¾ of a century gone
and the place and the men
under ground how can
I say what in truth
that work was? Picture
the legs of your bed
jacked to within 3 feet
of the ceiling – a neat
slot for sleeping
as long as you like
how you wd stretch
into it by ladder from
the wardrobe top maybe
reached from a chair
watching your head
when you woke with a start
in the dark. Your dreams
no narrower but rather
as a river in its estuary
brims into mudflat and reeds
yet carries in that sluggish
belly the full weight
of a lifetime’s rain – so
here your dreams expand
except instead of sleep
you are tensed low
and flat on a board
as your pickaxe cracks
open compacted dreams of rocks.
Here’s another way to see it.
Children like to climb a tree.
Well, take that ash or beech and fell it
through an angle of 90° but push that
90° again through grass and clay
so that its roots suck air untidily
and the trunk is a vertical shaft
descending. Branches and boughs
you love for sky-gazing are hollow
seams to follow
and find that here the view’s not air
but years – leaves fossilized in black
flicker back in flame. The mind
burns too when pick and shovel redd
centuries into hutches and away.
The cost of this –
a miner every 6 hours, so they say.
Look at my face and hands broken and gouged
the long back twisted out of line utterly.
It was the arcwall cutter in a narrow seam
and badly tensioned chains. It was
the cold shift of an April night in Foulshiels.
My bones were crushed in coal the body
axed and blood rolled into bools of dross.
No man’s fault. It was my job: the fireman
checks how close the belt and teeth are in.
You are still in the dark. Let me say again
it was soldier-like to enter the ingaun ee
with lamp and pickaxe and descend
with other men to be raised at dawn
and cycle home. I was not alone.
Men gathered up my body in a box
and sealed it. Four days later
a cousin wheeled the bike and tools back
for my sons if there’s no help for it
and they must follow me to win their meals.
They did not, I thank God, in Foulshiels.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
The opening poem of McGonigal’s powerful long work which intercuts different times and places in its lyrical examination of Scottish-Irish relations. The ‘Entrance’ is both the beginning of the poem, so that the whole poem is a kind of excavation, a mining into precious fragments of history, and the actual door for the near-slave miners into the daily darkness.
‘Entrance’ is the opening section of a long poem in five parts, written in a mixture of English, Irish Gaelic and Scots. The whole poem Passage/An Pasaíste came out of several years of reading and thinking about the complexities of the Scots-Irish immigrant experience, and of my wife’s researches into our shared family history among the mining, foundry and mill workers of the 19th century industrial West of Scotland. In a recent article ‘Multilingual Poetries Lost and Found’ in SCOTLIT 32 (Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2005) which outlines the poem’s genesis, I admit that the historical, ideological and emotional complexity of this heritage was such that I finally came to believe only imaginative writing could answer it. In the single word ‘passage’ I try to link the migrant voyage from Ireland to Scotland, the passing of time, and even the narrow coal seams mined by many ancestors, named or nameless, and in particular by my grandfather, who had died in one.
A voice that turns out to be his introduces the poem in ‘Entrance’, plunging us into the midst of things. This recalls ‘the ingaun e’e’ (the ingoing eye) that was the old Scots mining term for the entrance to a pit shaft dug into a hillside, starting at an easy understated pace before plunging suddenly into violent accident. (His life and labour are only later recovered and reassembled in Section 3 of the poem, as it were, by the images and sounds of the life he left behind on an April evening in 1932.)
Speaking for an almost forgotten community, I sometimes had a strange sense of being guided to find what needed to be found. In a library search on an unrelated topic, my eyes lit on a contemporary geological survey of the Bathgate coalfield, written only a few years before the death described in ‘Entrance’, and so I was able to locate the pit (long abandoned and now invisible under farmland) and also imagine more clearly the levels of rock and sediment through which he and his fellow miners had toiled on a daily or nightly basis.
In ‘Entrance’, I try to create a sense of tension and constraint through narrow lines, darkness, an intelligent voice from the dead patiently trying to explain to our generation what it was like to work in a three foot seam, or to find a sense of geological time in fossils howked from coal, or to work as a team of men in dangerous places: ‘Let me say again / it was soldier-like to enter the ingaun ee / with lamp and pickaxe and descend / with other men to be raised at dawn / and cycle home. I was not alone.’
Although the poem as a whole ranges widely enough in time and space through Scotland and Ireland, ‘Entrance’ is its starting point and core. From a personal and family perspective, it pleases me that the poem has won awards in both countries.