After the terror attack on the Ariana Grande concert, Tony Walsh’s poem became the rallying call of his home town. He’s coming to read in Cork and Dublin, writes Colette Sheridan.
“Oppressions, recessions, depressions and dark times/
But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit/
Northern grit, northern wit in Greater Manchester’s lyrics”
MANCHESTER performance poet Tony Walsh, whose poem, ‘This Is The Place’, captured the response of Mancunians after the terror attack last May in which 22 concert-goers were killed at an Ariana Grande show at the Manchester Arena, is coming to Cork and Dublin to perform at the First Fortnight Festival. The festival challenges mental health stigma through arts events during what can be a gloomy time at the start of the new year.
Walsh, 52, who writes under the name Longfella (he stands at 6ft 6in), is gifting usage of the poem to a charity supporting communities in Greater Manchester.
Written in 2015, the video of the poem recital, which trended fourth in the world on Twitter after Walsh read it at the vigil for the victims of the bombing, has catapulted the writer into the spotlight. Liam Gallagher said it was “the best thing I’ve ever heard come out of any Mancunian’s mouth, ever”.
While praise for the defiant affectionate poem, which has been described as a love poem to Manchester, is very welcome, Walsh admits to feeling somewhat conflicted about its success.
Originally commissioned for the charity Forever Manchester, Walsh says that as an artist, “you spend years trying to build your career and you try to be in control of how you present yourself, and then all of a sudden you’re global news in ways you’re not in control of. I have conflicting emotions about something so sensitive. I was grieving as a Mancunian and as a father, all those things. Then I found myself under huge pressure with messages coming to me at all times of the day and night. It was kind of scary. I had a physically and emotionally exhausting six months after the attack.”
On the night of the terror attack, Walsh was at home in his native city with his 17-year-old daughter. “The news was on Twitter first of all. Then on Facebook, someone was live-streaming what was happening about 15 minutes before it was on TV. My daughter was worried. She’s of the demographic that was at the gig and she feared she had friends at it. My son, who is 20, was worried that he might have friends stewarding at the concert.” Thankfully, Walsh’s children didn’t lose any friends in the tragedy.
Walsh says that a decision was taken that no politician, city official, or religious leader would speak at the Albert Square vigil, although those sectors were all represented on the platform. There was a desire for “something that would speak for the city and its people, a general celebration of Manchester. There’s a lot of passion and pride in the city.
“People have since said that the poem reflected the mood in the square and in the city. It helped define the city’s response. When, at the end, I said the unscripted words, ‘choose love’, the crowd erupted. It was a defining moment. Also, the line in the poem, ‘Some are born here, some are drawn here, but we all call it home’, is a gentle multicultural point that had an added resonance.”
The poem has spawned a coffee table book with 61 Manchester artists each interpreting a line of it with a visual response. As well as the book, there has been a record and a piece of artwork arising from the poem. These efforts have raised over £150,000 (€170,000) for Manchester charities.
Walsh, who has only been performing his poetry for eight years, started writing poetry as a child. He grew up in relative poverty. He almost died of rheumatic fever as a young child, not helped by living in a damp terraced house that was later condemned and demolished. He was politicised by punk and by his circumstances.
The first in his family to go to university, he dropped out. “I got the grades, but culturally, I struggled. I had never been in a restaurant or on a train.”
Periods of unemployment followed as well as factory jobs. While working behind the counter of a post office, he was held up in a robbery in 1992. “There was a knife at my throat. I had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder which caused me to be on the sick for a few months. It was difficult for a long time and I still have internal bruising related to anxiety.”
Walsh, who met the woman who was to become his wife at the age of 19, went on to work as a housing officer in the most deprived areas of the UK. This influenced his poetry in the form of social commentary. He eventually took redundancy to pursue his poetry. He performs at schools and at festivals around the world. He also gets commissions to write for TV companies
“My first literary influences were song writers such as Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan, and also the poet John Cooper Clarke. Music is massive for me.”
Walsh is a firm believer in the healing powers of the arts. “Since time began, people have used art and words, in particular, to influence, galvanise and support people. Poetry is an ancient tradition. In some cultures, poetry has almost a spiritual meaning. Ireland has kept hold of its folk culture more than we have done,” says Walsh, who has ancestral roots in Cavan.
What is the atmosphere like in Manchester now? “Any response to that question has to be nuanced because none of us can speak for the families that lost people. About 500 people were injured and I think a few are still in hospital. Many people have suffered life-changing injuries in the attack. So it’s not for me to speak for them. But you know, families are playing at the fountains here. Humans are resilient. Life goes on. I do think Manchester acquitted itself well with the creativity of our response to what happened and the poem is at the centre of that.”
Clearly, Walsh is a poet with northern grit — and soul.
Other artistically-inclined First Fortnight events in Cork include:
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