Armagh Poet Foresaw Irish Crash
Peter Makem on predicting the demise of the Celtic Tiger and remembering the 'Ireland of the Light'
'In the 11th century,' says Peter Makem over tea and a cherry scone at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, 'Ireland was a great centre of learning, a place where people came to learn Latin and Greek and Hebrew, and to study the classics. They came from all over Europe to study at schools in Bangor, Armagh and Clonmacnoise. This was what I call the Ireland of the Light, Ireland before struggle, Cromwell, division.'
This is high talk, which comes easily to Makem, a County Armagh poet whose Yeatsian, Romantic verse is concerned with themes of Irish identity and culture. In his work Makem urges a return to notions of cultural unity and the spirit of learning associated with the monastic age. He envisages the Ireland of the time as an ideal, prelapsarian society.
If you had imagined Ireland as an inchoate, wildly uncivilised bog of shamrocks and primitive practices before the Plantation, you're sadly mistaken, according to Makem. From the fifth to the 11th century Ireland was the land of saints and scholars; piety and the love of knowledge was preached by the abbots and monks. This was Ireland as a kind of Alexandria.
'People may find this idea a bit eccentric, but to me it’s about finding a renewed and redemptive sense of nationhood by looking to an earlier time,' adds Makem. 'It’s about looking back to a time when Ireland was truly distinctive and incorporating this into our current sense of national identity, remembering this island as a place of the scroll and quill.'
Accordingly, Makem’s poem 'The Nation' turns from the perceived sterility of the present to find cultural recovery in a romanticized past, the rhythms measured, incantatory and self-consciously Yeatsian:
I speak the Ireland of the Light.
I speak the nationhood
Whose crown is set upon a head
Where scroll and quill bow and greet,
And call on golden deeds of old
That saved a dying continent
And made us glorious to the world
Re-set its theme, re sound its chant,
And drumbeat must sound again,
And the great call be heard again,
And old things be made again
And old things be done.
What perhaps gives Makem’s analysis of an Irish-nationalist cultural impasse piquancy is that he foresaw, in his 2002 poem 'The Celtic Tiger', the economic disaster now crippling the Republic. The boom years filled his poetry with trepidation:
And now in these new days
Full of fortune, full of pealing bell,
Speak the Elysian Fields,
Speak long of bloom and blossom.
Still and all, as jig and reel
Race to take our step
The old gods, motionless,
Watch us eye their script,
Watch us slowly scan the plot--
Be blessed now and evermore,
The point of ripeness
Is the point of rot.
'Ireland was dancing a wild reel,' says the poet of his prescient moment, 'and seemingly, no one could see that it was dancing into chaos. Even the media failed to express scepticism about what was happening – the Celtic Tiger was uncomplicatedly presented as a wonderful thing. I could see that the boom years would have a payback.'
The Point of Ripeness was Makem’s third anthology of poetry, published in 2002 by the Appletree Press. It was a call to remember the values of an earlier Ireland, baulking at the new wealth and forgetfulness of heritage and tradition.
Many of the ideas Makem champions – the purity or superiority of a past age, the quasi-mystical role of the poet, poetry as prophesy, Irish national identity as a matter of overweening importance – have fallen out of critical favour and become deeply unfashionable of late. Noughties-style cynicism and hyper-materialism seemed incompatible with clairvoyant ruminations on the nation or romantic-mystical reveries over loss and love.
It was fine for the decadents and the tragic generation to talk of the poet as prophet and seer. Yeats could (just about) engage with notions of mysticism without being dismissed as unhinged. But perhaps, as Makem suggests, we have lost something by switching off to what he calls the ‘ethereality’ of poetry, shrugging our shoulders at all mentions of depth or spirit until we’re left with little to believe in and all the old pomp of poetry is replaced by vapid, coolly-allusive vers libre:
'Poems allow you to leave everyday reality and access a different mode of reality, to escape into something deeper,' argues the self-styled Founder of the New Restoration Movement which, according to his website 'represents a return to a lyrical, carefully structured and deeply themed poetry'. 'It’s like listening to a musician play and being swept away, carried off by the music. To me that is a mystical experience, a spiritual experience. The Ireland of the Light, as I see it, appreciated this kind of deeper experience.'
Makem believes we need a return to Romantic grandeur and lyricism in contemporary verse. This, he says, is the age of the 'super-superficial', as he describes it in a poem, where we worship empty celebrity and have become the victims of a vacuous consumer-driven culture. Poetry then, as this poet sees it, is correspondingly diminished, without reverence for the hieratic traditions of the past, without rhythms that transport.
'Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could recapture something of the grandeur of Shelley and Wordsworth and Yeats?' Makem beams. 'If we could go back to the fundamentals of great lyrical poetry? So much contemporary Irish verse is stillborn, you couldn’t see it standing the test of time. Much of it is cryptic in the way a crossword is, but it doesn’t touch you deeply. The greatest depth is not philosophical or intellectual – it’s artistic depth, and to me writers and poets and musicians and artists of all kinds are there to help us escape into that depth.'
One of Makem’s most beautiful poems is 'Titanic', a reimagining of the ill-fated liner. Its lyrical intensity would have us escape into that depth. The careful rhythms speak more strongly than any conflated manifesto about the merits of a new romantic aesthetic:
From the centre
Of the polar Galaxy, her body forms.
Out of the spiral rims,
The immaculate, unbriny stars,
The slow, turning, winding layers
Raises up her arms.
Soon a descending figure
Will touch the arctic crown,
In the long twilight shimmer there
Stand under dusk and dawn.
To read more of Peter Makem’s poetry visit www.pmakem.freeserve.co.uk/.