“What’s the difference between an exile and an expatriate? It seems to me that an Englishman in France is an expat, but an Irishman is an exile.” — Irish poet Derek Mahon

“When growing up, my bunch of friends would have thought of ourselves as anti-unionist because we were anti-establishment. We would have been vaguely all-Ireland republican socialists. But then, when theory turned into practice, we had to decide where we stood and I never did resolve it for myself. Marching for civil rights was terrific, but bombs and killing people? I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine. From time to time you get a kick from some critic for not being sufficiently political, or for being a closet unionist or a closet republican. There was a time when people – much more English people than Irish – would ask, ‘Why don’t these Ulster poets come out more explicitly and say what they are for?’ But there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.” — Derek Mahon

Popular Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon just died this past October at the age of 78. Today is his birthday.

Recently, a poem he wrote some years back – “Everything Is Going to Be Alright” – came back into public consciousness when it was read on an Irish news program in early March 2020, as it became clear the pandemic was spreading and a lockdown was imminent. The poem took root. People shared it endlessly on social media. It spread like wildfire. It was what people needed to hear.

Everything Is Going to Be Alright
by Derek Mahon

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart;
the sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Art can disturb, enlighten, reveal. It can also console in dark dark times. This is why we need artists.

“[Seamus] Heaney is a Wordsworth man and I’m a Coleridge man. I love the poetry, and the trajectory of his life has always fascinated me. His Biographia is a complete mess, but is still full of the most wonderful stuff.” – Derek Mahon

Born in Belfast, Mahon “came up” at the same time as other great Irish poets Seamus Heaney (one of my many posts about him here) and Michael Longley (post about him here). They all burst onto the literary scene in the late 60s. The accepted narrative is: this group of poets represented something new in Northern Ireland, a new burgeoning literary scene to support and pay attention to. The fact that all this new poetry came from a war zone was even more startling, more reason to celebrate it, and etc. Mahon rejected this interpretation. He insisted Belfast had ALWAYS had a great literary tradition.

You often hear these Mahon/Heaney/Longley mentioned in the same breath. They talked about one another a lot as well. They were good friends and rivals. Here is a story told in The Guardian in 2006:

In September 1963 Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley visited the County Down grave of the great Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who had died a short time before. Longley, writing recently in the introduction to a selection of MacNeice’s poems, recalled that as they “dawdled between the graves” all three then-unpublished poets were silently “contemplating an elegy”. When they next met, Mahon read them “In Carrowdore Churchyard”: “Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground / However the wind tugs, the headstones shake”. Seamus Heaney started to read his poem but “then crumpled it up”. Longley says he decided not even to attempt the task. “Mahon had produced the definitive elegy.”


Heaney, Longley and Mahon saw themselves as part of a tradition, not as something brand new. They dedicated their poems to poets from the Irish past, Patrick Kavanagh (post about him here) or Louis MacNeice (post about him here). Heaney/Longley/Mahon were hugely influential on the new generation, perhaps even holding more sway than Yeats. Such is tradition: it’s a continuum.

[Derek Mahon’s] investment in “something larger” is not so great as [Geoffrey] Hill’s: his imagination has been released from the demands of an informing culture. As a result he turns rather too readily toward his reader, wry, shrugging his shoulders, as though it is too late to find the big theme his skills might be equal to. — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

Derek Mahon grew up in an Ulster Protestant family. He attended Trinity College in Dublin. His viewpoint was never local. He loved French literature and went on to study at the Sorbonne. He translated many great French authors into English. He published a prize-winning collection of poetry in the mid-60s. (Just recently, for the third time, he won the Irish Times Poetry Now award.) He traveled quite a bit, including in America. Hart Crane was a huge influence on Mahon (my post about Crane here), as was Elizabeth Bishop (post about her here). Mahon was reviewed books, taught in schools. His lifestyle divorced him from the upheavals of Northern Ireland, although he remained interested in all of it, of course. But politics/war was not the wellspring of his art, as it was for some of his contemporaries.

Listen to this.

Bone-idle, I lie listening to the rain,
Not tragic now nor yet to frenzy bold.
Must I stand out in thunderstorms again
Who have twice come in from the cold?

After years of traveling, he finally settled down in Kinsale. (Notice he did not return to settle down in Belfast. Unsurprisingly, he caught flak for this.). He looked in on Ireland from the outside (see his thoughts above on Irish exile, even internal Irish exile); his outsider status gave his work strength and scope. You can’t say he doesn’t have a “sense of place”. So-called “outsiders” often see their homes in a clearer fashion than those who live there. James Joyce understood this all too well.

Every Irish person knows the following poem:

A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford
Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.
—Seferis, Mythistorema

(for J. G. Farrell)
Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rain barrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken pitchers, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges; magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing-squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

Oana Sanziana Marian wrote:

His most famous poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” digs, too, but instead of turning soil, as in Heaney’s earthbound rural scene in (maybe his most famous poem) “Digging,” Mahon gets underneath “a burnt-out hotel / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins” and – but who would see this coming? – commemorates forgotten victims of Treblinka and Pompeii through the perspective of a thousand mushrooms crowded around light passing through a keyhole.

And oh, how I love his beautiful poem “Achill”. Achill Island is a big island off the west coast of Ireland. My family spent some time there years ago, when my parents yanked us all out of school and took us to Ireland. I was 13 years old, so my memories of Achill are often mortifying to read now (while on Achille, Easter came, and I was mainly upset I hadn’t brought my curling iron to Ireland, because I wanted to curl my hair for Easter mass, because that’s an extremely important thing to be thinking about in a foreign land), but despite the journal entry, Achill Island remains vivid in my mind: the windy wildness of it, the smell of the peat fires, the impromptu soccer games among the sheep, the itchy wool sweaters, the freckled girls on bicycles with head scarves tied under their chins, the beautiful bleakness of the landscape.

im chaonaí uaigneach nach mór go bhfeicim an lá1

I lie and imagine a first light gleam in the bay
After one more night of erosion and nearer the grave,
Then stand and gaze from the window at break of day
As a shearwater skims the ridge of an incoming wave;
And I think of my son a dolphin in the Aegean,
A sprite among sails knife-bright in a seasonal wind,
And wish he were here where currachs walk on the ocean
To ease with his talk the solitude locked in my mind.

I sit on a stone after lunch and consider the glow
Of the sun through mist, a pearl bulb containèdly fierce;
A rain-shower darkens the schist for a minute or so
Then it drifts away and the sloe-black patches disperse.
Croagh Patrick towers like Naxos over the water
And I think of my daughter at work on her difficult art
And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover,
Wild thyme and sea-thrift, to lift the weight from my heart.

The young sit smoking and laughing on the bridge at evening
Like birds on a telephone pole or notes on a score.
A tin whistle squeals in the parlour, once more it is raining,
Turf-smoke inclines and a wind whines under the door;
And I lie and imagine the lights going on in the harbor
Of white-housed Náousa, your clear definition at night,
And wish you were here to upstage my disconsolate labour
As I glance through a few thin pages and switch off the light.

1 A desolate waif scarce seeing the light of day (from a poem by Piaras Feritéar, 1600-1653, as translated by Thomas Kinsella).

I love Mahon’s poem about J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, who, famously and infamously, survived. Much to his enduring shame. Most employees were manly enough to go down with the ship. Not Ismay. The scandal dogged him the rest of his days.

After the Titanic
by Derek Mahon

They said I got away in a boat
And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
I sank as far that night as any
Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
I turned to ice to hear my costly
Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
In a lonely house behind the sea
Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes
Silently at my door. The showers of
April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
Late light of June, when my gardener
Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
On seaward mornings after nights of
Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is
I drown again with all those dim
Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul
Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
Include me in your lamentations.

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3 Responses to “What’s the difference between an exile and an expatriate? It seems to me that an Englishman in France is an expat, but an Irishman is an exile.” — Irish poet Derek Mahon

  1. john doherty says:

    Thanks for this Sheila. I always liked DM, and never could place the word ambiguous to his politics. But that’s it. I was used to Irish writers, especially Belfast writers, as being either/or. Taking a side. Me and mine were clearly on the Republican, Fenian side. As I got older, that made less sense.
    Only you would commemorate his death. It’s why I’ll read you always, even if I have no experience with Iranian, ex-pat cinema or black-and-white starlets. Stuff like that.
    Also, have made it to Innishmore in the Arans, but not Achill to the North. You reminded me I need to go!
    Best to the O’Malley clan. Best to Jean.
    John Doherty

    • sheila says:

      John – hi! always good to hear from you!

      // I was used to Irish writers, especially Belfast writers, as being either/or. Taking a side. Me and mine were clearly on the Republican, Fenian side. As I got older, that made less sense. //

      Yes, me too.

      // even if I have no experience with Iranian, ex-pat cinema or black-and-white starlets. //

      hahahaha I definitely like to mix it up, don’t I.

      I have always wanted to go back to Achill. It made a huge impression on me as a 13 year old kid – would love to go back as an adult, and spend more time there. And get a bicycle. I mostly remember the smell of the peat fires, and how cold it was. And all the sheep!

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