‘I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams’
MacNiece gives us his childhood in those four lines. This first stanza gives us the meat of the poem, and conjures up images which form the main tension in the text – between memory and the present, and between acceptance and hope.
Reading Carrickfergus, I get a curious pleasure in finding familiar images. In that description of the harbour, I see the fishing boats at St Andrews moored beneath the Cathedral, backed by the stark white of the harbour houses. I see the beached boats at St Monans, and think of evening walks past my village, looking out over frost knapped fields and a sea which carries a whole universe on its waves.
Perhaps it’s a false comparison; no place is alike, and North-East Fife is not Carrickfergus. But every poem elicits some sort of memory from the reader, regardless of its content. In this case, a reminder of home. So the first part of my affection for Carrickfergus stems from that – a sense that it sums up a certain sort of longing for home, and that it describes a place I can relate to quite sharply.
Carrickfergus is a poem about place. But it’s also a poem about hope.
’…I thought that the war would last for ever and sugar/
Be always rationed and never again/
Would the weekly papers not have photos of sandbags
And my governess not make bandages from moss
And people not have maps above the fireplace
With flags on pins moving across and across.’
Recently, we’ve become familiar with this sense of a constant present. An inability to plan beyond the weekend and to know with any certainty when we’ll next see our families or friends. Stripped of much sense of clarity as we ride out the pandemic, we perhaps struggle to believe that at some point the briefings will stop – that we might no longer need to worry about R Numbers, or contact tracing, or lockdown.
But the present changes. Time moves on. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, MacNiece reminds us that the maps came down from the fireplace and that sandbags slowly disappeared from the papers. Through contrasting his memories of war with his lived experience, MacNiece reminds us that hard times pass.
Carrickfergus is an exercise in memory and hope. By remembering the world of his youth, MacNiece invites us to recall the places which shaped us. And, just as he invites us to remember the past, he invites us to think of the promise of the future. Looking ahead from a pandemic-haunted city with winter approaching, we can think about how things pass, given time and effort. And we can perhaps allow ourselves a sense of hope.
If we get it from poetry, then so much the better.
Image: bob the lomond via Flickr