An Agnostic’s Prayer

“To dwell on beauty and normalcy — to reassert the liveliness of ordinary things, precisely in the face of what is hardest and most broken in society. This has been Michael Longley’s gift to Northern Ireland as one of its foremost living poets” — Krista Tippett.

Raised in Belfast in the midst of great religious divides, Michael Longley is known, in part, as a poet of “The Troubles” — the period of violence from 1969 to 1998 between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. When it comes to his own religion, Longley describes himself as agnostic —”a sentimental disbeliever”.

“Once every 4 or 5 years I take communion. I believe in the poetry of it, you know… I’m interested in Jesus as a revolutionary poet, as a proto-socialist.”

During his podcast with Krista Tippett, Longley reads several of his poems, including the incredible Ceasefire, the concept for which he took from Ancient Greek epic poem The Iliad, compressing it into a sonnet as his contribution to the peace process in the lead up to the 1994 IRA Ceasefire.

But what I preferred was his simple poem The Ice-Cream Man, particularly the moving story behind it.

Longley had been putting in his notebook all the flowers he’d seen in one day. When he came home, he discovered the terrible news that local ice-cream man had been murdered. His daughter, a regular customer, had known all 21 of his ice-cream flavours by heart. She used her pocket money to buy a bunch of carnations to place on the pavement outside.

Longley refers to the poem as “metaphorical wreath”.

The Ice-Cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

He ends by explaining: “That list is supposed to go on forever, really, you know. If you like that’s a kind of a prayer. That’s an agnostic’s prayer.”


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