Book review: Windharp - Poems of Ireland since 1916

Niall MacMonagle taught English enthusiastically for over 30 years but his determination to share the beauty of poetry is undimmed. He spoke to Sue Leonard about his anthology marking the 1916 Rising centenary.

Edited by Niall MacMonagle

Penguin Ireland, €24.99;

Kindle, €14.99

Educator bringing verse to the masses

NIALL MacMONAGLE is passionate about poetry. He quotes it every day, and he is determined that others should share the joy it gives him. 

So when he decided to edit a book of Irish poetry since 1916, he was aiming for an audience of occasional and reluctant poetry readers, rather than scholars.

“I like to think that I’m inviting people to look at the story of Ireland through it’s wonderful poems,” he says.

MacMonagle had the idea in 2012, when he was wondering how best he could honour the 100th anniversary of the Rising, and the result, Windharp has just been published. 

It’s a glorious tome. Opening it at random I came across some well known and loved Yeats; a lesser known, but stunningly affecting poem from Seamus Heaney, writing at the height of the troubles, and Doireann Ní Ghíofa’s heartbreaking ode to Savita Halappanavar.

“I hope it speaks to people,” says MacMonagle. 

“Not everyone will like every poem, and some people will wonder why certain poems have been included and others not put in, but that extends the conversation around poetry, and anything that does that can only be good.” 

There was just one sadness accompanying the book.

“I wrote to Seamus Heaney when I was starting out, and asked if there was any possibility that he could supply me with an unpublished poem with which to end the book.

“He wrote back within a week and said he would make one available when he could, but that at the moment he was at an Old Mother Hubbard Cupboard stage. 

"He said, ‘this will get me stirring the pot.’ Then the great man was stilled. He died, but I felt I had his blessing for the book.”

He was telling this to the poet Moya Cannon, and by lucky chance she had recently written a poem about her grandfather’s experience in the Rising. 

The Countermanding Order, 1916, telling how Eoin MacNeill cancelled the order to rebel, perfectly completes the narrative arc.

Niall didn’t have a bookish childhood; his parents left school at 14 or 15, and they didn’t turn to books for pleasure; but his introduction to poetry came at his primary school, the Presentation Monastery in Killarney, Co Kerry.

“The first poem we learned was Patrick Pearse’s ‘The Wayfarer’, which opens the collection. 

"I will never forget Brother Angelus telling us about this poem written on May 2, 1916, in the intensity of the moment by this man who was facing execution. 

"Death certainly concentrates the mind, and it’s a beautiful hymn to the natural beauty of Ireland, the transience, and the inevitability of dying.”

Happy throughout school — the Silesians at his boarding school in Limerick took good care of the creative side of life — Niall adored reading, and when he discovered there was a place called university where you could go and read more, he studied English and Geography at University College Cork — following that with a Dip Ed, then a Masters on Virginia Woolf.

“I was tutoring at UCC too; then there was a temporary opening at Bandon Grammar School; I went for six weeks and got on well, and then a post came up and I taught there for four years.” 

Then his wife, who had taken her D Phil at Oxford University was offered a job at UCD, and, following her, Niall found a job at Wesley College teaching English. He remained there until he retired two years ago.

Before I met MacMonagle, I rang my son-in-law who had attended Wesley College, and asked had he been taught by him. 

He had, and was enthusiastic as he recalled the lessons, describing his teacher as ‘more Dead Poets Society than exams.’ 

“It was all about education for life,” he said, with a note of approval.

Niall is pleased when I repeat his words.

“I earned my money as a teacher, teaching for an exam, but I also taught for the rest of their lives. 

"I wanted them to bring the memory of a text for a moment, or a poem or a novel of something interesting that would send them back to literature long after the

Leaving Certificate was just a memory.

“And I’m very grateful that the Irish Leaving Certificate, despite its flaws and failings has a very intensive poetry component. 

"I think it’s wonderful that Irish students study Elizabeth Bishop, Hardy, and Hopkins plus all our wonderful Irish poets; the complete poems of Elizabeth Bishop are a perfect companion through life.”

How though, teaching the syllabus year after year, did he manage to retain his enthusiasm?

“It is never the same thing, because the pupils are new; you are ageing and getting greyer and greyer, but they are forever young. 

"I have read, ‘Among School Children,’ countless times, but there is a 16-year-old before you who has never read it. There is excitement in that.

“Every morning when I got up, however badly or well the day went for me, I believed that what I was doing was worthwhile. 

"Not every pupil who sits before you wants to be there, but it’s up to you to say, ‘let’s make the next 40 minutes as enjoyable and productive as is humanly possible.’” It’s not that Niall neglected to teach for exams.

“Come April of sixth year, I’d say, ‘we are now going to play the exam game, and be focused and very schematic, and play all the tricks of presenting work.’ 

"In an exam you have to do what you are asked to do, and that does not suit everyone. Someone who might be bright and original might not get their A1, but think of their fine minds!

“In my 35 years of teaching I never had a class I didn’t like, but there were three very gifted classes, and in 2013, the year I retired I had such a one. 

"They were exceptional — 15 of the class of 30 got an A grade. They were hardworking, efficient with time, and they answered the question.”

He sometimes misses the classroom, but never the drudge of admin. And with his role as one of Ireland’s most trusted commentators on poetry; having edited other anthologies, penned a textbook for transition year students, and frequently contributed to RTÉ Radio One, he is unlikely to become bored. But how did he become a public persona?

“I was at a dinner party in the 80s, and I was enthusing about a book. There was a chap at the table, who, unbeknown to me, worked at RTÉ. The next day at work he said, ‘I met a fellow who can talk about books. Check him out.’ 

"And I got a call asking me would I go on TV and review books. The programme ran for 20 weeks. I got to interview the late Brian Moore, Liz Lochhead and Seamus Deane,” he says.

It saddens him that RTÉ no longer give the arts such prominence.

“There was a time when the Late Late Show would have a bit of culture. I recently asked Ryan Tubridy could we have the winning student for an annual poetry competition on there. The student has come through from 1,700 entries. 

"People could listen, for one minute and 48 seconds to a young person speaking a poem, intelligently and well, but the production company said, ‘no.’

“Too many people are saying, ‘give people what they want.’ But if you went into a classroom, Hopkins is not what they want, but they discover they need it, when you give them the chance. If you give people what they want you end up with the lowest common denominator.”

MacMonagle’s dream is that a poem should be read to the nation, after the nine o’clock news, and before the weather.

“The newscaster would announce the title. And a member of the public could read a poem to give people a little ounce of pleasure every night.” Sitting back, he smiles at the thought.


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