Bloody Sunday and Poetry

Reflecting on the role of poetry in helping a traumatized community to flourish, Clara Dawson writes:

In the last week, Derry commemorated the fortieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday by holding their annual march through the streets, and with the performance of a new play written specially for the anniversary. Although the results of the Saville Inquiry vindicated the thirteen men who died on Bloody Sunday, these events in Derry show that the feelings of anger and pain are still harboured by the local community. The physical wounds perpetrated upon the men killed and wounded manifested as a trauma for an entire community and most historians agree that Bloody Sunday was a turning point within the wider nationalist community to support for violent opposition to the British Army.

The reactions to Bloody Sunday throw up fundamental questions for all communities who suffer forms of collective trauma. How does a community fit this violent event into the narrative of their own history and identity in a way which heals the wound? With the weight of such violence and injustice behind them, how can a community find a cohesive identity which allows them to flourish rather than being consumed with bitterness? In the last forty years, there has been a clear need to express and understand the consequences of Bloody Sunday, and artists and writers have been crucial in helping the people of Derry to come to terms with its past.

Ironically, the terrible legacy left by Bloody Sunday fostered a strong and supportive community which spent decades campaigning for justice, but unfortunately, bitter sectarianism continued to divide Northern Ireland. The long fight for justice, which was finally resolved last year with the results of the Saville inquiry, was begun when the initial inquiry, the Widgery Report, was proclaimed a whitewash. At the time, what was most devastating to the nationalist community, almost more so than the event itself, was that the truth of what happened was denied by the British government and the British press.

My research into the archives of Irish newspapers, reading contemporary newspaper reports, as well as studying the poetry written about Bloody Sunday, aims to understand how journalistic and literary discourse can express the distress and fury provoked by such a traumatic event, and whether these media can have a cathartic effect.

The role of newspapers was pivotal in expressing the feelings of outrage in Northern Ireland, but poets also reacted quickly to Bloody Sunday. Thomas Kinsella, a Dublin poet, wrote a poem immediately after the event. Butcher’s Dozen was written as a response to the injustices of the Widgery Report, and brings to life the ghosts of the thirteen dead men shot at Bloody Sunday, who give voice to the emotions of rage and hate felt by the nationalist community in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The title of the poem, Butcher’s Dozen, is a gruesome pun on the old-fashioned phrase, a baker’s dozen (signifying the number thirteen).

Returning to this poem, it is notable how relevant it is to the ongoing problems of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. John Kelly, who now works at the Museum of Derry, and whose brother was killed on Bloody Sunday, recently said that Butcher’s Dozen resonated with the Derry community because it ‘gave a voice back to those who died’.

What is interesting is the way that Kinsella’s poem uses newspaper reports to express the authenticity of people’s emotions at that time. The physical violence done to the men killed and wounded reverberated as if perpetrated upon the whole community. One eyewitness reported to the Belfast Telegraph, that, ‘I seen them getting lifted like sides of meat’ (31 Jan, 1972), and the Derry Journal records Alexander Nash, who saw his son shot dead, saying, ‘I saw the troops throw three bodies into a Saracen like pigs’ (4 Feb 1972). This horrifying transformation from human beings into butchered animals is conveyed by the images in the poem.

In the poem, the corpses of the dead men are unsightly and gruesome, ‘forming, red and raw,/ From dirt and stone’ with one ‘Smiling in its bloody head’, and ‘more mangled corpses, bleeding, lame,/ Holding their wounds’. It is difficult to read the poem without feeling a visceral horror, as the immediacy of the violence from the perspective of those who witnessed the event is captured. The brutal imagery of the poem was a way of expressing the collective violence done to the community.

Delving into the archives of The Belfast Telegraph reveals that the newspaper’s reports saw the way that Bloody Sunday would harden the divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

‘Lord Widgery, according to Mr. Ivan Cooper, has produced a mammoth whitewash. That view is widely shared in the Bogside. Mr. Fraser Agnew, a young Unionist spokesman, says that Lord Widgery has completely upheld and vindicated the action of the paratroopers. No doubt, that too, is a widely-held opinion. These reactions emphasise a basic difficulty to be overcome in the struggle to end Northern Ireland’s agony: an inability or an unwillingness to see another person’s point of view’. (20 Apr, 1972)

Butcher’s Dozen dramatises the hardening of sectarian positions which resulted from Bloody Sunday, as one of the dead ghosts criticises the “glum Apprentices in fife and drum’. The Belfast Telegraph also reported the sarcastic response of one nationalist MP: Eddie McAteer called the Widgery Report ‘a political judgment by a British officer and a British judge upon his darling British Army. I suppose we are lucky he did not also find that the 13 committed suicide’ (20 Apr 1972).

Kinsella’s poem, Butcher’s Dozen picks up on this sarcasm, when one of the ghosts of the dead men says,

 ‘A bomber I. I travelled light
- Four pounds of nails and gelignite
About my person, hid so well
They seemed to vanish where I fell’

He refers to the accusation that the men shot had being carrying weapons, a claim later disproved by the Saville Inquiry. Official inquiries have a way of diffusing violence with paper trails, as the editor of the Irish Times perceived when he wrote that, ‘Acres of paper may be used to explain it away; but thirteen dead young men tell the only story that the majority of Irishmen will remember’ (31 Jan 1972).

Kinsella’s poem helped a community feel that the true story of Bloody Sunday was being told, and it is well worth reading. The Widgery Report took away the power of a community to tell its own stories and the force of that injustice arguably paved the way for further decades of sectarian violence. Returning to Kinsella’s poem offers an understanding of the role that poetry and the arts can play in expressing anger and helping communities to recover and flourish after collective trauma.

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