Rising to the Rising collects Paul Muldoon’s various responses in English and Irish to commissions from the Irish Writers’ Centre, New York University, Poetry Ireland, RTÉ and others to compose verses to mark seminal moments in a country’s history. They evoke tragic aspects and the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Battle of the Somme just a few months later.
The work of a limitlessly gifted writer, it includes what might be the most enduring achievements of a nation’s celebrations and commemorations.
‘One of the artistic centrepieces of this year’s commemorations was the performance of this rap-like text by Paul Muldoon [‘One Hundred Years a Nation’], with music by Shaun Davey played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and sung by 1,100 voices. It was moving and celebratory but also scathing and provocative, giving space to “gombeen financiers”, “parish parasites”, ghost estates, mass emigration, “bloody assassinations” and the “bomb’s abominations”. It is hard to think of another nation that would acknowledge its failings so furiously even as it celebrates its foundations.’
— Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times
It seems, by now, that almost everyone has encountered some new or commissioned artwork that responds to the Easter Rising. Investment in the work of artists has generated an impressive range, and prompted many kinds of experience, and conversations and debates, about who we were and who we want to be.
For poets, the example of the 1916 writers has for a century shaped questions about the relationship between art and its political consequences. Unsurprisingly, that example has been more pronounced than ever this year.
Paul Muldoon has been involved in a number of the official projects and his new book, Rising to the Rising (Gallery, €10pb; €17.50hb), collects poems he has written for the Irish Writers’ Centre, RTÉ, the Arts Council, Writers’ Centre Norwich and New York University. The most high-profile of these, One Hundred Years a Nation – a collaboration with composer Shaun Davey – was performed by a 1,100-strong choir in Collins Barracks.
In his author’s note, Muldoon admits that he was set a task “most sane souls would pass on”: in the poem’s nine pages, he riffs across 5,000 years of the island’s history and namechecks Newgrange, Kilcash, Kilcolman, Glenmalure, Knowth and Dowth, the great stag and the wolfhound, and the harp and the shamrock. It does not give much room or licence to the mischief and imaginative wit we expect from him.
He coaxes some material out of Mother Ireland as her “great breastworks and booby traps” give way to “the augmented breast / and broader wi-fi bands”, but the closing lines are more strictly self-referential as they imagine the impact of their own occasion: “a cheer never raised / now given grounds / to sound at last through Ireland loud and clear, / one hundred years, / one hundred years, / one hundred years a nation.”
Muldoon is more relaxed and virtuosic in the book’s other poems, whose long views also counterpoint natural and human history: The Eoghan Rua Variations plays nine variations on a quatrain by Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, including this typical snapshot: “The English pound / the GPO while we ourselves meet brute / strength with brute / determination. The pipit interweaves wondrous blue / and that workaday sandbag jute.”
And July 1st, 1916: With the Ulster Division is both limber and agonised as it imagines its speaker thinking of home as he goes over the top:
At least we’ll be spared the back-
breaking work of late August in a flax dam, the stink unfurled
like a banner across the moor
where great-coated bodies rest.
— John McAuliffe, Irish Times
Year Published: 2016
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 682 8
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 683 5