Kilmainham Gaol Dublin 1991 by Theo Dorgan
His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more.
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the poetry blog. Today, I want to tackle the subject of commemoration of historical figures and events. Ireland is currently moving through a period of centenary commemorations- our evolution to political Independence (technically) began with the 1916 Rising, followed by the War of Independence (1919-1921), and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. As is common to most conflicts, there is no single narrative that can comfortably and calmly embrace the memories, sensitivities, and legacies of what happened, and this can make commemoration complicated and divisive.
Most recently and dramatically, we have seen a type of reversal of commemoration – statues torn down, flags and emblems removed, buildings un-named. This suggests a fluidity of history that, while controversial, implies that the honour or reputation of significant persons of the past depends on their presence in the minds of those here now. The fragment above is by a nine-year old James Joyce, and it refers to Charles Stuart Parnell, a celebrated Irish politician, whose memorial sculpture was begun in 1890. Joyce’s take on Parnell’s immunity to the ‘rude din’ of public opinion seems gravely misjudged – the pedestals on which we hoist our heroes or heroines are neither timeless nor immovable.
Civic duty is in the eye of the beholder.
This brings me to the poem ‘Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin 1991’ by Theo Dorgan. Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced ‘Jail’) opened in 1796 and closed in 1924. It is now synonymous with the struggle for Irish Independence. Almost anyone who was engaged in militant or constitutional nationalism spent some time in Kilmainham, (including Joyce’s buddy, Parnell). Its deleterious impact was brought to its apogee in May 1916, when, following the Easter 1916 Rising, 14 men were executed by firing squad in the Gaol courtyard, including all seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence.
1991 was the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, but it was also a fraught period in Anglo-Irish relations. The Irish government, fearful of political sensitivities, abdicated any responsibility for an official commemoration. It fell to independent committees and organisations to arrange events, and one such event, ‘The Flaming Door’, (yes, from a Yeats poem, of course), was curated by a group of artists, poets and musicians, including Theo Dorgan. They hired out Kilmainham Gaol and held a concert in the very venue in which so many Irish men and women were incarcerated, and in which the founding fathers of the Irish state were executed.
Dorgan’s poem begins with the construction of the set – the preparation for illusion, for spectacle. His description of roadies, beers and sound-checks creates a festival feel to the event- this is the circus, this is performance, smoke and mirrors, sound and vision. Excitement is added to by the gathering crowd, ‘the hum of expectation’, although the reference to the narrow gate below the gallows hook suggests that the people filing in and ‘becoming an audience’ are passing into an underworld, one that can accommodate the living and the dead. There is a palpable sense of pre-performance adrenaline, anticipation, anxiety – and a suggestion of eroticism as ‘before the lights go down, we examine each other, shyly’.
I love this introduction, because it captures the spirit of theatricality, and the tension between failure and success that always exists in any performance. ‘Break a leg’, say actors, a traditional shibboleth that recognises superstition as an ingredient of performance; rehearsal, ambition, talent, and skill will dissolve in the darkness, and luck becomes the defining factor. Dorgan also recognizes that the gathering of individuals will merge into oneness in the darkness, ‘an audience’ that will share the experience and offer a collective response. Any collective of people is a daunting prospect for the performer; you win the room, or you lose the room. It is all up for grabs.
I want to pause here, just to draw the comparison between Dorgan’s construction of the audience, and the volatility of the commemoration process. Joyce, above, calls Parnell’s contemporaries a ‘rude din’. I also thought of Yeats’ address to the audience who rioted at the performance of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre – ‘you have disgraced yourselves again.’ Both Yeats and Joyce see the audience as a congregation, with one collective response, one in which the individual may disappear. Can an audience be trusted? Can audience approval or opprobrium be meaningful, or is it simply subject to the vagaries of taste, timing, and tone? The reluctance of the Irish Government to arrange a formal commemoration for the 75th anniversary of 1916 was because they feared that events might be hijacked for propaganda purposes by various organisations, and so they chose not to arrange anything. They, like Yeats, had no faith in a collective Irish audience, and that says something about the government at the time – Haughey led, of course, so no shocks there.
Dorgan has created a suspenseful opening, and now the performance begins. The stage is decorated with two flags, the Irish tricolour, and the Starry Plough. The presence of two flags reminds us that the Rising meant different things to different participants, and this is a salient point when we consider the whole concept of commemoration. This is not the place to debate the entire premise of the 1916 Rising, but I feel safe in telling you that there were several differing agendas on the minds of the participants – some prioritised workers’ rights, some were involved for women’s’ rights, some fought for idealistic principles- but there was a collective belief among the insurgents that Ireland should be self-governing. We will return to this point later.
The singer is on the stage, the heat rises up from the audience, and the show begins. The first song is a lament for James Connolly, written by Patrick Galvin. Connolly was one of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army, one of the signatories of the proclamation, and one of the men executed in the Gaol.
As the song is performed, Dorgan, almost casually, declares
‘We are joined by the dead’.
Dorgan has brought us through a narrow gate, and under the gallows. He remains calm but insists that the spectres of the dead men of the prison have appeared, ‘shirtsleeved, disbelieving’.
Once more, I have to stop here, and think about what the poet has just done. He has brought in ghosts. Theatrical magic – and I cannot help but think of the most famous ghost of them all, in Act 1, scene 1 of Hamlet. A ghost who is restless and perturbed, who will not be at peace until his son rights the wrongs. Is something rotten in the Free State? It seems so.
The poet tells us that ‘the guards had long since vanished’ – British rule is long gone – but the ghosts are gaunt, pale, and still traumatised by the violence of the rising. (Dorgan’s pale warriors also brought to mind Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and Yeats’ September 1913 – the notion of being ‘in thrall’ or ‘maddened’, or ‘faoi geasa’ (under a spell); there’s a bookcaseful of Irish poems that use the female as a cypher for patriotic fervour, and ‘pale’ triggered this for me).
Dorgan reminds us that these men suffered. Their last living memories were filled with pain and fear. Dorgan imagines their confusion as witnesses to the hateful gaol now filled with lights, music, action. Flags last seen on bomb sites are now backdrops on a stage. WTF, you imagine them think.
And then comes that phrase, (every good poem has that phrase,) that does the heavy lifting –
Only the dignity of the singer’s art had power to release them.
Oh God. What a line. What a word! Dignity.
Let’s unpack this. I think that Dorgan is telling us that respect and honour is manifest in the artist’s treatment of the subject. Art is where truths are revealed, and reputation resides. Returning to my point about commemorative hijacking, I think Dorgan is landing a very interesting idea here. He appears to trust neither audiences, nor governments, to commemorate. He trusts Art. To quote Mandy Rice Davies, ‘well he would, wouldn’t he’ – but in fairness, in this instance, Dorgan is reporting as a witness, as one who ‘felt it’, one who ‘saw it’, one who would never be the same again.
The dead depart, and let me digress here for a second. The audience came into the gaol in twos and threes, and the dead men depart in twos and threes. And sitting on a wall in Inniskeen, (see my blog post on Inniskeen Road; A July Evening), poet Patrick Kavanagh describes the happy teenagers of Monaghan go by in twos and threes, as he, by virtue of being a poet, remains alone, but gifted with an artist’s sensibility. Another vindication of the role of artist, methinks. Anyhow, returning to Dorgan, as the dead depart, he sees their souls ‘fan upwards, like leaves from a dry book’. Is this a jab at historians, who, in the least imaginative way possible, have rendered these men as slim, two-dimensional footnotes to a process? Dorgan says it again; ‘That soft-footed gathering of the dead into their peace was like something out of a book’. But not a dry book this time. A novelist’s creation, perhaps? A poet’s?
There is a profound sincerity and honesty in the last line of the poem, completely antithetical to any hint of appropriation or chest-beating. Dorgan has successfully documented a moment of transcendence, delivered by a singer on a stage. His message seems to be that commemoration need not be discordant, if one can reach beyond politics, to humanity. The boatmen and boatwomen who can take us on this journey are the artists, and the transport is the dignity of art. If we trust this, we will pay the due respect to the dead.
Does this offer us any solution to the issue of statues, flags, and buildings? Well, it may be useful to borrow Dorgan’s repeated insistence on calmness and kindness, for starters. It may be useful to distinguish between the political and the artistic. It may be constructive to seek out where dignity lies. It might be wise, before the lights go down, to examine each other shyly.
Enjoy the poem!
( For a reading of this poem by Theo Dorgan, please visit here )
KILMAINHAM GAOL, DUBLIN, EASTER 1991 by Theo Dorgan
Roadies in ponytails stringing lights and cables,
a beer can popped in the corner, echo of sound check.
Outside in the filling yard, hum of expectation.
We pour through the narrow gate under the gallows hook
in twos and threes, becoming an audience.
Before the lights go down we examine each other shyly.
The singer surveys his audience, heat rising
to the tricolour and Plough overhead.
As the first words of Galvin’s lament climb to invoke
James Connolly’s ghost, we are joined by the dead.
I say this as calmly as I can. The gaunt dead
crowded the catwalks, shirtsleeved, disbelieving.
The guards had long since vanished, but these
looked down on us, their faces pale.
I saw men there who had never made their peace,
men who had failed these many years to accept their fate,
still stunned by gunfire, wounds, fear for their families;
paralysed until now by the long volleys of May so long ago.
I think that we all felt it, their doubt and their new fear,
the emblems so familiar, the setting, our upturned faces,
so unreal. Only the dignity of the singer’s art
had power to release them. I felt it, I say this calmly.
I saw them leave, in twos and threes, as the song ended.
I do not know that there is a heaven but I saw their souls
fan upward like leaves from a dry book, sped out into the night
by volleys of applause; sped out, I hope, into some light at last.
I do not know that I will ever be the same again.
That soft-footed gathering of the dead into their peace
was like something out of a book. In Kilmainham Gaol
I saw this. I felt this. I say this as calmly and as lovingly as I can.
for Frank Harte