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Butcher's Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery
A poem by Thomas Kinsella, 1972
Text in pdf format:

Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972: cross-curricular possibilities

1. Poet's frame of mind

2. Commentary

by corpses

3. Condemnation of Widgery Report

4. A change of mind - forgiveness?

1. Writing the poem

2. Poetic inspiration

3. Some questions

4. Commentary


1. Poet's frame of mind

I went with Anger at my heelThrough Bogside of the bitter zeal ...
2. Commentary by corpses
More voices rose. I turned and saw
Three corpses forming, red and raw,
From dirt and stone. Each upturned face

Stared unseeing from its place:
‘Behind this barrier, blighters three,
We scrambled back and made to flee.
The guns cried Stop, and here lie we.’
Then from left and right they came,
More mangled corpses, bleeding, lame,
Holding their wounds. They chose their ground,
Ghost by ghost, without a sound

And one stepped forward, soiled and white:

‘A bomber I. I travelled light -

Four pounds of nails and gelignite ...'
He faded, and another said:
‘We three met close when we were dead.
Into an armoured car they piled us
Where our mingled blood defiled us,
Certain, if not dead before,
to suffocate upon the floor.
Careful bullets in the back
Stopped our terrorist attack,
And so three dangerous lives are done -

Judged, condemned and shamed in one.'

3. Condemnation of Widgery Report                                                                                                     Short critique of Report
That spectre faded in his turn.
A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
‘The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw ?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry

And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where’s the law that can’t be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We’d be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that’s left; it’s turning sour....

4. A change of mind - forgiveness?
The thirteenth corpse beside him said,
Smiling in its bloody head,
‘And though there’s reason for alarm
In dourness and a lack of charm
Their cursed plight calls out for patience.
They, even they, with other nations
Have a place, if we can find it.
Love our changeling! Guard and mind it.

Doomed from birth, a cursed heir,
Theirs is the hardest lot to bear,
Yet not impossible, I swear,
If England would but clear the air
And brood at home on her disgrace
- Everything to its own place.
Face their walls of dole and fear
And be of reasonable cheer.'


1. Writing the poem

Butcher's Dozen sees events through the clearly and carefully differentiated voices of the ghosts of the victims of Bloody Sunday - in marked contrast to the Lord Chief Justice’s single narrative in the Widgery Report, where differences between the victims are blatantly erased.

It moves from testimony to condemnation with the spectral voices of the poem becoming less personal, as they turn their attention initially to the Widgery inquiry and then to the broader effects of British imperialism in Ireland.

Thomas Kinsella wrote the poem in April 1972 as an angry response to the Widgery Report. The report cleared the British army of any blame for the shooting of thirteen men on Bloodly Sunday, 30 January, in face, according to many, of all the evidence to the contrary.

It was prompted less by the killings themselves than the version of those killings set out in the Widgery Report. 'The poem is anchored in a belief in the necessity for due legal process, for fairness, for justice, and finally, for truth.'

While the poem is set in the Bogside of early 1972, a broader historical-political awareness is at work which sees Widgery as part a long tradition of British oppression in Ireland, particuarly the criminalisation of protest.

This is perhaps why, of all the poems written in response to Bloody Sunday, it is Kinsella’s poem that has attracted most criticism and has remained the most sustained poetic treatment of the day.
2. Poetic inspiration
A public/politican poem, Butcher's Dozen takes its inspiration from the tradition of Irish aisling poetry, in particular Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court (text; synopsis; visual translation), with its tribunal, sense of justice, spectres and dialogism.


3. Some questions

1. What enraged Kinsella more - the deaths on Bloody Sunday or the version of the killing given in the Widgery Report?

2. How far did Butcher's Dozen mirror opinion in Ireland?

3. How far, if at all, does Butcher's Dozen stand out from other poems and song lyrics about Bloody Sunday?

4. How typical is the poem of Kinsella's work?

5. Why did Kinsella follow The Midnight Court rather than the more convention aisling form?

6. How far, if at all, does ‘the ghoulish way in which the dead are introduced .. . destroy their dignity'?

7. How far does the poem allow room for optimism about the English connection?

8. How far is there a shift of focus at the end?

9. How far is Butcher's Dozen 'act of ventriloquism by a poet falling prey to the temptation of propagandising', or 'a strange but ultimately sympathetic communication with the Bloody Sunday dead'?
4. Commentary

There is an excellent analysis of Butcher's Dozen, 'If We Dead Awakened', by Tom Herron & John Lynch. (Please contact IiS for further details of their commentary.)

It is one of the chapters in their After Bloody Sunday: Representation, Ethics and Justice, Cork University Press, 1-85918-425-7.

In the book Herron & Lynch investigate the ways in which the events in Derry on 30 January 1972 have found representation in photography, film, theatre, poetry, television documentary, art installations, murals, music, commemorative events, legal discourse, eyewitness testimony, and pressure-group campaigns