Don’t be afraid. The words shine in a dark space at the end of the Seamus Heaney exhibition. The words he texted to his wife shortly before he died in August 2013
In fact his text message was in Latin: Noli timere. But the meaning inspired the Dublin street artist Maser to paint the words in English as a mural ‘For good people in hard times’ closer to Christmas that year.
I hold on to the words. The door leading out of the Seamus Heaney exhibition in the newly refurbished Bank of Ireland museum in Dublin is right beside the one leading in. The journey through the beautifully designed space in between reaches a turning point at the Good Friday Agreement. I am probably not the only visitor to read the newspaper cuttings on display through a smir of tears.
The words follow me home. They emerge again at the start of this peculiarly unnerving general election. The outcome could have so many troubling or downright dangerous consequences across the whole of Britain and Ireland. And who knows how much further it could spread.
There is good reason to be fearful. That’s a harsh unavoidable fact to face in the resignation of so many women from politics because of verbal abuse and physical threats. And yet. That’s good reason to defy the divisive populist manipulation of fear, anger and distrust.
With that in mind, here’s a selection of five poems for this general election in hard times. To shine a light on our better nature, to remember how many different people are responding to the urgent issues of 2019 with human kindness, concern, and courageous conscience.
1: From the Republic of Conscience
At their inauguration, public leadersSeamus Heaney
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
Where better to start than From the Republic of Conscience? The poem – written for Amnesty to mark International Human Rights Day 1985 – is finely balanced between the personal and public identities of a great poet. The ‘dual roles’ of a man “born between two cultures: Irish and English”.
Two buckets were easier carried than one
I grew up in betweenSeamus Heaney from The Haw Lantern
Significantly, in 1985, the poet returns from his visit to the ‘frugal republic’ as a ‘dual citizen’, his arms ‘the same length’ – connected and accepted between points of difference.
Writing on what would have been Seamus Heaney’s 8oth birthday this year, Rory Carroll notes that many of Heaney’s poems dealt with borders. Yet, HomePlace the visitor centre dedicated to the poet, offers respite from Brexit and the backstop, a kind of oasis. As the manager, Brian McCormick who happens to be a nephew of Heaney, puts it: “We’re seen as a neutral space. There’s a tranquillity within the building.”
2: Here lies our land
Small folk playing our part.Kathleen Jamie
‘Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.
That same sense of respite is echoed in the poem which greets visitors to Bannockburn.
Kathleen Jamie’s three-verse poem was written as a commission for the 700th anniversary of the battle. It is carved at the base of the Bruce statue on the battlefield – and included in this year’s Best of the Best Scottish Poems anthology edited by Jim Naughtie for the Scottish Poetry Library.
“I sought a tone which suggested shared experience and quietude” writes Kathleen Jamie explaining her influences and intentions. The tone, she insists, “didn’t want to be didactic and certainly didn’t want to be triumphalist… people who had been through the visitor centre before approaching the rotunda would have been subjected to a lot of medieval battle-clamour; their minds would surely be loud with nationhood and self-determination.”
The poem ends with a tribute to Hamish Henderson and a powerful last line: “Scots may have won Bannockburn,” says Jamie, “but not the land itself. The land endures, belonging not to those who ‘own’ but to those who love it.”
3: The Freedom Come All Ye
Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawinHamish Henderson
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o the warld the day.
Hamish Henderson’s song has rung through campaigns for peace and human rights for more than fifty years. Written for the peace marchers at Holy Loch in 1960, it is sung – to an adaptation of a challenging World War One pipe tune, Bloody Fields of Flanders – with passion at political gatherings, protest marches, and independence rallies.
Yet, as with Kathleen Jamie’s Bannockburn poem, there’s nothing triumphalist about the message renouncing Scotland’s part in colonial oppression. Like Heaney, Henderson wore a diverse, identity. Moving between Perthshire and Somerset ensured that the young Hamish …”heard and sang the folk songs of three nations [in five dialects and two languages] long before I had the faintest knowledge what a folksong was.”
To Donald Smith, The Freedom Come All Ye, is “the anthem of an as yet unrealised Scottish socialist republic”. To Hamish Henderson it was an alternative International Anthem.
Of many versions, there’s none more moving than the recording of Hamish Henderson singing on Tobar an Dualchais.
4: The Ark
They sent out a dove: it wobbled homeSimon Armitage
wings slicked in a rainbow of oil,
a sprig of tinsel snagged in its beak.
a yard of fishing-line binding its feet
Climate change fires poetry and prose. As the International Panel on Climate Change published its latest warnings, Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, read his poem, written to mark the naming of the UK’s new polar research vessel: The Sir David Attenborough,
The Ark, an elegy with song-like refrain – Bring back, bring back the leaf – ended the Today programme that September morning a few weeks ago with more than usual resonance.
How long will it take? It’s sobering to remember that Carol Ann Duffy, the previous poet laureate, also campaigned for action and awareness before it’s too late. Her Parliament was filled with the sound of birds crowding the ‘leafless trees’ to whistle and croak their warnings. That was when the Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign. In 2015.
5: April Sunshine
You would have struggled there with your new grey stick!Jackie Kay
You would have walked with your poppy red Zimmer
What do we want? You say? Peace in society.
Time has not made your politics dimmer
So to Scotland’s Makar, Jackie Kay, and a tender tribute to her mum and dad who recovered from ‘bleak midwinter illness’ and a long spell in hospital. Who would think anything of them as they lay in bed. “You were just an old man…you were just an old woman.”
It’s a rousing rejection of stereotypical reaction to ageing at a time when some seem keen to pitch old against young; a warm and stirring celebration of long lives lived whole-heartedly to the full. For peace but not passively. For democracy and human rights and tireless courageous campaigns against injustice everywhere.
When people who have lived all their lives
For democracy, for democracy
Live to see the spring, April sunshine
It’s a blessing; it’s a blessing.
This article is also published in the Sceptical Scot poetry section