First Irish working-class poetry anthology published
Artwork from the cover of "Children of the Nation." | Courtesy of Culture Matters

Dr. Jenny Farrell teaches modern Irish literature at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway, Ireland. She is also associated editor of the British publication, Culture Matters. In the interview below, Dr. Farrell discusses her latest book, The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland.

People’s World: This is the first published anthology of workers’ poetry from Ireland. What was the motivation that prompted you to put this collection together?

Jenny Farrell: In our heyday of identity politics, this very first anthology of working people’s poetry in contemporary Ireland highlights another kind of identity: The working class, the marginalized, those whose concerns are most often ignored, people in precarious employment, unemployed, homeless. The title of the collection is “The Children of the Nation” and recalls the pledge made by the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, all executed by the British, who had declared:

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

This anthology makes a significant statement. Most of the literature we read deals in comfortable middle-class lives, rarely about those whose lives are a struggle. The anthology is political with a small p. The authenticity of 67 working lives unfolding before our eyes makes for a genuinely unique volume whose contributors hail from the whole island of Ireland, North and South. And in the former, on both sides of the sectarian divide. It includes poets from the rural and industrial working class as well as those in traditionally middle-income jobs, forced into short-term contracts by a neoliberal economy. Working class has come to encompass all these groups. A non-standard biography for each contributor highlights his or her connection with the working class, demonstrating that poetry is not an elusive and exclusive domain.

PW: It sounds like you cover a lot of ground. How did you go about organizing and grouping such a broad range of works?

JF: The themes of this anthology are easily recognizable for all the working class of the “First World” and by extension for the Third World. This condition is by no means limited to Ireland.

Homelessness is a main theme, casting dark shadows in manifold manifestations. One of these is an overarching feeling of alienation from mainstream society: “The greedy/ rub their hands/ with glee in much the same/ way now as/ they did back then. Over/ a hundred/ and seventy years changed/ nothing. The/ rich get richer and the/ poor grow more/ poor, and most of us have/ nowhere to/ live. For there ain’t no home/ in Dublin” (Ross J. Walsh “Black 47”).

Some poets reflect on being victims of abuse in a society that has relinquished its duty of care for many of its children, its women, its men. Jennifer Horgan and Noel Monahan write heartrendingly about the recent find of almost 800 children’s bodies in the septic tank of a Church-run “mother-and-baby-home.” Others, like Patrick Bolger, about clerical abuse: “The offer is put to me, I should/ accept, I am told as they will never go/ higher, without proof of penetration./ Without proof of penetration./ The eight year old boy, me 23 years/ before this day, should have collected/ evidence. Evidence. My blood. Or his./ Semen” (“Evidence”).

Then there is the very real social violence against over 10,000 homeless people. Sarah Boyce evokes this for Belfast: “Its brick-bled and rain-wept heart,/ whose municipal vision cuts through/ its public benches;/ no space here for homeless bums/ Meanwhile, down a high street entry/ great black-backed gulls/ span a crumpled sleeping bag/ in search of carrion (“Its Beating Heart”)Tim Dwyer, who grew up in Brooklyn, observes in “Outside the  Garden of Remembrance”: “overshadowed, in a curve in the/ Garden’s stone border, in plain view yet overlooked, a grey sleeping bag/ camouflaged against the foundation. A person is hidden, except for the/ crown of the head, some strands of red hair.

Along with others, Jessamine O Connor highlights hidden homelessness in “Notice,” which ends: “So my children don’t know what it’s like yet to move, be insecure,/ to not know where you’re going to be, or for how long,/ to keep everything always half unpacked —/ but I will never forget.”

Other writers, like Rita Ann Higgins, address unemployment with unrepentant sarcasm: “Hey Minister, we like your suit/ have a bun, where are our jobs?/ But there was no point;/ he was here on a bun-eating session/ not a job-finding session./ His hands were tied./ His tongue a marshmallow” (“No One Mentioned the Roofer”).

These themes and countless others emerge from the poetry of people who identify with the disregarded and dispossessed.

PW: The Irish historical experience, both at home and around the world in the diaspora, is one of struggle, whether against colonialism, classism, racism, or other oppressions. How does that come across in the collection?

JF: One of the great neglected areas in mainstream Irish literary discourse is the Irish language tradition. Although this is defined by the experience of the most exploited and a stark reflection of a colonized people, it is recklessly ignored. In this collection, Irish and English stand side by side, with the Irish language poets having provided a translation into English for the benefit of an international audience and non-Irish speakers.

Two contributors write from the perspective of the immigrant or New Irish—one Greek, the other Polish. Unsurprisingly, their experience parallels that of several emigrant writers in the anthology, reflecting Ireland’s long and inglorious tradition of emigration. Untold numbers fled Ireland hoping for a better life in the USA, England, or Australia, often contributing to the working-class struggle on those new shores.

One of these is an early editor of People’s World, Tom O’Flaherty, a native Irish speaker from the Aran Islands, and founding member of the Communist Party USA. Another CPUSA member, Jimmy Gralton, is the only Irishman to be deported from his newly independent homeland for crossing the Church in 1933. At the time, he was a member of the communist Revolutionary Workers’ Group in his native Leitrim. He later was a candidate for the CPUSA.

Emigration is not only reflected in the poetry but also the lived experience of Anne Casey, Aidan Casey, or Mike Gallagher, for example. Peggie Caldwell, from rural Donegal writes of this experience continuing: “Fallacies echo: Live Register lowest it’s been since 2008./ But in these hills the white noise rebounds,/ the absence of fledgling song deafening us” (“Still They Go”).

Internationalism is at the heart Francis Devine’s poetry. In “The Steamship Hare,” he commemorates an act of international working-class solidarity, when the SS Hare, at the time of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, brought food parcels and other necessities for distribution among the families of striking workers in Dublin. The British Trade Unions funded the ship and its cargo. Pete Mullineaux writes movingly of low-paid workers in Asia in “Free Range.”

Along with the British socialist publisher, Culture Matters, the Irish Trade Union Movement was instrumental in bringing this anthology about.

PW: What are your hopes for the book, beyond catering to the crowd that may already be reading poetry?

The purpose of the book is to highlight that there is a large section of the population in Ireland, in any society, that is marginalised and whose concerns are not sufficiently heard. These are the people who are frequently in precarious employment, unemployed, even homeless, on short-term contracts. Their voices and interests are insufficiently represented in the media and even in the arts.

What we hope to achieve with this anthology is a sense of common identity and common purpose, and that these voices matter, that the experience of life reflected in the collection is one shared by many people. When the leaders of the Easter Rising, among them some fine poets, drew up the Proclamation, they presented a vision of a society of equals, where all the children of the nation—in other words all the people—would be cherished equally. This anthology gives expression to the fact that this has not happened for many people in Ireland.

I would love the book to be read widely. One of the contributors said to me that the reason she started writing was that she enjoyed reading but could not find anybody like herself in the books she read. This is what I mean about the working person’s voice. We read a great deal about the comfortable middle-class experience, less so about those whose lives are struggle.

So, this book is designed to redress this to a certain degree. I asked every contributor to include a non-standard biography for themselves for that very reason. The normal format is that a poet’s biography focuses on publications and never on social background. In a way, this creates a barrier for the reader who might like to read the work of people like themselves.

Another hope is that working people will not only find their lives reflected here but also see that poetry is not an exclusive middle-class domain or difficult to understand.

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland
Edited and introduced by Jenny Farrell
Available from Culture Matters


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.