Harrowing of the Heart

Bloody Sunday poetry collection from Guildhall Press reviewed by Ross Moore

In the introduction to Harrowing of the Heart: the Poetry of Bloody Sunday, editors Julieann Campbell and Tom Herron note the ‘number and diversity of artistic responses’ that Bloody Sunday has provoked, envisioning the anthology as ‘a sort of archive’ for creative replies to the day.

On January 30, 1972, British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civilians (and wounded a further fifteen, one of whom, John Johnston, was to die of his wounds the following June). As an archive of responses to atrocity, Harrowing of the Heart is profoundly democratic.

The book is an archive, recording the cultural ephemera of the hastily written ballad, the poem composed locally as events unfolded, or the anonymous condolence message. Free of hierarchy, the collection places such works alongside those of some of NI's major poets and playwrights.

Harrowing of the Heart is dedicated to ‘the fallen and wounded of Bloody Sunday’. As an archive of artistic responses and as an act of commemoration, the editors query why Bloody Sunday - out of all the horrors of the conflict - has evoked such an ongoing creative engagement.

They draw on Eamonn McCann’s distinction that victims of other atrocities of the Troubles have been generally acknowledged as having ‘been wrongly done to death and the perpetrators damned as wrongdoers,’ but that this was denied the Bloody Sunday victims. Instead, writes McCann, their families were told, in effect:

‘that while they might personally, reasonably, lament the loss of a loved one, they had no wider ground for grievance or legitimate expectation of the killers being punished. The state stood by its own. All the dead were thus diminished.’

So, state the editors, the people of Derry ‘found alternative means of remembering their collective loss and highlighting their demands for truth and justice’. The commemorative marches which have taken place on the anniversaries since are one means of doing so. Harrowing of the Heart is another.

While most pieces here deal directly with the events on the day, it is striking that many of the poems and song lyrics choose to make the commemorative marches their focus. Eoghan MacCormaic’s ‘Marchers’, for example, emphasises the legacy of Bloody Sunday through a description of those who continue the march decades later:

‘of the faithful who have walked
sadly, proudly, defiantly,
along this route, seventeen Sundays,
seventeen years’.

He gestures towards the possibility of present danger, noting ‘a camera slung round a neck/idly, hopefully idle’, this danger itself another legacy from that defining moment of the conflict.

Gerry Dorrity’s poem ‘One Sunday’ opens with a grandfather, father and son again taking part in the annual march. As they walk, the father passes on to the son the story of what happened in January 1972 (‘For those wounds are still open, we haven’t healed them yet’). As in MacCormaic’s poem an ominous note pervades the present. The son’s voice ends the poem:

‘We’ll walk beyond the Guildhall Square,
I want to see what happens, I hope it turns out fair'.

That many of the anthologised poems and songs (such as Declan McLaughlin’s ‘Running Uphill’) focus on the commemorative marches rather than the march itself suggests that even apparently private, lyrical responses to Bloody Sunday are aware, at some level, of the larger commemorative project they help constitute. This may be taken as emphasising the editors’ point of the need for alternative means of commemoration, particularly in light of the subsequent Widgery Tribunal and its official diminishment of the dead.

The majority of the contributions come from Derry residents, onlookers to the events of Bloody Sunday, or neighbours or relatives of the dead (as in the case of Paul Campbell, Jackie Duddy, and Niall Kelly). Most readers will be coming to these works for the first time here.

However, the work by well-known writers (notably Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon) illuminates in different ways. Heaney’s ‘The Road to Derry’ was written in 1972, but didn’t surface until the 25th commemoration of Bloody Sunday. Originally, as the helpful notes inform us, it was intended as a song for Luke Kelly, to be sung to the air of The Boys of Mullaghbawn. Note the resultant stress on place-names, the ballad-like cadences and the use of internal rhyme:

‘The Roe wept at Dungiven and the Foyle cried out to heaven,
Burntollet’s old wound opened and again the Bogside
bled;’

The expertise of the lines notwithstanding, the rhyme scheme is not far removed from those employed by some other poems in the collection, allowing this poem by a Nobel laureate to take its part fittingly, almost unassumingly, alongside its neighbours.

The second Heaney poem, ‘Casualty’, from the 1979 collection Field Work, is among his masterpieces. The poem deals with the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, particularly the funerals, when: ‘Coffin after coffin/Seemed to float from the door/Of the packed cathedral/Like blossoms on slow water.’

But Heaney’s protagonist, the main focus of the poem, refuses to be constrained by the ‘swaddling band’ of community. He dies in an IRA bomb attack on a bar where he is out drinking (‘Nightly, naturally/Swimming towards the lure/Of warm lit-up places’) in defiance of the Provisional’s curfew on the evening of the Bloody Sunday funerals.

Harrowing of the Heart: the Poetry of Bloody SundayAs an elegy to the Bloody Sunday dead and to Heaney’s friend, Louis O’Neill, the poem maintains a perfect poise and balance. The editors are to be commended, in the context of a commemorative anthology, for including a poem that points towards the often complicated context of individual tragedies.

Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Year of the Sloes, For Ishi’, an obliquely surreal poem, forms tentative parallels between the genocide and colonialism of frontier-era America and contemporary Ireland. The editors quote Muldoon’s claim that the poem was written as a ‘direct response to Bloody Sunday’ (it is the final poem from the poet’s first collection, New Weather, published in 1973); however the poem itself is anything but direct, proceeding by means of a subtle accumulation of suggestion and allegory:

‘In the Moon
Of the Black Cherries,
While he was looking for a place
To winter,
He discovered two wagons
Lying side by side
That tried to be a ring.
There were others in blue shirts
Felling trees for a square.’

Anthologies can be telling. Who would have imagined that Muldoon, that most apparently ‘oblique’ and indirect of poets, would have contributed two poems to a collection subtitled ‘The Poetry of Bloody Sunday’? Or that Heaney, who has had a deep poetic engagement with both community and politics, would contribute to the same volume a poem that commemorates, on one level, the renegade, the man who ‘would not be held/At home by his own crowd’?

Jackie Duddy’s ‘Looking Back to the Future’ was written when the author was 12 years of age. It is told from the perspective of his namesake and uncle, who was killed on Bloody Sunday, imagined here as observing the changes to his city in the years since his death.

As such, it commemorates both an individual life cut short and the lost way of life of a whole community. It is all the more effective for the almost laconic, matter-of-fact language which is used. Mary J Devlin’s ‘Derry’, written in 1974, also contemplates the city, this time in the direct aftermath of Bloody Sunday, ending with a statement for the dead:

‘The writing on the wall
Will be their epitaph –
There is no tombstone big enough
To tell their tale.’

The extract from Laurence McClenaghan’s play A Long Auld Walk portrays the anxiety of a mother in the company of her daughter and neighbour, waiting for her husband and son to return home on that Sunday in January.

A Long Auld Walk was staged in Derry’s Playhouse Theatre in 2004, and judging by the extract, the tension and immediacy must have been powerful. Equally powerful is the collection's final dramatic excerpt, ‘Heroes With Their Hands in the Air’ by Fintan Brady and Eamonn McCann.

This has been adapted from McCann’s book The Bloody Sunday Enquiry: the Families Speak Out, thus as the anthology draws to a close the families of the dead speak of their alternating hopes for, or disappointment in, the Saville Inquiry. Many of the relatives have pragmatic expectations, such as Regina McKinney:

‘The only thing I want out of it now is for the men who were shot to go down in history as innocent … I am proud the way my father died, not that he was shot but that he had his hands in the air, that he had nothing in his hands, that he did not retaliate. To me he is a hero. Every one of them was in their own right. Heroes.’

Harrowing of the Heart closes with a focus on the present, with Jimmy Duddy noting the extent to which present-day American massacres in Fallujah resemble British actions on Bloody Sunday (‘The Americans killed thirteen or fourteen…’); it also, as it awaits the outcome of the Saville inquiry, contemplates the future. However, the final poem, Niall Kelly's 'I Am Told', emphasises the devastating personal loss carried through the generations:

‘I am told
we have the same eyes,
Yet we have never met.
I am told we have the same face,
Yet we have never spoken.
And I would.
If he told.’

The precision and care taken by the editors towards their project is apparent throughout. The contributor notes prove invaluable in providing context to the individual pieces, and in an anthology such as this a sense of literary context is essential.

Editorial care is apparent also in the skilful placing of the contributions. I don’t think it a coincidence, for example, that Thomas McCarthy’s ‘Counting the Dead on the Radio’ (preoccupied with how the breaking news from Derry intrudes into the lives of a family in the Republic) is preceded by Hugh Gallagher’s ‘Bloody Sunday’, with its skilful reference to Southern politicians ‘standing idly by’ as they attended the funerals of the dead.

If I have one reservation with any of the editorial comments, it is this on John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s song 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', which they claim ‘stands as one of the finest republican ballads of recent times’. For the anthology’s sake, we can only be thankful that its companion piece, 'The Luck of the Irish', makes no overt references to Derry.

The strength of the anthology is the range of artistic responses that it includes. Both JP McMenamin’s ‘The Story of Bloody Sunday in Verse’ and Gallagher’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ re-tell the anecdote of how space reserved for dignitaries in St Mary’s Chapel, on the day of the funerals, left ‘the real mourners’, friends, neighbours, Derry people, ‘Outside the Creggan chapel/In the howling wind and freezing rain.’ Harrowing of the Heart, by way of contrast, brings them in.

Harrowing of the Heart: The Poetry of Bloody Sunday, published by Guildhall Press, is available online and from quality bookshops, priced £8.95.