War Poetry

My review of From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945, edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson and published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is on-line on Guardian Books.

It is interesting to read From the Line alongside Gerald Dawe’s Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-45. Dawe has more wars to play with, given the nature of 20th century Irish history, and his anthology covers World War I, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars and The Emergency, aka World War II.

The most immediately striking difference between the two books is the almost perfectly monoglot nature of the Irish one. Dawe includes just one poem in Irish, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s post-Hiroshima ‘Aifreann na Marbh’ (Mass of the Dead). It is salutatory to be reminded that the poet-soldiers who fought for their vision of a Gaelic Ireland were, for the most part, monolingual minor Georgians, with the exception of the somewhat Whitmanesque Pearse.

It is worth remembering that over 200,000 Irish men volunteered to serve in the Great War, many of them in the belief that they were fighting for Home Rule; a tiny fraction of that number participated in the Easter Rising. Yet when the survivors of the war came home they found themselves somehow on the losing side, often viewed as little more than traitors to the emerging Free State. Some fought their erstwhile comrades in the War of Independence and then against each other in the Civil War, many just packed their medals and memorabilia away and never talked about it again.

Observers of the various recent state visits between Ireland and the UK will be aware that this silence has only very recently been broken. Most Irish poets who fought in the trenches were simply forgotten. A good number who fought in World War II just never returned. Dawe serves them well by recovering them from this ill-deserved oblivion, and the effort involved is qualitatively different from that required from Goldie and Watson.

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