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A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B.Yeats

April 6th, 2016

439px-W_B_Yeats_Bain_1_croppedI often despair of television documentaries. They take an hour to tell me something I could be told in ten minutes.  After each break, if they are on commercial TV, they treat me to a resumé of what has gone before until I feel I have strayed on to a children’s channel by mistake.
So what a powerful experience it was to watch this stunning 100 minute documentary on Yeats by a man who dares to challenge a sacred cow of Irish history. It had to be an Irishman to do it – no-one else would have dared. And it had to be a man who has known suffering through the death of loved ones, as Bob Geldof has done so tragically.

The film covered Yeats’ literary and political life, his love life and his interest in magic and the metaphysical. It included excerpts from his poetry read by famous actors and pop stars. This was all wonderful stuff. But what really gave it passion was Geldof’s opinion about an event that has recently had its centenary – the 1916 Uprising. Rather than trying to paraphrase Geldof’s point, let me quote from an article that gives direct quotes:

‘Yeats wrote about the myths and legends of ancient Ireland to remind the Irish that they were not just victims of oppression. Geldof compares his work to the Arthurian legends of England and the American Dream. ‘Every place has a creation myth. Yeats said to the Irish, “This is who you are. You are noble.” The man sang the nation into being.’  They didn’t always listen. ‘It’s very easy to pick up a gun and decide you want a different kind of independence and start shooting people. I’ve no time for that.’

Bob_Geldof,_2006He is scathing about the way the Easter Rising of 1916 has been held up as an act of great martyrdom over the years. ‘It’s the original sin. So much rests on this myth. How many murders have been sanctioned in its name? F*** off! This messianic, delusional vertigo of self-sacrifice, the delirium of dying.’
He’s using phrases from Yeats, who was ambivalent towards winning Ireland with violence and wrote in the aftermath of the failed Easter uprising: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ The men and women who took over the General Post Office in Dublin and declared a republic, despite being in a city dominated by the British army, knew their mission was suicidal, he says. ‘They started writing these letters [to be read afterwards] which show clearly they knew, “The only thing that will come out of this is that we get shot, we get to be martyrs, that’ll spur another generation.”
‘What’s admirable about that, if you also don’t admire the guy who’s just walked into Pakistan and blown up 73 people at a Christian carnival in Lahore? What’s the difference? People say, “That’s outrageous, it’s not the same thing.” Excuse me?’ 

As the reviewer from the Irish Times wrote:

‘“The two-year-old who died for Ireland”: not so catchy, is it? Not something you’d want to grab your bodhrán and squeezebox and write a come-all-ye about. I wonder was it shame that made the children who died during Easter Week 1916 disappear?
They weren’t mentioned at all during the 1966 commemoration, says broadcaster Joe Duffy in his terrific documentary Children of the Revolution, and if they are mentioned in history books it is briefly and often inaccurately.’ Duffy discovered 40 children were killed – some by the rebels, some by the British snipers. Most were innocent bystanders, a few were taking part.

Geldof says “The glorification of violence stained my country for decades.” He sums up his view quite simply like this: “Dying is very easy. I’ve been around it a lot. It isn’t radical to die, it’s inevitable. Staying alive is hard.” And it was Yeats who chose to stay alive and who did more, Geldof argues, to forge an Irish identity and culture than those who chose the way of death by violence. “The modern, plural, open, generous country that Yeats wrote about and worked for has now come into being,” says Geldof. “His revolution won in the end. The revolution of the Irish mind. The Irish are now the people he said they would one day be.”

You can watch it here:


13 Responses to “A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B.Yeats”

  1. Wonderful programme. I’ve watched a few about the 1916 uprising, all giving different perspectives of the events. This was by far the most interesting (and they were ALL very interesting) and the best. I am still digesting it all…

  2. Sadly, I can’t watch this from the USA. But based on what I read in Philip’s blog I would just like to remind everyone that this is a British perspective on an Irish struggle. To compare the Uprising with Pakistani terrorists is deceiving, unless you think that American revolutionaries were terrorists too(it may be that many Brits see us that way, I don’t know).
    I am always amazed at the determination the Irish had to overcome the English occupation. They are the only Celtic nation that managed to free itself. The violence of the event was the result of living with foreign occupation for 800 years, an act of sheer desperation.

    • Ellen you’ve missed the point which I stressed in this post that it is precisely not a British perspective! Geldof is Irish and the programme was made by Irish Television. As Geldof says: “One hundred years ago, a handful of Irishmen and women rose up against the British Empire. A six-day rebellion that ended in their execution and elevation to near-sainthood. But are they Ireland’s greatest heroes? Is the GPO Ireland’s most sacred place? To me, it represents the birth of a pious, bitter and narrow-minded version of Ireland I couldn’t wait to escape.
      But there was another version of Ireland, dreamt up by a poet… His vision was mythical, romantic, truly heroic and beautiful. That was the Ireland I could never leave behind.”

        • It’s a pity you can’t watch the programme Ellen. If so you would probably see that this Irish programme made by Irish people made the reference to some modern day terrorists. As a Briton I had always tended to see the Irish men and women who rose up 100 years ago as heroic. This Irish programme gave an entirely different perspective.
          Maybe it will be available on YouTube? It is really worth seeing.

  3. Philip, Your posts have such deep wisdom, they inspire me on my Druid path. I trust your wisdom and I know it is grounded, not in fanaticism, but in a true heart. It gives me courage to continue my studies. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this. Yeats is one of my heroes. I followed his path through the west coast of Ireland ten years ago. I especially loved the scene of “The Stolen Child” in the hill above Glen Car. Alas, I live in Canada so can’t access the BBC player, but I will look for this show.

    I am just beginning my Druid studies and appreciate all you offer.

  5. A well-reasoned piece of writing that makes sound sense. It stands out and above all the sentimental hyperbole. I speak as one whose grandparents hailed from England, Scotland and Ireland but met only after settling in Wales.

  6. Thanks for the detailed and informative review, Philip. Let’s hope it continues to build harmony between the Island of the Mighty and the Island of the Blessed. I will certainly watch it.

  7. Thanks for the excellent review of A Fanatic Heart. I watched it and found it gripping. It has now been put on youtube so I should think it can be seen in the USA.

  8. An excellent programme. I’ve been rather concerned about the glorification of the 1916 rising here in Ireland. Bob Geldoff certainly speakes for me. A refreshing, challenging and intelligent perspective on the Rising and its legacy for the Ireland of today.

  9. Any advice on how to access Part 1 of Geldof’s excellent documentary? Have watched Part 2 on this website – but have failed to find Part 1. Thanks.

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