The Promise of History in Thomas Kinsella’s Nightwalker

As the centenary of 1916 approaches, it might be worth revisiting Thomas Kinsella’s Nightwalker. This is a college paper I wrote about a year ago but I believe the violence that occurred in both the state’s formation and the violence that is currently plunging Europe into another crisis have seldom been given such a stark poetical rendering as Kinsella does in ‘Nightwalker’. I would prefer to re-write it in not such an academic manner but the time escapes me. Some day perhaps. 

Published in the year following the semi centennial of the Irish uprising of 1916, Thomas Kinsella’s Nightwalker is both a poetic exploration of that moment’s legacy and the poet’s own relationship towards it. Anniversaries are by their nature landmarks of reflection and often of celebration, where a historical moment has been infused with symbolic importance for a community to offer them a sense of identity in their relation to both place and each other. Also, perhaps more importantly when such anniversaries are intertwined in the relationship between a national community and the state, the nature of that relationship becomes an important cause for reflection. As the poet-narrator of Nightwalker articulates, he is a product of this nation-state, a subject formed in the institutional networks of the state. A student of the Christian Brother Schools, schools that were heavily embedded in the workings of the state, that later becomes a member of the state bureaucracy, Kinsella is highly conscious of the divergence between the rhetoric of nationalism and the actual workings of the state. Although Kinsella may be described as a benefactor of an independent Irish state, Nightwalker is noticeably absent in any celebratory tone toward this state. It is written with a level of insight that only arrives after one has experienced life within the promises that the rhetoric has offered. Inherent in nationalism, especially as I will argue in the context of this essay, inherent in the promise of Irish nationalism was the idea of national sovereignty, of national determinism and a guarantee that all those that identify with Irish nationalism are offered freedom from oppression by the state institutions in the context of previous colonial oppression. The expectancy then among an Irish public of how the state institutions will be governed is an expectancy based on the historical promise inherent in nationalism. As Kearney notes, nationalism is based on a highly mythological reading of history.

The mythological motherland served as a goddess of sovereignty who, at least on the imaginary level, might restore a lost national identity by summoning her sons to the sacred rite of renewal through sacrifice. So doing, the Irish people might re-enter the sacred time which transcends historical time, thereby answering the wrongs of history.

The wrongs of history, of a national community’s oppression is a necessity to revert within nationalist rhetoric and thus an inherent expectation if and when statehood is reached. History in its relationship with nationalism is highly mythologised and becomes more a manner of articulating a future through a selective rendering of the past. In doing so it sets up an expectation of experiences, among them ideas of community, cultural vibrancy and a strong interaction between a citizenry and institutional state apparatuses. Using the form of a fragmented modernist epic Kinsella is highlighting the impossibility of such a cohesive viewpoint in contemporary Ireland and thus the pervasive contradictions in Irish nationalism. In this essay, I will be exploring how this promise of history manifests itself in Nightwalker and how Kinsella’s disappointment at the nationalist articulation of statehood broaches in him a much more fundamental level of despair, a realisation of the constant flux in power’s nature. Thus, in drawing from Foucauldian ideas that history is power articulating its contract of authority with its subjects, I will be arguing that Kinsella’s Nightwalker is not just written out of his disappointments with the achievements of the independent Irish state but the pervasiveness of violence both within and outside the Irish state.

In the epigraph to the poem (present in the 1968 Dolmen Press edition but absent in the Carcanet Collected poems ed.), Kinsella is immediately drawing our attention towards man’s desire for immortality. The line, “The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been” taken from “Hydriotaphia” sets the tone for what will be the major concern of Nightwalker, that much of mankind in their existence faces the daunting presence of their eventual oblivion. As suggested in the line, it is the minutia of history that inscribes our contemporary moment with meaning. In other words, it is our immortals, the historical figures that survive in tradition, iconography, and texts that continue to exist as spectres haunting our daily existence. History as Foucault argues, is  

the discourse of power, the discourse of the obligations power uses to subjugate; it is also the dazzling discourse that power uses to fascinate, terrorize, and immobilize. In a word, power both binds and immobilizes, and is both the founder and guarantor of order; and history is precisely the discourse that intensifies and makes more efficacious the twin functions that guarantee order.

As Foucault argues, history both “binds and immobilizes”, it dictates to mankind the appropriate conditions of its existence through a formulating of our contemporary moment with recourse to our immortals. In the poem’s prelude, Kinsella further draws our attention towards the creation of history as a human desire for deriving meaning out of non-meaning. The poet declares awareness of the “shambles of the day” and counters this with “But mindful, under the/ blood’s drowsy humming,/ Of will that gropes for/ structure.” In Dublin vernacular, shambles is often used as a derivative of shambolic, to denote a sense of disorder or chaotic. Yet also, a shambles can denote a butcher’s slaughterhouse, “to cut up or slaughter”. Evidenced here then is both the poet’s awareness of his day, or to draw the metaphor out further, of the creation of the possibility of the contemporary situation through a previous violence. Present here then from the beginning of the poem is the conflict between the disorder/slaughter of the historical creation of the poet’s daily existence and man’s need to impose meaning on this. Inherent in man’s “will that gropes for/ structure” is a fear for the poet that this will, masks the undercurrent of violence behind a glamour that dazzles. To return briefly to “Hydriotaphia”, in the same section that the epigraph for Nightwalker is found contains a quote stating,

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

Contained in the text shadowing Nightwalker then is an explicit acknowledgment of the cyclical pattern of violence and the “mercifull provision” that man has in his nature, to forget this evil. Yet, perhaps what Kinsella is pointing to in the poem, is that this ‘mercifull provision’, is a dangerous sedative that ensures the cyclical nature of this violence returns. As asserted in Part One of the poem, “I only know things seem and are not good”, this provision is often just a historical mask, the veil that power shrouds its previous acts of violence in in order to justify thine present.

In part three of the poem, Kinsella presents how history, especially in an Irish context, is portrayed by the state institutional apparatuses (in the form of the Christian Brother Schools) as a collective historical experience of oppression and subjugation.

But the authorities

Used the National Schools, to try to conquer

The Irish national spirit, at the same time

Exterminating what they called our ‘jargon’

This is the intrusion of the voice of authority into the fabric of Nightwalker, the poet’s reminiscence of a former catholic teacher educating his class on the impact of colonialism. Noted within Brother Burke’s rhetorical address is the highly evocative language of ‘conquer’ and ‘exterminating’ implicating colonialism in the violent upheaval of a previously fixed identity. Yet, Brother Burke may be highlighting the effectiveness of the British colonial system at conquering the Irish language, but as a consequence of this, the poet is also implicitly drawing our attention towards the power of such educational systems to formulate subjects at an ideological level. Masked within Brother Burke’s rhetoric of a violent subjugation of a national identity by the British is the continued presence of authority, albeit in a different guise, to formulate subjects according to their interests. In Kinsella’s presentation of the image of Brother Burke flattening his “soutane/ against the desk”, we are again made aware of the threat of violence that encourages the easy assimilation of an historical narrative of oppression in a moment of glaring irony of power’s continued control of history. A transference of power may have taken place but not the transfer of power that the revolutionary discourse of nationalism has promised. The discourse of nationalism, as Foucault would argue, has an air of egalitarianism to it, where it would be apart of what he’d call the real war, part of a revolutionary discourse, “ the counterhistory of dark servitude and forfeiture.”(74) The rhetoric of Brother Burke mirrors such revolutionary language, stating

Pupils from our schools played their part,

As you know, in the fight for freedom. And you will be called

In your different ways – to work for the native language,

To show your love by working for your country.

Yet, as Kinsella highlights, the nationalist aspirations for independence have resulted in a state of oppression mirroring the previous imperialism of Queen Victoria’s Britain. Thus, the symbolic head of the Irish independent state in the form of “the Blessed Virgin” on her pedestal is associated with the symbolic head of Imperial Britain. For the poet, such state apparatuses like the school are no longer forming colonial subjects but a post colonial catholic subject that by their “studies”, God and Ireland “may not lack/Civil servants in a state of grace.” Not unlike the ‘civilising’ mission of colonialism, power again asserts itself through the confinement of a subject’s identity that identifies with the political authority. The “scalding soup of memories” is the constant reminder of the bitterness of oppression once experienced under colonialism, that despite the poet’s reluctance, need to be forced upon his consciousness so that he will identify with a past history of oppression. The identity cultivated then is a negative one, based on an awareness of oppression and a stoking of gratification toward the new oppressors for their role in ending the constantly evoked horrors of ‘colonialism’. Thus, the seemingly formlessness throughout that the poet notes of his own body, of “shadowy flesh” and the twisting of his shadow at “every passing streetlight” becomes a marker of inherent fragility in any type of identity, whether that be as a catholic subject, a colonial one, or a mythologized irish speaker of pre-colonised times. Under the flickering lights, the poet realises the unreality of such historical illuminations. In such a landscape, where the nexus of political state apparatuses operate overbearingly in the creation of a subject according to the ideology of political power, the overwhelming awareness of the body highlights the divergence between the poet as a subject aware of both the madness “without” and the madness “within.”

Throughout the poem, Kinsella is grappling with “the unsimplifiable” yet refusing to be struck dumb by it. Rather than taking the appearances of modern Ireland that is being exhibited to him, there is an exhausting attempt to uncover the political realities lying behind the rhetoric. Such discourse is presented to the reader through the headlines of the newspaper lying in the gutter.





Despite the obvious suggestion of such headlines being part of a ‘gutter’ press, as another articulator of power’s discourse, we are given in the headlines a strong vantage point of modern Ireland. Present are the triangular points of political discourse in modern Ireland, namely Catholicism, cultural nationalism and economic policy. Yet as Kinsella points out, the promises of cultural nationalism have failed to come to pass.

A dying language echoes

Across a century’s silence.

Although Gaelic culture and the Irish language continues to reverberate across modern Ireland, it is with an ever quieting whimper, where its influence is more an evocation than any stable source of communal identity. Implicit then in the above is an awareness of the failed promises of a cultural nationalism, that same cultural nationalism that elevated Gaelic culture as a vanguard to any prospective Irish state during revolutionary discourse. A “century’s silence” highlights the failure of this Irish state once realised not only to reverse the supposed Anglicization of Ireland but also to cement a tradition of its own to respond to that echo. As Fitzsimons notes:

Kinsella uses the language policy of the Irish education system, and the beliefs that had generated it, to lament lost opportunity, cultural loss, as well as attack social and cultural failure in practice, but such cultural and political specifics take their place alongside the other forms of disappointment the poem evokes.

The language policy as Fitzsimons points out has become more of an instrument of continued bureaucratic concern for the Irish state where the Irish language can only survive due to government intervention. Yet Kinsella is highlighting that such concerns are more about the continued ceremonial renewal of the promise inherent in the nationalist state rather than any realistic desire for a cultural renewal. Instead, Kinsella is pointing out the cultural suffocation that exists through both a Catholicism with a highly repressive monopoly on social mores and a government that increasingly categorizes its citizenship according to their value as a tool of labour to “foreign capital”. The appearance of the newspaper headlines in the poem are used by Kinsella to draw our attention to the working language of power that echoes the sentiments of authority rather than challenging the the inherent value of such sentiments. In reneging on the promises of cultural nationalism, a kind of cultural vacuum has ensued, one Kinsella presents in the language of suburban sterility.

In a bay window; a shadow slumped in the corner

Of a living room, in blue trance, buried

Alive, two blank eyes.

This shadow, a shadow he encounters “Window after window”, is the product of a state who no longer sees their citizens as anything other than labour. No longer human, these shadows that the poet witnesses on his walk are expressed in a languid language emphasizing a kind of disinterestedness in life that has taken hold in the poet’s locality. The idea of a living room, the pivotal point of family life is subverted into a temporal space between life and death, as the “blue trance” of the TV screen acts as a parasitic life support machine, hollowing out each citizen into a dehumanized and passive shadow. The strength of such images in presenting the dehumanizing effects of cultural vacuity highlight the actual realities lying behind the rhetoric of the New Ireland, a strident and introverted individualism.   

Replacing the language of cultural nationalism is the language of economics and enterprise, a language that Kinsella spatters throughout the poem. In using such language, Kinsella is conglomerating the various languages that inhabit modern political discourse which constantly categorize and distinguish society along various focal points, into the language of poetry, drawing our attention to the value and promise in each. As each language speaks of the subject in a different manner, the appearance of the language of economic development and the notions of development intrinsic within it is juxtaposed with the language of nationalism and catholicism. Thus Dublin, becomes in the language of civil servants and business people seeking to attract foreign investment, a “growing city” of possibilities, its citizens a “labour pool”. Such language that frames Ireland in response to the demands of foreign investment undermines the highly deterministic language of nationalism, whether militant or cultural.

At the harbour mouth she stands, Productive Investment,

And beckons the nations through our gold half-door:

Lend me your wealth, your cunning and your drive,

Your arrogant refuse;

let my people serve them

Bottled fury in our new hotels

Reminiscent of Moses’ emancipatory cry in the desert, Kinsella is instead inverting such emancipatory rhetoric highlighting the change in language has resulted in a change in national determinism. A new servitude is becoming apparent where instead of a leadership guiding its populace towards a concept of democratic national determinism, they are guiding them towards a new form of servitude in the hands of foreign capital, a kind of neo-colonialism. As Terence Brown notes,

An Ireland that had espoused nationalism for a quarter of a century and employed manifold tariffs in the interests of native industry was to open its economy to as much foreign investment as could be attracted by governmental inducement. Furthermore, an Ireland that had sought to define its identity since independence principally in terms of social patterns rooted in the country’s past was to seek to adapt itself to the prevailing capitalist values of the developed world.

This ‘Productive Investment’, the emphasis by Kinsella in his capitalization of the term, is suggested by the poet to have its source in exploitation. In his description of ‘Bruder und Schwester’, there is a malignancy to the pair that Kinsella cannot help associating with the horrors of World War II with the image of the “oven door closes”. The hostile historical reality then of the concentration camps and utter subjugation of a people with the accumulative wealth that the German twins have access to becomes increasingly apparent. Yet, the language of economics hides the violent history behind this accumulation. Thus, not only has the Irish state compromised on the sovereignty espoused in the proclamation but it has also, in the switching away from nationalist language ignored the continuance of historical exploitation, a key facet to the coherence of an Irish identity. In associating the “sureness of touch” found by the ministers in “the nation’s birth” with their work in attracting foreign investment, we see Kinsella again highlighting the intrinsic link between authority and violence too often masked in history.  

Among us, behind locked doors, the ministers

Are working, with a sureness of touch found early,

In the nation’s birth – the blood of enemies

And brother’s dried on their hide long ago.

In the above passage, Kinsella is showing the relations of power that exists internally in the state in the ministers and the external influence of capital determining the policies. There is a stain of blood on both where each have accumulated power through the violent elimination of another. In meandering our focus toward such external events like World War II, the impossibility of confining the influence of power and authority to within a national border is shown to be deeply flawed.


Violence, as the poet is anxiously aware throughout the poem is not just a historic occurrence, but a continued threat that hangs over the whole of the poem. The glare of the moon that accompanies the nightwalker in the ghostly shadows that it creates becomes a foreboding presence, not as a symbol in its own sake but as another reminder of man’s recourse to violence. The birth of the state, as expressed in the fable of the Wedding Group may be a history of fratricide, a breaking of the sacred ties that bind individuals together but as the poet considers this event in relation to the violence that has occurred outside the state and within man’s history, a pattern of violence begins to emerge. The moon then becomes becomes more of a reminder of man’s propensity to violence rather than any a symbol for its own sake.


There it hangs,

A mask of grey dismay hanging open

In the depths of torture, moron voiceless moon.

That dark area, the mark of Cain.

The dark area on the moon is associated with the darkside of civilisation, of Cain’s act of fratricide and his craftsmanship being a strike of humanity’s independence against God. The association of Cain’s craftsmanship with an independence from God and the elements highlight man’s first awkward steps into civilisation. In Cain’s act of murder, man simultaneously became both marked in its transgressing of the taboo of familial slaughter yet independent in wrestling influence away from the will of a god. In the global tension that existed then during Nightwalker’s composition, Kinsella reconsiders the moon without its Yeatsian symbolic overtones. Instead, as a result of the Space Race between the opposing forces of the Cold War, and the rhetoric of progress associated with the Space quest, the moon is marked with the underlying reality of prospective violence. Thus, as Ricouer has noted of violence.

… violence appears as the driving force of history. It is violence which brings onto the stage of history forces, new states, dominant civilisations, ruling classes. The history of man then appears to become identified with the history of violent power.

The appearance in the night sky of the moon, then is a marker for the poet, rather than a symbol, of the ultimate destination for civilisation as Kinsella understands the driving force of history within violent power.

I arrive, enveloped in blinding silence.

No wind stirs

On the dust floor. Far as the eye can see

Rock needles stand up from the plain; the horizon

A ring of sharp mountains like broken spikes.

It is as if, in the poet’s arrival on the moon, that he is witnessing the prospective fate of civilisation in the harsh landscape he envisions there. Within the ‘dust floor’, there is a biblical reminder of God making man from dust on the ground and an apocalyptic sense of mankind’s capability of destruction, not just of itself but of all living things. Within the “vivid ghost sea” that the poet envisions on the moon, lies “[m]assed human wills”, perhaps a reminder of the suppressed human wills that were ignored by the rhetoric of power and violence. Thus the poet’s lamentation, “I think this is the Sea of Disappointment.”

Perhaps to conclude, it is necessary to remind ourselves of Browne’s “mercifull provision in nature”, the provision that sedates our remembrances “of evils past” thereby fortifying our ignorance “of evils to come”. Kinsella’s imaginative journey to the moon is in essence a journey into a selfhood cut loose from the surrounding discourse that has in the poet’s lifetime tried in earnest to form him as a subject. In achieving this, he has witnessed the core reality of history. Of the power of history to superimpose its narrative on the actual violence inherent in all society and in all civilizations. For Kinsella, this ‘merciful provision’ is naught but a refusal to acknowledge the violent truth in history and the continuing capacity and ever increasing strength of violence to subject its adversaries. In Kinsella’s papers archived at Emory University, we find an acknowledgment in the weakness of ideological narratives in the face of the ultimate weapon of destruction in the form of the atomic bomb. He states that,

the imposed order of the Church will not do in this post-atomic chaos. We must do it out of our own bowels: it is we who have, from our inner wills, brought chaos, & we who must, from our inner wills, bring new order.

Order, whether that be catholicism to nationalism, are but narratives of history eschewing a history of exploitation. In a time that mankind has the capacity for widescale destruction that will be justified on the basis of history, it is, Kinsella argues, increasingly important for the individual to fashion a sense of this chaos from within themselves. Thus, we find in this modernist epic, Kinsella’s break from the traditional form of Irish poetry in order to facilitate a form that will serve to express his navigation of various histories and political rhetoric into the final destination of his sense of selfhood. In realising that the promises implicit in nationalism and catholicism are meaningless in the face of violence, it is the journey to a selfhood emptied of all surrounding rhetoric that leads to an even more profound realisation that the only promise history has never reneged on is the deliverance of violence.



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