘The Garden of Sempervirens’, evokes the mood of "that unusually early spring of 1995... a metaphorical spring in Ireland," and the pride of peace felt and shared during the first days of the IRA ceasefire. Joseph Woods reveals that ‘Sailing To Hokkaido’ was inspired by a journey undertaken while he was living in Kyoto, Japan, on a cargo ship north to the frozen sea of Okhotsk, and written, at least in first draft, on one of the pages of a travelogue diary he’d been keeping.

Closer to home (a bedsit on Wellington Road), Gerry Murphy remembers the world surrounding, ‘Poem In One Breath’, which would become the first poem of his first collection, A Small Fat Boy Walking Backwards. "In thirty-two perfect words, a synopsis of my attitude to love and politics." And then there is William Wall’s ‘Q’. Short for Quasimodo, this alter-ego take lingered a quarter of a century in gestation but was, in its initial outburst, the result of a high fever during a flare-up of his Still’s Disease. Then and now, it stands as "an expression of the despair of the chronic sufferer and the dehumanised degradation of the medicalised life."

There are also delights aplenty to be found in the work of emerging voices. To cite just two: Annette Skade’s poem, ‘The Caul,’ considers the peculiar longing for a removable birth defect, as if something essential has been lost; while Jennifer Matthews’ beautifully-paced ‘Expecting’ explores the boundaries of creativity, always allowing for the moment of enlightenment.

Finally, and in many ways most notably, are a series of ‘conversations’. Mary Keane speaks poignantly of the first time she met her future husband, the late great John B Keane, and recounts his struggles to be accepted by the establishment. Film director, Ken Loach speaks of being influenced by the gritty realism of writers like DH Lawrence and exposes his social conscience. Australian Thomas Kenneally, Booker Prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark, details his Cork connections and sense of Irishness. And, closing out the volume in triumphant style, an in-depth interview with the much-admired and sadly missed poet and critic, Dennis O’Driscoll.

Careful editing has pulled together an anthology that would be a valuable addition to any home where reading is enjoyed. It deserves a valued place in classrooms the length and breadth of Ireland.