Thursday 20 October 2016

Poetry... Taking flight: the horror of war in the skies

Ulick O'Connor

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

WB Yeats. Photograph: George C. Beresford
WB Yeats. Photograph: George C. Beresford

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Britain. In the summer of 1940 the Germans had decided that if they were to invade England, then they must destroy Britain's RAF, which would lead to an early victory in the war.

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From July to October they literally beat the hell out of London, Coventry and Liverpool.

But it was no-go with the Brits, they won the battle of the air.

In Dublin, as schoolboys, we heard of Brendan Finucane, the 20-year-old former O'Connell's student, who had shot down a record thirty two enemy planes.

Yeats wrote a famous poem (some think his best) about an Irish airman in the First World War which gives a revealing insight into the outlook of many Irishmen who fought for England.

He was writing about Robert Gregory, the only son of Lady Gregory, who had been a fighter pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and much decorated.

Gregory was shot down and killed in 1918.

He had played cricket for Ireland, was French middleweight boxing champion and a fine artist.

PS By a spooky incidence last Sunday evening I heard recited, to my astonishment, 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death' on the BBC in the classic World War Two film Memphis Belle.

An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

W.B. Yeats 1865-1939

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