For centuries, the official history of Ireland was preserved in British archives, and the unfiltered Irish perspective was lost – except in its poetry and folksongs.
For this and other reasons, poetry holds a higher status in Irish culture than in many other countries, said Brian Ó Conchubhair, associate professor of Irish language and literature at the University of Notre Dame.
“Poetry has always been associated with Ireland. Our current president is a poet,” said Ó Conchubhair. “But historically, poetry is the unofficial archive of Ireland. While the printed documents are the British account of what was happening, the poetry and songs show what is missing, what has been omitted from the official story. They give us an underground and hidden perspective of Irish history and culture.
Ó Conchubhair and co-editor Samuel Fisher, assistant professor at the Catholic University of America, bring this story to a wider audience in the most comprehensive collection of Irish poetry to date, “Bone and Marrow/Cnámh agus Smior: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern.
“Bone and Marrow”, which will be released on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), is printed side-by-side in Irish and English. It traces Irish history from the 6th century to the present day and is the first anthology of its kind since the 1980s.
“There have been new debates, new arguments since then, and the canon has changed,” Ó Conchubhair said. “Ireland has gone from the Troubles, the IRA and the peace process to the Celtic Tiger economic boom, and what is considered the best Irish portrait has changed. We wanted to create text that reflected that.
Ó Conchubhair and Fisher, who earned a doctorate in history from Notre Dame, divide the book into historical periods focusing on significant events – including the arrival of monks in Ireland, medieval times, the first arrival of the English, famine, World War II and present day. One of the last poems in the book deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. The editors also provide readers with a brief introduction to each poem and an essay at the beginning of each chapter, contextualizing his poems and songs.
“A lot of the poems are very political and bigoted and quite violent – you have the Vikings. You have revolutions. You have famine, wars and songs of immigration,” Ó Conchubhair said. “And then there are funny poems in there. There are poems about love, the environment and injustice. The breadth of the collection is one of the things that makes it so distinctive.
The title of the book is inspired by a quote from the 17th century Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, who said that the bone and marrow of Irish history are in the poems.
It was by design, Ó Conchubhair and Fisher suggest in the introduction to the book, that Keating chose a phrase that was both “poetic and precise”.
“To say that the poems were ‘bones’ was to say that they were the framework of the story, gave it its shape, formed an inescapable frame of reference, were a fact as hard and solid as its own skeleton” , they write.
But the poems weren’t just bones. They were marrow – they were alive, creative, producing new things.
“We therefore offer this volume not only to students and scholars of Irish literature or the Irish language, but to anyone who would like to comment not only on Ireland’s past, but also on its present and future,” wrote Ó Conchubhair and Fisher. “We hope they will find useful authorities here to do so; and above all that they will have the pleasure of discovering, again and again, the deliciously surprising reality to which all these poems testify: The thing continues. The bones are alive.