from revolutionary to Irish poet


Unsurprisingly perhaps, poetry is the expressive core of Irish republicanism and has played a crucial role in communicating the principles and aspirations of the republican struggle to the rest of the world.

Today, as the vision of a united Ireland and the history of the struggle for self-determination are challenged, a new book of poetry provides a basis for understanding the nuances of Irish republicanism.

“Open Gates: Selected Poems” (Colmcille Press) is a lyrical whirlwind of a book, and author Frankie Quinn is perhaps well known but not necessarily (and not yet) for his poetry. Quinn is a prominent Irish Republican who has spent his entire life in the service of the Irish freedom struggle.

His role in this struggle was perhaps inevitable. At the age of 10, he was tied to a tree by a loyalist “tartan gang” and was almost set on fire before being rescued by a neighbor. The bullying of Quinn and his family, who had come to Belfast to work, escalated until a group of men from the Ulster Defense Association – under the watchful eye of the Royal Ulster Constabulary – s ‘crushes in front of the family house and gives the Quinns 24 hours to leave.

The family were taken by relatives to their native Tyrone. But Frankie and his siblings bore the scars of everything they had endured in Belfast.

His older brother Patsy lied about his age to join the Irish Republican Army and was killed in action a year later. Her older sister had to flee shortly after. And then Frankie stepped in, also lying about his age, to join the IRA and quickly became a high ranking member.

Barely a year later, one of his comrades collapsed during interrogation and he was ordered to flee himself. He was sent to Dublin where he found himself homeless before serving short sentences at St Joseph’s Industrial School and Mountjoy. Upon his release he returned to the IRA in Fermanagh and spent the next six years in active service.

“Open Gates: Selected Poems”, by Frankie Quinn.

In 1984, Quinn was arrested in Donegal and spent four years in Portlaoise Prison. This was sort of a turning point: he decided to go back to school, having become almost illiterate when he left Tyrone at age 15.

In Portlaoise, Frankie joined the Gaeltacht wing and started learning Irish (he will eventually earn his Fáinne Óir for his master’s degree.)

Upon his release, he returned to Tyrone but was quickly caught with three guns and a 1000 pound bomb. He almost died from the blows he suffered during his capture.

Quinn was sentenced to 16 years and remanded in the infamous Crumlin Road Prison. Four years in pre-trial detention there – an unusually long stay in that prison – was an extremely brutal blur; Loyalist and Republican prisoners were deliberately and sadistically not separated.

Spectacular escape attempts aside, Quinn’s energies were directed to the campaign for segregation, in the hopes of improving the lives of those within the walls of Crumlin. These efforts, of course, earned him the wrath of loyalist prisoners and prison guards and administration.

Just before his transfer to Long Kesh, two armed loyalists were brought into his cell. Quinn managed to fight them both after breaking her leg on a table.

Long Kesh was practically quiet compared to Crumlin Road. There, Quinn returned to his studies and expanded the subjects he undertook.

He learned sign language through the Open University and began his study and creation of poetry. By the time of its release in 1996, Quinn had produced a body of work, many of which appear in Open Gates.

Frankie’s story, which is summarized here on the captivating introduction to Open Gates, is both intensely personal and remarkably universal. Snapshots of his childhood; his entry into the life of a soldier; his struggle to reconcile loss, love, dislocation, trauma, principle against reality, the individual against politics; and its confrontation with a “normal” life (whatever that means) challenges the reader to reconsider the struggle in Ireland in light of its implications both beyond the island’s coasts and on the level. of an individual – of a child who should never have faced the horrors he has done.

While an Irish poetry book is admittedly an unorthodox text for a political science seminar, I teach this book to undergraduates in my course on “War and Peace in Ireland”, for very specific reasons.

First, as the history of the struggle for self-determination in Ireland is increasingly contested, claimed and caught up in contemporary developments (notably the fallout from Brexit), Open Gates directly brings its reader back into this struggle, revealing strikingly its complexity, desolation and triumph. In other words, the book describes the essence of wrestling without the distraction of any agenda.

“I wear a steel mask. I stand tall and proud

On razor wire a black bird will watch

As they transport my body there.

Then they will know who won the fight

As with Bobby’s lark, we turn a wing to the flight of freedom.

(From “Blackbird”, Open Gates)

Second, it is one thing to study or even bring up theories of conflict, to engage in educated speculation as to why it is happening. But it is quite another thing to understand what happens in a conflict, what it demands of a child, of a family, of a city, of a people. Quinn’s poetry does this with devastating efficiency:

“But now I’m alone with no identity

An empty hand, an empty soul

Cradle of an empty heart

With empty memories of lost years

In an empty street

Where I once walked

With smaller feet.

(from “Homecoming”, Open Gates)

Intertwined with these frontal glimpses, Quinn reveals an almost mystical connection and attachment to the natural world. The hills of Donegal, the streams of Fermanagh, the fields of Tyrone all cradle him – allowing him to shed his armor and envision the possibility of love, home, like through a child’s eyes. , with eager hope.

Quinn is currently working on a second collection of poems as well as a narrative memoir. Open Gates is available from Colmcille Press (

* Bonnie Weir is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Yale University and founding Co-Director of the Peace and Development Program at Yale.

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