Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant
Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant


By James B. Johnston

Published by Celtic Cat Publishing
1997        $9.95 US 


Jim Johnston   With good reason, Ireland has been called a nation of exiles.  The population of Ireland was a little over 8 million in 1841.  Today the population is approximately 4.5 million.  In the 1840's and 1850's alone, about 1.5 million people immigrated to the United States as a result of famine.  Many, including the author, were to follow in later years, some in search of jobs, others seeking greater religious or political freedom, many fleeing from the violence of war.  This great movement of people to the New World is captured in Johnston's 2001 award winning poem "The Greening of America."

Skeletal shadows haunt hillsides silent of song.
Sunken eyes stare sightless across famine fields.
Stinking potatoes permeate the odor of death.

The flux of bloody fever flows from tumbled cottages
like the tide of ragged remnants flooding the roadside,
abandoning ditch-dead without ritual or wake.

The human freight of coffin ships sail west
to where the fungus forged its first black root.

In this first collection of poems and photographs, the author writes about growing up in Ireland, living in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles and the experience of moving to a new and distant country.  In a real sense, Exile is very much about preserving the past - people and places, family, friends and strangers, the living and the dead, experiences good and not so good.  As Tina Rosenberg noted in her book, The Haunted Land, "Memory of the past is a prize worth struggling for."


James B. Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  He was educated at Grosvenor High School in Belfast and Trinity College in Dublin.  A Protestant from East Belfast, he met his wife Ann, a Catholic from North Belfast, shortly after The Troubles began in 1969.  They married and immigrated to North America in 1974.  They currently reside in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

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"History books and cultural studies tell us that the Appalachian region has drawn Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Scots-Irish immigrants for more than 200 years.  Undoubtedly, many immigrants came to this area because it reminded them of home.  That sense of place, the idea that the physical world shapes our spiritual world, is at the heart of James B. Johnston's impressive volume of poetry, Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant.

Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the poet and his wife fled what has come to be known as "The Troubles" in 1974.  After living in Canada and Alabama, the couple settled in Knoxville, Tenn.  Although the poems in Exile take place in that still divided island, they could very well be set in Western North Carolina or Southwestern Virginia or even East Tennessee.  While many of Johnson's poems are about a specific place, it is not the location that is intrinsically important but rather the memory that is connected to the physical site.

Memory is what drives Exile, and it is the autobiographical nature of the poems that pulls us into the volume.  In fact, Exile is not only Johnston's history, it is, in many ways, the history of thousands of Celtic descendants who were forced to leave their homeland to find a safer and better life in the Appalachian region.

The book is divided into three sections, with the opening group of poems called "Home Ground."   In this segment, Johnston imparts us an autobiographical trip through Ireland.  The poet's focus is on two things: the people and the places in his life.  Poems such as "Gentle Man" and "Ann" provide vivid images of the people who shaped his life.  "Rocky Road," "Lisburn Railway Station," and the wonderfully descriptive "Giant's Causeway" show us Johnston's Ireland, with each detail allowing us to see that faraway country through the poet's eyes.  Yet, the simplicity of personal relationship and the power of place are cut down by violence. 

In "Lonely Farm," "Last Ride," and "The Grim Reaper," Johnston seems to ask the question that we have all asked since Bloody Sunday, the January day in 1972 when British paratroopers fired on unarmed protestors in County Derry, killing 13: Why?  Why in an island so beautiful, inhabited by people renowned for their warmth, is violence a way of life?

In "Stone Wall Fences," the poet suggests, "We are a land divided by stone wall fences and granite hearts."  At the end of the poem, Johnston posits that the answer may only be found in "dismantling the walls of/Granite hearts, peace by piece."

The collection's middle section, "Stony Ground," centers on the Irish problem of emigration.  Since the Famine in the 1840s, emigration has been a way of life for the island.  In the 1970s, though, people like Johnston did not have to leave because of starvation but rather because they feared the stray bullet or car bomb or mistaken identity.

In this group of poems, the Irish immigrant struggles with the idea of leaving and all that encompasses.  In the first stanza of "Exile," perhaps the book's strongest poem, Johnston writes"

When advancing years slow my steps
And my mind turns increasingly
To the contemplation of past years,
Will I, in exile, fondly remember
The land of my birth?  The land
I left when fear shrouded 
The serenity of family life;
 When bullets and bombs
 Overshadowed the beauty of the mountains
 And the music of the streams, and
 My search for true freedom found fulfillment
 In a new life in a strange land.

Indeed, that has been the overwhelming question for many young Irish people who have been forced to leave Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to find safety and a future.

"Holy Ground," the final section of Exile, offers a more peaceful and reflective sense to the collection.  It seems as though Johnston has accepted the fact that he must emigrate.  The poems in this segment avoid the ugly side of the poet's home.  Instead, memory guides these poems.

In "Origins," the poet mourns the loss of his mother---and perhaps symbolically the loss of his past.  "I wish I had spent more time with you," Johnston writes in this poem, "building memories, capturing and cultivating/Your gentleness and strength."  By the end of "Holy Ground," it becomes clear that Johnston has accepted his fate and realizes that, as the last line in "The Shepherd" notes, "Among tombs of the dead, new life begins."

Because of Johnston's storytelling ability, one that is matched with a clear, straightforward poetic style, Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant  is a meaningful and thought-provoking collection.  Johnston's story is the tale of many people and serves as a reminder, especially to the Celtic-shaped Appalachian region, of the power of family, place, and memory.  And that is a lesson we all need to recall now and then.."

--Shawn O'Hare

Shawn O'Hare is assistant professor of English at Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tenn., and is the editor of Nua: Studies in Contemporary Irish Writing.

"James Johnston's poems explore the varied and complicated implications of exile: the yearning for home ground and its attendant values of family, memory, connection.  Through his chosen separation from his beloved Ireland, Johnston discovers the depth and range of his ties to place and people.  To have chosen exile is to be keenly on the edge of what could have been, as we learn in "Visiting the Faithful," when the narrator tells us

 It is 28 years since I preached here
 In the days when I thought I was called.

 The old man asks my name, and gets the keys.
 He tells us they're struggling,
 Services just twice a month,
 Only twenty members,
 More pews than people.

 I have no survival sermon.
 We say a prayer and
 Wish him well.

Although similar to photographs that preserve the past and keep tradition and memory alive, these poems go a step further in giving voice to stories, in singing praise for the heart's desires.  And it is this singular voice we cherish, the measure of Johnston's vision of and caring for the wide world he inhabits, its joys and sorrows, its struggles and realizations, whether near Fahan or a wooded patch of Tennessee."

--Jeff Daniel Marion

Jeff Daniel Marion is poet-in-residence and Director of the Appalachian Center at Carson Newman College. 

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We first met when we went to Rathmore,
The Convent of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
Our birthdays, seven days apart.
How you enjoyed your week of seniority!
Do you remember our trips to the Gaeltacht and Scotland,
My refusal to wear glasses at Saturday night dances,
How you would tell me who was cute and who was who?
It was not what we did that mattered, but doing it together.
You were my best friend,
Kind and dreamy,
Quiet, with a soft-spoken sense of humor.
We understood time;  Eight meant nine.
All of life was before us.

I look at my last photograph of you,
Sitting on a cannon at Edinburgh Castle.
How soon weapons of war would steal away our time.
When I visited in hospital after the first bombing,
You smiled and said, I've had my turn..
I wish it was true.
How little we knew.

I think often of that Saturday, seven months later.
You phoned mid-morning and asked me to meet you in town.
I couldn't go, but you promised to visit on your way home.
I remember the first phone call, late afternoon, asking if
I'd heard about the bomb.
I brushed it off.  I knew you weren't near it.
When your parents phoned to say you hadn't arrived home,
I told them not to worry, traffic had been disrupted.
But I was worried.
It was unlike you not to phone.
By bedtime I was in a panic.
I asked my dad to call your parents one last time.
When he said Oh Jesus
I knew you would never phone.


Rising a modest twenty-eight hundred feet about the sea,
The Mountains of Mourne are all mountains to me.
How often their steep granite slopes have drawn me
From the confines of the city.  How often, as children,
We followed the river Glen through Donard Forest.
Little we knew of oak and beech, elm and sycamore.
Our goal, to reach the open hillside, cross the stile and
Recapture our breath at the old icehouse on Thomas Mountain.

Today, again, we have left Belfast for the tranquility of the Mournes,
A Belfast bracing for bombs even as it gathers for peace.
Later, at three, we too will gather in the foothills of these mountains
To pursue the pollen of peace.  This morning Slieve Donard
Is capped with a dusting of snow, but a welcome sun takes
The chill off a cold February morning as we rest alongside
The Mourne wall.  I recall seeing an old stonemason maintain this wall.
Dressed in dungarees and wearing a duncher,
He set stone upon stone with roughened hands,
Building with care this wall of beauty and strength.

We are a land divided by stone wall fences and granite hearts.

We go on to the Silent Valley to experience, for a moment,
Complete stillness.  This valley is an ocean apart from the bombs
That marked the cease-fire cessation.  We want to tarry longer, but
Three o'clock approaches---as if our silent scream will be decisive
In restoring the cease-fire---two of ten thousand souls trying to
Make everything like it was just so, dismantling the walls of
Granite hearts, peace by piece.


High above columnar basalt cliffs
A white gull begins its swoop
To islands of rock far below,
Wave-cut platforms that rise
Like silent submarines
Patrolling an inhospitable coast
Where moments of stillness are
Shattered by the thunderous crash
Of white angry froth as it washes
The rocks with salt spray.

Set in this amphitheater of glacial
And marine-hewn cliffs, the causeway is
More than a collection of odd-shaped stones,
Cracks and columns, hexagons and pentagons.
Rocky shores and cliff-bound bays abound
With bramble and blackthorn, buttercup and bluebell,
The yellow of flag iris and wind-pruned whin.
Purple heather and thistle look across
The narrow sea to mother Scotland.

The song of stonechat and wren compete with
The call of the curlew and the raucous
Chorus of fulmer and other gulls
Nesting on causeway cliff-tops.  At the tideline,
The healthy smell of rotting kelp, once dried,
Will provide the salty taste of dulse.


I go back to the place of my birth,
To the one who conceived me.
As the casket is opened, one last time,
I look on the face of infinite love,
I experience the pain of parting.
I know you are ready to go.
You told me so, four years ago,
When pain first marked the fragility of time,
And, with words crafted on labored breath,
You longed for the breath of God
To push away the clouds
And reveal the Son.

I wish I had spent more time with you,
Building memories, capturing and cultivating
Your gentleness and strength;
The tolerance that built bridges,
The warmth that made our friends your friends,
The courage to let your children grow,
The simplicity of your faith.
It is too late to talk about how you met Dad,
Having children in your forties,
Your successful business venture,
So I close the casket.  The sun has set.
There are no clouds

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