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‘The Secret Languages of Ireland’

Breaking camp,
they left at dawn
without waking a soul
their wagons consigned
to flames.
Anna na mBreag

Veronica swirled poitín against the light;
cautioned me not to smash my teeth
with the bottle as we swigged.
As I felt her Irish tongue
in my mouth, I pondered the significance of words.
So the back slang for kiss from Irish póg becomes gop

in the cant. Thirty years on
in this seminar room we teased apart the place-lore
of Friel’s Translations; smelt turf
cut with a loy. Eamon from Co. Clare and myself,
the Englishman, who named his son Ronan.
The Irish for little seal.

At interview Ashling asked eventually
if she would need to declare officially
she’d had a child out of wedlock
over the water. She spoke some Gaeilge,
but had not the book learning. They
had sent her out of school early.

In class she recited Mise Raifteirí an file
by heart with an aside that the nuns
equally patriotic and religious
would slash her knuckles with a ruler
if she stumbled. Outside in the English
Midlands it was a soft day.

Nostos – a sweet sickness for home.
Bitter dregs from a chipped cup.
Sweating from a Smethwick foundry,
Seán unwrapped a knock-off death mask
of James Joyce. In aluminium, not bronze-
still a steal at a hundred pounds. He was

narked neither Eamon nor myself
wanted the thing mute on our wall.
Speaking to no-one, nobody. That building
where we taught will be pulled down next year,
already over the rubble the blackbird’s
song echoes from Lough Derg.



Derek Littlewood teaches literature at Birmingham City University and lives in Worcestershire. He wrote this poem for Liane Strauss’s class on the recent 5 Easy Pieces course. He has published poems in various anthologies,  most recently in I am therefore I write ed Daniela Azzopardi and has a Black Country dialect poem forthcoming in Fuselit 19 Fossil edited by Jon Stone & Kirsten Irving.


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Image Credits:

Image: Connemara, County Galway, Ireland

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons