Martin McGuinness, peace-monger
Whose heart turned out to be a dud,
Withered rather than exploded.
The ticking told tales Troubled
Ticking to a fatal tock. To its last.
Two atriums synonymous, symbiotic
Thumping, clashing, power sharing
Within a chamber: the size of a fist
The shape of a hand grenade –
The symbol of compassion.
It is not dispersed like fruit, one Friday afternoon
Across a Belfast Orange mural,
Nor is it punctured, bleeding into a Bogside gutter;
But it rests in peace, intact, in fact.
Although this poem, written following McGuinness’ death as a result of a rare heart disease, may seem to be grounded in a single historical moment, it is written with the aim of capturing the complexity of the debate surrounding forgiveness and redemption.
In my second year of university, I wrote an essay about a speech made by McGuinness at the Tim Parry and Jonathon Ball Foundation for Peace in 2013. Twenty years previously, the IRA had been responsible for the bomb which killed Parry and Ball, who were twelve and three years old at the time. The event was held by family members of the two young boys who suffered such brutal tragedy; these same family members had reached out to McGuinness to deliver a lecture on peace.
At this time, about four years before his death and fifteen years in from the Good Friday agreement of 1998, McGuinness was undoubtedly at the other end of a thousand-mile road from his terror-inducing, violence-inciting former self. An integral agent in the Good Friday talks, McGuinness went on to become Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister between 2007 and 2017, forming an unlikely friendship with his former adversary, Ian Paisley. In this speech, McGuinness responds to his often cynical political rhetoric of the past with a bluntly truthful message: “there can be no greater tragedy in life than parents having to bury their child”. A gentle stroke of human empathy and courage now stood where once a violent affinity for the republican cause had existed.
Of course, it is not necessarily true that to be politically devoted you must also be violent and detached from the human consequences of violent actions. Nor is it true that Martin Guinness is now regarded universally as a hero of peace. It is somewhat important that he isn’t. Outside the Tim Parry and Jonathon Ball centre for peace during McGuinness’s speech, picketers carried signs denouncing his violence of the past and reiterating the imposing stain of the IRA’s troubled history upon his reputation. He remains a contentious figure both inside and outside Northern Ireland, albeit now a pacific one.
A moral conclusion on a figure such as McGuinness can never be fairly reached. Is it possible to detach such a man from his legacy of murder? From history we learn that figures like him and Ian Paisley can never be universally recognised in any way, for they are attached to different memories for different people.
Maybe, through poetry, it is possible to destroy the ideological definitions we impose upon such historical characters in order to break down the metaphysical boxes we shield their true identities with, and therefore remember them more effectively and respectfully. It is true that whilst he led the IRA, thousands died at their hands, and yet it is true that during Northern Ireland’s reconciliation period, an almost impossible peace was achieved with his help. But there was no one point of redemption or damnation for McGuinness. There was no bridge to cross; no point at which he traversed the line between bad and good. His life is not simply made into a path from immediate darkness into immediate light just because it was a life of extremes. Like all of us, McGuinness was always a complex and conflicted person.
Martin McGuinness’s Heart, therefore, is an attempt to present the life and death of a man who suffered the same moral ambiguity as you and me; a man who struggled with the question of good and evil in exactly the same way as anyone does. He may have been responsible for thousands of lives lost, and may be responsible for thousands ultimately saved. Is it productive to weigh up the good and the bad?
This poem is not an obituary. Nor is it a judgement. And it is not instructive. I have aimed simply to capture my personal response to McGuinness’s death earlier this year and to marry this to a poetic presentation of the atmosphere of the Troubles and of reconciliation. Conflict can be seen throughout the poem in a number of forms. In some ways, conflict can be positive; without friction, the wheel of a car could never possibly move forward. But too often does it lead to tragedy.
And it is unavoidable. To be human we must always disagree. Yet Northern Ireland stands as a pioneering example of the power of humanity to overcome long-standing disagreements. It is thus important, now, for the leading antagonists of the Troubles to be discussed freely and objectively and without taboo. They must be presented as the people they always have been, and not the heroes or villains that they once were seen to be.
Martin McGuinness lived an explosive life by his heart, and died a muted death by it too. It was his heart which drove his actions in the name of Republicanism. It is our hearts which compel us to relent violence. It is the hearts of thousands of Irish and British people which have bled into gutters and died throughout the history of Ireland. And now we must have the heart to move forwards in the spirit of rationality, and leave the memory of violence behind us, just as Martin McGuinness attempted to do.
Ciaran Doyle studies English and History at the University of Sussex. As well as being an aspiring poet, Ciaran has a keen interest in music and presents a music show called “The Northern Quarter” on Platform B Radio Brighton.