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Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, Ireland

Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, Ireland (Photo credit: Mark Heard)

Buy The Laughter of Mothers from Harvill Secker

As the car turned off Bachelors Walk and onto O’Connell Street, my brother and I would lurch chimp-like in our seats for a glimpse of the angel with a hole in her tit. She sits at the foot of the O’Connell Monument and was damaged by gunfire in the Easter Rising of 1916. My amusement paled after a trip to Kilmainham Gaol‘s soul destroying cells and yard: the destination for many of the 90 executed following the Rising. What struck me about that tour was the guide’s palpable sense of anger at a historical event. Stephen Dedalus has a point in James Joyce’s Ulysses when he says that ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’.

In Major John MacBride’s Early Morning Breakfast, Paul Durcan shows how pernicious the weight of history can be. Durcan’s mother was a niece of MacBride’s, yet the poem’s title confers a rank upon this hero of the Rising: even in an intimate poem he has been snatched from his family and remains a national icon. ‘For Mummy life would never quite be life / And there would never be breakfast in bed’. Durcan’s informal ‘Mummy’ highlights the distance between the Major and Durcan’s own family. We are left with questions: as the poem tells us that MacBride was executed at 3.37 a.m., why would there never be breakfast in bed again? Isn’t breakfast in bed synonymous with a late, relaxed Saturday morning, a meal which would probably be served at least 6 hours after the execution time? Was this rule imposed by Durcan’s mother, or was it imposed upon her?

Many of these poems focus on Durcan’s relationship with his mother. In Treasure Island, Durcan’s  third person perspective puts distance between them. ‘On his sixth birthday, October 16th, 1950, / His mother took him to see his first film’. Again, there’s a precision to the way Durcan records the time suggesting that, for him, this date is just as significant as that of MacBride’s execution. Even this memory collides with the national narrative, as the bus they catch is ‘the Number 11 / Into Nelson’s Pillar‘. This second Nelson’s Column, bombed in 1966, was seen by some as a symbol of colonial oppression: even its absence reminds us of its presence like sensation in an amputated limb. Durcan presents Ireland in the 1950s as a nation on the verge of becoming secular, as he allows the Metropole Cinema to colonise the vocabulary of the Roman Catholic Church, the usherette a ‘girl acolyte strapped to her tray’. The cinema itself has ‘The red carpets, the gilded mirrors, / The brass stair-rods, the swing-doors within swing-doors / Like veil upon veil of a temple / Proceeding to an inner sanctum’. Yet, even within this boyhood memory there’s an unresolved darkness as ‘In his cinema seat he became Jim Hawkins / Sitting in secret at the bottom of the barrel, / Overhearing things a boy should never overhear’.

These reflective poems are liberally interspersed with comic asides and vibrant voices. The best way to read them is to check out Durcan performing his own poetry somewhere like The Poetry Trust’s Poetry Channel. On stage he’s like a cross between Dylan Moran and Father Jack and, once you can hear his voice in your head, you’ll spot the crescendo of irritable humour on the page. In On Being Required to Remove My Trouser Belt at Dublin Airport Security we meet Durcan the nightmare passenger, responsible for all of our airport delays. ‘Holding up my trousers with my hands – what / Would Saddam have to say, indignant / In the dock in Baghdad at not having a pen? – although / I feel and look ridiculous and ludicrous, at least / I will pass through the detector without the alarm going off, but – / Bingo!’ In Tesco’s we see a new Ireland in which women are empowered and Roman Catholicism’s grip on marriage has loosened. ‘My husband quit work years ago / Before we split up. / Quite a busy little consultant / He was, quite in demand. / That was one of the reasons / I left him – when he decided to stop working and he / Hung around all day, / Getting on my janglies’. This is classic comedy, the audience wrong-footed in preparation for the punch line. Durcan’s ear for Dublin vernacular is faultless and words like janglies give this monologue an authentic ring. Money speaks in this new Ireland, void of moral values, and the woman shacks up with a new man because he has a 60K Land Rover. He’s an alcoholic but ‘You don’t really mind having an accident, / Because you know it won’t be you / That will be killed or maimed or whatever’.

Over the course of the collection Durcan’s humour darkens. In the opening poem, Mrs Barrington-Stuart’s Version of What Happened, ‘We spread out our Foxford rug at the top of the bank / In the same place we have always spread out our Foxford rug. / There we were sitting erect on our Foxford rug’. The absurd repetition of this detail renders Mr Barrington-Stuart’s death comic yet, in the collection’s final poem, The Deposition, there is nothing funny about ‘the crucifixion of her husband’ and Durcan’s mother wants ‘only to be beside him in the next life / And for the pair of them not be cold, / Maybe under that Foxford rug we bought in 1948’. Durcan’s exquisite handling of this detail across the course of the collection, a perversion of comic timing, gives death the bitterest of stings.

The Laughter of Mothers is a warm, readable, enjoyable collection of poems. Durcan will certainly make you laugh and may even make you cry. His conflation of personal and national history provides a fresh perspective on Ireland then and now.

  • Hear Paul Durcan read at The Poetry Trust’s Poetry Prom on the 23rd August.