Review by Eamonn Baker
First published in print 15th August 2022
The blue ribbon on honorary Derry man, Joe Duggan’s second book of poetry “Rescue Contraptions” was well and truly cut in front of a crowded house in London’s Crystal Palace, just over a month ago. Covid got in the road of my being there. From all accounts the launch was a fantastic success, a night of true celebration.
Joe is a highly respected community, arts and environmental activist in the Crystal Palace area of South London and his many friends and fans rocked up in support. Joe’s first book of poems, “Fizzbombs” also published by Tall Lighthouse was likewise launched in London a few years after Joe had headed across there from Derry to complete a teacher training PGCE.
Joe was signposted to Derry in the mid -nineties by that great friend of this city, Damian Gorman, currently commissioned by the Playhouse to develop “Beyond Belief” the John Hume “ play with music” scheduled for performance next April to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Joe grew up not far from Damian in the county Down seaside town of Newcastle. For most of his time in Derry, Joe lived on Marlborough Road. He was a founding member of the agent provocateur poetry group: “A Bunch of Chancers” often to be heard performing around Sandinos and the Playhouse. Joe was also involved in delivering creative writing aspects of an accredited Community Arts course at the Playhouse as well as delivering creative writing workshops around the city often in partnership with Maureen Hetherington, then Derry City Community Relations Officer and with Yes! Publications who brought us Fingerpost Community Magazine.
While Joe has been living in London nearly twenty years now, he has maintained strong connections with people in Derry and there has been a genuinely warm reaction here to the launch of “Rescue Contraptions” . Says Joe: “It’s a huge delight and honour for me to know that Jenni Doherty of Little Acorns Bookshop on Foyle Street has got signed copies of my new book on her shelves.”
Joe, that erstwhile “Chancer” , continues to write in a very accessible plain speaking way, a hallmark of the “Chancer school of poetry”!
Don’t be Vague
“Don’t be vague, ask for Haig”
One time he was on the sick
and was called up to The Board.
He didn’t want to get taken off
because there was no work.
They sent him into a cubicle to undress.
On the inside door someone had scrawled
DON’T BE VAGUE, KILL A TAIG.
Put my blood pressure through the roof.
I had thon boyos to thank
For another six weeks sick pay.
These are the jokes of my childhood,
The little gifts my da used to survive,
And to feed us.
This Troubles poem is all the stronger for particular focus on the working class experience of tough times, of desperation inflamed by our deadly sectarianism. Talking with Joe he generously acknowledges that the sectarianism dramatised in this poem cuts both ways.
During the past few years, Joe’s two younger brothers -Michael and Francy -have died.. Francy who also lived in Derry for a while collapsed walking across Botanic Avenue in South Belfast. Michael succumbed to throat cancer in San Francisco where he was a much loved member of the Irish ex-pat community there. Joe’s moving love poems honouring Francy and Michael simultaneously stir and soothe. He manages to balances sadness with a steady sense of humour:
I have been back and forth
across the Bay Bridge to
Oaklands Health Center
in thirty different pick up trucks
driven by pink-skinned
men and women from
nearly every county in Ireland.
And if they could have,
they would have
built him a rescue contraption,
like MacGyver or the A-team,
with welding torches and lathes
and paint-tins and concrete and planks.
from Notes from Oakland
Central to this collection is the bi-lingual poem “Irish for beginners” originally commissioned by the SOAS Endangered Language Documentation Programme . In a dozen interrelated sometimes quickfire meditations Joe Duggan- Seosamh O Dubhagain- himself the grandson of Michael Mullin 1886-1978, the Bard of Foremass (County Tyrone), wrestles with his experience of the Irish language :
whether in secondary school, at Croke Park, on a Gaelic football pitch, in church as an altar boy, in County Down during the Troubles, at Queens University, in a chip shop in Derry, in Gortahork, on Tory Island, in Brian Merriman’s poetry, in Bardic poetry, in John Montague’s “ A Grafted Tongue.”
The twelfth segment concludes poignantly:
Ta an teanga seo i mo chorp
ach chan a thuilleadh ar mo theanga.
My tongue is in my body
but no longer on my tongue.
Joe Duggan’s “Rescue Contraptions” is available from Little Acorns Bookshop, Derry and can also be purchased from Tall Lighthouse Publications.
To paraphrase the final words of Joe’s 2 40 am poem:
Give it a go. You will be glad you did.
Related article :
Musical Tribute To “Downhill Derry” And It’s Famous Pubs