The Children of the Nation, Reviewed

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland offers an interesting journey through the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the capital of the Republic, as well as through other deprived locations, experiences, and emotions.

The authors are proud working-class people, working-class poets, children of working-class parents, parents of the working-class children. Here is an Ireland usually covered under Saint Patrick’s Day parades, famous alcohol brands, and Riverdance. Instead of this glittery surface, these texts dip us into the screams of poverty, child abuse, bullying, and substance dependancy.

Some texts in this anthology edited by Jenny Farrell are innovative, while others follow a more classical tradition of narration and creating images with words. There is no doubt that these texts are written by people for whom poetry is a way to reflect, to express themselves, to describe their reality, rather than a tool to achieve fame, prestige, or wealth.

In its ambition, The Children of the Nation follows the path of Proletkult – the Soviet revolutionary movement that sought to find new art forms outside of conventional art institutions that were spoiled by the sin of bourgeois birth. Nonetheless, the book is not free from a certain bias or, as I prefer to call it, “social blindness”.

It is a particularly difficult task to write about an anthology that brings together so many voices, so many perspectives and most of all, that is trying to describe the hardest and probably the most controversial identity of our times. After all, who are the working-class people?

Are they those who were born in poverty? Those who were impoverished during the recent recession (or the next)? Those who finished Trinity College and worked as teachers or housekeepers? Or are they those who reflect on their precarity, their economic disadvantage, comparing their status to that of the children of landlords?

To her credit, the editor attempts to traverse the imperialist border on our small island. Poets from both North and South are represented here. However, there was another border they failed to overcome: the border between so-called locals and those of us who are still considered outsiders. As a precarious migrant myself, the table of contents of this book reminded me once again of this impenetrable border.

In his foreword, Brian Campfield, former general secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (2010–2015) and president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (2015–2017) writes: “It is … heartening that the anthology includes poems in both the Irish and English languages. Perhaps a further edition might attract poems in other languages which reflect the experiences of the many ethnic minorities who have in more recent years found themselves working and living in Ireland.”

This, in my humble opinion, reflects a number of problems concerning the role and the perception of migrant “labour force” in contemporary Irish society. I speak about the erasure of the significant contribution of migrants from all over the world to the life, work, and development of Ireland – and their contribution to the Irish poetry, too.

It is the migrants who have become the proletariat of the twenty-first century, the most defenceless, the most exploited, and the most vulnerable workforce of the post-industrial capitalist society.

From my point of view, Campfield’s statement about “ethnic minorities who have in more recent years found themselves working and living in Ireland” is problematic. Who, if not trade unionists, could acknowledge that throughout the century of Irish independence, migrants have contributed to the economic growth of the country? Acknowledging only their work in recent years is an erasure of the value they have brought.

Furthermore, I ask whether there are only two languages that are considered autochthonous to this land. Why is there no mention of Shelta? The absence of this language contributes, maybe unconsciously, to an anti-Traveller vision of the Irish society. But here we even need to step forward and say that every language spoken as the first language by working-class people living in Ireland constitutes our common reservoir of languages, as autochthonous as those mentioned above.

The voices of migrant poets have barely been heard here. I have found only two migrant authors in the anthology, one from Poland and another one from Greece. Yet, in fact, many other authors have experienced migration in their background: although they consider themselves Irish, they were born, raised, or lived outside Ireland.

This is an important part of Irish experience and worldview. So why doesn’t this help prompt an embrace of the migrant workforce living in Ireland? I mean here not only those from Fortress Europe, but working-class people from the Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, post-Soviet countries, and so on.

It is dangerous to constitute the working class, the children of the nation, without acknowledging the inherently international nature of the workforce. Such an acknowledgement would be an act of solidarity that would give us strength and recognition.

Under current conditions, we all anxiously watch how some working-class people – and middle-class and upper-class, too – have been manipulated by the far-right groups all over the world. We see how some working-class people have been turned against each other.

So it is our historical responsibility to fight the kind of social blindness that erases migrants from the definition of the working class. Instead of reproducing this erasure, we need to work, create, and dream in solidarity.

I am eager to see the promised second edition of this anthology that will bring together all children of all colours of the Irish society.

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Evgeny Shtorn: Evgeny Shtorn is a writer, activist, and researcher from St Petersburg. Due to his involvement in civil-society work, he was forced to leave Russia in 2018. In 2019, he was granted international protection in the Republic of Ireland. He currently works as a social and cultural diversity consultant, collaborating with universities, and cultural and civil-society institutions. Shtorn’s writing has been published in academic journals, anthologies and new-media outlets in Russia, Spain, Germany, and Ireland. As an activist, he has been involved in human rights and LGBT advocacy for almost two decades. He is a co-founder of Queer Diaspora Ireland, an initative that supports LGBT people living in direct provision. In 2020, Shtorn was awarded GALAS Person of the Year by the National LGBT Federation of Ireland (NXF).

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