Divided Ireland: Teenage Poems

MY LIFE
I live in a country where there is war
Stabbings, beatings we don’t want no more
I grew up in this violence, I know what it’s like
To walk down the street an get in a fight
I’ve been jumped a few times, outside a bar
Got punched in the nose an kicked over a car
They ran away back to their street
They’re the people you don’t want to meet
My mates recently got in a fight
Up in Stiles on Saturday night
It was 2 on 2 so it was fair
They sure were lucky I wasn’t there
Me and my mates stick together
If someone’s in trouble, we don’t run, never
Some people think they’re just plain royalty
But we like to think of trust and loyalty
Written by a 15 year old (17/7/06)

What is this poem about?
“My life” tells the story of the writer’s life, brutally and without compromise: “I live in a country where there is war.”

Is it a war? It may be argued that the British army is in Ulster to keep the peace and to prevent violence but this teenager interprets it as war, plain and simple. But who is it a war between? The writer does not specify the details.

Perhaps the answer is too obvious to mention (between the Catholics and the Protestants? The British and the Irish? Monarchists and Republicans?) or perhaps that very point is no longer important. At the street level, that is to say, where young people live, the “fallout” from the violence of decades colours everything the same way. It is not religious, racial or political at all, any more. It is just violence. “I grew up in this violence, I know what it’s like.”

Most of the rest of his poem could possibly be read simply a description of a somewhat typical youth culture of violence. Read thus, this is the familiar context of many young people growing up in cities in the UK: the young African gangs of Brixton, the Asian groups in Luton or Birmingham, the National Front marching in London.

What are the main emphases?

And, as is common with a violent youth culture, some points stick out: the importance of looking good and in charge: “Some people think they’re just plain royalty” and the chilling reminder of the last line “we like to think of trust and loyalty.” I use the word “chilling” because it provides the seeds of future gangsterism, future violence which uses the badge of honour and integrity, of sticking up for one’s own, and yet has less and less connection with the (almost wholly just) original political and nationalistic cause which gave it rise.

There are, however, some positive elements. The writer states the endemic nature of the problem but he never glories in it. If it is war, then you have to know your side and you have to stick together to face a common foe. “They ran away back to their street” suggest that “we” went back to ours, too. That’s fair enough, I guess. But the writer, while offering no easy solutions, declares what must be obvious “Violence…we don’t want any more.” Who is the “we” here? Is it the writer and his friends or is it pretty much everyone growing up in that harsh world? He recognizes the enemy as “the people you don’t want to meet.” He recognizes the reality of his life, knowing what it’s like “to walk down the street and get into a fight.” That is to say, the humdrum normality of life is shot through with the imminent possibility of violence.

It is interesting that we have only the slightest clue as to whether the writer is Catholic or Protestant. Perhaps the name of the gang is no longer important, only one’s loyalty to one’s own.

Does the writer offer any hope for the future?

Not really, the writer only offers “trust and loyalty.” And what that means is that if his mates get into a fight, then it is his fight too. Like the people who attacked his friends: “They sure were lucky I wasn’t there.” So, my conclusion is that violence in Belfast will continue on this stated basis of gangsterism and misguided loyalty to one’s own. “We don’t run, never” is the slight suggestion that this is the poem of an Ulster Protestant, learning at the cradle the language of “No surrender.”

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