The Sixco Kids: why Belfast poets are still writing about the Troubles.

It is fifty years since I lived in the North of Ireland and I still don’t know what to call it. I am sensitive to my status as no more than an interested outsider when I come to write about poetry and literary issues in the Six Counties.  My attention was caught by the apparent cancellation of the novelist, Rosemary Jenkinson, following publication in Fortnight magazine of an article where she argued that young writers should stop writing about the Troubles and that to do so was a form of regressive cashing in. The article met with a degree of outrage in some quarters and was followed by the cancellation of the writer’s publication contract with Doire Press which the publishers denied was a consequence of the article.[1] Nevertheless, this was a deplorable occurrence and while I disagree with Jenkinson’s views, I see no reason why she should not express them. At the same time as I heard about this controversy, I was reading the recent poetry collections of Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell, two young Belfast poets. Then came the war in Ukraine and the pronouncements of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying the Russia invasion as a defence of ‘Holy Russia’ and Orthodox Christianity against liberalism and LGBTQ+ values, [2] suggesting that in the West there was organised genocide of those who refused to allow Gay Pride Parades.  Such opinions are equally familiar from the far right evangelical Christians of the United States whose influence has become global and has, indeed, long been part of the ideological fabric in Northern Ireland.

Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell were both nurtured in the Seamus Heaney Centre of Queen’s University, Belfast.  Both would claim Ciaran Carson as a guiding influence and mentor. Yet both are generationally different from either Heaney or Carson. Both belong to the LGBTQ+ community but one has a Protestant heritage, the other a Catholic. These are two contemporary poets writing in an idiom which is 21st century and yet both are steeped in the experience of the Troubles.  How could this be otherwise when the truth of what happened is still suppressed and, if the British Government has its way, will continue be suppressed, and, as a result, peace and reconciliation seem as far off as ever?  

Padraig Regan’s first full collection, Some Integrity, (Carcanet ,2022) contains at its centre a prose essay ‘Glitch City’ which ponders queerness and violence and the uncertainty of boundaries, taking in the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the vagaries of Pokémon computer gaming and finally the fractured weirdness of the city of Belfast.  The three conditions of queerness, the nowhere land of the computer game’s Glitch city, and a Nationalist Catholic identity in a divided community, overlay each other so that the poet can write:

I thought to myself I’m used to this.  I am as much at home in a fractured maze of visible & invisible walls as anywhere. I’ve learned what every little queer must learn: to be alert, to be aware of where you are & are not safe.

The consciousness of being ‘not safe’, which recent events have made ever more prevalent, permeates this collection of guarded, aesthetic and ambiguous poems in which boundaries are never certain and shapes are constantly changing. The opening poem, ‘50ml of India Ink’ is a manifesto as it describes how the lac-bug discovers a new existence and significance as ink which makes meaning on paper:

            It performs its tiny fractal

            creep through the paper’s

            knitted capillaries,

            & finds itself astounded

            with significance. It means

            I am not yet dead.

So far, so good, one might think, but then the writer backs away from statement or assertion, with the classic ‘not un-‘ formation of the cautious:

            I was not untempted

            To leave this blank.

I did wonder if Regan, with this very emphatically black ink, was obliquely alluding to or challenging the notion of ‘white ink’ found in theories of écriture féminine developed by Hélène Cixous. Be that as it may, many of the poems in the book take up this theme of shifting identity, something particularly evident in the food poems, where transformation is necessarily key. In ‘A Machine for Harvesting Olives,’ the anthropomorphised olive tree laments for its denatured children, once so securely the signs of themselves: ‘You think I do not know/what happens in the press? There my children weep & die;/ their oily souls are wrung/from the pulp that once/they called their selves.’  There is violence and terror here, but it is subverted by the final Mandy Rice Davies allusion, ‘Well,/ it would say that, wouldn’t it?’  Well no, it wouldn’t, because it’s an olive tree and olive trees don’t talk. ‘Risotto’ sets out to disgust us with ourselves, our own bodies and how we transform or subject others to metamorphosis. This must be a chicken risotto, although I think I have read that Regan does not eat meat; certainly, this is enough to convert the faint-hearted to vegetarianism: ‘I try to stop my thoughts from turning/ to the bird whose bones I’ve commandeered & put to use in a way quite unintended.’ Regan recognises the process of cooking as the destruction of identity: ‘Everything I do, I do to rob them of their nature.’ Form, shape and identity are presented as fragile and impermanent; this could be, and is elsewhere, a recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender.  In this poem, the poet/cook/human is greedy, tyrannous and full of self-disgust: ‘I add the fat I’ve stolen from some calf I’ll never meet.’…”I eat it & I think about the moment that it will become// not it but I. & not without regret, I feel this process taking place.’ This is literally visceral and feels like too much information. The poem ends: ‘I hate/ my commitment to making more self to hate. It is not without regret.’  At one level, this sounds like the declaration of an anorexic; at another, we notice how these destructive and self-destructive lines are elegantly styled in a form of chiasmus, which perhaps reflects the contradictions inherent in haute cuisine and fine dining. 

The poet is writing about bodies, bodies of mushrooms, squid, chicken and even rice grains making us aware how vulnerable they, and by extension we, are to degradation and change. ‘A Roast’ is an extraordinary reflection on the crucifixion, where Christ becomes identified with a spatchcocked chicken in a way which manages to be both ironic and sacramental. The poet weaves two narratives, the cooking and eating of the chicken with work on ‘a study of ‘The Christ of the Foundations’: /the crucifix Saint Teresa carried /from Avila to Arévalo’. The medium is charcoal, itself a denatured material and it is ‘on my fingers & on everything now’. I connect the charcoal to the ‘smudge of shadow where His ribs/meet His abdomen’ so that boundaries once again are blurred; the smudging of charcoal makes everything unclear.  The pervasiveness of the charcoal also suggests guilt, or even sin, the shame which accompanies the eating of the chicken, presented through juxtaposition:

            There is a scraping of forks on plates,

            a clicking of knives.

            I’ve been having trouble with His face.

The poem reminds me of ‘The Feast’ by Robert Duncan (Passages 34) in Ground Work (New Directions, 1968). 

            –but the true measure is hidden in the fingers’ feel for the taste of it—

  and garlic

  rosemary   ground in the mortar

              salt, pepper, and drops of oil      workt into the emulsion…

                                    We have come to the Festivities!

 In both poems we are made to recognise that at the back of celebration, ritual and festivity is the eating of the sacrifice: in Duncan’s poem it is a lamb (possibly the Paschal lamb) ; in Regan’s, it is downgraded to a chicken.  At the end of the poem, there is a typical pulling back as we find ourselves outside, in what should be the real world:

            The buddleia creaks over the back wall

            & the moon, for the occasion,

            has dressed as the moon.

However, the literalness of the scene is subverted by the linking of the moon to the light which has preoccupied the previous stanza, and by the suggestion that the moon is not so much itself but has ‘dressed’ as itself, which takes us back not only to the various symbolic significances of the moon but to the notion that all identities are forms of posing, or passing or dressing up.

We could say that Regan’s poetry dresses up as the work of an aesthete, relishing the finer things of civilisation, art, literature, the pleasures of the table while it explores violence, sexuality, what it is to live in a body, disgust and fear.  A very large proportion of the poems relate to food and many others are to some extent ekphrastic, connecting in some way to works of art. The poem which ends Section II of the book and precedes the prose essay is ‘The Barberini Faun: A Partial Reconstruction’. Reconstruction is a particularly apt title because the classical sculpture has been patched and reconstructed by a number of artists since its rediscovery in the 17th century.  Perhaps what draws Regan to this image, apart, obviously, from its erotic beauty, is the inauthenticity  or lack of integrity of the body which is presented. It is a body which can be what its audience, owners, exploiters want it to be, from the time when, reputedly, it was used as a weapon and hurled at the beseiging Ostrogoths because ‘stone//was stone & useful/ for its own hard quiddity’. Regan moves from a summary of the various repairs done to the statue to a meditation on what they can read into it: the hair is ‘calligraphic’, demanding to be read, the ‘nubbed horns’ are there if you are looking for the satyr, as is ‘the twisted cord/ of his diminutive tail’, if you can actually see it; the ‘one //remodelled foot’ is indeed human not cloven. We can see the poet approaching and withdrawing from meanings: ‘I’d rather not believe//that he would spend/ his waking hours/knee-deep in rape, /despite the evidence.’  What evidence? Is this a reflection on war, on sexual violence as represented in art through satyrs or fauns? Is it a wistful hope that this powerfully physical image of male sexuality can be other than cruel or rapacious, despite the physical ‘aleatory’ mutilation of the phallus.  In the last section, the poet invests the statue with their own desires.

            Confronted with this

            immanent tonnage

            taking the shape

            of my desires

the poet considers their own reactions and interpretation,  the possibility of ‘one more revision// on the disputed/ & brutal text/that is his anatomy –‘.  The words ‘disputed’ and ‘brutal’ are almost antithetical; ‘disputed’ recognises the ambiguities of the figure while ‘text’ acknowledges that it no more than the uncompleted sum of different readings, but then ‘brutal’ takes us back to perhaps inescapable realities about physicality, sexuality and power. In the final lines of the poem, the poet concedes an intractable otherness:

                   …if he woke & saw

            the way I gazed at him

            he would break my neck

            as soon as look at me.

Section IV has more fruit and vegetables, much of it fairly squishy, although there is a ‘meat-shaped stone’ which might seem more resistant to deconstruction, except, of course, it is already something masquerading as something else. ‘A Pumpkin’, at the end of this section, is an extended sexual metaphor where violence and bad faith are again toyed with. This pumpkin is raped with a knife, but it ‘wants to split’ (my emphasis); it was asking for it: ‘It exposes its creamy interior.’ The poet enacts a violence on the pumpkin which is made more horrifying by its sensuality:

            & because I want a violence

            more intimate, I do this with my hands

            & feel its wet potential turn to pulp

            beneath my nails.

They then declare ‘a vicious sympathy’ with their victim, confessing a ‘want’ to ‘hold a space/ at the centre oneself, & have it filled;’ there is an unfulfilled wish for sexual union, ‘to bend the self around the presence / of something not-quite-other, not -quite-I’.  The eviscerated pumpkin is further mutilated, ‘I cut the pumpkin’s two bright domes/to crescent moons’ and this is done:

                                                …in the hope

            that when the resurrection comes,

            everything I have subjected thus

            will be returned inviolate

            & I’ll be nothing & forgiven.

This sounds like a wish to be unfallen, or possibly never to have existed in the fallen world of mutability, eating or being eaten. 

‘Ireland’ a two page poem in the final section is at once a train journey and something like a dream or nightmare sequence where nothing is as it is expected to be and nothing holds its shape. Again, there are a lot of vegetables, here behaving grotesquely, though I’m not sure why.  There are phallic carrots and macho ‘steroid-bulked marrows’ as well as pretty lettuces ‘graceful in their long dresses’ and pregnant turnips with ‘rippling bellies’ – although they might just be overweight. Regan seems pursued by human bodies but not at all comfortable with them.  I take this train journey to be from Belfast to Dublin or perhaps the other way around and the city which features in the poem with its references to ‘North Street’s burnt arcade’ and the ‘itinerant rivers’ I take to be Belfast, which for the poet is possibly as problematic and inescapable as the body.  ‘Ireland’ is a powerful poem where the use of fog and phantasmagoria convey the sense of uncertain and shifting identities at the proprioceptive and political levels.

Gail McConnell’s book, The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins, 2021) is at first glance, much more avant garde at least in terms of form. However, it does not tolerate the nebulous ambiguities of Regan’s collection; rather, it battles against them in a mode which is as much that of investigative journalism as of poetry. McConnell’s collection is really a long poem where she explores, not for the first time, her father’s murder. William McConnell was a deputy prison governor at the Maze prison, where many IRA prisoners were held. He was shot dead by the IRA in 1984 outside the family home, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter, Gail.  The full story has never been made clear, any more than have the details of his role inside the prison. An earlier long poem, ‘Typeface’, describes the poet’s compulsive trawling through the internet trying to find answers more satisfactory than those provided by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report.  The quest for truth beyond the endless official fudges and whitewashes is what drives this book-length poem. It is only with truth, however uncomfortable, that the individual can find peace and reconciliation, but in the six counties, as for this poet, the truth remains elusive.

The difficulty in working out what the truth is from the fragments available to her is evident from the very first page and reflected in the forms the poet chooses. Here she uses a mixture of grey and bold text to describe her own method, which is outlined in the bolded words: ‘easier to/take what I have found and break/it up…glue it back/ the wrong way…’ (p.11). The book becomes the DAD BOX (p.23) where she keeps old documents relating to her father and memories of childhood all of which appear fragmentary and lacking in coherence; the poems do not so much achieve order and coherence as present the experience of incoherence in an ordered way.  Various typographical and formatting devices emphasize how hard it is to get at the truth: there is what appears to be part of an incomplete witness statement from the poet’s mother, but a combination of erasure and vertical lines suggest that this statement has been suppressed. (p.60-64) Erasure is also used to undermine existing texts, such as the 23rd psalm which loses its quality of reassurance to become threatening.  I have photographed page 48 to convey the effect.

Elsewhere, pp.78-79, the pages are made up almost entirely of vertical lines, to give the effect of massive redactions or prison bars, again suggesting the difficulty of reaching the truth.

McConnell looks back at a childhood where the huge stain of her father’s death taints everything she experienced; on page 18, she writes about Brian, ‘our neighbour six doors down’ who may also have been her own alter ego, ‘there was a time when I was/ Brian’. The poem explains how ‘we knew not to say [Brian’s dad] was in the police’ and continues

            that day he must have been dead

            scared hearing the shots they’re

            coming now for him for me

Again and again, the poet returns to the murder which she cannot actually remember. Images of terror and violence permeate everything from computer games to dreams, as memories are interspersed with newspaper fragments, legal documents and papers belonging to her father.  The book conveys very successfully the experience of growing up in the Protestant community of Belfast. The family was apparently devoutly evangelical, Baptist in allegiance, so that Gail grew up in an atmosphere of Bible classes and summer holiday seaside missions. The writing is steeped in scripture references, and memories of church going.  On p.106 there is a description of baptism through total immersion, while earlier there is a visit to a friend, Katherine’s church, presumably Church of Ireland ‘mum says it’s higher’; it has angels and ‘men in white dresses’ but it is still within the Protestant fold.  The curious thing about this book, as also of Regan’s, is that there is almost no reference to the other community, except in vague and general terms. Regan’s essay referred to ‘Sandy Row, one of those gaps in my mental cartography of the city, where I rarely go and if I were to venture to I would affect a name less revealing of my background…’. What the poet does not say is that Sandy Row is a notoriously Protestant Loyalist working class street.  Similarly, McConnell refers several times to her father’s murderers, but always anonymously; she never mentions the words IRA or Catholic.

            Around noon, the men sent out

            for fish and chips and as they sat

            eating they watched the lunchtime

            news to find out if they had 

            killed their target

It is as if, like in The City and the City, the novel by China Miévillethe circumstance of two different communities living in the same place had become so existential as not to merit mention.

McConnell’s poem worries endlessly at the circumstances of her father’s death, showing how its impact on her has carried through her childhood and into adulthood. There are emotions of anger and loss at the absent father who becomes identifies with or confused with the ‘Father in Heaven’:

            O Father

            my father

            my Father in Heaven

            Father alone

                        who remains in me

                                                            p.94

However, at the same time the poet is trying to work out who her father was, a man she hardly knew and can barely remember.  She needs to know what her father did but the pain in exploring the reasons for his death, his job as assistant governor in the Maze prison, notorious for its brutal regime and repression of Republican prisoners, means that her approach is oblique. The word ‘screw’ appears first on p.22 where it refers first to the screw worm, apparently a flesh-eating fly, but then to a ‘screw eye’ which is a type of metal fastening but which introduces the idea of looking, searching, prying into that which is underneath – the slaters (woodlice) hiding under tiles.  The poet recognises that there is or has to be ‘dirt underneath my nails’ and towards the end of the book she attempts to deal with the dirt. On page 73 there is what seems to be a summary of the contradictions in the personality of a prison officer, who might or might not be her father.

            an eminent Christian worker

                                                            a bad man 

            a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated

                                    organised and directed beatings in the jail

Then, on page 80, the word ‘screw’ returns, this time with the primary meaning of ‘prison officer’.  

for so long it was hard

to mourn thinking from that side

of things bad bastard screw

in the mechanism the

panopticon     the architecture

of brutality knowing the theory

the cruel ingenious cage thinking

shit that’s him on the wrong side

of the gaze

The greyed words (bolded here because I can’t do grey)in the text are followed by grey bars or vertical lines which continue to the bottom of the page, again closing off the truth.  It is much easier to write about the past from the position of victim, much harder when you think you may have to identify with the oppressor, if that is indeed what your history is.  At the heart of O’Connell’s book is the need to know the truth, the whole truth.  Only by fully understanding her father’s role in the Maze, can she hope to reconcile her grief with her anger.  The book ends by returning to the image of the slaters in a present where violence is still an everyday reality

            as the robin sings the 

            lunchtime news reports another

            crash a bomb scare …

The slaters are at home, scurrying across the

            greening grouting lining tiles to

            what lies underneath it all

            comes up and out and in

            the window to the bit without

            the sun is open

The poem ends with the words of the title, insisting that what lies under must come up however much that entails dirt under the fingernails. Both these poets were born long after the Troubles began, both are adults in a supposedly post Troubles era.  For both, however, the Troubles are very much part of their present reality. Regan writes about the condition of precariousness which is reflected in the precarious society in which he lives; McConnell digs up and worries at what cannot be honestly left buried.  It would be bad faith for either poet to turn their back on the troubled history of Belfast or Norn Iron.


[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/rosemary-jenkinson-hits-out-at-publisher-who-dropped-her-after-controversial-article-1.4802892

[2] See article by Rowan Williams: https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/03/putin-believes-he-is-defending-orthodox-christianity-from-the-godless-west

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