War Words

Genevieve Swift and Andrew Eaton read original compositions and archived material at PRONI

Many Northern Irish writers are both familiar with and fond of the Public Records Office, having spent long hours amongst the archives researching or digging around for inspiration. The staff at PRONI have recently commenced a series of themed readings and lectures allowing local writers to present work connected to their archives.

These showcases provide a fantastic opportunity to see how historical research has inspired and influenced an artist’s work. This War Words lunchtime reading falls, somewhat predictably, in the midst of a season where the artistic calendar has been dominated by events commemorating and interpreting the outbreak of the First World War.

It would be remiss of PRONI not to mark such a major historical event, especially when they house so many incredible documents related to the period 1914-1918. And yet, with four years of WW1-themed events ahead, artists are soon going to feel the challenge of trying to approach the war from unique and engaging angles. I am intrigued to see how PRONI begin this conversation.

The reading is split into two sections, with Belfast-based actor and dramatist, Genevieve Swift, using the first half hour to share a smorgasbord of excerpts from diaries, letters, poems and other archived materials. Strikingly dressed as a landgirl and illustrating her readings with images from the PRONI archives, Swift takes us on a whistlestop tour through the First World War as represented in both national and international literature.

Poems from established voices such as WB Yeats and CS Lewis nestle alongside local voices like Ballymena-born poet Robert Smiley, who served with the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and never returned from the Front, and Derek Mahon, whose poem, 'The Homefront', casts a deliberately matter-of-fact child’s eye over the events and implications of the Second World War.

While the poetry selection is a little disjointed and occasionally leans too far towards the verbose sentimentality which often appears in war poetry of this era, the non-fiction readings from the PRONI archives are unique, intriguing, and in places, extremely moving.

They feature guidelines for how to remove bodies from the battlefield during trench warfare – 'be careful to check that people are actually dead before burying' – extracts from George Hackney’s war diaries and, perhaps most interestingly of all, letters between an 18-year-old pilot, Edgar Foster and his mother, detailing his brief training, even briefer period of active service and subsequent internment in a German POW camp.

Each of these documents are potential novels in and of themselves. As enjoyable as it is to visit each briefly, however, it would perhaps have been more effective to spend some significant time exploring a handful of these wonderful pieces of literature in detail.

Andrew Eaton, a Phd student at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, then leads us through the second half of the programme. Named after his grandfather, who passed away before his own birth, Eaton recently inherited a shoebox of cassette tapes containing his grandfather’s memoirs of three years spent in an Indonesian POW camp after the battleship on which he was serving sunk during the Battle of Java Sea (1942).

The creative element of Eaton’s Phd is centred around writing poems which respond directly to these tapes, and over the course of 20 minutes he reads a series of these poems based upon everyday life in a POW camp.

There is something mesmerising about listening to an artist interpret what is essentially his own, oftentimes painful, family history in such a beautiful and poignant fashion. Eaton’s reading style is measured and hypnotic.

Lines like 'music was whatever moved between the fences', and 'a simple sound could mean that hope was near, or grief', seem to resonate deeply with the audience, reminding us that war, and the legacy of war, is not only a public, but also a private struggle. Or, as Eaton so aptly begins his reading, quoting WB Yeats, 'out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves poetry'.

Visit the PRONI website for information on forthcoming events, and the Creative Centenaries for events and projects complementing the ongoing Decade of Centenaries celebrations.