From the Irish

by Kieran Healy on March 17, 2004

It’s St Patrick’s Day, and I’m thinking about terrorism. So here is a poem from “James Simmons”:,J/life.htm.

From the Irish
Most terrible was our hero in battle blows:
hands without fingers, shorn heads and toes
were scattered. That day there flew and fell
from astonished victims eyebrow, bone and entrail,
like stars in the sky, like snowflakes, like nuts in May,
like a meadow of daisies, like butts from an ashtray.

Familiar things, you might brush against or tread
upon in the daily round, were glistening red
with the slaughter the hero caused, though he had gone.
By proxy his bomb exploded, his valour shone.



Henry 03.17.04 at 2:09 am

Non-Irish readers may be able better to appreciate the precise nature of the heroism involved if they know what a “proxy bomb” is. This was an IRA twist on the suicide-bomb, where the IRA would take over the home of some bloke (an SDLP supporter or the like) and tell him that they would kill his family unless he drove a vehicle filled with explosives into an army checkpoint. Heroism indeed.


Jonathan Lundell 03.17.04 at 2:13 am

I’m reminded in turn of Yeats on revolution:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’


Sean H. 03.17.04 at 3:25 am

You’ve got a morbidity problem. St. Patties Day is about drinking green beer and having a good time. Not sick poems about “shorn heads” and “entrails.” Get help.


mark 03.17.04 at 4:35 am

Actually, St. Patrick’s day is, unsurprisingly, supposed to honor St. Patrick. I believe he was somebody who may have been a slave, thought that a clover was sort of like God, had an aversion to snakes, and loved puking in alleyways in Boston.


Carlos 03.17.04 at 5:03 am

Well, dropping bombs on cities from a Stealth isn’t much more heroic than that, right? It’s about as risky and just as selective.


Maynard Handley 03.17.04 at 5:24 am

Isn’t ir worth pointing out, over and over and over again, that the IRA derived the bulk of its funding from the US, and that a number of US politicians went out of their way to equivocate on the issue of whether what they were doing was bad — noble cause, justice and all that you know.


Mrs Tilton 03.17.04 at 11:37 am


Sinn Féin and the IRA have had a lot of funding from the USA, but I’m not entirely certain that’s where they got the bulk of their funding. If nothing else, they had a profitable line in bank robberies.

US political support for republicanism is a different matter. It’s an entirely cynical thing. There are a lot of Irish-Americans whose strong emotional ties to Ireland are matched only by their ignorance of Irish affairs (‘When are the English settlers finally going to permit the catholic majority in Northern Ireland to vote?’). Making pro-SF noises plays to this sentiment (and ignorance) and costs nothing – though the majority of Americans of Irish descent are in fact protestants, few if any identify with the unionists. Without suggesting that the issues are at all morally equivalent, it’s a bit like Italian politicians speaking out against the American death penalty – it speaks to a lot of Italian hearts and minds but has nothing to do with the choices those politicians must make in running their own country and which could come back to haunt them. All upside and no cost; what politician wouldn’t love it?


digamma 03.17.04 at 2:28 pm

By the way, I caught everybody’s pal John Derbyshire attempting a sneaky slander against the Republic of Ireland on Monday.

Ignorant Irish-Americans have definitely supported terrorism inadvertently through Noraid. I wonder if anyone has done a thorough survey of IRA sympathizers abroad on the left. It was a big surprise to me when I read the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine’s first album and saw them describe Bobby Sands as an inspiration – does a general sympathy for the Catholic side exist among hard left groups around the world? And can similar currents be found among conservative Catholics?


GMT 03.17.04 at 2:58 pm


Joshua W. Burton 03.17.04 at 4:12 pm

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the howl of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.

Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch.


roger 03.17.04 at 4:46 pm

Speaking of Irish poems that are appropriate for this war season St. Pat’s, here’s one from Patrick Kavanaugh:

Little men, at work, reconcile me to the great.

Dogs barking. Men with guns.
The foul canal, brown-swollen by the rains,
Is lined with trigger-happy mothers’ sons.
And not one simple man to clear the stinking drains.

Above my window cockney-sparrows build …
Hard to doubt the gay congruities,
Hard to live without complacencies.
Things are just as bad as we were told.
These busy squatters seem accomplices—
Straw from a beak blurs the page as I write.
Out in the street this morning there was a fight.
One of the men fell jerking in a fit.
I took my watching white-face on my well-shod feet
Down to my garden gate.
One barefoot watcher looked at me and spat.
Well, build from spittle and sparrow-straw bricks for a song!
Why, when it is impossible to Belong
Do all of us long for that more than anything?

Perhaps to write and rhyme a sense of loss
Makes one isolation briefly less.
Steel-helmets make that seem ridiculous.

For us no quasi-romantic State of War:
You scarcely notice when you live with fear.
If little lights were little one by one
Could any of Europe’s bonfires have lasted for long …?
But who has words to say all that again?

Meanwhile the dogs are barking. Sentries yawn.
Someone, somewhere, switches the street-lights on.
Domestic sparrows end where they began.
We must leave tomorrow to the morning.
Perhaps tomorrow we shall wake up grown.
For if some bayonet or bomb cuts short the growing,
We know that nobody’s better off, and that’s worth knowing.

Djakarta, 1958


Tom 03.17.04 at 5:42 pm

It’s worth pointing out that the style of the poetry is taken from epics such as “The Tain”; it’s a take-off of the description of Cuchulain’s feats in battle.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.17.04 at 6:28 pm

I used to work in an Irish pub — the people who gave to Noraid there knew damned well their money was going to fund the IRA.
You know, I loved that place. I even used to love going out on St. Paddy’s (Patty is a grrl), but you’d never catch me drinking green beer. But I have to agree that your basic Irish-American is pig-ignorant when it comes to the history of Ireland between the Famine and Michael Collins (the movie). For me, perhaps because the spouse worked in The City long ago and was far too close to the location of a bombing, and because there’s still a hulking wreck of a bomb site near my in-laws house in NW London, I don’t see the glamour. I also feel terribly uncomfortable with the fact that Mssrs. Adams and McGinnes (sp?– don’t have time to check — off to give an exam) are spending the day with GW. I expect that nice white ex-terrorists and/or friends of terrorists are exempt from the WOT.


jackNYC 03.17.04 at 7:57 pm

Interesting juxtaposition, the poem/the day. Revealing, as are some of the comments. Does this pathological hatred of things Irish run through your society as a whole, or merely certain segments?


Mrs Tilton 03.17.04 at 8:05 pm

You’ll find that the fellow who posted this thread and the fellow who wrote the poem are somewhat Irish themselves.

And I should think hatred of what’s described in the poem — which ought to run deep through every society — is anything but pathological. Can’t say the same of the ‘vols’, or those who cheer them on from across the Atlantic.


jackNYC 03.17.04 at 8:57 pm

“somewhat Irish” is that like somewhat pregnant?

Would you be fine, rose pinned to your jacket and all, with Kieran choosing April 23rd
to post a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah extolling the *virtue* (sarcasm) of empire? Would the taste of his timing go unquestioned?

I cheer for no blood spilled, across any ocean.


Henry 03.17.04 at 9:29 pm

You appear not to understand that Mrs. Tilton (herself a Gaelgeoir) is using the phrase ‘somewhat’ as a class of a sarcastic understatement. Kieran is as Irish as being born and raised in Cork can make you. As someone who’s also ‘somewhat’ Irish – my upbringing is a mixture of Tipperary and Dublin – I didn’t see anything in the least bit inappropriate in Kieran’s post. I do however see plenty that’s inappropriate in the beer-sodden ‘wrap the Green flag round me and up the ‘RA’ ersatz patriotism that some Irish-Americans see as the appropriate way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Your bizarre statement that Kieran’s post constitutes ‘pathological hatred of all things Irish’ suggests that you adhere to a definition of Irishness that I, and most other real, actual Irish people, find to be embarrassing. But then that’s never especially bothered your like in the past.


Katherine 03.17.04 at 10:26 pm

1) Surely poetry, even devastating poetry, is as much a part of being Irish as green beer? As is the recent history of the country.

I’m less shamefully ignorant about it than I was a year ago, but I didn’t know what “proxy bombs” were until this thread. My God.

2) We’ve got some St. Patrick’s day-related and terrorism-related poems going here, though not both at the same time.


bad Jim 03.18.04 at 3:56 am

Perhaps this site as a whole requires a prominent irony warning.

In the lobby outside a performance of Carmen in Southern California a few years ago there was a prominent sign warning of cigarette smoking during the first act and a gun being fired in the second. These days you can’t be too careful.


JackNYC 03.18.04 at 6:09 pm

“It’s St Patrick’s Day, and I’m thinking about terrorism.”

So, Kieran’s from Cork and Henry’s “upbringing is a mixture of Tipperary and Dublin” (WTF?)…..and over here Clarence Thomas is a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. (Just to give you guys something to shoot for)

“It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’m thinking about gangsta’s”

I’m done. Get a psychologist to explain it to you.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.18.04 at 8:18 pm

Don’t need a psychologist — you just have to have seen St. Patrick’s Day from more than one country’s angle. Or perhaps just to be a bit more aware of history. From a purely logical standpoint, I can see a progression: St. Paddy’s to big holiday for Irish (and Irish wannabe) Americans to Irish pubs to Noraid collections to contributions to the IRA. Because we’re freeing the motherland from the hands of the English tyrant.


Mrs Tilton 03.18.04 at 10:38 pm

Jack, you seem to be having trouble with Kieran’s statement that ‘it’s St Patrick’s day and he’s thinking of terrorism’. Apparently you read this as indicating that the first item to pop into Kieran’s head upon any mention of anything remotely Irish is terrorism. Physician, heal thyself.

Whilst I am not a mindreader, I think it’s clear enough what was behind Kieran’s post. It’s not what you’re assuming at all. Let me help you:

1. He wrote ‘It’s St Patrick’s Day’ because it was, well, St Patrick’s Day.

2. He was thinking about terrorism because there’d just been a very nasty example of it; perhaps you read about it in the Post.

Multitasking, old son; multitasking and synthesis. They’re beautiful things. See if you can’t pick up the trick yourself.

Comments on this entry are closed.