51% British - writing the Troubles out of my head

Ian Acheson By Ian Acheson, 23rd Mar 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Poetry

A collection of poetry written by me over the last 20 years about the experience of growing up in the shadow of Ireland's contested border during the conflict known as the 'Troubles.'

The poems evoke a time and a place where terrible things were done in the name of Irish freedom. It focuses largely on the experience of protestants living and dying in the borderlands, feeling themselves besieged by hostile forces which wanted them to surrender territory and identity.


They put their tyrant in the sand
The same land
The Inniskillings
Helped shove Rommel into
And paid in Irish blood
The price of that and other wars
Was written on a Cenotaph
Which, blasted with his autograph
Became his Freestone hex
They put their tyrant in the sand
At God's left hand.


An army Gazelle
Leapt over the crown of a hill
Driving down a flock of sheep
Like poured cream
The pilot threw it deftly
Round the contours
Better to be heard and not seen
Over such unquiet acres
Helicopters supplied
The soundtrack to our little tragedy
For forty sour years
The raucous, rotary blatter
Stitching these skies to Empire
Spooking the Fresians
Announcing some unfolding bother
Just over horizons
That shrank to spitting distance
When the sun fell
Snapping smartly down and up
On frontier garrisons
Like God's yo-yos
The bluster of turbines
As familiar once
As the sound of your own voice
Has lately been unplugged
There's plenty still to look at
From incorrupted heights
But less appetite for seeing, maybe
Scaring the horses or not
Is now the sole province
Of the earthbound.


If you must lapse
You’ll want to do it in style
Make your own heaven and earth
Become an Apostle without portfolio
An empirical saint
Worship any goat
With its feet on the ground
Form a new legion
Of punch-drunk relativists
Raising a glass in memory
Of the weekly hour
You once gave to God
And your recurring Presbyterian need
To not be thanked for it


Me and a few lost Foxhounds
Took it into us
To go stargazing
Fixing ourselves to earth
On the frozen, bald crust of a brae
A few feet of mud
From the United Kingdom
Flat on my back
With the final frontier
Occupying my mind’s eye
I reached into Britain
And transferred the allegiance
Of a snowdrop.

Navar conversion

Up above the broad lough,
On the sharpened blade of rock,
That gives way to nothingness
A widow threw arms around heaven,
And cursed God.
Volatile elements conspired
To split open the sky,
And, even this late in the day,
Light and warmth fell through on her,
Laid hands on her
The colour and comfort of tea.
On that unlikely stage of Whins,
Hurting inexplicably gave way to being.
Going on became viable -
Maybe even blessed.
The wind hurried back over Donegal,
Frowning the water in its wake,
Swarming up the limestone
Anxious to end such foolishness
With a slap in the face.
But the purchase of grief,
So reliably set,
Had been planed away.
The sailing air,
Having nothing now to detain it,
Sailed on

The Winthrop method

I see a line of dying Wych Elm on a hill
Well drained by the fractured blocks
Of this contested marl
A gaping stand of Famine food
Survivors of even earlier demands
For tight twisted grain
For good strong rudders, keels, coffins
For wagon wheels to get behind
Even the odd water main
But claimed now by the Dutch disease
The witless beetles killing the crown
Then further, further down.
There's a lot not right about this picture
And more, for one tree lies canted
Awkward against his listing brothers
Seen from a certain angle, could it be a marker?
The roots below hiding ordnance
In their parched grasp?
You'd need a thran outlook
And some plausible excuse these days
To go anywhere near it
This strange ruin located only
By a sleekid eye
An arborist, a terrorist.

The dogged people

My crowd were taught to be
Whatever you aren't
Easier than unfolding your heart
Your curtailed self
When you're hemmed in
Up against that invisible line
As real as God
We were learned well, though
Being thoroughly outmanoeuvred
Run almost ragged as the flags
Planted in our hedgerows and halls
You couldn't have us now if you wanted us
Our unappeasing face
Is your creation
Yours alone

Bog geography

A map on a rectory wall:
Once as potent as the chalice.
The red dots are faded,
A dimming constellation of loss,
A rolled over roll call,
A fallow murderscape,
Scaling years back and still to come
You could cover in one morning,
Needing any more death
Like a hole in the head

Contol zone

Who recalls the cringing silence
Of a town centre?
The cowed shops
Already much wounded
Blind with plywood cataracts
Desperate measures
Posted in black and yellow
Forbade cars to be empty
- Pedestrian logic, these days -
Because one in a hundred
Would be far too low on its axles
For any innocent purpose.
A freight of kinetic badness
Filling the boot
Mixed with care
In some Leitrim hayshed
Might consequently need
To be abandoned
Somewhere 'softer'
The course of life and death
Made all the more perverse
By the bombs
That never went off.

Following the flag

Shut blinds conceal
A coalition of wailing
The dead energy used
To put a broken face on straight
The journey from
Bungalow to Kirk
Is a hideous reversal
Of their wedding day
This time
She walks down that aisle alone
Through a stifled congregation
Of everyone that made her
Struck again and again
By the voracious sympathy
On each neighbour's face
Making it real like every nail
In the decorated coffin
Which left no space for her
At the very altar
Where she once said
In reverent wonder
'I do.'

Blakes Bar

Here, in the hollow
There was standing room only
For any slabber about politics
You put your mind to higher things:
Catching the barman's eye,
Lining yourself up for a game of Pool,
Getting a berth in the snug,
The perilous journey of stout
From pump to table
It was our wee melting pot
Miraculously stirred
No strangers here
Only people you had not yet
Tapped for a pint..

Meat wagon

My father kick-started
A dead man with the heel of his shoe
And swore to me, in drink, he once
Got a mad woman out of a tree
By firing windfall apples at her
He was half-deafened with blasts
And if you set him up with
A glass of Guinness and a bush
He might let on darkly about
The wounds in his head from
Collecting bits of people in bags
Or happier times when an Emergency
Meant being too full of plum poitin
To keep his ambulance between the hedges
After a well-lubricated false alarm
Way out in the never-never
God knew, a while of his crack
Blunted trauma far better
Than any sterile diagnosis
His compassion had no side
He'd seen the similarity of passing souls
Whatever foot they kicked with in life
There were no atheists in the back
Where in his humble way
He held everyone sacred

Motes and planks

The trouble with badnesss
Is there's just too much of it
To go around.
The bitter juice we made
Was squeezed out
Around these shapely drumlins
The excess pooling, stagnating
And still occasionally sipped
By your neighbours
Who, fair play to them
Would never see you stuck
If your Massey broke down
Or if, misjudging the weather
You needed the silage in quick
But who,
When push came to shove here, long ago
Turned a blind eye
(Maybe bruised shut)
To the causes and effect
Of townland assassination
To the covert decisions
On life and death
Your kin were subject to
For merely staying put
The busy mandate of peace
Intruding on these parts
Where much was observed
But nothing altered
Is rightly cautious -
Stepping lightly over sacred ground
Looking for a hand to grasp
To make things right again.
You'd take it just to square things
With the man upstairs
But the man next door?
That's another story.

This is not a checkpoint

You'd come across farmers sons
You went to school with
On the back roads at dusk
Looking to park up somewhere quiet
With your first Convent lassie
A blur of camouflage
The circle of dim red light
And you'd draw up to some fella
Locked and loaded
You once dead-legged in the playground
You were both playing new roles
He had his licence to kill
You just had your licence
The idea was to be civil -
Men of the world
But your girl flinched violently
Giving the game away
And it made you suddenly ashamed
Knowing in the dirty wash of sidelights
It might have been a different story
If she'd been there on her own
Without the thin orange cover of your
There's an awkward moment
When you try to read his opinion
Hating yourself for doing it
And, for forms sake
He pretends to check your details
You're let through, of course
Still a friend of the state
Despite your exotic tastes
You give a weak salute
As you spot your old art teacher
Prone on the verge
Covering you with a
General purpose machine gun
Like the subject of his own Magritte
The surreal picture
Now framed in your back window
Is consumed by the pink folds of twilight
The legacy remains -
An unwelcome passenger
A big, sour lump of indigestible history
Sprawled across the back seat
You thought you'd be playing on later
She is silent, for a time, then:
'Sorry. This isn't going to work.'


Lost in a forest of legs
Beneath the homely ceiling
Of damp green serge and fag smoke
A girl looks for her father
He went out this morning
Bad tempered at the rain
Late for his own funeral
But real enough, at least
As she lay in her bed's warm nest.
Later, while she ate her cornflakes
Still weak with sleep
A mile away between dripping ditches
He was rubbed out of the picture
To make room for a new Ireland
The muffled percussion of bullets
Lifted a few starlings
Who were keeping their feet warm
On telephone wires
That would presently hum with shock
Later when raised up to wet eyes
To be cursed with truth
There fell on her a type of madness
Scrabbling furiously for a gap
In the hateful logic of the wake
She transmits impotent love
Unsaid, undone, undying
Receiving no signal in return


Here is your man with the healing hands
Playing slap and tickle
With all the uncooked meat remaining
The meagre contents of the surgeon's purse:
Puckered, raw and stupid at the ends
His goal is animated rage
The method brutal kindness
Frank manipulation
The starved cheer of the military ward
Is no match for his mechanical wit
'Aha!' He cries, cracking his knuckles
'We have ways of making you walk!'

Last post

Climbing Benaughlin
On a curling bog road
The starlight blanched
By cement works down below
Farting out aggregate 24/7
We passed a low stone shelf
Erupting from the peat
Flecked with the detritus
Of a visiting regiment's supper
The mysterious no-name biscuits
A fiddly little tin opener
Some warm fragments of hexamine
That recently fired a squaddy brew
A single boiled sweet, wrapped
Already mobbed by wood ants
These military artefacts
Are made incongruous
By their proximity to a red post box
The mail still Royal in this district
If nothing else
You could have your wee war here,
Wait for that red van
And write home about it by return
The solid truth of a letter
Your own careful legend
Having much more shape
Than the facts on the ground

The walk

A hollow box of day-glo Peelers:
This unlikely lining
Holding the brethern snug within.
Mustered by the public toilet
A municipal bouquet
Of piss and shit and disinfectant
Pervades the porous night air
Seeming to mock any wholesome intent.
The Sergeant, hoping for rain and overtime
Sends the Lodge off up the brae
There's no music allowed
Nothing to set the pace
A blackthorn stick clatters down
The thin procession shivers
As an old man finds his feet again
This plantation town has switched sides
The war memorial, their destination
Is now held hostage by demography
Someone from the sullen, watching crowd
Begins a protest song, then stops abruptly
As if to recognise the irony
Of what is being overcome.

In the Maze

The Gatelodge camera's pitiless eye
Watches the next meal of colour
Slide into this monochrome maw
Another morsel of humanity
Hard humoured, defiantly pliant
Will be processed, digested
Gradually rendered down
Then carried along a barred gullet
Marinated in captivity's reek -
A miasma of old sweat and stale tea
(With odd notes of something worse)
To finally stick in the craw
Of our rancid little history:
The prison visits room -
A cockpit of menace and scabbed cheer
Where anything can happen and often doesn't
Guards and guarded discreetly scrap
For crumbs of power
Each side incessantly off-balance
The weirdly vague attentiveness of staff
Is a half-hearted play on omniscience
Trying to see everything relevant
To getting home safe
Without seeing too bloody much
Everyone is doing time here
Where it is nearly always
Thirteen O'Clock


There’s no gain in sitting
By a dry Fountain
Purporting love
If the plumbing’s fucked
Or getting a up a warm blaze
In the cold ashes
Of cherished farmsteads
Forgiveness demands
A down payment
Bigger than that.
Washing the feet of those
Not yet able to put them
In your basin of blood
Would be a better start
Or else inclusion
Is just a delusion.

Aghalane bridge

Artemis met Kratos
On the back road to Belturbet
The consequence of victory:
A brutal amputation.
The ancient stone limb
Once stretched across a river
Now roughly cauterised at either end
Granite fists still hold fast to each opposing bank
And in between?
A delaying void
A collapsing fear
An obstacle course for brown trout
An outrage
Like flowers in the mouth of a corpse
A way to turn away
And mind your own bloody business

Closed border barracks 2009

This is a feral place
Once implacable but quickly humbled
By the higher ordinance of nature
The roll of honour has been unscrewed
And then supplanted by another
Fushia, escallonia, hebes and whitethorn
A lush and careless memorial
Climbing the blast walls, lacing the wire
Embracing cameras bowed and blind
You could pull it all down tomorrow
But you'd never settle accounts
As well as bindweed, couch grass, mares tail
The natives who prevail against us all.


A swift slap on its tin backside
And a new loaf is delivered
On the scullery table
My mother, the creator
Having swaddled it in dishcloths
Murders it swiftly with her knife
Releasing the hot, sour breath
So redolent of childhood
I love the way new bread
Sucks butter off the blade
And stops time in a country kitchen


Daddy's brogues sat in a corner
Freshly painted with Oxblood
He wore them like statements
Well heeled. Solid. Tough
But I saw violence in their thick, pitted skins
With the tips glittering like gypsies teeth
They were like big, ignorant dogs
Better left outdoors
They stayed their ground, though
And growled at Daddy's slippers.

Part timers

This is my neighbours field
And, today, my battleground
We take the path of most resistance
Fading into a stand of Hazel
Going to ground in a humid understory
Of bilberry and honeysuckle.
Two white hares dance across my gunsight
Then leap a drainage ditch
Into the safety of the Free State
We've been here too long already
A brattle of thunder gives us cover to move
And sudden wind flattens the meadow
Exposing its pale, thick mane
The grass is good
There'll be a second cut th'year
On my own plot
If I live to see the end of it.

The land cries

When God painted Ireland,
He used watercolours,
Smudging the dun, sodden landscape
With occasional sunshine.
This wringing wet romance
Seeps down through quiet churchyards
Feeding lonely streams where soldiers drank
And scanned heather ridges riddled
With the possibility of concealment
And sudden death
I looked down at Lough Erne
Through the shining, murderous hillocks
Is that where all this water goes?
Washing the clay clean to Enniskillen.
It's a pity spilled blood
Can't be got rid of as quickly.


Army, Border, Border Crossings, Border Security, Borders, Conflict, Enniskillen, Ethnic Cleansing, Inla, Ira, Ireland, Irish, Lyrical Poetry, New Writing, Northern Ireland, Orange, Orange Order, Poetry, Police, Protestants, Psni, Republicans, Ruc, Rural, Terror, Terror Attacks, Terrorism, Terrorists, Troubles, Uda, Ulster, Ulster-Scots, Unionists, Uvf, War

Meet the author

author avatar Ian Acheson
I am a published poet and writer living in South West England. My poetry focuses on a childhood spent living near Northern Ireland's border during the Troubles.

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Rathnashikamani
24th Mar 2012 (#)

Wow! So many poems at one place.

Hello Ian Acheson,

Warm welcome to you to Wikinut!

Wonderful compilation.

You're already a published poet. We're proud to have you among us.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Ian Acheson
24th Mar 2012 (#)

Rathnashikamani, thank you very much for your kind and generous comments! It's nice to be appreciated! Ian

Reply to this comment

author avatar Rathnashikamani
24th Mar 2012 (#)

I'm going to read all of your poems and interpret them as far as possible.

I find these poems very interesting as I find them having an element of history and nativity.

Also, you've written from the feeling of belongingness to the territory, so they have the expressions welled out from the depths of your heart.

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?