Can Europe Make It?

Knowing your place

Thinking of some lines of poetry by Derek Mahon.

Leonie Rushforth
21 December 2020
Cuba-Ireland mural - Shiels St, Belfast
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Copyright © 2008 Extramural Activity

Derek Mahon, speaking of his arrival in Dublin in 1960 to attend Trinity College, said of the place he was born: “I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it.”

That wasn’t the whole story, of course. Eight years later in the poem Spring in Belfast he reveals more about his feeling for the city that had formed him. This is its closing stanza:

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

He begins by confessing to a divided mind in the form of a flat statement of fact. This is the first of many questions for the reader of the poem – why is this the case and an apparently accepted state of affairs? is this part of his mind the one still prepared to acknowledge Belfast as its place? or is it the one that has most successfully got away and has reparations to make? what about the other part? In the context of this strangeness and uncertainty, we move on in the line to see Mahon shaking out the grim expression knowing one’s place. That is, don’t get above yourself; don’t ask for more than is permitted; don’t question. The expression is all about power and submission to it, and as with all things to do with power, there’s the threat of violence behind it: know your place or there’ll be trouble. So we take in the class dimension of what Mahon is thinking about when he speaks about knowing Belfast; to know the city is to have to confront the structures and strictures of the powers governing it. And in this way Mahon brings the reader right up against the savage colonial history of Britain in Ireland. All this in one line.

But there’s a literal dimension here as well – the poet’s mind knows its city imperfectly and partially – there are things to learn about the place. Mahon was raised an only child in a Protestant household – he called it a quiet house. His father and his grandfather were employed at the Harland & Wolf shipyard, and as soon as he reached grammar school his friendships with Catholic children were discouraged. Knowing Belfast in any way at all was to know it as a desperately divided place and to be systematically cut off from a lot of it.

Divided places divide minds. It should be no surprise then to find Mahon identifies one part of his mind that must set about putting this ignorance right – and this is a different form of submission, not to those who tell us to know our place but to the hard realities of ordinary lives.

In the three lines that follow, he defines what this learning work might feel like and it’s very different from the pity he accuses himself of indulging in so far. It would not be enough though to abandon pity just to take up another version of keeping a safe distance, this time a sort of anthropological interest, even if it’s a compassionate one. Both the interest and the pity are described as casual, that is essentially undependable. The relation in these lines between should and exact bears some thinking about too, because the chronology is hard to follow. We move forwards to pity in the unfolding of the sentence and yet pity, in the logic of the grammar, is where the poet starts. The things that happen demand he relinquish the protection pity affords him and instead involve himself in a committed interest. Engagement in other words is the price exacted.

When fellow-poet from the North, Paul Muldoon, described Mahon as ‘the unlikely laureate of the Protestant working class of North Belfast’ he was right in both immediate and far-sighted ways.

Mahon lived in London for much of his life, returning to Ireland in 2003 – not to the North but to Kinsale, where he died in October this year. These were productive years for him and the last of 5 late collections was Washing Up (The Gallery Press).

The concluding poem in this collection, published soon after his death, is called Word to the Wise. Addressed to Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland, a poet and a friend, it thanks him for his spirited and humane leadership at this critical time and looks forward to a great change. This is no giddy hope. The rhyming couplets progress hand in hand by way of clear-sighted whole-hearted statements like this one:

The answer, as you know yourself, is ‘simple
but not easy’; to change minds for example,
to get through to the venal and obtuse,
put manners on that shower in Leinster House,
devolve the ownership of the country to
the people of the country, not the few…
… an old idea long overdue

The gesture of solidarity across the Irish Sea to the as-yet undefeated Corbyn project suggests that transformed relations between Ireland and Britain were part of the change he felt sure was on its way, but his eyes are on Ireland first and foremost. He believes in the capacity of the working people of the Republic and the North to imagine ( because only the imagination can set us right ) a different future for themselves in which divisions, in minds and islands, are overcome, as he makes clear when he chooses another island for comparison and puts this question:

if the bold Cubans could do it, why not us?

This piece was originally published in the Splinters December edition .

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