Romantic Ireland’s Dead and Gone.

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

WB Yeats

Yeats’ poem was published on this day a century ago in The Irish Times newspaper and its power and meaning have not diminished with the years.

The scorn he spits upon the country’s ugly materialism – and cultural-spiritual poverty – resonates today. Its elegiac refrain is well known by most Irish people and, in the recent recession, has been cited in the most bitter and sorry of tones.

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.

I’ve whispered it myself. When words have failed me, and I have failed them.

(I don’t know what to say of empty shop-fronts and ghost neighbourhoods, so many suicides and fields of abandoned horses. I don’t know what to say. As much as I loved my time at home this summer, I was saddened and troubled by the weariness and hardness I saw on so many people’s faces.)

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.

Poetry is proof. These lines act as a witness to reality; when you cannot believe your own eyes, they corroborate the story, say what you know and can’t say any better.

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave. But who the fuck’s O’Leary?

I tell you now I didn’t know. Or, if I ever did at some point, had casually forgotten. I wonder if half the people who’ve invoked his name through the lines of the poem could tell you who the man was or what he stood – or fell – for. It’s a sad state of affairs when, with no heroes of your own to mourn, an ancient stranger’s name will do. As well him as another. (There are no others). Tragically, the best known O’Leary in today’s Ireland is the one fumbling in his greasy, no-frills airline, till. But nobody’s going to Paris or Faro, no. It’s back to the building-sites, down the down under mines. Brothers, sisters, friends: going about the world like wind.

Was it for this the wild geese spread the grey wing upon every tide?

Poetry is pretty, deceptive. The wild geese, the grey wing. Alliteration lures me to an enchanted place, wild, idyllic, free: romantic.

But sound and meaning are not the same thing. Beautiful words can be used to describe terrible things. The wild geese were those Irish men who went away to serve as soldiers in wars that weren’t their own. Blood was shed. What kind of romance is this? What kind of Ireland is being mourned here?

Yeats’ poem is compelling and I find myself nodding in agreement of feeling. And yet, ultimately, I don’t know what exactly he is saying is dead and gone or if I quite understand his vision of the romantic. I know that something has been lost, that something is broken in the country. One hundred long years later, much remains the same and the Ireland in this old poem seems familiar to me. But, while poetry can comfort and console, I want words that move towards a solution, rather than wallowing in lamentation for a world that never existed.

I can’t imagine what Ireland will look like in another hundred years. I can only hope that we find new words and better heroes and – as lovely as it is – that this poem will lose its truth in time and we can lay ourselves to rest.


2 thoughts on “Romantic Ireland’s Dead and Gone.

  1. I can tell that your response to this poem is 100% heartfelt, and I think that’s what I learned most about Ireland when I visited a donkey’s years ago: people there have heartfelt reactions to things, and you can count on them to say what they feel, and often in a kind of everyday poetry that Yeats didn’t appreciate as the fertile soil from which his poetry sprung. And we need those qualities and that poetry in the world, often though the world seems callously to have forgotten Ireland and her contributions. Don’t throw in the towel yet: Ireland may yet have a role to play in world peace and prosperity. Can a country of so many poets and literary folk be all wrong?

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