Are poets the unacknowledged legislators of Ireland?

On 27 April 1916, W. B. Yeats, then Ireland’s best-known living poet, wrote a letter to a friend in which he called the three-day-old Rising ‘a tragic business that will leave Ireland different for a long time’. In the months that were to follow he distilled these initial impressions of tragedy and transformation into an unforgettable refrain: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born’. Of all the military events in twentieth-century history, perhaps only the aerial bombing of Guernica has been so defined by the artwork that commemorates it.

The close association between a poem and the Rising is fitting: no fewer than three of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic – Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh – were published poets. Pearse, indeed, finished a poem, ‘The Wayfarer’, on the eve of his execution. The centrality of poetry to this foundational national event points to the wider importance of poets and poetry in modern Ireland.

One of the distinguishing features of national life in modern Ireland is the prominence of poets. In 1922 W. B. Yeats was appointed to the first Seanad; in 2011 there were calls for Seamus Heaney, by then Ireland’s most celebrated living poet, to run for President. Though he ultimately declined to do so, the Nobel prize-winner from Derry occupied a uniquely well-regarded place in public life. Today, some of the most important lawmakers in both of the island’s jurisdictions, including the current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, themselves write poetry.

In my research project I investigate what the links are between poetry and legal authority in twentieth and twenty-first century Irish culture. In particular, I show how Yeats responded in his work to his role as a law-maker; how Austin Clarke’s work was shaped by censorship and his opposition to it; how Seamus Heaney engaged not just with legal developments in Northern Ireland but also those in his adoptive Republic; and how contemporary poets Paula Meehan and Paul Durcan have responded to Irish social and environmental legislation in their work. To adapt Percy Shelley’s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, can poets be said to be the unacknowledged legislators of Ireland?

Dr Adam Hanna is an Irish Research Council Fellow based in University College Cork who is marking Poetry Day Ireland's theme of Revolution as part of #LoveIrishResearch. Photo credit: John J. Burns Library, Boston College.