Derek Mahon’s Poetry: Perspective on Political & Religious Conflict

Derek Mahon’s Poetry: Perspective on Political & Religious Conflict

EcclesiastesIn the poem Mahon speaks critically of the Protestant culture and details his reason for rejecting this culture. The Protestant culture is a repressive regime, represented with the ‘shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’, both of which indicate the lack of freedom for and restriction of members of this culture; shipyards would usually be full of noise, with various members of ships preparing their vessels for various voyages, while swings cannot carry out their function if they are tied up. Mahon later ridicules the notion of the Protestant culture, namely that despite suffering such repression the members of the culture receive comparatively little in return; he compares their repression to the need to ‘shelter your cold heart from the heat/ of the world, from woman-inquisition, from the bright eyes of children…. wear black, drink water’, yet the Protestant culture simply lures the members to do so ‘with rhetoric’, while ‘promising nothing under the sun.’

As it should beThe poem focuses on the paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, showing how such action breaks down all semblance of civilization and replaces this with barbarity.  The narrator represents a deluded generation who believe murder and violence are necessary to enact order in life, and the poem begins with an ironic statement, as the narrator calls the person who he and a mob hunt ‘the mad bastard’. He presents the hunted as crazy and a threat, yet their attempts to kill the man show that they could be referred to this also, as they chase him through bogland and eventually corner him in a lorry yard where they kill him by gunshot. The speaker’s delusion is further shown as he attempts to justify the barbaric murder, as he tells the reader to abandon any idealistic notions such as what was just stated, that the murder is barbaric. He instead instructs the reader ‘Let us hear no idle talk/ Of the moon in the Yellow River’, as the speaker believes the world is better off without the man; ‘The air blows softer since his departure.’ He even makes mention of the children in the neighbourhood to further justify the murder, suggesting that the man is a threat to children also, and has made them feel unsafe, and hence ‘Since his tide burial during school hours/ Our kiddies have known no bad dreams’. The poet concludes with his belief that the children will agree with their murder, which either shows how deluded he and the others are; if the children have any concept of morals they will disagree, otherwise this illustrates how corrupt the world is, that further generations will agree with such barbarity, ‘This is as it should be./ They will thank us for it when they grow up/ To a world with method in it.’

RaithlinMahon explores the idea of barbarity by humankind, such as that shown in As It Should Be, and wonders whether it can be truly removed from humankind or whether it is always present, and is simply dormant at times, waiting to reappear when circumstances allow this. He uses the island of Rathlin to exemplify this, as there was once barbaric violence on the island, but it has now been uninhabited for 500 years and he hence begins by declaring ‘A long time since the last scream cut short -/ Then an unnatural silence; and then/ A natural silence’. While peacefulness was initially unnatural it has now become the accustomed way of being here, and when Mahon visits the island (this visit inspired the poem) he thus remarks that ‘we land/ As if we were the first visitors here’; such is the peacefulness of the setting it seems unbelievable that there was ever conflict in this place. When he departs the island he therefore declares ‘We leave here the infancy of the race,/ Unsure among the pitching surfaces/ Whether the future lies before us or behind’. Mahon cannot be anyway certain that his world, plagued with barbarity such as that present in As It Should Be, could ever undergo such a transformation as Rathlin; therefore he is uncertain as to whether his world in the future will be like the island he is leaving behind, or the place he is returning to.

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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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