Derek Mahon: Empathizes With Others Through his Poetry

Derek Mahon: Empathizes With Others Through his Poetry

Empathizes with others through his poetry

Raithlin: Mahon mirrors Somhairle Bui who is ‘powerless on the mainland’ as he watches the killings on the island of Raithlin. He comments on how Somhairle can only hear ‘the screams of the Rathlin women… seconds after, upon the wind’, which is similar to Mahon’s situation in two ways. Firstly, like Somhairle is unable to help the women due to his being on the mainland while they are on the island, Mahon cannot help the many being killed in Northern Ireland around him due to an inability to. However in his case this is because there is such a deeply founded belief that fighting and conflict is the best solution to the problems of the time. Secondly, like Somhairle only hears of the murders after they occur (as sound must travel to him), Mahon, like many inhabitants of Northern Ireland only hears of many of the murders some time after they have occurred, due to many of them taking place in hidden times, places and manners like the murder shown in As It Should Be.

Grandfather: Mahon speaks of his grandfather and his devotion to his craft. The poet compares his grandfather to a child, remarking that ‘Even on cold/ Mornings he is up at six with a block of wood/ Or a box of nails, discreetly up to no good/ Or banging round the house like a four-year-old’. The comparison to a child shows the extent of his grandfather’s devotion, as he likens his grandparent’s commitment to his craft to the mannerisms of a four year old, who acts with no thought of curtailment, and when are in the middle of an action do so excessively, for children of such a young age mostly focus on just one thing. This comparison brings in the result of his grandfather’s commitment, that he was seldom present, ‘Never there when you call’, and rather only could be heard at the end of day, when ‘after dark/ You hear his great boots thumping in the hall’. Mahon could be linked to his grandfather through his role as poet, which led him to be somewhat isolated from all around him; the poet was traditionally isolated from society, and this may seen as necessary for Mahon to suitably write about the troubles in the world he lived in. Mahon says of his grandfather ‘Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all’, and it might be considered that while the poet sees all in his world, he must maintain a suitable distance from all so as to be able to comment in what he believed to be the most accurate and suitable manner. Remaining in the usual day-to-day world would make it difficult to glimpse a rounded viewpoint of the world; if Mahon did not distance himself he might not have been able to create such poems as After The Titanic, for criticism of Ismay would have been easy, or As It Should Be, as he might have found it difficult to attempt to justify a murder.

Chinese Restaurant in Portrush: As the poem concludes Mahon shows the reader the owner of the Chinese restaurant, who the poet views as he eats his dinner, ‘with my paper and prawn chow mein’. The proprietor, we are told, looks out onto the ocean, standing at the door ‘as if the world were young’, which refers to a time when the owner was young, and thus his world was also. His looking out onto the ocean in such a manner implies that this resembles a time when the same man was in his homeland, gazing at the world he was soon going to explore. However now as he does so it makes him think of where he once departed from, and thus he ‘whistles a little tune, dreaming of home’. When considering Mahon’s life the presence of the proprietor becomes clear, as Mahon also spent much of his time away from home; he moved from his childhood home in Ulster to Trinity and later the Sorbonne in Paris for his third level-studies, and following this lived in Canada and the United States, where in 1967 he published Night Crossing, his first collection of poems. His thinking of home while away is evident when considering the poems that he wrote abroad, such as Ecclesiastes, which focuses on the Protestant culture of Northern Ireland, the place he grew up in.


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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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