Poetry in the land of Saint Patrick

Ruth Padel sees appreciation in Ireland and blinkers in Britain
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Two St Patrick's Days ago, marooned by snow at Pittsburgh Airport, I landed at a hotel smothered in emerald banners, leprechauns behind every hydrangea. A tape played relentlessly through breakfast. "Everybody's Irish on St Patrick's Day ... Everybody's Irish on St Patrick's Day." If I'd been Irish, I'd have squirmed below hydrangea-level. This year I'm in Ireland itself. The Duke of Ormond built Butler House, Kilkenny, as a dower house, to get his mother out of the castle. From her bedroom, she could gaze at the turrets that excluded her. This spring, Butler House Hotel has hosted a series of talks on cultural exclusion. I'm here to read my poems and talk about how Brits (unlike the Pittsburghians) can feel excluded from Irishness, and why.

A reporter interviews me. "How can you read that stuff in public?" he demands, about a love poem of mine. Once you've written it, you have to trust how a poem's made, I say. That's what matters. Its shape.

He reacts as if I'd disembowelled his Cocker Spaniel. "I felt it was mine", he says, "that poem. It was about me and my girlfriend." "Of course it's about feeling," I falter. "And - er - sex. But I think you remember it because of how it's made." I've disappointed him. What a beast. Great intro to my talk.

I tell the audience most British people have no idea of events which make up the Republic's idea of "Britishness".

"School didn't tell me Cromwell came to Ireland. He was the British civil war." (Shocked laughter; it's like saying you never knew Hitler didn't like Jews.) I punctuate my pearls of explanation with poems. The one my interviewer bonded with. One about a British village which buried its stained glass in the river, to save it from Cromwell. Tonight all my poems are about the misuse of power. How come I never noticed?

Questions. "When Britain loses Hong Kong, will it forget dreams of empire?" Sorry, that one's unfadeable. The only hope is education, but there's not much of that around, I say again, in Britain just now.

The audience is kind (probably sorry for me). "Don't you like Britain?" They buy all my books. I feel rich; and unexcluded.

Next day the Arts Education Officer shows me the Cathedral. Cromwell managed a spot of glass-smashing here when he stabled his troop-horses in the church. "We weren't smart enough to bury it," says Proinsias.

Kilkenny follows me to Dublin: I find the sexy new drink here is red ale. (Ask for "a Kilkenny".) The poet Matthew Sweeney has been doing poetry workshops at "The Ark", a Cultural Centre for Children in Temple Bar, Dublin's Rive Gauche.

Matthew shows me Wilhelma the wooden tortoise. When you pull her head you find a secret drawer, containing her account of travels with Noah. Wilhelma remembers mammoths, apparently, but looks forward to the future: rainbows at the end of her story: a play-lesson in memory and survival.

Matthew also shows me the Poetry Trees. The Nonsense Tree has flowers you unhook, with poems at their centre in mirror-writing. Hold your flower to a mirror, read your poem right-way-round, then hook it back. The Heaney Tree is a pen. (Remember his poem "Digging"?) Each ink-blue leaf is a famous poem. The apples on the Irish Tree are pierced with "maggots": parchment rolls inscribed with Gaelic poems. The Faraway Tree is a globe, a poem in each country.

"There should be one of these in London," says Matthew mournfully. We try to imagine it. "There wouldn't be funding even to keep the lavatories clean," I say. "The poems'd get lost."

Anyone can book children a workshop at the Ark. Here it is, the real thing: imagination, fun, a sense of the past. Secret drawers, optimism, creativity. In other words, education. Alive, full of poems and domiciled in Dublin, a city where Poems on the Dart (Dublin's Poems on the Underground) has been forcibly reinstated because Dubliners get restive without a daily poem. Poems on the Dart is now called Poets' Corner, which means dead poets, doesn't it, in London? And dead poets are in, over at the British Council.

The Council has always sent live poets abroad before, as its cultural ambassadors. I remember reading with Elaine Feinstein and Palestinian poets in Nazareth. Elaine (who's Jewish) read a Marina Tsvetaeva translation and sketched Marina's political persecution and personal agony in Russia. We all discussed how you mix political injustice with personal experience in a formal tradition like Arabic poetry or an individualistic one like ours. The discussion was electric. I learned a lot. Didn't understand the currents underneath but it was a meeting that meant something. I felt.

Now Britain's cutting back. There's a new list of 60 poets, originally intended to be the only ones sent abroad by the British Council. These names are Britain's "Contemporary Poets" for export now. If you're not on the list, your foreign audience won't know your work. They will know Britain has 60 poets, somewhere. But 10 are dead (no air fares, no drink bills) and at least one (Sylvia Plath) American. Meet our Contemporary Poets, folks. Dead contemporary, Larkin, MacNeice, Auden ... A free video of Dead Poets Society with every pack.

Who chose this list? One man, Anthony Thwaite. Fine Chap in a crisis on British Council trips in the Fifties, I gather. But hasn't been seen in the last 10 years at readings. His pamphlet says British readings happen "occasionally at big public places, sometimes at small gatherings in colleges, and sometimes in pubs". So much for the increasingly popular reading programmes all over the country, from Filthy McNasty's and the Voice Box in London, to Brighton Poets, City Writers in Southampton and two famous series of readings in Durham and Newcastle.

Mr Thwaite hasn't listened to poets reading. He's been reading (specially press releases, I'd say), but can't know first-hand what the British Council needs to know: how poets are with an audience, their presence and voice. His "Poets" document belongs on the Nonsense Tree, but is redeemed by quivers of unintended humour. Who does he put in his "Sexuality" section? Ah yes; women. British Men don't bother with that stuff.

I don't want to idealise the place, especially on St Patrick's Day (how many plastic leprechauns can you get on the edge of a Kilkenny?). But Ireland does know better: about what "contemporary" means, and a few other things too, by the sound of it. Luckily, the next poetry date here is only a month away: Cirt Festival, in Galway. (Heaney, Carol Anne Duffy, Tom Lynch and Feinstein are reading, among others.) See you there - if you'd like a change from Britishness.

Poetry, education and red ale in Ireland this spring:

Kilkenny Arts Education 00-353-56-65103. Pam Ayres, Poetry Reading 27 March: Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny; 00-353-56-61674. Butler House, Kilkenny; 00-353-56-65707. Ark Children's Centre, Dublin; 00-253-1-670-7788. Cirt Festival of Literature Galway, 15-20 April; 00-353-91-565886.