“Brian Lynch’s extraordinary testament is like a shattering alarm in the middle of the night.” – Gerald Dawe, The Irish Times. Full Review
“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.” – Maurice Hayes, The Irish Independent. Full Review
“One of the most devastating critiques of the savagery of the Troubles and of the hypocrisy of the ‘peace process’.” – Dennis Kennedy, The Belfast Telegraph. Full Review
I believe that the publication of Brian Lynch’s book will contribute to the isolation of Sinn Féin-IRA, and their eventual disappearance from the political map of Ireland.” –Conor Cruise O’Brien, from the Introduction
Written between 1993 and 1996, Pity for the Wicked is a contemporary depiction of a momentous period in Irish history. It was first published in a slightly different form in The Ring of Words, the anthology of the 1998 Arvon Foundation/Daily Telegraph International Poetry Competition under the title An Angry Heart, An Empty House. About the section of the poem that deals with the murder of Margaret Wright (which was published separately in New and Renewed), Philip Casey said in The Irish Independent, ’It will stalk your dreams.’ Fiona Sampson said in The Irish Times that ’it is a shaming, difficult and necessary read; and worth buying the book for in its own right.’
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