Entertainment Festivals

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Epic new poem offers snapshot of all that's great - and infuriating - about Ireland in 2017

Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith
Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith
Sunset on water: One of the many images of Ireland from Stephen's short film
John Meagher

John Meagher

The words tumble out, gather pace, ease back. They slap you in the face and get under your skin. They capture much of what it means to live in Ireland today. And if you thought a commission from the people behind Dublin's biggest festival would result in a liberal shot of sugar-coating, think again: this is verse to truly make you wonder what it means to be Irish.

My Ireland is an epic new work from one of the country's foremost young poets, Stephen James Smith, who is also co-founder of the annual Lingo spoken word festival. The lengthy poem was commissioned for this year's St Patrick's Festival and Smith's passionate delivery has been put to music and film.

Over the course of 12 minutes, My Ireland unfurls to footage shot by music video maker and documentarian Myles O'Reilly and to music specially recorded by Villagers' Conor O'Brien and Colm Mac Con Iomaire of The Frames.

The film is launched today and - with the exception of its length - it has all the hallmarks of something that could go viral.

"I spent the best part of six months on it," says Smith (34), from Tallaght, Dublin. "It's a labour of love, although it probably is flawed. It's my interpretation of what it means to be Irish today - a celebration of all that's good, but also pointing out all that's wrong... the unfairness that's become part and parcel of life today."

It's an Ireland, Smith's poem insists, that is riven by contradictions:

"My Ireland is reeling in the years

and not watching what's happening now.

While so many are reining in the tears

and trying to cope somehow...

My Ireland is terrified of leaving the immersion on

and lamenting not having won the Eurovision

in God only knows how long.

My Ireland loves laughing at Ó Briain and Norton.

My Ireland is sending gifs and emojis

Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith
Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith

while waiting for absolution."

The poem was commissioned in August and Smith absorbed everything that was topical between then and now. He was especially moved by the campaign at Christmas to raise awareness of the country's homelessness crisis, one that was centred on the occupation of the NAMA-owned building in the heart of Dublin, Apollo House.

"My Ireland saw Sinead rip up the Pope

and isn't able to cope.

So we've:

Pieta House, Apollo House, Pelican House

for our new age Blood Sacrifice

and Ghost Estates.

My Ireland doesn't know what a tracker mortgage is

and is hoping it's not too late.

My Ireland sees goodness,

in the kindness

of its people everyday.

Which bonds us

just enough to get by,

My Ireland's sense of community

isn't ready to die!"

Community is still at the centre of what it means to be Irish, but it's constantly in flux. Ideas of Irishness have changed seismically in the past two decades and today's Ireland is a remarkably different one to the place that limped into the 1990s on the back of a savage recession.

The country is increasingly defined by its multiculturalism and the 'new Irish' who have helped to forever change the complexion of its people. It's also a place where old ideas about sexuality and identity have, for many, been relegated to the footnotes of history.

"My Ireland can be hard to take,

asks, 'Did St Patrick banish all the snakes?'

My Ireland is the Children of Lir, Tír na nÓg

a herd of deer and a Connacht brogue.

My Ireland is singing,

'Óró sé do bheatha abhaile', while

the Eastern Europeans are coming,

the Africans are coming,

the Muslims are coming.

Can we all just come together?

My Ireland you are the National Stud.

My Ireland you are:

Four Green Fields

and a clover,

transgender,

other,

Othered,

he,

she,

non defined,

unexplained,

yet to emerge,

fluid queers.

My Ireland may be drunk on 800 years."

Like any poet, Smith hopes My Ireland will last the test of time. But, more than that, he hopes that in 30 or 40 years' time the verse will offer some truth about what the Ireland of 2017 was like. Future readers will be aware that this era of Trump and Brexit impacted heavily on Ireland and its disaspora. They, Smith says, will know just how great that impact can be. Now, we can merely guess.

"My Ireland is the undocumented

and 40 million worldwide.

Failte them abhaile.

Open your arms.

Do you care about your diaspora?

My Ireland is: West Brits, Expats, immigrants,

Shane McGowan Tipp via London Town.

Ireland you are:

the Kilburn Road, Ellis Island,

Boston, To Hell or Connacht,

Dubai, Oz and Canada.

Skyping to your Da & Ma

And know I love you."

Smith hopes his poem can kickstart a conversation about what Irishness means to each one of us. While his words cast a cold eye over the myriad problems - "social, cultural, you name it" - it's ultimately a celebration of people and a place, and a reminder that no country is set in aspic; it's constantly evolving, and often for the better.

And, corny as it may sound, each of us can play our part in making it a better place to live.

"My Ireland you are

trying to be all encompassing

and it's an impossible task.

So I ask you,

"what's your My Ireland?"

Ireland are you evolving,

Arising, an Aisling,

Remembering,

Ireland Arise!

Ireland from what I've heard

a great compassion

is calling you.

You have a teanga,

so add your voice.

Ireland from what I know

a great courage

is in you.

So stand united rejoice.

Go back to the source, the flow,

forget mainstream.

Let out a roar,

I want to hear you scream:

"This Ireland is my land.

This Ireland is your land.

This island is our land."

Stephen James Smith is among those taking part at 'Young Blood - The Beat and Voices of Our Generation' at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on March 18. The Irish Independent is proud to be an official media partner of the St Patrick's Festival. For more details visit stpatricksfestival.ie

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment