Poetry review – ARIAS OF CONSOLATION: Tim Cunningham is captivated by John Liddy’s hymn to Limerick and its history
Arias of Consolation is John Liddy’s paean to Limerick, one of Ireland’s major but least celebrated cities. Without any pretentious parallels, Liddy sets out on a journey through time in his native Limerick, sharing his discoveries. Arias is a treasure-chest of history, people, places, facts, lore, memories, anecdotes, folk history, references, expressions, betrayals, joy, tragedies, loves . . . . The list is endless and all written with a freshness and energy that power through the pages like the powerhouse at Ardnacrusha. And always there is the joy of language.
This work of art is structured in sections and dressed in the Sunday best of rhyming tercets, so power, energy and order combine in a perfect partnership.
As Liddy is rooted in Limerick, Arias is firmly rooted in its first verse. Appropriately, it starts in old Limerick ‘around Irish Town’ and the mud flats, close to all our beginnings. The first nine lines of Section I set the tone:
Cloakful the river under time’s passing cloud, imperishable fibres washed up on Inish Sibhton, eeling beneath Pons Calvus in low tide around Irish Town; perhaps a discarded rag.
The setting throughout is the local, the familiar, a place Liddy knows through and through. And the concept of time from the start augurs his journey through Limerick – past, present and future.
The very first word, ‘Cloakful’ is strong, introducing cloth, ‘imperishable fibres,’ rags. Maybe there’s an echo here of Yeats’ ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. The Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles, is introduced immediately, so at home with verbs like ‘eeling’. Irish Town itself is, of course, at the heart of old Limerick. The ‘discarded rag from a laner’ contrasts with
… the garb of the ruler, their deeds long done
into dust, pickings for the indiscernible rat.
Quite the leveller, and little doubt where Liddy’s sympathies lie. He is a brilliant witness but without pretence of objectivity.
Stanza one of Section II brings us straight into Limerick’s history, especially with mention of Cromwell’s nephew, Ireton, and Ginkel, introducing the 1690/91 siege and the broken treaty, the most memorialised phase of Limerick’s history. We have ‘Dowd’s nod to the county’:
Urbs antiqua fuit studiisque asperrima belli
An ancient city hardened in the arts of war.
So Liddy’s starting points are soon established: history and all he imbibed in a home awash with Irish and local culture. At the time he grew up most of the men worked in unromantic bacon factories. He had friends (Section V)
whose fathers’ aprons dripped of gore
In bars near bacon factories, men beatified On Sunday nights with arias of consolation,
which mother hummed as a girl and father
learned by ear on his piano of avocation.
His mother, like history, lies at the heart of Arias. But he has to move on, start his own journey. So in Section VI,
Such memories from afar never seem true
unless verification is sought from source,
so I walked you again and again to renew And relearn the lessons I sought to unlearn.
Liddy is well equipped for the journey, and the rest of Arias is a record of what he witnesses, the raiding of archives and a deep respect for folk memory. Asked how long it took to write Arias, he will answer ‘About twenty years’. His account moves from home to city, to county, to the wider world and back – all packed into tercets, jammed with the constant authenticity of names, frantic, relentless beehives, buzzing with information and ideas, bursting with local detail and written unpretentiously in Limerick’s Hiberno-English, with a generous helping of slang and an awareness of
hybrids used by bleachers, ballhoppers,
crushers, dabbers, dingers, dredgers, scalpers,
slingers, spacers and crawthumpers.
There is no easy synopsis for Arias. Each crammed tercet must be read as we follow this particular pilgrim’s progress, moving into an expanding world and returning to beginnings where he meets himself in today’s Limerick and downplays that vibrant, immediate language as ‘Gibberish for embroidering my yarn,’. He appraises today’s Limerick and plays with a fanciful view of its future (Part VI)
… shaping new centres round Colbert
with art hubs, sustainable housing,
walkways, a bullet train to the airport a thriving dockland and port, electric
cars flying hither and thither, parking
pads in the sky. . ..
This prosaic conjecturing is written consequently in an almost prosaic language, in sharp contrast with the book’s opening.
Liddy is very comfortable with the marriage of past and present, with where he began and where he is now. He starts the concluding Part VII of Arias, possibly with an ear to Yeats’ Lake Isle:
One day I will go to Ardnacrusha to appraise
Sean Keating’s paintings in the flesh, admire
again the swans by the falls in Dun an Eas.
Several instances of ‘Back to’ ensue. These on-the-doorstep journeys show us a happy man who literally knows his place. An air of contentment reigns.
Arias is Limerick’s starry night: a collection redefining ‘a labour of love’. Nothing on Limerick compares. It’s a prodigious achievement, a monument to the ‘Urbs antiqua’. Think Joyce’s Dublin; think John Liddy’s Arias of Consolation.