THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005 New Island Books
The Sunday Independent
Sunday January 08 2006 ‘When snatched from all effectual aid, we perish, each alone’
by Siobhan Hegarty
IN The Winner of Sorrow, an extraordinary excursion into the mind of an 18th-Century English poet, author Brian Lynch sets himself a threefold challenge, each part as great as the next.
First and foremost, Lynch endeavours to breathe life back into the lost legend that is William Cowper, a literary figure who has been all but forgotten. Second, he attempts to recreate the world and social mores of Cowper’s long-dead era. Lynch’s third and final goal is to give an insight into the life, loves, writing and sporadic madness of this eccentric genius. William Cowper (1731- 1800) was the most acclaimed poet of his day. During his lifetime, he counted among his admirers such literary giants as Jane Austen, William Blake and Wordsworth.
Cowper lived the privileged life of a lawyer in the House of Lords before he suffered a breakdown, an event which radically altered the course of his life. After becoming ill, he fled London and, obsessed with suicide, became reclusive, taking refuge in poetry, women, letter-writing, religion and gardening. And this is where we catch up with him. The book opens with him holed up in the little village of Dereham in Norfolk where he “rarely left his lodgings”. Lynch’s portrait of Cowper is his finest achievement as he succeeds in bringing the legend that is Cowper back to life so vividly you could reach out and touch him.
The poet’s battle with mental illness is chronicled in a remarkably matter-of-fact way: “Of all the voices, the one he feared the most was the Grumbler’s . . . the others, the Accuser, the Judge, the Director and the Mocker, spoke with men’s voices.”
And his deterioration is charted without flinching:
“After Mary’s secret burial, not only had the voices returned, many more of them than before, but the ghosts that owned them were visible even in daylight, although, as they were invariably hooded, veiled and cloaked, they were faceless.” The author also rises superbly to his second challenge, to re-imagine Britain during the early 18th Century. The book is also full of social comedy, and it is this humour that brings the age alive, and also adds to the reader’s pleasure.
Lynch often pokes fun at his characters: “There were times when Hayley could talk sense, but since they required the coincidence of his having both a crushing hangover and a clear avenue of escape from trouble, such times were infrequent.” Lynch’s third and final challenge, to give an insight in Cowper’s inner life, is also risen to with finesse. How the poems come from this tortured soul is drawn in bright colours, and it transports us to the secret place from where the poetry is wrought. Touching this hub is Lynch’s goal, and he succeeds masterfully, giving a rare insight into how raw inspiration is translated into poetry.
Because of the richness of detail, it is difficult for the reader to keep in mind that this is not a biography of the poet, but is, in fact, a vividly imagined novel. The author used various devices in his writing, with works of art used throughout the book, usually to set the scene. His characterisation is also a strong point, with all his characters drawn mercilessly, and as a result ringing true.
Lynch rises superbly to all three of the challenges he sets himself, producing a novel that is both original and remarkably beautifully written. The Winner of Sorrow is a triumph.
Now, let the great William Cowper himself – who, thanks to Brian Lynch, now lives on in splendid technicolour – have the last word:
‘No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perish, each, alone;
But I, beneath a rougher Sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.’
THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005 New Island Books
The Sunday Tribune Perception of a wonderful kind
The Winner Of Sorrow By Brian Lynch
New Island 14.99 340pp
BRIAN Lynch’s elegantly weaved novel about the life and times of English 18th century poet and confirmed madman William Cowper comes slowly into focus. The opening chapters, in particular, with their shifts in time and place – starting with Cowper as an old man, but quickly moving in and out of his youthful memories – challenge a reader to persevere. It’s a challenge that becomes worth it. Slowly, the book reveals itself as a meticulously crafted piece of work, a mixture of biographical research, expansive imagination, and a dedication to the examination of the rigours of being a writer.
This is not a biography -as Lynch himself makes clear in the sleeve notes – but it nonetheless draws a comprehensive picture of Cowper’s strange and eccentric world, and most importantly, makes the reader want to know more about it.
Why, for example, does Cowper, impotent and inept, barely able to make his way in the world, attract the care, attention, and sexual attraction, of women, who flutter about him, attempting to have themselves noticed?
The passages detailing the relationship between Cowper and the widow Mary Unwin, with whom he grew into old age, are among the most sharply observed in the book – sad, weary and strangely warm. Take these perceptive words, for example, describing Unwin’s frame of mind after she had proposed marriage to Cowper, but remained sexually unfulfilled even after the engagement was set: ‘She had prepared herself for regret and hardly felt it, because, despite the dulled steel in her hair, she was still the same person and, more, she was actually improved, at least in the sense that she now knew what she wanted, which then had been something only imagined from reading novels.’
But Lynch’s writing climbs above the necessary craft of human observation.
He finds ways to make his words sing, and of taking us with him on an exploration into the recesses of Cowper’s mind; surreal, poetic passages indicate at once how detached the writer was from the real world, but also give a sense of how he derived his poetic life. There is agony: Cowper is afflicted by the presence of terrible voices in his head, to which he gives names – the Mocker, the Judge, the Accuser. But there is humour too, subtle and wry:
‘Sometimes he thanked God he was mad – you could laugh out loud and not have to explain yourself.’
Although this story is primarily the tale of an internal life – as Cowper struggles with the process of writing, turning thoughts into words, imagination into penned descriptions – Lynch doesn’t neglect the detail of the poet’s external world. Eighteenth century England, with the discrepancies between the lofty nature of its religious evangelism, and the grimy nature of much of its real life, is accurately captured.
Lynch is himself an accomplished poet, and his own, beautifully created writing is one of the most satisfying aspects of this novel. He has managed to grasp hold of that most difficult of tasks – using the power of words to tell a story – and finely tune it, so that both language and narrative become almost the one.
THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Winner of Sorrow can be ordered from New Island Books.
The Irish Book Review Eamonn Sweeney
The word Dickensian is much bandied about in the books pages these days and when I hear it I generally reach for my revolver. It denotes either a shapeless over-written pile of journalism masquerading as a novel, Tom Wolfe comes to mind, or an elongated pastiche which reveals the shocking fact that Victorian England had a darker side.
Yet less than thirty pages into Brian Lynch’s excellent first novel we’re presented with a situation which seems truly Dickensian in all its grotesquery, humanity and intractability. The book’s protagonist is presented with the chance of a well-paying legal sinecure. Being a shy sort, he’s worried about the possibility of having to come through an interview. Not at all, his uncle assures him, it’ll be pretty straightforward, just get through the interview before the Bar of the House of Lords.
‘Before the house of Lords? Before the whole House of Lords?’ Our hero is aghast and tries to commit suicide in order to avoid the interrogation.
This might sound like the stuff of ripest melodrama but it actually happened to William Cowper, one of the finest English poets of the Eighteenth Century and the subject of Lynch’s book. Cowper’s life, like that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who declared in the Biographia Literaria that his predecessor was one of ‘the first who combined natural thoughts with natural diction, the first who reconciled the heart with the head,’ is not short of sensational aspects. Madness, religious fanaticism, unorthodox domestic arrangements and struggles with Laudanum all occupied the poet during his life.
But it is one of Lynch’s most impressive achievements that he has from this sensational material wrought a novel whose abiding tone is one of austerity and seriousness, thus making its central character far more than just the sum of his obsessions and oddities.
Equally impressive is that there is nothing anachronistic about The Winner of Sorrow. The besetting sin of many historical novels is a refusal by the writer to genuinely engage with the mores of the age he’s writing about. Hence the preponderance of protagonists who have no truck with the sexism, racism or colonialism of their time and are not much more than twenty first century creations parachuted into the past to demonstrate the impeccable personal beliefs of the author.
Lynch steadfastly refuses to adopt such an approach. Most of Cowper’s life was bound up with personal religious struggles (he features briefly in Karen Armstrong’s great A History of God as a kind of poster boy for the dangers of Calvinism.) Lacking the certainty of a believer or the insouciance of the agnostic, Cowper ended up with the worst of both worlds. His embrace of predestination convinced him that he was damned to Hell. This fear could well have been responsible for both his madness and much of his poetry.
Religious enthusiasm is something modern novelists find it difficult to have any empathy for (though given the current state of the world we might have to work on that.) But Lynch portrays marvellously Cowper’s struggle while also allowing some of his acquaintances to muse on its ultimate pointlessness. When religious faith enables Cowper to recover his sanity, Dr. Cotton of the St. Albans asylum wonders, ‘was our friend saner when he was mad, or is he madder now he’s sane?’ It’s maybe the key question posed by Cowper’s career.
But if Lynch was merely interested in examining the literary, religious and historical aspects of the poet’s life then he’d have been better off writing a biography. For a novel to live and breathe it must do different things and these things Lynch achieves. He has the invaluable knack of creating living, breathing characters with a deft minimum of verbiage. Cowper’s status as one of those hapless impractical men surely over–represented in the literary life is affectionately sketched.
‘Passers-by withdrew to a safe distance from the gates of a livery stable and watched as an ostler led out a large and skittish horse. The ostler let go the bridle and Sam cried, ‘Hold him, sir. Don’t give him his head.’
“‘I don’t believe,’ said Cowper, ‘I have any choice in the matter.’
Nor did he. The horse galloped off down the street towards the open country.”
Lynch also manages the tricky task of delineating a consciousness formed by immersion in the Bible and the Classics, something which is vital if the reader is to get a sense of the influences on Cowper’s poetry. Too often the historical novelist tackles this by the following formula: ‘It’s a fine day Mister X.’ ‘Yes it is Mister Y, it sets me to thinking of Horace when he said (insert fifteen line quotation here.)’ Lynch’s introduction of Virgil, for example, into the conversation is far less intrusive and seems much more natural. I’d hazard a guess that this may be because he’s a man of some erudition himself and probably read the authors in question rather than googling them on the internet.
Similarly, I’d imagine that Lynch’s interest in Cowper predates the decision to write a novel about him by some years. The Winner of Sorrow bears the impressive mark of a book which was a long time in the mind of the author before he set a word down on paper. This would partly account for the richness of characterisation.
There is, however, another reason for the richness of characterisation, which is that some of the characters in Cowper’s life could hardly have been dreamed of by the most gamey author. John Newton, for example, could hardly fail to illuminate almost every page he appears on. A reformed slave trader who whisks Cowper off to the town of Olney to help him in a religious mission, Newton is the meeting point for the world of Henry Fielding with that of John Wesley. And by the way, he’s the man who wrote, Amazing Grace.
There is a certain black comedy about Newton’s absolute religious certainty.
‘I have just received news of the death of my niece. My brother’s daughter.’
Newton smiled ironically. ‘The infant has gone to a better place.’
‘Poor, poor child,’ Mary said.
‘She is in heaven, I have no doubt. And yet when I told my brother that this was the best place for her, he was, I fear somewhat taken aback.’
Yet for all the obvious drawbacks of Newton’s worldview, Lynch is never censorious about this extraordinary preacher. He never takes that cliched shortcut of ascribing hypocrisy to the Evangelicals Cowper moves among (unlike, for example, Ronan Bennett whose Havoc In Its Third Year is an assembly of lazy middlebrow generalisations). Newton is allowed his beliefs, the author does not step in to reprimand him.
Newton, like Cowper, may be an Evangelical but he is far from being a Puritan. In fact there’s enough wine and whiskey downed in this book to keep a James Kelman character in bed for a week. The desire for the other world goes hand in hand with a beautifully evoked sensuous delight in the things of this realm, something which increases our awareness of the dichotomy within Cowper which is tearing him apart. One brief reverie by Cowper perfectly captures the battle between the profane and the sacred and the conflict it creates for an artist in particular.
‘Then, too, he felt irresistibly drawn to the classics. Since his conversion he had hardly dared to look at them. Homer, somehow, remained undreadful. Virgil too. But Horace still had to be guarded against. He looked into the Satires and they were too sharp a joy.’
Throughout the book there is a felt quality to the prose, a real imaginative commitment to time and place which captures the grimy texture of eighteenth century life with its, ‘women with their few eggs in baskets, half of them rotten, and their skirt clutching children, bright–eyed and placid with hunger.’ Lynch, somehow, avoids the enormous condescension of posterity and instead seems to write about this world as though he were its contemporary.
He also writes well about the process of writing, the technical exigencies of turning inspiration into poetry. Others may well find this the most impressive thing about The Winner of Sorrow. Myself, I’d expect a writer to be able to write well about writing. It is Lynch’s ability to travel outside himself which really makes this not just a wonderful debut but a brilliant novel full stop.
Eventually Cowper’s religious enthusiasms diminish and, besides his writing, his main preoccupation becomes his relationship with Mary Unwin, the widow of a preacher also associated with John Newton. They grow old together and the second half of the book becomes a touching examination of what is lost and gained by experience. Mary Unwin, like so many other characters in the book, is depicted with both precision and warmth, a combination difficult to achieve.
‘She had prepared herself for regret and hardly felt it, because, despite the dulled steel in her hair, she was still the same person and, more, she was actually improved, at least in the sense that she now knew what she wanted, which then had been something only imagined from reading novels.’
All the while, Cowper is tormented by nightmares, the horrors of which Lynch does not stint on. The poet retains an ability to arouse the interest, (and perhaps mothering instincts), of women. Even when writing his best poems he defends them in terms of fidelity to Lutheran theology . There are fine conversational set pieces, his self–important cousin Lady Hesketh condemns herself out of her own mouth as surely as any character from Thackeray or Austen. At times it’s so bracing and witty it’s as though you’re reading fragments of a biography James Boswell might have conceived as a follow–up to his life of Doctor Johnson.
For all the vivacity of those who surround him and the fevered nature of his intellectual preoccupations, it’s Cowper’s struggles with his demons which come to overshadow the rest of his existence. (They are almost literally demons, he names the voices which mock him, the Grumbler, the Accuser, the Mocker, the Judge, the Director.) The author does not flinch from depicting the difficulties of the man’s life and there is no RD Laing nonsense about the superior access to truth of the mentally ill. Austerity remains the foundation of The Winner of Sorrow as indeed it was of Cowper’s poetry.
It is a tribute to Lynch’s achievement that you close the book with the conviction that reading the work of William Cowper is not simply advisable but necessary. He has written a magnificent novel and, in doing so, stayed true to the spirit of a man whose view of existence was captured in his marvellous late poem, The Castaway, which compares the plight of a sailor washed overboard with that of the soul abandoned by God.
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When snatched from all effectual aid,
We perish, each, alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.
Eamonn Sweeney is a writer. He is currently working on a novel entitled, The Ways That We Went.
THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Winner of Sorrow can be ordered from New Island Books.
The Irish Times
Saturday, October 29, 2005
MAD LIKE US NORMAL FOLKS
“It was the first day of a new century and in East Dereham the Christians were going to church,” begins Brian Lynch’s new novel, in an opening paragraph so elegant it might have come straight out of Jane Austen.
The Winner of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the life of the poet William Cowper; a forgotten poet, it says on the jacket, though many of us can still dredge such lines as “I am monarch of all I survey” and “God moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform” from the depths of dusty primary-school memory.
Born into a wealthy family, Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) was shaping up to a privileged existence as an upper-crust lawyer in London when he had what we would, nowadays, call a breakdown. He sought refuge in the countryside, which made him feel better, and in fundamentalist religion, which made him feel terrible. It is one of the many ironies of Cowper’s story that a man with a genius for poetic communication should find himself so out of tune with his fellow human beings. Mad as he was, however, he inspired unflagging devotion from friends of both sexes.
Lynch’s portrayal of Cowper’s mental condition is strikingly at odds with the approach taken by most contemporary fiction, where insanity has become almost synonymous with sociopathy. We are accustomed to reading about cold, calculating killers who lurk in the darkness at the edge of society and strike out, now and again, at us normal folks. Cowper is a very different literary proposition: in his contradictions and inadequacies and endearing humanity, he is us normal folks. “He understood,” we are told in that exquisite opening paragraph, “that he was completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet.” That “not quite” is important. So is the wry tone of the narrative, which never falters, though the action moves forward by lurches and jolts, skipping back and forth in time and peering out from some outrageous angles as it follows the swoops and hiccups of the hero’s convoluted reasoning. And then there is the sheer joy of the cast of secondary characters; a collection of real-life personages so shambolic, earnest and downright odd that no novelist would dare to make them up. Lynch doesn’t fail to capitalise on the comic potential of his menage of misfits, and merriment regularly bubbles up through the cracks. When, late in the novel, the royal physician arrives to examine Cowper with a view to whipping him off to an asylum, there is a scene which wouldn’t be out of place in a Rossini opera, with rival lady-loves sniping at each other over afternoon tea while the inevitable male companion tries to keep the peace and Cowper flutters ineffectually from one side to the other.
Rossini opera via 21st-century sitcom: or Jane Austen seen through the window of Fawlty Towers, perhaps. Does it all sound mannered and cruel? If it does, the fault lies with this reviewer.
The Winner of Sorrow is a brilliantly imagined, impressively executed piece of writing. Its trump card, though, is not style, but substance. Compassion, not cleverness, makes it tick; love, it suggests, is as ludicrous as everything else, but it’s all we have. A wonderful book.
NEW AND RENEWED
Review by Philip Casey
The Irish Independent
23 Oct 2004
Brian Lynch’s poetry and its rhythms have beguiled me since reading a poem called Panic Stricken Love in his chapbook Outside the Pheasantry, (1975). This poem was included in his collection Perpetual Star (1981), as Panic Stricken, and here it is named Panic. Other than this, not a word has been changed from the original. Other poems have been altered, of course, hence the book’s clever title. The Jews Escape (‘the yellow stars are ours’), previously entitled Ghost House, is practically a new poem.
In New and Renewed, Lynch has not only written powerful new work, but has examined the premise of each line and phrase to realise the full potency of that previously collected. It is a very potent collection indeed, and not just because its theme is often Eros in the everyday.
Even when the poem is not overtly erotic, a sensual energy pervades it. Without artistry it would be as nothing, of course. Lynch’s hard-won imagery stays long in the mind, and is marked by interplay and interdependence. Take Pension Alcoy, which has also had its lines and line breaks renewed. In the original I loved ‘To be empty you must be played upon’, but the change seems exactly right, the gong reverberating through a thousand windows until stillness reigns:
To be open you must be empty
To be empty you must be struck
As if you were a gong.
Outside the window
The window is open
Its window is open
And a thousand more
And suddenly there is no more Mr Lynch.
This interplay and interdependence underscores the noted humanity of Lynch’s work, and is its hallmark. Relationship is central, and meditations on the death of parents, the regrets of love, the complexities of marriage, and the mysteries of parenthood uncover deep emotion, as with the daughters of Myth:
But when they do return
The house is empty in the sun,
Mother has gone north or south,
And, there now, fatherless,
The door is wider than it was,
Or wider than they thought.
The book ends with powerful political poems, including an eleven page excerpt from Angry Heart, Empty House, entitled The Murder of Margaret White, which really belongs in a book of its own. It is based on a harrowing true story, and will stalk your dreams.
Brian Lynch’s poems have always been haunting. With New and Renewed Poems it seems inevitable that he will be given the wider recognition he has so long deserved.
PITY FOR THE WICKED
With a Preface by
Conor Cruise O’Brien
The Duras Press
The Peace Process time for poetic justice
by Dennis Kennedy
The Belfast Telegraph, 5 December 2005
One of the most devastating critiques of the savagery of the Troubles and of the hypocrisy of the ‘peace process’ has come in an unlikely form from an unexpected quarter.
‘Pity for the Wicked’ is a forty-page aisling poem written by a former Government Information Officer in Dublin. The aisling is a long narrative form developed by Gaelic poets in the late 17th century, in which the poet is visited by a female vision, personifying Ireland and bewailing the misfortunes of the land. The author is Brian Lynch, both of whose parents were Fianna Fail TDs in the 1930s, and who himself was a journalist on the Fianna Fail Irish Press before joining the Government Information Service in 1973. He was a member of the Irish delegation at Sunningdale.
Today he is a distinguished writer – of poetry, plays, fiction, film scripts and art history – and has been a member of Aosdana, the south’s equivalent of the Academie Francaise, since 1988. In Pity for the Wicked the vision challenges the poet to write what he really feels about the Troubles. He is told to –
the lukewarm certainties of doubt:
You’re sick with rage, so swallow hard,
Then cough it up and spit it out.
The poet replies that that’s what he wants to do, but cannot;
The chaos we’ve been living through
This quarter of a century –
The Northern thing that makes us
Turn the TV off or skip the page,
Or, if it doesn’t, makes us burn
With horrors at the facts and rage
Against the news -has struck me dumb.
To write, he says, of so much death would stifle any poet’s breath. The poem was written between 1993 and 1996, and was included in 1998, under the title ‘An Angry Heart; an Empty House’ in an anthology of entries in a Daily Telegraph poetry competition. This new 2005 edition comes with a preface by Conor Cruise O’Brien, and a lengthy introduction by the author which in itself is a powerful indictment of the Peace Process and of southern policy towards the Troubles. The Troubles were, he writes, a political and moral catastrophe for Ireland – ‘ů..in our efforts to conciliate the murderers, we were tainted by their shame’.
It is the excusing of murder and the embracing of the murderers, particularly in the rewriting of history which is central to the Peace Process, that lies at the heart of the poet’s guilt and rage. And it is the graphic depiction of appalling acts of savagery in language that is totally uncompromising – sometimes brutal, sometimes funny, often ironic – which mercilessly exposes that sanitizing of the past.
The poem concentrates on three atrocities – ‘three crimes to carry all the weight’ the poet explains. These are Bloody Sunday and the ensuing burning of the British Embassy in Dublin, the pitiless beating and shooting of Margaret Wright by Loyalists in a band hall off the Donegall Road, and the murder of Patsy Gillespie in Derry when the Provos used him as a human bomb. The accounts are harrowing, particularly so when the vision takes on the persona of Margaret Wright and recounts the awful event from the viewpoint of the victim.
There is humour too; Tim Pat Coogan appears as Tin Pot, a man who had a canny way with words:
Like Popeye scoffing spinach, tin
And all, he’d swallow with a gulp
Whatever was Republican
And vomit up its greenish pulp
Or fart it out in clouds of gas.
Gerry Adams features as Gerry-Very-Much-Alive, not to be confused with Jerry-Dead – Garda Jerry McCabe, killed by the Provos. In the humour, the vulgarity and the burning indignation there is more than a hint of Swift, Pope and Dryden.
For the poet, the reality of the Troubles is the barbarity, the sheer wickedness of the acts. This is the touchstone by which they must be judged, and the chief culprits are the Republicans, and associated with them the southern State and architects of the ‘peace process’ like Garret FitzGerald and John Hume, and all who saw ‘the underlying wrong’ and made allowances for the violence:
‘But would we have the IRA
Without the evils of Partition?
Our islands shared the same distress,
And yet the cause of this disorder,
According to the Irish Press,
Was not the bombers, but the Border.
The poet shares the guilt. He was in the crowd that cheered the burning of the Embassy;
That marched a huge and stupid crowd
Upon the British Embassy
Was one that I shared, alas.
As the northern poet Gerald Dawe has written, this is a powerful poetic testament. It is also a compelling commentary on political violence and on a peace which rewards the remorseless violent.
The poem was finished in 1996; one wonders what words the poet would have found to describe the tide of appeasement and betrayal since then.
Pity for the Wicked is published by the Duras Press, Dublin. Copies can be obtained by post (euro 15) from the author at Ounavarra, Seafield Rd, Killiney, Co Dublin.
Dennis Kennedy is a former Diplomatic Correspondent of The Irish Times and a founding member of the Cadogan Group
PITY FOR THE WICKED
With a Preface by
Conor Cruise O’Brien
The Duras Press
A tract for the times – Lynch’s poem on the North
The Irish Independent, May 21, 2005
Satire is a necessary purgative for the health of any democracy. It is even more necessary in a dictatorship, but harder to get away with.
Brian Lynch in this reprint of his long poem about the North, originally published in 1998 and now republished with an added preface by Conor Cruise O’Brien, an introduction and appendices, preserves an ancient and necessary verse form.
His poem burns with anger and outrage, with the savage indignation that lacerated the heart of Swift.
We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption, to rage, to caricature and to lampoon. We do not expect them necessarily to be fair.
In this long poem Brian Lynch does Irish society a service by tearing the mask from murder and terror, by dispelling the fog of romanticised amnesia in which horror is embalmed as history is rewritten to justify a campaign of murder, by trying to restore the meaning of language.
Like Juvenal, he does not spare the reader the farts and belches, the sauce of sacrilege, the blood on the abattoir floor, the entrails scattered in the air, the filth, the dirt, the horror. A female figure (Eire?) from the aisling genre acts as interlocutor and challenges the poet to face facts.
The poem takes three incidents to cover the spectrum of terror – state inflicted, in Bloody Sunday, the murder of Margaret Wright by Loyalists, and the horror of Patsy Gillespie, shackled to a bomb and sent to his death by the Provisional IRA.
The satirist is not required to be fair, but there is at least a structural imbalance in dismissing Bloody Sunday in 25 lines on the grounds that Thomas Kinsella had already done it (in a piece which it must be said, proves that political poetry is often very middling poetry).
The Bloody Sunday sequence also extends to an attack on the British Embassy, revenge murders of cooks and bottle washers in Aldershot, and a truly revolting scene in Dublin as
The newsroom rang with
howls of joy
They’d murdered us,
we’d murdered them!
Northern Catholics, too, will wonder at the editorial stance which can say
Poor Margaret lost her
life by accident,
And those who murdered
her were ignorant
The only accident was that she, whom they killed as a Catholic, turned out to be Protestant.
The lines on Margaret Wright are almost unbearably moving, powerfully emotional with shocking images which stunningly convey the horror of the deed, the terror of the victim and the lust for blood which drives a mob to murder.
The Gillespie murder, on the other hand, is carefully planned to be destructive, retaliatory, intimidatory and symbolic, a second run to punish a man for the crime of earning a crust as an army chef.
The stink of gas and ruptured
Against the scent of roasted
The sun comes up,
the highest dust
Uniting Patsy with his
Unlike Swift who ‘looked at vice / and spared the name’, Lynch names names with great specificity.
There is one difficult passage in the poem which points the dilemma for many in the Republic: how to dispute the claim of the modern IRA for historic legitimacy against the fact that some very terrible things were done by earlier generations too. The ghost of Collins is invoked who ‘drew the line at violence / against civilian targets’, and though ‘he used the axe / he never wielded it in such attacks’.
One does not have to be a complete revisionist to find that hard to accept, or that fearful atrocities were not perpetrated by both sides in the Civil War.
The poet’s response, born out of justifiable rage, is to unleash the full force of the law, to
Give them such a kick
Their arses shut,
inducing them to shit
instead of stirring it!
The poem proper ends with Canary Wharf, although the argument is carried on up to date in the introduction. A Satirist is often a disappointed idealist. The poet reflects a wider disillusionment at delay and duplicity. There is enough conspiracy theory to keep a rumour factory going, ‘Before the bomb went off, a deal was made’.
Those involved in the peace process are either naive or knavish. The dilemma for democratic states of how to protect themselves from terror without sacrificing their own democratic values and quality of life is scarcely noted, or the historic difficulty that to deny the reformability of former gunmen could be to question the very basis of the emerging Irish state post independence.
Satire, although proper and necessary does not have to be right. Poets have a relatively poor track record as legislators. The situation in Northern Ireland, which has improved remarkably for those on the ground, does not yet necessitate a total withdrawal of hope, especially if all the poet has to offer, after all the rage, is pity as a substitute for silence.
This is nevertheless a powerful piece, a necessary mirror held up to nature, a tract for the times.
Senator Maurice Hayes is a former Ombudsman in the North
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.
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
Poet, playwright, screenwriter, art critic and novelist