“Our part to murmur name upon name” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”
In college, we preferred William Butler Yeats’ fairy and esoteric poetry. We instinctively knew that the world was “more full of weeping” than we could understand. In our own way we dreaded “the monstrous crying of the wind” even if for us it was only real-life after graduation. His “widening gyre” sounded cool if incomprehensible; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” was fun to chant; while “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” was delightfully subversive. His political poems were opaque to us.
After college, I read for pleasure and self-improvement. I learned some Irish history (not taught in schools). Last year I re-read Yeats and remarked to a friend that “he makes so much more sense if you know Irish history.” In his poem “Easter, 1916,” Yeats deems that it’s “heaven’s part” to weigh the suffering of the Irish people, while “our part [is] to murmur name upon name.”
That is what the The Wolfe Tones did in their concert at the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Philadelphia on March 6. The night was a celebration and remembrance of Irish patriots. The best part for me, a professional librarian and amateur historian, was the slide show of primary source photos and documents. Historical images were projected on a screen behind the band as they played. Images of the 1916 Proclamation joined Belfast and Derry murals; photos of Dublin’s GPO under siege were interspersed with breathtaking views of The Cliffs of Moher and the Powerscourt waterfall; and photos of many of the men being remembered accompanied the songs of their valor. As the band sang and played, I realized I had more history yet to learn.
These are some of the songs that were sung that night, and the history behind them:
“The Foggy Dew” commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising against the backdrop of W.W.I. Many Irishmen refused to fight for England against the Central Powers when their own beloved Ireland was not free. The 1500 patriots who fought for Irish independence on Easter Monday 1916 are remembered in this song:
“But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the springing of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.”
“Sean South of Garryowen” tells this tale: On New Year’s Day 1957, the I.R.A. raided the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in Brookeborough, Northern Ireland. Two men, including South, died. (O’Hanlon is commemorated in the song “Patriot Games.”) This song proclaims:
“They have gone to join that gallant band
Of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone
A martyr for old Ireland
Sean South from Garryowen.”
P.S. I heard he wasn’t from Garryowen.
Brian Warfield called for respectful silence during “Joe McDonnell.” McDonnell participated and died in the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh/H-Maze prison protesting the prison conditions. I.R.A. prisoners demanded the right to be treated like prisoners of war and not criminals; including the right to wear their own clothes and not a prison uniform, and the right to be exempt from prison labor. He went without food for 61 days and died on July 8, 1981. He was buried in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast next to Bobby Sands and other compatriots. The lyrics to Joe McDonnell famously proclaim:
“And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you looked down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you had done
You had plundered many nations; divided many lands
You had terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”
The night wasn’t all protest songs; the band did a fine job balancing love songs and war songs; fast songs and reflective songs. The 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Celtic Football Club was remembered in their rousing “Celtic Symphony,” and the beauty of Ireland was celebrated in “The Cliffs of Moher.”
Because Irish history isn’t taught in schools, we learn it only through poetry and song. I thank the Wolfe Tones for their music, the excellent slideshow, and for the impetus for encouraging me to delve more deeply into 20th Century Irish history. And I honor those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.
“Patrick Pearse: One of Ireland’s Noblest Martyrs” from Century Ireland. (November 17, 1917.)
Poems referenced in the first paragraph:
“for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” is from Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”
“the monstrous crying of the wind” is from Yeats’ “To A Child Dancing In the Wind”
“widening gyre;” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” are all quotes from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”