- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Listen to the American poet Dana Gioia, and he’ll tell you there’s something special about Northern Ireland.”There’s prob- ably no other place in the English-speaking world over the last half century with such a density of poetic talent as Belfast,” says Mr. Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Something remarkable happened there. Poets in Northern Ireland fulfilled their ancient role of speaking for the people with a wisdom and clarity not found in other public speech.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Washingtonians will have the luck to meet two generations of contemporary poets of Northern Ireland, in what the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon has called a “jamboree” of readings and reflections, at a two-day symposium at Georgetown University and at an evening of readings at the National Geographic Society, which Mr. Gioia will introduce.

It’s all part of the Rediscover Northern Ireland Festival, which peaks with the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in June and July and runs through August.

Along with the poetry, there will be concerts, literary events, art and craft shows, movies and theatrical performances. More than 40 cultural and arts events will showcase the diversity of today’s Northern Ireland.

The wee place of just 1.7 million people is poised to take Washington, if not by storm, then by sonnet, song and story.

“We’re invading,” says Philip Hammond, creative director of Rediscover Northern Ireland. “We want to show as wide as possible a range of Northern Ireland as it now is.”

The necessary poets

The timing of this festival could not be better. Northern Ireland “as it now is” is at a unique juncture. It’s on the verge of not just true peace between sectarian factions that waged bloody war in the province for some 30 years, but of shared power and joint governance by those same factions — wary of each other yet weary too, and willing to talk instead of shoot.

Perhaps it’s no wonder: During the Troubles, as that time is so understatedly called, more than 3,500 people died.

But despite those three decades of violence and uncertainty, the poets of Northern Ireland seem to do their craft better than just about anyone else.

“Northern Ireland has produced more than its fair share of poets,” says Mr. Hammond of Rediscover Northern Ireland.

“The last half of the 20th century saw a huge revival, with poets who are still writing today, like Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon, who are considered icons of Northern Irish poetry.”

But Northern Ireland’s history, with its stories of the clash of Protestants and Catholics, British and Irish, Scots-Irish and Anglo-Irish, is never far from sight or mind.

“When a society is in crisis, one of the things that happens is that those who are most inclined to be introspective, are,” says Robert Mahony, professor of English at Catholic University, who teaches a seminar about contemporary Irish society as part of the Irish Studies Program there.

“Poets are there to do this, but it may take a while for us to realize that they are necessary.”

The weight of years

The history takes some explaining — and, as always in Ireland, “trouble” goes back almost beyond recall.

Today’s Northern Ireland comprises the larger part of the ancient province of Ulster, in the early 17th century the most stubbornly resistant to England’s five-century-long rule. For that reason the British crown in 1609 massively expropriated native Irish landholdings in Ulster and moved in English and Scottish Protestant settlers to take them over.

It was this Ulster “plantation” that, upon Ireland’s partition in 1921 — after three more centuries of repression, rebellion and war — became the core of the mostly Protestant Northern Ireland, six counties allied with Britain, while the 26 predominantly Catholic counties of the south became the Irish Free State and eventually, in 1949, the independent Republic of Ireland.

Most historians see the legacy of that partition in the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s with Catholic pressure for civil rights but became essentially a guerrilla war, waged by largely Catholic groups hoping to join the Republic against mainly Protestant factions wishing to remain united with Britain.

When the era came to a close in 1998 with the so-called Good Friday Agreement, the society itself began slowly but surely to change, as both sides looked for better ways to live together.

Now, after nine years of political maneuvering, the inauguration of a joint Unionist-Republican administration in Belfast is set for next month — and it’s not overstating things to call the event historic.

Poetry in time of crisis

The Georgetown University symposium, “Befitting Emblems of Adversity: Lyric and Crisis in Northern Irish Poetry 1966-2006,” takes its starting date from the first publication of the work of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated poet, Seamus Heaney, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1995.

But it centers on the time of the Troubles, to explore how poetry in Northern Ireland not only survived but flourished in the midst of such turmoil.

“We want to focus on poetry as a social resource, as something to affirm when society is dysfunctional,” says George O’Brien, a professor of English at Georgetown University and director of the symposium.

That poetry remains such a viable medium in Northern Ireland today is a testament to the Irish love of language, from riddles, conversation, stories and songs to the carefully structured sonnets of Michael Longley or the oblique references of Mr. Muldoon, both of whom will appear at the Georgetown symposium and the National Geographic reading.

“Poetry has its roots in ceremonies that go back to our earliest ancestors,” says Mr. Longley. “I don’t mean something that’s artificial, but something with its roots deep in the human psyche. The best poetry has its echo in something basic and primitive.”

A part of life

Perhaps that’s easier in Northern Ireland, where the sweep of the past lies so close to the surface.

“Poetry has a much more coherent position in Northern Irish life,” says Christina Hunt Mahony, Robert Mahony’s wife and acting director of the Center for Irish Studies at Catholic University, who will be a panelist in the Georgetown symposium. “That is a distinction between our two societies.”

For these Northern Irish poets, the art of writing can be one way of taking charge of situations that can seem at times to be beyond control or resolution.

“Just being a victim gets you nowhere,” Mr. Mahony says. “A solution is not something to wait for. You have to work to make it happen.”

And Northern Ireland’s poets don’t shy away from putting any aspect of the human experience into their works, from the most sublime to the most trivial.

“A good poet is exploring through the poem,” Mr. Longley says. “A good poem has movement and vitality. It should be taking the poet into unknown territory.”

A singular voice

Poetry is universal yet particular, says D.C. Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick, who has spent time in Northern Ireland and will introduce several of its writers at the downtown bookstore-coffee shop-performance space Busboys and Poets on May 16.

“Poetry is a singular voice,” she says. “At its best, poetry helps us to look at ourselves and the world around us with a different consciousness.”

Yet, while the Northern Irish continue to embrace poetry, many Americans are moving further away from it.

“You need to have good teachers who hold poetry in high esteem,” says Mr. Muldoon, who notes the role of his own teachers, as well as Mr. Heaney, in encouraging his love for the genre.

“People are not exposed sufficiently to it, in school or in the press. I think every major newspaper should carry a poem at least once a week.”

In and above the fray

Of course, it helps to read the rest of the newspaper as well. The changes in Northern Ireland since the Troubles have been substantial.

Yet Mr. O’Brien notes that his students often rely more on stereotypes than actual facts when it comes to thinking about the region’s history.

“They tend to think of things in black/white terms,” he says. “It’s all about religious suffering, the IRA and the evil Protestants. But poetry uses language in a much more complicated and idiosyncratic way.”

So it’s dangerous to think that the violence of the Troubles was responsible for the outpouring of poetry. A number of poets were well under way before the Troubles erupted, including Mr. Heaney and Mr. Longley. And poets don’t always like to be so direct in their expressions of national anger — or angst.

“Many of the poets think of themselves in a Whitmanesque kind of way,” Mr. O’Brien says. “They can be jazz lovers, nature lovers. The politics alone is not the impetus of their poetry. It’s important to get beyond those facile binaries and appreciate the many strands and colors.”

Moving the reader

Such sentiments may in part be responsible for the reason that the poetry of Northern Ireland is so vibrant and vital today; it never had the chance to become moribund in form or locked in meaning.

“Our only charge is to write a good poem,” Mr. Muldoon says.

And a good poem is, always, one that moves the reader.

Mr. Longley’s poem “Ceasefire” generated tremendous interest when it debuted in the Irish Times in September 1994, shortly after the Irish Republican Army declared a “complete” cease-fire and sparked hopes of peace.

It uses the story of Priam, the vanquished king of Troy, who has to beg for the return of his son’s body from his enemy Achilles.

I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

The image of the old king lowering himself in order to “do what must be done” for the next generation moved what might have been a simple retelling of an old tale into a kind of object lesson that had implications for the present and future in a region plagued by decades of sectarian strife.

“It really did reverberate,” Mr. Longley says. “Edward Kennedy even quoted it. I am pleased to think that I might have made a tiny bit of difference.”

He did make a difference — but that particular IRA cease-fire lasted only 17 months.

The land remains

Although Northern Ireland’s poets may differ in language, style, content and form, Ms. Mahony notes that there are certain “hallmarks” in the poetry from this region that help to point the way toward true north.

“The speech and dialect in Northern Ireland is different from other regional dialects in Ireland or England or even Scotland, with which it shares some dialectical traits,” Ms. Mahony says.

Northern Irish poets are also fond of topographical references, although landscape poetry is hardly an exclusive trait.

“Read Ciaran Carson, and you can reconstruct the map of Belfast by his naming of streets,” Ms. Mahony says.

In fact, place names are so important to the Northern Irish worldview that Rediscover Northern Ireland has scheduled a symposium on them for May 16 at the Library of Congress.

Mr. Hammond points to the language-laden emotionalism of the North, the use of language, and the subtle layers of meaning that surround the poetic core.

“You really have to peel away the onion,” he says. “For people who don’t know the references, it can just go over your head.”

And whether they are writing in classical couplets or experimenting with free form, most of Northern Ireland’s poets seem to agree that poetry, whatever its structure, still matters, and should matter more.

“The hope is that these programs can remind Americans of poetry’s public potential,” Mr. Gioia says. “So much of what we have is disposable, but people are longing for something different and more powerful.”

Ms. Kendrick puts it a slightly different way.

“Anybody can understand poetry,” she says. “It is a universal tongue.”

WHAT: “Befitting Emblems of Adversity; Lyric and Crisis in Northern Irish Poetry 1966-2006” — A Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival

WHERE: Copley Formal Lounge and the InterCultural Center Auditorium, Georgetown University, 37th and O streets Northwest

WHEN: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. April 17, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. April 18

PARTICIPANTS: Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn, Gerald Dawe, Edna Longley, Sinead Morrissey, Nick Laird, Greg Delanty, Frank Ormsby, Bernard O’Donoghue, Nicholas Allen, Patrick Crotty, Coilin Owens, Jefferson Holdridge, George O’Brien and Christina Mahony. Seamus Heaney is unable to attend because of illness; he will be seen in a video conversation recorded last month.


INFORMATION: See lannan.georgetown.edu and follow the links.

WHAT: “A Shower of Rhyming Couplets: Poetry from Northern Ireland”

WHERE: Grosvenor Auditorium, The National Geographic Society, 1600 M St. NW

WHEN: 7:30-9 p.m. April 18

PARTICIPANTS: Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon, reading from their own work and introduced by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

TICKETS: $8.50-$17

INFORMATION: Call the box office at 202/857-7700 or buy online (with a nonrefundable fee) at nationalgeographic.com/nglive.

Time in Ireland influenced D.C. poet’s work

When Dolores Kendrick, the District’s own poet laureate, introduces a group of writers from Northern Ireland at Busboys and Poets on May 16, she’ll be doing so with some very personal knowledge of the place.

“My experience there was one of the great experiences of my life,” says Ms. Kendrick, who lived in Northern Ireland on a Fulbright fellowship during 1963-1964.

Arriving at a time when the Troubles were beginning to brew, Ms. Kendrick, a Catholic, found herself assigned to teach at St. Louise’s Secondary Modern School for Girls, which served a low-income population that frequently left school at 16 in order to go to work.

During her time there, she wrote extensively about the things she saw.

“I was steeped in what people were telling me about the horrors and pain they were going through,” she says. “Certainly, there was something of a political nature about the poems I was writing then. These people were like my family.”

She returned about four years ago, and was struck by how modern everything was.

“They’ve really moved into the 21st century,” she says.

Back home, Ms. Kendrick continues to promote the value of poetry — “real poetry, not verse,” as she puts it. Poet laureate since 1999, she is about to start a new Web site, “Voices of Vision,” an initiative designed to celebrate the work of contemporary poets.

And Northern Ireland still figures in her own work. Her latest poem, “The Belfast Psalms,” evokes a damp and rainswept city teased by a playful sun.

40 events showcase Irish arts

The Rediscover Northern Ireland Festival, timed to peak with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in June and July, kicked off last month on St. Patrick’s Day and will showcase the province through more than 40 events that run into August.

Next week’s poetry symposium at Georgetown University and poetry readings at the National Geographic Society are just two highlights of the festival. Still to come are concerts, talks, literary events, art and craft shows, movies and theatrical performances designed to show the breadth of Northern Ireland’s culture.

Here’s a sampler, arranged by date. For a complete schedule, see rediscoverni.com.

• Brian Irvine Ensemble: Library of Congress, First Street and Independence Avenue Southeast. Coolidge Auditorium, Jefferson Building. 8-10 p.m. April 27. 202/707-5502 or loc.gov/loc/events.

• The Belfast composer and his 15-piece group meld punk, contemporary classical music and jazz in a madcap blowout of energy. Admission free; tickets required with a service charge through Ticketmaster.com on line or at 301/808-6900 or 410/752-1200.

• Peace Cafe: Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. 6-10 p.m. April 30. 202/387-7638 or busboysandpoets.com.

• A one-time-only performance of Northern Ireland playwright Marie Jones’ one-man play “A Night in November,” with Belfast-born actor Marty Maguire.

• ‘Resolutions: New Art from Northern Ireland’: The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues Northwest. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, April 24-July 29. See american.edu/cas/katzen.

• The new North as reflected in the work of 18 contemporary artists, among them Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Susan MacWilliam, Ian Charlesworth, Dan Shipsides, Simon McWilliams, Darren Murray, Gail Ritchie, Gary Shaw and Jennifer Trouton. Admission free.

• Bug Off: Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest, 6 p.m. May 4 (202/467-4600); Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, 2 p.m. May 5 (301/280-1660).

• Children’s opera by Belfast composer Stephen Deazley and librettist Simon Glass performed by the Opera Theatre Company, the busiest professional opera company in Ireland. Millennium Stage admission free; Imagination Stage admission $10-$20.

• Traditional Arts and Folk Music: Library of Congress, First Street and Independence Avenue Southeast. All events at noon. All free. Coolidge Auditorium, Jefferson Building, unless otherwise noted.

• John Moulden, singer and writer, lectures on traditional music (Mumford Room, Madison Building) May 2; Rosie Stewart of County Fermanagh sings traditional songs May 9; The McPeake Family, the third and fourth generation of the legendary musical clan, in performance May 16; singer and guitarist Daithi Sproule and Highland piper Robert Watt, May 23; Belfast flute player Gary Hastings and Derry singer Brian Mullen, May 29.

• ‘Renewal: Printmakers from the New Northern Ireland’: International Arts and Artists, 9 Hillyer Court NW, second floor. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. May 4 to June 22. 202/338-0680 or artsandartists.org.

• Print exhibition from the Belfast and Seacourt print workshops.

• Anacostia Mural Project: ARCH Training Center, 227 Good Hope Road SE. May 5-20. 202/889-5000 or archdc.org.

• Northern Irish mural artist Tracey Gallogly teams up with American muralist Cheryl Foster to create murals in Anacostia that reflect community aspirations.

• Sunday Afternoon Concerts: The Phillips Collection Music Room, 1600 21 St. NW. 4 p.m. all dates. Admission included in the ticket price for the exhibition on show at the time. 202/387-2151 or phillipscollection.org.

• Jonathan Byers and Richard Sweeney, baroque cello and archlute, May 6; Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea, violin and piano, May 13; Michael McHale, piano, May 20; David Quigley, piano, May 27.

• Writers’ readings: Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. 6-9 p.m. May 16. 202/387-7638 or busboysandpoets.com.

• D.C. Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick will introduce poets and writers Glenn Patterson, Lucy Caldwell and Owen McCafferty, who will read from their works.

• Northern Ireland’s Place Names, Folklife and Landscape: Library of Congress, First Street and Independence Avenue Southeast. Mumford Room, sixth floor, Madison Building. 2-5:30 p.m. May 16. Free; advance registration required through loc.gov/folklife/northern-ireland; follow the links.

• Symposium featuring Kay Muhr, chairman of the Ulster Place-Name Society and researcher for the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Henry Glassie, professor of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and author of four books on Irish culture.

• ‘Scenes from the Big Picture’: The Catholic University of America Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, May 18-June 24; pay-what-you-can preview 8 p.m. May 17. $15-$20. 800/494-TIXS, 202/595-1915 or solasnua.org.

• Washington’s Solas Nua Theatre Company teams up with the Tinderbox Theatre Company of Belfast for this production of Owen McCafferty’s evocation of 24 hours in the life of a Belfast community.

• Rediscover Northern Ireland on Film: AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. May 31-June 5. $6.75-$9.25. Check times and dates at 301/495-6720 or see afi.com/silver.

• The best in contemporary films from Northern Ireland, opening with “Titanic Town” at 7 p.m. May 31. The lineup includes “Kings” (in English and Gaelic with English subtitles), “Shellshock Rock,” “Teenage Kicks,” “The Mighty Celt,” “Mickybo & Me,” “The Crying Game,” “Breakfast on Pluto,” “Middletown,” “Bye Child,” “Omagh” and “Tell It to the Fishes.”

• Prints from Northern Ireland: Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 8230 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Sundays and evenings by appointment. June 18-Aug. 25. 301/608-9101.

• The contemporary visual arts center and gallery dedicated to paper, prints and book arts will show prints from Northern Ireland. Meet artist-in-residence Jill McKeown June 23; call for times.

• Titanic in Belfast: Union Station, 40 Massachusetts Ave. NE; Main Hall, West Hall and West Porch. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily June 26-July 15. See titanicinbelfast.com.

• The story of the great ship — built in the Belfast shipyard, which in 1912 was the biggest in the world — told through the archives of the National Museums of Northern Ireland, including photographs, film, and Marconigrams. The main attraction is a newly discovered 12-minute newsreel on nitrate film showing the White Star liner as she sets off on her maiden voyage on April 2, 1912.

• Smithsonian Folklife Festival: The Mall. June 27-July 8.

• Celebrating the Mekong River of Asia, the state of Virginia, and Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland program will feature performers, artists, storytellers, craftspeople, cooks and workers to highlight the region’s history and traditions. Special attention to industries, home crafts and modern community expressions such as murals.

• Phil Coulter: Warm Sounds of Northern Ireland: National Museum of Natural History Baird Auditorium, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. 7:30 p.m. June 30. $18-$25. 202/252-0012 or residentassociates.org; follow links.

• The renowned composer, pianist, and arranger in a special performance with Brendan Monahan (pipes and whistle) for the Smithsonian Resident Associates.

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