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Poetry Magnum Opus

na Gile an bhróin (the lightness of sorrow)


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My blue-eyed beautiful gorgeous mam

dragged three kids through wartime Britain

in search of our father Liam, her demon lover,

lost on some jagged wind-blown building site,

and quite definitely not fighting for anybody,

unless, fair enough, for himself. Historically, you could

award a few points had he not deserted his hysterical

Kerry woman, me mam, a power unto herself,

dragging us through sleet and snowstorms to the next town,

Bradford, Leeds, or some other frightful Midland kip

where news had recently been heard. The day

we came into Coventry the Germans flattened it

and me mam took that personally. They were after Liam,

she said, and he fooled them. They nearly didn’t

feckin fool us, I was about to tell her, gazing around,

but she was never one to listen to peripheral stories.

Lucy, my sister, came down with a cold which got worse

and when she went and died of pneumonia in Yorkshire

I thought me mam would go demented, but she buried

her instead at the side of the road in the loose soil

and me brother Hugh and meself had to say three Hail Maries

for, mam said, the eternal repose of her soul. I missed Lucy.

I was worried about Hugh as well, never mind me mam,

who was away on her own, away with the fairies.


At the end of the day, many days in recollection,

didn’t we come to a stop in Scotland, in Edinburgh,

in some dank little kip up in the Old Town, sliding

precipitously off a cliff from their bloody High Street

where the mam took in washing, brought in, strangely,

by broad-beamed gentlemen with drinkflushed faces.

Hugh and I were then urged to run off and play among

incomprehensible hostile local lads in short trousers

who beat the crap out of us until we learned to fight together,

suborn allies, bully the weak, ingratiate the strong,

absorbing all the indelible ways of dealing with people

that served us so well in the yet-to-come IRA.

Hugh took to it like a duck to water, he’s still standing

at the right hand of Gerry Adams, having traded in his overalls

for Armani suits and trips to Brussels and Amsterdam.


Me, I fell in hopeless love. Her name was Jenny Armstrong

from the local bakery, weak in her health, strong in spirit,

and we had a delicate thing, she taught me about books

and we went to the theatre and opera together (OK, only once)

and we kissed once or twice but we never went much further

before she died on me. She was 16 when she left me alone

and I thought my life had ended. The business in Norn Iron

had just about started, the Brits were after sending the Army

and it was my young brother Hugh persuaded me to go over.

He seemed to know them all on the Catholic side, a term which was

never used, you were trained to say ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Republican’

but we knew it was all the same thing. No bleedin poor Proddy

would ever dare stick his nose in the door, not down in Ballymurphy

where young Adams (3rd generation) ran the show like Napoleon.


It was a war, sort of. People really did get killed on a daily basis

but an awful lot of it, to be honest, was sheer noise and propaganda.

You went out with your Armalite (thank you, America!) and had a few

clear shots at the Brits, and they’d shoot back, but the most of it

was nasty political shite, tit-for-tat assassinations, bombings,

euphemistic justifications (on all sides) for sloppy or clinical murder.

I got sick of it. They can sense that; before long I could expect

my own people to be coming after me, torture, interrogations,

because their greatest fear was informers. Brother Hugh was aware,

now cheek-by-jowl with the Army Council, the highest of the high,

getting me shipped off, this really happened, on a mission to America.


(Background, skipping over the boring bits: Leaving aside the gobsmacking fact that the only possible solution to the conflict was political, the leadership continued to seek military victory. One plan was to bomb the hell out of the major banks in the City of London. No need to kill innocents (the bombs went off at night), just gut the British financial centre and destroy international confidence in the country. This nearly worked: it definitely brought the Brits to the talking tables. The second thing, locally, was to destroy aerial reconnaisance and the British Army's quick deployment of troops to firefights: in other words, shoot down helicopters. The Afghans had used hand-held Stinger missiles to tremendous effect against the Soviets and our lot, basically, planned to do the same. Time to go shopping in America.)


America! Oh, God, you have no idea what it was like.

Five war-torn Paddies get off the plane at Kennedy

and run into a cheerleader screen of Irish-Americans

who think we are still fighting the Black and Tans!

They are two, maybe three, generations behind us:

they don’t fuckin know, they don’t care, but sure as hell

they will put their money down. We know we need it.

What follows is a strange peculiar game, because the people

who want to throw their homes open to us, make speeches,

have us appear at their local social clubs, talk about Ireland,

don’t have a clue about what we are doing. They are pillars

of the Irish-American community, and we are modern warriors,

rebels if you like, terrorists (according to the British),

and have already attracted the attention of the FBI. Not good.


Those weeks in New York were giddy, convivial, surreal.

I remember going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

alone, just to look at the paintings. A guy sidles up

then quickly slips away; another guy barges in, flips a badge,

says, “who were you talking to?” Fucked if I know.

Shopping for deadly missiles is not as easy as you think.

First, who can obtain and sell them? How to get them over?

The Irish-Americans, obviously, were clueless. The thing

with them was to get the money we needed, say, 200 thou,

either from Noraid or from local donations. Noraid was

stand-offish. They believed in helping widows and orphans

no matter what the Brits have said about them since.

They didn’t help. So we got in touch with criminal elements.

Criminals will supply anything as long as you pay them.

This is one of the things you can really count on in life.

They will try to cheat you, sure, but once threats are understood,

a deal, more or less, will generally go through. So we negotiated

and got a good deal going for about 400 factory-fresh missiles

but you know what happened next. The FBI were all over the scam

and we got out by the skin of our teeth. Through Mexico.


Upon reflection, I decided to stay in Mexico for a bit,

working hard on my Spanish, in Chiapas. Brother Hugh

seemed to encourage these language aspirations, hinting

that further undocumented travel was possibly advisable

and that an early return to Ireland might not be the best

idea in the barrel. Since when I have not been home more than

seven times (Ireland, Jayz, do what you like) and, recently,

don’t feel the need. Hugh’s on his way to becoming Taoiseach.


Mammy’s off in a home in Beaumont, she’ll be 93 next March.

She keeps talking to a person called Liameelucy.

Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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Hi Brendan, You forever suck me into your world which sounds very real but could easily be a yarn. I think you too young to to have experienced what you describe. But whatever is reality or fiction, you deliver beautifully and I felt such sadness yet acceptance in this tale. I am envious of your talent and I am grateful you are on this forum and continue to share your work here.



~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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Yes, Tink, I am far too young for wartime Britain (smiles) but there is a kernel of truth in everything I write because I have been listening to other people's stories and sucking them in since I was a child. The narrating "I" is sometimes me and sometimes somebody else: sometimes several somebody elses!!


Bang on, Tony! Boston's "Southie" reminds me of West Belfast in its tribalism and suspicion of outsiders. Another visiting Irish friend and I were told it would be better not to attend the local St Patrick's Day parade since we didn't come from the area ... and the guys who told us that were not hostile at all, just passing on good advice!



Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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Bang on, Tony! Boston's "Southie" reminds me of West Belfast in its tribalism and suspicion of outsiders. Another visiting Irish friend and I were told it would be better not to attend the local St Patrick's Day parade since we didn't come from the area ... and the guys who told us that were not hostile at all, just passing on good advice!

I don't feel so bad knowing that even a Dubliner might run into problems there, Brendan! I grew up about an hour south of Boston, and some of that weirdness filtered down into the county where I lived. I was actually relieved to find some people with a more pleasant demeanor when I relocated to a different county having a predominantly Portuguese population. I will say, though, I never met a person directly from Ireland whom I didn't like.



Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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Hello, there! I'm directly from Ireland.


I know exactly what you mean, though. Southie was weird even by Irish from Ireland standards. It was like a war zone, and they even had gable-end murals like you would see in Belfast, a city in which they actually had British troops and Loyalist paramilitary groups. What was the threat in Southie? Outsiders. Italians. Blacks. The Rest of Boston? I've never seen anything comparable anywhere else in the USA.


One thing that struck me was that the Irish-Americans were still incredibly racist in the East Coast cities, and also in Chicago and San Francisco. We never had anything like that at home. I think the Famine Irish of the 1840s and 50s came into direct economic conflict with slaves ... and the slaves were worth more! There are tales of wars to control the docks of New Orleans, anti-draft riots in New York, and a whole host of other conflicts in which the Irish actively went after negroes in order to get off the bottom rung. I was totally shocked when I first went to America to hear my second cousins talking about "niggers". I suppose it was because we were so close to being white niggers ourselves in the early days of emigration. Still, it was a jarring note!


An awful lot of things happened that have been swept under the rug; there are thousands of incidents that we are politely but firmly prevented from investigating. Naturally, it's all in the interests of overall harmony.



Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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This is excellent and significant. It exudes a down to earth 'Irish-ness' in much the same way that Dylan Thomas promoted 'Welsh-ness' through his wonderful radio broadcasts. This piece should be recited with an Irish brogue and committed to audio disc. You could do a lot worse than offer it to BBC radio 4 for one of their afternoon slots. It would be ironic to screw some cash from them. :icon_sunny: Benjamin

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I would be delighted to screw cash from anybody, never mind BBC4. Be realistic, please! Nobody pays for poetry. People just read it secretly. :rolleyes: Even that is OK, better than pissing in the wind. TG for the Internet!

Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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It's at least as good as the performance stuff I've witnessed on YouTube; still, I may be biased I suppose and it's true, no one wants to pay for anything these days let alone a poet's thoughts. B.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Wow! Did I enjoy this!


Now, this is how they should teach history. Take a truth and make it into something interesting that makes the reader want to know the rest. Tales well told, I loved it. The Irish 'you' so very evident.

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