Irish poet finds rhyme, if not reason

September 10, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The "war poet" of the Troubles starts the day with a glass of Teacher's scotch and a lament for the dead.

"I had a friend who was murdered," he says. "He wrote a poem about Bernadette Devlin. Just a kid who had only turned 19."

The war poet's lamentation is as common as morning prayer in Belfast. But he made a poem out of his sorrow:

They pump six bullets in you

now you are lying in a mud puddle of blood. . . .

PTC The poet was born Patrick Joseph O'Connor on the Lower Falls Road. He writes under the pen name Padraic Fiacc, which means Patrick the Raven, in Gaelic.

"The black is in my poems," he says.

His poetry is black and bloody and rises from the strife in the streets of Belfast like the bitter, acrid, deadly smell of gunfire. He is one of Ireland's oldest and best-known poets.

When younger Northern Ireland poets flinched at the violence of "The Troubles," as the violent upheavals of the last quarter-century are called, Mr. Fiacc, who is now 70 and has been writing poems 50 years, found a voice for his horror.

"I like to explode," he says. "My poems are called explosions, and sometimes they peter out into fragments."

They're as topical as today's car bomb. His "Glass Grass" begins:

The scorched-cloth smell of burnt flesh

From morning, a bomb in one of the parked cars. . . .

"They thought I was crude and rude," he says. "Well, I was. I had to be. It's a crude and rude situation, constantly killing one another, agh, over religion."

He says with mordant humor: "If you're Jewish here, they ask if you're a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew. If you're a Moslem, they ask if you're a Catholic Moslem or a Protestant Moslem. You have to be one or the other.

"I still believe," he says. "I go to church. I go to confession. I do all the things. I'm still a Catholic. But I'm not a religious maniac. I see a depth in existence. Our existences are deep. That's the poet in me."

In a poem from the 1970s called "Victory on Ship Street," he wrote:

"A bomb-blasted pub!

Another blow struck

For our very own corner

On Devil's Island . . .

Stabbed a thousand

Times by flying glass,

Two wee girls in

Hallowe'en dresses,

Burnt to death

As witches!

He still weeps when that poem is read aloud. He's touched by his own poetry.

'Terrible things have happened'

"I saw the pictures coming home from work," he says. "That horrified me. Terrible things have happened here, you see.

"And they're so human," he says, "because the people are like children. Like children fighting one another. Well, nowadays the kids in America are shooting one another."

He grew up in the United States. His parents emigrated when he was 5.

"I was brought up in a tough district of New York," he says. "I'm no stranger to murder. But it horrifies me that I came over here to get away from the violence of New York and I walked right into it here.

"My mother was a very fierce Irish rebel," Mr. Fiacc says. "She was from Lisburn, a wee town. They burned the Catholics out in the '20s, because of the assassination of a policeman. Swanzey, he was called."

Memories are long and deep in Ireland. Detective-Inspector Swanzey was killed in 1920. British Army headquarters are now at Lisburn.

His mother never reconciled herself to leaving Belfast, and neither did Mr. Fiacc. "It's my hometown, and I love it," he says.

His mother eventually would die in New York. Mr. Fiacc returned to Belfast at the end of World War II.

He'd been in a seminary in Delaware and left. He was a conscientious objector during World War II: "No way would I serve beside the British," he says.

He sips a bit of Teacher's, crumpled into a chair in his kitchen like a very, very worn leprechaun.

"I write like an American," he says.

"Not like the British. Americans have a different slant on things. Americans are more contemporary."

His new collection of poems, "Ruined Pages," is available in the ++ United States from Dufour Editions, in Chester Springs, Pa.

In his living room the next day, he sits beneath a panel of paper on which a line from a poem of Robert Frost is scrawled: "miles to go before I sleep."

His hair is reddish, thin and scattered, his mustache thick and drooping and nicotine-stained, his sideburns scraggly and his eyes mobile behind his glasses.

Even though he's devoutly Roman Catholic, he doesn't apportion blame for the Troubles. Instead, he dispenses compassion.

. . . near a culvert I come on a British Army soldier with a rifle and a radio

. . . He has red hair. He looks like a lonely little winter robin. . . . I can nearly hear his heart beating. . . . I am an Irishman, and he thinks I have come to kill him.

Those lines come from a collection called "Missa Terribilis," Mass of the Terrible.

0 "The last 25 years were terrible," he sighs.

Peace is welcome, if . . .

He'd welcome peace if it arises from the current debate over the Irish Republican Army cease-fire. But he's not hopeful.

Hope seems just beyond his grasp in this "coffin country."

"Well, I don't know," he says. "There's such a backlash of paranoia. Both sides are afraid of each other. The least little thing could start it back again.

"They're not noticeably intelligent," he says. "And they're so stupid I have no patience.

"I'm too old to forgive all that nonsense," he says. "I hate both sides -- that's the side I'm on. They're making so much misery for simple good people."

He wrote a poem he called "The Hero:"

"His jaw is dark now and sets.

He's found a reason to kill, a 'cause'.

He's plotting murder, he forgets

Foot-free parish pantomime days,

8, When he was the lad played Santa Claus."

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