WHEN Alannah Hopkin was asked by Con Collins of the Collins Press to edit an anthology of Cork city poems and songs, she first turned to the late poet and Irish Examiner journalist, Sean Dunne’s Cork Anthology, published in 1993, to see what he had done.
“I’ve always loved that book,” says Hopkin. “I was very surprised to find there were only 15 poems and songs in it. It’s largely prose. So that was a sort of relief.”
Hopkin’s brief for the hardback anthology, On the Banks: Cork City in Poems and Songs, was to focus on the city. Dedalus Press produced a book on Dublin poems. Collins saw a market for a Cork book but Hopkin “initially found it a bit limiting that it was only going to be about Cork city, because there are so many wonderful songs and poems about County Cork. But that actually turned out to be a strength. It gives the book a very strong identity.”
Hopkin agrees that there is much sentiment about Cork.
“People love writing about it. We’ve had big characters like James N Healy, a Mercier Press author, who was great at putting together anthologies and comic songs (often about Cork). That was another good starting point for me. And then there’s Tomás Ó Canain, the musician, who put together a wonderful book of songs with commentary.”
On The Banks is a beautifully produced hardback that comprises traditional songs and chants as well as highly acclaimed work from the city’s many contemporary poets and songwriters, not necessarily native to Cork but working and living here.
These include Matthew Sweeney whose popular poem, A Calf in the English Market, is in the anthology. There’s serious subject matter too, such as Ghost Estate by William Wall. And there’s poetry by the revered and deceased such as Sean Ó Riordáin.
Hopkin believes that a renaissance in poetry in Cork is taking place. “Everybody used to talk about the old days when you had poets, Sean Lucey and John Montague lecturing at UCC and people like Sean Dunne, Tom McCarthy and Theo Dorgan (coming out of UCC) writing. The scene is so different now. The balance has changed towards the city rather than the university. Maybe that’s because the Munster Literature Centre is so lively.” And there’s the weekly poetry readings at Ó Bheál in the Long Valley.
Back in the days of the old guard, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill seemed to be the only female coming out of UCC, writing acclaimed poetry. Because she didn’t write poetry about Cork, she is not included in the anthology.
“But we have a lot more women writing poetry now. Liz O’Donoghue is in the book as is Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Mary Noonan, for example.” And there’s the current Ireland Professor of Poetry, Cork-born Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. There’s also new names in the book, like Roisín Kelly, Victoria Kennefick and Bernadette McCarthy.
“I’d have loved to have had a poem by Leanne O’Sullivan but she doesn’t write about Cork. She’s a Beara person. It was Pat Cotter (director of the Munster Literature Centre whose poetry is in the anthology) that gave me signposts to people I might otherwise have missed like Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Billy Ramsell, Dean Browne and John Mee.”
In what is something of a coup, the anthology includes two previously unpublished Frank O’Connor poems. Night in the Cottage was written in 1922-23 when O’Connor was just nineteen years old. It deals with what would then have been the taboo subject of sexual repression. Theocritus on Sunday was written in 1924 and explores the emotional impact of turning away from Catholicism.
“I was talking to Frank O’Connor scholar, Hilary Lennon, who told me she had just been reading an archive collection of Frank O’Connor’s work which included some unpublished poems. So I pounced and asked Hilary if I could have a couple. I went for poems that were set in Cork.”
O’Connor wrote Theocritus on Sunday at a time when he was “feeling a real sense of isolation and was having trouble finding another form, other than Mass, through which he could express his spirituality.He lived in incredibly conformist times. The two poems in the anthology are not great poems. They were written when O’Connor was very young but they’re interesting in their context.”
In putting together the book, Hopkin paid closer attention to the poetry of Patrick Galvin than she had previously, and remarks that “it was an eye-opener. His poetry really is topnotch world quality.”
She doesn’t think that Galvin (1927-2011) received enough credit in his lifetime. “That’s partly because he distracted people. He wasn’t exactly a poseur but he played a role a lot of the time; the wild poet, the working-class hero.”
Retired Oxford academic Bernard O’Donoghue, a Cork-born poet, is also in the anthology. “He’s probably one of the most distinguished poets in the world. He dug up some older poems of his that are not so widely known.”
The anthology is divided into themed chapters. The themes suggested themselves, with, for example, the River Lee being a recurring subject in poetry written about Cork. Other themes include courting and playing, Cork city landmarks, local characters, sporting teams, the Cork accent and famous songs.
Tim O’Riordan’s ‘The Langer Song’ makes it, while Rory Gallagher’s ‘My Home Town’ is the only rock song in the book.
Hopkin says there isn’t really any strong representation of performance poetry in the anthology. “But performance is very much the way things are going now on, on YouTube. It’s attracting an audience that might never have read a poem before.”
She says there are people who are afraid of poetry or think it will bore them.” There is also a fear of inaccessibility.
“A very strong rule I applied to the book was that I wouldn’t have anything in it that I didn’t understand. I think it’s a good rule to have because there is a tendency for poetry to be impenetrable. I hope this book will encourage people who don’t normally read poetry to have a go and find out that it’s often quite funny and touching.”