We’re sitting in the sofa room at Pat and John’s place, a red brick house in East Belfast, after a home-cooked meal of lamb and vegetables, champs and gravy. Tea and sweet cakes arranged beautifully on a tray. The hearth we gather around, glowing.

And John tells me that when the Germans bombed Belfast during the war, his grandfather was killed in an air-raid shelter, along with many, many others. One of John’s uncles was fortunate enough to make it out alive (having somehow scrambled up through the debris and rubble near the shelter entrance).

They drained the local pool and laid the bodies out so that family members could be identified by next of kin. In fact, John goes on to say, “My father—being the eldest—had the job of identifying my grandfather—whose body lay there among the others.”

As he tells me more about the air raid and the loss of his grandfather, a poem echoes in my head. It’s Ciaran Berry’s “April 1941.” I’d read it in Best Irish Poetry in English, 2010 (Southword Editions; Edited by Matthew Sweeney) while riding the bus in to Belfast from Donaghadee (a seaside town on the Ards peninsula). Here’s the poem:

April 1941

In a Belfast of smokestacks and linen mills,

as a crane in the shipyard creaks to a stop

above the lough and men in work clothes pull

through the dock gates, my grandfather walks home

past girls who spin loose skipping ropes and jump

while their brothers thump a leather ball

against a gable end. Dusk seeps into the red

brick streets the experts say Hitler will never bomb.

A boy hawking The Newsletter cries ‘Delia

Murphy for the Ulster Hall’ and my granda

passes down the Falls just as a quarter moon

appears above the new munitions plant.

On reaching his front door he stops to note

how the blackout order is defied by house lights

all across the city’s west. Inside, he takes

his son Patrick onto his knee and greets

a wife who labours at sideboard and stove

to make enough of rationed beef and potatoes

for four children and a forever famished husband.

Her plump belly brushes the cooker knobs

as, within the watery glove of her red womb,

my mother, perhaps nineteen inches long,

points her wee head towards the open, makes

ready to be born into this mid-war month.

But before she tumbles out into this world

two hundred Heinkels and Junkers must swarm

across the Irish Sea, their shadows black crosses

on calm water, their cranked engines all hum

and splutter above the cormorants and guillemots

that dive for mackerel. Beneath the weight

of shells the York Street spinning mill must

split and spill six storeys of timber, concrete

and steel into bedrooms and living rooms on Vere

and Sussex Street. Delia Murphy must try

to sing ‘Three Lovely Lassies’ above the drone

of air-raid sirens, while fifty miles away,

at Glenshane Pass, fire crews who’ve paused

to let their engines cool, watch the flames billow

above North Belfast. My grandmother’s waters

will break over the kitchen tiles as volunteers

empty the Falls Road Baths and fill the deep end

with the unclaimed dead. My mother’s head

will come bloodied between her mother’s legs

as an exodus of cars and cattle trucks rattles

away from this city where, just now, all is calm.

Three hours before the first bomb whistles down

my grandpa takes his place at the table, prepares

a pipe, while his wife arranges cutlery and delft.

—Ciaran Berry, from The Sphere of Birds, The Gallery Press (Ireland); Southern Illinois UP (USA)


Like most anthologies, Best Irish Poets in English 2010 offers a wide field of view. And, depending on your taste, the stars you place in the table of contents may differ from my own, but there will surely be stars. I’d recommend this anthology, coupled with the recent Bloodaxe Books release, The New Irish Poets, for anyone wanting to see what’s going on in contemporary Irish poetry {written in English}. (I use the label ‘contemporary Irish poetry’ with hesitation, knowing that it’s an inexact phrase loaded with potential political pitfalls and ramifications; my apologies to those for whom this label is imprecise or incorrect.)

Turning back to the poetry…I’d like to share two more from the anthology…



for all those who protest against the U.S. military presence at Shannon, and the use of Shannon as a refueling stop for rendition flights:

As we are guided by our heart’s star

and lie opposed under the mind’s mid-winter

in ambush in the dark of the dead word,

let us praise the harried tent

the young girls blowing on their hands

warming the human under the iron engines

of aircraft bellied with shackled men

and men stirring in their guns,

let us thank the blind trees for their whisper

and the yellow lights of police-loud roads

for their oppositions; let us make a fire

in the currents of dumb air, where

the least hymn finds a chorus in the grass—

around the animal roar of aircraft

let a constellation of prayers lay itself out

like a map of possibilities

and the proud girl afraid and the boy afraid

still stand there where the office

of the harsh unvoted law is read aloud

from ash-grey pages — and ash on our heads —

both of them reciting to the breathing of aviation fuel over and over,

an untranslatable, every-tongued syllable of hope.

—Fred Johnston


September Thoughts

After Follain

She squats in the matted woods making water

into the moss, in the thick stillness,

stares at the silvery trail of the slug

round the tea-brown, contorted, inedible fungi—

while up in the house they sit waiting and knowing

that this time is always like this,

is always

suspended centuries-deep, and will pass, the trees

will open their hands and the shores of the lake

will clot with drowned leaves, the people will dream

and die and give birth and hoard money,

everything will go on going on, she has only

to lie on the floor reading books in the evening,

already the darkness presses the window.

—Kerry Hardie, Only This Room, The Gallery Press (Ireland)


Best Irish Poetry Written in English 2010 (Southword Editions) is available at http://munsterlit.ie/Bookstore/Translations/charalambides_kyriakos.html

ISBN: 978-I-905002-34-4

The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe Books, 2004), edited by Selina Guiness, is available at http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852246731

(and at Amazon.com) ISBN-13: 978-1852246730


Originally Published: April 11th, 2010

Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. Then in November 2003 he was an infantry team leader...