Trinity Monday Discourse 2005: SIR WILLIAM ROWAN HAMILTON
William Rowan Hamilton was born in Dublin’s Dominick Street, at midnight on the 3rd of August 1805. When he died some sixty years later he was without question the most famous Irish scientist of his day. He has yet to relinquish that title. Graduate and professor of this College, he is the obvious subject for the Discourse in this his bicentennial year, or Hamilton Year, coinciding and co-equal with the celebrations of Einstein Year and the World Year of Physics. But to confine Hamilton within the timescale of a discourse is a challenge: there is just too much Hamilton material, all of it readily available in three biographies; namely, the 3-volume opus by Robert Graves published in 1882, 85 and 89 and the two more recent books of Thomas Hankins and Sean O’Donnell, published in 1980 and 1983, respectively; moreover, at this point in the year there may already be signs of Hamilton-fatigue; yet I am encouraged by (as well as indebted to) the many colleagues in College and beyond who have plied me with their favourite Hamilton anecdote. With all this in mind I have chosen to present Hamilton to you, in the first instance as a Trinity man of science, supplementing this with a broader extramural sketch that follows, if you will permit me, a mathematical pattern. While you, as it were, bask in the reflected glory of the former, you might grant me this little indulgence in the latter.
We may establish Hamilton’s first connection with this College when, at the age of three, he is sent to live with his father’s brother in Trim. The Reverend James Hamilton was a Classics graduate of the University of Dublin, having entered Trinity at the early age of fifteen. Uncle James was then a Church of Ireland curate and manager of the Meath Diocesan School, living and working in the manor house known as Talbot’s Castle. His appointment was “to instruct the children in the said school in the Latin tongue and in all other tongues in which you are skilled”. It is no great surprise then that Hamilton’s mother can boast that William’s “reciting is astonishing and his clear and accurate knowledge of geography beyond belief; but you will think this nothing when I tell you that he reads Latin, Greek and Hebrew!” Unsurprising except that William is then aged just five! Two years later the boast is of French and Italian, including the prodigy’s desire to read Homer in French and three years later again there is added a litany of oriental languages. The pace of Hamilton’s mathematical training in this same period is more modest. In 1818, however, that changed dramatically, when the young Hamilton encountered Zerah Colburn, the American Calculating Boy. Hamilton was put up against Colburn as a local champion: he was well beaten but he had caught the mathematical bug. In an interesting parallel of role-reversal Colburn went on to become a professor of languages. By 1821, we find Hamilton immersed in this new interest of mathematics but, to Uncle James’ alarm, in the wrong sort of mathematics, that is, material not on the course for entry to Trinity! Also, in this period, a second mentor appears. He is Charles Boyton, newly elected to Fellowship in Mathematics and Hamilton’s future Tutor in College. But well before that, Boyton is advising the schoolboy Hamilton on the ‘new’ French mathematics and Hamilton is finding a small error in Laplace’s celebrated book Méchanique Céleste. If Boyton was surprised, he was at least prepared for more of the same. In July of 1822, Hamilton writes to his sister:
“I called on Charles Boyton, the Fellow, last week. He was trying to solve a problem in Analytic Geometry, which he showed me, and I had the pleasure of solving it before him; for, two days after, when I brought the solution, I found that he had not succeeded!”
A parable, perhaps, for today’s new Fellows! Also in this period, Hamilton developed two further interests that would intersect with his mathematical career. One was the composition of poetry, an activity he shared with his sister Eliza; the other was astronomy, following the gift of a telescope from his father’s first cousin, Arthur Hamilton. On the death of Hamilton’s father in 1819, this same Cousin Arthur would provide Hamilton and his siblings with a Dublin ‘home’, as well as with considerable general support.
Meanwhile Uncle James maintained academic pressure on Hamilton, directed towards the College Entrance examination, which he finally took in July 1823; he should have taken the examination the previous year but there had been some illness and the watchful James held him back. The result was a vindication of James’ stewardship; Hamilton came first out of one hundred candidates and received a premium or book prize for excellence in Hebrew. In his first year in College Hamilton came first in his division in each subject, gaining the Chancellor’s Prize for poetic composition twice and receiving an optime in Classics, an indication of ability that is beyond examination. Hankins remarks that Hamilton’s College career lacks interest because of the sheer inevitability of it all. But in his second year in College Hamilton did not receive the expected premium and he missed the January examinations of the following year through illness. When he did take the examinations in April he was awarded his second optime, this time in Science. For his final year Hamilton set himself the considerable task of winning a double gold medal in Classics and Science.
Hamilton’s College success was noised abroad, with rumours reaching Cambridge as early as 1824. But Hamilton was not to be measured just by examination. In December of his second year he submitted an original research paper to the Royal Irish Academy; the paper, titled On Caustics, was judged “novel and highly interesting” but was rejected on various grounds, including lack of clarity. The paper was re-worked and presented two years later as Theory of Systems of Rays, a novel application of Cartesian methods to describe light rays. The paper was accepted.
Hamilton was clearly destined for Fellowship after graduation but fate intervened, in the guise of the Established Church. In late 1826 the Andrews Professor of Astronomy, The Reverend John Brinkley, was elevated to the bishopric of Cloyne. The Board delayed in appointing a successor until the following June. Charles Boyton vigorously canvassed his colleagues on behalf of his star pupil, claiming that Hamilton “had been in the habit of staying days and nights at the Observatory employed at the instruments and [had] made himself acquainted with their use in detail”. This was a considerable exaggeration! At the same time Boyton urged Hamilton to apply for the post, emphasising the financial advantages of the appointment over Fellowship and adding “I would be glad to see you provided for, and I would be glad to produce to the world one creditable act of the Board!”
On June 16th, 1827, the Board duly obliged and unanimously elected Hamilton Andrews Professor of Astronomy; the position also included the titles of Royal Astronomer and Director of Dunsink Observatory. He was not quite 22 years old and two quarterly examinations short of his degree. And he was no astronomer. After an initial enthusiasm for the tedious round of observation, Hamilton spent little time in the meridian room, leaving these duties to his assistant Thompson and to his sisters Sydney and Grace. In 1831 he confessed to Romney Robinson, his opposite number at Armagh Observatory, that: “My tastes, as you know, are decidedly mathematical rather than physical, and I dislike observing”. In that same year, there was an opportunity to redeem the situation when Bartholomew Lloyd was elected Provost, vacating the Chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. In the event Lloyd’s chair was filled by his son, Humphrey, and Hamilton remained at Dunsink.
Humphrey Lloyd would have an important role in the next chapter of Hamilton’s career. Following on from the publication of Theory of Systems of Rays Hamilton developed his ideas in three further Supplements. In the preparation of the last of these he made a novel discovery. When a ray of light is incident on certain (biaxial) crystals, the emergent light separates into two rays. This double refraction was well known but Hamilton predicted that under very specific conditions of alignment the emergent light would instead be a hollow cone. No such conical refraction had ever been experimentally observed. Hamilton announced his discovery to an evening meeting of the Royal Irish Academy on 22nd October, 1832. The following day he asked Lloyd to try to verify the prediction. Lloyd’s initial attempts were unsuccessful due to the poor quality of his biaxial crystal sample. After a matter of days Hamilton became impatient and pressed Lloyd into agreeing to an approach to George Airy, the British Astronomer Royal, in hopes that he would have more success. But Lloyd also persisted with his own experiments and with a good crystal he finally verified the prediction in December.
Modern physics is not much excited by Conical Refraction but its announcement electrified the scientific community of the day. Airy called it “ perhaps the most remarkable prediction that has ever been made” and it would later be commonly compared to the subsequent prediction and discovery of the planet Neptune by Adams and Leverrier. I hope you will forgive now some blatant advertising but two days hence in the Burke Theatre my colleague, Professor James Lunney, will give a striking demonstration of this phenomenon and a distinguished visitor, Professor Sir Michael Berry FRS, will leave you in no doubt as to the complexity of the mathematics behind it. Other contributions to this Trinity Week Symposium will place Hamilton in his social and scientific times while Professor Brendan Kennelly will speak about creativity in poetry and science.
In 1835 Hamilton was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society – the other recipient that year was the English Physicist, Faraday. In the same year he was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant in the Long Room, where his bust normally now resides; I am grateful to the Librarian Robin Adams for facilitating its temporary relocation here during this discourse. But well before the honours for Conical Refraction materialised, Hamilton had begun to work on a much less- regarded topic, one that would nevertheless guarantee his fame in modern times. He had extended his thinking to mechanics, making an analogy between the path of a light ray and the path of a moving body. His two papers in 1834 entitled On a General Method in Dynamics were well received but mainly where they impinged on the broader topic of the nature of the aether, the mysterious medium that was then believed to support light. But today the core of Hamilton’s method, the so-called Hamiltonian, is central to quantum mechanics, as a ‘google’ computer search will dramatically demonstrate.
In that busy year of royal honours, Hamilton published a further paper with a most poetic title: Algebra as the Science of Pure Time. As the word ‘pure’ might suggest, the genesis of this paper was more metaphysical and it would fix the path of the rest of Hamilton’s research. Hamilton used time as a series of ‘steps’ forward or backward to reflect the positive and negative numbers, respectively; in this way negative numbers acquire, for the first time, a status equal to that of positive numbers. More significantly, Hamilton was drawn into the algebra of complex numbers. Applying his time step methods, Hamilton replaced the complex number combination of ‘real and ‘imaginary’ parts with the concept of number pair or couple. The consensus at the time was that while all this clarified the foundations of algebra, it did not lead to anything new; couples and complex numbers being of equivalent application. But if the concept could be extended to triplets or higher order groups, that would be novel.
For the next eight years Hamilton laboured on triplet numbers. Their triadic appeal was clear; where number couples could correspond to two-dimensional or planar geometry, triplets would describe the full three-dimensional geometry of space. Fundamental problems arose, however, in the multiplication of triplets, problems that did not occur in the multiplication of couples. Hamilton became increasingly engaged by the philosophy of triads, going on to construct a personal triad of Will, Mind and Life. In 1843, however, he returned to the mathematical aspect of triplets. Hankins offers a number of reasons for this renewed interest, including the prospect of the triadic re-shuffle of chairs, following Humphrey Lloyd’s resignation to become Senior Fellow. In this scheme Professor James MacCullagh, would take up Lloyd’s chair, vacating his own chair in Mathematics in favour of Hamilton. But issues of Fellowship arose (Hamilton was unwilling to take the examination) and despite the Board’s concern about the management of Dunsink, Hamilton remained outside the College walls, and on the lower salary.
Whatever the reason for the renewed interest in triplets, it finally bore fruit in the autumn of that year. On the 16th of October, while walking with his wife along the Royal Canal, en route to the Academy, a possible solution appeared in the shape of not three but four- member numbers or quaternions: Hamilton would later recall the event thus:
“An undercurrent of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance. An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth, the herald (as I foresaw, immediately) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work……nor could I resist the impulse –unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula.”
Historians argue over the veracity of this latter act. Yet, it seems not wholly out of character, and is worthy of such a Eureka moment. What is certain is that the fundamental formula i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1 appears in Hamilton’s pocket notebook entry of the day.
The announcement of quaternions created a mixed response. There existed a considerable number of mathematicians who, like Hamilton, were trying to solve the triplet problem, and would continue to try to do so. Others moved ahead to hypercomplex groups, such as 8-member octaves. Hamilton remained true to quaternions, absolutely convinced that they represented a completely new method of mathematical notation, one capable of displacing all previous methods, including Cartesian geometry. Over the next ten years Hamilton produced a large number of papers on the topic, including the lengthy On Quaternions: Or on a New System of Imaginaries in Algebra which appeared in eighteen installments in the scientific journal Philosophical Magazine. This period culminated in the publication of his book, Lectures on Quaternions, based on the lectures given in this College. The book was long and difficult to read; it was not a success.
In response to the urgings of fellow mathematicians Hamilton now began work on a simple introductory manual. However, like its precursor, the manual quickly expanded into an even longer book. Elements of Quaternions was not published until after Hamilton’s death and the Board was obliged to pay the printer’s considerable bill. Of the 500 copies printed many were given away as presentation copies.
Quaternions did however open the way to several fruitful areas, such as the relaxing of the commutative law of multiplication, whereby A times B must equal B times A. Furthermore, just as a complex number was the sum of a number and an imaginary, a quarternion is the sum of a number and a line in space. Hamilton was the first to distinguish these as the familiar scalar and vector, respectively, of modern vector analysis. In addition, the invention of the calculus of quaternions would be later described by James Clerk Maxwell as comparable to the invention of triple coordinates by Descartes. At the end of this week The Central Bank will launch a 10 euro Hamilton commemorative coin, incorporating the so-called “nabla” symbol of that calculus; This suggestion by our colleague Professor Denis Weaire creates a pleasing symmetry with the coin’s obverse harp of Ireland.
After Hamilton’s death a great battle was joined between the quaternion camp, notably Tait, and the inventors of vector analysis, Josiah Gibbs and Oliver Heaviside. There was much intemperate language on both sides with Heaviside writing dismissively that “quaternions furnishes a uniquely simple and natural way of treating quaternions”! Yet the appeal of quaternions persisted well into the 20th century, and in some unusual corners. Perhaps the most unusual is The Insect, the in-house journal produced by post-1916 rebel prisoners in Lincoln Jail. In Volume 2 dated 15th September 1918, among the entries to a poetry competition, there is a sonnet-length verse addressed to someone called Quaternia. Here are the closing couplets
And in the ages yet to rise and roll
Until annihilation’s awful knell shall toll
Shall thou and I beloved find the means To knock Algebra into smithereens
A suitably explosive ending for a future Taoiseach and President? And some scratching of heads at British counter-intelligence for the title of the poem (as the competition required) was “My best Girl”.
It seems likely that Dev had some involvement in the 1943 decision to issue a commemorative stamp, marking the centenary of Hamilton’s discovery. Fortunately, Erwin Schroedinger was on hand to redress the balance as to Hamilton’s achievements. He is quoted in the Irish Times thus:
“I daresay not a day passes – and seldom an hour – without somebody, somewhere on this globe, pronouncing or reading or writing or printing Hamilton’s name. That is due to his fundamental discoveries in general dynamics”
Yet, this year’s commemorative stamp also foregrounds the quaternion formulation; there is an undeniable iconic appeal in an equation of such simplicity. Therefore, I am emboldened to employ a rough quaternion structure to discuss the wider extramural life of Hamilton and his times. That is, I mean to place Hamilton in tow with some significant triplets. The earliest (and best founded) example of this is the Honourable Society of Four devised by the teenage Hamilton in 1819, comprising himself and his sisters, Grace, Eliza and Sydney, the fourth sister Archiana being too young to be involved. The importance of these three women in Hamilton’s life cannot be overstated, with Grace as the household manager, Eliza as fellow poet and close confidante and Sydney as astronomical assistant. The need to provide a home for his sisters after their parents’ deaths played some part in Hamilton’s decision to go to Dunsink. The same sisters’ abrupt departure from Dunsink on Hamilton’s marriage must have caused considerable upheaval on many fronts.
A related quaternion comprises Hamilton and his own three children, William Edwin, Helen Eliza and Archibald. None of these showed any particular interest in science or scholarship generally. Perhaps this in not unconnected with the ambience of Dunsink, as caught in the anecdotal breakfast query “Well, Papa, can you multiply triplets yet?”. William Edwin emigrated to Canada where he worked in the newspaper business, Archibald followed Uncle James into the church and Helen Eliza married another clergyman, John O’Regan and died young of complications following the birth of a son. It is descendants of that family who preserved much of Hamilton’s correspondence and papers.
A rather different quaternion comprises Hamilton and three younger Irishmen of wealth and influence, Viscount Adare, Aubrey de Vere and Francis Edgeworth, step-brother of the novelist. Hamilton initially tutored the young Adare, and it was he who later would make the suggestion that Hamilton move to the Chair of Mathematics in this college. Edgeworth and de Vere were poets and all four shared a passion for the idealist philosophy that informed Hamilton’s mathematics. There were later discussions about the Oxford Movement; both Edgeworth and de Vere converted to Rome but Hamilton remained in the Church of Ireland, becoming churchwarden at Castleknock in 1851. Overall, the group provided Hamilton with important entrées to society, as well as access to female relatives of marriageable age.
Hamilton’s intention to marry was an important factor in his choosing Dunsink over the celibate life of a Fellow. In this regard, Hamilton forms a quaternion with three very different women, Catherine Disney, Ellen de Vere and Helen Bayly. Hamilton would later write that towards Catherine he had felt himself a lover, towards Ellen he had been a brother and to Helen he had been a husband. Of the three, his interaction with Ellen was the least complicated. He chose to interpret her declaration that she could “not live happily anywhere but at Curragh” as a rejection of his as yet undeclared suit; in any case her brother Aubrey was opposed to the union ‘on philosophical grounds’. Hamilton was more persistent with Helen Bayly, whom he eventually married in 1833. However, the future Lady Hamilton was semi-invalid and for much of the marriage lived with her relations. So much so that the Armagh astronomer Romney Robinson could remark that she was ‘but an abstract idea’.
Catherine Disney was an abstract idea of a different kind. Hamilton met and fell in love with her during his second year in College but her parents arranged for her to marry an older, more established man, the Reverend William Barlow. Hamilton was deeply upset and this probably occasioned the illness at the beginning of his third year in College; his attachment to Catherine, or to the ideal of her, permeated his life. During an encounter with the now Mrs Barlow at Armagh Observatory some five years later, Hamilton became so agitated that he broke the crosswires on the eyepiece of the telescope. Their paths crossed again when Catherine’s son James entered Trinity, leading to an exchange of letters of an increasingly passionate nature and culminating in Catherine’s attempted suicide in 1848. Hamilton was greatly affected by this turn of events. Although Catherine would no longer reside with her husband, the only outward expression of Hamilton’s feelings for her was his steering of her son though the Fellowship Examinations; that he was simultaneously tutoring Barlow Jnr in quaternions while supplying the same material to the Examiner might seem less than proper. But there is no denying the propriety and the pathos of the scene in which Hamilton presents the dying Catherine with a copy of his Lectures on Quaternions, describing this later as:
“Kneeling, I offered her the Book which represented the scientific labours of my life. Rising, I received, or took as my reward…a kiss, nay, many kisses”.
And he continues…
Yet I dare to affirm that our affectionate transport in those few permitted moments, was pure as that of those who in the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the Angels of God in Heaven”
The final act was Hamilton’s hurried retrieval of his letters from within Catherine’s deathbed.
Catherine Disney was the subject of much of Hamilton’s poetry and a quaternion of poets has many candidates. Leaving aside those already mentioned, that is, Eliza, Edgeworth and de Vere, the choice falls on William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Speranza, the mother of Oscar Wilde. Hamilton met Speranza late in life and although he turned down her invitation to be the young Oscar’s godparent, they remained friends. In his book Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish, Professor Davis Coakley describes the ‘Feast of Poets’, an evening of poetry at the Observatory in April of 1858, attended by Speranza, among others. Hamilton later wrote to Lady Wilde:
“I am unable to recall – so much of human music was there in the poetical party at which you were so kind as lately to assist – whether the birds were singing at that time. This morning I have unlocked the hall-door, that I might listen more freely to the storm, the tempest, the whirlwind of delight, and of music with which the birds are now surrounding this house and me.”
The Wordsworth connection was of an earlier vintage: Hamilton met Wordsworth on holiday in England a few months after his appointment at Dunsink; the elder poet also visited the observatory two years later, where they engaged in animated discussions about Science and Poetry. Hamilton then still entertained hopes of becoming a great poet but Wordsworth firmly advised against this, stressing the great effort of craftmanship required in poetry, just as in mathematics. If Hamilton was disappointed at Wordsworth’s rejection, he had the consolation of an introduction to Coleridge. Hamilton’s sonnet in praise of the great telescope at Birr closes with the following couplet
gleamed to the west, far seen, the Lake below; and through the trees was heard the river’s flow
which has more than an echo of Kubla Khan. But it is Coleridge’s philosophy that is of real importance and, in this regard, Speranza should give up her place in favour of Kant, in whose writings Hamilton found ready resonance for his own ideas about science.
There are two further triplets that are worthy of more detailed discussion but which are only briefly noted here. The first is the public fora in which Hamilton presented his work, namely this College, the Royal Irish Academy and the British Association. Hamilton’s main duties in college were his lectures on Astronomy and his oratory on these occasions was greatly appreciated; the introductory lectures were attended by the public, including, to the Fellows’ dismay, a number of women! Hamilton was a more significant presence in the Academy, being an effective President for many years. He was also a major figure in the fledgling British Association for the Advancement of Science, where both his oratory and his counsel were much in demand; Hamilton and Humphrey Lloyd co- hosted a Dublin meeting of the association in 1835, which was the occasion of Hamilton’s knighthood. It is appropriate to mention in this company the National Academy of Sciences, then newly formed in America, which shortly before Hamilton’s death elected him as the first on the list of foreign associates.
The other triplet might be labelled ‘antagonists’. Hamilton was generally well-liked, describing himself as possessing “a great fondness for an argument but not a disposition to quarrel”. One possible antagonist might be The Reverend William Barlow, Catherine Disney’s husband, but on balance he was the more injured party. A much better candidate is James MacCullagh, the mercurial professor of mathematics at Trinity. On more than one occasion MacCullagh claimed priority of discovery in relation to Hamilton’s research, most notably in conical refraction and in quaternions; in the latter case he claimed to have anticipated quaternions in a theorem on the ellipse that he had placed on the Fellowship examination the previous year. But MacCullagh was becoming increasingly unstable and took his own life in 1847. That Hamilton was much distressed at this tragedy is well-founded; that he should empathize with MacCullagh is understandable for he too seems to have suffered on and off from depression and his latter years were disfigured by a degree of alcohol abuse. It might be argued then that the only real antagonist was Hamilton himself!
But to close on a more positive note, I would like to select one from a quaternion of altogether gentler images. It might be the chop of indeterminate age, discovered as a bookmark in Hamilton’s study; or it might be the pillowcase full of books that Hamilton carried around with him, spilling its contents off the top of a Birmingham omnibus; it might even be the Icosian board game that Hamilton invented and marketed, but that turned out to be too easy for children. My own preference is the string passed through the bedroom wall at Trim and attached to his nightshirt; it is an appropriate choice given that my time is up. So, I will leave it to that other Trinity man, Uncle James, to awaken again that splendid mix of mathematics and philosophy, poetry and passion that is Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Iggy McGovern FTCD 2005
Academic Papers that include analysis of my poetry
1. The Language of Globalization in Contemporary Irish Poetry
Benjamin Keatinge, South East European University, Macedonia (<firstname.lastname@example.org>)
Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies, n. 4 (2014), pp. 69-84 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13128/SIJIS-2239-3978-14307
This essay considers how contemporary Irish poets have responded to the changing socio-economic realities of Irish life since 1990. Through an examination of themes of work, consumerism, the encroachment of cyber-space and changing urban lifestyles, the essay demonstrates how Irish poets have risen to the challenge of finding a language to capture what Zygmunt Bauman characterizes as “liquid modernity”. A range of poets are considered, including the late Dennis O’Driscoll, Rita Ann Higgins, Peter Sirr as well as Billy Ramsell, Kevin Higgins and Iggy McGovern. These poets’ musings provide excellent examples of how the poet can turn the language of globalization into a critique of globalization’s economic hegemony.
Keywords: consumerism, globalization, Ireland, language, poetry
In her 2012 novel The Devil I Know, Claire Kilroy captures the spirit of economic frenzy in Ireland during the dying days of the Celtic Tiger:
Calls had been made across the world. Contracts were being drawn up in various international financial institutions. Things had started to happen. We had flipped one of the hotels in London and shifted a shopping mall in Dubai, extracting value of over €100 million from those two alone, every cent of which we moved like a stack of poker chips onto the Pudong site, stationing our army at the mouth of this most strategic of ports [...] We kept an eye on the row of clocks, trying not to. Dublin, Dubai, Shanghai; not London, New York, Tokyo as of old. The axis of world power had shifted. [...] I was pleading for us to win. Every fibre of my being was focused on that outcome. Bona fortuna. That’s when I experienced the startling revelation [...] Maybe wealth could be created out of debt and fortunes amassed overnight. (2012, 239)
All the essential ingredients of the economic mirage in Ireland are here, mediated through the preposterous narrator Tristram St Lawrence: the gamble on international and domestic property, the instantaneous money transfers across financial centres, the loans carried over by developers from previous investments, the new financial networks of power and the sheer belief that the money would never dry up and that the property business was a one-way bet on success and wealth. Of course, Kilroy’s novel is a wry morality tale in which Tristram and his business partner, the developer Desmond Hickey, lose everything on this final roll of the dice. Meanwhile, the mysterious M. Deauville, Tristram’s mentor, evaporates at the end of the novel in a Faustian denouement where all of the protagonists enter the damnation of post-Celtic- Tiger Ireland.
The period since the bank guarantee of 30 September 2008 and the EU-IMF bail-out announced on 21 November 2010 has been a period of consolidation and reflection, as well as deep social frustration and anger, as the consequences of Ireland’s economic boom have become clear. The col- lapse of the Irish economy stemmed from a unique confluence of local and international factors, among which financial deregulation and globalization are of major importance. Economic experts have suggested that up until around 2001, the economic growth enjoyed in Ireland was still relatively healthy and perhaps sustainable, if prudently managed1. Growth had been export-driven, based on the investment of largely American capital in an Irish economy which boasted low corporate tax rates, a skilled workforce and access to European markets. However, in the period 2001-2007, the economy veered towards a construction and property boom which led to wild speculation by property developers, frenzied levels of building, irresponsible bank lending and an inflationary spiral. All of this was made possible by the globalization of the banking and financial sectors which enabled Irish banks to borrow money internationally in order to lend to Irish developers. When the credit crunch came, Irish banks were effectively insolvent, and only the infamous bank guar- antee prevented bankruptcy of all Irish financial institutions. Nevertheless, the consequence of the guarantee has been the bankruptcy of the Irish state and has necessitated the draconian cut-backs implemented by the Irish govern- ment under the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 which in turn has been a consequence of the Irish state’s recourse to the International Monetary Fund.
While the international banking crisis may have been the immediate cause of the Irish crash, it is also clear that Ireland’s predicament is the outcome of deeper external and internal social and economic processes and uniquely Irish cultural mores. This predicament could be summarized in one word – property. Although Irish home-ownership levels are not outstandingly high by European standards (in the 2006 census, 75% of Irish residential property was owner-occupied), home ownership is still highly-prized in Ireland, es- pecially house ownership, as opposed to more Continental-style apartment living. When wealth began to circulate in 1990s Ireland, many beneficiaries’ first instinct was to invest in property; property speculation became, during the 1990s and 2000s, a national pastime. Another local factor has surely been Ireland’s historic poverty. When the Irish economy began to grow, Irish people understandably rejoiced in their new found wealth, but did not always use it responsibly. The lack of economic management, both on a micro- and macro-economic levels has led to the charge that the social and infrastructural benefits of the boom have been minimal and the fruits of prosperity have been squandered on the conspicuous consumption which was a feature of Irish life during the Tiger years.
No amount of poetic condemnation or criticism could have altered the political and economic direction Ireland followed during the Tiger years. Nevertheless, poets have enjoyed their traditional role of guarantors of the integrity of language in an environment where the devaluation and bowdlerization of language has been widespread and where the dictates of the market have created a newly vacuous vocabulary and set of ideas. Many examples of such vocabulary will be cited in this essay. I will argue that several Irish poets have written persuasively about the dangers of consumerism and of allowing the language of the marketplace too much sway. Political and social satire has enjoyed something of a revival in Irish poetry and one of the characteristics of good satire is to use the vocabulary of received ideas in order to mock those same ideas. At the same time, globalization and the modern economy have led to profound transformations in lifestyles and communications which go to the core of our relationships and private selves. Therefore, poets have had to find a language to describe new modes of existence in the twenty-first century, modes which reflect a globalized social reality.
The benefits and disadvantages of globalization are disputed by academ- ics and laypersons alike and there is no poetic consensus about how Ireland’s economic (mis)fortunes should be presented. The fact that, since 1995, Ireland has been ranked (in accountancy firm Ernst and Young’s annual globaliza- tion index) as among the top three most globalized economies in the world, is represented poetically in many reflections on how Ireland’s social fabric has been transformed. Most visibly, immigration to Ireland – of migrants from Eastern Europe, from Nigeria, from China and elsewhere – has given the major cities, especially Dublin, a newly cosmopolitan feel. Equally, the decline of the Catholic Church, in the wake of clerical abuse scandals through the 1990s and 2000s, has changed entirely the relationship of Irish people to traditional sources of moral authority. It has also opened up Irish people to the presence of other faiths, especially Islam, in their midst while also break- ing the ties of Church and State in the realms of education, healthcare and social provision. The fact that international corporations have been attracted to Ireland by a low tax regime, but are now leaving, often with unseemly haste, has reminded all of us that international corporations and local communities are divergent entities; the profit motive does not consider local community interests. Clearly, poets are not economists, but they can observe and reflect on the changes which manifest themselves in Irish society as a direct or indirect result of the globalized economy.
This essay will consider globalization as a theme and phenomenon in contemporary Irish poetry. It will be less concerned with what might be termed the globalization of Irish poetry, or, indeed, of poetry in general. In an age of travel where writers and academics can appear at festivals and conferences in almost any part of the world, poetry and its practitioners are more than ever themselves part of a globalized environment. This situation is reflected in the number of noted Irish poets who live outside of Ireland – Paul Muldoon, Eavan Boland, Tom Paulin, Justin Quinn and (until relatively recently) Harry Clifton, to name just five émigré Irish poets. It is even reflected in the ambiguity of what, in the twenty-first century, constitutes an Irish poet. Historically, writers such as Louis MacNeice and Oscar Wilde, even Yeats himself, have been less than fully indigenous either in their country of residence or in their commit- ment to aspects of Irish nationalism. In more recent times, several Irish poets are equivocally Irish or Irish by conviction, if not birth. Richard Murphy, Ian Duhig, Peter McDonald and Eamon Grennan might all be seen as Irish in ways which serve to underline the difficulties of defining such identarian bounda- ries. All of this points towards what poet and critic Justin Quinn has termed “the disappearance of Ireland” (Quinn 2008, 194) as a focus of contemporary writing. According to Quinn, in an increasingly post-national environment, poets are less troubled by the matter of Ireland and he cites several important contemporary poets in support of this view, among them: Harry Clifton, Paul Durcan, Peter Sirr, David Wheatley, Vona Groarke and Conor O’Callaghan. Of course, Ireland never literally disappears from the work of these writers, far from it. But the globalization of poetry has led them, arguably, to view Ireland through the prism of their international experiences and frames of reference in a less introverted and less nationalistic way than their predecessors.
In his 2009 essay “Solitary Caverns: On Globalization and Poetry”, American poet C.K. Williams reminds us that, ever since the Renaissance, change and evolution in poetry (and the other arts) has come about through the cross-fertilization of various national traditions. Indeed, it seems that all major cultural formations – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism – are pan-European and international in character. Nevertheless, what Williams calls “a globalization of art” (2009, 553) may carry the same cultural dangers often associated with globalization, those of homogenization and conformity across national boundaries. One of the controversies and questions concerning globalization is whether such a process leads to greater cultural homogenization or whether, on the contrary, globalization may un- dermine national traditions but simultaneously strengthen local and regional identities in a process of so-called ‘glocalization’. Certainly, the benefits and consequences of global economic processes for poetry and art are not yet fully understood and may yield some counter-intuitive surprises.
Just as artists and writers have always ignored national boundaries in their search for new styles and ideas, so the business and mercantile élites of the world have always sought opportunities abroad. The early-modern pe- riod, in some ways, marks the beginnings of the colonial and pioneer trading networks which find their modern manifestation in the international money markets where vast sums can be transferred around the world at the touch of a button. Therefore, globalization as a process has been with us at least since the Renaissance; however, as a constellation of ideas and set of discourses, it emerges in the 1990s as a powerful explanatory tool for describing the new and complex networks of international trade and finance which the Irish economy tapped into during the Celtic Tiger. Perhaps the greatest difference between the modern global economy and those of preceding periods is that the level of interdependence of finance and trade is now so great that, in terms of economic policy, no country can be self-sufficient or avoid the international factors which drive or impede economic growth.
Irish poets have been quick to co-opt the idea of globalization and its vocabularies as a way of exploring perennial themes of identity, personal relationships, lifestyles and the workplace in the twenty-first century. The fact that Ireland has benefitted from globalization, but also suffered major economic reversals, because of this small island’s exposure to the swings and roundabouts of the world economy, lends globalization a certain topicality within Irish culture. Equally, the evolution of Irish society away from es- sentialist definitions of Irishness towards a more pluralistic viewpoint – one which includes the Irish diaspora, immigrants to Ireland, non-Catholic Irish, various ethnic minorities, Northern Protestants – should serve as an indica- tor of the potential benefits of a discourse which helps account for a less insular Ireland. This essay, then, will look, first of all, at some of the satirical responses to the fall-out from the economic collapse since 2008; it will also explore how poets such as Dennis O’Driscoll have made the work and social patterns of the Celtic Tiger years one of the major aspects of their poetry. The essay will then explore some of the more insidious aspects of globalization – for example: call centres, internet spam, junk TV – under the heading of ‘Depersonalized Spaces’ and see how Irish poets have responded to the more impersonal features of the global technological revolution.
2. Fool’s Gold: Satire and Critique of the Celtic Tiger
Within discourses of globalization, the term précarité – or in English, precarity – is often used to describe the social and economic experience of globalized, free-market capitalism in which the deregulated market threatens to undermine some of the hard-won social protections which are embodied in social-democratic models of society (Bremen 2013). Clearly, Irish experi- ence since 2008 has been nothing if not precarious, with the near meltdown of the financial system and subsequent property collapse and recession. However, it could be argued that even during the years of economic growth, precariousness is what exactly describes Irish social and economic experi- ence. Although globalization is primarily an economic experience affecting the domains of work and consumption, it also arguably invades the inner corners of our private selves with a very modern sense of precariousness and transience which sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has referred to as the “liquid” (rather than “solid”) experience of modernity under late capitalism. Even if new opportunities and new lifestyles have opened up in Ireland since 1990, the type of mobility, speed and dynamism which was a feature of the Tiger years, contains its own unique sense of vertigo so that the sudden reversal of the wheel of fortune may be seen as an extension, rather than inversion, of the vertiginous economic spiral of the Irish and global economy.
For Bauman, in his persuasive critique of globalization and modern consumerism, the nature of modern societies is entirely dictated by the needs of the market:
The seminal departure that sets the consumerist syndrome most sharply apart from its productivist predecessor [...] seems to be the reversal of values attached respec- tively to duration and transience. The consumerist syndrome consists above all in an emphatic denial of the virtue of procrastination and of the propriety and desirability of the delay of satisfaction [...] the consumerist syndrome has degraded duration and elevated transience. It has put the value of novelty above that of lastingness. It has sharply shortened the timespan separating not just the wanting from the getting (as many observers, inspired or misled by credit agencies, have suggested), but also the birth of the wanting from its demise, [...] it has put appropriation, quickly followed by waste disposal, in the place of possessions and enjoyment that last [...] The ‘consu- merist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste. (2005, 83-84, italics in original)
The Celtic Tiger was a period of Irish history entirely in the grip of this con- sumerist syndrome. The beneficiaries of the boom took advantage of their new found purchasing power in order to acquire all the accoutrements of the modern consumer: fashionable clothes, holidays abroad, second homes, expensive cars, fine dining and, of course, more and more property. Indeed, one of the features of the boom was the decision by many young first-time buyers to get on the property ladder in case they would miss out entirely on the apparent property bonanza. Such “denial of the virtue of procrastination” and inability to delay the satisfaction of a major purchase has resulted in financial disaster for many Irish couples and individuals. In a society of “speed, excess and waste”, individuals are interpellated, as Bauman (following Louis Althusser) suggests, as consumers so that earning and spending became the sole preoccupations of vast swathes of the populace. Irish society became a classic case of the consumerist syndrome which was expressed in the need to own and to consume and the generation of false needs in order to perpetuate and prop up economic order of things.
Perhaps the most perspicacious poet-critic of this state of affairs, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was the late Dennis O’Driscoll who used his poetic gifts to critique the work-a-day world around him. His ironic and mordant criticism of Irish lifestyles in the Celtic and post-Celtic Tiger period makes him the most perceptive and effective poetic opponent of Ireland’s hyper- consumerism and subsequent crash-landing in the past decade. In his poem “The Celtic Tiger”, from his 1999 collection Weather Permitting, O’Driscoll neatly captures the heightened tempo and shallowness of the boom years:
Ireland’s boom is in full swing.
Rows of numbers, set in a cloudless blue computer background, prove the point.
Outside new antique pubs, young consultants well-toned women, gel-slick men –
drain long-necked bottles of imported beer.
The old live on, wait out their stay
of execution in small granny flats,
thrifty thin-lipped men, grim pious wives . . . (2004, 145)
In a globalized and highly dynamic economy of rapid technological change, the old (defined as over-fifties) and the poorly educated are necessar- ily excluded. O’Driscoll’s evocation of retiree couples in the globalized city foregrounds the fact that there are stark contrasts in lifestyle between the win- ners and losers in a consumer society. One of the more deplorable features of “liquid modernity” is the devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to social cohesion. In a newly acquisitive Ireland, to quote Bauman again:
The need here is to run with all one’s strength just to stay in the same place and away from the rubbish bin where the hindmost are doomed to land [...] Life in the liquid modern world is a sinister version of the musical chairs game, played for real. The true stake in the race is (temporary) rescue from being excluded into the ranks of the destroyed and avoiding being consigned to waste. (2005, 3)
Traditional Catholic Ireland may have been economically stagnant, but at least the exclusionary game of musical chairs was not a feature of national economic life to the same extent as the boom years.
In subsequent collections, O’Driscoll has extended his critique of the consumer economy via his focus on two themes – death and work – which he uses to offset the hedonism and acquisitiveness of Celtic Tiger Ireland. In a review of the 2002 volume Exemplary Damages, Adam Kirsch writes:
If death is the major theme of O’Driscoll’s poetry, his favourite subject is work. He makes work – the routines and impedimenta of office life – a synecdoche for the standardised, globalised, pampered and otiose life led by the middle classes in the West, Ireland as much as Britain or America [...] his semi-sonnet sequence ‘The Bottom Line’ makes Dublin seem like a version of Detroit. (2003, 35)
The global equivalent of individual mortality is the unsustainability of economic life as currently lived in the West which, simply put, will exhaust the globe’s resources at current rates of consumption. O’Driscoll spells this out for us in the poem “Exemplary Damages”:
How will there ever be goods enough, white goods, dry goods, grave goods, munitions, comestibles,
to do justice to all the peoples of the world?
Enough parma ham, however thinly curled,
to serve with cottage cheese and chives
in the cavernous canteens of high-rise buildings?
Enough rubs and creams, suppositories and smears, mesh tops and halter necks, opaques and sheers? How will there be enough flax steeped for smart
linen suits, enough sheep shorn for lambswool coats, enough goats for cashmere stoles to wear on opening nights, enough cotton yarn to spin into couture tops, flak jackets?
And can we go on satisfying orders for baseball caps, chicken nuggets,
body toning pads, camomile salve for chapped lips? And what quantity
of dolphin-friendly skipjack tuna meets a sushi bar’s demands? (2004, 193-194)
Here O’Driscoll employs the language of the modern consumer, with suggestions of the liquid lifestyle of the upwardly mobile professional of the Celtic Tiger years whose dietary and sartorial tastes are deftly suggested. Im- plicit in this poem is O’Driscoll’s sense of the superficial and blindly acquisi- tive nature of these apparent needs, especially since the goods mentioned are luxuries, not necessities. An older, more traditional Irish poem would regard such lifestyle choices as exotically foreign, not native. However, in a globalized city such as Dublin in the 1990s, these are the new, consumer-driven norms.
O’Driscoll pursues these concerns – of mortality, in the context of a finite and fragile world ecosystem – in his final published collection Dear Life (2012). Here again, he lambasts the money-changers and the speculators, but he also adopts, in places, a tone of solemn appreciation of life’s blessings together with a sense of responsibility and concern for the future. So, the poem “Not the Dead” looks forward in a deprecatory and darkly funny way, all the while evoking Bauman’s sense of the disposability of both goods and people in liquid modernity:
It is not the dead who haunt us. [...]
It is the not-yet-born
we are up against.
They will be the first to forget us. [...]
Consign us to the past.
Outlast us. (2012, 57)
Another Dublin-based poet who shares some of O’Driscoll’s ironic in- sights into the essential emptiness of Ireland’s economic transformation is Iggy McGovern. As the title of McGovern’s first collection – The King of Suburbia (2005) – implies, he is happy to foreground the ordinariness of his suburban environment by casting himself ironically as the monarch of Dundrum, king of the wheelie-bin and the bottle-bank and the suburban garden. In his more recent volume Safe House (2010), we find the following series of juxtapositions in “The Irish Poem Is” which tellingly unravels the conflict between traditional (indigenous) and modern (globalized) Irish identities:
a Táin Bó, a Spring Show, a video
a trodden dream, a parish team, a tax -break scheme a prison cell, an Angelus bell, a clientele a brinded cow, a marriage vow, a domestic row a tattered coat, a puck goat, a telly remote a game of tig, a slip jig, a U2 gig a restored tower, a Holy Hour, a pressure shower a ticking clock, a summer frock, a shock-jock a hazel wand, a dipping pond, a page 3 blonde a canal bank, a returned Yank, a septic tank a green flag, a Child Of Prague, a Prada bag a whispering sea, a Rose of Tralee, a transfer fee a disused shed, a settle bed, a Club Med[...]. (2010, 61)
This bewildering series of images and associations speaks for itself. While the majority of traditional images of Ireland are rural, it is the urban and materialistic counter-images which we recognise as best describing current social realities. By opposing clichés of traditional Ireland with modern equivalents, McGovern shows how the Celtic Tiger has bequeathed us its own set of associations which invade the fabric of our consciousness and become starkly recognisable when fed back to us in juxtaposition to more traditional cultural imagery.
The perspective of Galway-based poet Rita Ann Higgins on the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger conveys some of the anger and denunciation expressed by the public at large especially in their unceremonious rejection of Fianna Fáil in the 2011 general election. She has long been known as a poet from the margins who has championed minority causes and voices in her work. In her most recent collection titled Ireland is Changing Mother (2011) there are several arresting poems pointing out the political stupidity and corruption which has led to Ireland’s economic collapse. Her poem titled “The Dark- ness” is a riposte to anyone who believed that Ireland’s economic miracle was sustainable or that Bertie Ahern’s version of socialism was credible:
it was dishcloth dreams
it was back on the dole queues it was Fás schemes
it was refuse charges
it was Fás expenses
it was soap operas
it was pope operas
it was Spiddal in the middle
it was rain rain rain
it was tribunals
it was lost receipts
it was a limo, here a limo there
it was SSIAs (Rita Ann Higgins 2011, 19)
As with Iggy McGovern’s poem “The Irish Poem Is”, there is a rhetorical clarity here which hits its targets in a direct and vigorous way. All of the wrongdoing and corruption of the Celtic Tiger years is laid out in this three page poem: from “Biffo’s budget” (reference to former Fianna Fáil Finance Minister and Taoiseach Brian Cowan whose mismanagement of the nation’s finances arguably worsened the subsequent economic recession) to Michael Fingleton (former chairman of Anglo-Irish Bank, subsequently nationalized after massive losses), to the Health Service Executive (HSE), “foreign-owned banks” (Higgins 2011, 20), to NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) and An Bord Snip Nua (a government-commissioned report on possible budget savings published in 2009). Despite the global backdrop, these refer- ence points are decidedly Irish; Ireland found its own distinctive way to go bankrupt and Higgins revels in some of the local points of reference well- known to Irish readers.
Nonetheless, Higgins (born in Galway in 1955) has had a productive poetic career which spans a period beginning well before the years of economic plenitude in the 1990s and early 2000s. From her first volume Goddess on the Mervue Bus (1986), she has drawn particular attention to the situation of working mothers and to poverty and social exclusion in her native Galway. As a bilingual writer currently living in Spiddal in the Galway Gaeltacht, Higgins has also written about her relationship to the Irish language and its ever-dwindling community of native speakers. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, to find a poem (in the 2005 volume of new and selected poems, Throw in the Vowels) which deals with an older and more traditional form of globalized Irishness: the church missions to Africa, South America and Asia, part of the Irish Catholic Church’s historical contribution to worldwide Christianity. Even up to 1980, the Catholic priesthood would have been a not unusual career choice in the highly circumscribed choices presented to Irish school-leavers. Even though this is now a vanished Ireland, Higgins reminds us of its grim legacy as has been revealed in several investigations during the 1990s and 2000s into sexual misconduct among the Catholic clergy:
They say Ambrose had a smashing global outlook, [...]
When he could hardly walk
he was collecting for the black babies.
So it came as no great shock to us
when one pancake Tuesday word rose up the queue that Ambrose got a black baby of his own
and he married her.
She was twelve and three quarters. (2005, 190)
Higgins’ work reflects the tensions within a wider Irish society between conservative, traditional forces and modernizing tendencies. A poem published in 2005 about a church missionary appears to hark back to a bygone era, but the link the clerical child abuse makes it entirely contemporary. Likewise, a poem published in the 2010 volume Hurting God titled “When the Big Boys Pulled Out” reminds us that the economic challenges of globalization are not necessarily new in Ireland. The modernization of the Irish economy really began in earnest with the publication in 1958 of the First Programme for Economic Expansion authored by economist and civil servant T.K. Whitaker at the behest of then Taoiseach Seán Lemass who was determined to reverse de Valera’s economic isolationism. This strategy to attract foreign investment was partially successful with a modest economic recovery during the 1960s. However, Higgins evokes a Galway of the 1980s when some of the newly established industries “pulled out” thus exposing the vulnerability of the Irish economy to outflows of capital investment: “Our fag breaks / became our summer holidays / when the Big Boys pulled out” (2010, 48).
Another Galway-based poet with a distrust of the “Big Boys” is Kevin Higgins, author of four volumes which mingle reflections on his own brand of left-wing politics with several state of the nation poems alongside satires of political mismanagement and corruption. Born in England, Higgins’ family returned to Ireland in 1974 when he was seven to live in Galway and Higgins experienced the worst of 1980s recessionary Ireland as well as the upheavals of Thatcher’s England. His take on the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath is predictably acerbic. The sanitized, politically-correct Ireland of recent times is described in the 2010 volume Frightening New Furniture as “this minimalist spaceship / where people just sip their decaffeinated water / and listen to David Gray” (2010, 21). The poem “That Was My Country” from the same volume, displays an ironic nostalgia for a less (or possibly more) wholesome Ireland: “When there was planning permission / for anything and morning / was breakfast baps and gravel / going back that road by the truckload” (2010, 24). Higgins’ poetry present the poet’s persona as a self-deprecating, aging radical whose memories of political counter-culture from the early 1980s cannot help but cast in a negative light the new, insipid but superficially improved Ireland of more recent years.
In the realms of clinical psychology and psychiatry, the term “depersonaliza- tion”2 is sometimes used to refer to a psychic state which entails a self-division and inner alienation. The subject or patient feels disconnected from his/her inner self while at the same time feeling estranged from outer reality; it is there- fore a kind of double alienation which threatens the stability and integrity of the self. The term “postmodern schizophrenia”3 is sometimes advanced, in the context of Frederic Jameson’s theories of post-modernity, as a way of describing the modern subject’s disconnectedness from social and historical realities and Jean Baudrillard’s theorization of “the simulacrum” has attempted to describe a postmodern mediatized non-reality which has lost its grounding in a localizable, actual social or geographical space (Baudrillard 1988).
Clearly, in the age of the internet and modern communications tech- nologies, all of us are challenged by a lack of groundedness which can lead to distortions in our own sense of self-identity. Even a relatively simple transaction of watching the daily news on TV can be disorientating in its bewildering conflation of various events across the globe which may have little or no direct relevance to our daily lives. We are all spectators, but we don’t control always what we see and how it is presented to us. More controversially, we are also victims of surveillance by agencies around the world; every e-mail we send can be read by intelligence agencies. Our financial, professional and personal histories leave traces across the world wide web so that our sense of personal autonomy and integrity is increasingly besieged. Interestingly, schizophrenia is an illness which may entail paranoia and delusions of volition; a patient may not feel his/her actions and movements belong to him/her and may feel controlled involuntarily by external agencies. Such is our daily experience as Jameson and others have suggested and it is a psycho-social dilemma which some contemporary Irish poets have engaged with.
In the blurb on the back cover of Cork-based poet Billy Ramsell’s 2007 vol- ume Complicated Pleasures, we find the following comments: “[Ramsell’s poems] attempt to stake out a ‘personal space’ in a violent world of systems, machines and twenty-four hour surveillance where privacy, language and even memory itself are under permanent threat”. Ramsell’s collection amply shows that the personal is the political even while he tries to resist the encroachments of globalized cyber- systems into his personal space. However, the poems register as a kind of silent alarm or nameless dread that “those digital minds [...] with their fibre optics” (“You and the Sea”, 2007, 55) can penetrate the poet’s most private thoughts and wishes. There is a dose of postmodern paranoia in the poem titled “Silent Alarm”:
Feel that? One of those inexplicable shivers, the flesh stretching at the base of your neck, rippling in a wave-pattern?
You’re being credit-checked
by a mainframe in Brussels.
Your girlfriend’s sister’s Googling you in a Liverpool cybercafé. (2007, 58)
The sense of being manipulated by unseen and unnamed forces is part of Ramsell’s sense of postmodern depersonalization even within private spaces and even in the most intimate moments of his personal life. In the poem “Still Life with Frozen Pizza”, Ramsell presents the speaker as passive and semi-catatonic victim of the global networks which encroach upon him:
I unwrapped the plastic and slid the icy disc
onto the oven shelf. 15 minutes later, as the TV rippled into wakefulness, the tray made a presentable still life: [...]
I navigated Countdown, sitcoms, pantomime wrestling, rolling news. Somewhere bombs were falling: the crosshairs at the centre of the grainy video.
A building dissolved in dust, its crater spoiling
the streetscape’s geometric perfection. (2007, 52)
Ramsell here seems to be manifesting a globalized world-weariness which leaves him indifferent even to the bombs falling, close at home or far away. An ironized allusion to Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” (“the remote / that liked to sit in my hand, snug as a gun”, 2007, 52) makes us painfully aware of just how far we are from any traditional sense of rootedness or belonging. More than merely weekday fatigue, the poem presents an invasive globalized non-reality which induces panic and passivity in equal measure from the poet.
The kind of depersonalized loneliness evoked by Ramsell is keenly felt in another cyberspace poem by Peter Sirr from his collection Bring Everything (2000). Sirr worked for a number of years as Director of the Irish Writers’ Centre. At one stage, in this role, his was in daily receipt of e-mail messages destined for the Irish Wildbird Conservancy which resulted in his poem “The Beautiful Engines”:
for the king eider seen off Brow Head, the scarlet rosefinch on Rockabill, Baird’s sandpiper seen last evening in Ballycotton
flocking in daily error to my computer, fluttering their names as I log on,
it would have been terrible to miss:
an engine released at last from its name
to flicker like lightning in the brain,
the valves of the planet looming through glass . . . (2004, 77)
In an interview with David Wheatley, Sirr comments that: “I’m interested in computer technology so I read a lot of technical stuff about operating systems and so forth” (2005, 70). His poems have an impersonal feel which undermines any sense of a lyrical-I behind the verses. In the above poem, cyber space, bird migration and the travels of diverse bird-enthusiasts, whose lives Sirr accidentally learns about, are presented as a relatively benign version of our cyber-histories circumnavigating the planet, though the final stanza is full of mechanical menace.
Aingeal Clare remarks in her introductory article on Peter Sirr, published in Metre magazine in 2005, that Sirr’s poetry: “hints at a desire to unpick con- ventional notions of poetic persona” and that Sirr is working from a position of “non-identity” resonant with “the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa” whom Sirr has cited as one of his major influences (Clare 2005, 77). The poem “Gospels” is full of machines which seem to supplant the lyric subject. The poet is “sucked out of sight [...] / erasure’s emperor” (Sirr 2004, 73). Sirr’s poetry only occasionally, and then obliquely, addresses the socio-economic crisis of contemporary Ireland in such poems as “James Joyce Homeloans” and “Office Hours” both from the 2004 collection Nonetheless. However, in a wider sense, his poems articulate a nomadic subjectivity which appears to reflect the globalized networks of communication which dominate our world.
Writing in his editorial in the summer of 1986 to Issue 16 of Poetry Ireland Review, Terence Brown complained that:
I get very few poems that address political or social issues directly [...] Reading the bulk of the submissions it is sometimes possible to forget that we are living through a period of profound social and political crisis, so intent are the poets on the exploration of the private world which is assumed to possess unquestionable validity. (1986)
It is clear, however, that Ireland’s current economic plight has stimulated a fair amount of social engagement on the part of this sample of established and emerging poets. To speak coherently about contemporary Ireland, global discourses and networks must be considered. In an interview published in The Paris Review in 1987, Samuel Beckett referred to “consternation behind the form” of his own work. Even though the context and occasion is different, one might reasonably suggest that the precarity of globalized modernity, as manifested in Ireland’s economic boom and bust, has prompted some well- sculpted consternation on the part of contemporary poets. The consternation is a formal artistic response to a “new world disorder” (Bauman 1998, 59) which has engulfed Ireland and threatened her sovereignty and survival.
1 For example, Fintan O’Toole comments: “In essence, the real boom lasted from 1995 until 2001. What made it real were two forces [...]: sharp rises in output per worker (pro- ductivity) and manufacturing exports. Productivity growth slowed between 2000 and 2006 to its lowest level since 1980. [...] By 2008, Irish productivity levels were below the OECD average” (O’Toole 2009, 20).
2 This term originated in the field of existential psychiatry and was popularized in Scot- tish anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s study The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960).
3 For extensive discussion of the cultural history of this term see Chapter 6 ‘Postmodern schizophrenia’ of Angela Woods’ study of the uses of the term ‘schizophrenia’ in cultural and critical discourses titled The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory (2011).
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