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Northern Ireland

Dulled promise and faded hopes essence of Damian Gorman's poem on peace deal


Damian Gorman poem on the Good Friday Agreement
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Award-winning poet, film-maker and playwright Damian Gorman believes that Northern Ireland's political leaders have failed to deliver on the hope of the Good Friday Agreement.

Damian, who has written a poem to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the accord, said: "People are worried about jobs, charities are being starved of funding, the health budget is under strain and people are waiting longer for operations - these are all very real problems because at the level of leadership people are stuck in their own traditions and in their past. Being plugged into our past and our history doesn't energise us for the future, if anything it drains us.

"When it came along I, like the big, big majority of people, was very hopeful. Maybe I carried my hope too far.

"I felt that we were a small place, maybe small enough to become a light to the world. This was me running away with myself. I felt the Agreement could be the start of something. It was a clearing, a space but I don't think it was seen that way by those in leadership positions. It was not seen as the beginning of something."

The hope he had then has now dulled and that makes Damian fearful.

"As a result a lot of hope has gone out of people in the last 20 years. A lot of good has leeched out of people with the loss of that hope and that lost hope I think has become sour and the danger is it could become toxic. It could be really damaging," he added.

Damian was commissioned to write a poem to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement for inclusion in Belfast's 'Poetry Jukebox', an innovative arts project curated by poets Maria McManus and Deirdre Cartmill. A periscope-shaped device situated outside the Crescent Arts Centre, it brings poetry to the streets - anyone can simply press a button opposite the poet of their choice and hear them recite their work.

The title of Damian's new poem, If I Was Us, I Wouldn't Start From Here, is a clear hint of his concern that breaking the current political impasse is no easy task.

Damian Gorman. Photo: Sian Williams-Clarke

The Newcastle-born poet, who now lives in Wales with his wife Bronwen Williams, said: "I am very wary about saying anything about the poem. As a poet I am not preaching to people or giving out. When you write a poem you are singing to make a sounding that you hope will resonate at the level of the heart to other people."

Damian says that his poem is like someone kicking off the end of a swimming pool and heading towards something better. "It is a message towards leadership in our society," he added.

So how should people try to break the deadlock?

Damian, who won Northern Ireland's first Bafta for his documentary United and was awarded an MBE for services to the arts, draws on his experience of working for 10 years with young people from both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

"I remember telling them they could come to our meetings in two ways - firstly just bring their opinions and national narratives. What would then happen is that the two narratives would simply range against each other. The second way was not to come with opinions or political views or history but with their whole being. That includes doubt, curiosity about the other side and questions that they haven't dared ask before and wondering about the things done in their name which they really were not happy with.

"I told them that if they chose the second option they might have somewhere to go."

Bringing that message to a Northern Ireland context, he said: "I am looking to a time when we - and our leaders - could face each other with our two arms the one length and our palms faced up and could tell each other: 'Before I say anything you tell me something I don't know'.

"Wouldn't that be a better first position in which to start a conversation?

"Too often when we say we listen, what we mean is that we are just holding our tongue before jumping in correcting the other person. I would like people to listen for something they don't know."

During his time here he was a founding director of An Crann (The Tree), an arts charity that documented personal stories of the Troubles.

It was work that left a deep impression on him. "Some of the greatest opinions on how to move forward came from people who had no call to do it or who we had no right to expect it of, because they had been grievously hurt by the Troubles," he said.

"There was no requirement for them to move forward, yet some of the most heroic opinions I have seen is from people who have suffered most.

"Their desire to move from here has left me dumbfounded. I have seen it in people who have been hurt to the bone of their hearts. We cannot expect them to carry us forward.

"It is up to the rest of us to do what we can do."

If I Was Us, I Wouldn’t Start From Here

A poem for the Poetry Jukebox, to mark 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement, by Damian Gorman

Especially in a broken home like ours,

Where broken floors and windows feed the cold,

Each generation has a sacred task -

To tell a better story than it was told.

For we are reared by stories in such places,

Clawing through the bitter draughts of these

For something we can truly get a hold of

That seems to help us off our shattered knees.

The kind of myth my generation supped

Was, "We have better heroes than they've got.

For ours are much more decent - to a fault,

And if we've a rotten apple, they've the Rot".

Our steps are now, at best, precise and formal

Like dressage horses going nowhere well;

Our peace a thing we part-baked in the 90s

And left to prove, and got used to the smell.

Yet even in this half-peace we are living

Where death is only half-dead, I am sure

That we could learn to change our tunes completely,

But if I was us, I wouldn't start from here.

If I was us I wouldn't start from here

For here's a swamp we've stood in for too long.

We haven't kept our heads above the water,

And haven't seen a thing where we have gone

And we should fly now - frightened for our children -

Kick off the bottom, rush towards the air,

And break the water into different daylight

And gasp, and say what we can see from there.

For especially in a broken home like ours,

Where broken floors and windows feed the cold,

Each generation has a sacred task -

To tell a better story than it was told:

A story made, as honey is in bees,

From things that we have found outside ourselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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Damian Gorman. Photo: Sian Williams-Clarke