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The Cromwell poems by Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly in Crete, 1995 for "Myth of the City" conference




The “Cromwell poems” by Brendan Kennelly reflect what happened during the so-called Holy War. They capture something historical documents usually do not. This is because they focus on what gruesome things too place, and can take place once violence rules.

Brendan Kennelly responds to the need to find an answer to violence. The latter has existed in Ireland throughout the centuries but has become more distinctive after First World War and includes the conflict in Northern Ireland.

All these horrid times are marked by mankind having apparently no time to think about peace. Everyone seems to be preoccupied by other, apparently more urgent things. A closer look at people in such a situation seems to reveal to Brendan Kennelly that in a situation marked by 'violence being answered by still more violence' signifies something crucial. For someone who is only at war with himself and others, and therefore is ready to enter into still another steady spiral of violence, will not come to terms with both self defeats but also self deceits.

A further understanding of this inner dilemma can be obtained by reading what Brendan Kennelly expresses in the introduction to his epic poem 'Judas'. There can be found some possible keys to understand also the long prevailing spiral of violence especially in Northern Ireland. In that introduction can be found such deep thoughts as "the most difficult to unlearn is learned hatred" or "once prejudices are converted into convictions, those who hold them feel insulted when challenged in holding such convictions".

Brendan Kennelly agreed to these poems being posted on this website.

HF 5.6.2004


A holy War


‘We suffered the little children to be cut out of women

“Their bellys were rippitt upp”

This was a holy war, a just rebellion

And little lords in the womb must not escape

Their due. Certain women not great with child

Were stripped and made to dig a hole

Big enough to contain them all.

We buried these women alive

And covered them with rubbish, earth and stones.

Some who were not properly smothered

Yet could not rise

(They tried hard) got for their pains

Our pykes in their breast. People hard

(Or said they heard) the ground make women’s cries.’




The Catholic bombed the Protestant’s home

The Protestant bombed the Catholic’s home

The Protestant castrated the Catholic

The Catholic castrated the Protestant

The Protestant set fire to the Catholic Recreation Centre

The Catholic set fire to the Protestant Recreation Centre

The Catholic cut the tail of the Protestant dog

The Protestant cut the tail of the Catholic dog


The Protestant hanged the Catholic

The Catholic hanged the Protestant

As they dangled like dolls from the freshly-painted

Protestant and Catholic gibbets

They held hands in mid-air and sang

With spiritual gusto, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers!’



The soldiers had strong ropes and electric cord.

Each prisoner’s hands were tied

Behind his back. His arms were tied above the elbows

To those of the man on either side.

Their feet were bound together above the ankles.

Their legs were bound together above the knees.

A rope was passed around the nine.


The soldiers moved away.


The prisoners’ backs were to the mine.

When it exploded, the sudden hole in the road

Said nothing of our loss

And instead of singing in the dawn

Birds pecked the flesh off the trees

At Ballyseedy Cross.

Yet one prisoner escaped. He said ‘Goodbye, lads’ as the mine

Exploded, then he was on his hands and knees

In the road. Finding he was a wholeman,

Free though burnt, he ran for the ditch, through trees,

Across the side of a hill, over a river, ran

Till he came to a sheltering house.

There was a girl. While he lay, she picked gravel

Out of his body.

He has gravel in him to this day.


For months then he stole from house to house

Sleeping in dugouts, hearing the midnight rain,

Waiting for bullets in the back and head.

They never came. He kept moving though,

Stayed clear of his own place for a long time.

He went home in the end. They took him in.



I believe my eyes, I’m in a distant country,

I have lost my brothers and sisters

I am hiding, I must tell my story:

Last evening, soldiers drove the catechists

Out of the forest into the village,

I saw my brother, fingernails and toenails gone,

Black stumps for feet, all his friends the same,

The soldiers covered them with petrol

Set fire to them

I saw my brother become flame

Frame become cries

I watched

I have a story for someone

I can tell it with my eyes.



Rebecca Hill

Half-hanging is the rage in Kildare

It is the rebels’ will

So died Jonas Wheeler William Dandy James Benn

Rebecca Hill


Rebecall Hill was fifteen years

Half-hanged then taken down

As comely a girl as ever walked

Through Kildare town


Taken half-hanged from an oak-tree

She seemed to recover her wits

The rebels saw her flutter alive

Then buried her quick


Leaves of the oak-tree still

Flutter like Rebecca Hill.


The Stare

He stared at her. The stare invaded her eyes

Doing a demolition job on her brain

That had housed her delicate privacies

Years out of mind. The stare strutted own

Into her mouth, dipped, played with her tongue,

Licked into some spittle, swallowed it,

Pronounced it good if a little thin, nothing wrong

With that, might improve, the stare settled down to bite

The inside of her lip, the outside of her neck,

Nipples (naturally) and the sweet meant of each breast

Rising like the cost of loving to the play.

The stare knocked at her sanctum, waited, stuck

Its head in, turned into words fluent as lust

Ripping her up OK stare rules OK.



A Bad Time

Having butchered everyone in the church

The soldiers explore the vaults underneath

Where the choicest ladies are hidden

Hoping to cheat the general death.

One of these, a most handsome virgin,

Kneels down to Thomas a Wood, with prayers

And tears, that he may spare her life.

Sudden pity; he takes her in his arms

Out of the church, intending her escape.

A soldier sees this and pikes her through.

A Wood, seeing her gasping, takes her money

And jewels, flings her down over the works.

Massacre flows for five days in succession.

A bad time for virgins, local people say.


To think They All Become Silence

To think they all become silence –

Drogheda cries

Eyes of hanged women


Burnt houses’ trapped people

Churches of excrement

Mockery on the moon’s lips

Statesmen’s explanatory rant.


To think the silence can erupt

And battles spill again in a quiet street

And the swelling smell of blood guzzle the air

And the earth drink all, trying to forget

Bu failing and being forced to stand in the dock

Accused, found guilty, sentenced again to suffer, suffer.



The black van exploded

Fifty yards from the hotel entrance.

Two men, one black-haired, the other red,

Had parked it there as though for a few moments

While they walked around the corner

Not noticing, it seemed, the children

In single file behind their perky leader,

And certainly not seeing the van

Explode into the children’s bodies.

Nails, nine inches long, lodged

In chest, ankle, thigh, buttock, shoulder, face.

The quickly gathered crowd was outraged and shocked.

Some children were whole, others bits and pieces.

These blasted cruxifixions are commonplace.

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