As soon as I learned about Poetry as Commemoration I wanted to write something for it.
2022-2023 marks the centenary of one of the most challenging periods in Irish history including the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the establishment of the Free State and the ensuing Civil War. As we embark on this difficult phase of the Decade of Centenaries, Poetry as Commemoration invites communities to turn to poetry as a mode of understanding and expression.
It is an all-island initiative, organised by the Irish Poetry Reading Archive at University College Dublin and the Irish Government’s Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
My poem below is available to read on the site:
My mother, Mary Graham (née Martin) had a wonderfully retentive memory which she maintained almost till her death in 2016 at the age of 101. She was born in January 1915 and was seven when this decade of centenaries ended. She lived to receive from the President of Ireland the special centenarians’ medal produced to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. She valued the beautifully written letter from him sent to mark her 100th birthday, the previous year, in which he acknowledged, on behalf of the nation, the challenging nature of the years that people of my mother’s age were born into.
I was very glad to be prompted by this project to put into writing an incident my mother had recounted to me many times. She had a writer’s gift for the telling detail and for recalling what people said. She also understood the need to craft a story and that the story-teller has to judge where to put emphasis, where to tread lightly, in order to convey what is most true in the incident – at least – true from the story-teller’s point of view.
She didn’t have the educational advantages of later generations but she was a keen user of libraries and read a great deal. In her eighties she wrote a story for the first time (as distinct from speaking a story) and won a competition, to her great delight.
I wrote a second poem which I hope will appear in the archive at some later point. It is about ‘the dead generations’, those forebears who, in Ireland, have always wielded significant influence over the living. In the writing of the poem it is the women in my past who emerge centre-stage, with the men in the background. But the men are there, including my paternal grandfather, Thomas Graham. I’m currently editing a book which pays him a lot of attention.
I have submitted to the project a poem in Ulster-Scots which arises from Thomas Graham’s experiences as a member of the 36th (Ulster) Division. The poem is about the first day of the First Battle of the Somme, 1916. The soldier in the poem is not my grandfather but ‘yin o General Nugent’s men’.
It takes the entwining of many lives to produce every single one of us. I am grateful that Poetry as Commemoration encouraged me to celebrate some of those who went before me.