Happy Birthday Michael (Christ you’re not really 70 are you? )

He may be a “a 70-year-old smiling public man” but Michael Longley exudes the lyrical joy in nature, the birds and flowers of Mayo and anything else in creation. His classical learning inspired him to give the troubles an elegaic quality few can match.

Ceasefire by Michael Longley

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

Longley is also known for his very graphic war-imagry.
In ‘Wounds’, he again uses his father’s memories to portray the horror and the futility of war and bigotry.
He describes a young soldier, still only a child, who goes into battle for the last time (at the Somme), and his last words are a screamed declaration of his bigotry and his hatred;

“Going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ’em one for the Shankill!’ ”

There is a sense of both disgust and shame at such a waste of life, and a sense of pity for someone so ignorant that they die for what they hate, as opposed to giving their life defending what they love.
The horror of war is brought home with the descriptions of the dead;

“A landscape of dead buttocks”

“Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone”

He describes a burial;

“A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery forever”

  • Just last month, I had cause to blog on Longley, after he spoke to the TCD Dining Club, at the Savile Club.

    Permit me to repeat myself, here addressing a wider and more sophisticated audience than either “Malcolm Redfellow” site ever attracts:

    Unlike Heaney, who betook himself from the “Troubles”, to Wicklow and further afield, Longley remained in and of Belfast throughout those years. Admittedly, in the benign retreats of the Malone Road and the University Quarter, but in earshot of the events around him.

    Contrast that with his former associate and sparring partner, Derek Mahon, who escaped, and, from a distance, tried to find connection and empathy:

    Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
    And lived it bomb by bomb
    I might have grown up at last
    And learnt what is meant by ‘home’.

    Longley remains very close to home, but rarely ventured beyond his front door and morning paper for any explicit reaction to the diurnal decay and despair of the Black North.

    If we take his best-known reflection, The Ice-Cream Man (which he himself cited at the Savile Do), we are left with this:

    Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
    You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
    They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
    And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
    I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
    I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
    Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
    Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
    Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
    Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

    Longley’s reflection on this poem was to recall that he was touched when a relative of the victim wrote to him, thanking him for the memory, and noticing that the twenty-one wildflowers matched the number of flavours the dead man had sold.

    Yet, in this poem, Longley notably detaches himself and the reader from the event. This is done with the different and confusing pronoun points-of-view: “they”, “you” and “I”. Then he explicitly removes himself across the island to the County Clare.

    The outsider

    When Longley commented to Dermot Healy:

    I have written a few inadequate elegies out of my bewilderment and despair. I offer them as wreaths. No more.

    he correctly anatomised his inability more fully to engage with the events around him.

    In one particular poem [to which the header piece refers], he reaches out from his personal experience to one of the many horrors of the years of the Troubles. Longley’s dying father, Major Longley, Military Cross, first appears with:

    two pictures from my father’s head.

    These are the Ulster Division, going over the top at the Somme, and the subsequent battlefield, strewn with corpses of slain Scotsmen in their kilts. Longley associates these received memories with the burial of three squaddies, shot by the IRA in a pub urinal:

    Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
    Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.

    Major Longley had his passing moment at the Savile Club that evening.

    Longley recounted his “audience” at Buckingham Palace; and how an equerry had taken him to the spot in the Palace grounds, recorded in a family photograph, where Longley Senior had been awarded his First World War medal. With little sense of irony, Longley Junior then appended his personal story of returning to Ireland, being asked by the security man why he had been in London, and producing from a side pocket the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.

    Yet Major Longley, post World War One, was an immigrant to Northern Ireland, a war-wounded commercial traveller. While Michael Longley is explicitly of Belfast (“Home is Belfast. Belfast is Home. I love the place.”), he still struggles to connnect with it:

    For reasons I don’t understand, I find it difficult to get Belfast into my own poems — unlike Ciarán Carson or, to a lesser extent, Derek Mahon.

    In short, Longley’s problem (one with which I, personally, find connection) is that a large part of him is the Englishman abroad. His anecdote of the visit to Buck House was prefaced by a remark on the monarch’s appeal:

    I went into that audience a republican. I came out a convinced monarchist.

    How unlike the decided home-life of any dyed-in-the-wool Ulsterman.

  • Big Maggie


    “Elegiac quality”? You’re kidding. Longley is a poor excuse for a poet and terribly overrated. His “Ceasefire” is little more than piss-poor prose masquerading as verse:

    “Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake, laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry, wrapped like a present, home to Troy at daybreak.”

    I’ve done him the service of adding the punctuation he ought to have used. And how small was Hector that Achilles could take him into his hands as opposed to his arms? Absolute shite.

  • latcheeco

    And the emporer has no clothes award goes to…
    I remember telling the dole clerk in the bru that I couldn’t find work because I was a poet and nobody was hiring poets in my side of the town.Of course he was a frickin philistine that didn’t understand or sympathise that there are different types of excavators and I was excavating the highway of life. So I wrote him this Ode to explain..

    Ode to the Bru

    Oh miserly unemployment clerk,
    Why must you try to make me work?
    I want to compose about the Ra,
    The Queen, the troubles and my da,
    I’m sure Queen’s University,
    Could feed a little mouse like me,
    There’s loads of chancers over there,
    Scribbling dross about arses bare.
    Like Patrolus in another’s gear,
    I’m really not meant to be here,
    Society needs artistes like me,
    Who long to be forever free,
    And make a worthwhile occupation,
    From doggerel rhymes about our nation.

  • Big Maggie


    I meant to compliment you on the above minor masterpiece! It’s clear that a poetry chair at a major university awaits you :^)

  • latcheeco

    Thankyaverymuch madam, I’ll be here all week. Lyrical gangster wha?