Media Library


Machnamh 100 - Margaret Kelleher

25th November, 2021

Settlements, Schisms and Civil Strife

We had fed the heart on fantasies,                  

The heart's grown brutal from the fare;                  

More substance in our enmities                  

Than in our love; O honey-bees,                  

Come build in the empty house of the stare.[i]

These famous lines by W.B. Yeats come from ‘The Stare’s Nest by the Window’, section VI of his long poem ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. They were composed in Thoor Ballylee Galway in July 1922, during the first weeks of the civil war, a time when, to quote Yeats, there were no newspapers, no reliable news, we did not know who had won nor who had lost, and even after newspapers came, one never knew what was happening on the other side of the hill or of the line of trees. Ford cars passed the house from time to time with coffins standing upon end between the seats, and sometimes at night we heard an explosion, and once by day saw the smoke made by the burning of a great neighboring house. Men must have lived so through many tumultuous centuries. One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature. A stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window and I made these verses out of the feeling of the moment.[ii]

On 15 July a Free State soldier was shot at Gort railway bridge, ‘a boy from Connemara’, according to Yeats;[iii] his death and other contemporary events shadow the following lines:

We are closed in, and the key is turned                  

On our uncertainty; somewhere                  

A man is killed, or a house burned,                  

Yet no clear fact to be discerned:                  

Come build in the empty house of the stare.  

A barricade of stone or of wood;                  

Some fourteen days of civil war;                  

Last night they trundled down the road                   

That dead young soldier in his blood:                  

Come build in the empty house of the stare.[iv]


In 1995, as part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Seamus Heaney invoked Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, speaking not only to the civil strife of 1920s Ireland but also to much more recent schisms: ‘I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder … It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures.’[v] For Heaney, Yeats’s poem achieves a precious doubleness of being ‘tender-minded’ and ‘tough-minded’, telling hard truths and enabling the softness of empathy with another. To quote again from Heaney, ‘It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.’[vi]


Other creative writings composed during the early 1920s are now much less well known. In the early years of the Free State, Waterford-born Rosamond Jacob composed her second novel A House Divided, later entitled The Troubled House. Jacob, from a Quaker family, was a suffragist, republican, socialist and pacifist. In 1917 she was chosen as a delegate representing Waterford as a delegate at the Sinn Féin convention, where she won a commitment to women's suffrage. From1920 to 1927, she was secretary of the Irishwomen's International League, founded in 1916 as the Irish branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, she was delegate to a congress in Vienna in 1921 and to Prague in 1929, and was among the organisers of the congress held in Dublin in 1926.[vii] Her diaries of the period are housed in the National Library of Ireland and thanks to the valuable work of Leeann Lane, Gerardine Meaney, Maria Luddy and other scholars, the significance of her creative works have come to be more recognised in recent years.

Jacob’s novel The Troubled House explores the schisms within a family – the father a Dublin Castle official, one son a republican, one son a pacificist – from the point of view of Maggie Cullen, their mother and wife. What could seem an abstract conflict between ideological and political affiliations, and between generations, is given concrete life through the relationships of individuals and the fate of one family; and in turn the force and impact of political events can be more fully understood. For example, one scene in the novel vividly describes the impact of the Bloody Sunday murders of November 1920 – events whose traumatic and brutalising legacy has, as Anne Dolan has convincingly argued, only begun to be fully recognised. The last scenes of the novel are set just after the July 1921 truce, and record an optimism that we now know to be momentary but also worth recalling.

In spite of the novel’s power and quality, Jacob was unable to secure a publisher for many years. Over a decade later, in May 1936, as Gerardine Meaney’s research has uncovered, an editor at Duffy’s publisher dismissed the original title of ‘A House Divided’ as ‘too sad’, and said that he might consider publishing the novel later when he could ‘risk more’.[viii] When the novel was finally published by Browne and Nolan in 1938, it carried a defensive epigraph emphasising that ‘All the characters in this novel are figments of the author’s mind; they represent no actual persons’.[ix]  By now, 1938, another aspect of the novel’s optimistic ending – that post war independence would bring new freedoms and roles for women as artists and as mothers – had a deeply ironic tinge, given the gender discrimination against women enacted by legislative and economic measures in the 1920s and 1930s. Those measures, and the theological doctrines which they put into social practice, carried repercussions that carried through to the deeply divisive social schisms of the 1980s: a period well described by Anne Enright as a ‘moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes’ with ‘unfathomable bitterness’.[x]

I refer to Jacob in this detail because important work is continuing by researchers and students to reclaim and revalue ‘quieter’ literary and cultural writings, artistic work that can offer us richer and more complex views of the historical and the contemporary. It is notable that the works thus returning to view can help us to expand the register of emotions which we employ in speaking of, or thinking of, or feeling about our historical past.  Professor Ferriter ended his paper by invoking ‘the depth of conviction’ as well as the cruel compromise of idealism; and in his recent book he also valuably underscores the importance of giving sufficient weight to the ‘emotional charge of 1922-1923’.[xi] How we can best do justice to past events involves also doing ‘emotion justice’,[xii] and here the literary and creative imagination plays a key role.  Writing of the importance of fiction in the understanding of history, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has observed: ‘Individuation by means of the horrible, to which we are particularly attentive, regardless of how elevated or how profound it might be, would be blind feeling without the quasi-intuitiveness of fiction. Fiction gives eyes to the horrified narrator. Eyes to see and to weep.’[xiii]


The poetic voice in Irish literature, be it in English and in Irish and in those languages that newly enrich our national ‘riverrun’, is the means whereby some of (what we might term) the more ‘awkward’ emotions are made visible and audible, uncomfortably so. ‘An Fuath’, published in 1967, by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, begins:

Is é a dh’éilíonn an fuath fadfhulang

   agus fadaradhna,

Is é a dh’éilíonn an fuath neamhaithne

   agus daille na foighne,

Is é a dh’éilíonn an fuath méar shocair

   ar ghaiste an raidhfil

Is ná scaoil go bhfeicfir gealadh na súl

   mar ghealacán uibh id radhairc uait![xiv]

In the translation by Peter Sirr,

Hatred demands patience and deadened senses.

Hatred waits for its chance;

Hatred keeps a steady finger on the trigger

And won’t pull it till it sees the whites of the eyes

Like egg-whites in its sights![xv]

In mourning her recent passing, we are reminded not only of the links between generations to which her life testifies –  ‘the same age as the state’  – but also her fearless poetic interrogation of those links and fissures:

Inheritors of the event who never knew the smell

Of gunpowder, or of terror,

Who never fired a shot in anger,

Worse yet

Never stood up to one….

These lines, as translated by Louis de Paor, come from ‘Fód an imris’, or ‘Trouble Spot’ set in the General Post Office in 1986:

Oidhrí ar eachtra nár aithin bolaith an phúdair

Ná na heagla.

Nár chaith riamh ruchar feirge

Is is lú ná san

A sheas…..[xvi]

The implicit question is much more explicit in her early poem ‘Cam reilige’ (a poem which continued to trouble her own writing life):

Fear lár an tsúsa

Conas a thuigfeadh san

Oibriú an fhuachta

Ar bhráithre na n-imeallach?

In the translation by Louis de Paor (‘Birth Defect’):

How can the moderate man

In his comfortable bed

Understand how the cold

Afflicts his brothers on the edge?[xvii]


The literary representation of violence is never without challenge; it is perilously situated on the edge of that paradox so eloquently identified by Theodor Adorno: the paradox of art’s wrongness and rightness, impossibility and necessity. The intricacies of Adorno’s words deserve detailing; in his words,

The so-called artistic rendering of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it. The morality that forbids art to forget this for a second slides off into the abyss of its opposite.  The aesthetic stylistic principle …. makes the unthinkable appear to have had some meaning; it becomes transfigured, something of its horror removed.  By this alone, an injustice is done the victims, yet no art that avoided the victims could stand up to the demands of justice.[xviii]

Here is Heaney’s formulation on what he terms ‘the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit’ (from the closing lines of his Nobel lecture ‘Crediting Poetry’): ‘the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values’.[xix]

And my gathering finishes with quotations from two poems. The closing poem in Eavan Boland’s sequence ‘Writing in a Time of Violence’, published in 1994, and entitled ‘Beautiful Speech’, finishes with a powerful invocation of what may still await:

….the distances
we are stepping into where we never

imagine words such as hate
and territory and the like–unbanished still
as they always would be–wait
and are waiting under
beautiful speech. To strike.[xx]

And finally, quietly refusing the limits of commemorations and and memorably reshaping our practice, from Paula Meehan:

When we’ve licked the wounds of history, wounds of war,

we’ll salute the stretcher bearer, the nurse in white,
the ones who pick up the pieces, who endure,
who live at the edge, and die there and are known

by this archival footnote read by fading light;
fragile as a breathmark on the windowpane or the gesture
of commemorating heroes in bronze and stone.[xxi]

[i] W.B. Yeats, Collected Poems, edited by Richard J. Finneran (Springer: New York, 1991), p. 205.

[ii] W.B. Yeats, The Bounty of Sweden (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1925), p. 50.

[iii] Quoted in Roy Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol 2: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 (Oxford: OUP, 2002), p. 221.

[iv] Yeats, Collected Poems, p. 205.

[v] Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1995), pp. 46-7.

[vi] Ibid., p. 47.

[vii] See Dictionary of Irish Biography entry:

[viii] Gerardine Meaney, ‘Rosamond Jacob and the Hidden Histories of Irish Writing’, New Hibernia Review 15.4 (Winter 2011), pp. 70-74, p.70.

[ix]  Rosamond Jacob, The Troubled House: A Novel of Dublin in the ‘Twenties (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1938), epigraph.

[x] Anne Enright, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (London: Random House, 2010), p. 187.

[xi] Diarmaid Ferriter, Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War (London: Profile Books, 2021), p.8.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative  Volume 3 (1985; translated Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 188.

[xiv] Máire Mhac an tSaoi, An Paróiste Míorúilteach/The Miraculous Parish, edited by Louis de Paor (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2011), p. 108.

[xv] Ibid., p. 109

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 110-113.

[xvii] Ibid., pp. 106-7.

[xviii] Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, Notes to Literature III (1958-1974; translated 1974), pp. 87-91, p. 88.

[xix] Heaney, Crediting Poetry, pp. 53-4.

[xx] Eavan Boland, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2005), p. 212.

[xxi] Paula Meehan, As If By Magic: Selected Poems (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2020), p. 186.