Tuesday, 8 November 2011


They put their tyrant in the sand -
The same land
The Inniskillings
Helped shove Rommel into,
And paid in Irish blood.
The price of that and other wars,
Was written on a Cenotaph
Which, blasted with his autograph
Became his Freestone hex.
They put their tyrant in the sand -
At God's left hand.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


An army Gazelle
Leapt over the crown of a hill
Driving down a flock of sheep
Like poured cream
The pilot threw it deftly
Round the contours
Better to be heard and not seen
Over such unquiet acres
Helicopters supplied
The soundtrack to our little tragedy
For forty sour years
The raucous, rotary blatter
Stitching these skies to Empire
Spooking the Fresians
Announcing some unfolding bother
Just over horizons
That shrank to spitting distance
When the sun fell
Snapping smartly down and up
On frontier garrisons
Like God's yo-yos
The bluster of turbines
As familiar once
As the sound of your own voice
Has lately been unplugged
There's plenty still to look at
From incorrupted heights
But less appetite for seeing, maybe
Scaring the horses or not
Is now the sole province
Of the earthbound.

Monday, 17 October 2011


If you must lapse,
You’ll want to do it in style -
Make your own heaven and earth,
Become an Apostle without portfolio - 
An empirical saint,
Worship any goat
With its feet on the ground.
Form a new legion
Of punch-drunk relativists.
Raising a glass in memory
Of the weekly hour
You once gave to God.
And your recurring Presbyterian need
To not be thanked for it

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


Me and a few lost Foxhounds
Took it into us
To go stargazing,
Fixing ourselves to earth
On the frozen, bald crust of a brae
A few feet of mud
From the United Kingdom.
Flat on my back,
With the final frontier
Occupying my mind’s eye,
I reached into Britain
And transferred the allegiance
Of a snowdrop.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Navar conversion

Up above the broad lough,
On the sharpened blade of rock,
That gives way to nothingness
A widow threw arms around heaven,
And cursed God.
Volatile elements conspired
To split open the sky,
And, even this late in the day,
Light and warmth fell through on her,
Laid hands on her
The colour and comfort of tea.
On that unlikely stage of Whins,
Hurting inexplicably gave way to being.
Going on became viable - 
Maybe even blessed.
The wind hurried back over Donegal,
Frowning the water in its wake,
Swarming up the limestone
Anxious to end such foolishness
With a slap in the face.
But the purchase of grief,
So reliably set,
Had been planed away.
The sailing air,
Having nothing now to detain it,
Sailed on by.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Winthrop method

I see a line of dying Wych Elm on a hill.
Well drained by the fractured blocks
Of this contested marl.
A gaping stand of Famine food,
Survivors of even earlier demands
For tight twisted grain,
For good strong rudders, keels, coffins.
For wagon wheels to get behind -
Even the odd water main.
But claimed now by the Dutch disease,
The witless beetles killing the crown
Then further, further down.
There's a lot not right about this picture,
And more, for one tree lies canted -
Awkward against his listing brothers.
Seen from a certain angle, could it be a marker?
The roots below hiding ordnance
In their parched grasp?
You'd need a thran outlook,
And some plausible excuse these days
To go anywhere near it.
This strange ruin located only
By a sleekid eye
An arborist, a terrorist.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The dogged people

My crowd were taught to be
Whatever you aren't.
Easier than unfolding your heart -
Your curtailed self,
When you're hemmed in
Up against that invisible line,
As real as God.
We were learned well, though:
Being thoroughly outmanoeuvred -
Run almost ragged as the flags
Planted in our hedgerows and halls.
You couldn't have us now if you wanted us.
Our unappeasing face
Is your creation,
Yours alone.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Bog geography

A map on a rectory wall:
Once as potent as the chalice.
The red dots
Anointed places of execution
Are faded pink
A dimming constellation of loss,
A rolled over roll call,
A fallow murderscape,
A local travesty
One could navigate by lunchtime
Needing any more death
Like a hole in the head

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Control Zone

Who recalls the cringing silence
Of a town centre?
The cowed shops,
Already much wounded,
Blind with plywood cataracts:
Desperate measures,
Posted in black and yellow,
Forbade cars to be empty.
 - Pedestrian logic, these days -
Because one in a hundred,
Would be far too low on its axles,
For any innocent purpose.
A freight of kinetic badness,
Filling the boot.
Mixed with care,
In some Leitrim hayshed
Might consequently need
To be abandoned
Somewhere 'softer.'
The course of life and death
Made all the more perverse,
By the bombs
That never went off.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Following the flag

Shut blinds conceal
A coalition of wailing.
The dead energy used
To put a broken face on straight.
The journey from
Bungalow to Kirk
Is a hideous reversal
Of their wedding day.
This time:
She walks down that aisle alone,
Through a stifled congregation
Of everyone that knew them,
Struck again and again
By the voracious sympathy
On each neighbour's face -
Making it real like every nail
In the decorated coffin
Which left no space for her,
At the very altar
Where she once said
In reverent wonder:
 'I do.'

Thursday, 30 June 2011


Here, in the hollow
There was standing room only
For any slabber about politics
You put your mind to higher things:
Catching the barman's eye,
Lining yourself up for a game of Pool,
Getting a berth in the snug,
The perilous journey of stout
From pump to table
It was our wee melting pot
Miraculously stirred
No strangers here
Only people you had not yet
Tapped for a pint..

Monday, 27 June 2011

Meat wagon

My father kick-started
A dead man with the heel of his shoe
And swore to me, in drink, he once
Got a mad woman out of a tree
By firing windfall apples at her
He was half-deafened with blasts
And if you set him up with
A glass of Guinness and a bush
He might let on darkly about
The wounds in his head from
Collecting bits of people in bags
Or happier times when an Emergency
Meant being too full of plum poitin
To keep his ambulance between the hedges
After a well-lubricated false alarm
Way out in the never-never
God knew, a while of his crack
Blunted trauma far better
Than any sterile diagnosis
His compassion had no side
He'd seen the similarity of passing souls
Whatever foot they kicked with in life
There were no atheists in the back
Where in his humble way
He held everyone sacred

Friday, 24 June 2011

Motes and Planks

The trouble with badness
In these parts:
There's just too much of it
To go around.
Bitterness squeezed out,
Around these shapely hills,
But never quite drained away -
The excess pooling, stagnating,
Soaked into your neighbours
Who, fair play to them,
Would never see you stuck
If your Massey broke down,
Or if, misjudging the weather,
You needed the silage in quick
But who:
When push came to shove here, long ago,
Turned a blind eye
(Maybe bruised shut)
To  the causes and effects
Of townland assassination,
To the covert decisions
On life and death
Your kin were subject to
For merely staying put.
The busy mandate of peace,
Intruding in these parts
Where too much was observed
But damn little changed
Should well be cautious -
Stepping lightly over sacred ground,
Looking for a hand to shake,
To make things right again.
You'd maybe take it just to square things
With the man upstairs.
But the man next door?
That's another story.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

This is not a checkpoint

You'd come across farmers sons,
You went to school with.
On the back roads at dusk
Looking to park up somewhere quiet,
With your first Convent lassie.
A blur of camouflage,
The circle of dim red light,
And you'd draw up to some fella,
Locked and loaded,
You once dead-legged in the playground.
You were both playing new roles
He had his licence to kill
You just had your licence
The idea was to be civil -
Men of the world,
But your girl flinched violently,
Giving the game away
And it made you suddenly ashamed,
Knowing in the dirty wash of sidelights,
It might have been a different story
If she'd been there on her own.
Without the thin orange cover of your
There's an awkward moment
When you try to read his opinion,
Hating yourself for doing it.
And, for forms sake,
He pretends to check your details.
You're let through, of course,
Still a friend of the state,
Despite your exotic tastes.
You give a weak salute
As you spot your old art teacher
Prone on the verge -
Covering you with a
General purpose machine gun
Like the subject of his own Magritte.
The surreal picture,
Now framed in your back window
Is soon consumed by twilight.
The legacy remains -
An unwelcome passenger,
A big, sour lump of indigestible history
Sprawled across the back seat
You thought you'd be playing on later.
She is silent, for a time, then:
'Sorry. This isn't going to work.'

Friday, 17 June 2011


Lost in a forest of legs,
Beneath the homely ceiling
Of damp green serge and fag smoke,
A girl looks for her father.
He went out this morning,
Bad tempered at the rain,
Late for his own funeral
But real enough, at least,
As she lay in her bed's warm nest.
Later, while she ate her cornflakes,
Still weak with sleep,
A mile away between dripping ditches,
He was rubbed out of the picture
To make room for a new Ireland
The muffled percussion of bullets
Lifted a few starlings,
Who were keeping their feet warm
On telephone wires
That would presently hum with shock.
Later when raised up to wet eyes
To be cursed with this truth
She wouldn't take it.
Still scrabbling furiously for a gap
In the hateful logic of the wake,
She transmits impotent love -
Unsaid, undone, undying
Receiving no signal in return

Monday, 13 June 2011


Here is your man with the healing hands
Playing slap and tickle
With all the uncooked meat remaining
The meagre contents of the surgeon's purse:
Puckered, raw and stupid at the ends
His goal is animated rage
The method brutal kindness
Frank manipulation
The starved cheer of the military ward
Is no match for his mechanical wit
'Aha!' He cries, cracking his knuckles
'We have ways of making you walk!'

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Last Post

Climbing Benaughlin
On a curling bog road
The starlight blanched 
By cement works down below
Farting out aggregate 24/7
We passed a low stone shelf
Erupting from the peat
Flecked with the detritus
Of a visiting regiment's supper
The mysterious no-name biscuits
A fiddly little tin opener
Some warm fragments of hexamine
That recently fired a squaddy brew
A single boiled sweet, wrapped
Already mobbed by wood ants
These military artefacts
Are made incongruous
By their proximity to a red post box 
The mail still Royal in this district
If nothing else 
You could have your wee war here,
Wait for that red van
And write home about it by return
The solid truth of a letter
Your own careful legend
Having much more shape
Than the facts on the ground

Monday, 6 June 2011


Men on stone blocks 
Revealed to us annually 
In the midst of traffic 
The corner boys of public space 
Stepping out of unconscious precincts
Vert-de-gris warriors
Reduced to mere staging posts
In our journey through the here and now
The invisibilty grates for a moment 
But how could we ordinarily bear 
Such constant presence of loss? 
And so we ration our Glorious Dead 
One brief life after another.

The Walk

A hollow box of day-glo Peelers:
This unlikely lining
Holding the brethern snug within.
Mustered by the public toilet
A municipal bouquet
Of piss and shit and disinfectant
Pervades the porous night air
Seeming to mock any wholesome intent.
The Sergeant, hoping for rain and overtime
Sends the Lodge off up the brae
There's no music allowed
Nothing to set the pace
A blackthorn stick clatters down
The thin procession shivers
As an old man finds his feet again
This plantation town has switched sides
The war memorial, their destination
Is now held hostage by demography
Someone from the sullen, watching crowd
Begins a protest song, then stops abruptly
As if to recognise the irony
Of what is being overcome.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

In the Maze

The Gatelodge camera's pitiless eye
Watches the next meal of colour
Slide into this monochrome maw
Another morsel of humanity
Hard humoured, defiantly pliant
Will be processed, digested
Gradually rendered down
Then carried along a barred gullet
Marinated in captivity's reek -
A miasma of old sweat and stale tea
(With odd notes of something worse)
To finally stick in the craw
Of our rancid little history:
The prison visits room -
A cockpit of menace and scabbed cheer
Where anything can happen and often doesn't
Guards and guarded discreetly scrap
For crumbs of power
Each side incessantly off-balance
The weirdly vague attentiveness of staff
Is a half-hearted play on omniscience
Trying to see everything relevant
To getting home safe
Without seeing too bloody much
Everyone is doing time here
Where it is nearly always
Thirteen O'Clock

Friday, 20 May 2011


There’s no gain in sitting
By a dry Fountain
Purporting love 
If the plumbing’s fucked
Or getting a up a warm blaze
In the cold ashes
Of cherished farmsteads
Forgiveness demands
A down payment
Bigger than that.
Washing the feet of those
Not yet able to put them
In your basin of blood
Would be a better start
Or else inclusion
Is just a delusion.

Aghalane bridge

Artemis met Kratos
On the back road to Belturbet.
The consequence of this physics:
A brutal amputation.
The ancient stone limb,
Once stretched across a river,
Is crudely cauterised at either end.
Granite fists still hold fast
To each international bank.
And in between?
A delaying vacancy,
An obstacle course for brown trout,
A collapsed fear,
As horribly off key
As flowers in the mouth of a corpse.
And finally; a way to turn away,
And mind your own bloody business.

Closed border barracks 2009

This is now a feral place -
Once implacable, lately humbled,
The writ of law over ruled
By an ordinance of nature,
The roll of honour was unscrewed
The portals welded,
The armour sold for scrap
And all then supplanted:
Fushia, escallonia, hebes and whitethorn -
A lush and careless memorial:
Climbing the blast walls, lacing the wire,
Embracing cameras bowed and blind.
You could pull it all down tomorrow,
But you'd never settle accounts
As well as bindweed, couch grass, mares tail,
Swaddling this infant void
In gorgeous ruin.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


A swift slap on its tin backside
And a new loaf is delivered
On the scullery table
My mother, the creator
Having swaddled it in dishcloths
Murders it swiftly with her knife
Releasing the hot, sour breath
So redolent of childhood
I love the way new bread
Sucks butter off the blade
And stops time in a country kitchen


Daddy's brogues sat in a corner
Freshly painted with Oxblood
He wore them like statements
Well heeled. Solid. Tough
But I saw violence in their thick, pitted skins
With the tips glittering like gypsies teeth
They were like big, ignorant dogs
Better left outdoors
They stayed their ground, though
And growled at Daddy's slippers.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


This is my neighbours field
And, today, my battleground
We take the path of most resistance
Fading into a stand of Hazel
Going to ground in a humid understory
Of bilberry and honeysuckle.
Two white hares dance across my gunsight
Then leap a drainage ditch
Into the safety of the Free State
We've been here too long already
A brattle of thunder gives us cover to move
And sudden wind flattens the meadow
Exposing its pale, thick mane
The grass is good
There'll be a second cut th'year
On my own plot
If I live to see the end of it.

The land cries

When God painted Ireland,
He used watercolours,
Smudging the dun, sodden landscape
With occasional sunshine.
This wringing wet romance
Seeps down through quiet churchyards
Feeding lonely streams where soldiers drank
And scanned  heather ridges riddled
With the possibility of concealment
And sudden death
I looked down at Lough Erne
Through the shining, murderous hillocks
Is that where all this water goes?
Washing the clay clean to Enniskillen.
It's a pity spilled blood
Can't be got rid of as quickly.

First published Independent 1992