More Irish Poets Rediscovered

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Sunday March 6 at 6 p.m. The lyrical function on RTÉ lyric fm, Claire Cunningham presents Sublime wishs, the second program in an occasional series that tells the stories of poets whose work has been rediscovered.

All the poets of the series are anthologized in a recent book, Irish poetesses rediscovered: poetic readings from the 18th to the 20th century (Cork University Press), a groundbreaking new collection of original essays that reclaims the vital, vibrant and subversive voices of seventeen extraordinary Irish women poets, including Emily Lawless, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Blanaid Salkeld, Ethna MacCarthy, Lola Ridge and Freda Laughton.

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Listen to the first episode of Sublimer Wishes | The lyrical function

By paying renewed attention to the poems they wrote, exploring the worlds in which these wonderful women moved and the obstacles they faced as writers and artists, Irish poets rediscovered presents their innovative, diverse and far-reaching work in a lucid, accessible and jargon-free style. Written by a range of experts in the field of poetry, from established university professors to young scholars and practicing poets, each essay focuses on a single poem before opening up to illuminate larger themes and issues. With its lively and accessible introductions to the exciting, cross-border work of a range of Irish poets, this book is a timely addition to the burgeoning critical field of Irish women’s writing.

In this excerpt from the collection, scholar Carol Baraniuk examines the poetry of Florence Mary Wilson. Born in Antrim in 1874, Wilson’s poetry crosses boundaries of time, place and genre. As a woman writer within an Irish Protestant tradition of literary and political nationalism, her poetry draws on both Irish folk traditions and the Scots-influenced dialect of Ulster.

Excerpt from ‘The Sea-Folk’, by Florence Mary Wilson (1874-1946)

I saw the carousel of the people of the sea

Roun Rachra in Dawn;

On their leppin white horses

Thunder.

I wish they hadn’t looked my way

So be it that I could forget,

‘Cause they tried to turn the boat on me

And they tore up my trawl.

Every wan wi’ a whippin’-weed

Whipped to his foaming horse;

An’ him who drove the hardest

Carried a drowned corse.

I closed my eyes on the way,

Swingin’ through the brine,

But out of the whirlwind of the old

Ceann Ban I saw her wet hair shine.

The Brief Lyric Poem of Florence Mary Wilson people of the sea is memorable for its evocation of the tumultuous seascape off Rathlin Island on the north coast of Ireland, its blend of folklore with lived experience, and for the perfectly rendered voice of its speaker: a county fisherman of Antrim which reveals the details of a terrifying and supernatural encounter. His fast-paced account reveals that while enduring extreme conditions at sea, he had the misfortune to come across a group of newts rolling a drowned corpse through the water and the raging foam.

In a speech typical of this part of Ulster where the Scottish influence is strong, the narrator immediately draws the reader into the experience he has undergone, conveying his horror through short and tense comments, such as “I wish they hadn’t looked in my direction.” ‘ and ‘I closed my eyes on the way’. Thus he indicates his terrible certainty that he fell under a curse because of what he saw, and because he too has now come to the malign attention of the people of the sea, having ventured into their element .

Although the narrative is necessarily laconic, Wilson’s stimulation of the senses is powerful and focused. The rhythmic pattern is not smooth, sometimes varying unpredictably between iambic and trochaic, or in line length, to convey the erratic rocking of the boat and the disturbed state of mind of the speaker. Onomatopoeic expressions frequently assail the reader’s ears: ‘whippin’-weed’, ‘lashed’, ‘skirlin’, translating the beating of the seaweed, the engulfing foam and the howling wind of the storm. Visual details are used for maximum effect. The speaker conveys the grand prospect of the seas between Kinbane Head and Rathlin, effectively employing place names in the local forms, ‘Ceann Ban’ and ‘Rachra’; then, in a particularly chilling moment, he remembers, at his fingertips, the “shin of wet hair”.[ing]’ on the corpse, all the more sinister as it is glimpsed in the uncertain twilight of dawn.

In the final stanza, the speaker contrasts the peaceful death and quiet grave he wishes for with the violent drowning he now feels doomed to at the whim of the ruthless people of the sea. It is a fascinating piece to read and conveys to the rational reader not only superstitious fear, but also the truly petrifying and unforgiving environment of the wild Atlantic, with which the fisherman in his little boat must engage.

The Lyric Feature: Sublime Wishes Episode 2RTÉ lyric fm, Sunday March 6 at 6 p.m. – listen to more The Lyric Feature here


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