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World: Poet Desmond Egan, Ireland And Universal Truths

  • Frank Csongos



Prague, 21 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The struggle for freedom and a desire to maintain his people's ancient cultural identity are the main themes that run through the poems of the great Irish bard Desmond Egan.

And he sees as paramount the need to cling onto one's humanity and avert suffering. "Save one person, save a world, yes," he writes. "But kill one -- and something goes out of everything."

Egan says that for such reasons the Irish always had an affinity for the peoples of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in their stuggles to achieve freedom, independence and to preserve their cultures. And he says the Irish also have a special place in their hearts for the Jewish people.

In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL, Egan, born in 1936, notes that this unique bond is rooted in a common historic fate.

"The Irish very easily associate and have sympathy with the oppressed people around the world because our history has been one of oppression, brutal repression over 800 years," Egan says. "We happen to be too close to Great Britain."

Egan is author of a dozen books of poetry and critical prose. The late Nobel Prize winning playright Samuel Beckett called his poetry "moving." Literary editor Russell Murphy said of Egan, "It's time we began to think of him as THE poet of our age."

Egan says freedom often carries a price steeped in blood, suffering and sacrifice.

He observes that while most of Ireland became largely independent after World War I, "there is still trouble" in British-ruled Northern Ireland, and the two have not been able to unite.

As for Russia and Eastern Europe, Egan sees the "harsh realities" of people trying to make a living in a free market system. And he sees a danger of the "old guard and the military" trying to reassert themselves -- particularly in Russia.

"Armies, I suppose, are necessary," he says. "As a poet, I would like to think they are not, but they have their place. But when armies and generals get involved in politics, that historically has always been disastrous."

He pauses for a moment and says, "The only exception I can think of off hand is that of Alexander the Great" -- a Macedonian general, conquerer, philosopher, patron of the arts and writer who lived more than 2,000 years ago.

Egan says he abhors violence -- "I literally couldn't kill a fly" -- but asks, "Name one country that achieved its independence without it?" He says people oppressed can be driven to "a breaking point."

Ireland has a tragic history, Egan says, traumatized by the potato famine of the 19th century that killed a million people. Another million fled their homeland for a better life in America.

He writes:



"That is why we who lost
the provinces of hope
who had our own Holoacust in
medieval 1847 ...
carry a sadness in the blood
a walk, a look an accent
some bitter rhythm, a wounded shadow ...
sensing that each of us has lost
part of what we should have been."

Egan also sees parallels between the Irish and Jewish people. He says Ireland is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have always been welcomed. In his critically acclaimed book, "In the Holocaust of Autumn," Egan laments the fates of the Irish and Jews.

He writes:



"Suffering makes its own space
We only attempt comparisons
in the memory of grief's absolute.
In the murder that lasts forever.
In the pain passed on
like original sin ...
A mound of gold teeth
Sackfuls of hair."

In another poem from the same volume, he calls the Irish "the lost tribe" of the ancient Jewish people and writes, "Very well then. Let us sing together."

And in another, he asks:

"How can the day dawn
as innocently ever again?
Smell it
Taste it.
That ash is everywhere."

Egan, who visited Prague on the occasion of his poems being translated into and published in Czech, says his affinity for the Russian people dates back to his youth.

In his poem, "Learning Russian," he writes:

"Mother Russia! Despite your goosestep dogma
your tanks trundling across the cobblestones of Europe
betrayed by that great bald mind you
remain for me a peasant in a homemade shawl
offering bread and salt and a place by the hearth."

Sipping beer at an Irish pub at Prague's Old Town Square, where he camped out on a bright spring evening to sign the Czech edition of his book, Egan says poetry can be born out of great pain -- as well of great joy.

"Humor is the most poetic thing in existence," he said.
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