It is Louis MacNeice‘s Centenary this year. The Archive Hour (it should play okay) on Radio Four this week features some fantastic recordings from the forties and fifties and features the work and complex personal life of the Belfast born poet. The voices come from another era, but they bring to his radio work, which is difficult to ‘get’ on the printed page.Carrickfergus remains my own favourite, not least both for its directness and that wistful last stanza recalling WWI Belfast from rural Dorset, “Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines/And the soldiers with their guns”.
As the programme notes, he was caught in the US on the outbreak of the hostilities of WWII. It’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which the German attacks on convoys stopped many from making the journey back to Britain or Ireland, but MacNeice felt he had to return to England. As Baron Bodissey notes, his meditation on neutral Ireland was both measured, and biting:
By Louis MacNeice
The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
That ended before the end began.
Look into your heart, you will find a county Sligo,
A Knocknarea with for navel a cairn of stones,
You find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.
Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great
doubloons of ceremony
As nobody to-day would mint.
But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat – on the flesh of your kin.
It’s to be hoped this is just the beginning of a renewed interest in MacNeice and his work.