WHEN Michael Brennan of Currach/Columba Press invited me to edit an anthology of favourite poems from the south of Ireland I immediately jumped to the opportunity.
For the ‘south of Ireland’ I suggested it would have to be the six counties of Munster and the book would include poets born, or brought up, in Munster.
This was because the book, I knew from its antecedent, Best Loved Poems: Favourite Poems From The West Of Ireland would include no more than 50 poems and, were I to choose from all the poets now living in, or associated with, Munster, the book would, of necessity, be a much bigger one.
I recommended that the book would include, also, a significant amount of translations into English of poems originally written in Irish.
Michael readily agreed. In order to give adequate space to the 11 Irish-language poets I chose to represent in the anthology, I very reluctantly decided to include them in English translation only: there are 14 translations into English in the book; had I to include the Irish originals also, there would have been room for only seven.
Choosing which poems, and poets, to include in an anthology of favourite poems from Munster was a challenge — and a pure pleasure.
First of all, it was to be a book of favourite poems — favourite poems of mine, poems and ballads that have proved popular with the general public as well as with the poetry reader, poems that have stood the test of time.
I decided also to include a few popular songs (for instance William Pembroke Mulchinock’s evergreen ‘Rose of Tralee’ and Charles J Kickham’s perennial ‘Slievenamon’ as I believe that poetry and song are umbilically connected).
The book would contain poems and songs of love and death, meditations on our two languages, Irish and English, political poems — of the Anglo Irish War and the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923 and the betrayal of the new republic where, as our President Michael D Higgins writes in his poem, ‘The Betrayal’: “the new State/was a good thing,/even for business.”
The anthology would feature poems on religion and spirituality, on faith and doubt; poems about mothers and fathers and their children; poems written by, and about, women — for instance the 9th century ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ translated lovingly here by Brendan Kennelly; Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill’s ‘The Howl for Art Ó Laoghaire’ from the 18th century rendered into English by Paddy Bushe; followed by Eugene O’Connell’s sonnet, ‘The Keener’ which mirrors Eibhlín Dhubh’s lament; an excerpt from Frank O’Connor’s marvellous take on Brian Merriman’s ‘Midnight Court’ also from the 18th century; Patrick Galvin’s celebrated ‘The Madwoman of Cork’; and Leanne O’Sullivan’s wonderful ‘Last Rites’ on the death of her beloved grandmother.
There are cursing poems, notably Michael Hartnett’s unforgettable ‘On Those Who Stole Our Cat, A Curse’, and homages to our native games of hurling (Seán Ó Tuama’s celebration of the one-and-only Christy Ring, translated from the Irish by Ó Tuama himself) and football (Bernard O’Donoghue’s ‘Munster Final’ — a tribute to the late, great Tom Creedon of Macroom).
There are poems which deal with dispossession, poverty and emigration. In compiling this anthology, I wanted to reflect the passions and preoccupations of Munster women, men and children, passions and preoccupations that would be universal as well as local, passions and preoccupations that would reveal the heart and soul of the place.
Munster has occupied an important position in Irish poetry from earliest times. Daniel Corkery wrote powerfully about this in The Hidden Ireland, first published in 1924.
The tradition continues in Irish and English, among women and men. Favourite Poems From The South Of Ireland features poems by nationally and internationally celebrated Munster poets as well as poems from the younger generation who are continuing the ancient tradition of writing poetry in Irish and English.
Many readers feel, with some justification, that much contemporary poetry is excessively abstruse: indeed, an intrepid correspondent to one of our newspapers suggested that the “solution to [its] cryptic Saturday poems” should be published “perhaps on the puzzles page”! Well, you won’t find any cryptic poems in Favourite Poems From The South Of Ireland. I chose poems that were accessible, memorable and moving; poems, I hope, that will engage the mind and stir the heart.
In recommending a photographer whose images would complement the 50 poems in the anthology, I chose my fellow Kerryman John Reidy of Castle Island, a poet with a camera.
As a newspaper photographer for the past three and a half decades, he has captured athletes, elections, floods, fights, local and visiting politicians, heads of state, porter drinkers, pilgrims, pioneers, poets and potholers through the eyepiece of his cameras.
His brief was to travel the highways and byways of Munster and capture the spirit of the place, not necessarily the iconic, alas often hackneyed, images that appear regularly in newspapers, magazines and books. He has succeeded magnificently.
John and I offer this book as a homage to our native province, a celebration of people and place. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.