Terrible Beauty: Irish Poets and the Conflict in Ireland

Updated on June 6, 2019
Marie McKeown profile image

I am a global citizen who has been lucky enough to live in many parts of the world and make friends with people from many cultures.

WB Yeats, Ireland's most well-known poet wrote about the 1916 and 1919-21 conflicts.
WB Yeats, Ireland's most well-known poet wrote about the 1916 and 1919-21 conflicts.

Poets Respond to Irish Conflict

"All is changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born"

So WB Yeats prophesied in his poem 'Easter 1916'. In a single line, he captured the ambiguity of Irish politics at the time - the beauty of struggling for freedom, the terrible consequences of violence.

Ireland had seen centuries of conflict with Britain, bloody rebellions, civil war and finally the Northern Ireland Troubles. This history of divided loyalties and political violence has not confined the poets of Ireland to writing only about conflict, but it has provided a significant backdrop to their work; another, darker, layer of meaning.

Irish poets include fervent Irish nationalists who were involved in the armed struggle against Britain, but most were peaceful people looking on aghast as violence and war spread across the island.

Their words, written as events unfolded, describe the history of conflict in Ireland in a way that textbooks never could. Most importantly, the Irish poets have captured the emotions, the human experience of conflict which the history books inevitably ignore. Being Irish men and women themselves, Irish poets have been personally affected by Irish conflict, and their conflict-related poems give a uniquely personal perspective on historical events.

A medieval Irish king is entertained by his poet.
A medieval Irish king is entertained by his poet.

Land of the Sword: Early Irish Poetry and Conflict

When the Anglo-Normans first arrived in Ireland in 1169, they found a society where bards and poets were held in equal esteem with kings. Much of the role of medieval Irish poets was to praise the exploits of the king they served - this usually involved praising the kings' brave deeds on the battlefield.

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland in the late 1500s and the subsequent Plantation of Ulster which began in 1607 marked a turning point in Irish history, and for Irish poetry. A series of bloody rebellions against British rule in Ireland took places from the 16th to the 18th centuries - in 1595, 1641-9, 1690, 1798. A bard in Elizabethan times summed it up so well; "The land of Ireland is sword-land".

At the same time, native Gaelic culture declined and the Gaelic language was almost totally replaced by English as the language of Ireland's poets. Unfortunately, the propensity for Ireland's religiously-divided society to fall into conflict did not change - the twentieth century was to bring some of the worst violence that the island has ever seen. The reaction of Ireland's poets was to serve as a moral voice in dark times and also to give words to Ireland's undecided relationship with violence.

An artist's depiction of the 1916 rising.
An artist's depiction of the 1916 rising.

Terrible Beauty: WB Yeats and 1916

William Butler Yeats is Ireland's best-known poet. Born to an Anglo-Irish family he was a prominent cultural nationalist - he worked hard to preserve the folklore traditions of Ireland and did much to create a national literature in Ireland which based itself on Celtic mythology rather than Greco-Roman tradition.

Yeats was alive at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising when a small group of Irish Republicans led by Patrick Pearse orchestrated a doomed rising against British rule in Ireland. Pearse and his followers knew that they could not succeed and that the price of their failure would be death. Pearse saw their actions as a 'blood-sacrifice' which would re-awaken the desire of the Irish people as a whole for freedom from British rule. In this aim he was successful - the execution of the Easter Rising leaders did much to turn popular opinion in Ireland firmly against the British. In 1918 a majority of pro-Irish independence party Sinn Fein candidates were elected. In 1919 a War of Independence began and in 1921 the Irish Free State was created.

WB Yeats seems to have been very aware of the significance of the rising in 1916. He wrote about it in his famous poem, 'Easter 1916':

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.

Yeats also wrote about the brutality of the War of Independence in his poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen :

Now the days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rises upon sleep; a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood; and go scot-free

Major Northern Irish Poets

Some of Northern Ireland's most prominent and well-respected poets:

  • Louis MacNeice
  • Seamus Heaney
  • Philip Larkin
  • Paul Muldoon
  • Derek Mahon
  • Michael Longley
  • Ciaran Carson
  • Mebh McGuckian

Seamus Heaney Poems Related to the Troubles

  • Punishment
  • Casualty
  • Requiem for the Croppies
  • River Moyola
  • Funeral Rights
  • North

(This is not a complete list - but a useful starting point)

Northern Irish Poets and the Troubles

The Troubles exploded in Northern Ireland in 1969 and lasted until beyond the Belfast Peace Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998. The sectarian violence, army checkpoints and atmosphere of fear and suspicion became part of normal life for anyone living in Northern Ireland, including poets.

The poets of Northern Ireland refused to be defined by the Troubles - none of them took to writing about the political violence as their main theme. They continued to write about nature and the inner life of the soul. However at times the violence was so shocking, so personal that most Northern Irish poets have written some poems related to the conflict of the Troubles.

These poems express regret at loss of life, question how Northern Irish society as a whole ignored the violence and so implicitly condoned it - the conflict provided a rich vein for poets to question good and evil.

In this excerpt from his poem Casualty Seamus Heaney refers to the death of someone he knew, and to the events known as Bloody Sunday 1971 when British Paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholic civilians:

He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.

The poet Ciaran Carson grew up on the Falls Road in Belfast, an area which saw a lot of violence during the Troubles. Here is an excerpt from his poem, Belfast Confetti he uses the imagery of writing to describe the disruption of a nail-bomb on his attempt to write:

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself - an asterix on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire ...

Paul Muldoon is a poet who makes the ordinary extraordinary. In his short poem Ireland he captures perfectly the loss of innocence which occurred for Northern Irish people during the Troubles, when even a seemly harmless scene could be masking dark deeds:

The Volkswagen parked in the gap
But gently ticking over
You wonder if it's lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

A Panel Talk on Northern Ireland's Poets and Conflict

Irish Poets and Peace

With the success of the peace process, a prominent Northern Irish writer was asked what would Northern Irish writers write about now that the Troubles were over? His reply was ' we will write about what we have always written about'.

The best Irish poets have never been defined by tribal politics. Their work is the work of uncovering the soul. Even where they have written about the conflict, they have found greater meaning in the violence - they have written about the human condition - and they continue to do so.

Peace also provides a rich vein of inspiration for Northern Ireland's poets. They act as voices of truth - asking the difficult questions: can we forgive? Can we forget?

Michael Longley has written a poem, Ceasefire, using the metaphor of Greek myth but commenting also on the Northern Irish Ceasefire. The final verse of his poem sets out with devastating clarity the challenge which lies ahead of Northern Ireland as we rebuild our society:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'


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    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 

      8 years ago from new jersey

      very compelling. I'm a big fan of Yeats and Heaney... but I want to read more. Such a great hub! thanks.

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      9 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks! i had no idea if people would be interested, but I thought it was worth taking a different look at conflict in Ireland...

    • Jeremey profile image


      9 years ago from Arizona

      A wealth of information here. Much Thanks for your work!

    • Radioguy profile image


      9 years ago from Maine

      Marvelous! You have caught the Revolution in a new light! Thanks!


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