Book review: Tales From The Dartry Mountains, by Charlie Gracie

Charlie Gracie
Charlie Gracie
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In 2018, in a speech that bore a passing resemblance to one given by Adolf Hitler in 1933, Theresa May famously said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” (Hitler referred to “people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere, who do not have anywhere a soil on which they have grown up”.)

In political terms, of course, nativism is the new coffee – although given how popular coffee tends to be with those of an internationalist bent, perhaps it would be safer to say the new mead – and in such an environment, poets like Charlie Gracie, who are prepared to probe the grey areas where artificial concepts like nationality break down, feel more necessary than ever.

Gracie was born and brought up in Ballieston in Glasgow and he now lives on the edge of the Trossachs, so according to the May-Hitler definition, he is very much a citizen of somewhere. However, Gracie’s mother was born among the Dartry Mountains near Glenade in County Leitrim, and in this new collection he demonstrates just how strongly he still feels the pull of this part of Ireland, in spite of the fact that it is not his native “soil”.

In “Going Back to Saint Bridget’s Terrace,” Gracie remembers childhood visits to his grandmother’s house, “Granny at the door of the house, kitchen cloth in her hand / the smell of eggs and potatoes, a tearful hello” – and he reflects that, even though the house is “gone now… renovated beyond recognition” he can still imagine his grandmother there, “bow-legged on the doorstep / her tight mouth waiting to welcome me.”

He evidently feels a connection, too, to the local landscape, itemised lovingly in “How to Get to a Secret Lough” and “On Benwisken”, and to the sufferings of his ancestors, especially the abuses meted out during the Troubles in “Black and Tans.”

He speaks most acutely, though, of the first generation immigrant experience when  wrestling explicitly with his part-Irish, part-Scots heritage. In “The Bradan Road” it’s almost as if he’s willing there to be a stronger connection between the two cultures when he speaks of “the thing we both do / us Irish and us Scots / the softening of a d to t.” In “Mammy on a Chopper” he remembers being a child with “a pure rid neck” as his mum rode his purple Chopper bike to work. “She’d have run about the fields in Magheramore barefoot,” he reasons, “so now it seems obvious to use what is at hand / To go to work on a Chopper / To save a bit for a better cut of meat.”

The second half of this collection, “Other Poems,” lacks the continuity and focus of the first. There’s an idyllic sound poem, “Frogs Mating and Isabel Mowing” which you can link to on your smartphone, and there’s also a movingly understated reflection on the failed Independence Referendum of 2014 which ends, simply, “horizon, obscured in cloud”. A few of the shorter poems feel a little perfunctory – “Balerno Cafe Abomination” and “Stale Croissants, Edinburgh Cafe” being cases in point – but the hits easily outnumber the misses.

Tales From The Dartry Mountains, by Charlie Gracie, diehard press, £8.99