Niall MacMonagle, editor of Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916, talked to us about what inspired the collection, the public’s reaction to it, and his hopes for its future. In association with Poetry Ireland we will host a special evening of selected readings from the anthology.
Q: In an article in The Irish Times you said that Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 – the anthology you’ve just edited – began without you knowing it in 1988. When did you first give serious thought to the idea of compiling and publishing this ambitious collection? Was it always your wish for it to mark the centenary of 1916?
From very early on every Irish person has 1916 imprinted on their consciousness. The Rising set in motion a journey that is still ongoing today. I’ve always been intrigued by Pearse’s ‘The Wayfarer’ written just hours before he was executed at 3.30 am on 3 May 1916. And John Montague, who taught us in UCC in the early ’70s, his ‘Windharp’ I’ve always loved. I pinned it above the sink during a year spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts and it summoned up and still does an empty and wildly beautiful Irish landscape. But the idea for the anthology came to me in 2012 and poetry tells a wonderful story, more lasting than the newspaper and Ireland’s complex history is also found in its poetry.
Q: Were you more concerned with the poetic merit or historical significance when enduring the unenviable task of deciding which poems to include? How much did your own personal taste enter into the equation versus public expectation?
There is no such thing as an ideal anthology. Every one would create his or her own. That said, I revisited the poems I knew and read as widely as was manageable. I knew from the outset that there were poems that simply had to be included [copyright permission and fees permitting] and I wanted to capture as much as possible the things that make Ireland distinctive: social changes through the decades, violence and politics, what preoccupies, annoys and delights us. Not every poem in Windharp is a great poem but I was looking for poems that were immediate and engaging as well as magnificent works such as Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’ or Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. For me every poem has something interesting to say about Ireland, being Irish, an Irish way of looking at the world.
Q: How happy have you been with the response to the anthology so far? What are your hopes for it and the poems/poets included within?
Everyone who has seen the book has admired the beautiful production: the cover, typeface, lay-out. I think Penguin Ireland did a magnificent job. I would like to think that this collection will make its way in Ireland and beyond and find those occasional or reluctant poetry readers who, on giving the poems a chance, will find something to hold them however briefly. There was a wonderful launch at the National Library [3 September] very good media coverage, a launch in the Irish Embassy in London [28 October]. I did receive an anonymous complaint in the post which asked how could I have excluded Irish-language poets. Let that person make and shape his/her own anthology. This, with its faults and failings, is mine.
My hope is that someone reading Windharp, not only in Ireland but the US or Thailand or Australia and wherever the package containing Barry’s Tea is sent, will find among the poems something that speaks to them and I would like to think that it will send them in search of other poets and other poems.