France followed Ireland’s lead and is back in lockdown until at least 1st December. In Paris, bars and restaurants have once again lowered their steel shutters, with a few keeping them up for a slow takeout trade.

To the relief of parents, and the majority of school goers, France’s schools are open. However, universities are shut with third level students studying by zoom. Many workers are back working from home, but essential businesses are open in an effort to resuscitate the economy.

On one of the last nights of ‘freedom’ poets from Northern Ireland Zoomed into O’Sullivan’s Pub, Franklin Roosevelt, Paris for a “meet up” with members of the Cercle Littéraire Irlandais, (CLI) and the Irish community in Paris.

The Zoom vibrated with poetry (Northern Irish poets Maria McManus, Moyra Donaldson, Lorna Shaughnessy and Celia de Fréine with poet Anne Fitzgerald zooming in from Sandycove, Dublin) along with live music from Paris-based musician, Paddy Sherlock, singing acapella, while seated, complying with Covid no-gig rules.

This event was an introduction to an Irish discussion of the utmost importance; the 'No Word for Stay' panel discussions, (programed as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival program, BIAF) and held at a most critical time in Irish history.

The panel discussion was introduced by artistic director, poet and poetry jukebox co-curator Maria McManus and chaired by Clíona Ní Ríordáin, Professor of Irish Poetry at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Joining her was poet and co-curator Moyra Donaldson along with poets Gail McConnell and Paul Muldoon to discuss the contribution of Northern Irish poetry and poets in articulating Northern Ireland’s painful, complex, and compelling history, its resonance in the present, and its implications for our future.

This discussion also marked the launch of the 11th edition of a Poetry Jukebox which is currently available to enjoy online (quotidian.ie) and in-person at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and at EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin (both until 31 December) and at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, 4 January - 21 March 2021.

Zooming with the NI poets and listening to the panel was poignant. There was a certain tension in the air, we were diligently paying attention to Covid regulations (six per table, masks, gel etc.), attentive to the discussion; aware that it was at an extremely important conjecture in Northern Ireland. Facing into a possible no-deal Brexit, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement being endangered, and with the centenary of partition on the horizon and all in an ambiance of much uncertainty.

The No Word for 'Stay'’ curation of twenty poems stocked in those blue, sturdy poetry jukeboxes, sprouts words from some of Northern Ireland’s greatest poets, all of them with lived experience of “The Troubles."

One of the poems in the curation was offered by Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon (1941 – 1 October 2020), who sadly passed away at the beginning of October. Many of us over the past months interpreted the words of his poem "Everything is Going to Be Alright" as words of reassurance and succour and hoped they were an optimistic augur of things to come…

Paul Muldoon said that Mahon’s poem was probably written in dark irony and he himself feels that everything in Northern Ireland will only be "alright" when we finally abandon denial. In his opinion, offering succour should be the job of our elected officials; the poet’s job however has a far wider range.

This sonic curation of poems, each read by its creator, has huge impact. However, it is not a collection of reassuring words. The curation plunges us back into the terrible moments of “The Troubles;” each word matters, calling out and using the art of poetry to make us think… I remembered that Shelley in 1821 stated, ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ and realised no matter how hard times are, we can’t reduce our poets’ words to merely being conduits of succour and salve.

If a famous artist died and bequeathed a painting, it would be worth hundreds of millions. Derek Mahon’s poem, recorded in his own voice, just before he died, sprouting from those blue jukeboxes, like “a riot of sunlight”, keeping us on our toes, are however absolutely priceless.

Everything Is Going to Be Alright, by Derek Mahon

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart;
the sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

In this strange period, abounding cries for honesty, humanity, justice, and solidarity shake me out of my personal Covid cage. While living alongside the pandemic we often have the opportunity to enjoy listening to catalytic panels, to support virtual Irish festivals, and hopefully to develop a “watchful heart”.

With Ireland and France in national lockdowns I am grateful that the BIAF opted to go virtual rather than cancelling. This 58th edition offered a wide program of inspirational events that responded creatively to the current pandemic.

For me, it was a first-ever for the BIAF, albeit from downtown Paris! It seems every cloud has the proverbial silver lining…

We would like to thank Melanie, Thomas, and all the O’Sullivan's staff that organised a beautiful salon, technical help, and extended such a wonderful, warm welcome in a professionally controlled physically distancing safe environment.

The Irish pubs in Paris are mythical, often featuring in French cinema as the ideal place for people to meet! When they reopen in December, we’ll be back to organise get-togethers in keeping with future Covid restrictions.

I’ll always remember the tension of that get-together pre second lockdown in Paris and how much I learnt at that event, including that magic can still be made together, despite, or perhaps even stoked by, our strange times.

Irishcentralbox cta600 x 300px with button

This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.