LEST WE FORGET Poet Ger Reidy at a field edged with wildflowers in Carrowkennedy. Pic: Conor McKeown
Ger Reidy’s new poem, ‘The Last ambush’, evokes the intensity and poignancy of Mayo’s War of Independence
THERE is a timelessness about William Butler Yeats’s poem, ‘Easter 1916’. Like all good poetry, it resonates, invokes some new emotion, every time it is read.
It is like our little nascent nation stopped breathing as he penned those immortal lines:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Detractors dubbed the rising a ‘Poet’s Rebellion’, partly because of the literary credentials but political and military inexperience of Thomas McDonagh, Padraic Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett. But they missed an essential point. The foundation of all such fights for the freedom of self-determination and sovereignty are based on idealism and a poetic mindset.
True, the visceral experience of battles and war, brutality and injury will always corrupt and cause cynicism, but we just need to look at the early idealism of the First World War poets Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The pathos etched into their observations is, of course, heartbreaking with the benefit of hindsight.
War of Independence
IN The Mayo News’s recent supplement commemorating The War of Independence, the minutiae of the county’s contribution to this brave battle against our longtime coloniser provides a wide-ranging tribute and record of these tumultuous times. Our ongoing ‘War Stories’ series keeps that history alive and top of mind during this year of remembrance.
Here now we add a poetic voice to these many excellent accounts through a moving poem written by Mayo poet Ger Reidy, entitled ‘The Last Ambush’.
The Mayo News asked him to explain its genesis.
“When we arrive at a certain age, time gives up some secrets,” he asserted. “Fifty years is well within memory, it feels near, and another fifty would bring us back to these centenary years. We become part of history as we age, it becomes more relevant. The Second World War seems much nearer to me now than it did as a teenager in the ’70s and so too the events of 1921.
“I wrote the piece in May and June, with the summer solstice approaching, and tried to imagine how it must have felt to be dying or injured in the long grass or behind a wall, with the birds singing and the trees in full bloom, I imagine those thoughts running through their minds in those final hours.
“The Kilmeena ambush left the flying column scattered and in hiding near Skerdagh. I try to envisage what it must have been like to be on the run in the wild beauty of Mayo.
“The last ambush at Carrowkennedy may have had more significance at a national level than we give it credit. As a child, when Charlie Hughes and his wife visited our house at Christmas time, I had to sing ‘Boolavogue’ or ‘Kelly the Boy from Killane’. For him the War of Independence was a vivid living thing.
“I was very impressed with the leniency of Kilroy despite the brutality he was subjected to. I finish the piece with the fledgling insecure State subjected to emigration and the dream hijacked as depicted by Ernie O’Malley and painted by Seán Keating in that great painting, ‘The Allegory’.
“It is only recently that we have grown up as a tolerant pluralist European democracy that the men and women who fought and shed their blood would be proud of.”
It is always a luxury to be treated to the background to the inspirational muse that culminated in a poetic reflection. However, like Yeats’s Easter Rebellion 1916, the true test of a poem’s power is whether it needs to be bolstered by an explanation or analysis. Like so many of Reidy’s poems, ‘The Last Ambush’, speaks for itself.
The Last Ambush
Blood pulsing into the high grass
As the skylark flung notes like confetti
Into the long evening, too late now,
A time for memories, her embraces,
Family, mother, a sudden jolt of pain,
Writhing as the cuckoo and blackbird sang,
Flies, sleep for a while, then a shower of rain
On the expressionless face and the letting go
As the priest and the doctor ran over the fields.
Others escaped into the hills near Skerdagh
But Kilroy was impatient, a few weeks after
They picked off the machine gunner three times,
Let the others go, lenient, headed for the bogs,
Slept under the stars, hiding behind rock and fern,
Waterfall echo, wind in the pines, rain spitting,
Foxglove, sedge, sheep skulls and grey back crows,
Long shadows, clouds skirting in a northerly over
Devilsmother, Glenawough lake, Sheeffrey,
In the distance, Glenamong, Nephin, Currane,
Suddenly uniforms coming over the bray
Panic as they scatter again to safe houses.
Maybe it was that last ambush
That reversed the centuries of misery,
That last bullet fired for Emmett, Pearse,
The coffin ships and the wild geese,
Left us abandoned but free in an open boat
To sail without oars or sails in the dark
At the mercy of a fickle wind, becalmed,
To fight with ourselves, make our own mistakes,
The space sometimes filled with the self appointed
Hiding in the long grass, as we haemorrhaged.
Around now we can see the great canvas
Having recently shed the yokes,
Around now remember those who let go
Under the skylark’s brittle notes.
– Ger Reidy
• A native of Aughagower, near Westport, Ger Reidy has published three collections of poetry and a book of short stories.