Poets should be middle class, it’s true by Joe Horgan

Everybody hates the poor, it’s true,

the last acceptable distaste,

over wine and bites and the price of shoes

sit the policemen of taste;

ah, their leisure wear and fast food suppers,

their lack of work and endless plight,

the unnecessary excess of their being,

their queues for welfare in plain sight,

and the poets too, dislike them, it’s true;

being occupationally immune to where words fail,

cannot imagine their lives there,

shudder at those giant T.V. sports screens,

search for causes that have just begun,

something distant beneath the sun,

avoiding things that just aren’t fun,

oh, the poets, oh yes, the poets too,

because everybody, everybody hates the poor, it’s true.


The Poetry Programme
Joe Horgan, born to Irish parents and brought up in Birmingham, explores themes of migration and diversity in his poetry.


I’d like to start with a little story which is in itself quite trivial but in the context of what’s just happened is I think quite telling. I was born in England and lived there until I was in my thirties. In all of that time I lived in inner city areas and worked in them and drank in them. I’m from the inner city, you see, from the working classes of England, from an immigrant community within those places but from those cities, those streets. In one of the cities I lived in we were once visited by someone who hadn’t really spent a lot of time in areas such as the one we were in. Now this person was far more English than I ever was, far more wedded to the symbols of Englishness than this son of Irish immigrants and had spent their whole life living in the fair land of England. It was just that their England had never necessitated an involvement with this England that I knew. On the afternoon of the visit we went out for a walk along the streets to the local park. Walking along the red brick, multi-cultural streets of England. As we passed some local people, some local Asians, the English person with us said, ‘how nice it is to see people wearing their traditional costumes.’ Like I said it’s a trivial little story, isn’t it? I’ll come back to it though, later, see if it might light our way a bit.


I’m writing this now far away from those streets. I’m writing from rural Ireland. I’m writing from within the European Community. So looking on now I just feel bemusement. I mean I don’t even live in the UK anymore anyway and haven’t done for seventeen years, so what could I possibly know? And it also bemuses me because incoherent, inarticulate things, things like the Brexit vote, are inherently bemusing. But I can guess at some things. I can guess that a bigoted opportunist like Nigel Farage has seized his chance and I can guess that an opportunist willing to dance with bigotry like Boris Johnston has seized his. I can guess that the internal obsessions of the Tory Party have held a country, if not a continent, to ransom. I can guess that a Prime Minister without a vision took a gamble and lost. Guessing aside, though, I think two things are clear, even from way over here, even amongst all that bewilderment. One is that the press and certain sections of the political elite have deluded notions about Great Britain and its place in the world. In fact, it’s not even Great Britain they are deluded about but England, an England of yeomen and shopkeepers and the white cliffs of Dover. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. Secondly, it is that the right have done what they always do and tricked the disenfranchised in to thinking that the fault lies not in an unfair class system or in a rigged economic system but is the fault of the foreigner. It’s the age old canard of the right. Don’t look up and ask why they have so much and you have so little, look sideways and ask, what’s he doing here. In that way the press and Nigel Farage, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnston pretending not to look on, have stirred up what is a plain and simple bigotry. The Brexit vote is a racist vote. At least if you voted that way, have the courage to admit that. You voted leave in the hope of keeping out foreigners, keeping out immigrants, keeping out refugees. It wasn’t over the subtleties and different textures of economic union, was it? It wasn’t about the injustice of the European project being taken over by neo-liberals on the economic right. It was bigotry. At least let us have that out in the open. You voted to keep out Muslims, or Turks, or Poles, or whoever got a mention. Didn’t you?


As I’ve written here I’m from an immigrant family and I have spent most of my life living in immigrant areas of England. I passionately believe that immigration enhances society and I still passionately believe that a multi-cultural society is the best one. Give me the mixed race streets and city of my birth over the mono-cultural enclave any day in any year at any time. I am aware though that those inner city areas, those working class streets may just have been the very places that voted Brexit and handed over Britain, or England anyway, to Farage and co. Which pinpoints another reality about this vote and about England itself. However wonderful immigration is, and it is, it can and does bring cultural and social strains. I grew up in and always lived in areas where that was self-evident. Immigration is a thing, after all, directly experienced not just by the immigrant but by those the immigrant arrives amongst. So, of course, growing up in immigrant areas I heard and saw racism, I knew bigotry existed. I could see in the area I grew up in as it became increasingly Irish, West Indian and Asian that this must have left the mainly older, settled English population somewhat perplexed. In our rush to embrace the positives of a multi-cultural experience it is dishonest to ignore the dislocation of seeing a street’s population utterly change. We cannot ignore that very human, very understandable confusion that must lie at the heart of those who are directly experiencing immigration, be they the immigrants or those they come to live amongst. Throw into the mix with this years of Tory mandated austerity, of a working class so disenfranchised and dismembered that it is no longer a badge of pride but a term of abuse, no longer seen as a member of a thriving culture but as a chav, of a sea of redtops stoking up open bigotry, of an industrial base eroded beyond sustainability and what do you get? You get that vote and you get a class that will now be looked down upon even more. Which brings me back to the beginning. For I’m going to dare to suggest that it is all well and good for those who see their fellow citizens wearing their everyday clothes as people ‘wearing their traditional costumes’ to sit in the shires and bemoan the crude anger of others. It is all very well for those who appear as tourists in their own country to have no real understanding of the stresses and strains of immigration. It is all very well for those on the fortunate side of economic injustice to bemoan the backward, atavistic urges of those who aren’t. It is all very well for those who are out of the cold to dismiss the rage of those who can’t get warm. But bigotry doesn’t come out of thin air; it comes from the fertile breeding grounds of the political right and the situation of the socially and economically ignored. It comes from years and years of an economic and cultural attack upon the English working class by both Tories and New Labour. Seriously, know a bit more about your own country and the people in it and you might understand why you are where you are.


I’d just like to add that when I lived in the UK I worked for nine years in the NHS which, whatever its failings, is, as a pure idea, the best British thing ever. I worked in the South, the Midlands, and the North of England. With that in mind, having made a plea of understanding for all of those working class areas who voted for Brexit, but still calling them out on what was clearly a manifestation of bigotry and racism, I would like to point out to them one thing. This best thing about Britain ever was, in my experience of working in it, something that would not have functioned for more than ten minutes if it were not for the immigrants and the children of immigrants working in it. Because, that’s simply the best of British. Isn’t it?

Bombing Syria by Joe Horgan

What would you have thought if during the 1970s or the 1980s the British government had decided to take direct action against the IRA in a different form? Say, for instance during the 1970s when the IRA was at its most lethal or during the 1980s when the IRA attempted to blow up the British government itself, they had decided on something new. What if the attempt on the British Prime Minister’s life in Brighton in 1984 had resulted in the House of Commons debating a new form of military action against the IRA? After all, if the bloodshed of the 1970s, the torrents of spilt blood of that decade, were not enough to provoke the British then surely the Brighton bombing would have been. So what would you have thought if the British government had decided to bomb the IRA? What would you have thought, if they had decided that the Falls Road and South Armagh were to be targeted? Would you have thought, fair enough, the IRA are murderous and bloody, wipe them out? Or would you have hesitated and thought but what of the people living there, the children and the innocent men and women? Or would they not count? Would defeating the bad guys have been enough? I mean, all’s fair in love and war, is it not? And deaths aren’t even deaths are they if you don’t mean them, they are merely collateral casualties. True too that those bombs falling on the Falls Road and Crossmaglen would have been aimed at stopping the further decades of IRA violence to come. So would it not have been alright?

Now ISIS make even the IRA look tame and I wholeheartedly agree with Hilary Benn in his House of Commons speech when he called them fascists. If there has ever been a fascist power since the Nazis it is this lot. I agree too with him when he declared the rightness and bravery of those who fought against Franco’s fascists and fought against Nazi Germany. I think too that his speech in the debate not only showed up the paucity of other contributions but showed up the poverty of debate in our own Dail. And I’m not a great admirer of neutrality or a believer in pacifism as sustainable. I abhor the militarisation of our planet for sure and the way our free market system allows the selling of arms to whoever bids for them. That means that the likes of David Cameron can sign lucrative arms contracts with the Saudis and their intolerant, repressive, terrorist friendly regime and still position himself as the saviour of Syria. But Ireland’s neutrality alone shows where such a questionable position leads, it leads to sending condolences to Germany on the death of Hitler and to US troops flooding through Shannon. But for all that I think the decision to bomb Syria is the wrong one for two reasons. One, how exactly will it help to defeat ISIS and protect our freedoms? And two, how many innocent people will it kill too? For just like bombing the Falls Road or South Armagh would have definitely weakened the IRA I doubt very much it would have defeated them. In terms of recruits it might well have strengthened them. Now at this point I should accept that the comparison I’m using between South Armagh and Syria and the IRA and ISIS is flawed and the military situation probably completely different. I’m just using it to get a point across. But in one respect there is no difference. Those children on the Falls Road who would have bled beneath British bombing and those mother and fathers too would have bled exactly the same blood as the children in Syria will bleed. And Hilary Benn and David Cameron and their cheerleaders here in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail should remember that whenever they cheer the bombing of anywhere. The pretence that bombing is an exact science that only kills bad guys is a fiction.  After all, just a few weeks ago, the Americans bombed an Afghani hospital in an incident that should have seen all those Facebook pages sporting the Afghan flag. But it’s still true that one sure-fire way we will defeat ISIS is by making sure that we value life whether it is Syrian or Irish, in Kabul or in Crossmaglen, refugee or resident, poor or rich. British governments, after all, have a track record in bombing faraway places and even if the likes of Hilary Benn want to do so with the best intentions the result is usually the same.

What We Used to Believe by Joe Horgan

At home today. ‘The child’ going to England tomorrow.
The poor girl. And the bishops and the doctors and the professors and the motor car salesmen staying at home.

                            Seán Ó Riordáin 1949

Now that our teeth are good

and we drink coffee

with uncharted, newly found ,

modes of speech,

the cow shit of the past is tucked away

behind the garage on the bypass

and we reach at last the truth

that there never were here after all

any pauper’s graves or famine pits,

or long grey schools of abducted kids,

or Sunday suited souls getting boats

while those drinking the finest blends watched,

yesterday and today and tomorrow.

Lost Afternoons by Joe Horgan

I wanted to be

with them on a Sunday after mass,

getting drunk in Sunday best suits they’d arrived in,

a fenced life of women and children,

further than corporeal,

a chaser of distaste for themselves,

for leaving in the first place I wanted


to be under suspicion

because of my voice I wanted to get up

in a half-cut state on a Monday morning

and go into a job I loathed

looking for extra hours to justify

so many kids on so many streets

sounding like somebody else’s son,


I wanted the safety net

of being from somewhere left,

low wage silence


with little subtlety,

I wanted,

those lost afternoons to go on and on.


Joseph Horgan was born in Birmingham, England, of Irish immigrant poems. He is a past winner of The Patrick Kavanagh Award and is the author of four previous books. His work has been published in print, online, on radio and on television in Ireland, the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. His most recent work, The Year I Loved England, was a collaboration with the poet Antony Owen and the photographer Rangzeb Hussain. It was allegedly recommended for a Ted Hughes Award.

I see People by Joe Horgan


I don’t get it. I don’t see it. Refugees? Asylum Seekers? Migrants? I don’t get it. I don’t see it. I just see people. I just see men and women and children. I just see people, people just like me, just like you. I can see their eyes, their wide eyes and their hair and their arms and their legs. I can see their faces. And I just see people. I just see men and women and children.

I was in a car with some people the other day, some Irish people of a certain generation. One of them was my father, a Kerryman whose mother raised him in Cork alone, despite a priest’s advice to have him and his brothers taken into the caring embrace of the church. After serving in the Irish navy he looked around the Ireland of the 1950s and decided the only chance of making a life for himself and a family was by getting on a boat and going across the Irish Sea. When he got on the boat was he an Economic Refugee? An Asylum Seeker? A Migrant? No, I don’t see it. I just see a young man trying to get a better life. I just see a person. Next to him in the car was my mother, who left Ireland at the tender age of nineteen, in the company of the Kerryman raised in Cork. She went across the sea, across the cold, dark water in the boat to have a life and raise children and give those children a life. She was frightened she always told me. Frightened to leave, frightened to go across the sea, frightened to be in a strange place. Was she a Migrant woman? A Refugee? An Asylum Seeker? I don’t see it. I just see a frightened young woman. I just see a person. Next to her in the car was her sister who has spent most of her life in the Irish county she was born in. She did, though, once upon a time get on that boat across the dark sea, across the dark water, to get married and have her first child before coming back across the sea. And when she was going backwards and forwards across the dark sea, across that unforgiving cold water, with her baby in her arms, was she a Migrant? A Refugee? An Asylum Seeker with a Migrant baby or a Refugee baby? I don’t see that. I don’t get it. I just see a young woman and a baby. I just see a person. I just see a person holding a child. Also in the car was my mother’s brother. Every summer he comes home from New York to see his beloved Ireland, his beloved family and his beloved GAA. Back when he was a much younger man he went over the broad, cold Atlantic because his beloved Ireland offered the eldest of a family of thirteen nothing in terms of a future life. So when he went over the cold ocean, the deep unforgiving waters of the Atlantic, was he a Migrant? Was he a Refugee or an Asylum Seeker? I don’t see that. I don’t get it. I just see a young man hoping for a better life. I just see a person.

None of those boats went down. None of those people, the young men or the young women, the baby, fell into the water. None of them died sodden deaths on their way to a better life. They all got across the cold water safely. And when they got there they didn’t meet with barbed wire or vicious border guards and they didn’t wait in the open air while a continent debated whether they were Migrants or Refugees or Asylum Seekers. They didn’t have it easy, for sure, but look at them, look at them, look at the thousands of them coming out of Ireland year after year. What do you see? Do you see yourself? Do you see your mother or your father? Do you see an Aunt or an Uncle? Do you see a cousin? Do you see Asylum Seekers? Do you see Refugees? Do you see Migrants? Or do you just see people? Do you just see people like you and like me? Do you just see men and women and children? Because I don’t get it, if you don’t. I don’t see what you’re seeing, if you don’t. Because I just see people.

Previously published on The Bogman’s Cannon (http://bogmanscannon.com/home/)