This coming Sunday, it will be fifty years since the massacre of civil rights protestors by British troops in Derry. To coincide with this bleak golden anniversary when a working-class community was forcibly wedded to a military death machine – weapons used at the ceremony L1A1 SLR rifles – Carcanet Press are reissuing ‘Butcher’s Dozen’, a poem by Thomas Kinsella, who passed away just before Christmas. Beyond the dramatic trouble in the streets, ‘Butcher‘s Dozen’ was one of the first significant artistic responses to the events of that day in Derry, and more specifically, the subsequent masquerade of an investigation by the British judiciary into what happened – “prejudice wigged out as justice” as Kinsella put it.
The poem was written, printed and published in a week by the poet himself, in May 1972, the first book from his own press, Peppercanister Press, named after the Dublin church on Mount Street he could see from his front window. Kinsella had already grasped the stylistic and rhetorical possibilities of more autonomy over how a book gets made as a result of his collaboration with Liam Miller who founded Dolmen Press in 1952. In that same year Kinsella got his hands dirty setting the Boldoni type for his first chapbook, Starlit Eye, on an Adoni handpress borrowed from the poet Blanaid Salkeld who, with her son, Cecil, ran the Gayfield Press from their kitchen. A small press would free the Irish poet from the deadly desire to charm British publishers and allow the poet to intervene at will in whatever was happening, using the disposable chapbook and pamphlet as part of the praxis of composition, the material often being revised before more traditional book publication. Dolmen Press would eventually publish the first batch of Peppercanister poems in 1979, which continued this poetic focus on actuality, the hard facts, in work about the life of the composer Sean O’Riada and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
‘Butcher’s Dozen, A lesson for the octave of Widgery’, to use its full title, was a direct reply to the report into Bloody Sunday published by Lord Widgery in April 1972, rather than an outcry about the butchery on the day itself. Despite the public, open-air dimension to the mass murder, witnessed not only by local people but by many from all over the country who had come to join the march, and caught on camera by Irish and international media who had been following the struggle for suffrage and basic civil rights in Northern Ireland, the British establishment thought it could write and publish its own account, acquit itself and the enforcers of its imperial will. Centuries-old systematic injustice is the theme, “the nth in a historic series of expedient falsehoods,” not just blood spilled by Support Company Para 1 in the Bogside. Kinsella himself called it “an immediate doggerel,” highlighting his own sense that it was meant as comic satire. While there are definite echoes of Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819, he took Brian Merriman’s ‘The Midnight Court’ as his model, a comic burlesque aisling poem from the eighteenth century. By doing so, he links his nightmare howl with the tradition of lamentation for the loss of the original Irish aristocracy, and of course, the native language with it, a theme he would explore more deeply in A Dual Tradition (1995, Carcanet). At the deepest formal level then, ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ is a perpetuation of this ancestral séance with the dead, and the fear that they might not stay dead.
In the dream’s desolate interzone, “sullen steps and pitted brick,” the unnamed ghosts begin to swarm around the poet, desperate to speak. The sense is they are trapped there until they are believed and the shame of their victimhood dissipates with the “murder smell.” Their residual physicality, their corpse rawness, the pain they still feel, is the sign they are not quite consumed yet by death. Indigestible, neither here or there, they are the spat-out gristle from a swift and savage feast. One by one they repeat their rhymes about the moment they were plucked from life, sliced by bullets, ducked in their own blood, stuffed with nail-bombs post-mortem. Now this final disgusting touch, the ladling on of guilt by the tribunal. One “joking spectre” then begins to stir the pot the other way:
‘Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
The killing spree cannot be blamed on a few trigger-happy paratroopers; it is one of the ingredients in the recipe for suppression and division of the native population in defence of the Ulster plantation. The poet, alarmed by this broad swipe, attempts to argue back in predictable liberal-minded platitudes: we should stop looking backwards, forget and forgive, we should “nurse the living, not the dead.” The answer is harsh, decisive:
‘Here lies one who breathed his last
Firmly reminded of the past.
A trooper did it, on one knee,
In tones of brute authority.’
Another pair of undead lips goes even further, attacking both the malformed “changeling” statelet spawned by the plantation and those who have benefitted from it:
Sashed and bowler-hatted, glum
Apprentices of fife and drum,
High and dry, abandoned guards
Of dismal streets and empty yards,
Drilled at the codeword “True Religion”
To strut and mutter like a pigeon
“Not An Inch – Up The Queen”;
Although the last to speak in this cadaver chorus tries to tone things down a bit, imagining some kind of tolerable mongrel integration between the communities if Britain would withdraw from Northern Ireland and let in a “breath or two of oxygen,” the attack on Unionism’s complicity with the death machine led to accusations that the poem was fermenting the same sectarianism it sought to condemn. The left-wing Protestant poet John Hewitt in a review at the time in the Northern Irish magazine, Fortnight, alongside the full publication of the poem, wrote scathingly:
The sort of hate Kinsella is whipping up here, which is understandable evil in ignorant authors of street ballads, is unforgiveable in a man of his education. The sons of Imperialists are as much saddled with their burden as the sons of the corrupt and incompetent Irish leaders who couldn’t defend their country and who botched their rebellions.
It’s an easy hit for Hewitt; any side-taking leaves a poet open to accusations of stoking the flames. High-minded neutrality seems to be requisite state for composing verse. Hewitt seems blinded to the dreaming poet’s trepidation in the company of these singing carcasses. By the last lines, when the cadavers have faded, the poet is left standing there like a ghost himself, touching the “fatal barricade.” He is in danger of becoming one of them. Contaminated, possessed, the poet is being eaten alive by the fear that the dead will never be at peace, they won’t lie down, they will return, a phantasmagoric army. There are no graves for the sacrificed. The past floods into the present through every bullet hole, drowning us. ‘Butcher’s Dozen’, rather than being a sectarian polemic, is a horror-Aisling poem, a dread visionary presentiment of what was to come.
Hewitt wasn’t alone in his aversion either. Seamus Heaney in Stepping Stones referred to the poem’s “furious characterizations of the Unionist, Protestant collective in the North that seemed too stereotypical, a tilt towards the kind of bigotry the poem was scarifying.” The various criticisms at the time reveal the dominant poetic orthodoxy, based around T.S. Eliot’s concepts of impartiality and the objective correlative. Poetry should remain devoted only to itself, instrumental in nothing but its own perfection, detached, un-enlisted, and adhering to the central tenet of obliquity. As the violence escalated after Bloody Sunday, Irish poets were faced with confronting the complacent limitations of this aesthetic. Take as an example of the situation of the poet in the 1970s this exchange between Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney from an interview reproduced in the first edition of the The Crane Bag (1977-1985):
Deane: Do you think that if some political stance is not adopted by you and the Northern poets at large, this refusal might lead to a dangerous strengthening of earlier notions of autonomy of poetry and corroborate the recent English notion of the happy limitations of “the well-made poem?” And furthermore, do you feel this disdain of poetry for all that would break its own autonomy could lead to the sponsoring of a literature which would be almost deliberately minor?
Heaney: I think it could.
Deane: Do you think it has?
Heaney: Most poetry is inevitably so.
Deane: But not deliberately so!
Heaney: I think that the recent English language tradition does tend toward the “well-made poem”, that is, toward the insulated and balanced statement.
Heaney, of course, would go on to reckon with the ghosts of his own conscience in the Dante-esque Station Island (1984) but he would continue to argue along dualistic lines, positioning himself somewhere in the middle of the debate over a poem’s fidelity to itself, the art for art’s sake position, and fidelity to a community, the obligation to engage. Needless to say, much of this debate at the time excluded the voices of female poets, a situation which Salmon Publishing, Arlen House and particularly Attic Press began the slow business of correcting.
A quick comparison with poetry from the Black civil rights movement in the sixties and seventies in the US highlights the sterility and conservatism of much of this argument about the ethical stance of poetry, not so much that poetry makes nothing happen, but that good poetry shouldn’t try to either. Within two weeks of the killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clarke by the FBI in December 1969, and the claim they had been killed in an exchange of gunfire, the poet and publisher Haki R. Madhubuti released ‘One Sided Shoot-Out’, which doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger:
under all the rhetoric the seriousness is still not serious.
the national rap deliberately continues, “wipe them nigger out.”
(no talk do it, no talk do it, not talk do it, notalknotalk do it.)
This is free verse for the unfree. Language must be mobilised because language is what they use against you, when your reality is written over. Song calls the people together. Rhyme is a hand to hold. Syntax, your sister, your brother. What honour to see your words on the banners above the marching crowd. No state-backed murder will be challenged by the contemplation of a red wheelbarrow among the white chickens. “The night,” Madhubuti reminds his tribe, “doesn’t stop the stars.” The hymnal cadence of We Shall Overcome spreads from Tennessee to the housing estates of Northern Ireland.
Eamon McCann in his most recent introduction to War and an Irish Town (2018, Haymarket Books) remembers watching a speech from the Black Panthers beamed onto a gable wall in the Bogside, the same wall that would become Free Derry Corner. As always, he stresses the international dimension to the Northern Irish civil rights campaign, how it was fed by the energy of similar protests around the world, in the US, Germany, Yugoslavia, Paris, Mexico. His realisation, after sitting through months of testimony at the Saville Enquiry, the reappraisal of the evidence promised as part of the Good Friday Agreement: the slaughter on Bloody Sunday was a deliberate plan by senior army officials against the DYH (Derry Young Hooligans) who had the affrontery to create their own no-go area on British territory. Divide the opposition through violence, the moderates from the extremists, give them a few wakes to rile them up, lure them into the open, give us something to shoot at.
In this new edition of Butcher’s Dozen, an extract from the Saville Report precedes the poem itself. “Our overall conclusion is that there was serious and widespread loss of fire discipline…” Beyond the poem you are met with clips from the speech in which Cameron, the then British prime minister, made a public apology to the bereaved families, “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong…” The effect of this sequence of texts, accompanied by a sparse few words from the poet himself, is strangely that the case is now closed. Bloody Sunday, done and dusted.
Like a lot of people, I could not resist being at the organised spectacle in the Guildhall square in Derry on the day the report was to be published and Cameron’s speech on the matter to the House of Commons would be broadcast on the big screen for our pleasure or disappointment – we couldn’t know which. The suspense was gut-wrenching under a serene blue sky, the sun throbbing in the Guildhall’s stained-glass windows which tell one more version of the city’s complicated commercial history. When it became clear to us that Saville had given the families what they needed, and Cameron was reasonably unambiguous in his assertion of the innocence of the dead, it seemed the city’s heart began to beat again, and we gulped en masse on some of that long-forgotten oxygen. We were awake, agog, all lured. The suspension of disbelief was over. The enchantment lifted. The marriage to death, annulled.
And for a brief time we were innocent again. The table cleared, polished. But sweet justice bestowed had an aftertaste, a familiar bitter tang. Further analysis of the Saville Report showed that those who had given the orders on Bloody Sunday, the high-ups, the baton men, would not be held accountable; the buck stopped with the individual soldiers, the boots on the ground. Since then, the families’ right to the truth, to the full story, to a breathable future, has not been honoured. The recent SpyCops scandal in the UK, which seems to suggest that there was an MI5 spy operating among the organisers of the march, makes it unpalatably clear that the Saville enquiry was denied access to the complete truth. Add to that the current Tory government’s plan to introduce an amnesty for all Troubles-related crimes, an enforced amnesia, and you have a situation on this fiftieth anniversary which means there is little to celebrate beyond the dogged persistence of the families’ campaign for justice. It is this painful reality that the case is not closed the publishers of this new edition of Butcher’s Dozen might have done more to address. Bloody Sunday is far from solved. The butcher has not done covering its tracks.
If the contemporary Irish poet no longer has to grapple with the daily ultimatum of violence, and the ethics of describing it, the tribe of ghosts are still pleading to be heard. Memory, how to remember, and who, or legacy as it has been rebranded, depersonalised, is now the issue poetry cannot shirk. The accelerated collective forgetting required for peace in Northern Ireland risks creating a new community of unacknowledged victims. Two recent poetry collections – Gail McConnell’s The Sun is Open (2021, Penned in the Margins) about the murder of her father, a prison officer, and Rachael Hegarty mingling with the dead from the UVF/SAS bomb in Dublin (unsolved), in May Day 1974 (2019, Salmon) – combine lyric and docu-archival material into a new dialogue with the past, a new fusion of public and private, a new poetic self. Perhaps this strategy of dissolving the idealised poetic self into the textual presence of the past works like a kind of purification of the language of remembrance and becomes a way around the hairy conscience-stricken aesthetics debates of the 1970s. Intertextuality replaces representation as in the poetry of Medbh McGuckian who constructs her work from images and phrases culled from her own reading, “transplanting” and “embroidery” are terms she uses, taking obliquity to such an extreme that it becomes a kind of trauma, the poet-hoarder rummaging in a stash of cuttings and scraps. ‘The Over Mother’ from her collection Captain Lavender (1994, Gallery Press) attempts to transgress the legal space between prisoners in the Maze and the poet who is teaching them creative writing:
My cleverly dead and vertical audience,
words fly out from your climate of unexpectation
in leaky, shallowised night letters –
what you has spoken?
The dead are piled in vertical lists, columns of scrupulous anxiety. What is it from the past that we want to risk saving? Is the excessive salvage an attempt to conceal something else? The rescue of ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ is a timely reminder that the past has to be fought for and poetry is not beyond lending a hand. Maybe, after all, poetry is what remains after atrocity. The poet blows the dust from the inscriptions, searching for a code, something to rhyme with hope. A crowd always flees in the gentlest slow motion as if not to wake the ground. The rutting bullets, sleek and canon-fat. The long funerals finish too quickly, before you’ve even reached the graveside where the microphones sizzle in the rain. Peace knows no shame.
Rest in Peace:
Patrick (‘Paddy’) Doherty (31)
Gerald Donaghey (17)
John (‘Jackie’) Duddy (17)
Hugh Gilmour (17)
Michael Kelly (17)
Michael McDaid (20)
Kevin McElhinney (17)
Bernard (‘Barney’) McGuigan (41)
Gerald McKinney (35)
William (‘Willie’) McKinney (26)
William Nash (19)
James (‘Jim’) Wray (22)
John Young (17)
John Johnston (59) – who died a few months later
from injuries sustained on the day.