Tag Archives: Seamus Heaney



The fate of religion and a society’s vision has a lot to do with poetry and poets, the bearers of vision – in  early Ireland poet and prophet were virtually identical . The classic example of poetic influence historically is the revival of Jewish faith under the prophetic careers of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the former the voice of a sublime messianism, the latter the voice of a “new covenant”.

In parts of Ireland today churches are often empty, some even being demolished. The astonishingly rapid decline of Catholicism in Ireland in the twenty first century, though not total and having several causes including grave clergy scandal, renewed emigration and controversial replacement migration forcing increased multiculturalism upon an unprepared often unwilling population, is nonetheless a conundrum.

It is one paralleled by the strange weakness of Irish literature at the spiritual level. How and why is the native tradition in religious verse so limited despite the long and celebrated intensity of national religious observance and devotion? Where is the devotional or metaphysical contribution?. How and why since full Republican independence in 1949 do we find little more than a religiously deconstructive kind of contribution from the nation’s artists, especially the poets?

Somewhere something is lacking. I will offer some radical perspectives and will even endeavour to “re-imagine” Irish religion which I regard as long founded on certain misconceptions exposed by recent developments. But first, because it’s scene setting and neatly introduces some main issues for the modern crisis, I will briefly summarize Andrew Auge’s rather Catholic dismissive, A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish poetry and Catholicism (2013).

This study examines the religious deconstruction and/or adjustments that six leading poets have been making since the modernist/elitist Denis Devlin (1908-1959), not reviewed by Auge, left the Yeatsian legacy behind and wrote some genuinely metaphysical if rather abstract religious verse. Much inspired by Pascal and St Teresa of Avila, God for Devlin is both absent from and imminent to creation in a way that allows unexpected brief moments of illuminating grace. But deity is basically remote. There’s nothing very Irish or relevant to Ireland’s future development in Devlin’s contribution save perhaps in his rejection of Teresa’s extreme division of body and spirit, the sort of question that troubled our first poet.



Auge’s first poet is Austin Clarke (1896-1974). HIs outlook belongs with the common image of a repressed, traditional Catholic Ireland. “Being sent to penance, come Saturday/ I shuffled slower than my sins should”. His evocation of sometimes extreme situations as in Mnemosyne Lay In Dust ( 1966) which evokes experience of an asylum, are almost more suited to fiction and memoir.

From childhood Clarke suffered under the over-zealous examinations of conscience in the confessional occasioned by little more than some masturbation (theoretically a mortal sin in Catholicism), but the long term result was he suffered serious nervous breakdown followed by a year in an asylum and then a soon failed unconsummated marriage. Clarke’s stylish poetry includes scenes and situations from the distant mirror of medieval, Romanesque, Ireland and its tensions ignored by the literature of the more Protestant or secularist Irish literary nationalism.Instead of Joyce’s outright rejection of a Catholicism that gets exchanged for a secular priesthood in service of aesthetics, Clarke gradually works his way to a transmutation of values which grants him a certain independence, finally making him almost a prophet in relation to the persons and system that almost destroyed him.

Accepting that any poet is always to some degree a heretic towards his faith (Milton would be a supreme example), Clarke comes to realize that there can be an over-indulgence in continence. Even the eyes of the spirit may not be opened where sensual imagery is denied, while excessive self-scrutiny can become a transgression against innocence, a persecution of incarnation. He realizes, as implied by the Book of Kells with its half hidden elements of the erotic, eros is part a total energy, a continuum not to be completely denied. (This is incidentally a point I made in different connections in the previous article and earlier offerings). He also learns from traditional Irish repentance poetry as of Gearoid Denvir, that he can define his own sins himself, achieve a measure of autonomy and self-absolution and with this he can overcome some of the paralysis which, like the characters of Joyce’s Dubliners, he had experienced.

With this new confidence Clarke later assumes a species of poetic/prophetic role. Enlarging on the practice of a scrutiny of wrongs, in the sixties and well before the time the scandals of the Irish church became common knowledge, he was pointing the finger at the physical abuse of boys by Christian Brothers,(“Corporeal Punishment”) the cruelty of nuns towards exploited unmarried mothers, (”Unmarried Mothers”) the politicking and dubious financial dealings of church leaders. It was an interesting development even when it did not always produce the greatest poetry – Clarke’s opus is of uneven quality. He was perhaps essentially a satirist who agreed with Swift the world is mad and he hoped with the medieval Irish philosopher, Erigena, that all would be forgiven and saved. (It’s beyond present scope but what Clarke perhaps needed to know along the lines of Rabbi Boteach’s Kosher Lust: Love is not the answer, is that there is less (biblically at least) a distinction between love and lust than between two kinds of lust, one an acceptable part of life even reaching into the psychology of the relation to God).


Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was less prophet than (when thinking religiously and patriotically) a would-be mystic who falls against some unresolved contradictions. Born in rural Monaghan and rejecting standard nationalism in favour of “parochialism”, he sought any Irishness in a mysticism of local landscape and feeling harking back to early Gaelic writing like the Dinnseanchas. His ideal was a kind of Christian nature cult or animism which however never quite worked for him.

The post-Famine church had set the chapel against the well, locating all spirituality inside the often aesthetically inferior church building to the detriment of all traditional local sites associated with saints and miracles and often involving pilgrimage and festival dismissed as only superstitious. However, actual alternative experience of the wells doesn’t render the poet the hoped for levels of inspiration; at best they and the penitential pilgrimage site of Lough Derg (which looms large for numbers of poets including Heaney, who regard it as almost the epitome of Irish spirituality), suggest beyond the trivialities of popular piety, the real power of community and sharing. But gradually rural life with its domineering matriarchs, like the mother in Kavanagh’s masterpiece (The Great Hunger) and ugly churches becomes tomb-like. The poet will search new life and meaning in the city and community.

Anyone who has ever felt, as many have, including the poet AE with his talk of ‘the earth breath”, the peculiar “magic” of the Irish earth will be sympathetic to Kavanagh’s aims and intuitions. There is a magic but it’s a damp, GreenMan kind remote from the sun and deserts of early Christianity, (though it may have something of the first spring of the Song of Songs about it). Kavanagh doesn’t want Celtic nature feeling limited to churches or even just an altar with its “real presence” bread. Yet if one includes the altar and extends outwards into the world, has one not then arrived at simple pantheism with nothing really Irish and Catholic left? At this point one may feel that Kavanagh, like too many Irish Catholics,lacks either the theological knowledge or just liberty to go further and resolve the problems. The subject of the Irish and nature is in any case a big and historic one as is apparent from the medieval “Colloquy of the Elders” in which St Patrick is imagined  in argument with the hero Oisin over fundamentals of the native outlook.

But for Kavanagh the materialistic city would for years only present him another problem. His response was to try to evoke country and landscape within corners of urban landscape, bringing an extension of the rural into the urban. What he instead eventually realizes is “a placeless heaven”, essentially internal to himself (one might say archetypal?). The mysteries of nature are eternal to himself and he can impose them upon a scene. An urban scene like the Dublin Grand Canal can become renewing in the way a holy well was once supposed to be. It even reflects what in the poet/mystic’s mind is something of the flow of being that must be released and that can be the more positive side of what’s urban. Similarly to Clarke, Kavanagh has a felt need for the liberating flow suggested by everything from early Irish art to healthy eros. Spiritual health and inclusion is suggested by: “Give me ad lib/ To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech”.

This borders on a plea to be able to speak in tongues, something I always feel Joyce sought to do at some level in especially Finnegan’s Wake. Little or nothing of the sort has ever really manifested in Irish Catholicism as it has in some American and other Catholic circles under the so-called charismatic movement. This situation could reflect a strong underlying element of formality within Irish culture and religion that does not easily “let go”, but that a poet might always arrive to question as the mark of something lacking.  Which in a way it is. The problem is compounded by the fact national soul life is not helped by loss of the natural rhythms and  concepts of the mostly discarded native language.


A lot of modern Irish poetry has originated from Ulster, and John Montague (1928-1916) would be a prominent figure in this and one more directly engaged with the Ulster condition than the more celebrated Seamus Heaney. Montague shares with Kavanagh a strong feeling of place,  he likes traditions and dolmens but it’s not his main concern which is more  psychological. His        father was a Republican activist, a reason the poet was born in the America where his father was exiled, though early on the poet would live with relatives and be educated in Ireland. Montagu who believed “revolution is interior” is not easily summarized, but at the core of his poetry was a will to achieve cure for the wound occasioned by Irish partition and Ulster religion. Although not opposed to the Republican movement per se – Montague regarded the protests of a Bernadette Devlin and her followers the necessary release of a kind of “Blakean energy” – when it came down to it, the poet sought to bring not just people but ideas together, and via a mode of thinking more symbolic than literalistic (Ulster can be very literal minded!).

In works like The Bread God (1968), Montague re-visions the mass as a thought mode in its own right beyond familiar ceremony. He does this in the wake of trying to understand Ulster Protestant, especially Paisleyite, hostility to the mass as simply an idolatry linked to papal imposition, end-of-age scenarios and a whole range of assumed facts. At the same time Montague (never notably devout but church linked through a Jesuit uncle), was aware that a type of Catholic thinking might imitate or invoke just this Ulster Protestant response by the way it made the mass an object, the worshipped wafer, as in Corpus Christi processions. Still more this bread could become politicized, even rendered the sum of Irish identity itself as in the alienating Dublin Eucharistic Conference of 1932 which attributed Irish character, identity and survival most essentially to a Eucharistic devotion.

Even so, not only was the Ulster Protestant ignoring that Catholic mass certifies the presence of both Christ and the community in a sort of extension of incarnation, but that the ceremony is not just a recall of the past but an anticipation of the future. And this is how people of whatever persuasion could and should be thinking, joining together in awareness of the mythically charged Irish past (Ulster was mythically extreme long before its wars of religion and colonial plantation) but looking towards an interactive, open future.

Here could be another kind of “transubstantiation”. Common humanity and cooperation are more easily discovered amid symbolic and mythic modes of thought, more able and willing to improvise, especially as, (contra Yeats and his poetry of fixed cycles), history does and doesn’t repeat itself, but always requires us to respond.

It will be apparent that Montague’s remedy for the new Ireland is a kind of de-mythologization and re-mythologization of the whole concept of mass in which the layperson is very much a kind of their own priest to the task, somewhat as in the vaguely Protestant drift of Clarke. But I would note that like Kavanagh he does also perceive other registers of understanding. Montague recognizes language as authenticity related. In “A Grafted Tongue”  a second language is as “harsh a humiliation /as twice to be born…speech stumbles over/lost syllables of an old order”


By contrast, the less Ulster-engaged Seamus Heaney sought and (more or less) arrived at his own understanding of “grace”, which is a freedom away from the type of piety shaping his youth and as exemplified by especially his mother. That Heaney was genuinely devout in youth is reflected in the fact he visited the classic site of Irish penance, Lough Derg (which features in his  Station Island of 1985), three times. He began to perceive certain traditional Irish attitudes, especially of guilt and self-sacrifice as undermining regular action or else productive of the wrong kind of action, one based on the  resentment (or perhaps ressentiment as Nietzsche might controversially define it) of the downtrodden, and promoting some merely self-righteous vengeance.

Heaney arguably saw this kind of sweeping but only part true psychological summary of his fellow countrymen too much and well. It morphed into a sometimes unreasonably distanced, much criticized position away from what for Ulster Catholics of the Troubles era were often issues of basic justice as regards voting, housing, education and employment, everything that left them second class citizens under a quasi-apartheid. Nationalists on hunger strike to press their cause thus become for Heaney only a kind of belated Catholic fanatic and/or inheritor of ancient Celtic blood sacrifices – in his strangely ugly way of writing, Heaney says of one hunger striker who died, he “rotted like a pear”.

Aware he couldn’t offer either what fellow countrymen wanted politically, nor effect through poetic showings like those in North the kind of exorcism of root ills needed, Heaney retained his sense of guilt. Poetry had itself initially seemed to him a form of self-sacrifice or monkish vocation, repayment of a debt to God along the lines of the version of atonement theology on which he had been raised.

What he gradually discovered, however, was that much poetic inspiration came suddenly and unawares like a sort of unmerited grace and joining him to the flux of being. In short, poetic inspiration seemed almost the contradiction of religion. Christian poets generally have not been disposed to regard inspiration in this way, but Heaney is sunk in some mental Ireland of the perpetual guilts, among other things assisted by, as suggested in Canto 6 of Station Island, a cult of the Virgin that hampers a man’s natural relation to women. He will nevertheless strive towards what makes for freedom; he will not sin against its imperatives.

In one section of Station Island, a visionary account along Dantesque lines of visiting Lough Derg, the poet (who had once suffered like many academic Irish males pressures to become a priest) encounters a missionary priest he knew. He had died young in Africa and thus in many respects seemed, like the hunger strikers, to have wasted his life. Heaney also meets a ghostly James Joyce from whom he learns that when he refused to take the sacrament “I made my life an instrument of grace”. But Heaney cannot follow the completely secular alternative in the aesthetic priesthood of Joyce. Something mystical remains however awkwardly.

Also on the island he had learned from a Carmelite priest that poetry itself can be redeeming and read as prayer. But then, thinking of the negative way of the Carmelite St John of the Cross, Heaney understands Ultimacy in terms of “nothing” and “dark night” and so “when there is no thing that gives, there can be no demand that the gift be reciprocated”. This leaves Heaney free of “atonement” and reparation ideas of poetic labours and released to a more Wordsworthian ”wise passivity” towards reality. In this and with the God question left open, it’s “nothing”, or perhaps the death at the centre of all, that will supply inspiration.

A collection, The Squarings, attempts to articulate whispers, feelings, insights at this horizon edge of things. I don’t feel Heaney succeeds, but the project is meaningful for a type of Celtic knowing hard to convey yet vital all the same. It has something in common with the philosopher Heidegger’s idea of Being revealing itself in the light space, the Lichtung. It may have even more to do with German music, and I think that Heaney, less skilfully than the late poet and essayist Brian O’Donoghue, makes a way towards inclusion of the Germanic within the Celtic that always needed to be realized.

Heaney is too complex and verbally riddling with his ideas to summarize here. The main point however is that this post-Yeats, supposedly representative poet, gains the freedom of an alternative spirituality which hides or denies deity by ridding himself of a native self-sacrifice theme which he regards as the secret of an Irish paralysis akin to the one portrayed in Joyce’s story, The Dead…… I will add another less familiar way of summarizing Heaney.

Heaney was born in 1939 under the fighting, self-affirming sign of Aries that his Ulster Catholic upbringing repressed and which he let repress. Restrictive, demanding Saturn closely conjuncting his identity-giving sun reflects all of the repression, the hard work and guilt surrounding any will towards escape, firm action or self-justification. Heaney’s opus is often Saturn coarse and graceless, but since his sun closely conjuncts the Mars of modern Ireland’s foundation, he would be nationally influential, dragged into cultural conflicts and expected to take the sides he didn’t. His natal opposition of Jupiter (religion, faith) opposite Neptune (mysticism, self-sacrifice, vision) across the axis of the (Virgo/Pisces service signs, bespeaks his rooted spiritual conflict around service of all kinds.


Auge’s chapter on Eilean ni Chuilleanin’s poetry is headed Relics and Nuns in the poetry of Eilean ni Chuilleanin’s Poetry and subtitled Sifting the Remains of Irish Catholicism. This could be a bit misleading in the context of the whole book and my use of it here, because Eilean’s work does not present any obvious problem in relation to church decadence and decline. If there is a problem it is almost in the lack of any overt one and what that might betray regarding modern Irish religion.

Like many women in Ireland and outside it, Eileain ni Chuilleanin (b.1942) regards the nuns in her life, even the more eccentric ones, as a positive influence. Many Catholic women have felt the freedom of nuns from standard roles and the high culture of especially the teaching nuns, to be a liberating, even rather feminist example. In recent years when it has been impossible to deny all witness to the abuse and sadism of some nuns in such as Ireland’s Magdalene asylums, Catholic women have still been inclined to lay much blame for this on the use and abuse of nuns themselves by priests, bureaucrats and politicians rather than wholeheartedly condemn the women who enlivened and enlightened their youth.

Eileain, whose career has been rather successful by Irish and poetic standards, (she studied at Dublin and Oxford), attended a convent school and three of her aunts were nuns. We may not be so surprised as she herself is, that when she wants to write poetry, she so often mentally presented with the image of a nun. This leads to various musings and affirmations in which holy female figures convey mystery as in The Anchoress, Agnes Bernelle, St Mary Magdalene preaching at Marseilles  They can  imply a mystery of being or of a change into which they shimmer. The poetry generally would imply that Irish Catholicism can be judged against, improved, and developed by the faith of nuns, (or even ordinarily pious women) whose role may even somehow elide with those unfortunately abused by the few nuns that failed. It’s a case as per The Architectural  Metaphor of…. “Help is at hand/Though out of reach”

Influenced and possibly over influenced by the extreme Irish enthusiasm for the relics of St Therese de Lisieux brought to Ireland in 2001, Auge thinks of the nun and Eileain’s  nuns in terms of the philosopher Levinas’ theory of “the trace”, the something that exists between being and non being, between past and present, not tangible, not representable, something that lingers on after it has passed. The nun seems a bit  like the absent girl in The Absent Girl    who “searches for a memory lost with muscle and blood/ She misses her ligaments and the marrow of her bones”. But Auge is thinking especially of the poem The Brazen Serpent which manages to identify Moses’ Brazen Serpent with the True Cross.

Not to get into arguments about that poem, I sense the real issue for all the poetry of Eileain is this. To the extent the nuns represent things divine, it is as the Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, the feminine side of God. And Sophia can include knowledge and witty inventions in her character (Pro 19:21).

But at this point we touch on the little considered subject of the divine Yin/Yang (Catholicism associates the Sophia with the Virgin rather than God, thus avoiding if not compounding the definition problem). However;  to the extent “male” Logos initiates where “female” Sophia reacts, the Wisdom side of the faith does risk losing and becoming relic and trace, no matter how temporarily inspirational, given lack of sufficient, appropriate engagement with a Logos itself needing reform. Their modern situation is such that the nuns remind more than they reveal. Logos must be made to realize what the positive contribution of Sophia is, or Sophia will go to waste and Ultimacy itself be insufficiently seen or felt for the merely human input.

Eileain often sees the female body in terms of physical structures like the wrecked ship in The Magdalene Sermon, and the nun may even be the church; but the fact remains that though Sophia is a builder (Pro 9:1), Logos is the cornerstone and holding frame (Eph 2: 20,21). Eileain’s poetry is interesting for its unusual vision and implications; it doesn’t necessarily point to the future as it might and perhaps because it can’t quite do so where Logos is misunderstood or wrong…… The next poet’s contribution belongs with the problem of revealing and declaring truth from a more outsider position.


Priests are not a “trace” for Paul Durcan (b.1944). He has not had major problems with them (he respects many and has not joined the “paedophile priest” chorus), but he has long set his face against the hierarchy which, following his traumatic upbringing, he has made it easier to criticize. It is remarkable that Durcan has retained his sanity and humour in view of his story. His father was a circuit judge who got his son out of university and into an asylum where he was threatened with electric shock and a lobotomy because he was judged “too sissy”.

The prolific Durcan, best known for the collection Daddy, Daddy (1990), is not gay, he has been married with children, but original perception of him was that he was as good as an insolent, outsider gay. Auge rightly perceives the problem as somewhat linked to traditional binds affecting Irish masculinity.

The Irish male under centuries long colonialism was regarded as a weak, “feminine”, underclass figure. If he ever resisted (like the Fenians condemned to hell by church hierarchs) he was a barbarian lacking in proper manly self-control. There were no models for the male beyond sportsman, chaste solider (like arch nationalist Padraig Pearse who plainly was gay orientated) or the ubiquitous celibate priest. Even close male friendships could be suspect of homosexuality. And I would add that Ireland beyond Dublin used to be a place where it was not safe to be gay. Robert Drake, American author of the literary study The Gay Canon (1998) was crippled and part brain damaged for life when two homophobic thugs attacked him in Sligo in 1999. Violence of all sorts used to be easily excused. Durcan records his father thought it was no more than Protestants deserved when in the worst, most purely gratuitous case of IRA violence, ten innocent Protestant workers at a road block got slaughtered in January 1976.

Durcan would always be strong enough – and perhaps socially well connected enough – to fight back, buoyed by the conviction that the hierarchs uttering extreme things pompously (like declaring to allow any divorce in Ireland would be like releasing Chernobyl upon the nation), were ridiculous hypocrites. Even the titles of his verses would declare it like, Cardinal Dies of Heart Attack in Dublin Brothel. However this did not belong to a simple anti-clericalism. More spiritually it develops towards an examination, or rather re-examination, of images of Jesus whom he decides has to have been somehow androgynous, something he believes everyone should be somewhat. In effect, as stressed in my previous article, this matter is, (or at least should be) an unavoidable one for theologians and artists alike.

The undeniable fact is that Jesus is biblically described as both Logos (male) and Sophia (female) and then as married to a church with both male and female members. Short of ignoring this in the usual manner, how one treats of this matter stands to affect everything from art to social attitudes. Durcan was entering unfamiliar territory indeed, because it’s the Virgin rather than Jesus that is liable to be imagined and dialogued with in typical Irish Catholicism.

In his mature years Durcan would become an admirer of Ireland’s first female President (1990-97) Mary Robinson, a Catholic married to a Protestant who was prepared to embrace difference in people, including sexual. Durcan has also come round to the view and, in a measure of agreement with the implied position of Joyce in especially Ulysses, that fatherhood is a problem for Ireland and the Irish male may need to father himself. The troublesome father is a curse upon Ireland. It is common to portray parental problems (as in Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger) through the figure of the matriarch, but if this figure is a problem she might not always be where the trouble starts.

While Durcan brings to light perspectives and conversations long overdue in Ireland, because like Kavanagh he is not always theologically sophisticated enough to manage his own questions, he has also, however unwittingly released into the Irish atmosphere something bordering on spiritual pollution. Durcan’s style and themes would function like an invitation to the work of a leading poet Auge does not review, namely Brendan Kennelly. This poet’s 400 page succes de scandale, his stink bomb offering The Book of Judas (1991), may be said to have undermined clarity and respect in the whole area of religion – much of the collection is just abuse that only Kennelly’s academic status allowed him to get away with. The situation deserves poetic treatment – I give it some in “Judas stopped at Dublin


According to an Irish Independent article for her sixtieth birthday, Paula Meehan believes “two lines of poetry can save a life”. You could call that faith! Poetry has certainly been good for Meehan (b.1955) helping to bring her from the Dublin tenements of her youth to Ireland Professor of Poetry to Trinity and University Colleges Dublin in the wake of much general travel and experience.. Except that she supplies poetry a new autonomy as virtual scripture in its own right, Meehan recapitulates many of the issues for the other poets here, the repression, the problems of Virgin cult, management of the flow of life and eros, the desire to read and feel landscape, tracing it even in the urban scene etc.

Meehan can be all ways radical but sometimes and in some respects is closer to tradition and even the Yeatsian legacy too. This is apparent in the strong and haunting poem that made her reputation since 1991, “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” It was inspired by the tragic death in 1984 of Ann Lovett, attempting to give hidden birth outdoors at night before a shrine of the Virgin. The poem’s irony is that the Virgin herself is trapped. Denying her role in which people “fit me to a myth of a man crucified”, she admits that for Anne, “I did not move/ I did not lift a finger to help her/ I did not intercede with heaven….” This because she is really a symbol or goddess of something else, “who cries out to be incarnate/ incarnate, maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed”.

The mid eighties was a time of Marian obsession in Ireland following strange reports of “the moving statues” in a Kerry church. Children first saw these and then churches across especially the West of Ireland were reporting the same. Noticeably, like the late Victorian Knock apparitions, the visions were at once very Irish for dream/vision yet untrue to national character in being silent. They supplied no messages unless implied.

Unknown to the Christianity of St Patrick, the history of Ireland’s Marian devotion begins just prior to the Norman invasion and was at its strongest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ severe English repression of Ireland and following the mid nineteenth century Great Famine. In short, the Virgin functioned as symbol of resistance and identity against the invader and death (and for the sort of reasons mentioned earlier, a male symbol could be more complex for men under repression, the Virgin could simply be sympathetic). In the mid 80s when some Irish laws and traditional values were beginning to be questioned, arguably the silent Mary can be seen as defending a threatened conservative national self-image.

Meehan’s development would be towards letting the goddess/archetype of Granard appear and speak as she finally does in “One Evening in May”. The poet hopes she will never regret being “bound to her rule for life”, the goddess having eventually declared, “Do my bidding”. Yet the authority and appearance of this figure could be disconcerting (her body is starry but she has “a great snakeshead”).  Meehan as in “The Man who was marked by Winter” can concede this goddess force may be pitiless and blind towards human nature. (I feel Meehan’s goddess has kinship with Robert Graves’ dangerous White Goddess). However, as Meehan seeks both vision and control, she must and does make adjustments to her object of dreams.

Her response develops in ways both feminist and Buddhist (though she always denies being a Buddhist despite poems like Dharmakaya). Like the shape-shifting shaman and his spirits Meehan will instead move between worlds, between rational and irrational, ancient and modern, urban and rural. The concern not to let herself and others be swallowed up by the visionary  forces of soul has brought her to work among addicts and prisoners (Meehan would see goddess energies in the heroin plague of Dublin in the eighties). A generalized Buddhism reflecting a strong influence from Beat Poet, Gary Synder, allows Meehan a distance, Zen or other possibly even Tibetan to the extent that  in Tibetan Buddhism one can create and dissolve worlds and gods. Meehan will also keep the earth goddess power under control by sharing record of this deity with especially those women who tell and share their stories.

The aim becomes a “democratic” spirituality. Instead of being in the hands of any elite group or patriarchal figures like priests and beholden to “doctrine”, vision will pass instead to women who share and modify what’s revealed, who accept the spontaneous and free ways of vision as perhaps exemplified in the ultimately inexplicable “My Father Perceived as a Vision of Saint Francis”.There is no reason why Meehan’s father should suddenly appear as that saint amid the musings of this poem.

But the prototype for  this strong emphasis upon vision’s power (and not necessarily accompanied by the Logos function of words), is the dream life of the poet’s grandmother. The latter used daily to recite her dreams to family and these dreams could function as prophecies – they were reportedly as impressive as any visions of St John on Patmos in Revelation! Although Meehan’s upbringing was loosely Catholic, the grandmother as evoked in verse gives a rather witchy even sinister impression as in “That Night There Was a Full Moon, Little Cloud”. Granny is hemming a shroud and knows the poet’s “black sin”, whatever that is, tells Paula her name should be “harlot” or “scarlet” and that she will have a song written in the blood of men who have displeased her.

Meehan is, as Auge concedes, complex; but I think it would not be too wrong to summarize her position as radically if unintentionally Jungian, a world in which symbol, archetype, the unconscious and perhaps very much the shadow, are paramount. I sense too that Meehan holds a rather special place within the new brew of Irish spirituality. Despite her visionary welcome of the wild and unprecedented, her persona is mild and almost dainty, quite similar to the continuously angels-aware Lorna Byrne who is now a cult figure translated into thirty languages and for many a new religion in itself and for some a natural development from their troubled Catholicism. More on Lorna in Part Two.


Certain themes have emerged from these six poets that seem fairly negative and disturbing. We learn that:

1) Irish Catholicism has been not simply repressive but traumatically so to the point that for  health and sanity’s sake one might need to become one’s own priest and spiritual adviser –  a (sort of) Protestant position.

2) It also forgets, ignores or represses the original Celtic Christian nature mysticism so that what remains of this is no longer vital.

3) It has promoted an attitude of guilt and self-sacrifice undermining of practical action in the world, while through Virgin cult, it has helped confuse realistic relations of men with women.

4) It is however ironically nuns more than wives and mothers who make up for some of the damage and represent the better and visionary side of the faith and possibly its future.

5) Even so, individualism of most kinds, especially for men, has risked being the object of virtual persecution until quite recently (when toleration of homosexuality has been portrayed by conservatives as bordering madness or irremediable decadence).

6) Religious doctrine has been so rigid and rationalized some would prefer a life lived according to vivid symbolism and what  one  could call “myths to live by” (title of a bestseller by Irish American Joseph Campbell) letting go not least of the ubiquitous Virgin cult in favour of “Our Lady of the Facts of Life”.

It can be argued the poets cited are not quite fair or representative. Maybe. However, if one adds to the mix facts like how for centuries the hierarchy would be almost the diplomatic ally of the oppressor, a hinderer of much national identity and resistance instead seeking rather its own authority, keen to render Ireland as under De Valera’s government the world’s most Catholic society, a colony no longer of England but of Rome itself, the pressing question is: why did the Irish  engage with a version of Christianity so unhelpful?

Three obvious, but not completely sufficient answers are that:

  1. There was obviously a lack of choice, variety and debate. Protestantism appeared, politically at least, an even worse solution, though we do know that where the ambitiously called “Church of Ireland” made concessions to the native language and/or did not require allegiance to England it did make some headway .

  2.  Once  Ireland had lost its main leadership through the Flight of the Earls in 1607,  priests became a multi-functional substitute elite. This might have mattered less if priestly loyalty was not so firmly attached to Rome as alternative power base which only bolstered many British and Protestant fears at the same time as it failed to serve national identity at a time of increasing national identity throughout Europe..

  3.  The Irish were in  thrall to a religion of fear. While the hellfire sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, is by any standards extreme, something of the kind would still have influenced many. As Auge points out, even before the confessional and the regular confession of Clarke’s youth became a major feature of Irish life (the sacrament was previously more communal and even just annual), many were fearful of the possibility of dying without priestly absolution. It is not possible short of outright denial and heresy to erase hell from the Christian creedal picture, but it should be possible to speak of it in more acceptable terms as considered in later re-visioning here.

I think there was another reason, possibly the most important, for the general stasis, but I shall consider that in the next part where it is indissociable from definitions of Christianity and Irish Christianity and any revisioning of them.


I shall introduce  with a personal reminiscence  the unexpected answer I think is most nearly correct relative to the final question of Part One about the strange Irish attachment to a Catholicism often experienced as more wounding than healing.

On the occasions of the passing of both of my parents there were elements of the kind might be included in a study like La Legende de la Mort, (a record of death-associated experiences among the Brittany Celts, a people more voyant and spiritual than the French). Years ago, my father had been amazed to see my mother’s spirit depart from the bed in her hospital room and twenty four hours or so before he himself died he had suddenly informed me he would depart because Jesus had visited and told him he would soon be taken.

If something of this order was once more common, it isn’t now. In 2019 a leading Australian journalist of Irish background, Greg Sheridan, published a book God is Good For You. In my review of it,  I mentioned how little people he interviewed, even people of faith, strongly believed in survival in any meaningful form. This was similar to my own experience of people’s attitudes and responses following my father’s passing. The point is significant and raises questions, not least in relation to Irish spirituality and its history.

Anticipating what I have to say presently and which seems provable beyond just an impression, my idea is that much Irish attachment to Catholicism until quite recent times with its distractions, has been involved with a sense of quasi-salvation from structure and pattern rather than belief as such.

Moreover, the bizarre paradox I see as attaching to Irish Catholicism from medieval to modern times, is that it would manage either to justify, or at least sufficiently excuse, a kind of distinct unbelief and this unbelief’s related attachment to pagan customs such as the original Patrick Christianity would not and never justify.

In 433 at the hill of Slane Patrick won a contest against the druids in terms of their revered authority and magic, but across time he would lose against them more intellectually, as gradually the druids, or the druidic spirit among Irish leaders, made a comeback. Of this presently and also  concerning another quiet modern transformation of belief in the way that mild speaking, wildly popular Lorna Byrne is quietly drawing a lot of disaffected Irish (and Christians worldwide –she is translated into over thirty languages) into a substitute, default faith in angels. They are supposedly everywhere one looks if one can only look closely enough!


Various people and churches have at times sought to define by creed and/or practice what it signifies to be Christian. There are nonetheless two early and minimalist ones from St Paul to keep in mind.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

“If there is no resurrection of the dead , then Christ has not been raised and if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God….” (1 Cor 15:13-14)

But resurrection here means something quite specific. It is not continued existence as a spirit in some heaven or purgatory, nor reincarnation in another body, but rather the eventual acquiring at the Rapture or Last Day, of a new, more divine, versatile kind of spiritual (“pneumatic”) as opposed to earthly body. In effect, this fulfils the belief statement of Job 19:26 “And though… worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…”

The ancients believed Celtic religion was a form of Pythagoreanism and that the Celts were fearless in the face of death because of their belief in some form of immortality. Even so, by the above Pauline standard, and despite a few early Celtic saints concerned about the site of their death and hoped-for resurrection from it, lively expectation of a new immortal body and existence, is absent to a degree that, at least at this level, the Irish barely qualify as Christian. It is probably true to say that traditional, average belief held vague expectations of a place in purgatory. Be that as it may, some kind of insistent imagining seems to go elsewhere than in the direction of heaven and resurrection.

A lot of significant Irish literature is about graveyards and the post-mortem condition. What is deemed the greatest Irish language novel, Mairtain O’ Cadhain’s Cre na Cilla, Churchyard Clay, is set there. It is a rambling, plotless, rather Rabelaisian record of the arguing, cursing, reminiscing dead. There are affinities with Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake which is about the wake prior to the burial. But whether it’s Brendan Behan’s Richard’s Cork Leg, set in a graveyard, or Yeats’ repeating purgatory in Purgatory, or many plays of Beckett set in indeterminate somewheres, all we receive is a sense of a meaningless, aimless continuation, not even a pagan voyage to some Tir na Og, Land of Youth. It would be hard to say what belief, unbelief or agnosticism is really entailed behind all this. When the Mary Poppins author, P.L Travers, asked her Irish guru the visionary poet AE, (the Irish Blake and reputedly a theosophist), what he believed about the afterlife he admitted he’d never thought about it.

One of the most significant novelists of modern Ireland has been John McGahern and his work is felt to successfully reflect the borderlines of traditional and modern and the effects of change. In That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) the characters attend mass as a regular ritual but without any special belief in its meaning. In Amongst Women (1990) the sceptical, unbelieving head of the family, Moran, decrees daily reciting the rosary simply because it will help keep the family together. (“the family that prays together, stays together”). Out in the fields through love of the country his children discover the meaning of the Benedictine ‘to work is to pray”. This is a family open to nature and its rhythms.

In many ways the life of Moran and his alienated family make sense of life through order and symbolism; it’s a way of managing what the Irish supposedly find hard to do – living in the present as opposed to the past or the future (even if it’s the graveyard!). Moran is a disappointed man who fought in those Irish Independence Wars forgotten and ignored in the new Ireland but in which he could perceive himself mythically as a sort of Cuchulainn. Also in a (rural or small town) society where emotional life is rich but intellectual life could be limited, people are minimally or accidentally understood. However, their  unexplained, hidden selves are respected and associated with through ritual.

Moran, who is not a believer, is puzzled that the priests seem to be afraid of death, don’t talk of it or anticipate beyond life beyond life. To the extent this is true of Ireland’s priests (I wouldn’t say it universally was), the reason is surely simple. There can be no easy, reassuring answer because, mired in secondary considerations, there is no simple Pauline statement of faith they would be ready and willing to affirm. The afterlife subject is instead hopelessly tied up with trying to decide, Dantesque style, what level of merit the person might represent for entry to whatever zone of purgatory or heaven, (not to say if inadvertently they might not be more qualified for a place below!). For most of its history Irish religion has been about merit to an excessive degree, so before proceeding a bit of history must be referred to.


Asked what “Irish Christianity” means, probably most people would answer the faith of St Patrick. Patrick was the British, probably Welsh, missionary to an Ireland evidently not the pagan matriarchal utopia of some colourful modern imaginings – many of the first converts were women and Patrick said the condition of female slaves in Ireland was terrible.

Ironically, as becomes apparent from an honest reading of St Patrick’s Confession, (an at times wandering, slightly confusing testament that doesn’t answer questions we would like to know such as about his relations to the Roman and Gaulish churches), that the faith of the national saint has little in common with that of most Irish over the centuries.

Protestant claims to own the saint are not quite the fanciful chauvinism that might appear. Patrick’s faith, strongly Pauline and Trinitarian, knows no cult of the saints or Mary or purgatory, is all about faith and is  not far off what some evangelical missionaries and/or charismatics might write today, not least since Patrick believes he hears from and is guided by messages from the Spirit. The closest to any Catholic note is the mention of some converts becoming what sounds like dedicated monks and nuns.

Patrick’s mission was chiefly directed, strategically by the looks of it, on the Northern half of Ireland, the main centre of druidism and secular power. (There appears to have been some Christian presence related to Eastern churches earlier and in South Ireland, but it was not system-challenging like Patrick). Famously Patrick won a battle with druid power that was a landmark for Irish religion at Easter of 433, but I suggest the victory was partial only. The druids would make a comeback and they have more or less ruled the religious landscape ever since, either  through  the spirit of their own teachings or Rome’s.

Kidnapped as a youth, Patrick’s education was incomplete and he regrets his lack of learning, mentioning that the Irish aristocrats held it against him. Ireland would soon play a major role in saving the inherited culture of the West. If the country’s elite were so many primitives in a bog they would not have been able to do this. It is just unfortunate that the outlook of the elite  remained stuck in the druid mould where specifically faith was concerned…if they could be said to have “faith”.

It has been plausibly speculated that Patrick’s mission could have been encouraged by those in Europe at odds with the at one time influential heretical teachings of the British/Welsh monk Pelagius. This widely travelled monk taught salvation by works, Jesus being only a good example to follow. Since Jesus can be rather hard to emulate, practically such a doctrine can become a burden to carry! And in any case it was unbiblical.

However it struck some chord in the Celtic regions. Arguably the religious fate of the Celts, with its strange repressions and stuckness was even anticipated by St Paul in his epistle to Galatians written to the Romanized Celts of Galatia in what is now modern Turkey. Galatians is the justification through faith epistle that was Luther’s inspiration for a Reformation Ireland never had. Paul insists believers are already justified by Christ and an almost automatic curse is upon anyone who promotes otherwise and legalizes the faith: “you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?….for all who rely on the works of the Law are accursed” (Gal 3:1,10). He also exclaims (and one thinks of Celtic treatment of fairy thorns, and offerings to the sprites etc) “How can you turn back to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? (Gal. 4:9).

Has Celtic management of spiritual essentials been as undermining through history as Paul anticipated it could be? Do we perhaps see the root error of Celtic Christianity starting with the revered but impetuous aristocrat Columcille (St Columba) who, unable to forgive himself for a tribal battle he had occasioned with massive loss of life, then perceived almost the rest of his life as necessarily a penance.

The druids and/or druidized Irish leaders, and especially their brehon lawyers, converted to the faith, but they not only sought to retain many native customs but their own power too (the bans and curses of the druids had always been much feared); but some also fell in love with laws of Israel and in no time invented super severe penitentials (whose punishments might stretch over half a lifetime and more). These rules accompanied Irish religious on their missionary travels across Europe, missions that included the novel custom of private confession that would become part of western Christianity. Early Irish love of the Hebrew legacy is symbolized by the odd way in which the annalists decided that the prophet Jeremiah made his final exile in Ireland where he married an Irish princess. (Someone managed to ignore this prophet had been forbidden to marry but hardly appears to have been the marrying kind in any case).

Irish contribution to the West at the crucial early medieval period was often more civilising than spiritually redeeming as such. Most essentially the gospel is a call to general repentance (metanoia/ mind change) with acceptance by faith of forgiveness through the messianic Christ (i.e, universal anointed high priest to manage sin and atonement) (Mk 1:15). The implications in terms of grace is what has often been deemed the distinguishing, most original feature of Christianity among world religions. (Christianity and the Jupiter Difference

The Bethlehem Star itself was Jupiter, universally star of grace, good fortune, religion and the teacher/guru, not Saturn symbol of law and custom. All the world religions in effect teach, like Buddhism with its wheel of the Law, systems of auto-salvation, effortful practices to increase merit and decrease ill effects (bad karma); but the absolute free and new beginning under God begun  by a will to place faith, is the Christian “good news” to the world.

If repentance was genuine something of its fruit in improved conduct should accompany it; but good deeds do not define, or earn, but only reflect and accompany salvation because “by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your doing …not the result of works …”lest any should boast” as St Paul has it (Eph.2:9). The early Irish conversion, which in effect is a will to sanctify oneself so as to become an angel if not another Christ, was very much a way of merit earned. For centuries  St Patrick’s Purgatory, the penance island in Donegal’s Lough Derg associated with the saint by late legend only, would be a, or the, sombre symbol of painful, effort-ridden Irish religion.

The Irish church never became fully Pelagian i.e. teaching nothing but works, but its elitist priests and saints both absorbed and, penitentially-minded, contributed to, the western church’s strengthening of the role of priest as the supreme Christian, mediator of Christ’s sacrifice. This sacrifice was seen as continuously repeated in the mass, a sacrifice added to rather than already achieved once for all time as per Heb 7:27, an epistle that implies what 1 Pet 2:9 states, namely that there is a priesthood of all believers, not of any exclusive priestly caste. This new, early medieval Celtic and Roman Christ is a half redeemer whose example and death are sufficient pretext and essential building block upon which the believer can build their fund of merit for themselves or even others in order to qualify for salvation.

Unsurprisingly, the situation was little inspiration for poetry of personal devotion. Needed would be someone from a more diverse historical  and cultural background like the Dante of medieval    Florence whose imaginative universe has fascinated so many Irish poets (even Heaney), whose spiritual  labour is to put everyone in their merited place at every level. Dante does so with the mind of a sentencing judge, not least in the purgatory, an extra-biblical idea said to have owed much during the medieval era to Ireland’s Lough Derg and tales around it. But metaphysical poetry like that of the English seventeenth century that engages conversations, arguments and relations with God is still scarcely possible because hardly even imagined. Instead the Irish poets fall back on the main alternative, some wonder at God’s creation.

Based on the tribal system and organized around monastic centres, the much vaunted early Celtic church whatever its virtues was not truly democratic. There is no concept as in the house churches of the Roman empire like the one addressed in Ephesians, that there could be a church with pastors, teachers, prophets etc (Eph. 4) all playing their role. There is simply someone with priestly function and (often part or wholly secluded) monks and nuns who if not at prayer and meditation are likely working at decorating scriptures themselves little discussed or taught.

Post Patrick, as far as contact with deity is concerned, there is a twofold localizing and distancing effect at work. Local holy sites and popularly acclaimed holy persons (saints) are a hoped for point of local contact. The distancing effect arrives with late medieval Marian cult where the Redeemer, biblically the supposed one and only advocate with the Father,( 1 Tim 2:5) is only approached through “the Mother of God” whom a half feared Jesus will never refuse. (Among medieval  bardic poets and reflecting the confusion entertained by Marian cult I think it was Philib O’Huiginn exclaims “Oh Jesus you left even your mother distraught”)

Somewhere between these two poles of near and far guardian angels sufficed for spiritual contact and special appeals. Ignoring that in the NT the saint word is applied to all believers, mention of saints’ prayers rising (Rev 5:8) would justify ever more elaborate doctrines of the special status of holy souls with God. (The Roman church ignoring Celtic and Greek style sainthood by local vote, evolved elaborate ways of deciding if a given saint was truly in heaven and able to receive and grant prayers or not). At this point I shall jump from the historical perspective to a modern one that’s currently almost unavoidable.


The new Catholic, semi-Catholic or post Catholic religion of Ireland is, or is fast becoming, Lorna Byrne’s faith in angels which she claims to have seen continuously around her from birth (a world first?!). Her belief in these spiritual helpers is promoted in books translated in over thirty languages (and, over the objections of some, sold in churches). She is now a familiar figure on TV and media generally. If a person’s Catholicism has already encouraged prayer to a guardian angel, the switch to Byrne’s ubiquitous angels is easy; but for all sorts of reasons those angels, if they’re not imaginary, aren’t Christian ones including for the following.

The biblical angel word means “messenger”, because they are bearers of messages on direct divine command. The notion angels can hang around “unemployed” if we don’t keep them suitably occupied is between hilarious and heretical. Angels, whom it’s forbidden to worship, are fellow workers with believers and prophets in the cosmic struggle the gospel addresses (Rev 22:9). As such they are portrayed as doers, who will at least occasionally intervene in the affairs of the world. Byrne’s angels can only advise or send feathers for signs but they do it all the time.

If and when angels intervene on God’s behalf, biblically it’s not a secret. From earliest childhood Byrne’s angels tell her to keep quiet about them. It seems they have chosen her without any special consent on her part. Unlike Gabriel to Mary, Byrne’s chief helper/teacher angel can’t be named (though she does claim to have dealings with the archangel Michael). Overall the picture is less one of vocation than something like psychic lineages in which because an ancestor engaged the occult some unwitting descendant receives the energies in whatever form they can understand.

Angels assist worship and knowledge of God.  This is why an angel will support the kind of proclamation an angel tells Paul and Barnabas to pursue despite opposition from religious authorities (Acts 5: 17-21). The reason there’s any gospel to proclaim is because neither angels nor Christianity teach like Byrne the basic unity and equality of all religions (Acts 4: 12) or the reincarnation (Heb 9:27) of souls.

Whether it’s imagination or real, I don’t consider Lorna Byrne a wilful deceiver, and I don’t question her kindly desire to help people, which she sometimes can and does. She absolutely appeals to the sentimental side of Ireland. She is also the perfect pupil to her unearthly mentors. Her deprived background and dyslexia have protected her from any doubts that could arise from intense study in religion or bible. In the same way, her situation has helped prevent trenchant criticism of whatever she claims. And now as regards especially universal religion, Byrne (who even envisages Christians worshipping at Mecca), can nowadays seem to chime with recent statements from Pope Francis that understandably trouble some Catholics who regard him as an anti-pope. Certainly, to declare as Francis has done that any proselytizing is wrong, flies in the face of Christ’s parting command to proclaim the gospel worldwide and Paul’s statements “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9 :16).

Lorna Byrne (b.1954) is all of a mystery, but an astrologer might note that along with the likes of Heaney and others who make big waves in modern Ireland, it helps that she was born under the Aries so emphasized in the birth pattern of the Republic. At the same time, one could note that her Saturn directly aspects asteroid Lucifer, name of that deceptive being who can manifest as an angel of light. Byrne is certainly no devil, but she does appear to be a source of insufficiently challenged teachings misleading from no matter what Christian standpoint.


….Now finally for the re-imagining I’ve been leading to. In the wake of what’s already been considered, the following is obviously “Utopian”. It aims to stimulate thought, spark a few ideas, perhaps encourage a few new practices in the way just imagining things sometimes can.

The situation of  twenty first century Ireland both departs from tradition and, as  in the Byrne angel cult, radically develops it in broadly New Age ways.  There has of course always been change even amid the apparent conservatism of centuries.  The religion of Patrick, embroidered with a cult of local saints and holy sites, was eventually absorbed into the religion of Rome (which it in turn influenced). It disposed of much that was native from the anam cara (soul friend) to what looks to have been something like same sex unions, (which if so suggests some influence from medieval Eastern Churches which countenanced such). The Irish are perennially  good at sainthood and can achieve it almost anyhow, anywhere….like Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran (1955-1982) now deemed a Zen Buddhist saint worshipped in Japan as an incarnation of the goddess Kannon. If she had lived (and not died like her father before her in a road accident) she would like to have taught Ireland Buddhism along with the unity of all religions from a temple in Dublin (where there is however a Centre). I expect to devote an article to the O’Halloran phenomenon…… But short of such exotic, ultimately apostate developments, I shall consider how Ireland might  now be otherwise Christian.

Since the twelfth century Roman takeover assisted by English ambitions and Ulster’s reforming archbishop St Malachy, the only real alternative until modern times was a Protestantism that was political and didn’t appeal. Very belatedly we may ask what it could have done as an alternative and even how it could present itself as any distinct, viable option today.

Where it used the native language and didn’t impose loyalty to England as the price of conversion, Protestantism enjoyed some success. It would probably have enjoyed rather more if it had ritualized itself. For many Irish the flow of existence needs some organization and meaning via ritual, so….

1) The early Irish monks chanted the Psalms round the clock, some of them reportedly even did so standing in the sea. The Psalms as against the total biblical legacy is a bit limiting. Just as modern Ireland reads Joyce’s Ulysses round the clock for Bloomsday, I see no reason why the Bible couldn’t be read round the clock in selected churches.

2). Many Irish also need and value retreat. The spirit of the meditating hermits, the Culdees, remains. As the late mystically inclined Sean Dunne (1956-95) had it in The Hermitage:

A house for quiet built in the woods
One good place for a man alone…

Church of Ireland Sunday worship was never enough. Buddhism is wiser here than Catholicism here or Protestantism, despite the latter’s urge towards self-affirmation it is dead to reasonable spiritual individualism –   both Catholic and Protestant systems fail to see it should be possible to allow temporary vows lasting as long as the person feels is helpful and appropriate.

3) Both Catholicism and Protestantism in Ireland could use more and different forms of art and music. Irish Catholicism has too many “naturalistic” plaster saints around its churches and Protestantism too little of anything. As regards art, I don’t need either Yeats or Soshin O’Halloran to incline me to the conviction there are certain aesthetic strains of affinity between Ireland and Japan that could be developed in the direction of ornament, of li type impulse, of feeling for nature and zen type plainness (of which St Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo is a good example). There are even other Asian traditions of affinity (like the extreme detail of Tibetan art where everything has symbolic significance); and as regards music something akin to the more vibratory, meditational raga music of India could be employed on occasions in lieu of standard hymns. The insistent drone of the Celtic bagpipe is already half way there.

4) Because they lack saints, non-Catholic Christianity in Ireland (and elsewhere) lacks many festivals and the rituals prominent in traditional Catholicism. But rituals of some kind are almost a psychological necessity for the Irish. Whereas historically early Ireland made the mistake of turning Christianity back into the system of law St Paul warned against as contrary to the new era of grace, modern Irish Christianity could nonetheless well assimilate the not forbidden Jewish festivals. It could perhaps adopt the menorah (representing the seven spirits of God and the seven planets according to Josephus) as a symbol. The Jewish festivals are defined as moedim, times of special meeting with God, and some Christians who have experimented with the festivals do find them occasions of easier prayer, increased vision and renewal. Even just lighting a Sabbath candle and sharing a Sabbath meal could be meaningful. On the rare occasions I have attended a Shabbat meal I have been struck by the powerful and peaceful atmosphere it can evoke.

Regardless, it is beyond high time Ireland and its Christians sorted themselves out about Israel. It is disgraceful that Ireland could be nowadays described as perhaps the most anti-Israel in Europe.  It’s  a biblical injunction from the first not to be anti-Semitic ( Gen 12:3) but the Irish situation owes something to wildly distorted understanding of the Palestinian cause as somehow related to Irish issues plus, to add to the confusion, some alienating behaviour by those Irish who do support Israel like Eileen Byrne of the Justice and Equality department. This person is all for reminding people about the holocaust and Jewish identity at the same time as she has been involved with replacement migration hurtfully imposed upon those regions trying to preserve Gaelic language and culture. I can’t say more here than that massive (re)education and healing in this area is required, especially as in America it used be the Irish and Jews were often closely and politically involved. Both represent people groups who have suffered and endured a lot. Joyce through the Bloom theme of Ulysses, was aware of various Jewish/Irish affinities.

5) Modern Christian ritual in Ireland could use a new Rosary, one based on a more Trinitarian outlook and biblical/prophetic references. Even if you feel it can be justified by tradition and theology, there is too much evidence from Ireland that Marian cult is not experienced as psychologically helpful by many believers, especially not young ones. But objections can be raised against the rosary in itself including that (by tradition) its introduction is attributed to St Dominic, founder saint of the Inquisition. Why inherit from and affirm him? When I was growing up the mood was ecumenical and I was not encouraged to think of Catholicism as “wrong” or terribly different from Protestantism. It took residence in Mexico to persuade me something might indeed be wrong and the system considerably different. The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, clearly Mexico’s true deity, alerted me to just what levels of paganism Catholicism can cover and excuse via its Marian cult.

There are differing versions of the Rosary, but listening to it with its sometimes single Pater Noster to ten Hail Marys in a section, one could receive the impression that for all practical purposes, Mary is the redeemer or guarantor of salvation. (Jesus is supposed not to be able to refuse his mother anything!).

The rosary is based on the main events or mysteries of Jesus’ life leaving out all the teachings in between the events, and it concludes with the non-biblical assumption of Mary into heaven to be crowned its queen. Mary as queen and virtual co-redemptrix is patent in the medieval poem Stabat Mater which finishes entreating Mary to deliver from hell. Just by itself the Stabat Mater, memorably arranged by leading western composers, amounts to a collection of statements contrary to some of the most central, explicit biblical teachings. See my article following the Notre Dame conflagration and the last choral music sung there.

6) Beyond the problems of Marian cult, Irish Christianity, too often hurt by radical gloom and doom preaching, needs to re-visit its basic proclamation. While serious issues like hell and the last things can’t honestly be censored from core doctrine, there are more or less reasonable ways of presenting them. Hell especially has always needed an understanding closer to that promoted in Eastern Christianities where the same (spiritual) fires that burn the damned, illuminate the saved because the matter is considerably one of will and perception. Why God would irremediably damn anyone and especially as per Anselm’s medieval atonement doctrine, because sin had “offended” the divine honour makes little sense. There has to be more behind this and there are surely more logical, saner answers, a matter I touch on in review of Greg Sheridan’s God is Good for You

6). If one revises the message, it matters who will teach and proclaim what’s agreed. Ireland has been a mostly biblically illiterate society and its religious organizations, even Protestant, have reflected hardly anything like rabbinical instruction and organization. Any believer is supposed to know the bible and if need be argue over it like the commended Berean Jews in Greece who didn’t automatically accept what Paul told them but got down to study, waiting to be convinced (Acts 17:11). The first churches reckoned to distribute roles, pastors, teachers, prophets etc; there was no idea of a single presiding priest.

There is a distinct gay/queer strain within Irish culture – the ancients noticed a strong, openly expressed same sex disposition among the Celts. Whatever one makes of that, one of the subjects religious Ireland still needs to argue out is the question of sexuality,  something which always colours spirituality. It is a subject which has too often and still is cornered by inflexible fundamentalists unwilling to see that in some respects the same sex theme even constitutes a hidden biblical stream as indicated for example by this poem and its notes.

Irish Christianity needs to reach greater theological sophistication in this and other areas if it is to be relevant and develop. If it is not to finish ignored as is happening, especially Catholicism will have to get beyond the evident attachment of some new nationalists to the oppressive De Valera ideal of nationhood. In this gays were without any rights and protection, divorce was unthinkable and women, even in extreme situations, would never have abortions. Irish mismanagement of issues  like these had been so misguided Christians should not even be surprised at the national turnaround and not treat the  legal changes as the prime symbol of a purely secularist rejection of Christianity.

A recent  youtube about How the Most Catholic Nation left the Church seems oblivious to the idea the churches could actually have contributed anything at all to what has happened.  The turnaround has to a considerable extent been a vote against a backlog of outrageous clerical failures and a  belated correction to a virtual medievalism in aspects of the laws that had caused more than enough suffering.  Even if one’s personal theological position allows only for strictest tradition, a nation must still allow a few concessions to dissenters or it is a theocracy, not a democracy, and one that is not honestly giving to God and to Caesar their dues. The theocratic tones of the new nationalism have effectively doomed that movement’s chances at a crucial moment in Irish affairs.

But can and will there now be any creative development? Some might say the times being what they are, the more pertinent question is whether prophecies like St Patrick’s concerning Ireland’s end beneath the waves, or St Malachy’s forecast that would render the current Pope the last, will prove true. Even without any Wagnerian finales, borrowing from Douglas Murray on Europe one could well speak of “The Strange Death of Ireland”, because arguably there soon won’t be an Eire to salvage and preserve.

My above suggestions towards change embrace certain images, but also basic truths, about Ireland as tribe, clan, nation, race or whatever. There has been and even into fairly modern times, such a thing as a “land of saints and scholars” (even if as regards the sainthood it is as surprising as Maura O’Halloran’s and in scholarship as perverse but uniquely encyclopaedic as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake).

Ireland, which effectively holds the last sizeable traces within Europe of the Celtic peoples and their culture, is too old and too young, too long alone within Europe as a colony and needing to be re-established from that, to manage the kind of social experiments, adjustments and massive immigration the nation’s irresponsible leadership has placed upon it in cooperation with a considerably myopic Europe itself in decline. The latter should now and again have been answered as by Hungary and Poland with a few firm refusals. Ireland of the welcomes cannot to its existential peril be the world’s doormat. The welcomes doormat ideal, evidently believed by the nation’s eccentric current president, is a mark of spiritual decline in itself because the only reason even Christianity is inclusive is because it can be exclusive also. Like any major institution and movement Ireland must always balance the two principles. A secular Irish leadership that ignores this prepares for a blowing out of the candle, the arrival of Patrick’s flood or the long Beckettian silence.

I began with affirming the importance of poets and poetry for religion and I briefly reviewed a book which included the problems and difficulties of six poets in the face of Irish Catholicism. This made for clarity in the face of a problem, but those considered sow few seeds towards spiritual renewal; Except perhaps sometimes Clarke, they don’t really speak in the high tones that poet and critic Kathleen Raine would maintain traditionally accompanies and triggers any vision – a lot of modern Irish poetry under the influence of American poetry can finish a rather prosy, meditative monologue on subjects great and small and often the latter. Soul is neither grasped nor sought.

It belongs with the current situation that a haunting, fairly traditionally presented poem about lost or absent faith, Denis O’Driscoll’s Missing God, gets quoted only in the Epilogue to Auge’s study. Its afterthought status is hardly surprising. I’ll not be vulgar and talk about the fate of my own religion relevant poetry, visionary, metaphysical etc – sufficient by way of complaint is included in the last section of my Staging Sweeney Frenzy article ( ) and its last section “To Lay my Burden Down”.

However, I do think in conclusion it might be necessary to stress that a true optic on the time and its possibilities is almost certainly not available to us. There are doubtless gaps resulting  from a degree of censorship, something which  must be seen as an ongoing, perennial Irish problem. Formerly it operated under Catholic influence, now through the secular prejudice of cliques. A handle on the Irish soul, fate and character that poetry should address, may need to be found in unexpected places.  But then,  historically, and not just in Ireland, this is where a lot of significant religious poetry has issued from and with it some recovery of soul.






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Posted by on February 28, 2020 in culture, Poetry, religion


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YEATS2015         YEATSCard


Ireland has designated 2015 the year of Yeats – it’s the 150th anniversary of his birth. Celebration is appropriate, not least because this is a poet who sounds surprisingly modern and relevant – lines from such as The Second Coming are often cited today as people observe IS and worldwide turmoil. And unlike the also Nobel prize winning Seamus Heaney, Yeats was always willing to be engaged in politics and with almost any subject.

Yeats’ legacy is however at once something notable and negligible. It can seem like the latter in terms of real influence upon modern Irish poetry which I will argue, despite its contemporary profusion and the cult of Heaney, has –  by and large –  lost steam and been in decline since Yeats’ death in 1939. It has been so despite Ireland’s earlier and celebrated history of bards and schools of poetry. The situation is radical because now even the very notion of poetry is in eclipse in Ireland. This is evident when one reads for example that Michael Davitt (1950-2005) was “…one of modern Ireland’s finest poets in either of the nation’s languages, (according to critic Philip O’Leary in The Irish Literary Supplement, 22.3.04)). As translated by another of Ireland’s “leading” poets, Paul Muldoon, the kind of adolescent, “avant-garde” level at which Davitt worked as in To Pound from God, was in the order of:

“ I suppose you’ll want me to wipe your bum
Or open a tin of Pedigree Chum….

At least, and unlike Trinity College’s now retired Professor of Modern Literature Brendan Kennelly, Davitt didn’t write a collection of verse called Poetry My Arse and opine that the subject of poetry as he understands it is “basically a celebration of human inadequacy and failure” ( cited An Anthology of Irish Poetry, ed.Wes Davies, p.307).

Those seeking by contrast a confident secular sublime, can always try verse from poetry festival organizer, poetry prize winner and university lecturer in creative literature and poetry, Conor O’Callaghan. The first verse of his two verse poem Comma  runs

blip that
a flyover
sped beneath
scores into
a down-

(and the second verse begins with the word ‘pour’).

Nowadays you are almost more likely to find the spirit of Irish verse and vision in some prose works like Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys or in the work of Colm Toibin, a writer who always wanted and intended to be a poet rather than the novelist he has become. So…what happened? And what might Yeats teach us if poetry is to be significantly revived today in West Europe’s former home of many muses, or at least aisling sky women?



I will  presently give more examples (they could, alas, be greatly multiplied) to suggest just how seriously something is amiss in the emerald fields of Hibernian poesia, but I can state from the outset what is wrong as regards the general direction of the verse since Yeats.

It is of course possible – just – to  be anti-Yeats and produce some good poetry as the work of such as Northern Ireland’s Seamus Deane ( b.1940) indicates, but the first de-potentiating mistake of Irish poets was, however politely and surreptitiously, to dismiss or swerve from Yeats as any exemplar. It was felt he was too nationalist in inspiration and there could be no value or future in that because, with Ireland independently established, literature should become international (pursue Modernism in effect). Those who still wanted to admit some national and/or mythic elements like Austin Clarke, employed features like half rhymes admitted in Gaelic but which don’t really work in English and left a prosy rather than poetic/bardic impression. Ironically, Yeats, despite his ignorance of Gaelige could present a more Irish tone to verse by astute use of English. His “Anglo-Irish” English also carried a note of authority, The more “Gaelic-English” would encourage less bardism than  a sort of improvising, provisional half self or selves. This though it might be entertaining as in the case of Paul Durcan,(b.1944) risked being a new form of stage Irishry leading  nowhere special, certainly not to the engagement the new Ireland would  always need and Yeats as senator tried to provide.

The international/modernist trend began mildly with a diplomat of the newly independent Ireland, Denis Devlin (1908-1959), but soon it would gather pace and even become a torrent. Rejection of the Yeatsian poetic could hardly go further than in the irony of Celtic Twilight from Brendan Kennelly (b.1936). Instead of any sense of myth or “magic”, the poem evokes a Dublin of prowling decrepit whores and a Grand Canal in whose “rank waters bloated corpses float”. Even studies of Yeats – and even last September’s curiously early London launch of Yeats 2015 somewhat – tend to place the undeclared laureate somewhere apart, in a disappeared society and time past because of his obvious contribution to foundational events of 1916. The psychological and cultural reality however is that by understanding a national history and ethos a poet may better understand and reach into the world at large.

I would hardly be the first person to stress that point – it’s almost a commonplace. Walt Whitman voiced and helped shape American democracy but also espoused universal ideas beyond it while Goethe was the very cosmopolitan founder of a liberal Germanic tradition. But I know for certain the national/international principle is true as regards Yeats from having lived in Asia. I found him to be appreciated there and I might be asked to read from him. Some of Yeats’ verses like Lapis Lazuli are mentally or geographically located in Asia, while it’s well known some of the poet’s best verse dramas draw upon traditions of Japanese Noh. At least one accomplished poet, Desmond O’Grady (1935-2014). author of The Wandering Celt, is an exception to prove the national/international rule within Ireland. He does manage to combine Celtic with wider themes and like Yeats at one point he was strongly influenced by Pound – perhaps too much so when he got side-tracked into mammoth labours of poetic translation. But though appreciated, O’ Grady enjoys neither the status nor the influence of a Heaney or Muldoon, both poets of the North; and the troubled North has attracted a lot of attention in Irish poetry.

Although Yeats’ affinity for Asia owes something to his attachment to the theosophy and theories of magic many could never accept, more generally he was simply following the wisdom of the archetypes with which most serious poetry will always be involved. Genuine introspection will bring one there. Intense affinity with just place may not. Influenced by Joyce, a notable poet, Patrick Kavanagh, believed that one could be universal by devotion to a place, a notion that owed not a little to Joyce’s Dublincentric imagination. He risked becoming, as I think he often was, merely parochial because place will not quite generate the same imaginative verve as society or nation which can be a matter almost of soul. Linked to the archetypes one could say that Yeats was about – in the broadest sense – “soul”, something which, like contemporary Western poetry generally, modern Irish verse singularly isn’t despite the reputation of the Celts for spirituality.

But poetry itself is first and foremost spiritual. If you don’t believe that, then you must at least accept spirituality is what many people either assume poetry is about or appear to want from it – the biggest selling poet in the world today is, like it or not, the medieval Sufi mystic, Rumi. Poetry is Orphic and originated in the ecstatic, prophetic function and the serious poet, i.e. one who offers something beyond the entertainment or instruction which have their place, can never quite escape that root function….and/or the love theme which will often accompany it as we see everywhere from the Bible’s Hosea to Dante in the Vita Nuova.  Even major atheist poets like Lucretius and Shelley have dealt in the universe, large vistas and the sublime.

At its highest and best, poetry heals, inspires and creates – including whole peoples. Critic Harold Bloom may exaggerate but is essentially correct to propose Shakespeare has helped form modern humanity; Bloom maintains the bard did not only reflect humanity, he also made it and we have become his characters. In somewhat similar fashion, the rhapsodies of Isaiah inspired and remade a lost Hebrew society and largely through introducing new images of God and the self that allowed a new synthesis for a new age to emerge. Dante half created the modern Italian language itself amid his visions. The poets of the Romantic era expressed and half made the age they inhabited.

Sometimes, just sometimes, poets can and do change the world (though of course the noncommittal Seamus Heaney predictably denied it). Granted most poets cannot and need not aspire to such a degree of achievement. No nation is anyway likely to produce more than four or five really outstanding poets in a century, and society needs not just seers and culture heroes but minstrels, balladeers, teachers and entertainers. Poets nonetheless need to avoid through resentment, dullness or, sloth merely subverting the almost alchemical Great Work to which at varying levels their tribe contributes across time. What seems to have happened post Yeats is that any national/collective issues and feelings have been transferred onto the issue of what one can broadly call “voice”, writing and thinking with a Gaelic tone and style. At this level at least, especially in such as Pearse Hutchinson and Desmond O’Grady and whether one is writing in Irish (like Sean O’Riordain) or not, something vital emerges, but not as  strongly as where the Yeatsian emphasis on symbolic/archetypal prevails.



What could and should have been the ongoing influence of Yeats on modern Irish poetry has, I believe, been blocked and limited within his homeland by the strong competing legacy of Joyce and his admirer cum devotee, Beckett. Both these Modernist writers have cast long shadows. Though both composed a few poems they were essentially authors of prose and both were unspiritual or very negatively spiritual. (Beckett’s prize winning and obscure Whoroscope, written in a hurry to pay Paris rent and rewarded by the heiress Nancy Cunard, if and when it can be understood is arguably one of the most nihilistic, sordid and profane poems in the canon of verse. It surely belongs to “the throne of the faecal inlet” it refers to). The prose of the Joyce/Beckett duo has nevertheless been more weighty in influence upon modern Irish poetry than any poetic antecedents. Some want to claim it for life itself. I admire the wide-ranging erudition on most things Irish of Declan Kiberd, but I can’t accept as per his Ulysses and Us that Ulysses is really any notable guide to the management and celebration of life.

Although Yeats was something of a heretic in relation to most beliefs and traditions, his origins were Protestant. This has been held against him, or at least left him less favoured as a model for novice writers and poets than the by comparison more street-wise, democratic (sometimes), Catholic-raised Joyce who managed to voice those feelings of frustration and discontent many Irish Catholics have felt at least now and again. By contrast, and although Joyce himself could demonstrate an almost non serviam Luciferian pride, Yeats’ Protestant voice would be regarded as imperious and elitist, in short merely Anglo-Irish of the past, something Yeats scarcely even sounded like in real life. (To hear recordings of his voice which is neither very Irish nor English and not particularly emphatic, can come as a surprise and challenges the image some have of him). Patrick Kavanagh reflecting an all too familiar social resentment in a poem called Yeats  exclaims, “Yes Yeats, it was damn easy for you protected/ By the middle classes and the Big  Houses”. This is green-eyed nonsense like the whole poem in effect, highly proficient and well crafted though it is  –  Yeats faced enormous struggles in all directions and rightly called himself poor until well into middle age and winning the Nobel prize.

So the class objection was again a mistake fostering further error because even though with age Yeats undeniably evolved some dubiously elitist, even loosely “fascist” notions (partly in disgust at the sheer ruin the ultra-Catholic Ireland of De Valera was doing to hard won new freedoms), the fact is that poetry of the serious, bardic kind will often sound or seem elitist. Such poetry declaims, declares, reveals from the higher mind or worlds and as such is not about the everyday nor issues describable in its terms. Even England’s witty, socialist Auden decided in his latter years that what poetry needed next was to get back to the high style. Getting back there could nonetheless prove harder in our egalitarian times than leaving it behind. Ireland especially would seem to have to prepare for a very steep climb. It might even need to engage a bit of “censorship”, a self-censorship of a new and not merely puritanical kind to arrive there and at least try to be serious.

It may be mildly entertaining, but does a poem like James Simmons’ Epigrams constitute something – anything – worthy of a place in Wes Davies’ critically acclaimed and all-encompassing Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry? Epigrams 2 and 4 run:

Declining appetite
Made him polite

Now my faculties give in
I see the need for discipline.

Modern Irish poetry could use some discipline. Too many contemporary offerings such as one can read at  PoetHead on the Net which has showcased new Irish women poets, seem just self-indulgent and trite.

Award winning Denise Blake, an advisor to the RTE national broadcaster on poetry (like the mentioned Michael Davitt – no wonder poetry is in some trouble!) begins her poem, Adjusting,

The saucepan is full of left over potatoes
And I keep cooking too much rice and pasta
Three placemats still sit on our dining table

In musing on an absent son in Beyond the Front Door she writes of

“Cold pizza slices in a cardboard box, an empty coke can
lying on the table”

Subject matter for Irish still life art perhaps? Doubtless Mrs Blake is a caring family person and her sentiments genuine enough, but one finds nothing here and elsewhere that couldn’t be said as well or better in prose. But possibly she was remembering precedents like Beckett’s in Whoroscope with its ridiculous and profane reference to Hovis bread.

Dr Emily Cullen, noted harpist, short story writer and much else if one can quite locate her anywhere, seems willing to inhabit the same kind of kitchen zone if more impishly than  Mrs Blake.. In Galway Mould  we learn

For fun I bought you mouldy cheese,
Last night it took revenge on me
Inducing a vivid dream
Of a while chandelier of mould
That slowly lowered
Through our kitchen space.

Although without question Mairtin O’ Direain of Aran (1910-1988) can be hailed, as he has been by some, as a gifted poet of real distinction, apart from him let no one imagine any back-to-Gaelic direction such as Sean O’Riordain  (1916-1977) and Michael Hartnett (1941-1999) took would improve much inside or out of any Irish kitchens and better preserve the true Ireland. O’Riordain was a good and proficient if somewhat overrated poet whose illness and dramatic depressions seem like an unintended metaphor for the sad fate of things Gaelic he must be commended for helping preserve before present times when (for non poetic, non literary reasons) Gailige has become almost trendy in some circles. Hartnett is sometimes good but also sometimes gratuitously weird as in Death of an Irishwoman where she is described as “a card game where a nose was broken…a child’s purse, full of useless things”. If this is the latest incarnation of Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan, that lady is now in serious trouble and indeed a bit useless!

Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill born in the Kerry Gaeltacht in1952 has devoted herself to verse in Irish. Translated, one of her poems begins,  “I wake up and my hands are sticky/With the smell of blood” and it concludes…”I’m stuck forever with this stink of blood/That’s on my hands”. In the course of the poem she has reduced bars of Sunlight Soap to slivers trying to rid herself of the smell at the tap. Nowhere is it explained what this blood represents or why it sticks. Does it symbolize, war, Ulster Troubles, the poet or anyone from history or myth? In his Nobel prize address Heaney compared poetic inspiration to breeze over a scullery bucket. Why not the kitchen sinks and dustbins of Hibernia? Well, at least with the likes of Vona Groarke (b.1964) you may find yourself in the open air, kitchen observations exchanged a sort of gardener’s diary verse – “I let the gooseberries / Rot for not knowing when to pick them”.

But let it be said, Ireland’s contemporary female bards are more delicate than the menfolk, including the revered Heaney who (as only one example of the gratuitously sordid) writes – in Mycenae Outlook – having just referred to a vision of webbed blood and bodies raining down on the speaker “like tattered meat” –

“I would feel my tongue
Like the dropped gang plank of a cattle truck
Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck
All swimmy-trembly…

Not to consider what an über baroque evocation of a state of tension this is, it is really just more from the stock of sensationalist Joycean prose with its “snot green, scrotum tightening sea”, the world as a human theatre where people are holding on to or letting out their urine and never quite forgetting urine like Bloom who enjoys “grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine”.



If it belongs anywhere, modernist realism of the Joycean kind belongs principally with prose whose main sphere is the factual report and which is not something designed to the same degree as poetry to convey or reach the transcendent. But post-Yeats Irish poetry has constantly, pedantically and monotonously appropriated the themes and style of Joycean realism and cynicism for verse. We need to ask why.

As said, Joyce spoke for those of the Catholic background that Yeats and his advisor in things Gaelic, Lady Gregory, did not share. Jesuit educated Joyce did not however pronounce on religion in any way prophetically – he was closer to a satirist, even just lampoonist of Irish and Catholic traditions. He had no alternative vision that might help reform, modify or substitute for Catholicism; he did not even reject it like an atheist. Like the true Luciferian he sometimes was, and possibly even aspired to be, Joyce simply subverts and renders toxic, contributing by his example to the also unhelpful example of the (Protestant raised) Beckett’s extreme paralysis of thought and action, his Murphy/Molloy/Belacquaism sitting in a corner cursing and despairing of existence – when not farting, evacuating, or masturbating. Inclusion of the latter theme to the field of poetry, (and rather insultingly to the Irish farmer as in Kavanagh’s half good poem, The Great Hunger,) can be traced back to Joyce, Ulysses and its anti-hero Bloom.

In accepting Joyce as high literature and a suitable object of academic study (he quite intended us to make it our life work!) we risk, and Ireland has risked, accepting him more metaphysically by osmosis. And the sad fact is that despite his obvious and undisputed brilliance, Joyce is at root unhealthy, certainly almost the last thing any new nation, not to say nascent poetic circles, should look to for prime inspiration, and if he wrote about the common man, apart from some early work, he certainly didn’t write what the common man could ever hope to understand.. Even just humanly Joyce does not come up to the mark, straining the kind of tolerance society normally reckons to extend to artists. Ignoring his questionable treatment of both parents at their death, this was a person so ungratefully arrogant he could turn even his main benefactor Harriet Weaver from the door. This was a person so merely contrary that having been keen to make Nora Barnacle his mistress, he prevented publication of his first biography because Nora was not portrayed in it as his wife. If Joyce wasn’t Lucifer he was periodically Judas and to follow him leads inexorably to precisely the Judas theme – it receives its fullest treatment in Brendan Kennelly’s bombastic, overflowing  succes de scandale,  Book of Judas (1991) which supplies the Messiah the traitors he is assumed to need to be himself and identifies Ireland itself with a species of Judas complex. (Jung considered both Joyce and Beckett Antichrist writers)

Such perspectives apart, practically, Joyce’s values were never truly liberal of an exemplary kind for us to follow; they were merely rebellious designed to shock like the basically unnecessary, irrelevant incest theme of Finnegan’s Wake. Even the repulsive reference in Ulysses to “the snot green, scrotum tightening sea” is merely a sideward glance to Dublin’s Forty Foot nude beach often frequented by gays. Anyone from his friends to the Trinity (as in the famous “my Mother’s a Jew, my father’s a bird” etc doggerel ditty) were the pretext of largely aimless, self-congratulatory Joycean humour and cynicism.

The Joyce and Beckett effect has been to divert energies from, rather than to encourage attention to the needed reform and development of modern Irish life including not least its spiritual life to which poetry might have been expected to contribute. One doesn’t need to plough through the earnest examination of the Catholic theme in modern verse that Andrew Auge pursues in  A Chastened Communion (2013), to realize that the poets, like the people at large, have  few religious ideas to offer (though it does have something – such poets as Padraig O’Tuoma and Micheal O’ Siadhail , both poets are respected including among theologians outside Ireland, a reason perhaps that  Wes Davis’s huge Anthology of Modern Irish poetry almost insultingly in the of academic secularism gives them no space or acknowledgement).  Mainstream Irish religion has been and remains too weak in theology and philosophy in the first place. This nonetheless means that once the roof has been blown off traditional pieties and reverence there is little substance left but instead just hollow, trivializing profanity like Patrick Fiacc’s whose poem Our Father begins, “Our Father who art a Belfast night /Pub bouncer”. Or again the purely bizarre like Brendan Kennelly’s God’s Laughter. This pictures God unable to stop laughing or “freezing in fear” when he hears words. As fear is a negative emotion plainly it could not be a meaningful attribute of any true deity. But at least Kennelly’s half dotty admirer, U2 frontsman Bono, (who has used the poem for U2’s pop theology), hasn’t controversially praised it as he did Kennelly’s The Book of Judas as poetry flying “as high as the Holy Spirit flies” for sheer inspiration!).

Scriptures and especially the reformist/prophetic Hebrew tradition scarcely register for Ireland despite some natural Celtic affinity for such, a reason perhaps that the Irish and Jews have been so associated, at least politically, in America. Irish Catholicism is, alas, more a matter of devotions, rituals and folk religion, not to say superstition, though in earlier centuries and before Catholicism invaded via England like Protestantism later, the Celts produced the likes of Pelagius and Erigena in theology and philosophy. The convolutions of Joycean thought which could serve an almost “rabbinical” examination of life and literature, are expended by Joyce and his imitators on what is often little more than lavatory wall scribble. The attack upon Irish religion given Joycean example has become a matter of aesthetics rather than thought, and there the matter has become largely stuck. Reform and development are highjacked by aimless, passive complaint which the poetry echoes. Joyce’s interest in Ireland may at one level have been futuristic in revolt against nationalist nostalgias of his time, but paradoxically his labours (eighteen years alone on the still almost unreadable, Finnegans’s Wake whose best effects are contained in the first and last sentences!) catch the culture in a circling, repetitive torpor from which it seems unable to emerge.

If it wasn’t clearer earlier, it is fully apparent in the wake of the Murphy and Ryan reports and ongoing church scandals, that the Catholic church has failed Ireland abysmally.The country has survived less because of Catholicism as long popularly maintained, than despite it. For long the hierarchy opposed most Irish moves and calls to independence, (notoriously one prelate declared that hell wasn’t hot enough nor eternity wasn’t long enough to punish Fenians). Meanwhile, hidden in  orphanages, monasteries and nunneries was behaviour fit for the Inquisition. Some of it (and despite the vein of quasi-Wildean preciousness in a lot of Irish culture) seems as though arisen from some, satanic, nightmare level of Celtic consciousness which the modern poetry almost celebrates in its vision of existence as virtual vomitorium and lavatory, a dream world in which one falls in a shower of waste as in a ridiculous short poem Free Falls by Thomas Kinsella. (You can read it with a commentary many times its length in Britain’s Guardian newspaper’s Poem of the Week for 9.12.13 where you will be assured Kinsella b.1928, “significantly helped shape the course of poetry in Ireland, and beyond”. By conducting it to Sam Beckett’s lavatory?)

Only Catholicism whose semper idem principle has almost automatically opposed change, fails to recognize the at once psychological and spiritual principle, that there is a duty to seek change for the sake of soul, and even for spiritual health and progress to question religion as mere tradition and “to let the dead bury their dead”. Biblically God is portrayed as departing from the Jerusalem temple (Ezek 10:18) when a certain level of evil is exceeded, this in itself a declaration that no institution however venerable is automatically, eternally sacrosanct in the eyes of God. The Judaeo-Christian tradition always declares “come out of her my people” (Rev 18:4 ) the reason being “so that you do not partake in her sins….so that you do not share in her plagues”. Christianity is, or should be, less about tradition than the in-break and formation of the new. In our own times and faced with certain features of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has proposed, (what Christians seem fearful of doing even while Christians are persecuted by Muslims and denied the legal right to use the Allah word in some places), namely that Muslims should reject their faith and become either atheists or Christians or (more recently she concedes) at least definitively reject the traditions of Sharia Law.

In The Invention of Ireland  (1995) Declan Kiberd proposes the Protestant perspective could have been more used and useful to Ireland. I agree. Maybe reform is yet possible for Irish Catholicism, but as the author of Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency who believes religion must work for people, I feel I could go further than Kiberd and maintain it’s probably high time Ireland abandoned the Catholicism it seems no longer able to trust, love and believe – not abandon for pure secularism which would be defeatist and perhaps even impossible given certain features of the Celtic mind, but some alternative. Obviously one would not recommend surrender to anything like Paisleyite Protestantism and Ireland wouldn’t go there anyway. But anything from Orthodoxy to Charismatics might serve….anything in order to start again and actually to exert a spiritual will, to integrate the levels of Celtic vision. This, where it is strong in persons, is currently sinking back into the vaguest neo-paganism, new ageism or  perhaps Buddhism, going everywhere and nowhere like the repeated ambiguities of Bono lyrics or an agnostic Heaney advising in Doubletake,

….“Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells”.

If even Latin America has been casting off Catholicism usually for Protestant alternatives, why not Ireland if it would help cauterize the wounds and go somewhere definite?

I think there can be no question but that influences on Irish leaders of opinion stemming from Joyce and Beckett and their often slavish successors colour the social outlook and have favoured poetic themes in a way to justify a certain victimology, a culture of complaint and aimless protest much of it just a Beckettian sinking Winnie passivity. And we readers of such authors are even encouraged by the guides and critics of their productions to take a “poor Joyce” and still more a “poor Beckett” line in estimation of their lives and work. Contrary to Yeats’ meaningful dictum “in dreams begin responsibilities”, it as though these artists’ deliberate life choices meant little or nothing. Especially depression in the style of Beckett somehow excuses speaking darkness and a sitting-Murphy despair to the rest of the world at every opportunity –the sort of thing some of us like myself, who has suffered clinical depression, have made actual effort to avoid.

We need moreover to wake up and realize that like the bad tree which can only produce bad fruit, in pursuit of their aims these persons have, however unwittingly, contributed to establish new and unacceptable restrictions. Obviously much censorship in Joyce’ youth was absurd and we have all heard of how the accomplished prose of Dubliners got refused for publication because of inclusion of the word bloody. Yet a century later admirers and inheritors of the Joycean legacy are not themselves without their prejudices and the society which readily tolerates what today would have the likes of Beckett executed if he were a Muslim for repeated profanities, behind the scenes can prove  controversially censoring in the area of religion and much else. Even to include such words as “conduct” and “bestow” can be sufficient to refuse you publication.

I had no special intention to make this article personal, and I don’t really have any need now that the scandals and injustices experienced in relation to persons of the literary establishments and publishing is available for anyone to read as an aspect of my memoir Reflections of an Only Child. ( However if I do include a personal note at this point, it’s because while preparing this article I received from The Irish Review, and not unexpectedly – I only applied to satisfy pressures on me to do so – an incoherent refusal from a writer (ironically and almost hilariously of all people  the author of Deconstructing Ireland) as regards a request for some exposure of my poetry.


I was informed in one and half lines they couldn’t publish “it”, whatever poem could have been meant by “it”, since I’d suggested seeing a collection of verse (New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas) from which something might have been selected. As self-recommendation I had pointed out a poetic drama of mine on a Celtic theme had been performed in Australia. I also suggested my Coming To Syracuse mini epic could  be looked at on my blog [it’s now a 6 part Canadian made You Tube video at ] as proof of some basic competence in poetry (It would be too long for their publication so I didn’t offer it for such). As no one from specifically Ireland visited the poem between my sending the email and receiving the refusal two days later, plainly those of The Irish Review didn’t bother to check.

Had he/they done so, it would have been clear, apart from shortage of space or a special theme of the month such as could have been told me, there would be at least no moral right to refuse me. Any occasionally expressed claim of mine to be writing and as a Protestant of Irish nationality closest to Yeats in theme and style is not any boast but a statement of fact. I am more inclined to the mythic, metaphysical and visionary theme, and I deserve the attention denied me and not for the first time, but continuously in Ireland for anything poetic or otherwise. And I could well demand it in the face of the sometimes insulting and selfish way those of the diaspora are too easily dismissed as having no inheritance, no stake in anything Irish at all. (I can’t imagine Jews or Italians suffering the same kind of treatment). I suspect what the refused “it” was and which damned me, was that I also mentioned, (and I admit I was testing the waters!), that he could also look on the Net at my (quite popular) Remembering Seamus Heaney. No one today is allowed to blaspheme the Heaney god. He is Irish poetry, even if some of us like Camille Paglia (who refused to anthologize him) would consider him third class Yeats.



Well might Yeats’ valedictory Under Ben Bulben almost prophetically declare:

Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top…

Well made” here is key. Poetry (above the simple entertainment level) is first and foremost the art of excellence. It’s because it is about excellence that Yeats like his virtual mentor, Shelley, often felt that what he had produced was not quite good enough. ”True” poetry is what is as distinctively finished as a piece of sculpture or memorable as the strains of a major  symphony. And despite the self-doubt, it was this absolute quality that at his best Yeats was able to achieve and it’s why he continues to be internationally celebrated. Obviously he wouldn’t have appreciated those many Irish poets who have followed him who are too often writing what is almost an anti-poetry that has not issued from heart and intellect working in harmony. And there is something else here.

It is an admitted embarrassment that the elderly Yeats should have leaned towards fascist views of genetics and eugenics and that his Under Ben Bulben too baldly refers to the new Irish poets in terms of:

Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base born products of base beds

but there is arguably a kernel of truth here to be considered.


Ben Bulben

It was and still is yet another mistake of post-Yeats poetry that it too lightly assumed there is scarcely anything Irish to represent whether through the “remembering” of Yeats’ Great Memory (read Collective Unconscious) or raw temperament. By the latter I mean those things like a sense of rhythm, pattern, even a way of observing people and objects that seems as distinctive as La Tène Celtic art yet spontaneous and minimally acquired through cultural means.

There are two ways in which persons belong or deeply feel they belong to a country. One may do so, as the perhaps more Anglo-Irish than Irish Yeats seemed to, namely by some hard-to-understand and as good as occult principle of earth consciousness of the kind Jung accepted. It is a belief that the land itself can leave some imprint beyond any effects of culture or the length of time spent there. (Like actress Joanna Lumley, unquestionably many Anglos born in India have felt there is some “touch” of Asia left on them that time and cultural education away from it will not erase or explain). Plainly there was something in Yeats that would always want to arise and go to Innisfree or stand beneath Ben Bulben even when dying in France. Just recently I read on the Net the poem of an Irish American plainly in the grip of the same kind draw to the Irish earth itself. Some accomplished late poems of the mostly self-exiled C.Day Lewis could be deriving their strength from the principle.

The other important way one belongs to a people is – likely enough – genetically. It is almost taboo in a multicultural society to speak of race as any determinant of anything, but there may even be a hidden injustice to that position, one which obscures certain realities. How do we explain (as the last week that I have been writing this, one hears of the Lebanese son of an Australian mother and the Libyan son of a French Canadian mother, both feeling themselves different and maladjusted and turning against family, homeland and every sensible advantage to become IS fanatics.

Multiculturalism is a value system relying much on the empirical/pragmatic outlook Yeats held suspect, and it is apparent the kind of society it encourages too often produces divided, discontented even tormented individuals left to feel an impulse to realize – precisely what? It may be, and probably is, the ineradicable drumbeats of something profoundly genetic that feels unaccepted, inalienably different and struggles to reach expression beyond whatever a post-enlightenment culture of reason lays out. I have myself protested in Reflections of an Only Child what seems like the blithe indifference to questions of race and inheritance among Irish leaders of opinion. If some nations have had too much race theory, Ireland has arguably had too little, even almost none though of no people group might something like racial inheritance be more obvious – the character of the Celts is easily recognizable in the descriptions of the ancients over two millennia ago. It is too easily imagined in Ireland (and originally because pragmatic, empirical England had assumed something of the kind) that as long as a person can make a living and be fed, it doesn’t much matter where on the face of the globe they reside. Accordingly, immigration is almost regarded as necessary and convenient even while it may in fact prove quite disorientating and take a real psychological toll on individuals.

Reacquainting myself after many years with Irish poetry and its issues, I found a reading of Stan Smith’s Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity (2005) and Wes Davies’ compendious An Anthology of Irish Verse (2013) dispiriting. There were fine examples of poetry from numbers of poets, but overall I would judge the collection, especially as it covers the scene over the last two generations, trashy. Too often it presents a punkish anti-poetry in which the only Irish thing about it is the will to act and pose, in this case to act out not being Irish, to uncharacteristically understate oneself, to be cool because it’s hip, sophisticated and neo-international to be so. (As I shall inevitably be accused of exaggeration, I was pleased to read a Paris Review interview (The Art of Fiction. no 82) in which even Edna O’Brien, whose concern is with prose fiction not poetry, charging modern Ireland with just imitating Anglo-American mores).



If I hardly recognize any distinctive, perennial Celtic character in the poetry of especially the last thirty years (beyond perhaps, however negatively, a quality of  violent/surrealistic “vision” in elements of Brendan Kennelly), it is because something counter-intuitional is going on. There is a refusal of the “remembering” which Yeats rightly considered essential to poetry, Irish or any other. It will be protested that Heaney, a poseur if ever there was one, does remember – he remembers a dark ancient bog past and a rough farmland present or recent past. But his roughness is either inauthentic or unnecessary or both. If he genuinely aimed to represent a rural coarseness he should not have weighed his verse down like an over burdened Christmas tree with jargon and obscure technical vocabulary that avoids, or substitutes for, real emotion or committed statement (a really great and passionate poet could, like Racine, say everything with only two thousand words). Also if Heaney is indifferent (as in The Early Purges) to the killing and drowning of kittens and pups, then he was just a rough cur who we can and should just dismiss as such. I can only say, as indicated in my memoir, my own forebears in Ireland didn’t take that kind of attitude towards animals despite being raised on a farm and I know plenty of Irish didn’t and don’t either. Indeed I looked up an article on the Net where some protested similar things, in one case someone insisted their people had been farmers not far from the Heaneys and didn’t approve such views. Heaney’s sentiments cannot just be excused on the basis they are only “representative” of Irish life and farmers.

In response to Early Purges words like

….Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, “Bloody pups”, it makes sense.

one disgusted correspondent was even moved to extemporize:

Seamus is dead thank God
I hated the words of this man
Cruel and unthinking and more than a little odd
Now he’s gone, give his work an outright ban

My chief overall impression of modern Irish poetry is of so much quasi-journalism presuming to call itself verse. (And again, having arrived at that conclusion, I was again fascinated to note that from her different sphere Edna O’Brien opines in the mentioned interview that the trouble today is so many writers are just journalists). Ireland’s poets sound too often depressed, glum, sullen, resentful, mocking and shocking, even occasionally cruel like Michael Hartnett – his Pigkilling belongs with Heaney for indifference to animals – almost totally devoid of a smile and certainly lacking any good story to tell. Indeed it’s can be so remote from any light touch that isn’t outright clown-silly with Paul Muldoon (”with a stink and a stink and a stinky-stick”) that it’s hard to imagine Oscar Wilde ever came out of Ireland. It’s typical of what’s wrong that a quite well known, almost popular poem by Sean O’Riorain called Saoirse (Freedom) includes such sentiments as:

I’ll bear affection for people
without anything original
in their stockthoughts.

One can of course do that; it belongs today to various relativist and egalitarian tendencies – Yeats’ “levelling wind” – but if you surrender to the humdrum in this way you won’t be going on any Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to anywhere (certainly not to Yeats’ Byzantium)  and have much to say or be at all. Ultimately most modern Irish poetry, like too much poetry elsewhere, is just a bore, an activity for in-groups, precisely the scene Yeats would encourage us to turn from and even scorn. And necessarily so if one doesn’t want to lose all sense of social, let alone literary direction.

According to one of his reviewers, the essential idea behind Colin Graham’s The Deconstruction of Ireland (2001)  is that what’s called ‘Ireland’ just “stages its own deconstruction and that at every turn the idea unravels and reforms itself, always in anticipation of the next act of definition and criticism which…will be inadequately applied to it”. It follows that both affirmation and deconstruction for Ireland are but a “momentary stop on a seemingly runaway train” and Ireland, itself a concept in flux, “is a future which is always posited and never attained”.

Undeniably Ireland and our world is changing, but change is not everything; and notions of an ungraspable, indefinable “Ireland” bespeak how things are – or will just feel and seem – to the secular consciousness for which there is no “remembering” in the Yeatsian sense, little or no scope for poetry in the broadest sense as contributing to culture, and perhaps most importantly as indicated, no personal or collective willingness to take real control of the spiritual life from which so much else flows.

We inhabit an almost post-poetic age in which the magic, the mystery, the spirit of the poetic art has been lost, but which the policy direction behind the granting of  bursaries, prizes, professorships of poetry, publications are almost busy helping us lose, putting what was once a fairly public medium – even when difficult, Isaiah, Dante and Shakespeare were essentially for everyone – into the hands of cliques. Yeats, even in his greatness may not be the perfect poet – who is? – and most could never reckon to follow him into ritual magic. But if poets and modern Ireland cannot regain some grip upon his magic and the magic of existence, we shall continue in the shallows rather than the heights of literature if we don’t bring it to near  outright extinction. Hopefully Yeats 2015 will provide new inspiration and beginnings.

IRISH AUSTRALIAN  (Irish Australian Heritage Flag)




Posted by on November 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


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