Friday 19 October 2018

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Behan's tribute to a great orator

Union leader ‘Big’ Jim Larkin is led away by police after his arrest during the Dublin Lockout
Union leader ‘Big’ Jim Larkin is led away by police after his arrest during the Dublin Lockout

This year is the 70th anniversary of the death of the mighty Jim Larkin, who is recognised as a key figure in Ireland's social evolution.

In my view, Big Jim has never received proper recognition for the might of his contribution to our history. His great tragedy was that after he had reached the pinnacle of his power with his organisation of the 1913 Lockout, he went off to America to extend his campaign only to find himself arrested by the Yanks and imprisoned until 1923. He missed the party, one might say.

His powerful personality and colossal achievements indicate that if Larkin had not been in an American prison in those years, there might well have been no Civil War in Ireland.

It's worthwhile, in his anniversary year, going down sometime to ­O'Connell Street and having a look at Oisín Kelly's magnificent statue of Larkin. We can't hear the words, of course, but we can read them, preferably out loud: "I come to preach the divine doctrine of discontent. They shall crucify Christ no longer in the streets of Dublin."

Larkin was Brendan Behan's hero. He used to declare from time to time in a pub that he was going to recite a Larkin speech and would follow up with a splendid performance of the master complete with gestures. Brendan has left us a poem in Irish, which I have put English on, and which brings to life a powerful image of the great orator himself.


He was me - he was every mother's son of us,

Ourselves - strong as we would wish to be

As we knew we could be

And he bellowing battle and promising ­redemption

Following his coffin through the mouth of the empty city,

In great roars of fury

Following his coffin through the mouth of the city last night.

Is it we who are in the coffin?

Certainly not; We are in the street marching

Alive - and thankful to the dead.

Brendan Behan 1923-1964

Translated by Ulick O'Connor

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