Of human loss and savagery
PITY FOR THE WICKED
The Duras Press
The Irish Times, June 4, 2005
One Saturday afternoon in mid-August 1969 I was sitting in the upstairs lounge of the Spanish Rooms on the Lower Falls Road in Belfast with a couple of pals before heading to a city-centre club.
Drawn to a commotion on the street outside, we watched as British soldiers appeared, in formation, and proceeded to close off some sidestreets. We hadn’t seen them on the streets of Belfast before. There was something quite unreal about what was happening. There had been riots, disruptions, “disturbances”. This was different. For the young men and women of “our” generation – the watchers and the watched – the world as we had known it was shifting axis.
Thirty-six years later we all know how the story unfolded. The familiar world turned into the surreal, and from there into the disfiguring, unforgivable life of violence that Belfast (along with many other parts of Ireland and Britain) suffered for the next quarter of a century.
In this extraordinary poetic testament, Pity for the Wicked, Brian Lynch has re-entered the labyrinth of that cruel metamorphosis with a poem of steely indignation and damning rhetoric. Not since Thomas Kinsella’s controversial Butcher’s Dozen has a southern-based poet responded with such concentration to the “events” in the North. Not since Tony Harrison’s poems on the Gulf War has a poet spoken out with such immediacy about the politics of human loss and savagery in one place.
The voice that comes through Lynch’s poem is convincing, both in its strengths and in its weaknesses. Pity for the Wicked is unique in its unrelenting ‘‘highlighting’’ (to quote the poet’s introduction) of ‘‘a small part of the history [of the Troubles] in order to illuminate the whole.’’ The parts and circumstances which Lynch recounts are probably unimaginable to younger readers: the burning of the British embassy in Dublin, Bloody Sunday, the IRA bombing of Aldershot (in which five women cleaners, a gardener and a Catholic chaplain were murdered), the gruesome deaths of Margaret Wright (upon which the poem dwells), Pat Gillespie, Frank Kerr, Carol Mather, John Jeffries and Inan ul-Haq Bashir (the two London newsagents killed by the Provo bombing of Canary Wharf), Jerry McCabe, the sickening sectarian ‘‘loyalist ’’killing of Paddy Wilson and his companion, Irene Andrews, Alice Collins, and the “political” matrix out of which the brutal ending of these lives were viciously justified.
Pity for the Wicked is also unique in its unflinching condemnation of the Provisional movement and its leadership, and of the moral responsibility of the southern State (and “almost the entire intellectual class”) for both. Framed within an historical narrative that many will utterly reject, Lynch’s response to the ‘‘peace process’’ and what he calls its ‘‘anti- language . . . excavated of meaning’’, is shaped by indignation and outrage at the moral free-fall he associates with those compromises (which he charts) that the Irish State has made, under different administrations, with the Provisional movement. According to Lynch’s impassioned introduction, the peace process has now been brought bloodlessly “to an end south of the Border” and of all the ‘‘false hopes’’, its ‘‘most enduring legacy’’ may well be “a Mafia at the heart of Irish politics”. In the North, meanwhile, the probable demographic future will be “the movement of the communities into self-defined Catholic and Protestant territories” as each is driven “further apart than at any time since 1921”.
Son of a political family with ‘‘deep roots in Fianna Fáil’’ (both parents were elected to the Dáil), Lynch worked in the Government Information Services during the 1970s and was part of the delegation at the Sunningdale Conference in 1973. It shows; he knows the background. What comes through Pity for the Wicked is his conviction that the moral maze into which we took ourselves after Sunningdale has turned into a spider’s web from which we need to extricate ourselves.
As a substantial part of our civic past has been perverted by political violence, Brian Lynch’s poem refuses to let those whom he considers directly responsible slip by without the ‘‘repentance of the killers. But we have not heard the remorseful word.’’ ‘‘With time has come the time to let go,’’ yet such ‘‘dispiriting’’ freedom is at a cost, as Lynch testifies: ‘‘for many of my generation . . . the best part of our lives has been spent in the shadow of terror, fleeing from or fighting with it.’’ But ‘‘those who have been literally dispirited, the dead, will not allow us to forget what happened to them.’’ Nor should the ‘‘political and moral catastrophe’’ be further compounded by ‘‘our efforts to conciliate the murderers,’’ since we were ‘‘tainted by their shame.’’ The ‘‘stern memory’’ which Lynch insists upon is what makes Pity for the Wicked such a deeply troubling work, both as self-doubting poem and as politically charged document; not so much a wake-up call as a shattering alarm in the middle of the night:
I’d written verse – what match was that for screams,
For cries of real death? No match was made.
© The Irish Times
Gerald Dawe is the author of six collections of poetry, including The Morning Train (1999) and Lake Geneva (2003). He teaches at TCD and is currently compiling an anthology of 20th-century Irish “war” poetry